Columbia’s pretty rad. We’ve got things going on and, better yet, things to do and take part in. Since my last two CBT articles...
Elly Bethune (nee Swetz) and Clay Bethune were dating when they opened Elly’s Couture in The District in 2006. Showcasing handmade goods by independent designers, their brick and mortar has become a favorite shopping experience for mid-Missouri residents. Today, this entrepreneurial twosome, who were married in 2010, brings designers and customers together internationally through their eCommerce site, 9th & Elm (9thelm.com).
Raised in Columbia, Elly was attending San Francisco State University when she first heard about Clay. “He had hired my sister as a loan officer when he owned gateway Mortgage group,” she says. “She had told me several times: ‘There’s a guy you have to meet. I just think you would really hit it off.’”
A wedding in Columbia brought them together, and they started courting over the phone once Elly returned to the Bay area. Not surprising, when Elly graduated in 2006, she moved back to Columbia. It was while she was looking for a way to use her degree in magazine journalism with an emphasis on fashion that Clay, a serial entrepreneur, suggested she open her own store. “at the time, it had never crossed my mind,” Elly says.
Almost immediately they began to search for a location. “I absolutely wanted to be downtown,” Elly says. “There is such a sense of community. I also thought it would be a much better fit for what I had envisioned.” When they discovered Poppy, a well-established Columbia business, was moving, they signed the lease within 48 hours and opened Elly’s Couture six weeks later.
The first year they concentrated on building vendors, often traveling to Los Angeles to meet with individual designers. Initially, they focused on carrying a lot of famous designers such as Betsey Johnson and BCBG. at the same time, they honed their team approach to the business based on their individual skill sets.
“He had the business background, and I knew what kind of merchandise I wanted to carry,” Elly says. “I also knew how to run the daily operations of a store. and I love talking to people.”
Over time, the Bethunes realized they needed to restructure their business plan to include different brands with more price points. “That’s how we got into carrying independent designers, which made us more unique,” Elly says. eventually, they also expanded online with ellyscouture.com.
With the success of Elly’s Couture, Clay began looking at other business interests. At the time online shopping sites such as Etsy were gaining in popularity. But because these websites allowed anyone to post items to sell, they operated like enormous clearinghouses, requiring consumers to often wade through hundreds of thousands of goods and products to find a particular item. Clay thought there must be a better way.
In 2013, the Bethunes launched 9th & Elm, a curated website that offers handmade fashions from some of the best independent designers — but with a twist. Rather than allowing anyone to sell on their site, the Bethunes handpick and partner with designers. Then they showcase the designers’ items and take a percentage of the sales. Potential customers who subscribe to the site benefit by receiving daily emails with exclusive deals.
With 9th & Elm, the Bethunes can take chances with merchandise they wouldn’t normally carry at their brick-and-mortar store.
“You can be a little riskier because you are not in-housing the product, so you can see if it’s going to work for your clientele,” Clay says. Additionally, the selling process of 9th & Elm requires less effort than the Broadway business because about 80 percent of the products the couple showcases on the website are drop-shipped directly by the designers themselves.
“A lot of them are one of a kind, made to order, so when the order is placed to the designer, the designer makes it and ships it directly to the customer,” Clay says. On average, three to five new designers are added every day to the site, and each designer may have 10, 20 or more products to upload.
Although they were a little overwhelmed their first 30 days, Clay says the public response to 9th & Elm continues to be encouraging. “We had sold $800 in product our first day and had 10,000 users using our site in the first 30 days,” he says. “Our second month we had 80,000 hits to our site.” This was all accomplished with a lean startup business model and only one other full-time employee when they launched.
“Anything you are doing online has great potential since online marketing is continuing to grow,” Clay says. “Internet, smartphones and social media are native to today’s generation. Online shopping is just a natural progression for them, so in the future, probably 90 percent of their clothing purchases will eventually be made online.”
But Clay also believes part of 9th & Elm’s success stems from the fact that many of today’s consumers are looking for more transparency in the marketplace. “There’s a movement to going back to knowing the source; it started with food and has kind of trickled down into fashion,” he says.
Elly agrees and feels customers are as interested in the designer as they are the product. “I think today’s customer often wants to support independent designers,” she says. “Every independent designer has a story, and we truly get behind them and fall in love with them as much as we do their product.”
Elly and Clay love their business/life relationship. Still, they agree that juggling two businesses while raising their daughter, Chase, who celebrated her first birthday earlier this year, can be a bit challenging. They’ve learned to rely on each other’s skills and instincts, which they believe is important for any couple that’s contemplating going into busi- ness together. Overall, they encourage others to take the plunge but offer some sage advice.
“The startup world is incredibly difficult,” Clay says. “The first six months I think I was getting about three hours of sleep at night. The learning process happens so quickly in the tech world. It’s all ongoing training, and the only way to learn is to just do it.”
He also recommends potential business owners do their homework ahead of time. “Be well read,” he says. “You are probably not that serious about developing a business if you haven’t taken the time to read about it.”
Elly believes working with someone who has similar goals helps, but personally understanding the nature of business is essential.
“I learned very quickly that owning your own business and running a business are two different things,” she says. “I am a hard worker, but working smart is just as important, if not more important, than working hard. If you can marry them together, you will be able to make a successful business flourish over the years.
“The more you put into your business, whether it’s time or money, your business will pay you back tenfold,” she continues. “Don’t expect a business to run itself. No one will love your business as much as you do at the end of the day, so put the time in, and ultimately, your business will grow.”