One of the best parts of my job is traveling around the country visiting our West Elm stores and looking for places to open new ones. I get to see what's really happening in America versus what's happening on TV news, and I get to meet the innovative people who make up the local creative networks, building the maker movement community by community.
This movement inspired me to start an initiative at West Elm encouraging store managers to buy directly from local makers in their areas. Through this program, we discovered Convivial Cloth, a Los Angeles-based designer of beach towels that can be linked together into communal blankets. It was founded by best buds and California native sons Adam Bice and Noah Beller. As Malibu regulars who grew up on a daily schedule of surf, rinse, repeat, Adam and Noah wondered why there wasn't an easier way to carry and connect their towels. They were cumbersome to transport and, since they were never quite able to sync, awkward to throw down next to a friend's. So the founders filled the gap by designing lightweight, quick-to-dry, linkable toweling.
It may not seem like an earth-shattering innovation--but for committed beachcombers, Convivial Cloth has created a product that solves a regular inconvenience. Adam and Noah used their own life experiences to create an ingenious product, a "why didn't I think of that?" sort of thing, that is also a perfect expression of place--in this case, the iconic beaches of Southern California. That works. While their year-old business, which is based in Venice, California, is still getting off the ground, Adam and Noah have sold more than 800 products so far in 2015--quadrupling last year's sales.
You see Convivial Cloth emphasizing a sense of place on its website, which is its best billboard for nonlocal customers. The homepage doesn't waste real estate on much language, instead using video, music, and graphic design to evoke the founders' oceanfront roots. An instructional video on how to use the towels is also inspirational, drawing you into the "hang 10" lifestyle. And rows of Instagram images connect you to Convivial's customers, as if you were linking your blanket to theirs.
By highlighting their background as they sell their product, Convivial Cloth's founders have built a distinctive provenance into their brand, one that transcends physical location. Although the water I am closest to is the East River, when I take my Convivial Cloth towel to Brooklyn Bridge Park, some of Adam and Noah's Southern California vibes come with me.
If you're just starting out, it pays to follow Convivial's lead. In retail, for example, there's no way to compete with the big dogs on price or overnight delivery by drones. So do what the supercenters and supersites can't: turn your local roots, and reach, into a strength. Your story, and your unique connection to your community, is your best tool for defining yourself--and for building meaningful relationships with customers.
It's something to remember as you grow and scale. Being transparent about how and where your products are made, for example, will help you distinguish your business, especially from the overwhelming, anonymous, mass-produced products sold online with no backstory. If you manufacture locally, highlight the value of that link for potential customers. And if you are selling something that is made overseas, do so in a way that provides customers with a link--think stories instead of price points or data--to create both a compelling proposition and a more inspiring way to shop.
Somewhere, people are sitting around a boardroom table trying to figure out the next big thing. But when you follow Adam and Noah's Convivial Cloth path, connecting with customers becomes just another day at the beach.