Friday Entrepreneurs: Mimi Ting, Mingle

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote about the poor customer service I received at a tux shop where I went to get measured. Today, I want to tell you about a GREAT customer service experience I had. I went into a store called Mingle to buy a shirt, and the woman at the register forgot to give it back. Two days later, I finally realized my credit card was missing, and I called them up to figure out a time to get it back. The woman, Mimi, owns the shop, and she apologized profusely. Then, a few minutes later, she called me back and offered to drive it to me wherever I was so I wouldn’t have to inconvenience myself. Eventually, she ended up opening early so I could pick up the credit card from her.

Now that’s great customer service.

And then I thought more about her store. When I went in there, there was a “Please Yelp me!” placard on her desk. I love companies that openly ask their customers to evaluate them, which means they’re listening and changing to what people are saying. And, no surprise, when I checked out the Yelp reviews for Mingle, they were almost all positive. (As Mimi says, “I am unsure why other stores don’t encourage their client reviews.”)

As I dug around online, I discovered that her store has a frequently updated blog and lots of things written about her. She uses the classic marketing strategy used by bloggers when they ask others to guest write: If someone else writes on your blog, they’ll link to it, ensuring more people visiting your site. Same for her — she carries lots of independent designers’ clothing, who of course tell people to visit Mingle.

Beyond that, her interview below tells how she found the space herself (through Craigslist), looked at other business plans before making hers, and how the hardest part is not getting a store up, but keeping it going. Running a retail store is a tough, tough business. Mimi runs her store on one of the most competitive retail streets in San Francisco, and she’s built up a great following from her customers and the designers whose clothes she sells. Check out her interview below.

What is Mingle?
MINGLE is a boutique that features the works of local and independent designers. By definition, mingle means “to mix or bring together in combination, usually without loss of individual characteristics”. Our store reflects a mix of styles and creations from many talents, but together, they tell a cohesive story. We offer clothing and accessories for both men and women.

How’s it different than other retail stores?
We are different than a typical retail store in that we primarily work with independent designers. Therefore, many of our merchandise are one of a kind or limited in quantity. Also, because many of our designers produce their own pieces, our price points are much more reasonable than that of other specialty boutiques.

When I went in your store, I noticed a placard that said “Yelp us!” Then I looked up your Yelp reviews and was surprised to see how universally positive the reviews were. What made you put up the placard? Why don’t other stores do this?
I became involved with Yelp two years ago and really loved the concept of “user based reviews”. As a consumer/user, it means I can obtain honest opinions about an establishment before I make a decision to patronize.

As a business owner, Yelp became an in integral way for me to obtain customer feedback. It is very important to me to know how our clients view our business. There is no better feedback than from customers who has had first hand experience shopping in our store. Yelpers are generally very generous with praises and definitely not shy with their complaints. Yelp reviews help us stay aware of what changes are necessary to keep up with our client’s expectations.

In addition to the Yelp Placecard, I also include a yelp link to our newsletters and encourage our customers to check out what others are saying, as well as giving us feedback through Yelp.

I am unsure why other stores don’t encourage their client reviews. Perhaps they are not familiar with Yelp or the benefits associated with it. Also, I believe that small business owners are often more involved with Yelp than major/chain business.

Your store is on one of the most expensive retail streets in San Francisco. How do you do it?
Lol, yes, Union Street is known to be “expensive” in terms of leasing space. There are various factors that dictate how “expensive” a space may be..i.e. sunny vs non sunny side of the street. which block you are located on…etc. I believe that we are in a great location and the size of our small boutique makes it manageable.

How’d you get started?
After college I spent about 5 years in the high tech industry doing various things from consulting to sales. I was enjoying the steady income but did not find my work gratifying. I didn’t quite know what I had wanted to do, or how to get started. However, I began visualizing doing something I love– something that challenges me to use all of my skills. Shortly after, I was introduced to someone who helped me get started financially. I applied the same visualization philosophy towards getting the store launched. I did not have any experience in retail or running my own business. However, I had a picture of what MINGLE should be, and I mapped out a plan on how to get there. This entailed doing research, identifying a location, creating a layout and theme for the store, and most importantly, bringing to together the designers/artist labels that represented MINGLE. I was so set on making MINGLE happen I didn’t believe in obstacles. Sure there were challenges.

For example, I had been warned about difficulties of finding a retail space..especially at a place like Union Street. The commercial leasing agents I contacted did not seem eager to assist me as a small business. I began my own search and believe it or not found current location through Craiglist. There were no lawyers and no agents involved. I went to every local trunkshow/sample sale to seek out designers. I also revisited Craig list to help me enlist designers outside of the city. I found that the local fashion community is very tight and open to supporting one another. People were very generous with referrals and from concept to launching the store it took me about 3 months.

I’m really interested in your outreach. We talked about Yelp, but you seem to be one of the few stores that reaches out to its customers in different ways (a blog, etc) and local talent.
Yes, as a boutique, our primary focus is working with independent designers. We provide up-and-coming designers a chance to showcase their goods and provide a bridge between the designers and the general public. By the same token, we are able to offer our clients unique and cool things that can’t easily be found somewhere else. Our designers love working with us because they enjoy the exposure and feedback to help them grow. Throughout the year we host various trunk shows and “meet the designer” events so our clients can preview new collections and meet the faces behind the fashion.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a retail business?
Follow your passion and your instincts, then create solid plan on making it happen. I sampled other people’s business plans to get ideas but created one based on my own goals. Clear financial goals must be set and met. It breaks my heart to hear about wonderful retail establishments going out of business due to lack of proper planning.

I received a fortune cookie once, “It is easy to open a shop, the hard part is keeping it open”. I am not even joking—I can’t tell you how true that is. One may think that the biggest challenge of running a business with is getting one started. In my experience, the bigger challenge is to keeping a positive outlook and maintaining the passion despite the responsibilities and the ups and downs associated with running the business. I am very fortunate to have many great clients who are constant reminders that I am still having fun doing what I am doing :)

mimi-mingle

Now what? Check out the Mingle web page. Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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6 Comments

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  1. Thanks for posting this. I’ve enjoyed the past Friday Entrepreneurs but for some reason this one really resonated more with me. Probably the fact that I’ve been putting a fair amount of thought towards how to stop working for someone else and get more satisfaction out of my work.

  2. I am doing a post referencing this great interview and it’s applicability to new lawyers wanting to open their own solo practice. Unfortunately, I don’t see a track back mechanism so I’m letting you know that the principles Mimi Ting applies to her retail business are universal, across professions. It’s not that you don’t know this…it’s that other professions don’t know how much they really have in common with successful retailers!

  3. Ramit,

    You got an thing for Mimi Ting? ;)
    (Perfectly understandable as she’s 5 levels past “Hot” [and I don't just mean in the looks department!]).

    NikR

  4. Love, love, love the quote about the easy part getting started.

    Anyone can get started, the tough part is continuing.

    Look at blogging. So many people started blogs. How many are still blogging after a year? How many hit…I don’t know…that first server move, being down for a week, and losing all the blog history…and kept blogging?

    Not darn many.

    And thank you for posting about women entrepreneurs. I’ll be linking to this article in multiple sites and mentioning it to other women bloggers.

  5. Thanks for that post. Well deserved – Mingle.

  6. I had never even heard of Yelp before this post… it’s interesting to see how people rate things around where I live. In regards to the actual content of the post – you would never be able to guess that the professional maturity and understanding of customer satisfaction would come from someone as young and hip-looking as Mimi!