There are two conflicting but inevitable realities of entrepreneurship.
The rest is that in order to succeed, you need to believe in your idea, heart and soul. The second is that in order to succeed, you need to be willing to abandon it at any given time.
Ciara Stockeland admittedly used to struggle with the latter.
“I think it’s very common among small business owners and entrepreneurs,” says Stockeland, the 37-year-old owner of MODE, a Fargo-based chain of boutiques that sells overstock designer inventory at a fraction of the retail price. “You have in your mind what you think you’ll do, but if you aren’t willing to change your course to what your consumers are telling you, you won’t succeed.”
It seems obvious to her now, but the lesson was learned in a roundabout way after she opened chic maternity shop Mama Mia in Downtown Fargo in 2006.
“I wanted to build a brand, not just a hobby store,” says Stockeland, who was hoping
to capitalize on what she saw as a lack of fashionable maternity options in Fargo at the time. “I could envision that brand and I could envision beautiful maternity stores all across the country.”
Mama Mia saw a steady stream of business, but a few months after opening, an unexpected phone call was about to reroute her entrepreneurial GPS.
The voice on the other end of the line belonged to her husband’s boss, the owner of a regional logistics company who had two truckloads of overstock merchandise that was collecting dust and needing to be liquidated.
“He said, ‘You have a maternity store. I have a load of product,” Stockeland recalls. “‘Can we put it in your store, and will you sell it?’ And I said, ‘Well, we absolutely cannot put
it in my store, but I can open something next door to it.’ And so six months later, we opened a second store.”
She called it MODE and she was sure it would be nothing more than a pop-up shop and a one-off way to make a few extra bucks. Until it took off.
“It just appealed to everyone,” says Stockeland, who knew she’d struck gold, or at the very least, silver. “Instead of that short, four-to-five-month customer with maternity, I now had the masses.”
So what was the problem?
“I think it’s a common mistake with boutique owners, being stuck in what they like,” Stockeland says. “We like this, but our consumer is buying this. But we can’t keep buying this just because we like it. In any industry, you have to be willing to adjust.”
In a move that she now admits was an attempt to mitigate any narrative of failure, Stockeland merged the concepts in 2008 and brought the outlet over into the boutique.
“My husband would always say, ‘You quit Mama Mia and you started MODE,'” Stockeland says. “And I’d go, ‘No, no, no, we had them both and we merged them.’ I think it was my way of saying I didn’t fail at something.
“As an entrepreneur, you’re always like, ‘I don’t want to say I quit that.’ Because that means it didn’t work or I didn’t succeed at it.”
Onward and Upward
By 2010, Stockeland knew that MODE was much more than a mom-and-pop and she was ready to expand.
“We said, ‘Okay, we’re ready to build this brand. How are we going to do that?'” she says. “Because owning stores three, six, eight hours away and managing all those employees with our young children is not something I wanted to do. Having to hop in the car and always be gone.”
So she came up with another solution.
“We liked the idea of franchising and the
idea that local owners would know their communities and have skin in the game,” says Stockeland, who now has 11 franchises in six different states and is aiming to open 75 within the next 10 years. “The storeowner says, ‘I’m invested. This is mine. I’m going to grow it.’ Instead of us going in, researching, contacting people, and establishing that chamber-of-commerce relationship in each city, which I think is crucial to small business.”
There are, of course, drawbacks to the franchise model and one in particular that Stockeland says she still struggles with.
“You’re giving up your brand,” she says. “You’re putting it in the hands of other people and you have a very small window. It’s like hiring a team. You have three interviews maybe—for a total of an hour and a half— and you have to gure out what that person’s work ethic is, what their mindset is. It’s the same thing with franchising. It’s a longer process obviously, but it’s still very limited.
“You’re giving them your brand that you
built and saying, ‘Here you go. Make this successful.’ Having good systems and processes in place really helps with that. Good guidelines and parameters of, ‘Here’s what you can do. Here’s what you can’t do.'”
And there are additional hurdles that newer franchises face, Stockeland explains.
“With an emerging franchise, the dif culty is that those who want to franchise with you are most likely more entrepreneurial,” she says. “If we had 100 units, that franchisee would be a different type of business owner. They’re very process-driven. But those types of franchisees aren’t going to buy into a new brand.
“So you’re bringing in people who have a lot of ideas, and that’s why they’ll come on at the beginning. But then you also have the problem of a lot of ideas. It’s a balancing act.”
Stockeland says the appeal of her stores is simple: people are tired of choosing between shopping in a warehouse or paying full price.
“What makes MODE unique is the small boutique atmosphere,” she says. “When you have outlet or off-price, it’s always a big-box like T.J. Maxx or Marshalls. And
we said, ‘Why can’t we still have a beautiful environment and comfortable place to shop but then have the deals inside of it?’ The idea is to make women feel like they have a comfortable and organized place to shop for deals.”
MODE’s $40-$50 denim and $15-$30 tops—marked down from $90-$250 and $30-$120, respectively—resonate with Midwest shoppers, especially, who she says have a unique appreciation for a good deal and fierce brand fidelity.
“Consumers in the Midwest are very value- driven,” says Stockeland, who is currently focusing MODE’s expansion on the I-29 corridor, from North Dakota all the way down to Texas. “They like price and they’re very loyal consumers. To build a retail brand with people who say, ‘I love shopping at MODE. This is where I’ll always shop.’ There’s something to that.”
Stockeland senses that there’s more to it, though. She says that as a number of big- name brands have begun to manufacture products specifically for their outlet stores, consumers have caught on.
“We always like to say that we are a true outlet,” she says. “I think that’s something that customers have become very disenchanted with is the idea of outlets. Because you go to a big outlet mall, and we all know that they produce now for those stores. It’s different than how they started. But what you find (at MODE) was meant for a full-price store and is deeply discounted.
“Coach is one that our customers always complain to me about. When they used to go to Coach outlets, they were buying things that were from a Coach store. And now
they produce a lot for those stores, and the production is going to be a little different. They’re not getting something that was actually at Nordstrom. And some consumers don’t care, but I think a lot of them do.”
Tough but Fair
While Stockeland is the first to tell you she has her imperfections—she’s working on slowing down and being able to sit still
for more than 10 minutes at a time—her success isn’t hard to understand. She’s a good blend of old- and new-school, perhaps evidenced best by her unique take on workplace culture.
“When we talk about culture,” she says,
“It isn’t so much about having snacks
always accessible or having TV time in the afternoon—those pieces that are spoken about a lot right now. To us, culture is making sure our employees are taken care of. We’ve always done that. I didn’t start collecting a regular paycheck until about a year and a half ago, but my employees have always received their paycheck on time. That’s a culture piece to us.
“Making sure that whenever we can possibly give any type of raise, we do it. Even if that means I still don’t get a paycheck. That’s a culture piece. Also, not just selling someone a store and saying, ‘See ya.’ I want them to be leaders in their community and what that looks like could be that they’re really involved in nonpro ts, it could be that they’re building their own team so they can open a second store or it could be that they become a better mom. But I’m still a little old-school when it comes to, ‘You’re at work to work.'”
Stockeland’s also a third-generation entrepreneur and a native Fargoan and, as such, says she feels a unique responsibility to the area and her team of 12.
“In a community where you’re born
and raised, there’s so much given to
you, and it creates the person you are,” says Stockeland, who, despite logistical inefficiencies, has kept MODE’s corporate headquarters and shipping operations in Fargo. “And so to be able to give back and be able to give jobs to women from this area is pretty fantastic.”
4302 13th Ave. S #13, Fargo