by Caleb Talley
If you’ve ever dreamed of opening your own store or developing your own line of products, you’re not alone. Every year in America, approximately 100,000 retail locations open up. Every hour, 11 new retail businesses turn on their “open” sign or go live with an eTail website.
For many of these new retail entrepreneurs, releasing a new product and opening a store, whether it be physical or digital, is the result of many years’ worth of dreaming, planning and developing. The following Arkansas retail startups are turning their dreams into reality and bringing their exciting new products to market.
North Little Rock
Geovanni Leiva came to America from a Guatemalan village with very little. But with hard work and education, he was able to carve out a successful career, start a family and gain citizenship. He had fulfilled the American dream.
But that wasn’t enough. Leiva didn’t just want success for himself; he wanted everyone in his home village to break free from the cycle of poverty.
“The idea came to me on one of my flights back from a home visit to Guatemala,” Levia says. “I was sick and tired of not being able to help my village break out of poverty the same way I had.”
It was then that an ancient Chinese proverb popped in his mind: If you give a man a fish, you will feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you will feed him for a lifetime.
“This is when I decided to apply the things I had learned in America and started a business whose purpose was to model what had happened in my life,” he says. “Poverty eradication had occurred because education and capitalization had been made accessible to me and the opportunity had been given to a better future.”
Leiva’s family has harvested coffee for years. But the process by which the coffee grown in his home country makes it to the coffee drinker was flawed. A cycle of exploitation was in place, he says, and in creating an opportunity to help those back home make their way out of poverty, he believed he could also break that cycle.
“It started with 50 bags that my dad sent me via FedEx,” Levia says. “We shared them with our friends and family. Once we knew that this could be something, we started bringing it in green and asking our friends to help us roast.”
One of the aspects of Leiva’s Coffee that makes the company so special is the dedication to hand roasted, small batches. According to Leiva, few coffee companies are as involved in the process of production as his.
“We are one of the very few companies that harvests, grows, exports, imports, roasts and distributes our coffee,” he says. “The only people that we do not know are the guys that transport our coffee. We are the truest form of farmer direct. We pride ourselves on the fact that we truly know the people that grow your coffee.
“We also roast to order to assure freshness and have the most transparent way of how your purchase is helping educate and create sustainable economies in the regions that grow our coffee,” he adds.
Creating a company that’s founded on sharing the opportunity with others isn’t a cakewalk. The toughest challenges he’s faced to date have come from low funding, an inability to reach broader audiences with his message and getting potential customers to latch on. “People tend to see our message to be too true to be real,” he says.
But Leiva’s Coffee does have its fair share of success stories. The impact he and his company has made in his home village ranks at the top, Leiva says.
“The education achievements we have been a part of are the biggest successes. In the past two years, we have been able to graduate eight kids from high school at the rightful age. Kids would stop going to school at 6th grade, and that was a task.
“Students had to walk two-and-a-half hours one way to go to school,” he adds. “Now, my old bedroom is a virtual classroom and is a 20 minutes or less walk to most kids. We went from having 10 kids to now hosting over 40 kids. We also built a home for a single mom and her two kids and roofed the local church.”
Leiva’s Coffee is available to customers online through one-time orders or a coffee subscription. It can also be purchased in stores in several Central Arkansas locations, including the Capital Hotel, Honey Pies, Nexus Coffee, The Summit Church and the Little Rock Athletic Club.
“Come be a part of familia,” Leiva says. “By making an educated decision about your coffee purchase, you are helping to stop the current cycle of exploitation in the coffee industry and providing opportunity where it hasn’t been seen before.”
When it comes to outdoor apparel, LIVSN is the new kid on the block. The young company is not even a year old, having been founded in January by former Fayettechill CEO Andrew Gibbs-Dabney.
“The idea was born out of a desire to simplify the things I owned and spend more time outside,” Gibbs-Dabney says. “As I went through the process of donating, recycling, or discarding what I didn’t need, I thought a lot about what mattered and the qualities of the things I kept.”
Gibbs-Dabney has always had a passion for the outdoors. But it was the name that became the catalyst in LIVSN, he says.
“It’s derived from the Swedish word, ‘livsnjutare,’ which roughly translates to ‘one who lives life fully; an enjoyer of life,'” he says. “When I founded Livsn, I spent the next several days working on the business plan to make sure it could work.
“I have a passion for the outdoors and high-quality clothing,” he adds. “My previous experience in the apparel industry gave me the confidence to take a chance and design the outdoor clothes I wanted to wear, based on ideals of durability, sustainability, and good style.”
Gibbs-Dabney knows making a good impression on potential customers is critical for a company in its earliest stages. Through sound business practices and focused sustainability, he hopes to make and keep customers for the long haul.
“While our brand is built using modern platforms and distribution, our business model relies on classic good business practices,” he says. “We aim to make good products, have a real person from our company answer the phone when you call and be a good part of our community.
“Sustainability is built into our mission,” he adds. “Our focus is on intentional minimalism, not consumption. We don’t want you to buy our products because you want them, we want you to choose Livsn when you need something. This may be a slower message to put out, but we believe we’re going to attract a good quality customer base this way.”
Gibbs-Dabney also believes it’s his attention to detail that will aid in the success of his company. Using the best fabrics available, rather than what is most cost-effective, sets the products at LIVSN apart from similar products on the market.
“We design the fit to follow body lines naturally, not straying too far into the skinny or baggy categories,” he says. “We construct our pieces with articulation at joints and reinforcement at common failure points. We choose our colors to be complimentary across the whole line, allowing for a slimmer wardrobe. We choose our zippers, buttons and pulls by not only judging functionality but also how they feel when they’re being used.
“I like to say that we make good clothing, with good methods, and stand behind it with a good warranty,” Gibbs-Dabney adds. “I’m not a fan of hyperbole in marketing. The ‘best’ shirt is subjective, and most brands that claim it end up losing the trust of their customers when they realize it’s just another shirt without much thought put into it.”
Taking such an approach, he says, means making a sale is just the beginning of the relationship between his company and his customers. And he’s reaching those potential buyers effectively through email and social media campaigns, sending free logo stickers to anyone who signs up.
Gibbs-Dabney has successfully connected with enough potential customers to generate more than $75,000 in funding for his first two products through a pre-sell Kickstarter campaign. He says it’s the company’s most significant accomplishment to date. “It’s incredible to see over 500 people say they believe in us and help us make this a reality,” he says.
But the best is yet to come for Gibbs-Dabney’s young company.
“Materially, my vision is to have a design team and studio where we can focus on creating the best outdoor apparel in the market,” he says. “If all goes to plan, we’ll have a click-and-mortar distribution with our business primarily online, our own physical retail stores in our best markets and a very special group of retail partners.
“I want to focus on creating the best sustainable, durable, and high-performance clothing available.”
Bourbon & Boots
By Kayla Baugh
Bourbon & Boots has been celebrating unique Southern charm since it was founded in Little Rock in 2012.
CEO Rod Ford says the company distributes over 1,500 handcrafted, Southern-inspired products through its brand website, and also operates a wholesale and corporate gifts business.
Ford says Bourbon & Boots was initially founded as a peer-to-peer marketplace for Southern-inspired goods.
“The easiest way to think of it is an Etsy marketplace for Southern makers to find buyers and sell their goods. Participating artisans would upload their products, images and copy to the Bourbon & Boots website, and the company would find interested buyers for the goods,” he says. “Once a purchase was consummated, an email would be sent to the artisan, who would make and ship the order to the consumer.”
Ford said Bourbon & Boots approached him as a potential investor in 2014.
“My initial reaction was I loved the brand name, the cult-like following, but was not a fan of the business model, where quality, brand integrity and repeat engagement with the brand were potentially compromised. It was clear they had tapped into the national infatuation with the speed and quality of life in the South, but I felt they needed to own every aspect of the customer experience, not just serve as a marketplace for a buyer and a seller,” he says.
Through his early-stage investment fund, xCelerate Capital, Ford said he purchased the assets of Bourbon & Boots in 2015 with the intention to transform the business from a marketplace into a national brand.
After the purchase, the founders departed and Ford took over.
“Since the acquisition of the brand assets in 2015, we have invested in transforming the company into a national lifestyle brand that capitalizes upon the growing infatuation with Southerners and the Southern lifestyle,” he says. “Investments in technology, data and analytics have fueled our growth as we moved to install a fulfillment center, and shipping all our products directly to consumers in branded packaging.”
In 2017, Ford says the company employed artisan craftsmen and embarked upon creating their own branded products.
“Today, 90 percent of our sales are generated from 1,500 items internally designed and produced in our maker shop. In 2017, we shipped orders to all 50 states as well as 10 other countries,” he says.
“Cheap disposable import goods have flooded the U.S. consumer for over a decade, and Bourbon & Boots customers are looking for merchandise, goods, and gifts that are rare, unique and handcrafted. They tell us they are attracted to the brand because all of the items come with a story, are of exquisite quality, and will be a durable conversation piece that holds its value over time.”
After significant investment to transform Bourbon & Boots from a marketplace into a national brand, the company became profitable in 2017.
“Our sales have continued to grow at a compounded rate of over 300 percent year over year, prompting Inc. magazine to name Bourbon & Boots as the 16th fastest-growing private brand in the United States in 2016, as well as recently being named by our e-commerce peers as the ‘2017 Emerging eTailer’ of the year.”
Ford says his joy lies in envisioning and executing.
“Our first expenditure into European advertising is set to go live as we seek to expand the Bourbon & Boots brand beyond the U.S., as we are currently looking for a warehouse fulfillment partner in the U.K.,” he says.
“As far as distant future, as soon as our catalog is populated with enough unique self-made products, we envision very select and niche retail stores in key iconic Southern cities to continue to drive brand awareness and continued growth.”
Eric Jones’ vision for a luxury clothing brand has been a lifetime in the making. Growing up poor in Helena, he learned the value of hard work and dedication from his family early on. Everything he’s ever had was earned. His growing shoe business is no different.
Jones studied fashion at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, and it was there that he had gotten the inspiration to start his own line of shoes after reading an article in class.
“When I was in school, I read an article about a girl who had started a shoe company and didn’t know anything about shoes,” he says. “Well, I had been sketching shoes for years.”
He knew that if he tried hard enough, he could do the same. It had worked in everything else he’d put his mind to.
“I’ve had to work for everything I have,” he says. “I’ve always had that entrepreneurial drive. I read that article, and I decided I would go forward and try it.”
LFLS, the company’s name, stands for Like Father Like Son. He reduced the name to an acronym so as to not limit himself when creating apparel and accessories for everyone.
“It stands for ‘Like Father, Like Son.’ But I promote it as LFLS because I’ve introduced women’s shoes, and I didn’t want to limit myself to just men’s shoes and clothing. I plan to also introduce suits, ties, as well as more women’s shoes and clothing and products.
“I want to branch out,” he adds. “My goal is to create a luxury brand.”
According to Jones, customers would be hard-pressed to find anything like his products on the market. That’s because he takes what shoes are on the market, and changes them to make them more unique.
“The quality is there,” he says. “I design them with quality in mind. I’ve seen what’s out there, in the industry, and I try to put my own spin on it. If you look at my men’s loafers, you’ll notice that there’s a zipper. I’ve never seen anyone add a zipper to a men’s loafer, so I did.
“I like having unique, flashy shoes,” he adds. “They’re statement pieces. When you walk into a room, you shouldn’t have to say anything for somebody to notice and say, ‘Where’d you get those shoes?’ People notice.”
Jones founded his company in December 2015 and found the months that followed to be trying due both to the loss of loved ones and setbacks in the business.
Last year, Jones says, was the toughest he’d faced since going into business for himself.
“Last year was rough,” he says. “I lived off of roughly $10,000 throughout the entire year as I went through some ups and downs in getting my company going. The first three months were hard because I didn’t get my shoes when I was supposed to. When they came in, they were defective. That was a hard one to get through.
“It was a hard year,” Jones adds. “I just lost my mom. My dad and grandmother had passed before her. It was a lot to happen back-to-back. But overall, last year was a lesson for me. I saw it as a roadblock put in my way to see if I was serious about what I was doing, a test to see whether or not I could stick with it.”
And stuck with it he did.
This year, Jones says he’s seen a lot of growth in his company through the exposure afforded to him by social media.
“Most of our growth has come through social media,” he says. “I do social media pretty well, reaching a good amount of people. I’ve also found success reaching customers through other forms of media – interviews, radio, TV spots. I’ve done popup shops. I’ll sell on the side of the road if I have to.”
And while owning a growing, successful company in the retail industry is a success story in itself, Jones says he’s most proud of the impact he’s had on others.
“The shoes are important to me; that’s one thing. But outside of that, being able to share my story with other people and serve as an inspiration, coming from where I did is great,” Jones says. “There are African-Americans who seldom see someone like them doing what I’m doing, and I enjoy being able to be a positive influence on someone. I want to be a positive example.”