Did we ever expect to be sitting here today, writing this? Well, yes and no. When The Silk Road was born in 2008, we were really excited about our business idea and thought it could work. But I don’t think we ever imagined that 10 years after opening, we’d have grown to 3 locations in 2 cities and almost 30 people on the team.
We’ve been asked a lot over the years how we got started. There’s a short version and a medium version of the story that we tell, but we’ve never really written down the whole thing.
The Silk Road Spice Merchant started as a lark, almost. A kind of hobby business that might occupy some of the long hours at home that come with parenting a baby. The idea for it truly came out of a passion for cooking and searching for ingredients. We never saw it as a “entrepreneurial” opportunity, and there was no thought of striking it rich with our million-dollar idea. It just seemed fun, like, “Hey – how come there are no spice shops around with spices from every cuisine and good packaging and good information and good service? Somebody should do that.” Eventually, that conversation became, “We should do that.” Because we had day jobs (a community-health nurse and a marketing writer), we decided that we could work away at it during nights and weekends and launch it as an online business. If it paid for itself, then great – we could keep it going until it wasn’t fun anymore. If not, well, the initial investment wasn’t that much, and we could treat it as an adventure and a learning experience. Our idea of success was that maybe one day it could give us a living – a way to work for ourselves and have a quiet little business we could be proud of and enjoy working at.
So we converted our garage into a workshop and spent a year planning. It’s a little like playing Sims or fantasy sports during the early phases. You give yourself a budget and then decide how to spend it: a certain amount for branding and design, a certain amount for inventory and supplies, a certain amount for marketing and advertising. You do hours and hours of research and planning, learning all about business (in general), your product, and the competition. You search for suppliers and request samples. You incorporate a business and get a license and insurance and do all kinds of other paperwork. You make a thousand decisions about packaging and pricing and everything else. You create a business plan and then sit back and laugh (and/or cry) at how much you’ll have to sell to break even in five years. It’s so much work, and you become emotionally invested in your plan. But it feels like a game. None of it seems entirely real until a customer gives you money for your product.
We flipped the switch to turn on our website on June 9, 2009. It looked really good, we thought. We made a conscious effort to seem well-established right out of the gate. Nobody trusts an amateur-looking online business, so we spent a lot of time and effort on photography, writing and design. We obsessed over details, many of which customers likely never would have noticed anyway. And we waited to see if people would find us. Our first four or five orders came from family. Then from a few friends and work colleagues. Then from the sister of a friend. Then, a couple days later, from a name we didn’t recognize. A bona fide customer. A stranger. Someone who wasn’t just being supportive.
It was a weird feeling, to be honest. We were, at that moment, officially spice merchants. We were in business. That year of planning had come to at least the tiniest bit of fruition, and it felt pretty satisfying. Thinking back now on all those late-night hours in the garage with the baby monitor, it’s hard to believe that we saw it through even to that point. There is a lot of doubt that comes with starting a business. You put in hour after hour of work with no income at all, completely on the assumption that one day people will like your idea as much as you do and choose to be your customers. And of course, it doesn’t always work out. Lots of good ideas never find their audience. So you rehash your plans night after night, asking yourselves if this is really actually very stupid and you should be recommitting yourselves to your actual jobs. Plus then sooner or later you have to tell people what you’re up to. Some people are great talkers and self-promoters. They are naturally comfortable telling everybody about their plans and ideas and making contacts and selling themselves. Neither of us is that sort of person, and one of the most vivid memories I have of that time is telling friends and family that we were starting a spice business.
The reactions we got were mostly confused. Huh? What do you mean a spice business? Like oregano? Why? There was some polite support. There were a lot of “herb” jokes, this being around 10 years before cannabis legalization. There were comments from people with business experience about how difficult it would be to turn a profit selling spices at $6 a jar. And there was concern from family members: “Please tell me you’re not spending a lot of money on this.” I only remember one or two people who legitimately seemed to think it was a good idea and were truly enthusiastic, and I still thank those people every now and then.
But we never resented the doubt or the doubters. After all, it seemed weird and half-baked to us too a lot of the time. In the end, our feeling was that they would understand it once they saw it. We had a vision for how it would be and were pretty confident that if we executed the idea in a way that made us excited, customers would be excited too. And to be fair, it’s not like we were the first to have this idea. There were other places in Toronto, Montreal, and the States that were doing something similar to what we envisioned. We just believed we could do it better.
After a few weeks of being open for business, the orders were trickling in, one or two a day. We would come home from work, eat, get our daughter to bed, and then go out to the garage to fill and ship the orders, answer an email or two, make spice blends (in batches of about 8 jars-worth at a time!), fiddle with our online ads, and think about all the million little things that had to be done. But the ball was undeniably rolling, and those first few weeks turned into the first few months. We applied for, and got, a temporary stall at the Calgary Farmers’ Market for a few weeks before Christmas. One of us took a leave from their job, and we ramped up production a bit. In early November, we got our first taste of actually speaking to customers face-to-face. That was the experience that really told us we had something that could succeed. The response from customers over those six weeks at the market was very good, and people seemed happy with the quality of our spices and the fact that we existed at all. So we transitioned to a permanent stall and started thinking more seriously about a full brick-and-mortar location.
The rest can be described pretty quickly: one of us never went back to work, and the other went down to half-time. We found (after one serious false start) an inexpensive, out-of-the-way store location. We worked more long hours to set it up and decorate it in a way that matched the feel of our website. We hired a couple of family members to help out occasionally, then eventually hired a couple of seasonal employees for the holiday season. Then eventually, a couple of permanent part-timers, then eventually a full-timer. We agonized over the amount of labour we needed to produce and sell enough product to pay for that labour and wondered how we would ever pay ourselves. But soon, it grew enough to move to a better location in Inglewood, and then enough to open an Edmonton store…and now here we are.
We remember those early few years fondly, because we worked hard, made careful decisions, and took calculated risks. And it worked out and we created something that we’re really proud of. But in the many years since those days, all the success is due to a wonderful team of people that works really, really hard seven days a week to keep the place running and to keep the personality of the business just the way we designed it. It's so gratifying for us to have all these great people sharing in that early idea: making blends, jarring spices, filling online orders, shipping those orders, helping customers, creating displays and art, ordering and receiving inventory, answering phone calls and emails, working with restaurants and other businesses, stocking shelves, and of course managing and coordinating all the moving pieces. The list of stuff that gets done on a daily basis goes on and on, and this amazing group of people (past and present) who makes it all happen is like the big, wacky family we never imagined we would have.
And lastly, where would we be without customers? The answer is sitting in the garage staring at the website and waiting for it to ping. You don’t survive to ten years without a loyal customer base to keep you afloat. So to all of you out there who have talked to our staff about what you were making for dinner, told your friends about us, given spices as gifts, taken a chance on a website you just found, brought your in-laws to see our store, tweeted about your favourite spice blend, brought your baking (or your preserves, or your jerky, or your beer) into the store for us to try, recommended our cinnamon, or just reliably and quietly bought our spices…we thank you and thank you and thank you.