You may think quilting is just something your old Aunt Bettie does to keep herself occupied in her golden years, but you'd be sorely mistaken.

Quilting's adherents number in the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) and they reside across the globe--from Melbourne to Manchester. They're so ardent that as many as 10,000 of them even sojourn to Hamilton, Missouri--a small town with population of 1,809--each month. They come mostly to pay homage to a 57-year-old grandmother of 22 named Jenny Doan.

"Already this year we've had 50 busloads come to Hamilton," says Alan Doan, the co-founder of the Missouri Star Quilt Company and Jenny's son. "They come all this way just to hug Jenny."

These people aren't just tourists, however. They're super fans of the Missouri Star Quilt Company, a quilting fabric and supplies business that Doan, his sister Sarah Galbraith--along with Alan's best friend Dave Mifsud--launched as a side business for their mother. It was the height of the financial crisis in 2008 and their father was a machinist at a newspaper. Due to budget cuts, he began working overnight shifts to keep his job. "He started to turn gray. That's the color people turn when they don't see the sun," says Doan. That's when he and his sister began to think about what else their parents could do to make money.

Well, they thought: Mom does like to sew. That was the seed for Missouri Star Quilts Company, which today has 184 employees, pulls in annual revenues north of $20 million and publishes a bi-monthly magazine called Block. It also owns 21 buildings in Hamilton (six are quilting shops) and it's a part owner in three restaurants in the town, which Mifsud likes to call the Disneyland of quilting.

The business also just landed the Small Business Administration's top honor as its Small Business Person of the Year. The agency bestowed the award at its National Small Business Week ending ceremony, which took place in Washington, D.C. on Friday.

"We are the luckiest business people," says Doan. "We wake up every morning and just try our best."

So why is it people come from miles around just to hug Jenny? It all started back in 2009. While Jenny's quilt-finishing business was swift, the question of how to attract more customers with zero marketing dollars was perplexing. Mifsud and Doan thought: what about YouTube? Though it was a still nascent product--Doan points out that YouTube was then just about two or three years oldd--people were tuning in. So they tried it.

Armed with a home video camera, Doan started to film Jenny at work making her quilts. The tutorials started with tips on how to sew, attach batting and more. That slowly began to build into more complex designs and fabrics. Pretty soon, people were asking if they could make what Jenny was making--in the same colors and fabrics. The family started shipping textiles and tools to peoples' homes. That way they could follow along with Jenny. Orders began to stream in and by November the company had 220,000 YouTube subscribers. (It now has close to 250,000 subscribers with 50 million views.)

"Now YouTube is a place where anyone can go to learn things. We just really got in at the right time," says Doan.

Still, it hasn't always been easy. There's the time when Galbraith had to step in for Jenny on one of the company's first YouTube videos because Jenny fell and broke her leg. There was also the time when the company ran a special promotion on the website that prompted so many clicks and refreshes that the site shut down for a whole week.

"We sat in the shop and took customer service calls for a week," says Doan. Indeed, adds Mifsud, "We've had some really down moments when we thought the business wouldn't survive."

But Doan counters that you can't let these moments drag you down. "At the end of the day, we're quilting... You'll never find a nicer industry of customers to work for; they are the sweetest most caring, loving people. Our customers sent us 250 Christmas cards," he says. "They get so much satisfaction out of us helping them learn how to quilt, bringing that skill back into their lives. "

It sounds quaint, but given the company's reach so far, its future aspirations are anything but. "There's South America that needs to learn how to quilt; Asia needs to learn how to quilt," says Doan. "There are also vertical opportunities that complement quilting as well."

Published on: May 8, 2015