This week on our podcast Brick & Order, we talked to Kelli and Jessi Newsome, co-founders of two sister shops based out of Oklahoma City.
Long-time allergy sufferers, the couple set out to create an eco-friendly, clean-burning candle company in 2016. Today, their first brand, OKcollective, is based out of a hybrid studio and shop space in the vibrant retail community of Automobile Alley in downtown Oklahoma City. Just across the street, the pair recently opened up Common Dear, a cheerful feminist and self-empowerment gift shop.
Kelli and Jessi share their story of starting a company together and discussed the unique challenges of running both a wholesale and retail business. They also share how communities can support LGBTQ+ businesses in the absence of typical Pride celebrations next month.
Here, we’re sharing an abridged version of our chat with Kelli and Jessi. To listen to the whole interview, head to over to the fourth episode of our podcast Brick & Order.
Experiment and try things that you maybe hadn’t done before. If you’re staying true to yourself and your values, you don’t have anything to lose.
Q: Did you all always plan to start a business together?
Jessi: We both knew we were creative people. Then, for our wedding, we did everything ourselves. We made all the decorations and did a lot of the planning ourselves. That just sparked an idea of maybe we can do something like this, as a business.
Kelli: We were like, “Oh, we really like making things together!” And then we kept thinking of how we wanted to spend even more time together and what our life would look like if we were in business together.
Q: How did you decide to start producing candles?
Kelli: My degree is in fashion design so I kept telling Jessi that I really wanted to get back into sewing and maybe that could be our business.
I started sewing baby shoes and pillows and Jessi was actually rehabbing furniture. And then Jessi one day said, “Hey, I want to make candles”. And I said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Everybody makes candles. I don’t think that’s really what we should do.”
We decided that she would make candles and we would go to our very first pop-up event and see how they sold. Well, we sold a lot of candles and we sold one of all the bazillion things I had sewn, and it hit us that people really wanted hand-made soy candles.
And Jessi loved making them. That’s why we look at each other and laugh, because I originally said it was a really bad idea and now, our candle business has turned into our bread & butter. [laughs] She stopped rubbing it in my face a couple of years ago.
Q: We know that being an openly LGBTQ+-owned business is important to you both. How do you infuse that mission into your brand and products?
Kelli: I think we’re in a unique position in that we’re a brand. We’re also a retail shop. So we have these avenues where we can be more than products. We’re also a voice, so we are really welcoming in both of our retail spaces. I’ll openly say, if someone asks, “Who makes your candles?” I say, “my wife does.” Or someone will say something like, “Oh, how’d you come up with these names? Your packaging looks really good. Who does this?” And Jessi will say, “my wife does.”
We openly talk about each other and, in doing that, we’ve had people come out to us in our store and tell us their stories because they felt welcome and comfortable doing that.
I think just being our true selves and not apologetic for it in any way, or hiding anything in any way, helps others feel really welcome and open too.
Q: How do you think small businesses can support the LGBTQ+ community since we’re not able to gather for Pride celebrations?
Jessi: Sharing each other.
Kelli: Promoting each other, promoting your communities, and continuing to share those stories all year long, not just during pride, is really important.
Q: Tell us about your second concept, Common Dear?
Jessi: It’s been open since November. OKcollective is our candle brand, so it’s always been like a really clean, modern brand and we’ve always wanted to showcase our other personality- our funnier, sassier, more colorful, like vibrant side.
So we thought, why not create a second brand? And it just so happened that the space that we really love was becoming available, right across the street from OKcollective. It was the perfect opportunity to create this new brand that can be really fun and vibrant and colorful and expressive. It’s called Common Dear. And we call it the sister shop to OKcollective.
Kelli: So we are calling Common Dear a cheerful, feminist, self-empowerment gift shop. It’s really an experience shop; people come in and hang out on the couch for a long time and talk for a long time, and it’s all about making people’s day.
Jessi: It has a very homey feel, very colorful. It’s very happy and very bright.
Q: When did you first see the first signs of the slow down as a result of COVID-19?
Jessi: I think it happened actually pretty quickly for us here in Oklahoma City. We were open the weekend of March the 15th, and it kind of started then. We said, okay,we’re going to be closed indefinitely and then we started to really push online and zero contact curbside. It feels like it happened all pretty quickly.
OKcollective has been online this entire time. Common Dear was online and, thanks to Faire and the integrations that we had, we were able to put new products in the store and online, in the same day. So that enabled us to go online quickly. We went from a couple of sales online in a month to a hundred percent online within days. We had systems in place so that we could continue with our doors shut, but it still takes a lot of work.
Q: Share a few tactics you all have been using to serve your community online and offline.
Kelli: Social distancing is really important to us regardless of any rules or anything that’s going on. We want to make sure that we’re keeping everyone safe and ourselves safe so we’re doing curbside pickups.
A friend of ours, OK SEW Co., has been making masks. We started worrying: How is she funding this? How is she getting materials? Is she able to pay her bills?
She’s a really good friend and we realized she needed help. So we put together a fundraiser between both of our businesses where if you donated $25 to OK SEW Co., we would send an online gift card from whichever store of ours you ordered from.
I think everybody’s trying to think of how to help out now without risking their safety and health but still making an impact.
Q: What makes you excited and optimistic about local retail?
Kelli: People are seeing how dependent they were on small businesses, so I think the positive out of all of this is the support to the small business community.
Seeing the community rally around us and businesses that we know has been overwhelming.
Q: What is one piece of advice each or encouragement you’d like to give to fellow retailers?
Jessi: You started this for a reason, and I think it’s really easy right now to be a little discouraged, but continue to reach out to your community.
I think you can use this time to really grow and expand your business or think of new ideas. So I think my advice would be, just keep going.
Kelli: The advice I would add to that is have fun with experimenting. The worst that can happen is you don’t get a sale. And if you’re staying true to yourself and your values, you don’t have anything to lose. Make your own rules and figure out what works for you.
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