In his latest Four Corners column, Jon Daniel talks to multidisciplinary designer Atim Annette Oton.
It dawned on me today that I had not written about anything the last three weeks. And it made me a smile because this is how the life of a entrepreneur sometimes plays out. I am not sad or unhappy about it – I just know this was at the bottom of the “must do” pile.
What happened the last three weeks? Well, a funny thing called Calabar Imports busy season business happened – between events, criss-crossing across the four stores, updating Facebook and Instagram and events.
Today has been the almost first day that I can honestly say I have caught up with 85% of things I have to get done by Thursday – my beginning of the week day. How? It comes down to Priorities. The 15 % are important but they do not make or break the weeks. What I learnt this week is that doing events are vital and there are most about relationship building.
This week went by so fast, it’s almost Thursday – a few highlights – besides getting stuff done – taking time away from Facebook, making time to talk and call friends – these simple things are why I have two days off.
The week’s trials. It’s almost Christmas – not sure I am ready for any of it. Just got over Thanksgiving and still on the mission of building the Harlem location into it’s full scope, a community space and a store. Two projects this week almost complete – expanding our mailing list and working on 2016 events up until April 30. It’s always nice to plan early but sometimes surprised that when I ask this early, a good number of people are not quite prepared. What to do? Move on to the next person. Time is vital and being prepared is essential.
Beginning to think about time off for a week in January – closing all stores so we all can rest. Because my one question today: Where did the day go?
Week Three – The Holiday Season is fast approaching:
This week was a mixed one.
The first lesson was having a staff take ownership of a store that needed ownership. Sometimes it takes a person a while to get there – I typically see it in less than three months, and it happened this week in just that time frame. I am delighted by this and what it does for me as an owner of Calabar Imports – is simple, it lightens my load so I can work on other things and pay attention to the holiday season that seems to be speeding up, quicker than I hoped.
The second lesson was to actually re-listen to myself as I took time to build a new project concept that is related to the growth and capacity needed for Calabar Imports. This is in part to continue to reinvent the brand and build our capacity as market forces are changing; and we have to be more dynamic as a company. This was the week to do that reading in full detail about 2016, forecasts, changes and also what opportunities they would be. I looked at fashion forecast again, imports and labor issues, currency fluctuations and war across the globe. In my business, all these things affect the price of manufacturing – thus, the cost of clothes and goods. This is the time when I decide if I should change the countries where I order from, who I buy from as prices go up and down, whether it makes sense to make in one country versus another. All high risk decisions, but all carefully analyzed.
The third lesson is so simple: everything happens in its time. I conceptually know this and have been saying so to myself often. This week, several realities lined up as they should. I cannot reveal all the details but time will make it apparent at Calabar Imports. In preparation for January and February, I access what will happen with the weather again, another look at the Farmer’s Almanac to see if it makes sense to bring in spring clothing earlier or latter. Oh, that winter blues reminds me that we might have that snow again and it is time to get salt to all the stores again; and yes, I need two shovels this year.
The fourth lesson this week is about mentoring. I talk about it and actually do it regularly and this week – it was about reinforcing and building two young people. A young designer who had become wary and disappointed with the fashion industry. All it took was showing him a path to beginning a process of transition from school to the real world. So, often when I was at Parsons, this was the role I played – listener and strategist. The second was a young person who made a decision that now has delayed a lot of possibilities. Sometimes, we take these stances and stick with them and hurt ourselves more. It makes sense then but it puts us on a real rot. Both young people were in the world of fear and were not risk takers. If I could bottle a risk-taking juice that keeps me raging to do more or to jump, I would be a millionaire today.
October and early November in retail follows patterns, it slows down for a bit and for me at Calabar Imports, this is the time to catch up with building an event calendar for 2016, looking at staffing and setting up a system to train new staff as I will be adding more staff for more flexibility yet again. It’s an ongoing process, I remind myself. All in a week.
Sunday and Monday came too fast but finalized a collaboration with International Coalition of African Fashion. It’s been on my mind to collaborate with them but also to help them grow. Each year, I do about 3-4 collaborations – they are specifically targeted in fashion and retail. This is where Calabar Imports is situated. I often have to state that to people who ask me to go outside that realm. After almost 11 years, I know what I am focused on. And as I say it, this reminds me that I have yet to plan our anniversary for December. Another to do item for next week. Check back to read more here next week. And please share this blog.
The week ended mixed, sales up; one less staff on one day, and one more staff to add to the brand. It is the daily grind as a retailer at Calabar Imports, I spent time figuring out the next move and what bit I have to change or secure after I thought I was ahead.
Last week, I began Chronicles of My Retail Life, a weekly series of blogs about what’s happening with me at Calabar Imports. It’s a short synopsis of the life of a retailer in Brooklyn and Harlem from day to day events, insights on what happens in the store and what ideas are implemented and dropped. This is week two. And I am inspired by what feedback I got so far, some of the designers and store owners who have read this have reached out to say good idea or thank you for giving a new insight. One even asked if they could borrow the idea – I said yes as it is not a new idea nor does it belong to me. It is the intention to give ideas away, partly but really, it’s my journal of making note so I clean return to re-examine it.
I spent the week with a lagging cold and sniffles and I started the ginger tea regiment I know works. My typical schedule of getting items to all stores was not an option, instead on Thursday and Friday I hibernated and rested. Nothing like sleeping in the middle of the day to make you realize what a cold can do, it knocks the wind out of you. As an entrepreneur, you must know your body and read its signs to take time to deal with it before it breaks down. It needs rest and it does need to stop sometimes. So, instead of running around and getting product to all the Calabar Imports stores, this was the week of planning and figuring out some extra things to do for the six months.
Planning on Thursday through Ginger Tea
This week, planning projects for Calabar Imports fell into three categories: events, designers and social media. On Thursday, I developed a road map for events in November to September and identified who would make a good partner and who needed an opportunity to establish and grow themselves. The goal was simple, designers, artisans and makers need a time and place to sell, market and meet new customers. And rather than just popups, I would return to the old traditional trunk shows with designers who were ready to make things happen for themselves. For me at Calabar Imports, these shows get me to see new product to bring into the store from that designer, build a relationship with a designer and get them to understand what is possible.
The trunk show events for some designers are a home run if they have been busy marketing and showing their work in some many ways: online, markets, shopping events, social media, emails, and in other stores. The combination makes the end result a good start, but the other key is having the products in sizes needed for clothing in particular.
Ginger has begun to work:
Friday was spent looking at designers whose work would fit as part of the Calabar Imports brand. Social media was a place to start as I have already identified them last month but needed to sit and look at the work closeup. I was able to narrow my list to about 20, some are in New York, others outside. After about two hours, I went on to nap again. That Ginger tea was definitely working. To be sick in the winter with a cold is a pain, so I do my best to get rid of it quickly.
Saturday – back in the groove:
Taking two days off this week and being under the weather has made me lose time on getting merchandise – so as I got to Bed Stuy to spend the day, I reconstructed my options for the week; I would need to get merchandise into the stores on Tuesday and spend Wednesday on Franklin Avenue redesigning it again – some changes were needed and also time to look at what I needed to do with the lights.
Saturday in the store was a mix of searching for lights and getting to see what products needed to be brought into the store – this week – jackets, sweaters, scarfs and gloves became a priority. I had delayed ordering scarfs and gloves because October is tricky as the weather keeps swinging from from 30 degrees to 70 degrees. It’s always like this – so this year, I decided that gloves and scarfs would start arriving in November. The jewelry for the holiday season had begun to arrive – I would sort them out too on Tuesday.
This week, I made a commitment to Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival, I would host the Nollywood movie showing. So, I left the store earlier and heading to Long Island University to watch the film, Jimmy Goes to Nollywood and close it out with a panel discussion. A late dinner after kept me out until midnight – I had a meeting with a candidate in an incubator – to discuss next steps. Some days, you make exceptions so that the next generation begins a business in good stride.
Sunday was Harlem – and I left early after buying candy for Halloween – yes, that kind of day. But is become obvious very early that the day would not be about doing anything on my agenda. It was a day for others – new product from Ghana came in, a series of meetings about a cafe and several phone calls about an event in September. By 6pm, the day had disappeared, so the best I could do was set up the new product, change the space and do bills for the store – only two major bills were left – suppliers and rent. Monday would be a good day to do those.
Monday – my last day of the week
A good neighbor in Harlem brought me chicken soup, and it helped me on Monday – my body needed that soothing. I finalized bills and began to layout a calendar up for the confirmed events and also to see when products would be in – my last product delivery for the year December 20, just in time for Christmas. I noted that several Kwanzaa candle packs were already sold, I would order more on Thursday and Sage too – all the stores were out of it. It is the season. The train to Brooklyn from Harlem was an interesting one, I had forgotten that after 9 pm, the subway traffic gets more interesting and bizarre.
As I end the day on Monday, I am finally in better spirits – that cold is gone and that ginger tea worked. I will be buying some more ginger this week. It will again be in everything I eat and drink this winter season. Funny, I am reminded of garlic too. Until next week, please come back and read the third part Chronicles of My Retail Life: A Weekly Series on Calabar Imports.
This week, I launch, Chronicles of My Retail Life, a weekly series of blogs about what’s happening with me at Calabar Imports. It’s a short synopsis of the life of a retailer in Brooklyn and Harlem from day to day events, insights on what happens in the store and what ideas are implemented and dropped. This series will be written every Tuesday and will contain some discussion on the changes and growth we are experiencing. Some customers and people will not be named but initials will be used to protect some of their identities and privacy.
Week One: October 14-19
I begin my week on Thursday after taking two days off – I call this day the first of my travel days as I spend it going to at least two stores to update windows, bring in merchandise, talk with staff and new initiatives. I begin it on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights where all our merchandise arrives each week. This is Calabar Imports’ headquarters.
At the head quarters, I sort out what merchandise has arrived and place them into four piles. Each store gets one pack of items or what I feel best fits that location. We are in four different yet similar locations in Brooklyn and Harlem. The one thing I have not added to this process that staff needs to do is log in all merchandise in the Square system that is now available in all stores.
Crown Heights is interesting – This is Heloise’s store – she is the point person there and runs it in her own special way. I have been her child too long to know not to interfere – but there are days I try to. This is the store that we relocated our Washington Avenue store to after the fire and it is the store where I began to plan to expansion and growth of Calabar Imports into 4 stores.
I leave Franklin Avenue and head for Boerum Hill to the Third Avenue Store, this was the third store we opened after the fire – in a new neighborhood that I watched for a year. It was a pleasure to open this store here as it was something that was missing on this strip. Third Avenue is the smallest of our stores, it’s cute and quaint and comes with the contrasts of New York extremes – the Gowanus Houses and Extreme Luxury Apartments on one side. So, imagine the customers we get. All good, but it is REAL New York.
Boerum Hill: Third Avenue
At Third Avenue, I do the window on Thursday – use the new clothing and new products that come in to showcase what we have and what’s new. The challenge is to keep this inviting for the two exteeme demographics, it’s a balancing act.
This store is in proximity to the heart of Brooklyn – and in the midst of the development of hotels in proximity to Barclays and Atlantic Center, and two blocks from Atlantic Avenue. This is the store I have to bring my innovative ideas and I will be looking to partner with others to do some creative things here. After I finish with Third Avenue, I decide if the day is not gone to go home to do some more marketing or to head to Harlem or Bed Stuy. This week, I went on to Bed Stuy – it was important to re-examine that store. Ariel is now fully settled into Third Avenue – I think this pace has given her time to ponder her goals and what next. Sometimes you make your business a place for your employees to take their time and grow themselves, build their careers, finish school and make their next move. That was what my first job in the US did for me. I hold that memory dear and a learning lesson.
I love the journey from Third Avenue to Tompkins, I intentionally take the B52 bus as it weaves me from Fulton Street through Fort Greene into Bed Stuy. It is in this bus where I write my to do list for the next week after reviewing what’s on the list for this week. These days – my to do list always has 7 items – one item for each day of the week. I have found that has been the solution to all my best laid plans. If I achieve one item a day – I have done a lot. And if I do more – I have over achieved. I use to have 10 things a day – and accomplish 2-4 – so it became clear that the list did not work and so a new approach was discovered. I celebrate getting one item done each day – I am much happier and my list does not pile up. It’s the simple things that make life so easy. It is on this bus I remember the B52s band and hum their songs often.
When I arrive at Tompkins – Cassandra is at helm of this space. If you have not me Cassandra – I would say a trip to Bed Stuy is a must on Thursday and Friday. Like my mother, Cassandra is a retired teacher, she loves her freedom and working at Calabar gives her time to be out of her apartment – meet new people and help grow a business, she made that commitment to me a year ago, and I value that. At Tompkins Avenue, we sit and talk about what happened last week, what needs to be accomplished this week and month and also when she plans to travel again. Yes, scheduling is a conversation I have frequently with the four women I work with and my business partner. Each of us have lives outside the store and making sure everyone gets to do the other parts of their lives or businesses is vital to a working ship like Calabar Imports. Some days it is a challenge – other days – it works out so smoothly. I typically head home after a few hours to actually cook dinner – yes, I do cook – usually on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. But this week, I head up to Harlem to get ready for Women’s Writers of the Diaspora hosted by Celesti Colds Fechter.
Saturday for me is in Bed Stuy while Sunday and Monday are in Harlem and these are the days I work in the stores. I chose these two because there are the event spaces we have and I am looking to grow that part of our business into a community asset. I think space is a premium but it belongs to a community who exercises the use of it. And my spaces belongs to the communities we are based in. It’s getting them to see its value and buy-in to ownership of it; it’s an interesting puzzle for communities that are usually challenged about rights and ownership. As someone who has acquired space, I know how hard it is to get and see that providing access to it is crucial for those working on creative endeavors. I made a decision to do it sometimes for free depending on the individual, project or idea – and other times for a small fee so that the individual owns and sets value to it. The key for me is simple – are you going to give this gift to someone else for free too, it’s just that simple. Free is not free but it’s growing someone else besides yourself.
By Monday in the stores, I have re-calibrated and worked on several new initiatives, this week was to begin the Holiday marketing campaign, send out newsletters and engage all social media parts of the company. I have taken over the social media part of the company after a year of a staff running it. The goal here was to re-brand it – as both an educational forum and a sales platform. It’s a lot of work and hectic but it’s vital as I plan to build it to a complex and defined platform for the business. My day ended late on Monday and as I complete this first blog today, I am please to say that it has been a good week, so please join my adventures: Chronicles of My Retail Life, follow me and share this blog with others today.
by Atim Annette Oton
First published in Calabar Magazine.
Every other day, I have the same discussion with someone: an African, a Caribbean or an African-American person. It goes like this: When will we get it together? They complain about how little progress has been made and how we as black people are not ready and why? I listen, nod and wait until they are done talking. This last month, I have been listening, and listening, more carefully. And quite frankly, the noise has been just too much to bear. I call it noise because we need to stop and really hear ourselves speak. And my one lesson from it is: say something if you have a solution to the problem.
I can begin by looking at black people in Nigeria where I was born; yes, we missed the boat for 20 years (about 1983-2004), but in the last 8 years, we have begun to move forward. Not as fast as we want, expect or are able to drastically see…but we are moving. Sometimes, we forget as a nation and as a people, we are not just young but we have been isolated for about 20 years. With 150 million people, we are more educated than most of Africa, and yes, we need to use this educated populous, and sadly, we have not done so. But, when a people have been isolated, how do they know what they need to change and grow? How do they change when their leadership is not changing too?
For the last 6 years, I have traveled back and forth to Nigeria. I can say as a witness, Nigeria has changed, gotten better and is finally growing its other industries besides oil. That small shift is significant, for a country that only spoke oil, it is the start of a shift in thinking. And it is not too late. We just have to build on this slowing. Just look at China. Another shift is the return of its diaspora. This is not to say that Nigeria cannot be changed without them, but it is a return of some of the brain drain. Nigeria is experiencing what India experienced finally – a brain gain. Simply, Nigerians stopped complaining and went home…and more importantly, the west got too hard to live in.
Now, a return to the Americas, with the US and New York, in focus. We have to stop lamenting the losses of Harlem and Bed Stuy. If you did not buy in either places, it’s time to stop. You were and are also part of the problem and could have been part of the solution, if you bought in these neighborhoods. And more importantly, stop crying over spilled milk put your money where you mouth is.
My first response is to look beyond New York, and look at Maryland, Washington DC, and Atlanta, blacks own property and they bought there. If we all remember our history, a good number of blacks came north for work with every intention to return to the south…and they did. The only issue here is their kids did not leave, and have no property where they live. My accountant and lawyer would say, some of us have no estate planning skills.
The other places I hear the noise is about our businesses. I love how many people talk about black businesses but spend their money at Macy’s. And I don’t know how many black owners will tear my ear on this. I hear both sides. Black businesses would do 10 times better if just 25% of our community shopped with us more. But, some of us in business make it difficult. Hey, I am saying it. How many times do we get bad service? But here is the irony, we get treated badly elsewhere and still go back…but when we get it with black businesses, we stop going back. I am just saying.
Yes, black businesses are in a bad state, but so are those who go it alone in business and our community is one that goes it alone. Other communities build businesses as groups of people. We build it alone with very little money and support. I am tired of the reasons we claim are the issues: we do not trust each other, can’t get along and are selfish. Actually, none of that is really true. I mean, how many of us are doing “Susu’s” together? The simple reasons are not having the capital, not having great credit; most of us do not build relationships with banks, and we do not make the effort to do business with one another. Yet, we work harder for others for a pay check.
Today, I was on Lewis Avenue: Bread Stuy, Brownstone Books and Lewis Gallery are all gone. It is not my place to judge or to point fingers, but these were striving businesses in an up-and-coming community in a “rennaisance”. And something happened here. There are lessons to learn and share but we do not do that in our community. One business had tax and health department issues; the other two, I am told via neighborhood gossip (which we are good at doing instead of helping grow the businesses) did not do the marketing needed. I remember a time when local people used to do the marketing by circulating flyers for businesses they loved carry. And word-of-mouth was the way businesses survived. This was the New York I loved. This New York, I am worried about.
This month, I begin a small experiment called “The Silence Factory: It is a fun place.” It is a place where I retreat to see and look at things. But it is a place I will come out of often to voice my thoughts and observations. So, I declared on Facebook:
“This is the week of SILENCE…time to be quiet and just LISTEN, time to be REFLECTIVE and GROW new ideas. Time to work on existing projects and FINISH. Join me in the SILENCE FACTORY. IT IS A FUN PLACE.”
I think black people across the world need to go into the SILENCE FACTORY. It’s time to stop talking and do the work that is needed. I spent sometime with my brother who said to me – if you want this thing, you must do the work for it. It is not easy work, it is not quick, it will take time. I hear you loud and clear. I am listening.
Today, I look at China, and remember the days when we all used to laugh at them. Now, who is laughing at us? The lesson here is simple…Work your hardest, do the work well, ask for help, pay for the help, collaborate, partner and stop the noise, you are wasting time. But most importantly, come to the table ready. We need our best and brightest. And bring down the NOISE.
by Atim Annette Oton
This article was written for Calabar Magazine, see here.
Some people experience a disaster and it ends their businesses; I see it as an opportunity. So, in June of this year, when a fire destroyed our store, Calabar Imports on Washington Avenue. My business partner and I took time off – she traveled and I spent the summer in New York at the beach. I did a lot of reading and caught up with friends – lots of lunches and dinners. Simply, I took time to cleanse, re-imagine and build a return in the fall.
Our Business 101 required that we had fire insurance, so, in some ways, we were lucky. Some businesses I talked to after mentioned they did not have any. Business is about taking a leap of faith and risk, but not taking chances like having no insurance. The fire happened on our seventh year.
Our return is our re-birth and it is in stages. If it took us 7 years to build a brand, and to re-build it will take time, not the same seven years. We know it and are patient enough to understand. The first stage is to re-open in a second location – a new neighborhood and a new place. And this new place is Dumbo, an opportunity and a place to cast a story, to try new things and to change some old things. The second stage is to re-open to the old space in Prospect Heights by December (now in May 2012) with a new vibe. The third stage is to expand and create another location – and this will involve the search for space in Harlem and Williamsburg. I am an entrepreneur, it is in my DNA.
A disaster should challenge you to work even harder. It is that simple. It will make you build better. I have five rules of business smarts for recovering from a disaster:
- Re-invent your dream
- Challenge yourself not to Fail
- Imagine the Results
- Re-build the Brand
Tenacity simply is guts – the ability to work through thick and thin. Do you have it? As an entrepreneur, it takes guts to create and maintain a business. Guts requires that you understand that there will be hills and valleys. They would be fast and slow days.
Re-invent your dream:
This is the place to dream big again. It is to imagine your idea in a new place or state. It is an opportunity to see new things and create a new place. An entrepreneur has a box of tricks – not just one trick.
Challenge yourself not to Fail:
It is hard when you fall to get up, I was raised to pick myself up and begin again on the walk I started. So, the challenge was easy. I saw opportunity and not failure when I began to re-dream again.
Imagine the Results:
This requires you look ahead and beyond the re-creation and see the completion. It is the end of the story of creation.
Re-build the Brand:
As a child, I loved Lego and later I studied architecture, so I am by nature a builder. I can build and re-build. I get the notion of time and making changes. My lesson here is to re-examine the old, change the bad and create new goof things. The brand is back. Calabar Imports is on the rise again.