Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Goat Farms, Wool and Making a Business Of What You Love

Laura Zander Amidst Her Yarns
It’s getting easier to make a living doing what you really enjoy. Especially since there seem to be enough customers who can afford to indulge their taste for artisanal or handcrafted products. Jimmy Beans Wool was founded in 2002 by  software engineer  Laura Zander who, afraid of losing work during the slump in Silicon Valley, decided to move to Truckee, California, near  Lake Tahoe. Spending a lot of time in the car on weekend ski trips Laura had become obsessed with knitting. When she took a part time job building a website for a graphics designer, she sold an ad to a local hand- dyed Yarn Company, which sparked the idea for what has become Jimmy Beans Wool. A shop built around her knitting hobby seemed like a good idea, and with their tech backgrounds, Laura, with her husband Doug, figured in time they could extend their reach with an internet business.  They invested $30,000 of their own money in a 500-square foot retail store  offering coffee to the knitters too.  And customers came and loved the yarns and the service.
     Today, ten years later, after dropping the coffee, Jimmy Beans Wool  (Jimmy is Laura’s nickname and beans were for the coffee) offers knitters around the world a wide selection of the finest yarns and knitting supplies available. With more than 98% of revenues derived from internet sales, Jimmy Beans Wool customers are spread across  the US, Canada, Australia,  with a recent order from Uzbekistan too.  The company  imports   yarns from South America, Turkey and Italy. Revenues have been increasing by 30%, every year, and are expected to exceed $7 million in 2012.
     Laura Zander attributes her success to timing because she started the company when “magazines were filled with pictures of Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz and other celebrities knitting.” Then too scarves were in vogue , so a group of Lake Tahoe women would pop in and spend $100-$500 on yarns to take home to knit into scarves.  But the other ingredient in   Jimmy Beans’ success is customer engagement, which has won the company several awards.  Along with her tag line, “your local yarn store—online,” Laura writes bimonthly newsletters keeping her online customers informed of trends and fashions; her site also offers 1100 free instructional videos, helping customers with everything from the practical, such as how to turn a heel,  to the more exotic, such as  how to do Tunisian crochet.   In addition, all the instruction is explained  in simple, encouraging words which make a customer feel she is asking a good friend for help. Whenever there is a question about an order, or a pattern, customer service is a click or phone call away—always answered promptly by a friendly voice.
    Her demographic, Laura notes, consists of 25-65-year old women nationwide but especially in cities “where people don’t have time to shop or easy access to yarn stores.”  Recently, she moved the company into a 20,000 square foot space in a light industrial area of Reno; though she still has a retail space in a shopping mall in Reno, the expanded warehouse space houses all   40 employees who handle the inventory, distribution and shipping, along with allowing some extra space for retail. Laura’s human resource “rule” is that “every new employee  starts at the bottom by pulling orders.” It’s a good way, she says, of “teaching hires that every job is vitally important to our business.” It also gives both new employees, and Laura, a chance to see what people are best at.  
     For future growth, Jimmy Beans Wool plans to venture into fabrics, especially for quilting, which Laura says is an even bigger potential market.  Plus “50% of knitters also sew” and some “back to basics hipsters” have come on the scene with beautiful fabrics Laura is happy to offer on her site.
      When Louisa Conrad married Lucas Farrell in 2010, wedding guests were encouraged to give gifts to help her and her new husband make a foray into goat farming.  “We wound up with enough money to put together our first small herd and some milk cans, shinier than I’ve ever seen on any other farm.” A  Middlebury College graduate, Louisa had originally planned on a career as an artist-teacher, but after a stint as intern at Blue Ledge Farm, a goat farm in Leicester, Vermont, Louisa began to think about how much she loved farm life which started feeling like a high concept art piece.   “It seemed like a more raw version of life, ” Louisa says,  “ that very much pulses with the weather, with our water buckets often frozen in the morning, the tractors hesitant to start-up, the moon just setting. Plus we just  fell in love with goats and their strong personalities.”
Louisa Conrad With Her Herd
    Her company, Big Picture Farm, is located on  43 acres about 17 miles north of Brattleboro, Vermont. Currently, the only structure on her land  is a lean-to to shelter the  goats, but a barn is in the works. After morning milking,  Louisa spends the rest of  her day housed in a regional incubator in Brattleboro,  working on her first product—goat milk caramels, lightly dusted with sea salt.  After weeks of experimenting with chemical composition, Louise  started test marketing her first product at local farm markets.  Though she still makes some cheese, she decided to work more on what she calls “farmstead confections” to sell as gifts “to leave me some room for creativity in the presentation.” ( The package label includes Louisa’s drawing of a goat).  
     To boost her online sales,  Louisa also targets specialty cheese stores nationwide.  Two early adopters have been Murray’s Cheese  and Zabar’s,  high end specialty stores in New York City. Capitalizing on the farm origins, Louisa soon plans to code each package for mobile phones to allow consumers to see a short video of the goat on the day it was milked for the caramels the customer is eating!
    Last month, Big Picture Farms was awarded a grant of about $49,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its “value added agricultural innovation.” With her government funds, Louisa plans to hire additional confectioners,   so she can experiment with caramels with chocolate coatings or spices, starting with chai. Though Louisa admits she simply enjoys living a holistic life, she now finally has begun to envision the possibility of financial success and sustainability for Big Picture Farm.  Again, nature stands ready to give her a boost in the next few weeks-- when  “my 12 girls give birth to more  kids.”


  1. Even though this is kind of a "man job" women like them are open in doing it with passion. So proud to be a woman and to know these people.

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