Inventory. Customer service. Confusing point of sale systems. When you start, manage, and grow a small business, there are so many details that can keep you in the weeds. But once you hit your stride, things have a way of falling into place so you can focus on the bigger picture, brainstorm ways to grow, and savor those moments when you’re reminded of why you started your business in the first place.
Three successful small business owners — Jhoanna Belfer, Shannon Maldonado, and Mei Lum — know the challenges of running a business while also setting their sights on something bigger: creating a space for community. Belfer, the owner of Bel Canto Books in Long Beach California, hand-picks books for each customer, highlighting writers of color. Maldonado, owner and creative director of shop and design studio Yowie (also known as Philly’s coolest boutique), curates and designs home and life collections with independent artists across the globe. And Lum, fifth-generation owner of Wing on Wo & Co. (the oldest operating store in the heart of New York’s Chinatown) juggles everyday business responsibilities while serving as the founder of the W.O.W. Project, a nonprofit working to grow, protect, and preserve Chinatown’s creative community through arts, culture, and activism.
These entrepreneurs have oriented their businesses to be sources of togetherness, inspiration, and support for their communities. Even as their day-to-day lives as small business owners evolve, prioritizing community has helped them retain focus and purpose. Here are the lessons they’ve learned while making lasting connections with their customers and changing their pockets of the world for the better.
Lesson #1: Discover your purpose
A successful business is about more than just selling products. Working with an inspiration and greater goal in mind will keep you going when the day to day gets tough.
Jhoanna Belfer: I had been working at the same company for quite a long time, and as I was trying to think of what I wanted to do next, I was able to see a fiction writer and bookstore owner [at a writing conference]. She talked about the fact that her bookstore had become a place for her community to gather, a place that people could come and learn about new things, get excited about books, and have challenging conversations with people.
At the end of the Q&A, somebody said, “What can we do if we want to change things in our own community?” And she said, “If you can, open a bookstore.” That set off a light bulb in my head. I love books. I have this background in sales, I’ve worked in retail. Could I take my business background, and marry it with a passion for literature and help to create a deeper sense of community in Long Beach? That’s where I got the start.
Mei Lum: Wing on Wo & Co. was founded by my great-great-grandfather in 1890 as a general store, selling canned goods, and a small collection of porcelain. We acted as an informal postage service for folks to send letters to and from China to their relatives. It was an informal gathering space for folks to keep track of each other, to catch up on the neighborhood gossip, and buy their groceries.
We moved to our current location in 1925. In 1964, my grandmother took over and turned the business into more of a specialty porcelain shop. 2016 is when I decided to step in as the fifth-generation owner of the business — my family was about to walk into the sunset and shutter.
This is my fifth year running Wing on Wo & Co. and also running our nonprofit arm, the W.O.W. Project. My decision to take over [the family business] was out of a desire to resist the gentrification and displacement that’s happening [in Chinatown]. It was more of a political, radical act than like, I want to be a business owner. I don’t really see myself as a traditional small business owner. I see myself more as a community organizer, a social entrepreneur, and a cultural worker. The social mission is so much at the heart of what I do and why I do it: A storefront space can contribute beyond economic exchange. It can be a place of conversation, politicization, and storytelling.
Shannon Maldonado: I had been working in larger corporate fashion brands for almost a decade, and I really liked what I was doing. But I wasn’t being creatively challenged anymore. I wanted to do something that would take me out of my comfort zone. I love design, I love art, I always have. I always bring home things from other countries when I travel for work, whether it’s a T-shirt or ceramic. It made me think, could I create a modern souvenir shop? I wanted to start small, so we started the webshop with just 12 products. But we just kept growing, and after that first pop-up, I thought oh, maybe there is something here. Getting to connect one-on-one with people and [telling] the stories of the artists we were working with, and where things came from — I love the in-person aspect of communicating objects, and sharing things that we love with others.
Lesson #2: Make it meaningful
One of the most rewarding parts of being a small business owner is when your customers become a community — and when, together, you can make an impact.
Jhoanna Belfer: In March, we saw an exponential rise in anti-Asian violence, and two friends that I had made in the Bookstagram community invited me to participate in a campaign we launched on social media, #StandUpForAAPI. It was a week-long campaign where we asked people to talk about their experiences as Asian American or Pacific Islanders and highlight AAPI authors. By the end, we had thousands of people participating. We put together an AAPI essentials reading list and had it on our website, and donated a portion of our sales to four different AAPI organizations.
Being able to work together to create real change was so important for us. We asked people to do something in the world, whether it was to donate their time, or their money, or to write to their local libraries or publishers to say, Hey, we want more AAPI books. That was really a powerful moment. Seeing people posting photos of their parents or their grandparents, and talking about what their family’s experience was coming to America, and what it’s been like for them growing up. We thought, “We’ll get 50, 100 people to participate.” In the end, we had thousands participating.
Mei Lum: A PhD student named Diane Wong invited me to help conduct interviews with community stakeholders [in Chinatown]. Those conversations illuminated a lot for me and brought in this really valuable, larger, contextual piece about what Chinatown has been going through with economic displacement, housing displacement, and cultural displacement. It made me want to be an active member in resisting that.
We were inspired to bring those conversations into a community space, and, naturally, the shop was the only space that we had access to. We rolled out a summer series [in 2016] where we talked about the community concerns that were on the top of folks’ minds. It then snowballed into a full-on community initiative.
We just finished a mural right across the street from W.O.W. that was produced in partnership with the Smithsonian APA Center and a queer Asian artist named Jess X. Snow. It was about creating a portal to our future where our Asian community is safe, as a direct response to the killings in Atlanta and the recent increase in anti-Asian violence. We just unveiled it and had performers, artists, and musicians come. It was super well attended; we had over 200 people there.
Shannon Maldonado: Last year, we started doing free online workshops, and we tried to make them more hands-on than what was being offered [at other shops]. We were just like, Let’s try something together. Let’s cook this dish or do a still life drawing class, together across the world. Doing things outside of selling products was huge for us. Showing that we see ourselves as a friend and not just a storefront really resonated with a lot of people.
We actually have a big master plan for next year; we’re currently in talks to purchase a building in our neighborhood with some new business partners to open a boutique hotel above our store. Our dream is that you can come to Philadelphia, stop at our shop, get a coffee in our cafe, rent our photo studio, or stay in one of our 12 boutique hotel rooms. Philly has so much to offer, and we want to make sure we do what we can to show people the city through our eyes.
Last June, instead of boarding up our store, I put a message of support in the window, a first-person essay about race. People were so happy that we were able to do that versus closing off our space. I feel like every time I kind of put myself out there in that way —unexpectedly — we get this abundance of support. And I think it’s because it shows we are a human-led business, and we always will be. I always try to share as many resources as I can. I’ve done workshops with local nonprofits to help artists understand how to price their work and how to pitch to shops like mine. There’s a lot of information that’s not out there and that creates a barrier of entry for people. Trying to be a leader that leads with empathy and vulnerability is something that I had no idea would be part of my brand, but it’s probably become one of the biggest parts.
Lesson #3: Celebrate your wins
Take a step back and let all you’ve accomplished sink in. No matter how small a win, it’s worth celebrating.
Jhoanna Belfer: For me, it’s always been about connecting with the community. Being able to work together to create real change [with the AAPI social campaign] and highlighting authors who aren’t getting the critical acclaim that they deserve, that was really a powerful moment for us. Now I have people coming in saying, I just want to tell you how much your store means to me. It’s so amazing to see this kind of representation.
Mei Lum: In the midst of doing research [for the mural unveiling], I came upon my name on the Chinatown Manhattan Wikipedia page. It wasn’t just a one-liner. I thought, Wow, this feels super real. The idea that a layperson online found us to be significant and important is exciting to me. My family was also featured in New York magazine’s The Cut. That also felt like a really big moment for us because we were able to represent our legacy as three generations of women and have our story be uplifted. To be able to have my family be recognized for all the decades of work that they’ve put into Wing on Wo & Co. feels really, really amazing.
Shannon Maldonado: Our very first pop-up was so magical. At that time, I didn’t have any real expectations for Yowie, other than I really wanted to feel inspired again. It was all these elements coming together — being vulnerable, putting our first collection out there in a physical way, and meeting new people. It all came together on this perfect night. Seeing people come alive and interact with everything, their eyes lighting up, that was such an amazing validation of what I’d been dreaming of Yowie to be. We see Yowie as not only a store, but a platform and a place for people to be inspired and connect with artists and other people. Sometimes it’s tough, and it can be exhausting. But I still think it’s worth it.
Jhoanna, Mei and Shannon know there’s more to a successful business than the bottom line. With a strong community, a greater purpose, and some help from PayPal Zettle, you’ll be on your way to building your business into something special.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.