SCHENECTADY — Nicole Snow has built her love of art and her love of helping others into a $6 million-a-year business.
Darn Good Yarn is based on a simple idea: paying women in India and Nepal a living wage to create yarn from waste fabric, then pitching the yarn to American consumers as a quality product that makes a difference in other people’s lives and helps the planet.
With a lot of work over the last decade, Snow and her staff have found their audience: Schenectady-based Darn Good Yarn’s mailing list is 200,000 names long, and it makes 10,000 subscription sales plus 5,000 individual sales each month. Sales are entirely via the internet — the company outgrew its small storefront in Schenectady and was in the process of closing it and moving the office to Scotia this winter. A critical tool in building the company has been Facebook, where it has 196,000 followers.
Snow's husband recently left the good-paying job that provided financial security to the family while Snow built the business. In mid-January, he started his new job with Darn Good Yarn.
Snow shared her story at a recent BizLab-Clarkson Lunchtime Entrepreneurship meeting, a monthly presentation at the New York BizLab for the entrepreneurial community in the region.
Snow graduated from Clarkson University in 2004 and served a two-year stint in the U.S. Air Force as a contracting officer. When she left the service, she wanted to work for herself and be an entrepreneur. It took a while to focus on a business model, but she merged her loves of knitting and helping people to establish Darn Good Yarn in 2008.
“I wanted to provide awesome yarn and also provide sustainable employment,” she said.
Within six months, she knew she was onto something, she recalls now.
Customers were responding to her goal of benefiting collectives of low-caste women working in their homes in areas where employment is temporary, inconsistent, and might pay less than $2 a day.
It helped that Snow had no investors to answer to. “I was able to put my ethics into the business,” she said.
Traditional gender assumptions rooted in a very different culture would sometimes confront her as she built her supply network in India and Nepal.
“They always ask ‘Where is your husband?’” Snow said.
She’ll often sign his name to paperwork when she encounters someone who won't deal with a woman, but for the most part, with time and persistence, she gains acceptance as a businesswoman.
Her suppliers have been with her for an average of five years.
Other times, bureaucracy can throw an obstacle in Snow’s way. She’s had Indian officials refuse to clear a load of yarn bowls for export because they’re made of a particular species of wood and she’s had American officials hold shipments for months on a dock in San Diego.
It’s at times like those when the Darn Good Yarn backstory is invaluable, Snow said. Through constant effort on the company’s part, with written, photographic and video narrative, its customers are aware that they’re making a direct positive impact on women’s lives, not just buying a nice ball of yarn. Snow has found that if she explains the problem, the customers are willing to wait, rather than cancel the order.
“You have to continue to tell that backstory,” Snow said, explaining that marketing is a huge part of her job.
She’s had two jobs for the last year and a half, actually: She and husband Mike welcomed their first child in late 2016. They live in Ballston Lake, a short drive to the office and warehouse in Scotia.
Snow has a lot of help maintaining her work-life balance — a full-time nanny and part-time cook and grocery shopper at home, plus nine employees at the office. She estimates she goes all out at work about six hours a day, then is “100 percent mom” the rest of the time. Because so much of her work is online, she can work from home to be closer to her daughter.
Snow credits her employees for much of Darn Good Yarn’s success. Asked how she finds them, she said the best advice she got was to write a love letter to her ideal employee. A good question to ask of candidates, she added, is what sports they play. The details in the answer — a team sport or an individual sport — provide a clue how the candidate will function in a small office working in close proximity and constant cooperation with the rest of the staff.
She offered three key takeaway points from her company’s 10-year history:
- Be a positive force. “Take a dollar from the margin to do good in the community,” Snow said. Her company employs Schenectady ARC clients from Pine Ridge Industries to do its packing work, for example. “That’s been an amazing collaboration.”
- Be nimble and unafraid of innovation. Many of Darn Good Yarn’s biggest advances started with small experiments. “If it doesn’t work, get rid of it like the plague,” Snow added.
- Practice “hardcore financial responsibility.” Darn Good Yarn employees sit on plain chairs and write on yellow notepads, Snow said. This saves money for marketing, pensions and profit sharing. “Know thy numbers,” she urged.
Looking forward to the next 10 years, Snow wants a bigger share of America’s $44 billion-a-year craft industry. She plans to rely more on YouTube, which has become a critical marketing tool. She plans to look at the export market, an important sector that Darn Good Yarn hasn’t really touched yet.
And she will continue her focus on the three P's: people, planet and profit.
Snow knew all along that she would measure her company's success by what it did for all three P's. But it wasn't until she sat next to a business professor on a transcontinental flight that she learned the industry term for it: Darn Good Yarn is a "triple bottom line" company.