All week, we're sharing stories of Strong Citizens on the Iron Range. They are neighborhood leaders, small business owners and everyday activists doing their part to make the Range a better place. We hope their stories inspire you to get active in your own community.
Suzanne Rian is the owner of Moxie, a clothing boutique in Hibbing, MN. She started the store eight years ago, during the 2008 recession, and has since watched her store blossom into a strong local business. I had the chance to talk with her to learn about how she got started and what has changed in the small business climate since she opened her store.
Rachel: Tell me about your background. Have you always lived on the Iron Range?
Suzanne: I grew up in Hibbing, MN. I moved away in 1995 to go the University of Minnesota and then I was gone for a long time. I worked around the state and went to a few different schools. In 2007, I was working a job I didn't much like and had just left a long-term relationship. I came home around the holidays and my dad said, "Move back here for a bit and see what you want to do." I fully intended for it to be a few months. I thought I might move to Chicago or Minneapolis.
Rachel: But you ended up staying. What kept you on the Iron Range?
Suzanne: While I was home for the holidays, a high school friend was passing through on her way to a wedding and completely forgot to pack fancy clothes. We looked all over and couldn’t find anything for her to wear. It surprised me because when I grew up here, there was a busy mall and shops downtown. Now we couldn’t find anything. In a small nearby town, half the size of Hibbing, she was able to find a few clothes finally.
That’s when I started to think about staying here, because it was so bizarre. When I grew up, we didn’t have to go out of town to get things. It was a shock to me that the local businesses had trickled away, and that it was normal for people to go out of town for shopping. That’s when I started thinking that maybe a clothing store was something needed.
Rachel: How did you get your store started? What were the initial challenges?
Suzanne: I took a few business classes through the University of Minnesota in Duluth. I was starting up in 2008, which was the worst time to try and find investors. Because of that, my dad is financially a partner. I didn’t want to have to go there, but I had done all the preparation and I had a plan. I had never owned a business before. I didn’t have a ton of collateral.
I started out with probably a quarter of the stock I have now. I painted the store myself with some help from people. I did and still do a lot of the grunt work. I think I thought it would be faster than it is. It’s taken time. When I started, I was very number driven, very methodical. I wanted the numbers to make sense, but it doesn’t seem to always add up. I can have 75% off and no one's in the store; I could have full price and everyone’s in the store. I learned really early on that you just kind of have to wait it out. If there’s a bad three days, it’s not going to be a bad three months. You kind of just have to stick with it.
In year 8 (now), I’m starting to think about potentially expanding. I'm working with the Entrepreneur Fund, which helps businesses in the region to grow.
Rachel: Tell me about where your business is located. Are there other businesses nearby?
Suzanne: I’m on First Ave, a block off of Howard, which is technically in the downtown of Hibbing. The businesses are somewhat spread out, but there are a few small groups of stores. It’s more of a destination spot. I’m close to Sunrise Deli. That provides some foot traffic thing next to me, but mostly people just come to visit my store.
Some people have asked me whether I would want to locate closer to other stores, closer to the center of the downtown. I think it would be nice to have everything more centrally located, but I don’t know if that would really change things. Moxie is only two blocks from other places. I'm also very emotionally attached to my building; it’s an old art deco building. It’s the perfect spot to me.
Rachel: You started Moxie eight years ago. What has changed since you opened the store?
Suzanne: The biggest shift has happened in the last year and a half. When I opened, I worked with a lot of small batch designers creating unique things, mostly manufactured in the US. Unfortunately, at the time, that was not what people were spending money on. I had a hard time pushing the eco-friendly fabrics and products in made in the US.
In the last year, I’ve refocused towards that. People aren’t questioning the cost as much. It might have to do with conversations about jobs overseas vs. here. I went to school for fashion design and worked retail management for many years. I think it’s the responsibility of people who are selling things to educate consumers about issues in the fashion industry. I really make it a point of pride to know who exactly is making my clothes. The response to that has been fantastic. People are thinking more eco-friendly and not buying throw-away clothes. When I was little we bought nice things and we didn’t have a ton of them. If I’m bringing something into my home, I want to love it. I want my customers to get compliments and feel good about what they wear.
Rachel: Have you noticed any changes in the small business community since you started?
Suzanne: There’s more activity downtown than when I first moved here. A lot is service based, like lawyers and hair stylists. I would love for there to be three or four more stores like mine because I can’t sell every type of clothing. I’d love to tell people to have a girls weekend in Hibbing: go to the salon, visit the clothing stores, eat at a nice restaurant. I’d rather have more people trying to open new businesses, but it is a hard environment to try in. You get a lot of support, but also a lot of skepticism.
Rachel: What do you like best about your job? What's hard about it?
Suzanne: I had a really slow day the other day that was kind of frustrating. But I had some people in who I had good conversations with. That helps when I’m having those moments where I wonder, “Why am I doing this?” Up here on the Iron Range, we’re skeptical of something new. It’s taken a while to build that core customer base. Word of mouth is the best advertising I can ask for.
My worst day at work now is better than my best day anywhere else. I get to do what I’ve been passionate my whole life about doing. I’m in the business of helping people feel good about themselves. I want to encourage positive body image. My favorite part of my job is the look on people’s faces when they put on a piece of clothing they love.
Rachel: What are your hopes for the small business community in your town and on the Iron Range?
Suzanne: I definitely think there needs to be more cooperation between chambers of commerce, cities, and small businesses. There needs to be more cohesion. It’s sometimes very hard to get something done because people have a hard time figuring out how to work together. Everyone has their own agenda.
The mining plays a huge part; for better or for worse. Encouraging conversation about small businesses is sometimes hard, because there’s a thinking that if you talk about anything besides mining you’re against mining. It’s not that I would ever say “forget about mining,” but I think there’s room for more things. Businesses could locate here and work here just as well as anywhere else. I’d like for there to be more openness about these conversations. It doesn’t mean we're anti-mining; It means we’re pro everything.
Congratulations to Suzanne Rian for her hard work growing a successful local business and improving the Iron Range economy.
Read all our Iron Range coverage.
Local writer, Aaron Brown, also covered Moxie and another nearby clothing boutique on his blog last year. Read the article.
(All photos from Moxie facebook page)