Dawn Noble is the owner of La Provence in Rockport, Massachusetts.

Since taking over the store 10 years ago, Dawn has learned what it takes to be a successful small business owner.

Listen as she shares the unexpected way she became a business owner, her biggest challenges and lessons, and her best advice for others looking to start their own business.

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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.

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. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.

Dawn: Just knowing that the harder I work, I was going to benefit. You can work like crazy for somebody else, but they’re not going to appreciate you, necessarily. And just knowing that all the hard work I was doing was going to come back to me. It was going to pay off.

Dawn Noble is the owner of La Provence in Rockport, Massachusetts. Like all the owners we’ve spoken to in the first season of Small Biz Stories, Dawn has a gift. From the moment you enter her store, you’re transported by the vibrant colors of French linens and bright bread baskets. The French-milled soaps fill the store with smells of Jasmine Ginger and Rosemary Mint. It’s the type of place you could spend hours exploring each and every detail.

Since taking over the store 10 years ago, Dawn has learned what it takes to be a successful small business owner.

Today, in our final interview of the season, Dawn shares the unexpected way she became a business owner, her biggest challenges and lessons, and her best advice for others looking to start their own business.

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: Becoming a business owner can take months, or even years, of careful planning. But for Dawn, the journey started unexpectedly.

Dawn: It was sort of happenstance — it was completely by accident. I was working at what was then called The Greenery Restaurant, and I was about to start graduate classes. I had finished college, and it was my favorite store in town, La Provence. I had tablecloths from there, I had soap, I had colognes. I loved the owners, they were great guys. And Bill, one of the previous owners, Bill Chisholm, came into the restaurant one day and he just said…they were trying to sell the business, one of the owners was really sick. It wasn’t an ideal situation for them, so they were looking basically for an exit strategy from the business. It had been there baby for 10 plus years, so it was really hard.

So he came in one day and he just…we were talking and he said, “You should buy La Provence.” And I was like, “Yeah. No. What?” I was like, “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. I know nothing.” I had an art background, a photography background, and I waitressed for 10 plus years. And so I went home and I mentioned it to my dad, who is an entrepreneur himself. And I said, “What you think, dad?” And he said, “Go for it.” And I was shocked because I just couldn’t believe my dad said, “Go for it.” So I thought about it and I’m like, “Yeah. I’m going to give it a try.” So I basically had a three month plan, literally a three month plan.

The guys were great, they helped me with my first big order to France. I basically sent all the money I had to a company in France that I wasn’t even sure existed. It was a totally leap of faith, and I just sent all my money over there and I hoped they sent me products, and they did, thankfully. And I’ve just been going ever since. That was 10 years ago. So it’s been awesome, it’s been amazing.

Dave: Making the switch from customer to business owner meant Dawn had to learn a lot in the first year. She remembers her biggest challenges.

Dawn: Well, money because I didn’t take out any loans. I was like, “I’m going to do this on my own.” My biggest learning experience was what sells? I don’t know anything about what’s going to sell. Jean François and Bill helped me with the first orders and any questions, they were great. I would call them with questions every single day basically, I would call him. But their style too, was so different, so I learned that in the beginning. They were steering me towards products that I didn’t necessarily have the same affinity for, so it took me like three or four years to really make the store my own, probably five years where everything in the store was more hand-picked by me. I learned what the customers were looking for, what their needs were, what they were going to basically want to buy and put in their homes.

Dave: Aside from money, what were some of the challenges that you were running into?

Dawn: Oh God, everything. What wasn’t a challenge? Knowing the inventory, knowing how much the order, my orders were all over the place. The orders I used to place, when I look back I just laugh because I would spend $500 with the soap company. Now I don’t place an order unless it’s 3,000. I just don’t. And before I’d be like, “Okay, I don’t need three cases, I’ll just get one case.” And now I’m like, “Okay, we’re in it. If we don’t have it we can’t sell it.” So that was just learning the inventory, learning what sells, learning when to order because you don’t order inventory one day and get it the next, sometimes it can be two to three weeks.

And if you miss two to three weeks in the summer, you miss a lot of money in Rockport, so you have to time out your orders, you have to be really ahead of that. So just knowing when, especially when to place the order to France because that takes a long time to come here. So knowing how to time that, definitely what to order, what your customers are looking for, and making time just to pay bills. When you’re working 70 hours a week in the beginning, when do you pay your electric bill? You got to come up with a schedule basically.

Dave: Getting to know her customers and staying organized helped Dawn gain confidence as a business owner. Dawn also maintains strong relationships with other business owners in her community. Together, they support each other and work to drive business during the slower winter season.

Dawn: It was great because I knew so many shop owners from coming in the restaurant. They all knew me and I knew of so many locals. And even tourists that come once a year, they knew me from the restaurant, so a lot of them followed me to the store, they loved to come check in, and they’ve grown with me over the past 10 years. They know my kids. They come in and ask about my family and my kids. And I do the same. I can’t imagine being isolated. I just can’t imagine the big city feel because it’s so…when we just walked up the coffee shop, I said hi to 10 people. Everybody knows each other. And yeah, it’s a great town. It’s awesome.

Dave: So seasonality, right? You mentioned that a bit, so tell us about what’s your ebb and flow like with the year.

Dawn: So Rockport is known as a seasonal town, unfortunately. I am open year-round. A lot of my fellow business owners through Dock Square and Main Street are open year-round, but we still have that stigma that we shut down, so it’s tough. We’ve tried to do different promotions, and to promote throughout the summer that yeah, we’re here. We’re here all winter long. But it is tough because we’re at the end of the line. You don’t accidentally pass through Rockport, you’ve got to be coming here, unless you’re really lost. So we’re trying to attract people in the off-season, and that’s been tough. But we do have a pretty long season. Once May hits, we get busy from May and then through the summer crowds, and then we have a great fall crowd, usually people coming to see the foliage, a lot of bus tours. And then the holidays are great here.

I think more people should come here for the holidays because it’s just beautiful here during…Christmas time’s my favorite time of year in Rockport. It’s amazing. But then yeah, January, February, and March, yeah, it’s tough to get people to come to Rockport, so we’re trying different things, me and a few other shop owners because this is our livelihood, it’s our job. Unless I’m going to get another job, which I don’t want to. We’ve really got to step it up and work together to attract people here.

Dave: As you might imagine, the holidays are a busy time for Dawn. I asked her how she inspires people to shop small and support local businesses during this busy season.

Dawn: December’s a huge month for us, especially where we’re very gift oriented. We have so many gifts for all prices. If you’re looking to buy a $20 gift, not only do I have plenty of gifts to sell you, there’s so many great stores in Rockport. It’s like an outdoor shopping plaza, it’s great. We’re all so different. You’re not going to see, pretty much you’re not going to see any of the same product lines in the stores. So you can find something for everybody. So yeah, it’s huge, the holidays for most business owners here.

Dave: Is there anything you do from a marketing perspective for the holidays differently or specifically?

Dawn: Well, I do different promotions for Black Friday, I registered for Shop Small Saturday, so a group of us get all the…we’ll get the bags and we’ll do different promotions for that day, we hand out the bags. And then the shopping night is huge for us, that first Friday. We do a lot for that night. And then every weekend I usually have an open house feel. I’ll have food and drinks out every weekend for people as a thank you for choosing to come to Rockport and shop local, instead of hitting the malls. So anything I can do to encourage people to shop in Rockport.

Dave: I was going to say, is there anything in particular that you do with your marketing, or whatever it is, to make sure you stand out versus other people?

Dawn: Well, my goal is to send out…during the holidays is when I send out the most emails. I tried to send out one a week. And usually what I list in my emails, it’s not just about me, but what’s happening in town because a lot happens around Christmas in Rockport. So I want to give people a reason to come here. Santa comes by boat, we have the tree lighting, the pageant. So I’ll share all of that information, and at the same time, I’ll share what’s happening at the store, gift ideas. One year I did 50 gifts under $50, and I had a whole slideshow I sent out. And that was great. People really responded to that. I’ll try to insert buttons into my emails, so people that are going to drive here, they can just shop right in the email, or they can link to the website.

So anything I can do to drive traffic to the website for people that aren’t in driving distance, is huge for us.

Dave: While boosting business around the holidays is important, Dawn knows she needs to drive sales during the slower months. A few years ago she started using email marketing to communicate with her customers and keep them updated throughout the year.

Dawn: Capturing their email is huge because a lot of times, people will be from California, Vermont, Florida, they’re visiting Rockport once a year at best sometimes. So if I can communicate with them throughout the year, that’s amazing. And if I can reach them through an email, that’s great. So once they sign my mailing list, they go on the mailing list, and we’ll send out one to two emails a month, depending on what the news is. We like to share when we have new products to engage them and just to stay on their mind, really. I need to be on their radar.

Dave: Very good. How did you get started with email marketing?

Dawn: No, it’s basically just stay updated. We try to do private sales with the mailing lists, so usually, we’ll send out private email about different events if we’re doing a private sale. The email list is always the first to know about it because those are my customers. I want to reward them.

Dave: Is there anything you offer in exchange for that email address? Or is it just a stay connected with this type of thing?

Dawn: My friend, Bill, actually the previous owner who is a fine art artist, located in Somerville, Mass, he actually pushed me towards Constant Contact because I was sending out these really horrible emails. Oh my God, in the beginning, I was just sending out really bad emails because you’ve got to learn. You don’t know. And they just looked horrible. Oh my God. And he was like, “You got to try this, you got to try Constant Contact.” I’m like, “Okay, I’ve heard of that. All right, all right. I’ll try that.” And just obviously all the tools in Constant Contact, my emails look a million times better, more professional. I look more professional, which is huge, yeah.

Dave: With 10 years of experience behind her, Dawn has made countless improvements over the years. From marketing tweaks to moving her shop across the street to a better location six year ago, she continues to put more and more of herself in the store.

What would you say is your biggest challenge or biggest challenges right now at this point of your business?

Dawn: Time. For me, it’s time with a young family. I want to be in the store more, even though running the store, 90% of it happens outside the store. I can’t be behind the counter and pay bills, and place orders. And I love being in the store, so for me, right now it’s finding a balance between having time to be in the store, but then having time to run the website, time to do the email marketing, time to do all the social media. So making sure I pay all my vendors, and ordering, it’s taking inventory. It’s a lot. And then I basically have two kids under five, it’s…yeah, they’re pretty needy. So yeah. And the store’s so needy. The store is my first baby, it’s needy. So yeah, and sometimes when I come here, I’m like, “This is so easy. This is my break, getting to go to work.” Yeah.

Dawn: Success for me is just about being able to run my business, have a happy family, have time for my family, and that’s basically, yeah. The sky is the limit with La Provence, but for me, it’s more a balance between business and my family. I have two young kids, and my husband just started his own business. So as much as I love to work, I want to be with my family, too. So right now I’m very lucky that I have the perfect mix of work and family, so I feel really blessed. And then when the kids are both in school down the road, I could see my focus of maybe be on opening another location or expanding the website, but yeah, definitely.

Dave: Meeting Dawn, it’s hard to imagine her at a time before she owned La Provence. The pride and fulfillment she feels from owning her own business has become part of her identity. As she said earlier, she knows her hard work will come back to her. I asked Dawn what keeps you going through those emotionally draining times.

Dawn: I think basically just in the back of my mind, “I’d have to get a job. I’d have to get a real job.” And I always think, “Who would hire me?” Sometimes when you’re an entrepreneur, you feel like you’re unhirable. Once you’ve taken the dive, you can’t go back. I was joking when a friend of mine owned a bakery and she was talking about closing. I’m like, “You realize you’ll have to get a job?” She’s like, “Oh, yeah.” I’m like, “You’ll have to have a boss,” and she was like, “Oh yeah, nevermind.” It was so funny, she was like, “Nevermind.” But yeah, and just knowing that you’re making a difference for your family, that keeps you going. And I have great customers, and I have great staff, and I’m in this awesome town. There’s worse things I could be doing. Yeah, for sure.

Dave: Listening to Dawn, I’m reminded of the importance of finding your unique gift and building on it each day. Dawn’s success comes from seeing fellow business owners, not as competitors, but as potential collaborators.

Dawn: My biggest lesson, do what you do and do it well. There’s 60 stores that have come and gone in the 10 years I’ve been in business. And some look at other people’s perceived success and they try to imitate it, and you can’t. Whatever you do, do it well. I can’t be worried about what someone else is selling and try to sell it. It’s a small town. I’ve got to stick with my lines, and stick with what I’m selling, and what my store’s about. What’s my presentation? What is my store? Who am I? I can’t be worried about the 60 other stores in town and what they’re doing because that’s a lot of pressure. Yeah.

Dave: Here’s Dawn’s best advice for someone thinking about starting a business of their own.

Dawn: You’ve got to follow your gut. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? You’re going to make a mistake? You’re going to definitely make mistakes, but as long as you follow your own path, it’s your mistake. I think as long as you keep to your vision and follow what you’re doing, you can’t go wrong. If you believe in what you’re doing, you’re going to do it well, and you’ve got to be willing to work. You’ve got to be willing to work when it snows, when it rains, when it’s sunny out. I think the biggest thing is you got to be willing to show up. If you don’t show up, somebody else is showing up somewhere else.

Dave: This episode concludes our interviews for season one of Small Biz Stories. When we started this project six months ago, we set out to share the stories of successful small business owners so others could learn from those who came before them. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening to the podcast as much as we’ve enjoyed producing it. Hard work, determination, drive to pursue their passion, and the desire to be their own boss show just how special small business owners are. We wish you continued success as you work toward beating the odds and achieving your small business dreams.

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 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. You can be a marketer, all it takes is Constant Contact. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.