Danish Country Antiques – Small Biz Stories, Episode 6

Jim Kilroy, owner of Danish Country Antiques, knows what it takes to be a small business owner. Listen as he shares how he’s stayed motivated for over 30 years, his best advice, and what it really means to think like an owner.

Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.

You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

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You can also read the transcript below:

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Jim: There was no hard part. You just did it. You had to do it. There was no choice. I wasn’t going to go apply for a job. I just had to do it. And I had to succeed one way or the other. My wife was pregnant. You know what I mean? I had no money. I had to succeed. It was as simple as that. And I did. I was lucky.

Dave: Jim Kilroy, owner of Danish Country Antiques, is the sixth business owner we’ve interviewed for Small Biz Stories. Since starting the project three months ago, we’ve talked to people like Andy and Jackie, who sold their home to start their own artisan bakery. Then there was Peter, a man who loves cheese enough to roll a 400 pound wheel of it down a red carpet during his annual cheese parade. We heard from Marie, who keeps her business going by displaying her talent both online and off. And most recently, Jason and Chris shared how their efforts contribute to community development and make a lasting impact.

With each story comes a new adventure, shaped by the owners and their unique points of view. But look closer and you’ll start to see some unmistakable commonalities. These are people who hit the ground running on day one, and have followed through ever since. Their motivation comes from a strong desire to call the shots, as well as an unwavering belief in the value of what they do.

Like a handcrafted Danish cabinet from the 1760s, these traits can’t be forged or copied. When you see the real deal, you just know it.

Today Jim shares how he has stayed motivated for over 30 years, his biggest business regret, and what it really means to think like an owner.

More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.

Dave: Starting a small business, it doesn’t take long to realize what you’re up against. Listening to Jim talk about the early days of his business, you’ll hear his determination, as well as the importance of having a support system to make it through some early challenges.

Jim: I was going to do an antique store one way or the other.

Dave: What year was that when you started the shop?

Jim: That was in ’84.

Dave: ’84?

Jim: Yeah. It was actually ’83 when I planned it, but it was ’84 when I opened it.

Dave: Did you get any push back from folks who were like . . . ?

Jim: No. No. No. No. No. Everybody was thrilled actually and then when I came back and found this location, everybody pitched in. It was a family affair. We painted the ceiling blue and my friends we did the basement. We tore out a wall. We did all this stuff. It was really, well, I see it happening around here, too, with small shops. People come in on a Saturday and Sunday and they blow through it. It took us a bit longer. This place was a real dump, but we got it all together within a month and then the container. I had already bought the furniture and we unloaded the first container in a snowstorm right out front. Four of us.

Dave: Snowing?

Jim: Yeah. It was snowing. Wind coming that direction was blowing in the back of the container. It was classic.

Dave: New England.

Jim: Yeah, I know. But on the other hand everybody was kind of interested. What’s going on? You know? And I was a lot younger in ’84 and it was really new merchandise for Boston. I was very lucky. This was before Pottery Barn. This was before you guys saw the blonde wood that you see there or you see there or you see behind you. I was really, I can’t say the first, but I was damn close to the first and then I was really big on it. Talking about inventory. So that’s how I got started.

Dave: The pieces that Jim chooses to fill his shop are what make his store unique. Jim still travels to Scandinavia a couple times each year to hand pick each piece of inventory. Walking through his shop, you’ll notice lanky Swedish clocks, matching Mid Century chairs, and gleaming Chinese lacquered tables.

Jim: I was never a guy . . . I didn’t want to expand to the typical Georgian mahogany and the English this and the French that and the Italian this. I wanted to always do something a little bit on the edge and the pine, I know people find it hard to believe, but it was on the edge at the beginning and it was very successful.

So I didn’t have to worry about the first five years of being a success. It was more how to keep the momentum going, how to do it right, how to always keep the quality. And one thing about this business, one of the best things, is you learn every day. There’s no such thing as knowing it all. Never, ever, ever. I mean, I don’t know a thing about silver. People come in and ask me, do you know? No. I don’t know a thing. I know what I know. And you can learn something new about that every day, too.

Dave: Yeah. What is it about one being a small business owner and this business that excites you the most?

Jim: Well, excite, after 30 years I don’t know if excites is really the right word but keep me going I’d say is that every day is a new day and you have to make it that way, because no one else is going to do it. I mean, no one’s going to tell you to do it. But it really is and because you do come in and you do learn something and sometimes you learn something from reading. Sometimes you learn from people coming in and talking to them. We just start talking but you do get a chance to talk to people and 95% of the people are really nice. I wish it were 100 but it’s not.

Dave: Yeah.

Jim: So that’s where, excitement, I’d say the motivation to come in and if I had extra time, what was I doing? Cleaning the windows. I don’t really want to clean the windows and climb on the bars, but guess what? They had to get cleaned.

Jim: And so that’s what you do.

Dave: Would you ever go back to working for somebody else?

Jim: I don’t think anybody would hire me. Are you kidding me? What am I going to do? No. Well, I wish you wouldn’t say that. No. I run into people young and old who I say act like owners and they don’t just stand there and say, “Okay. What do I do next?” They are already thinking ahead. They’re already saying, okay, if you’re the boss what do you need? I’m going to try to make it so that I’m almost giving it to you before you need it. And that’s thinking like an owner. So I’m trying to think, like now, on inventory, on my buying trips, I’m thinking what do people want? Now I don’t really know what people want. I just, it’s from listening to them, it’s from looking at the magazines. From reading this or just getting a feel for things. And we did the Chinese before anybody else. Well, there was one other store that was a month ahead of me and she unfortunately went out of business because she was very nice. But it’s always thinking ahead. It’s always, you can’t get deeply into a routine or you have to be in some kind of routine but you have to also think outside the box.

Dave: Like many business owners, one of the things Jim spends a lot of time thinking about is how to reach his customers. I asked him why his customer base chooses Danish Country Antiques over his competition.

Jim: Well, at the beginning it was really fresh, interesting merchandise and then if they compared me back then I think it was the quality and I like to think it was customer service if I want to use an abused word. And today it’s the same. I mean, I think I try to have a nice mix. It’s much more of a mix now. But it’s all a certain, it’s all point of view. It’s all the way I buy. If you came with me on a buying trip and you had to buy something, you’d be like, “Shoot I don’t know what I want to buy. Do I buy this one or that one?” But you’d have to trust what you like. And so that’s what I’ve always done. From the beginning, I trusted what I liked. It’s just the way it is.

I think really the way at this point it’s a question of keeping the merchandise interesting, because old clients or new clients you have to stay up to date. What are we sitting around in? Gorgeous rosewood table from 1960. Mid century chairs, they’re so comfy. You know? They’re great. Ten years ago I wasn’t doing it at all. I probably should have started eight years ago, because I knew dealers in Denmark that were starting it, but I didn’t, because I was a little slow on that. So you have to, but you have to then be ready to open up. When it’s time to rock and roll you have to rock and roll. So now I do the mid-century in a very big way. I don’t have much right now, because we’ve sold most of it. But that’s what, when I go buying I will be doing that and getting the older things, but the real old things. The things that now, well, they just they still tell a story, but they’re real. They’re real stories. This isn’t creative writing stories. You just look at the pieces and they’re great.

Dave: Being open to change has been crucial to Jim’s success. In the early years of his business, Jim remembers investing time and money to advertise in the Boston Globe. In the last decade, his strategy has changed to reach an online audience as well.

Jim: We’re really a fringe edge of the furniture business or collectibles business. Now I was always on the furniture end of that corner and I think the big difference with me is that I advertised more than anybody else at the beginning. But I was very lucky, because when I first started, again, it was very new product for Boston. We did it in a relatively big way.

The hardest thing now is exactly why you guys are here, because it is reaching people. It is much more difficult to reach people than it was ten years ago. It was effortless to do it compared to today,30 years ago. As I said, you had one vehicle. All you had to do was spend the money and I did. So reaching people and people have more choice today. And so there’s lots of more challenges nowadays, I think.

Dave: Yeah.

Jim: I think I had it easy to be honest with you.

Dave: Jim is quick to admit when he is out of his element. Knowing that online marketing would be the best way to open up new opportunities for his business, Jim started working with his son-in-law, Eric, to find new ways to connect with customers online. Here’s Eric talking about the store’s new approach:

Eric: So our digital strategy is really simple. It’s just two parts. The first is awareness. So getting our name out there, again, to the right people and the second is conversion online. Right? So for a really long time all of our sales was just in store. And recently, the past couple of years, we’ve started converting some business online as well. So that’s a real focus point for us. So making sure that we stay connected to people in a way that they know they can access our full inventory online, so they can even buy stuff on the site right now. We list on some other high end antique furniture marketplaces, we’re sending them there sometimes, too. And it’s really, it’s a mix of trying to get our name out there as much as possible but then also keep people involved so the retention aspect of it, too, which is where email plays such a huge part for us. It’s really email and social, but definitely in that order. Like, our email list, putting out quality content that we think people are really going to be interested in. So not spamming people but really coming from the consumer point of view of what do these people care about? It’s not just sales. It’s about, like, new shipments when we get new pieces in and we’re doing this right now.

Jim: It’s not twice a day.

Eric: It’s not twice a day. About once a week. But we’re doing a piece right now on his sister who spends so much time it’s amazing to hear.

Dave: Unlike print ads, channels like email marketing and social media give Jim and Eric the space to tell their story to attract new customers and drive repeat business. It’s the stories of these unique products and people that draw others in through these channels.

Eric: But that’s what the big mass retailers don’t have. Right. Because literally the furniture does not have a history.

Dave: No. It’s . . .

Eric: So I’m a big believer, any business, but especially a small business, you really need to double down on what your strength is.

Dave: Yeah.

Eric: And forget what your weaknesses are. We don’t have a big marketing budget. We’re not going to be able to, like, send out a mail or a catalog to everybody, but what we do have is beautiful furniture that each piece has its own unique history. So doubling down on that, telling those stories through content, through email, that’s what I think one of our biggest strengths is. That’s what we’re really trying to focus on.

It’s really that simple. It’s awareness built on quality content that people are going to find valuable delivered through email, social, and then also doing a lot of we reach out to blogs and do guest blog posts and interviews, trying to get Jim out there and his expertise a little bit more. And then on the backend trying to see what kind of business we can actually build online while recognizing that we’re still a brick and mortar business and we need the foot traffic and this is where people . . . People need to touch furniture and see it.

Dave: Yeah. You mentioned you send them out once a week?

Eric: Yeah.

Dave: So what types of things go in those newsletters?

Eric: So we do promote sales, again, when we think it’s going to be something that people will find valuable. If you notice we actually just started a campaign to give people 10% off if they sign up for the newsletter, off the purchase of any list priced piece of furniture. So that’s been doing really well for us. And then I’m really interested and I think that people will be really interested in hearing more about the history and the behind . . . he doesn’t believe me, but I think people will be. The history and the behind the scenes, just like hearing him and his sister and people who have been in the business for so long talk about how they got started, why they keep doing it, their point of view on it.

Dave: Yeah.

Eric: Again, it’s just about quality content.

Dave: Together, Jim and Eric combine their talents and work hard to keep the business looking good both online and in-store.

Eric: Yeah. But I think it really is a blend of those mentalities. Right? Having the book smarts and the money smarts and the business smarts to know what needs to get done. But then also, like, rolling up your sleeves and doing … washing the windows when you have five minutes before you do a podcast interview. So whatever it takes. And I think there’s a lot of people, especially in my generation who call themselves entrepreneurs, especially on a tax base where I’m more involved, who aren’t willing to work that hard and work seven days a week for 30 years. And so that mentality has been interesting and to be honest, a little bit inspiring to learn from.

Dave: Talking to Jim, it’s easy to see the dedication he had in the early days of his business hasn’t gone anywhere. While he never claims to have all the answers, he has confidence in his ability to make good decisions and keep moving forward.

Jim: It was just really hit the ground running and I didn’t have a business education and I think it came back to haunt me later on, because I did try to expand certain ways in different locations, but I was also very conservative when it came to money. So I would never borrow, for example, and get myself into debt. And that also limits you. When you look at Sam Adams opened up the same year I opened up and he’s a billionaire. It would be, it’s a different product, it’s a different this. Again, this is a very, very sweet business but it’s not one, you’re not going to retire early. You’re going to keep working hard and I’ll keep working hard moving furniture.

Dave: Yeah.

Jim: You can’t stick around with me long, because everybody helps me move furniture. At one time or another, everyone’s picking something up. Yeah. Exactly.

Dave: So then, how do you measure success? What does success look like to you?

Jim: Success after 30 years it is that I have my original wife and I have three wonderful children. That’s what success is. And I’m healthy and fit and I still have a good time. That’s what it is.

Dave: So you’ve talked a bit about it but was there ever a time where you were just, like, “I don’t know if this is going to work.”?

Jim: Oh yeah. Of course. There’s always. Oh yeah. Of course. I think the worst time was this last recession, because talk about expanding products and location, I’ve always needed a warehouse. Almost from the very beginning, you can’t unload containers on Charles Street anymore and I opened up a store in Natick and that was just a mistake. It was too big. It was not the right atmosphere. And it was the worst recession since the Great Depression. So that was a bit scary.

Dave: What’s something that keeps you going through those moments, those periods?

Jim: Same thing that got me started. I didn’t have any choice. You just keep going. Going bankrupt and things like that, that’s not, I know people do it. I’m not clever enough. You know what I mean?

Dave: Looking back on the interviews from this season, I’m realizing that nothing is guaranteed. Even as an owner there will be plenty of elements out of your control. So why do people do it? Listening to Jim, I think you’ll hear a strong understanding of the balance between risk and reward. While there have been plenty of sacrifices along the way, it’s clear Jim’s decision to start his own business is one he’d never go back on.

I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice from Jim.

Dave: What’s the one piece of advice that you would offer to someone just starting off in business?

Jim: Go for it. What do you got to lose? That’s the question. What do you got to lose? When you’re young. I mean, really? You just have to, what do you have to lose? You’re going to have a gap year on your resume? Do you know what I mean? I already had that, so I really had nothing to lose. And so you go for it and then you be prepared for work, for every bit of it. But it’s fun. Eric’s having fun and he’s working like hell but he likes it. I’m still having fun.

Dave: We appreciate you listening and would love to hear what you think of the show. Your feedback is important to us, so please go to iTunes or Stitcher right now and leave us a review.

Small Biz Stories is produced by myself, Dave Charest Shaun Cronin and Miranda Paquet. You can contact us at podcast@constantcontact.com

Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

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