We sat down with business owner Melanie Coleman, owner of TallulahBelle’s in Leawood, Kansas – a gallery and store of unique and one-of-a-kind fine art, jewelry, ceramics, artisan glass, wearables, and more – to talk about her journey to entrepreneurship. In this video interview, Melanie shares what she’s learned along the way and her best tips for entrepreneurial success.
Melanie Coleman: My name’s Melanie Coleman. I own a gallery called TallulahBelle’s in Park Place, which is in Leawood, Kansas. I’m in my fourth year of business.
SMBWomen: What is TallulahBelle’s?
Coleman: TallulahBelle’s is a gallery of wearable art, and other fine craft. So the basic way to think about it is like the Plaza Art Fair: all year round, minus the themes.
SMBWomen: What inspired you to open your own business?
Coleman: So I spent about 25 years in corporate America, doing a variety of roles with very large companies, all in accounting and finance. And after the last company that I worked for was sold to a company in Louisiana, I stayed for about a year and then decided that I wanted to leave and figure out kind of what the next chapter, or the second half, maybe would look like for me. And when I left I truly thought that I would just take some time off and then ultimately would go back to the corporate arena.
So, during a trip to Alaska, which was a bucket-list item for my daughter and I, she actually encouraged me to take the leap and open my own business. And it was really inspiring because at 14 years old, she had a better vision into what my heart was than what I actually did at the time. Because she asked me several times what we were going to do on that trip, and on the very last day, she actually knew what that day was going to look like. She knew we would eat breakfast at a local restaurant, and then we would go up and down the streets of a main street in Anchorage, and that I was going to go into all these small businesses, specifically the art galleries, and pepper these poor artists with all my business questions. Ultimately I would buy something to take back as a gift for her or myself or a family member and put their business card in a pewter dish that I kept on my desk at home in my home office. And, lo and behold, that’s exactly what we were going to do, and so I was pretty speechless.
At the same time, she said, “Well, why don’t you do this for yourself?” You know, I had to wrestle with the balance of a single mom, and I had to figure out, financially, what would that look like for us? Could we do that? Could I create a business case around what this passion and this love was that could actually work and be a sustainable business in the Kansas City market
SMBWomen: What questions did you ask other business owners before you started?
Coleman: So I just tried to ask people that had already opened their own small business. I asked questions about foot traffic. How many people come in the door on an average day? How many people do you assume you convert that walk in the door? Do you think having a website is important? Which are the ways that you do your direct marketing? How do you market? What’s your biggest challenge? I really tried to ask a broad spectrum of questions.
And I also did a decent amount of independent research. I spent a lot of time at the Johnson County Library just trying to research, largely, information about customer behavior, customer patterns. What could I learn about what Kaufman liked to refer to as the psychographics of my customers? So not just the economic demographics of my customers, but psychographics. How did they think? If they liked a horse, what else did they like? If they liked jewelry, what else did they like? Other things that I could use to help me build my business case, to quantify what the size of my market would look like.
SMBWomen: Were you hesitant to start your own business?
I really wasn’t scared. So when I finally figured out and could see on a piece of paper, or on a spreadsheet, that I thought I could make this work, that I believed that I could make this work, I really did jump in with both feet. And it’s been an interesting journey because… initially I gave myself a three-year horizon to build this business. And I was thinking about this this morning actually because now I’m in my fourth year. And the first year, I think because I didn’t put pressure on myself…fear didn’t ever creep into the equation because I thought, “Wait, I gave myself three years to build this business. You have to think about it on a three-year time horizon.”
So year one I just went about executing the plan. And I just really followed my plan and said, “Okay, I said I was going to do “X” number of emails. I was going to do this amount of direct mail. I was going to do this, I was going to…” So I really just went about executing the business. And I did, of course, look at “How is the business doing,” because again, finance is my background, so I was always looking at that. And I’m like, “We’re doing it! It’s working. It’s working.”
Year two, of course then, about half way through, I started thinking, “Okay, you’ve got just as much time in front of you as you do behind you now.” So at that point, I started to become more analytical about the business and tried to reach out more to experts in areas that I didn’t know if I was doing everything I should do.
And then you get into year three, and you start to really then think, “Okay, I signed a three-year lease. I had a three-year business case. Now what do I think? How do I evaluate, critically evaluate, what the right thing to do for the business is?” And so then, I became a little more scared. And it was more because I had that self-imposed deadline.
I had told myself in three years, I had to hit these objectives. The business had to look like “X.” And while the business was performed quite well, of course it didn’t hit every measure that I laid out for it to hit. Because at the end of the day, it was a business case. It was fraught with assumptions. And some of those assumptions exceeded and some were slightly below. So it was just a matter of continuing to evaluate and figure out, “What do I need to tweak to continue to grow and to keep taking the steps to move the business in the right direction?”
SMBWomen: How does being a woman impact your entrepreneurship?
Coleman: So, you asked about if I thought being a woman really made a difference on opening a small business, and I honestly don’t think it has mattered. I’ve never really thought about the fact that I’m a woman as helping or hindering my career in any aspect.
I do think the biggest thing that has helped me open my own business or helped the business succeed is the background that I had. I do think the fact that I brought 25 years of big company or, I forget what size of company, of company background, of corporate background to the table…I’ve seen a lot of wins, and I’ve seen a lot of losses over the years. And so I think that has been the biggest help to opening and running and thriving in what’s obviously a very difficult arena. It’s a difficult concept. There’s just a lot of challenges with owning your own business. But I think that background has been the biggest thing that’s helped me thrive in this type of an environment.
SMBWomen: What mistakes have you made as a business owner that others can learn from?
Coleman: When I think about things I wish I would have done differently, whenever I started the business, probably the one that I underestimated, and one that I just think I did wrong, and so I learned a lot from that. The one that I think I did wrong, again, coming from my corporate background, I went out and had someone build a website for me that could have shipped products to Saudi Arabia, had all the bells and whistles under the sun, everything I could have imagined and was a very technically robust website. But to my users and to my customers, it was not very friendly. It wasn’t very modern. It wasn’t very current. It wasn’t relevant.
And so that was a big mistake of mine, and I think I did that because I approached it thinking like a big company, not thinking like, “I’m a small company that’s really trying to be a direct-to-consumer business.” And I think my mentality whenever I worked with the IT team that developed my initial website was just off. I don’t think it was their fault. I think it’s how I directed them and the things I told them I needed it to do. So I think that was something that I wish I would have done differently from the very beginning.
The second thing, or the thing I think I learned the most, and woefully underestimated, was just how hard it is to drive consumer behavior. I had this misnomer that there were a lot of people out there that just thought and acted and behaved like me. And I thought, “Okay, these people, once they realize a concept like what I’m opening is in Kansas City, they’re gonna find me.” Versus me having to work extremely hard to find them, motivate them, compel them to get out of their routine, and inspire them to want to come to my gallery and actually shop and spend their discretionary income with me. And I underestimated how hard reaching the right demographic would be.
SMBWomen: What was it like saying you were a small business owner for the first time?
Coleman: When I first said I was a small business owner, or really the first time I said I was an entrepreneur, it felt weird to say that because again, long, long, long time I was in corporate America. And that to some degree had become part of my identity. It was part of the fiber of who I thought I was. And it is still part of who I am, but it was really just the springboard to give me the confidence, the experience, the courage to step out, to do this.
So it was very odd the first time I said I was an entrepreneur. I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. If you would have asked me when I left the corporate arena, I would have given the odds of opening my own business under 5% chance because that’s just not what I thought I was. That’s not who I identified myself with, yet I’ve proven to myself that I can, and that I am. Not that I can. I am.
SMBWomen: What are the most important qualities for a small business owner to be successful?
Coleman: Two or three things that I think are critical to small business success: First is going to be understanding how your business is performing. So financially, how is it doing? What do you need to tweak? Being able to make those adjustments, both in how you run your business, how you operate your business, how you get customers in the door. All those things are gonna translate into, financially, how is your business doing? How are people responding to it? So I think that’s key. And with that, means being able to adjust your business accordingly. So if you see people aren’t coming in, what do I need to do different? How do I need to market differently, etc.
Second is a resiliency. You have to be resilient because you’re going to have really bad days and you’re going to have really good days. And so you have to be able to weather those storms and realize that this is a journey and that you’re gonna have ups and you’re gonna have downs. For me, retail is notoriously bad in January, for example. So you have to ride the high of December, ride the high of the holidays, and know and brace yourself that January is just going to be a hard time, and know that it’s not you, it’s others as well. It’s just the industry. It’s what’s going on in your particular market.
Third I think, is find the passion. Make sure that you are incredibly passionate about what you’re doing, that you believe in it with every fiber of your being, because it’s going to take that. Because if you lose your passion, lose your drive, lose your motivation, it’s gonna come through to your customers. It’s gonna come through in the work. It’s gonna come through in your commitment to the business. And people will see through that very, very quickly.
SMBWomen: How do you stay positive when things get hard?
Coleman: It is hard to stay positive all the time about your business, and I think some of it is accepting the fact that you won’t. So sometimes just knowing that, “Okay, today, I’m not as positive as I need to be.” So maybe it’s the day that you make sure that you have an employee coming in or somebody, or you have a friend come by to visit you, or you reach out to another small business owner and you commiserate with them, or you bounce ideas off of them.
I find that I’m constantly reaching out to people, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, and just thinking about, “What could I do different? What could I do better? What do you do? How can I help you?” Because I think there’s a small business community out there. Sometimes you have to find it, and you have to figure out how to build those connections. But I think every small business owner wants to feel part of something bigger. They want to be part of a small business community, and it’s definitely out there.
And so reaching out to those people when you’re struggling to find your own passion or to find that voice, you reach out to one of them, and you say, “I’m struggling with this today.” And they’re probably having a good day. And then you’re gonna call them someday, and they’re having a bad day and you’re gonna help each other that way. So I think that’s the biggest thing. And always remember why you’re doing it.
SMBWomen: What have you gained from being an entrepreneur?
Coleman: One of the very best things that has come out of this business is the number of people that started out as customers and that have truly become my friends. Some of the people that I have become friends with through this process that I genuinely know they’re on my team. They’re part of this journey with me. They’re cheering me on. They’re supporting me. They’ve become friends, and those are people that the paths of our lives would have never crossed had I not opened this business. And that has been very inspiring in what…it never fails, when I’m having a really bad day, somehow those people know. And I’ll get an email, I’ll get a phone call, I’ll get a text, I’ll get something from one of those people, and it just motivates me and inspires me to keep going. So that’s been huge.
And then probably second, and not necessarily in this order, is the relationship that it has allowed me to rekindle with my daughter. This has been an amazing journey to be on with her, and especially now, as I’m approaching my fourth year, or in my fourth year, she’s wrapping up her fourth year of high school and will go off to college. And just the fact that she has seen me exit one successful element of my life and open and flourish in yet a whole different element, I think will have a life-long impact on her.
SMBWomen: How do you stay passionate about what you do?
Coleman: I opened TallulahBelle’s and continue to have a passion around TallulahBelle’s because I really do believe in and admire tremendously the artists that I support. They have a courage that I will never know because it’s… Being an artist is an extremely hard life. These are all small, independent artists that do this because it’s their passion. They don’t do it for the money. Obviously, they have to pay their bills as well, but they do it because it’s what they believe in and it’s their passion.
And I love being part of something that is encouraging people and supporting people that are following their dream and their passion. And so I’m doing it because I want to be part of something bigger. I want to do something that matters. I want to make a difference. And I feel like, by opening this business, I’m making a difference, not only in the artists’ lives, by the support I provide to them, but in the customers’ lives that come in. Because again, I think we form a community, and we’re forming somewhat of a family, as silly as that might sound. And then, of course, I think I’m making a difference in my own daughter’s life, and that’s a feeling that’s priceless. To do something that matters is priceless.
SMBWomen: What message do you hope your daughter will take from your success?
Coleman: Clearly, I hope the biggest message she takes away from it is, it’s a cliche and people say it all the time, but that you truly can do anything you set your mind to. I hope that she knows that…I turn 50 this year, so I made this life change when I was…I started contemplating when I was 45 years old, that it doesn’t matter the path you’ve chosen, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve done one thing. If you wanna go do something totally opposite, and you put your mind to it, and you put your heart and soul into it, that you can absolutely do it.
Before I opened the store, I had never even worked in a retail store, ever. In high school, as a kid, anything. I had never worked in a retail store, and I opened one. Now I manage one, I own one, I run one – and I think that’s the biggest message she’ll take away from this.