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Online Yarn Store Spins Big Profits in a Competitive Industry

Tight Spending Controls & Customer Service Keys to Success

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Online Yarn Store Spins Big Profits in a Competitive Industry

Doug and Laura Zander

What does software engineering have to do with the knitting and crochet supplies business? We don't know, but Laura Zander's career before she launched Jimmy Beans Wool almost 10 years was in software - which goes to prove that what you do today may not be what you do tomorrow. Or maybe it proves that corporate executives can always turn to entrepreneurship.

Headquartered, in Reno, NV, (not that the location matters much) Jimmy Beans sells knitting and crochet supplies online and in a retail store, with 95% of its sales coming online. The site positions itself as "your local yarn store online" and tries to make the buying experience online replicate what it's like to do to a local shop.

It's working: sales reached $1 million in 2005, $4 million in 2010, and 2011 sales are up 30% over last year, Laura says. The company has been recognized by BizRate as one of the best online retailers on the web.

Laura answered some questions about her business.

How did you get into this business -- software engineering to yarn?

In 2002, after two years of marriage and a life-changing move from San Francisco to Truckee (CA) my husband Doug and I emptied our savings account and I opened Jimmy Beans Wool. We had both worked as software engineers during the early dot com era, but when the bottom started to fall, we opted to turn our Tahoe vacation home into our permanent one. I had learned to knit just six months prior and was obsessed. While trying to figure out how to make a living in our new hometown of 14,000 people, I secured a job creating a website for a nearby hand-dyed yarn company, Lorna's Laces. After persuading me that I could create a profitable yarn shop, Lorna acted as my first advisor and supported my need to combine my newfound passion for knitting with my passion for creating a market-leading business.

Why is the company called Jimmy Beans?

The name Jimmy refers to a much-loved character in one of our favorite Todd Snider songs -- and had become my nickname, while Beans referred to the coffee also sold in the yarn shop. I had also done a website for a local espresso cart manufacturer. Within 12 months, the coffee gave way to yarn, but the name stuck. For the first few years, I worked in the shop as the only employee and reinvested all of the shops' profits back into the business.

Four million dollars in sales. That's a lot of yarn. Who's buying it all? How much yarn is that? How did this happen?

Yes! And we're projecting growth of 30% again this year. Ninety-nine percent of our customers are female and the average age is 48, although 29% are under 40. It's spread pretty evenly across the U.S., although we ship to 50 other countries. How much yarn? Approximately 150 million feet. It happened slowly over 10 years, naturally, with no advertising for a number of years, and organically - bootstrapped.

What's the competition like in your segment? What do you do that's different?

There are about 2,000 yarn shops in the country, and since more than 80% of them have a website, the competition is stiff. Since most of our internet customers live in other parts of the world and aren't able to visit our store, our mission is to make those internet customers feel as if they were actually in our store. In addition, we are governed by the Golden Rule - we try to provide all of our customers with the same kind of shopping experience that we would want. We accomplish that through timely communication, quick shipping, and lots of individual attention to our customers.

How do you get new clients?

Mostly word of mouth.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs starting a business today?

  • Buy and sell what you like.
  • Be frugal: spend money on what you need to make money, nothing else. With every single purchase, think about whether or not the item will either save you money, directly make you money, or indirectly make/save you money through efficiencies.
  • Review your financial statements at least twice a month and compare them to the averages for your industry.
  • Treat everyone the way that you would want to be treated: your employees, your vendors, and your customers.

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