Regular readers of One Thing New – or just those who tripped across my column, "The Five Stages of Commuting: From Denial to Knitting" – know I’m an enthusiastic if infrequent knitter. So when I ran into Laura Zander at a conference last year, I felt like I had met knitting royalty. Zander runs Jimmy Beans Wool, one of the largest web sites selling luxury yarns for knitters and crocheters.
I soon learned she had a young son, loves to ski, and recently published her fourth book. I was dying to know how she managed it all, and just as curious to know why she called her company Jimmy Beans. Below are edited excerpts of our conversation about entrepreneurship, knitting, and Olympic skiers.
How did your store come to be known as Jimmy Beans Wool?
Jimmy is my nickname. Not that long after we met, Doug [her husband] and I were listening to a song by Todd Snyder called Doublewide Blues. I had just moved from Texas, and I bought a trailer because it was cheaper than rent. In the song there is a character named Jimmy, and he is the coolest guy in the whole trailer park because he has a blue plastic pool on the back deck. My husband started saying, “You’re cool like Jimmy.” He’s never called me anything else.
How about the “Beans”?
When we started the store it was both a coffee shop and a yarn shop.
The beans didn’t work out?
We thought, and all our friends thought, that the town really needed a coffee shop with spots to sit, and it’d be cute that there would be some yarn there as well.
After about six months we ended up selling the espresso cart because the yarn took off. It would get to the point where a woman would be prepared to spend $100 on some yarn and I’d have to say, “Can you hold on a sec, I have to make this $3 cup of coffee?”
Why go into business for yourself?
I was a software engineer in San Francisco during the dot-com days, as was Doug. Then the bust happened. We had purchased a house in the Lake Tahoe area and were renting an apartment in San Francisco. We decided to move up to that house full time.
I created my first company, Castle Peak Solutions, to build web sites for small businesses around town. I was unbelievably unsuccessful.
I had also just learned to knit and was totally obsessed with it. I was flipping through a Vogue Knitting magazine and saw an ad for a little teeny tiny company called Lorna’s Laces. There was not a web site listed. I called Lorna Miser-- and said, “I noticed you don’t have a web site. I can build you one.” We became friends and she said I should open a yarn shop.
At this point I would come home every day with a new idea of what I was going to do. Doug would usually just laugh and move on. This time he said, “Why don’t you find out how much it will cost?”
I figured it would take about $30,000 to open a shop, and we had about $30,000 in the bank.
Did it seem risky to open a yarn shop just as online commerce was taking off?
No. And now I feel like we should have more retail stores. Yarn, you’ve got to touch it. It’s a shopping experience. It’s not toilet paper. It’s not even a book, where there’s something to be said for physical bookstores.
You need help. There’s community in a store that you can’t find online.
The web site came pretty soon after. We were software engineers. So of course we thought we’ll have this yarn shop. But in our town 80 percent of the population are/is second homeowners. We thought our customer would go back to the Bay Area, and if she needs more she’ll order more from us online. Last year we did more than $7 million in sales. And 98 percent of that came from the web site.
How do you manage the business, your dozens of employees, spend time with your son and husband, and not go nuts?
Something has to give, and it’s different week to week. This past year I’ve been traveling a ton. What gave was my physical fitness. I haven’t been exercising because I can get home and I can work out for an hour, or I can be with my son for an hour. I choose to be with my son.
I still make dinner, but I don’t really cook. We hired a cleaning lady. While we’re at work, Doug and I don’t talk. We used to chat all the time. Now I consciously think about if what I’m going to interrupt him with is worth interrupting him or if we can talk about it later.
Over Christmas was the first time I’d done a knitting project in ages. I don’t read very often. I don’t do any hobbies or crafts for myself any more.
Would the business be different if you didn’t have children?
Yes, but personally I think the business is better because I do.
Before we had our son, Doug and I worked seven days a week. We could accomplish things simply through brute force and time. Now I’m forced to let things go because I simply refuse to work seven days a week any more. I was forced to delegate.
When you first hired employees for Jimmy Beans, what surprised you about managing people?
How much I sucked at it. The main difficulty was in communicating what I wanted. I’ve learned over time that when you’re asking someone to do something, you need to be very specific about it.
I used to tiptoe around a lot of stuff. I was 27 when I opened the store. The majority of people who worked there were 50 years old. So I just avoided any kind of real management. I still have a hard time with my role and how people see me. I’m getting there, especially as I get older.
How did you end up sponsoring the U.S. Ski team?
I was in Germany at a knitting show with the president of [yarn company] Coats and Clark North America. He’s from Canada and he’s a skier and hockey player. We thought that somehow, there has to be a connection between knitting and skiing.
A couple weeks later he got in touch with me and said, “Find out what it would take to become a sponsor, and we want to do it with you.” We became, with Coats & Clark, the official yarn supplier to the U.S. snowboard team and freeskiing team. All the athletes get yarn, needles, and patterns. The VIPs that go to world cup events get yarn and patterns.
At a big [skiing] event there’s a sampler village, and you’ve got Nature Valley handing out granola. We have Stitch Mountain, where we’re handing out yarn, teaching people to knit. People love it. What better thing to do after a day of skiing but sitting in the lodge and making a hat? A lot of the athletes knit and crochet.
How did you get the idea for Stitch Mountain, the book of patterns you recently published?
Doug was skiing in Alaska with Tommy Moe. I was like man, you’re with Tommy Moe, we’ve got to come up with something. Ask him if he’ll be in a book. It’ll be Tommy Moe saying, “Here’s the hat I wish someone could make for me.” Or, “Here’s my lucky socks. Whatever works for him.” We spent a year getting athletes to say yes. [Olympic mogul skier] Shannon Bahrke — her grandmother made her a blanket years ago and she still uses it. We did our version of her blanket as a pattern in the book. [Free style skier and gold medal contender] David Wyse knits as well. A hat in the book is modeled on one he made for his wife.
A percentage of the sales from the book go back to the ski team.
What advice would you have for entrepreneurs just starting out?
Cash flow is king. Make sure you’re building a profitable business. With profit comes freedom. You have options. You have creativity. If you’re always struggling with the money part of it, it just stifles creativity. In that sense, it’s just like the rest of your life.
February 5, 2014
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Photo courtesy of Laura Zander