Quitting everything and opening your own small, charming shop that supports local business is a dream of both romcom protagonists and Brooklynites alike. Instead of just dreaming about it though, Gaia DiLoreto actually quit her job and did it, opening By Brooklyn, the only store in existence that sells goods made exclusively right here in Kings County. The original shop in Cobble Hill has been so successful that DiLorento was able to open a second store in Williamsburg this year. Since we have dreams of ditching the regular grind too, we asked DiLoreto the secrets to doing it.
According to LinkedIn, your last job prior to opening By Brooklyn was as an IT Support manager for Tower Group Companies. How did you go from that to opening By Brooklyn?
I left Tower Insurance because I was tired of working in a field I didn’t care about. Somehow I became an IT Manager and I didn’t know how to fix a computer myself! I took some time to just be, about six months, and then enrolled in the Culinary Management program at the Institute of Culinary Education. I liked the idea of being in the food business but I didn’t want to be in the kitchen. While in the program I learned about the farm-to-table movement, explored urban farming and learned about the food maker movement happening in Brooklyn. An article in the Times inspired me even more, and then I got an email about Brooklyn honey, which sealed the deal. Why not have a store where you could find all of these great items? I developed my business plan in the program, which I graduated from in October 2010. I opened my first shop in Carroll Gardens in April, 2011.
Also, that was a three-year period. What else did you do during that time?
I hustled to make money. I worked for Arthur Schwartz, made and sold cookies over the holidays, assisted a divorce mediator, and babysat. I even sold frozen cookie dough to a local coffee shop so they could create that yummy smell in the cafe.
Opening a cute retail store is a dream for 99 percent of creative Brooklynites, but few can pull it off. How did you pull it off? Did your background in IT help?
I had no idea what I was doing, but I new what I wanted so somehow I was able to make it all happen. I think my ignorance was bliss! I opened the store on a shoestring budget and with a lot of help from friends and family. They gave me small loans, helped with demolition and painting and helped me find products for the store. My corporate background gave me strong organizational and negotiating skills. I understood the importance of systems and processes. The idea for the store wasn’t ‘oh won’t it be fun to open a little shop.’ I knew from the beginning I wanted to create a successful and thriving business that would be more than just one shop.
How hard is it to find an affordable storefront in Brooklyn?
I found the listing on Craigslist! I was very fortunate that Stinky Brooklyn was growing and had just vacated the PERFECT store front. I went through a local real estate agent. It’s an owner occupied building, which I’ve now learned is really important. Landlords who live in their buildings have a better gauge of their community and as a result may care more about the type of tenants they have and how much they charge.
What has been the hardest part of opening By Brooklyn?
The biggest challenge of opening and growing the business is the seasonal fluctuation of retail. It’s the nature of the beast to be slammed in December and dead in January. Learning how to manage that along with terrible winters or rainy summers is tough, but it’s also an opportunity to get creative and do fun and different things, like our French Bulldog Party and Oktoberfest Party, pop-up shows with local jewelers, and our Happy Hour Series.
What has been the best part?
The relationships I’ve developed over the last 4 years — with my staff, Brooklyn makers, our customers, fellow business owners, and puppies.
JFK! I want to open a shops or kiosks at JFK and LaGuardia Airports. It’s time to provide travelers an alternative to the plastic junk made in China that’s branded NYC. I’m working on a business plan and looking for partnerships to pull this off.
Corporate job vs. DIY retail store. Which is better and why?
Definitely DIY retail — but I’m glad I worked corporate for 12 years. The jobs provided a great education, about business and company culture. I learned how to be assertive and ask for what I needed. But DIY retail gives me room to be creative and innovative, both sorely lacking in the corporate world.
In May you opened a second store in Williamsburg. How do you know when you are ready to expand? Is there a formula?
I wish there were a formula. I always knew I wanted By Brooklyn to be more than a single storefront. Opening the first shop in Carroll Gardens made sense because I was already established in the community, and honestly, Williamsburg was a little intimidating. But as the business has grown and especially with our growing popularity among tourists it was really an easy decision — Williamsburg is a destination and By Brooklyn needed to be a part of that buzz.
Time for your shameless plug: what great things are you are selling right now?
I really don’t like picking favorites! But if you insist — we just started carrying these cute little letterpress notebooks from Pepper Press. Notebooks and journals have been hard to come by so it’s great to add to our shelves. I’m also a big fan of the Tomato Achaar from Brooklyn Delhi, it’s always in my refrigerator at home — a spoonful mixed in with half an avocado is fantastic. I’m also a big fan of SdV Designs, I own a couple of pieces of Saskia’s jewelry and always get great compliments!
What’s your single best piece of career advice for the aspiring small business owner?
Well really there are two. Trust your gut — when it comes to financial decisions, staffing, customers, anything, you have to trust yourself. If you’re partnering with someone, SIGN A FORMAL AGREEMENT. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have been burned by friends — it’s business, not friendship!
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