How Two Sisters Turned a Textile Experiment Into a Bustling Global Enterprise
Lily and Hopie Stockman transformed their long-distance art project into a fast-growing business -- by not heeding advice from Harvard Business School and staying true to their vision for a socially-minded brand.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Lily and Hopie Stockman have always had an appreciation for the arts. "When we were kids, we'd paint murals on the floor of our garage in New Jersey," says Hopie. Today, the two sisters have channeled that energy into Block Shop, a block-printing studio based in Los Angeles and Jaipur. What started as an experimental hobby has grown into a beloved design shop and social enterprise that provides support and additional opportunities to the India-based artisans that produce Block Shop's coveted scarves, prints, and rugs. But it wasn't a quick or easy journey -- here's how they built it.
Step 1: Identify the potential in your side hustle.
While living in Jaipur, India, Lily -- an artist and painter by trade -- met and became friends with the Chhipa family, block printers who were struggling to make ends meet. "The head of the family was selling life insurance, everyone had odd jobs," says Lily, who started working with the family to design and print large-scale geometric compositions, rather than the traditional paisleys and floral motifs they'd typically print. Hopie would weigh in via text or Skype, and the sisters saw an opportunity to create what they called "wearable art." Lily started shipping experimental projects home to Hopie in Cambridge, Mass. "I'd get feedback from friends, and Lily and I would loosely talk about how fun it would be to start a business," Hopie says. "But there was probably a three-year prototyping phase before we really considered it in a serious way." In 2013, that changed.
Step 2: Formalize your mission.
Hopie enrolled in Harvard Business School at the same time as Lily's husband, bringing the two sisters to the same locale for the first time in years. "We turned our living rooms into these overflowing warehouses of inventory," Hopie says. But the founders didn't want to just sell their goods -- they wanted to create a sustainable business that would take care of the artisans producing the work. "I took a class on social entrepreneurship, and we started thinking about how to make this sustainable," she says.
Step 3: Solidify your partnerships.
The Stockmans knew they could lean on their relationship with the Chhipa family but needed to prepare for growth early on. "The most traditional natural dyeing and printing happens in this town, Bagru, outside of Jaipur," Hopie explains. "At the time, it was a bunch of different families working together, but it was pretty disorganized." While the sisters were working on firming up Block Shop as a full-fledged business, the printing community in the town formed a small cooperative, and the two parties worked together to figure out distribution of labor, minimum orders to support the community and fair wages. "We figured out the minimum yardage we'd need each month to support this community," Lily says. Hopie echoes: "It wasn't an ultimatum or a stipulation [to the Chhipa family], it was like, if you can, we can provide enough work for 15 families, and that was our goal."
Step 4: Set a timeline for success.
Launching it was a hopeful experiment but one full of uncertainty. For the Stockmans' part, they felt emboldened by backup plans: Hopie had a marketing job offer on the back burner, and Lily was working as a teaching fellow at Harvard. "We figured out the minimum amount we could pay ourselves to survive and cover rent and plane tickets home for Christmas," Hopie says. "We knew we'd need to sell about 300 to 400 scarves every few months, and we wanted to reach $100,000 in sales in the first six months. If we didn't, I would accept a different job offer."
Step 5: Launch!
With the help of a $5,000 loan from their mom -- the only outside money they've ever used -- the sisters built a rudimentary Shopify website complete with a logo they designed in Microsoft Paint and officially started accepting orders in December of 2012. Media coverage from the design website Design Sponge helped Block Shop reach quick profitability, and they paid their mom back within a few weeks of launch. "We've always really cherished the freedom that's come with not having raised money," Hopie says. The scarves quickly sold out -- it was a surprise the founders weren't ready for, but one that worked in their favor. "It created a scarcity value right off the bat," Hopie says, "so our restocks sold out even quicker." All the way, the women pinched pennies -- rather than pay the $5 Fedex pickup fee, they'd schlep orders to the Fedex drop-off location in Ikea bags. "They got so sick of us, they were like, we will waive the fee to pick up from your work space, please stop coming here," says Lily, laughing. "We definitely had Yankee thrift as our primary business principle."
Step 6: Plan for the future.
When Block Shop had outgrown the founders' living rooms, they looked for permanent space and found real estate in New York to be prohibitively expensive, so they looked to the design community of Los Angeles and settled down. Since, the operation in Jaipur has grown to include 20 families, and the Stockman sisters are working to make sure they continue to be deeply involved in the company and that the families are fairly compensated. "We're anti-consolidation, anti-vertical integration of your supply chain -- which is what all my teachers in business school would have suggested: raising capital and building our own factory in India," Hopie says. "But it's important that we preserve the practice and art of block printing as it's been done for hundreds of years." As their partners start to hand their businesses over to the younger generation of their families, Block Shop is finding new ways to grow, expand and innovate. "These family-run operations are now giving more responsibility to their family members who are in their 20s and 30s, who know more about the online world, digital communication and have figured out how to work with non-toxic chemical dyes," Hopie says. "It's been fascinating to work with this next generation of block printers, and it gives us hope for the future of this industry."
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