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Building Competency as a Boss While Growing a Business

Season 1: Episode 80

081822 podcast uncommon-closet

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From the physical environment to interactions with employees, the Uncommon Closet experience is intentionally inclusive. Owner Korri Burton has created a tailoring shop that is welcoming to all. That element has been built in since day one and the shop grew quickly within just a few years. With that growth came challenges, but the emphasis on creating a positive and gender-affirming customer experience has remained throughout the business’s evolution.

From the Yelp Blog: Hear more from Korri about how she turned setbacks into a comeback, which included leaning into feedback that wasn’t easy to hear.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Every episode I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions. Let’s hear what’s behind this week’s review.

YVETTE: I went to Uncommon Closet back in 2019 to get my wedding gown altered. But I had already known about Uncommon Closet because in Chicago we had what was called a Red Eye. It was a newspaper. It was free, and it had all kinds of general information about businesses, things like that and things happening in Chicago.

So I happened to see an article about Uncommon Closet – this was back in 20, like 17. And so two years later I said, okay, I’m gonna go check them out. So that’s how I ended up finding out about them and then going to them.

EMILY: Isn’t it interesting how people can discover and remember a business? Maybe they don’t need them when they first hear about them, but then when they have a need, that business pops into their head.

When it comes to clothing alterations, weddings are a big deal. And well-fitting clothes that you feel great in can have a huge positive impact on your mood, so it’s important to find the right place to get your tailoring done, especially for a special day. Yelp reviewer Yvette C. was in that exact situation when she first walked into Uncommon Closet in Chicago. From her initial visit through the tailoring process, she continued to be impressed. Here’s her review:

YVETTE: Fantastic service, very professional. And update you along the tailoring process. I had a wedding dress that needed to be hemmed up and taken in. The team made the necessary changes to my dress, and we decided that I didn’t need one of the alterations originally suggested, so they didn’t charge me the original price because they didn’t need to do the work. I felt safe, comfortable, and the team really tried to understand and achieve my goal of making my wedding dress mine.

EMILY: This is an awesome review. It’s nice and concise but manages to include specifics about the experience and environment Uncommon Closet provides. Korri, who owns the shop, has consciously included those elements of safety and comfortability in their tailoring business since day one.

KORRI: I started this business because, my fiance, she’s a trans woman. So she’s six-two, six-three, and has broad shoulders. And so we were looking for dresses for her and, just like every day wear, like nothing special. And we just couldn’t find anything. There was nothing at the time that would, like, there was some stuff that would kind of fit, but mostly if she wanted to wear feminine clothing, it had to be sleeveless.

And it was just really disheartening. And at the time I was working at another tailor shop in Chicago and I was like, well, we can tailor stuff, but I didn’t feel super great about bringing her or bringing any of my chosen family and friends to the shop. Like it’s not that the shop was openly unwelcoming. But, you notice when somebody like side-eyes a client, because they’re a woman, wanting to wear a men’s suit. Like, it just didn’t, it wasn’t the greatest of environments. And so I was like, you know, in the most optimistic, queer, audacity way was like I’ve been working at a taylor shop for five months,  I went to grad school for costume technology. I’m gonna just quit my job and start a business.

And, unfortunately around that time my dad passed away. And so I had some disposable income from what I got from life insurance from him. And I was like, okay, we’re gonna take care of some life things with this money. And then we’re gonna use this towards opening a business. And I think he would be so proud with that, because he was a businessman. He would’ve been so impressed. And so I opened the shop in a little artist loft called Positive Space Studios. And the owners there were so wonderful to me.

EMILY: Korri’s shop first opened in an 11 by 17 room. And they didn’t even have the whole place to themself! She shared it with someone so that rent was cheap enough to manage. Luckily, the other person in the space was a fashion designer, so they agreed that building a huge cutting table and sharing the space was great for everyone. Slowly Korri took over the entire space, hired some staff members, and even moved into their current location which is about 4 times the size of the original space. Now they have a pretty sizable team and they’re relocating for a final time to a space that’s another 4 times as big. That’s a lot of change and expansion. Korri has been through a total journey from bootstrapping and really trying to make this small space work all the way up to moving into their dream shop. Starting out small can mean you have to be ready to pivot, and even physically move, as a business evolves. But with that quick growth can bring too much too soon. It may require even more changes as you dial in that balance of growth and reasonable workload.

KORRI: Everybody says, thinks that 2020 was the hard year for business. And sure. It was really hard. It was hard being closed for two months. It was really hard being away from my staff who truly deeply are family to me. But it was 2021 that was really the kicker for us. So things were slow in 2020.

And so then in 2021, when weddings started happening again and business started picking up, we were like, we need to take everybody. And because I started the business in 2017, 2019 was like the first year that it really felt like a business. And so, I didn’t really have much experience with running a tailor shop in normal workload capacity.

And so then we had 2020 where everything is really slow and we’re all, like, let’s make a ton of masks and let’s hope and pray. And then 2021 hits and it’s like, oh, we need to take every client. We can’t turn anybody down. Oh, dear God. Now we’re drowning. Like it was, it was really rough. I ended up losing some of my key employees, which was really hard.

I upset a lot of people and I will be honest about that. It was a really hard year. And on top of that, I had life things as well, and it was just, it all piled on. And I definitely was going through burnout and there was just a point where I was coming to work – usually coming to work, I’m like, okay. I know I’m having a rough morning, but like coming to work, I’m gonna feel really good because I love the people I’m with. And there were just days where I would dread it. And after my assistant manager at the time quit, I was like, oh, I really hacked up. And she made some suggestions in her resignation letter that I really took personally and to heart.

But it was like, okay, we are gonna get a business advisor. We are going to turn this ship around. And we got it together. I got a business advisor and we were planning out, like, what do we want? A, an assistant for Korri to look like? What do we need them to be able to do?

And really narrow down who we needed to hire – what type of people we wanted. I’ve been learning so much in the past six, seven months of how to hire the proper staff and not just like panic hire. And how to better communicate what I need and like, understand what my staff needs and really regulate the flow of work. I’ve gotten a lot better at that.

EMILY: To transform a business into its best possible version, sometimes you have to be confronted with difficult situations, like a really great employee resigning. That can be the impetus for change that a business needs to keep the rest of its great staff and even add valuable members to the team. And part of successfully overcoming those situations requires a business owner being humble – knowing where they lack experience, where they could use some support and where they need to improve.

KORRI: A little bit of my background is that I started in theater. So pretty much everything – my job experience is theater based. So like I’ve had a lot of summer jobs, I’ve been in school and I’ve done that, but the only real adult job I’ve had was my five months at that taylor shop. So I haven’t had a ton of experiences even with having like, I had bosses, but I’d never had your usual idea of a boss. It’s been like a designer or a shop manager. So I don’t really have people to look up to or like mentors. So I’ve been learning as I go about like, these types of people work really well with me and these types of people, it’s probably not gonna be the best fit. I’ve also been trying to work on properly training and making sure that we’re all on the same page. So I joke that I’m like the baby boss.

And until recently I was the youngest person in the shop. Which is a little difficult to deal with just emotionally. Like, I don’t know. It’s weird. Not weird. It’s hard being the youngest and being like, yes, I am in charge and I am experienced and I know what I’m doing.

My team is incredible in the fact that they are very understanding of like, okay, Korri, doesn’t quite understand. Let’s talk through this.

And like, we’ll figure this out and have been just so flexible. Willing to, not like teach me to be a boss, but to help guide me through all of this. And it’s very much like I’ve created a team atmosphere here. I’m very clear about, we don’t struggle alone and I’m very open of – when there is a hard boss type decision, I’ll go to my head tailor and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, what do I need to do? How do I word this properly? How do I do this? I’ve also been working with a business advisor, and that has been just fantastic. She has been wonderful to work with and has really turned my business around.

EMILY: Korri was learning on the fly and asking for help when they needed it. When you’re in a leadership role, it can be scary to admit that you don’t have all the answers. But showing that authentic, and sometimes vulnerable, side to your employees can also help shape a great team. Then you can create a working environment made up of individuals who have different strengths to balance out where you have weaknesses. It’s a form of investing in yourself and your business. Once you’ve developed a team made up of people who play to their own strengths but also act as a cohesive unit, the customer will take note.

YVETTE: Customer service is a big thing with me. Cause I have my own business, so I know what’s going on and I know that it shouldn’t be difficult to slap a smile on your face – even if it’s fake – to slap a smile on your face and make that customer feel like they’ve gotten a quality experience. But it’s all genuine at Uncommon Closet.

So a lot of it for me is the fact that like I said in about six months, I’m gonna be right back in there with, ‘Korri I’ve got some dresses, let’s go!’ And we have a rapport now where, you know, I’m like, come on, let’s go! This, this and this. This is all I need. And they can just do it. It’s not a problem.

But let’s say you’re brand new. You’re going in. And you’re going specifically for Uncommon Closet, if you’re going in there, they will address all of your needs. And the first thing. It’s really the moment you step in, you automatically can feel the warmth from the whole team.

Doesn’t matter who’s there, cuz there have been sometimes where there’s three people there. Sometimes there’s two people there. Sometimes there’s five people there, but all of them will always make you feel – you know, they’re gonna make sure I walk outta here and I look good. And there aren’t a lot of places I feel like even today, that they really are gonna give you that experience cuz you can’t go into a department store and expect to come out looking fabulous.

EMILY: Yvette discovered Uncommon Closet through the newspaper, but name recognition only gets a business so far. Especially when it comes to something as important as a tailor for a wedding dress. A business proclaiming that they will work with and respect every person who walks in the door can be a huge way to stand out to a consumer.

YVETTE: They’re definitely queer friendly. So to have something that’s not necessarily in Boystown in Andersonville. To me, they’re in a location that, you know, the people in the area probably really don’t care.

I could be wrong, but having that also, let me say there aren’t a lot of queer friendly tailors, alteration, places, things like that. So also when I saw that article, because in my business, I do massage therapy, full time. I have a lot of queer clients that come in, of all walks and I wanted to check Uncommon Closet because I also wanted to make sure do I have a new recommendation so that when my clients are telling me, oh man, I really wanna go to a place that’s not gonna judge me because I wanna get these, you know, skirts hemed or something. Now I have a place to send them. Now I know they can go to Korri and their team is gonna take care of them and make sure everything’s okay.

EMILY: We’ve seen a real shift in consumers consciously spending and really thinking about where their dollars go. It’s worthwhile to make it known that your business is an inclusive place that’s for everyone. And at Uncommon Closet, that extends to the store’s physical space.

KORRI: One of my employees mentioned to me, like now that we’re gearing up to move again – she actually helped me with the move the first time. Originally I had this idea that I wanted it to be mostly black and white and super classy with like hints of rainbow. And then as soon as we actually started moving in and it slowly went from the black and white bits of rainbow that my mom envisioned to, Oh, there’s rainbows everywhere and they’re not going away! So definitely we will be keeping – we will be doing up our big rainbow storefront. We are actually going to have a sign that’s super visible from the street. Right now it is a little hard to see from the street and make the connection, like, oh, this is the tailor shop.

But we’re gonna have a sign and it’s going to be just as obnoxious. I like being really upfront with who we are. I’ve found trying to be low key and under the radar is cute, but for as much as there is always that underlying fear of somebody is going to spray paint my windows, somebody is going to like try to do something to the shop, I would much bet rather be very loud and intentional, about being queer about this is a queer space. This is a safe space. That is very important to me because it shows my clients that they can be who they wanna be when they walk in the shop. It also shows people right off the bat like, if we’re not gonna get along, we ain’t gonna get along. And that’s okay. If you can’t understand that we’re a queer and open space, then you have other tailors you can go to. This space isn’t for you. And I’m not trying to make this space for you. And not to say that …  we tailor for literally everybody. You just can’t be rude. That’s what it is. This is who we are. We’re very open about it. I joke that our rainbow storefront is like the vibe detector check. Like if you’ve gotten this far, that you’re probably pretty okay.

EMILY: Providing a safe space goes a long way for customer experience. In the case of Uncommon Closet, this has led to an entire LGBTQ subset of their customer base, who feel comfortable in the store and enthusiastic about supporting the business for that reason.

But there are also Uncommon Closet customers who have less wide-ranging experience with the LGBTQ community. Maybe they personally don’t know anyone who uses they/them pronouns. Or maybe they’ve never met a trans woman, like Korri’s partner, before. In the cases of those customers, entering Uncommon Closet can become an educational opportunity.

KORRI: Yeah. So I am very much a teacher in that, I try to keep an open mind. I know that not everybody is out there to disrespect me. And not to say that anybody who doesn’t have the energy to teach about pronouns or about their gender is wrong, because that’s a whole lot of energy. But I will always try to teach. I will say that I’m not always the best at correcting people when they misgender me.

Just because there’s sometimes where I’m like, I don’t have the energy for this. Or there’s also sometimes it’s like, okay, I’m gonna see you maybe one other time. And I think I’m okay. But I do try to educate and if people ask, I’ll always talk to ’em about it.  It’s something that is really important when we do intakes for clients, everybody gets asked what their pronouns are. And sometimes I get a range of responses of like either just answering and being like, oh my gosh, thank you to, what are you talking about? What, what do you mean? Or sometimes I get like, I don’t know, I guess she / her? Or like, like they just don’t like women pronouns and I’m like, you know what? It’s okay. We’re normalizing this.

EMILY: And it goes beyond normalizing the experience of being asked your pronouns. Sometimes it’s an opportunity to make a customer feel seen.

KORRI: One thing that really makes me feel good about asking everybody is that, sure, we’re gonna have some people who are negative about it. That’s just a quick vibe check, but there are people like I had a client the other day call in and they got so excited that I asked them, they were like, oh my gosh, I use they/them. I’m so happy you asked! Nobody ever asks. And that’s like, yes. I ask people to normalize it, but those are the people that I’m really asking for.  I’m asking to make it so that people know right off the bat, like this is the place where I belong, where I will be safe. And that’s really cool for me.

EMILY: It’s a great example of communicating with your customers: making them feel like a whole human being, not just another number or transaction to you as the business owner. Another way to keep that communication flowing is responding to reviews.

KORRI: With Yelp reviews, they’re the reviews I always read because I get a little notification. I get notifications for Yelp and The Knot. So I’ll always read those. And for the most part, they are always five stars, which is just incredible. And actually, we’ve been putting together a little book of good reviews. Just both as like a ‘Hey clients, when you’re waiting around, here’s this cool book you can look at.’ But also, Hey Korri, you’re having a bad day, read this. So those are always really nice.

It makes me really happy cause I know most people don’t review. But it means that those people had such a seller experience, that they felt the need to tell strangers how cool we are. And that just makes my day.

We have had a handful of one star reviews, which is always like an absolute day ruiner. But I’ve learned that you can’t make everybody happy and there are gonna be some people that like, it’s not their fault. And sometimes it truly is our my fault, like, and I will own up to that. But you can’t make everybody happy. You’re not always gonna get along with everybody. And sometimes things just happen where maybe we just didn’t do something the right way, or I mistake of overestimating one of my employee’s skills at the time. And looking back, it’s like, oh gosh, yeah, we were super busy and I didn’t take the time I really should have to look over this client and make sure that things were okay.

I think the hardest is when the client leaves and seems happy and then I get a one star review and it’s like oh, we could have talked about this. But I always try to make it right. I will always respond. I try to respond to every review. But I will always respond to negative reviews because the thing is that’s how you grow.

And that’s how I learn. Like okay, we hacked up here. Let’s fix it. And also people who are looking at reviews, they’re gonna look at your negative reviews and if you’re not responding to those negative reviews, then it’s clear that you do not care.

EMILY: And not only do reviewers take note of when they get replies, they’re also savvy enough to know when they’re getting a canned response.

YVETTE: I think I have quite a few reviews on Yelp and out of all of that, maybe 10% reply and that’s for good and bad.

So I’ve gotten replies for bad reviews too. For obvious reasons, it’s like, we don’t want a bad review. But when I write good reviews, it’s usually, you know, just a standard thank you. Korri, actually put a little bit more in showing gratitude and appreciation, versus, you know, thank you for your nice review. We hope that you refer someone to us. They took the time and they were like, you know, thank you for that review. It’s really gonna help us out. We can’t wait to see you, you know? So that was nice to get a little bit more.

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