Paul talks to Dan and Hillary about their business, Kin Ship Goods, and what it’s like to grapple with the things that matter most in the face of the pandemic, while keeping the lights on and supporting their community.
Episode 3: Dan at Kin Ship Goods
Paul: Hello friend, how are you doing today? This is Paul Jarvis and you’re listening to Call Paul, business as unusual where we explore how small business owners are facing the reality of living through our first pandemic.
Hillary Harrison: Are we ever going to feel like what we're doing is something that matters in such a hard time. Even after this passes, it's kind of made some things feel trivial. Like worrying about how many Instagram likes you have or stuff like that felt important a month ago. Now is just like not at all.]
Paul: This is Hillary. She runs Kin Ship Goods with her husband Dan in Charleston, West Virginia. They sell hand-printed tees, candles, bumper stickers, tea towels and more - all of which cultivate a sense of what they refer to as “cozy”. They have both a brick and mortar location (with actual bricks and mortar), employing 12 local people, as well as an online store. We first spoke to Hilary and Dan right as they were shutting down their retail location and sending all their employees home.
Dan Davis: We're safe inside. We got the sleeping beagles and the cats around and we have coffee, so we're suspending disbelief or whatever. Pretending it's okay.
Paul: That’s Dan, the other half of Kin Ship. We caught up with him a month or so after we first spoke, and were pleased to find out that Kin Ship was in the middle of shipping 300 orders. Dan took a bit of time to chat about what their life looks like now, as they take turns working from their store and their home.
Paul: How are you staying cozy right now?
Dan: Right now a lot of pet snuggles. So we have three cats and two senior dogs. The beagles, they come to the shop with us but they've been liking just staying put and sleeping. Mostly just trying to, I don't know, be okay in the house and hunker down. I've been doing the thing everybody's been doing. Baking some bread, things like that. So that's been nice.
Paul: When you started Kin Ship Goods, what was your vision of cozy?
Dan: Both me and Hillary had kind of a ... Not rough childhood, but definitely turbulent childhoods. And we just kind of think of cozy as that feeling of ... Yeah, safety. Safety and warmth. And we talk about that a lot. One reason we decided to make clothing and home goods is being able to create your own environment, create your own world. There's kind of nothing better than putting on your favorite T-shirt that you've had for a really long time or that extra sized sweatshirt that makes you feel just safe and warm.
Paul: So can you I guess explain to me kind of how you're thinking about cozy now?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, I think for sure we think that it's more important now. I mean it's more important to us. I think the definition of it has changed from safety and warmth to being grounded. Like what is real? And having a mug of warm coffee in my hands and sitting and listening to a record, that's real. That's a moment that I am in control of. That's a moment that I get to be a part of and it's not just like me spinning out of control in some other thing that is much, much bigger than me that I can't do anything about.
Paul: Does it feel like you're both more present now or does it feel like you need to escape more? I've been kind of grappling with this myself. Is this pandemic making me just want to flee the present moment as much as possible or is this making me become more present in all of the things that I do because that's all I have at the moment?
Dan: Yeah, totally. I'm having a little bit of both. I'm having where I'm like overly present because of all of this and I'm like really falling deep into existential holes of like wow, this really matters. Like the fat of normal day life is kind of melting away and I'm being left with the kernels of like, what really matters? And none of this other stuff matters and this is kind of great that I'm having these realizations. But then I'm like okay, but I have to get back to where other things do matter and I do exist in a world and a system. So then I have to escape from being so present and just kind of have to turn off my brain and binge watch a show that I've seen a million times or do something like that. Or record music just so that I'm not just like in an existential hole of like okay, only five things---- matter now, nothing else does. Because that's not helpful.
Dan: I mean it's freeing in some way, but it's not helpful because all of the other things still exist.
Paul: So how is that kind of mindset that you're describing relating to running the business right now?
Dan: I've really had to pivot to my second favorite thing about the business, which is helping people. I've had to overly focus on okay, if we ship a sweatshirt, maybe it's not essential and maybe the post office doesn't need to be dealing with this right now and maybe somebody doesn't actually need a sweatshirt. And I spin out but then I think, if when that person puts on this sweatshirt and for a second, they just have that feeling of ... Like calm. Then I am providing a service that right now actually is one of those five things. It's like, it is important for people to feel grounded and calm. Even if it's for a second of getting a sweatshirt or a candle from us or a puzzle or anything. I really like that. And so that's been making me be like okay, let's get back into it. For a while me and Hillary are both at the ... It's unfortunate for us that we both have the same disposition where we both are ----kind of like, is this pointless right now? What are we doing? And so that felt like it was going to just derail us in general. That we were just going to get completely derailed by thinking that it doesn't matter or there are bigger problems in the world. But when we started thinking about, this might make somebody feel better, we really got more engaged again. We're also launching a shirt, where you get to pick a local business to give half of the money to. So we get half of the money and then a business of your choice ... And we have a list of 20 in town. You get to give money to another business. And that's what we do. That's our role to make shirts. And we've made shirts for causes before and this is no different and we're really happy and proud that we can help people. Yeah.
Paul: What's one of the businesses that they can choose?
Dan: Well, a lot of them are the restaurants here. A lot of the restaurants are hurting. There's a restaurant here called Bluegrass Kitchen that has been around for a very long time. And they're still doing to-g o and that stuff, but in the restaurant industry to-go is really just like a bandage on a very big hole. So they're one of the ones. Then there's like a music shop and then just kind of like the staples of the town. And then we have a couple funds. There's been some funds for service workers and stuff and you can pick one of those funds if you want the money to go to that. So we're really excited about doing that. And we're kind of known for that. We did a big shirt for the teacher strike when that happened in West Virginia, which was kind of national news. And then we've done flood relief stuff and shirts for the last women's clinic here. It's kind of like a thing we do. So it felt like, yeah, this makes sense for us to do. And it's getting us out of our heads of thinking about just like oh, maybe nobody needs a cat sweatshirt. Maybe this other thing could be like kind of a badge of honor for this moment in time.
Paul: Has there been an increase in sales? Have you guys been shipping a lot?
Dan: We have like 300 online orders to ship and now it's just me and Hillary so that's going to take a minute. We started a home delivery service for all the local orders. So we wrote all those people and reached out and said, hey, we're really trying not to overwhelm the post office. And like 300 giant envelopes full of sweatshirts and sweatpants and things like that, that's a lot to give a postal worker right now. So we wrote the people in town and said, "Hey, if you don't mind, we'll just drop this in your driveway and give you a text and you can come out and get it." It gives me a reason to get out of the house and drive around in the car in a safe setting. Be in my little bubble but see the world.
Paul: What's going on then with the other... Because I believe y'all have 12 other employees. So what's going on with that?
Dan: Yeah. The deal was that we had agreed when we first announced we were closing, which was like ahead of everybody. We said that we were going to cover everybody's pay. Well, it's been now like 30 days. So we covered everybody's pay for two weeks and then we talked about it with everybody that if we want there to be a place for everybody to come back to, we can't really hemorrhage money forever. Because we won't have any capital to have a place to come back to. So we told everybody that we should all be on unemployment. Me and Hillary included because we're technically employees of Kin Ship Goods. But that was like a week and a half ago and none of us have heard anything back about it. So we're still floating everybody because we told everybody that we would. And now it's kind of working as a loan because the unemployment will get backdated and we said everybody can just pay us back whenever. But none of us have heard anything. Plus the loan, the paycheck protection plan and all the care act stuff ... None of that is real at this point. When you talk to a banker, when we've talked to ours, the banks don't know what's going on. There's no system in place. They're upset that the government rolled this out without telling them how to do anything. So all of that is kind of not real as well. So I think all the employees and everybody's kind of stressed. They're all offering to do work still even though technically they're not employees because they want to be helpful and they know that they are still employees. If we use unemployment it makes sense for us because it's a system we already pay into. So instead of taking cash out of the business, it's like why not use this tool that was actually created that we already give money to.
Paul: Because I'm in a different country and every country is kind of ... The government is dealing with things in different ways. Is there any sense of a timeline for any of that as far as getting the EI or the business stimulus packages? Does anybody have any answers?
Dan: Nobody has any answers. Like truly, I can't stress enough how in the dark every person who is supposed to be there to guide a small business is. They are all in the dark. Our banker ... Because we work with a small bank and the banker that we deal with is the VP of the bank because he's like a fan of Kin Ship and he's kind of championed us. He has no idea what's going on. He's the vice president. It's not like I'm talking to a teller or just somebody in an office. This is second in charge. He has no idea. There's no portal. He asked us to send him the paperwork that we had found online. He's not like a tiny bank. We have a line of credit and we've done stuff like that. He just does not know because the government has not given any direction. And the unemployment office here is actually 24 hours a day. So they have a graveyard shift of people who are working through the night. But it's like almost the whole state is on unemployment. So they have no idea when they're going to get to us.
Dan: Plus there's a stimulus that every citizen is supposed to get of like $1,200. But because me and Hillary are technically the owners or whatever, we have to wait for a check and they say that's going to be like October or November.
Paul: So you mean a check in the mail?
Dan: A check in the mail. Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Paul: Sorry. My mind is blown.
Dan: So like some people have it set up as direct deposit. Like a lot of people are getting it direct deposit. But because we own the business and we pay ... It's like connected to the tax system. So because we pay taxes with a check for the business or whatever and we're independent contractors, we actually have to wait for a paper check because we always owe taxes because all our money goes back into the company. So yeah, we have to wait for a paper check which supposedly is only being ... It's taking so long so that the president can have his signature on all the checks which is not great.
Paul: Priorities misaligned.
Dan: So we feel very lucky that we do have a little bit of money in the bank. But it was all earmarked to do other things with, which now are all out the window. But at least we have the safety net right now for the time being.
Paul: It just feels like that adds a lot of mental weight, that unknown. And I mean, to some degree, this is our first pandemic so I understand that governments are scrambling. But at the same time, it just feels like if there were at least just some answers or it's coming on this date, I feel like the stress level would drop from def con one down a little.
Dan: Yeah, yeah. I totally agree. I think it's all the unknowns. That's like that real spinning out of control thing. And that's what I mean by cozy being grounded. It's like within all of that it's like well, I can control putting coffee in my favorite coffee cup because I can't control anything else.
Paul: Last time we talked about social media updates and how those have changed. What's been happening in the last month with social posts for Kin Ship?
Dan: Well, we've been doing a lot of cozy. We had one of our staff members read a chapter from Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe every day, which we animated and I did music for. And people really engaged with that. And we were just honest with everybody that we didn't want to try to sell anything. We just couldn't do it. I just didn't see the point. And right now we're sharing a lot of customer photos. We have a hashtag called stay safe, stay cozy. And we're giving away $100 gift card every month. We're just picking our favorite photo from people sharing.I did my first ever hold the camera, walk around thing that everybody is doing right now. And it felt very weird and I addressed like, I guess I'm going to make one of these videos that people make now. In the video I actually talk about how it's not as cozy as we prefer it to be because the store has a lot of warmth. We're told that by our customers all the time. That it feels very cozy. That it feels like you're home in some way. And it didn't feel that way. There were some dead plants. It was just silent in there. It just didn't feel ... Honestly, it kind of felt like we were touring somebody else's studio. Both me and Hillary were talking about like, this feels like not our space. There was no smell to anything, which I know is like a really weird thing to pick up on. But it didn't smell like anything. It didn't smell like somebody's gross thing in the toaster oven. It didn't smell like shirts being printed. It didn't smell like one of the candles we light when we come in the store. It just didn't smell. ----And I walked around the shop and just talked about how weird it is to be there and how we hadn't really been there in like 30 days. And how just strange everything was and how we missed everybody and we're here doing the thing and hi basically. And people really responded to that.
Paul: I think that businesses are getting more comfortable or cozy if you will with being more honest and vulnerable with the people that have purchased from them. People want to see businesses like yours that are still there and that are doing okay.
Dan: Nobody wants to see us go out of business or any business go out of business because if that happens, the normal that we're all clinging onto of the before, doesn't exist. It's like, if we all come through this, that's great and if it's all different, like drastically different, like your favorite pizza place actually isn't a pizza place anymore, that's not going to make anyone feel better. And so where I'm like, should I make one of these videos? It's like yeah, people want to know that this thing that they have ... They took photos with Santa in our shop. That place that made their son happy still exists and is going to still exist. And then it's like, there's a way to support it and there's a way that after all of this, you can have another good afternoon in our store.
Dan: I mean, the response has been like ... It's so crazy. People have just been writing us random emails and the comments on the talking head ... Like I have my phone right here. It's like, you guys are the best, we miss you, stay cozy and stay safe. It's nice to see you. Our employees responded and said, "We miss you guys in the shop so much, thanks for taking care of the plants." Customers have just been like emailing us saying, "We can't wait to bring our kid in there for pictures with Santa this year. Thanks for doing everything you do in the community. You guys will make it through this." The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe thing, teachers were writing us and they were sharing it with their classes. So a bunch of students were watching us, which was really cool. There's been a couple of people being like, where's my order? Which I think is funny. But other than that, it's been mostly just people responding and being like, hey. Especially for the email where we were like hey, if you can be patient, we'd appreciate it. Like 99% of everybody wrote back and said, we are not worried about this. We just wanted to support you guys. Thank you so much for what you're doing. We can't wait to get our sweatshirt or our sweatpants.
Paul: Is that what’s most popular?
Dan: We have sweatpants that on the cuff at the very bottom, one leg, like very small just on the elastic part of the sweatpants on the cuff on one side it says stay and on the other side it says cozy. And then our little lantern logo is sewn onto the pocket. That has been the item. Sweatpants that say stay cozy on them. I think it just ... Yes. We've gotten so many emails and messages and stuff like, this is going to be my uniform. This is my uniform for this. Like I'm fighting this war and this is my uniform. It's been really fun to pack those up and think about all the people just lounging in the house in their stay cozy sweatpants.
Paul: I'm wearing sweatpants right now.
Dan: Yeah, me too. I'm wearing stay cozy sweatpants.
Paul: For many of us business owners, it’s been tough. Even if our businesses are weathering the storm, there’s this existential crisis of wondering if what we do is needed, if what we do puts a strain on other essential workers, and if what we do means what it did before. We aren’t all manufacturing ventilators or masks, or on the front lines. My own business is to write books and software. And just like Dan, there have been days when I’ve wondered whether or not what I do even matters right now. Dan and Hillary have returned to what Kin Ship has always done: being helpful in the community. They’re donating half of their profits to local businesses through the sale of a new tshirt design. Dan is personally delivering orders to people in Charleston, to take the strain off the mail service. They’re also working now to recreate their storefront experience on social media - sharing photos of waffles, babies in sassy tees and beagles beagling. I would argue that Kin Ship is in fact needed right now, because we all need to feel cozy, safe and connected. And if buying a pair of sweatpants from them helps you achieve this, then it feels pretty right to me. If you want your own pair of cozy sweatpants or a calendared tea towel, check out kinshipgoods.com
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Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Matt, owner of Xocolatl Chocolate, discusses business during the pandemic.
Dave, owner of Wayward Distillery, discusses pandemic-driven tough decisions.
Dan and Hillary, owners of Kin Ship Goods, discuss community support.
Archel, owner of Bombchel, discusses working long distance.
Martin, co-founder of Cosmic Kids Yoga, talks viewership during the pandemic.
Peter, CEO of online grocer, SPUD, talks about changes during the pandemic.
Sarah, owner of small agency 816 New York, discusses marketing with integrity.
Tina, a creative force with many successful endeavors, discusses letting go.
Michelle, a race director, explains what it takes to plan and cancel a marathon.
Paul checks in with his first four guests to see how they’re doing.