When Ken’s parents immigrated to New York from South Korea and opened their store in 1971, they staked their entrepreneurial spirit on a block of Midtown dominated by fellow immigrant-owned businesses.
Like many immigrant business owners, Ken’s parents worried about establishing their legitimacy in a frenetic new world. On the store awning, the business name was appended by “Co., Inc,” a legal moniker presumably used to establish the government-backed legitimacy of the business.
When Ken inherited the business from his parents in 2012 and started moving their business online, he felt a similar strain of impostor syndrome. Here was this diminutive retail store vying for attention in the same arena as Amazon, Macy’s, and Michael’s. None of the product even had SKUs for god’s sake. If a customer from Amazon somehow clicked their way onto the Beadkraft website and discovered that the entire operation was run by a team of three in a dusty attic on a forlorn stretch of Midtown, surely they’d laugh and take their business elsewhere. If Beadkraft was going to compete in the eCommerce game, they’d need to put on their best poker face and hide the fact that they didn’t even seal packages with a tape gun.
Or so it seemed. As the years went by, the neighborhood began to change. The African Hair boutiques were replaced by haute-couture franchises like Paris Baguette and By Chloe. The drug dealers were gradually replaced by airpod-clad professionals in a hurry to beat the farm-to-table lunch rush. Ground broke on a new Virgin hotel across the street from BeadKraft, and the Nathan’s Hot Dog vendor on the corner stopped wearing his baseball cap. The neighborhood gradually began to resemble a contemporary strain of global commerce, with the same variety of franchises as Concourse C of Heathrow or Hennessy Road in Hong Kong.
Street level New York was becoming a tourist’s city. With most of its residents shopping online, socializing at neighborhood bars and immersing themselves in software or finance jobs, the city’s street-level businesses were becoming comfort stations, using the predictable franchises of modern commerce to allay a visitor’s anxiety in the frenetic city. Tourists could experience the eccentricity of New York through the city’s energy while enjoying the predictable experiences of any first-world airport concourse.
As quickly as the neighborhood was changing, many things remained the same. The Nuts4Nuts vendor still hawked a 2-for-$5 roast peanut special while twirling his fingers through a gangly bead streaked in hot-orange highlights. The Halal Carts remained a mainstay, and their porters screamed “Allah!” at the owners when it was time to haul the carts back to the depot at day’s end. Fight attendants from exotic airlines poured out of the Martinique Hotel and into airport vans, and Korean teenagers on 32rd street fed rice cakes to each other.
It was against this backdrop that Ken and I had our epiphany. There was something profoundly moving about the diminutive little bead store on 30th street. Oddly enough, this authenticity was a timeless ingredient of business success, and one which every upstart brand was trying desperately to replicate. In fact, every incumbent eCommerce shop was trying to induce loyalty to their brands by opening retail extensions of their digital storefronts. It was this ingredient, a resonant spice of branding the flavor of a mother’s cooking, that BeadKraft already had in abundance. Our challenge was not to compete as an undifferentiated online bead store, but to utilize the retail store as leverage against the incumbent eCommerce stores who lacked this deep connection to their customers altogether.
We had to convey our brand; the shy smile Roni the saleswoman made when a new customer walked in, the triple-taped boxes Hugo prepared in the basement, the dusty photo of Won Soo Byun that sat next to the fax machine in Ken’s office. In doing so, we’d show our online shoppers why we were different from the Amazons, the Michael’s, the Macy’s. We’d convey our authenticity by interviewing customers inside the store and turning these interviews into emails which we’d send to our entire email list, every single day.
Today, we kick off the first email in our series of customer stories. We plan to continue telling our customers stories indefinitely, until there are no more stories to tell, or until our rent increases and the store is transformed into a franchise French bakery. Until that day, you’re encouraged to follow along in our email series by viewing the archives on our website, or subscribing to the listserv.
I’ve spent the past two years learning about the technical nuances of eCommerce, but I didn’t realize that the most important virtue in business was something I fundamentally knew all along: be as authentic as possible and empower your customers to live their best lives. Your customer stories will become your own, and you will flourish together.