Made in New England: Meet Jamie Clark of The Willie Wags
The Willie Wags—slang for “off the beaten path”—is a shop in Bangor, Maine, that features just that: unique hidden gems made by small, women-owned businesses. Founder Jamie Clark believes that by spending your dollar with intention, shopping small and supporting other women along the way, you have the power to change the world.
We got to catch up with Jamie to discuss the importance of storytelling, what it truly takes to survive as a female entrepreneur and embracing a tip from Friends’ Ross Gellar: never being afraid to change direction and pivot.
R.K.: How did you get the idea to launch The Willie Wags, and take it from idea to business?
J.C.: I actually owned another business (and still do) with my husband, so I was already a small business owner for six years. I was looking for a much more meaningful way to give back and make an impact. After having some conversations with friends looking to grow their businesses, many were struggling with marketing outside of friends and family. I wanted to find a medium to support friends going through unpaid maternity leave and such, so I started a subscription box in my basement literally with just a website, and didn’t even tell friends and family what I was doing.
It organically grew, and seven months after I hit launch on the website, we ended up on the [nationally syndicated] Elvis Duran Morning Show 10 days before Christmas [in 2016]. We had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of orders that came in and no product to fulfill them! At that point it was just me, so I had to overnight crazy amounts of product, and it made for a very interesting Christmas. We only put up a three-foot Christmas tree that year because we needed the room to pack orders!
It was then that I turned to my husband and said, “This has legs, what are we going to do?” and he encouraged me to find a space and really make this a thing. In January 2017, we started looking for retail space and it’s grown from there.
R.K.: Where did the name Willie Wags come from, and does is have a special meaning?
J.C.: Everything that we do is based around the New England phrase “The Willie Wags,” which means “off the beaten path.” I picked that because I wanted to choose a name that was very unique so if someone heard it they’d want to ask what it means and they’d remember it.
Off the beaten path is where we find all the businesses we partner with—female small business owners trying to make a go. We’re also in the middle of nowhere in Maine, helping the little guys!
R.K.: Your mission is supporting female entrepreneurs, and helping women design their own success stories. What are some ways you help support female entrepreneurs in the community?
J.C.: We’re very big on storytelling, and as a consumer it’s important to understand and make a connection with the product you’re purchasing. When you walk around the store, you physically get to read about the founders, and make a connection with each of the products. We’ve made some great relationships because of it!
We recently stopped doing the subscription boxes, as it didn’t make sense to continue growth-wise so we did the “Ross pivot” and made a change. Aside from the retail shop, we now do After Hours events, which have become their own thing—featuring a lot of the service-based businesses like hand-calligraphy events, book clubs and succulent making.
In January 2018, we launched the Women’s Collective, which is becoming the meat and potatoes of this business going forward. We have about 30 ladies who meet every month as an informal, quirky networking event. We have some wonderful women who have spoken, like Jenni-Lyn Williams who started Snarky Tea. The number one thing is that all the women feel welcome and not in a state of overwhelm. This month we’re actually launching a Podcast (Finding the Other 20 Percent), which we’re super excited about; it will have the same feel as Women’s Collective, covering both business and personal topics.
R.K.: What did you have to learn the hard way in launching your business? Any particular challenges along the way?
J.C.: Some of the lessons I learned the hard way during my first business. But I never built a startup, and it’s its own animal. I paid no money for advertising and marketing, and you get to this point where in your head you think people will just come. When I hit the launch button, nobody came.
So I started doing the opposite by saying yes to everything—inspired by the Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. I said yes to speaking events, podcasts, writing articles, mentoring people and judging pitch contests. There was one point I had to fly to D.C. and two days later had to be in Iowa for a women’s conference, then in NYC for a show. While it was exciting and shiny and new, I burnt myself out so fast. It was hard, and then the next year I had to start saying no. I wanted to grow organically to a certain point, and there’s a lot to be said about a small business like that.
R.K.: While you feature products made by women from all over the world, do you think there has been a benefit to starting your business in the New England area and having your brick and mortar in Maine that you don’t think you’d get elsewhere?
J.C.: Definitely! In downtown Bangor where we’re located, there’s a big appreciation for small business. There’s a lot of family roots, neighbors and community supporting each other!
New Englanders are hearty, and there’s something to be said about that. You’ve really got to be a hustler to live here all year round, and some extra grit is needed. We appreciate each other and support each other. We are looking to expand and open up different locations, but I don’t think I ever want to be in a major metropolitan city. Suburbs definitely, but not necessarily right in NYC. I think it makes sense that we started that way.
R.K.: What other local New England brands are you a fan of?
J.C.: One of my favorites we have at the shop is Alaina Marie who’s in Portland, Maine. She makes adorable clutches and tote bags made out of lobster bait bags. I’m a big fan of local Bangor company Maine Shellware, which works with restaurants across the state, acquiring leftover shells to recycle and make them into jewelry, cutting boards, earrings and even picture frames. I also really love Daughters, a vintage shop in Rockland, and Sugar Tools, a tiny shop in Camden.
R.K.: Who has been the greatest influence or role model in starting your business?
J.C.: It was kind of a trifecta! I grew up with two parents who are entrepreneurs so I watched and lived it from a very young age. To me, it wasn’t a surprise what I was getting into because they had instilled those values in me. I didn’t really think about the fact I’d be working 80-hour weeks or get phone calls at 10 at night, but that’s what happens.
My husband has also been a great influence in starting my business, saying, “I’ve got this covered, go do your thing!”
R.K.: Do you have a favorite quote or business mantra?
J.C.: I kind of joke and say this often to the girls when I do some unofficial mentoring: “You haven’t done it right if you haven’t done it wrong once.” Don’t be afraid of failing. You’ll get stuff wrong and you’ll learn more from that. There’s a lot to be said about pivoting, overcoming and tweaking.
R.K.: Where do you hope to see your brand in the next two years?
J.C.: We’ve got the podcast launching this month and hopefully we’ll see that grow a lot around brand awareness. We’re looking to grow outside of the state, and open a physical space in Massachusetts soon. Our vision has changed and become even larger, so were hustling hard, trying to grow and hit those milestones we made and hopefully end up farther than we initially thought!
R.K.: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?
J.C.: When people say they want to make jewelry or launch a new product, the number one question I always ask is, “What’s your message?” In order to be successful, you need to come up with an angle or it won’t succeed.
You also need to be comfortable wearing all the hats. There are some people who don’t want to deal with numbers or marketing and only want to deal with the artistic side, and that’s great but when you start your own business you need to wear all the hats unless money is no object for you.
Google the sh*t out of stuff, because there’s so much available online! You need to realize you’re not going to be there forever, but that’s where you’ll be in the launch phase, and at phase two you can hire out your weaknesses. You get to a point where if you’re creative, that’s all you need to be.
Selling yourself is super hard and uncomfortable, and it hurts because when you hear “no,” you take it personally. If you’ve never done direct sales or heard no before selling someone else’s junk, it’s going to hurt a lot. The hustlers and those that are the most resourceful are the ones that survive. They overcome the no, don’t take no for an answer and are creative.
R.K.: At WELL, we believe wellness comes in all forms. What does wellness look like for you?
J.C.: After my year of yes and then my year of no, I have much more of an appreciation for my mental health. This means blocking out time for downtime, as it puts me in a much better space.
Me time is important, like reading a book. I enjoy it and it’s a choice. Take the time to invest in you, unplug, breathe and take the damn bubble bath!
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