The Start-Up Culture: A Place to Belong

Kith & Kin at 208 Independence St. during the shop's movie night in Cape Girardeau. (Jacob Wiegand ~ Southeast Missourian)

Friday, February 22, 2019

In the process of researching for my book, I found a lot of inspiration in Robert D. Putnam's "Bowling Alone." This book chronicles how and why we said good-bye to the American culture made familiar by the mid-twentieth century. Change is inevitable, and I find it exhilarating. So, to my delight, Putnam also takes a look at the hows and the whys of the cultures we built in place of our foremothers' and forefathers'.

These changes are important for me to consider as an entrepreneur, because more than ever before, how we connect to our customers is more important than what we sell. Low prices, lots of choices and customization are available online. Our local companies must offer something else. Millennials especially find the brands they shop say something about who they are. So then, small businesses must now ask, "Who are we?" Many startups work this question into their business model and find unique ways of giving back actually create a great gain for all parties involved.

One example is Kith & Kin, a new addition to Downtown Cape. The owners, Leslie and Bradley Phillips, care about their products: they curate vintage clothing and hang it alongside new, "mindfully made" pieces, with a few well-crafted, local articles to boot.

"We sell ethically-produced, sweatshop-free, USA-made goods," Leslie says. A letterboard beside her reads, "Rebel WITH a Cause."

A lot of businesses care about their products, though; Kith & Kin also cares about its clientele in a way that manifests in its daily business practices, as well as in its physical space. Local artists hang pieces in the tiny store for First Fridays, and a striking, hand-painted mural covers the wall behind the point-of-sale. Recently, Kith & Kin hosted an after-hours event in which customers and friends of all ages piled into the store to watch movies on the Phillips' TV-VHS combo set. The party featured a call to BYOB (Bring Your Own Beanbag) and did not explicitly push product sales.

"It's about slowing down," Leslie says. "Giving everyone a chance to unplug and relax for a night with their friends in a safe atmosphere." She hopes events like these will provide an option for types who do not feel like they fit in at other stores or hang-out spots.

With this strategy, Kith and Kin not only hopes to become a brand that sells to a community, but plans to build a community around a brand. Sales remain the priority -- and they must for any business to survive -- but like their contemporaries, Kith & Kin views the long, slow build of customer loyalty as encompassing more than margins and units. Beyond price- and option-consciousness, consumers today look for identity -- something about a brand that makes them say, "That's me."

Colby Williams is the co-founder of Parengo Coffee in Sikeston, Missouri. His new book "Small Town Big Money" is available now at amazon.com.