A Modern Business Selling Vintage Apparel: Q&A with Catie Nienaber
Owner, Principal, Dronning Vintage
Entrepreneur Catie Nienaber channeled her eye for design and her passion for beautiful women’s clothing from the past into a very 21st century online business — one she runs successfully out of her home.
Name: Catie Nienaber
Title: Owner, Principal
Company: Dronning Vintage
Years in business: 4.5
Business location: San Francisco, Calif.
Number of employees: just me!
Chief product: online vintage women’s clothing shop
First of all, how is business these days?
It’s pretty decent. In e-commerce there’s always a dip in revenue after the holidays, but this month has actually been really great. It certainly doesn’t feel like a typical January!
What led you to start your own business?
Years ago I had a very basic, working knowledge of vintage clothing and what kinds of looks modern consumers responded to. I’d go to thrift stores and scour the dollar racks, then turn around and take them to nicer brick-and-mortar vintage stores in the city and sell them. Most shops give sellers about 30 percent of what they end up pricing the garment for. So, for example, something they’d value at $90, they’d give me $30 for. It didn’t take long for me to want 100 percent of that cut, and not just what amounted to a finder’s fee. So I decided to give the whole online shop thing a try, because I felt I deserved the rest of that money. Why not?
What sources did you use for startup capital?
It was all my own money from the get-go and always has been. I just put about $50 worth of merchandise on my credit card and hoped that it would sell and net a profit. It did, and I just snow-balled the money from there. Things were very messy for a while because I didn’t separate my business funds from my personal money. It was just all on the same account, and I did not have a clear idea about how much revenue I was bringing in. Once I finally opened separate business accounts I had to realize that this was a legitimate business and not just a little hobby/side project anymore. In a way, finally having separate accounts for business funds forced me to admit it was “real” and put me in a headspace to take it more seriously.
What do you think is your biggest business strength?
Decisiveness. Sometimes that means having confidence in making fast decisions about inventory for the shop and whether or not to go with a certain piece or not. Do I like something or not? Am I going to say yes to an invitation, a partnership, an opportunity for a buying appointment? Am I satisfied with how this business card design looks or the way that dress was photographed? Allowing myself to trust in my own decisiveness saves a lot of time, shoe leather, money, and heartache.
What do you enjoy most about owning your own business?
I have control over everything. I don’t have to ask permission for anything and I make all creative and fiscal decisions myself. To have neither bosses nor employees is liberating and scary, but in a good way, in a way I find rewarding.
What’s your least favorite part of running a business?
It’s funny, because what I enjoy most (see previous question) I can also list for this question as well. I’m not some miracle renaissance woman who is a master at everything. I don’t have a web design or graphic design background; I know my visuals could be better. I can’t code; there are things that I’d like to do with my website but just don’t have the skill set for. Running your business by yourself should also come with enough self-awareness to know when you’ve reached the point where it’s in your best interest to ask for help. It’s also very empowering when the buck truly starts and stops with myself, but it also means that I can’t ever truly take a break from anything. When I do, my profits take a dive.
What do you think are important entrepreneurial skills to have?
First off, you have to genuinely enjoy and believe in what you’re doing. You’re going to be spending a lot of time nurturing and putting sweat into this thing, so be sure you like it (“it” being the industry, the product, the process) enough to commit. It’s also great to have a network of people who are doing something similar. You don’t have to be best friends, but it’s really cool to be able to have coffee and kvetch and also celebrate successes and talk business. I’m pals with other vintage shop owners as well as other small business owners who don’t deal in vintage at all. Be humble and be willing to learn all the time, because there’s always someone who is going to know more than you.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in business and how did you overcome them?
Getting burned out. With the march of time, vintage is harder and harder to find, because there will never be any more of it in the world than what there is right now. Feeling uninspired when one buying appointment after another is a bust rather than a big score. But I have to remember that I make my own luck, and that there will always be peaks and valleys.
What do you wish you’d known before you started out?
I wish I’d known more about SEO, product photography, and how to market myself better. I think I waited a lot for people to come to me rather than getting myself out there. It was a very introverted way of being a business owner — reading a lot of books and blogs, thrifting for hours by myself, spending many sunny weekends hunched over a tub hand washing vintage. Putting in all that sweat was (and still is!) important, but also doing some basic networking could have helped as well.
What is the smartest move you have made with your business so far?
This is very specific, but Instagram has been a powerful tool in controlling the visual branding of my business. I can’t even count how many times posting a garment has directly resulted in a sale or interaction that lead to a sale before the item even went up on the site. And I don’t just post the clothes, it’s important that my community has a grasp on what my days look like, the little pieces of my world that form a picture of what my life is like. It’s very rare that I’ll post a selfie — I’m all about showing who I am through travel, food, adventures, home, etc. I let the pictures do the talking, but at the end of the day, they are still just pictures and they augment the larger picture of who I really am.
How do you find new customers? What do you do to make sure they become return customers?
I don’t really do much aggressive marketing. My method, if you’d call it that, is fairly passive (your standard social media platforms, blogging) and people who are into it end up jumping on board on their own. Return customers are such a huge compliment to me. I think I obtain repeat customers by having a great product and giving excellent customer service.
What are some other businesses or entrepreneurs you admire, and why?
There are so many, and for different reasons. Off the top of my head, I think of the multi-talented Victoria Smith of SFGirlbyBay. She has a really lovely foothold in the design/creative world and is a master at partnering with other brands and business owners. Also Lauren Naimola of Dear Golden, who runs one of the best damn vintage shops on the web. I do not know how that woman has time to sleep.
Do you have a favorite inspirational quote?
“Doing the work today is what makes you look like an overnight success ten years from now.” – Kathleen Shannon
What new initiatives are you working on?
At the very beginning of the year I was working on some business goal-setting templatesfrom Meg Biram and it got me thinking more about professional collaborations. I haven’t reached out to anyone just yet, but it’s fun to daydream and set goals.
What advice would you give to someone hoping to start a business similar to yours?
Be sure you’re at a place in your life where you can really devote yourself and your time so that it comes out as well as you can make it. Also, presentation is so important when you sell online. Really have a firm understanding of what makes a product photo visually appealing, and be able to execute that.