John Machacek, Chief Innovation Officer for the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation, has worked with countless startups throughout our community over the past seven years. He knows their ups, their downs, but most of all, he knows the questions to ask them. Here are John Machacek’s 10 questions for Ashley Morken, Founder of Unglued.
1. Tell us your Unglued elevator pitch?
Unglued is a modern handmade gift shop that connects you to over 200 local and regional makers and artists. We also organize crazy awesome events to inspire creativity with things like our epic adult sleepaway summer camp, kids downtown camps, private and public workshop parties and our annual craft fest. We’re like Etsy in real life and all the inspiration you’ll need to want to get creative again.
2. Creativity is at the core of Unglued in everything you do. What draws you to that business mission?
Creativity is everything from the art of problemsolving to the actual art of creating art! Our shop is here to propel makers’ creative businesses, our workshops and camps exist to get you creative again, and all of this to grow the creative culture of our community. And we don’t think you need to be able to justify making something or getting a crafty hobby by being able to later sell said items in a shop like ours. We’ve seen the difference creativity makes by helping people get out of their routine and their 9-5 and feel like a whole human again by getting creative. ESPECIALLY in a pandemic. We’ve heard countless times that virtual workshops and our craft kits have kept people sane. Having creativity at the core of our business creates a mission we love and strive to live out with a larger meaning behind everything we do.
3. There are many facets to Unglued, that’s for sure, with the store, fests, camps, workshops, getaways, etc.. I know it started with the first Unglued Craft Fest in 2011 but how did the brick and mortar storefront come about?
Yes! Being that I loved creating and hosting events, Unglued naturally started and was only going to be a 1-day craft fest, But the wild success that makers had by being featured together at a “modern” Fest led to one of the Fest makers suggesting that we consider a fulltime shop! At the time, I was a nurse and hadn’t really considered the idea of a shop but absolutely loved helping give people a creative platform to connect to the community and the events that could happen through it. So, we tried it out! That immediate winter, we found a storefront on Broadway to do a short-term lease for the holidays thanks to a realtor that wouldn’t give up (Jay Nelson), opened Thursdays-Sundays for five weeks, and I worked my nursing job the other days. We found the same thing with the pop-up storefront– featuring modern makers together really vibed along with workshops and craft parties! So, about eight months later, Unglued opened as a gift shop on Broadway year-round in August of 2012 and I went to PRN with my nursing job and shortly after went totally full-time with Unglued.
4. The store uses a consignment model, which I assume helps keep your overhead lower because you have a lot of product variety and inventory. Is that a common model for a shop like yours and how did you go about your plan for this?
This is an interesting point that gets pretty complicated, but ultimately has worked for these past nine years mostly! Before we opened the shop, I took a road trip around the Midwest with my brother and a couple of friends and we visited every single shop down to Missouri that we could find that was remotely like what I pictured Unglued could be–vintage, handmade, coffee shops, workshops, etc. We were able to learn how they worked with local artists and makers and also what they found didn’t work. Just about everyone used some form of consignment with makers–it allowed them to take a larger amount and variety of items to try out and kept overhead lower. But we found by opening (and then closing 2.5 years later) our second location shop in Sioux Falls that consignment doesn’t really allow for scalability. Often, and in our case, we have less of a margin on the items we sell by doing consignment, so we need to be more careful with all our other overhead as we don’t have as much income to work with. So, it comes with its own weirdness! Some of the most valuable advice I ever got, and standby, was from that road tripincluding in Des Moines we visited a super fun salvage shop. I remember the owner telling me that we absolutely needed to incorporate events into our shop to keep it sustainable, interesting to people, and enjoyable. Which, of course, was like the best news ever to me because that’s all I could picture– events with a side of retail!
5. Ah yes, events! Unglued is known for its events. Why are events important?
Well first, I just love organizing and hosting creative events–ones that connect people to those creating (makers, artists) and ones that get people creative again! In our limited square footage, we do sell from a lot of makers, but we try to not duplicate too many categories to ensure those working with us the most success we can. So, we definitely have a limit on how much inventory we can bring in! But being able to organize –or help organize–craft markets and just promote those already happening in town, feels like the best possible way to ensure more makers get seen and the creative community grows. Then, doing events to inspire creativity like our workshops, private parties, and camps really fulfills the rest of our mission to connect people to their creative side. All of this leads to more exposure for our business and has really connected people to our mission in a deeper way.
6. Between your Fest, store and events, you’ve been at this for over 10 years now. What have you learned on the marketing side of things through trial and error?
I feel like everything we do is one big experiment– including marketing and promotion. Some things work great but only for a time until the next social media trend–and some things just flop altogether. But I’ve ultimately learned that people want to know who is behind the business–and in our case, who is behind the products we sell, experience behind-the-scenes of it all, and all of this only in a real, genuine and usually fun and snarky way. Which fortunately social media helps all of this be possible. We rarely do “traditional” marketing with our more limited budget but use Instagram and Facebook and our newsletter to connect people to all the things most often! And, again, events are at our core and just so happen to also be a great way to promote and connect all the aspects that are Unglued.
7. I recall your participation in the SBA Emerging Leaders program. What can you tell me about that experience?
Jumping into the SBA Emerging Leaders program at the moment that our Sioux Falls location was starting to become unsustainable was one of our biggest gamechangers. Having other business owners in our “CEO groups” to meet with and have outside perspectives on what was happening was insanely valuable. We created a multi-year growth plan that eventually helped me feel confident about what we needed to do with Sioux Falls. It also helped me become more self-aware of what my risk tolerance was and reconcile what I was willing to risk with the type of decisions I was making. We also were one of the two small businesses in North Dakota that were selected to attend the SCORE American Small Business training in Texas, which was another moment of sticking with our mission and moving forward. Plus, meeting with Paul Smith with the SBDC any time we’ve got really big changes coming up has been another gamechanger in making decisions for us.
8. Will you please tell me more about what you mean by reconciling your risk tolerance?
I talk about this a lot now. It can become so easy as an entrepreneur to make decisions that seem like the next natural step to do or maybe you feel pressured to. But if they are leading you to a life you don’t want to live in the first place, then you’ll naturally burn out or want to quit–or you’ll keep doing it and hate it. So, learning how much and what type of risks you’re willing to take in your business is huge! Personally, financially, with your family, etc. I learned with Sioux Falls I was willing to take a lot of risks and even chose to take out a second home mortgage to keep our payroll afloat–but I wasn’t willing to risk losing Unglued all together and what we created, so I ultimately did close it. But the more I’ve experienced and failed my risk tolerance has increased. This also leads to what I love so much and read in “The Life and Times of a Remarkable Misfit: A Collection of Essays About Changing the World”– sometimes you grow just for sake of growth, but it can too easily become a “sanitized” version of what you created. We think about this a lot with expanding events or before we add on something!
9. If you could go back in time to Ashley from several years ago, what hindsight advice would you give yourself?
No one else knows what they are doing either. And you don’t have to fit anyone else’s mold, even in business. It amazes me how much we all think we must have figured out before we just try. But I’d also add in that sometimes following the traditional “rules” of business, or just straight up retail, are necessary to keep your dream a reality.
10. What can we do as a community to help Unglued succeed?
It’s really all about creating the community you want to live in by what you support–which we learned in a huge way this past 1.5 years due to the COVID situation! When a business or a type of event is important to you to exist in your community, it only will if you show up for it. So just showing up is huge! Whether it’s stopping by the shop to check out what new handcrafted goodness makers are making, heading to a local craft market–by us or by others, valuing handmade and the creativity behind it, or coming to hang out to get crafty at a future event, all of it will continue to grow this creative community and the mission we are here to live out.
John Machacek has been helping local startups with the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation since prior to his position with the GFMEDC. Before joining the team, Machacek was the VP of Finance & Operations at United Way of Cass-Clay and a business banker at U.S. Bank.