Starting your own small business? Then you’ll need to learn how to create a strong vision for your business, according to Kai Avent-DeLeon, the founder of Sincerely, Tommy, a Brooklyn-based concept store focused on emerging womenswear, lifestyle, and community—complete with an in-house coffee bar.
What started as a simple concept for a retail location has blossomed into a retail store and café with a second location that’s a boutique hostel above her plant-based eatery. On the horizon is another business: a soon-to-open retreat wellness space.
Kai was 16 when she took her first retail job as an intern and eventually left as a buyer. Though she left on good terms, she decided she could no longer work for someone else anymore—it was tugging at her to create something of her own.
But, she had no experience in business. She studied fashion merchandising in New York. Kai knew she wanted to open up her own space, so while she was still working her retail job, she spent all her free time at the New York Public Library reading books on business writing for dummies, found herself a mentor, and put together a business plan.
Kai Avent-DeLeon’s Tips on Starting a Small Business
Tip #1: Believe and manifest your vision
When it comes to starting and running a business, trusting yourself and truly manifesting your vision are the number one thing. Tune in to Kai’s episode of Girlboss Radio to hear more details about creating a vision for your business! Listen now on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Starting a Small Business Tip #2: Get a contractor you can trust to develop your physical space
Kai’s contractor allowed her to create and do exactly what she wanted with the space her grandmother gave her a business loan to create—together with her contractor they turned an abandoned building into a work of art.
Sincerely, Tommy was one of a few businesses that were fairly new to the Tompkins neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It was at the beginning of gentrification and things were a little tense and people were like what are these new businesses opening? Do we feel comfortable going in there?
“I had to project the notion that, ‘I’m from this neighborhood, I was born and raised here, my family was born and raised here, and I want this space to be somewhere that young creatives feel comfortable coming in, asking questions, and contributing their work and their art.’ And I think you feel that when you walk through the doors.”
Starting a Small Business Tip #3: Start with selling products on consignment
Here’s what you need to know about purchasing inventory for a retail store: One of the hardest things about running a small retail business is making sure you have cash flow. You’re not quite sure when it’s going to pay out and at the same time, you’re trying to build your audience and business. So, having the flexibility of not buying a lot of inventory outright when you’re just starting is so helpful.
“Knowing that I could carry a lot of brands on consignment helped me save a lot of the budget. I also created my contract where it was like let’s test this out for three months and If it works out, I’ll just start buying outright wholesale,” says Kai.
In case you’re not familiar with the concept, consignment is when a brand decides to give you their product without an upfront cost or payment. As the item sells, you pay them their wholesale costs. It’s a really good way to test your market, especially if you’re a new business and you’re not sure if something will sell.
“That was something that intimidated me early on,” says Kai. “I was worried about being stuck with extra stock, so consignment comes in handy because you have the flexibility to try one in each size. If it doesn’t sell you don’t owe money, and if it does sell you have the cash in hand to be able to pay the designer.”
Starting a Small Business Tip #4: Hire people for your small business who share your vision
When it comes to tips on hiring for your small business, it’s all about finding people who share your vision. Look for people who put together a well-thought-out resume and cover letter that shows they’re truly invested in your company (and no, that doesn’t mean simply DM-ing an Instagram profile).
“For the first five years staffing was the biggest hurdle,” admits Kai. “Trying to find reliable, responsible team members is tough.” She says that finding someone who shares a similar vision for their own life is key. “Find them and have them share why they think they’d be an asset to your business—those are questions I always ask in an interview.”
Kai says she will always remember the last intern she hired, who turned out to be incredible. “She was very adamant that she wanted to do an interview, and had this sense of ownership,” says Kai. “I think I had to reschedule the interview because of my son’s school schedule. And she emailed me back and said ‘I understand you’re busy, I would have appreciated more notice.’ I think some people would have seen that and been like, excuse me? But I was like, no, she’s right because I have to respect her schedule too.” That bold, self-assurance let to Kai hiring her, and she was an incredible employee.
“I look for people who take themselves seriously too because if you have that energy about yourself, then you’re going to apply that into this business as well,” she added. “I like leaders who take initiative. This as a small business, we don’t necessarily have the same resources as a bigger company, so every little bit counts. That’s something that I look for in cover letters, in interviews, in personality, and energy.”
One of her main questions is usually, ‘What do you know about this business?’
“Through hiring, I’ve realized that if you’re unfamiliar with Sincerely, Tommy, as a brand, you most likely have no interest in helping us grow. So if someone has researched either me, the story, or Sincerely, Tommy, that’s a good starting point,” she adds.
Another important piece is looking the part. “I’m still a traditionalist when it comes to interviews—I look for resumes, I expect you to come dressed or presented a certain way because you’re telling someone who you are through this first meeting.”
Tip #5: Hire people who you trust enough to allow you to let go of control—even just a little
Kai says that for her to take a step back from controlling each aspect of her business, she needs to find people that both take her seriously and make her feel like it’s a mutual relationship—a give and take. “I realized that instead of approaching it as you’re coming to work for me, it more like you’re part of my team we’re team members altogether,” she says.
You have to learn to trust people to take things on, people who are experts at what you do and who you can learn from and lead the way with the business.
Also, hire people who take you seriously. “I was young when I opened this business—I still am young—but when you’re hiring people that are the same age as you, establishing a healthy rapport where they take you seriously, but also trust that you know what you’re doing, even if you’re new at it too, was just something that I was constantly learning. After seven years I can say that I finally have a team of people that have been with me for years that I trust and love,” she says.
The team that she has is all people who were very familiar with her brand, but have also implemented their personalities and creative abilities into the space. “I have a photographer, a fashion designer and they all have their own successful brands on the side but see this space is just being very conducive to how they’re working and their lifestyle.”
“It takes a lot of work because you’re also finding your own rhythm and you’re learning to let go of certain responsibilities that you probably never imagined handing over to someone else.”
Start Your Own Small Business Tip #6: Find a balance between family life, and work life
As most parents know, when you become a mother your priority becomes your child or children, even when you’re running your own business. When Kai became a mother, she started to pivot. “I felt like I needed to create a more sustainable lifestyle and that’s something that I’m still figuring out because now we’re dealing with this pandemic that has changed everything,” says Kai. “I’m now approaching things like what do I see as having a long-lasting sustainable life?”
Tip #7 for Small Business Owners: Prioritize self-care
Kai says that her father was very intentional about making sure she always practiced self-care and was very independent because he knew that those were like real-life skills that mattered above all else. “Self-care is one of the most important things about being a business owner because it is such an ever-changing and unpredictable career path to take. Knowing and listening to your body through this path is extremely important .”
She says that carving out time for herself is key to regrounding herself. And how she does that is by meditating, journaling, and escaping the hustle of the city. “I am very intentional about how I spend my time. I am lucky enough that Sincerely, Tommy has been in business for seven years. For the first four years, I was there every day. The first two years I was working in the store every day on top of working a part-time job because I wasn’t making money off the new business,” she says.
Slowly but surely she created a routine that worked for her. “Soon, I wasn’t coming home, feeling drained and out of it. Carving out time that is just for me is extremely important,” says Kai. “I have my weekends; my son is with his dad so I’ll journal and I’ll meditate. I’m an earth sign so I like to be in nature, taking those moments to reset outside of a city like New York is super important. And if for whatever reason, someone maybe doesn’t have access to leaving when they want to I think just meditating is so beneficial. Silencing your mind is not overrated.”