We introduced The Distance podcast in February as a companion to our longform written stories about businesses that have stood the test of time. In just a few months, we’ve learned an incredible amount about creating audio narratives and had a great time doing it—so much so, in fact, that we’ve decided to make the podcast the sole format for The Distance.
By focusing on just one medium, we’ll be able to bring you new stories every other week. Our last written story will run in early July. In the meantime, check out our bonus episode featuring Jason Fried talking to Shaun Hildner about his fascination with all things old and why he started The Distance. We’ll have another new episode next week, and it’s a good one—there are sandwiches involved! So please subscribe via iTunes or the podcast app of your choice. And if you like what you hear, we’d love it if you could rate and review us on iTunes.
The Distance podcast features compact, powerful stories about old-line businesses that you don’t often hear about, like an auto salvage yard with a famously dated TV ad or a floral shop that sells 25,000 roses every Valentine’s Day. The response from readers of The Distance over the last year has been really encouraging, and we’re looking forward to bringing you even more under-the-radar business stories in audio form. Please tune in and let us know what you think!
A year ago, The Distance published its first story: a profile of 110-year-old Horween Leather Co., Chicago’s last remaining tannery. Since then, we’ve visited an 18,000-square-foot costume and wig store and a vintage tiki bar with its own gift shop. We’ve met a custom bra fitter who started her business as a single mom and the second-generation owner of an auto salvage yard that ran the same commercial on local television for 30 years.
We launched The Distance because we believe the people behind long-running businesses have amassed a lot of wisdom from their decades of experience. At the heart of each story is the question: “How have you stayed in business for so long?” The answers we’ve collected so far are nuanced and varied, reflecting the complexities that each business owner has faced. Their lessons are difficult to reduce to a list of handy aphorisms. But one year seems as good a time as any to take stock in some way, so here are a few themes that have emerged from the last 12 months.
Take pride in your product:Van Dam Custom Boats makes just two to four of its handcrafted wooden boats each year. Each one takes eight months to two years to finish. As you might imagine, the market for a luxury item of this kind is relatively small, and business took a hit during the latest recession. But the Van Dams took the lull to recommit to their reputation as the maker of the world’s finest wooden boats, no hyperbole intended. They limited production to increase demand and raise their prices, and today they have a waiting list of about three years. Horween Leather has taken a similar approach, focusing on the high end of its market despite pressure in its industry to move toward lower-cost manufacturing. As Nick Horween says in our story, “It just has to be the best you can make it. You put all the best stuff into it so you can get the best of out of it, and get your price or don’t sell it.”
Don’t become a commodity: Shrinking margins and slow growth are an ever-present threat in the corrugated box business. That’s why the Eisen brothers, who run Ideal Box Co., have shaped their family-owned manufacturer into a specialist in the corrugated retail displays you see at supermarkets and big-box stores. Scott Eisen says they never want to be a “me-too corrugated company.” Tom Benson of the World’s Largest Laundromat had the same thought about his business. Coin-operated, self-service laundromats can be found on virtually every block of his town, and they tend to look and run the same. The World’s Largest Laundromat does things differently, and the family-friendly amenities it provides has made its store into a destination and community center.
Channel your artistic passion in practical ways: Jim Jozwiak of Band For Today was a professional trumpet player with a burgeoning freelance career who discovered a bigger, more lucrative opportunity: providing music education in schools that lacked their own programs. Bruce MacGilpin of The Icon Group was studying sculpture and helping his university manage on-campus art shows when he met a traveling puppeteer who didn’t have a proper storage system for his puppets. MacGilpin built some basic wooden crates lined with packing material for the man, a job that introduced him to the fine arts services industry. Today his business stores and transports priceless works of art for museums, galleries and private collectors.
Find new markets and customers: The founder of Hollymatic invented a machine for molding hamburger patties that played a big role in the advent of the American fast food nation. McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s used to be customers. When those chains became mega corporations, they outgrew Hollymatic. Now the maker of meat-processing equipment sells its products to grocery stores, butcher shops and smaller restaurants—ones that, unlike fast food places, make fresh patties. Elsewhere in the world of beloved American foods, Ingrid Kosar was the first to patent the thermal pizza delivery bag in 1983 and signed up companies like Domino’s in the early days of her business. But she didn’t have the market to herself for very long and later lost Domino’s as a customer. Kosar took what she learned about insulating food and started making products for companies outside of the pizza industry, like Meals on Wheels and Panera Bread.
Thanks for reading The Distance and listening to our podcast during our first year. Please keep sending feedback and suggestions for businesses to profile to email@example.com. Here’s to another year of stories!
In honor of The Distance podcast’s debut, I asked Basecampers what podcasts they’re currently enjoying and collected the responses. In some cases, you’ll see a recommendation for a particularly good episode to check out. (Basecamp is also sponsoring several podcasts, including Nerdette and Bullseye, which are mentioned below.) As I was compiling this list, I felt like I was naming every podcast in the world. But it’s just a sign of what a long and interesting tail there is in the world of audio. Here’s to discovering new things! And as a bonus, you’ll find recommendations for podcast apps at the end. Be sure to add your suggestions for any great podcasts (or apps) we’ve missed in the comments.
99% Invisible: Shaun calls it “probably the best podcast about design out there.”
Accidental Tech Podcast: Marco Arment, maker of the iOS podcast app Overcast (and many other things), is one of the co-hosts.
Since The Distance launched in May, we’ve taken you to a leather tannery, a tiki bar, an art warehouse and many other businesses, all of which have been operating for 25 years without taking outside investment. We’ve shared these companies’ stories through written words, photos and video—and now we’re adding audio.
Today we’re launching The Distance podcast. Starting with this month’s subject, the World’s Largest Laundromat, you can both read and listen to learn about these businesses. You’ll hear the hum of a factory floor and founders telling their stories in their own voices.
You can find The Distance podcast on SoundCloud and our website, with more listening and subscription options on the way. If you like our first episode, please help us spread the word. Thanks for listening!
“Every boat is copied from another boat….It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied….One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.”
- Émile Chartier
I thought of this quote while writing the latest Distance story on Van Dam Custom Boats, a Michigan-based maker of wooden boats that’s been in business for 38 years. Van Dam Custom Boats builds just two to four boats a year, and a single boat can take up to two years to complete because each one is made by hand—eight to 10 pairs of hands, to be more precise. It’s a small shop committed to craftsmanship the old-fashioned way, including thousands of hours of sanding the boats by hand.
There are probably faster or cheaper ways to build boats. But the Van Dams have successfully put their boats up against unforgiving waters from Lake Michigan to the Mediterranean Sea for almost four decades. The sea, you could say, has validated the Van Dam way.
That’s my two-year-old daughter on Halloween. To complete the effect, I decided to dress up like Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi (her jaunty Endor speeder outfit, not the metal bikini) and went on the hunt for a sweater that would resemble her camouflage poncho but be something I’d wear again. Browsing the Nordstrom website, I discovered the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan in “Heather Pinewood” and remembered I had seen it recommended on a fashion blog I follow. I ordered the sweater; it fit great and at least two people recognized me as Leia. A success!
Then something happened. I started wearing this sweater almost every day. It was the perfect layering piece for my work-at-home wardrobe while also looking refined enough to wear for errands around town, and I didn’t want to take it off.
Before long, I began noticing this sweater everywhere in my orbit. I ran into a friend at my local coffee shop and she was wearing it. I tweeted about my love for the cardigan and heard back from friends saying they had it too. I wore it over my workout clothes to my exercise studio and an instructor said not only has she seen other clients sporting it, but that she owns it in gray and brought it to a weekend getaway — only to find her friend wearing it, too, in a dusty pink. My husband spotted a woman in the cardigan at our local public library. I ordered the sweater in a second color for myself and bought two more to give to family members as Christmas presents.
As of this writing, the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan has 4.5 stars from 2,385 reviews on Nordstrom’s website. Apparently I’m not the only satisfied customer, especially when you consider that the other items in the “People Who Purchased This Also Purchased” section only have a few hundred reviews. And when I sorted women’s sweaters to look at just “Featured” products, I found that most of the items on that page have zero reviews. Somehow the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan, which is essentially a fancy Slanket with an awkward name, had gotten incredibly popular. And I wanted to know why.
Nordstrom’s public relations department was unsurprisingly loath to disclose details about the sweater, like how its sales compare with other women’s apparel items or whether it did any special marketing for the cardigan. Trend Request, the Los Angeles-based company that owns the Bobeau brand, was similarly reticent, although it did credit Nordstrom for popularizing the “one button,” as it referred to the cardigan. (The sweater is also sold at Dillard’s, but only in three colors online, compared with 30 plus on Nordstrom, and has no reviews on the Dillard website.)
“We can’t share specific numbers about what makes this a best-seller, but we can say that it’s very popular with customers, especially during the holiday season,” wrote a Nordstrom spokeswoman, whose colleague had told me earlier that she owns two of the sweaters herself and put another three on her wish list.
I wondered if Nordstrom had heavily promoted the Bobeau sweater among fashion bloggers, who in recent years have proved remarkably powerful in driving sales toward retailers. After all, I’d first heard about the cardigan on Extra Petite, a blog that has published Nordstrom-sponsored posts and uses affiliate links. But Jean, the writer behind Extra Petite, mentions on her site that she learned of the sweater from her friend Kat at Feather Factor, another lifestyle and fashion blog. And Kat, when I asked her about the cardigan, said she found it “randomly at Nordstrom one day wandering around,” then alerted her readers when it went on sale.
It turns out my other Bobeau-owning friends also came across the cardigan by seeing friends and co-workers wear it, or by browsing at Nordstrom like Kat. Not only that, but they were all as oddly enchanted with the sweater as I was. One friend, who owns it in four colors, wrote me five emails in rapid succession because she kept remembering more things she wanted to say, like how she also bought a black Bobeau maxi skirt because she was so impressed with the brand. Another friend, the one from the coffee shop, said she was “excited with glee” to get my email and needed time to compose her response so she could tell me her “exact feelings and love for this piece of clothing.”
There is something about this sweater that inspires women not just to buy it, but to practically stockpile it, recommend it to friends and talk about it with an almost religious fervor. What’s interesting about the Bobeau one-button is that it’s neither an example of a generalized trend like peplums nor an example of a luxury fashion item achieving “It” status like Valentino Rockstud shoes. This is a sweater that currently retails for about 40 bucks. I think about how wishy washy I am about purchases, constantly filling up virtual carts and abandoning them, and marvel at how easily this cardigan tips shoppers from “Hmm, that’s nice” to “I’ll take four and tell my mom about it.”
“So — I bought the grey version, wore it to work, and got tons of compliments,” wrote the sister of my coffee shop friend. “I immediately told my two office mates to order one each….They in turn ordered theirs, and then turned around and ordered more, after realizing the awesomeness of the Bobeau. I was also convinced to order another one, in pink….Our office laughter from Bobeau Fridays spilled out to the (small) department of women, and it caught on. After tallying it up, I think we had 12 other women order one each, some ordering two.”
Any business that aspires to make money from a product or a service — including, say, makers of project management software — dreams about this kind of natural and positive word of mouth. And as a consumer, I have no problem with this either. I seek out opinions from friends, and in turn I routinely recommend all sorts of stuff to friends, whether it’s a restaurant or a lip gloss or a thought-provoking magazine article.
And yet my devotion to the Bobeau one-button made me feel weird. With the advent of social media and targeted advertising, I’ve learned to be suspicious of word of mouth. Is it a genuinely organic process, or is it just shrewd brand management in an exceptionally cunning disguise? These days, brands want to be our friends. Brands want so desperately to be approachable and human that you get sanctimonious tweets from companies commemorating September 11 and equally sanctimonious tweets from other companies announcing that they won’t be tweeting on September 11. People throw around terms like “brand evangelist” and they are being perfectly earnest and we go along with it.
I worry sometimes that my tastes and preferences aren’t as considered as I’d like to believe. Why did I buy a Sophie the Giraffe teething toy for my daughter? Why did I binge watch True Detective? Why have I turned into a brand evangelist for the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan? It’s vaguely depressing to think it was because I was in the thrall of a brand.
None of my other Bobeau-wearing friends seem to be having this consumerist crisis over whether Nordstrom subliminally — or overtly — influenced them to buy the sweater. They just really like the one-button for all sorts of reasons, many of which are echoed in the online reviews. It’s machine washable and comes in more than 30 colors. It has a pert little button. It’s cozy but not frumpy, ideal for wearing on plane rides or keeping at the office. Its drape flatters a variety of body shapes and it comes in Petite and Plus sizes. “Makes you realize how many articles of clothing DON’T fit that bill!” one friend wrote.
My coffee shop friend, who bought her first Bobeau while pregnant and now has two sweaters and two small children, said: “I feel like pregnancy and motherhood make you give up so much when it comes to fashion choices….Everything you own ends up getting stained or ruined so you can’t have anything really expensive or hard to take care of. But this is one amazing item that allows you to keep your fashion style without having to give up any of the other practical considerations.”
Maybe Bobeau and Nordstrom pulled off that rare feat of making and marketing a product that has mass appeal, and I should acknowledge that instead of acting like I was in a brand-induced fugue state when I bought my sweaters. It does feel oddly freeing, I’ve realized, to like something that thousands of other women of different sizes and shapes and lifestyles have also embraced. In an era of ever-increasing online tracking and data collection, it’s liberating to wrap myself in something whose ubiquity provides a kind of anonymity. The sweater is my invisibility cloak; marketers can’t discern anything unique about me because everyone has it. I could be a bosomy frequent flier or a lean Pilates instructor or that lady in your office who’s always cold. Or maybe I’m just a mom who started with a Princess Leia costume and ended up with a closet full of sweaters.
There was a time in America, if you can believe it, when you would order a pizza and it would arrive somewhat cold and soggy. A horrifying prospect! Ingrid Kosar was disenchanted with cold delivery pizza too, and she wanted to do something about it. In 1984, she filed a patent for a “thermally insulated food bag,” which is familiar to pizza eaters the world over.
Kosar has a great entrepreneurial origin story. The next three decades of her career don’t make as tidy a narrative. The bags got commoditized; Kosar lost business to lower-priced competitors and her patents eventually expired. But Thermal Bags By Ingrid is still making pizza bags out of its small office in the Chicago suburbs. Ingrid Kosar embodies what it means to survive in business over the long term. She’s come close to losing it all, yet has held on long enough to see sales recover. In fact, after her story ran in The Distance, Kosar told me she hired two new employees for her sewing department—a nice epilogue to a true underdog story.
Read more about Kosar, her business and the history of U.S. pizza delivery at The Distance.
Priceless cultural artifacts and works of art belong in a museum, as Indiana Jones taught us. But if the museum doesn’t have the space for that painting or Cross of Coronado, these pieces go to companies like The Icon Group.
Founded in 1980, The Icon Group is a specialized moving and storage business that performs the vital but unsung task of boxing up fine art objects and storing them safely. There’s an incredible amount of knowledge and skill that goes into handling an oddly shaped or fragile piece, and companies like The Icon Group only gain that practical expertise – and the trust of their clients – by doing it over and over for decades.
The Icon Group has handled everything from Picassos to the archives of children’s poet, author and illustrator Shel Silverstein. In fact, Silverstein’s papers, books, musical instrument collection and recordings (did you know he wrote “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous by Johnny Cash?) are stored at The Icon Group’s warehouse on Chicago’s west side.
Walk into any Halloween pop-up store right now and you’re likely to find the same assortment of merchandise: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes and “Frozen” princess dresses, plus old stand-bys like witch hats and vampire capes.
You’ll find those items at Fantasy Costumes in Chicago too, but the store has a singular, massive inventory that’s the result of being in business year-round for 45 years. To visit Fantasy Costumes is to browse a museum of pop culture phenomena where everything is for sale or rent—a Garth wig from Wayne’s World (excellent!), Andy Warhol glasses, a Hello Kitty mascot head. That kind of selection helps the store stay open year-round and competitive against the seasonal pop-ups. No tricks here, just a half-century of knowing how to help people have fun.
Read more about Fantasy Costumes at The Distance. Happy Halloween!
Jim Jozwiak likes to be early. For our first interview for The Distance, he arrived 20 minutes early to the Starbucks in suburban Chicago where we had arranged to meet. Due to a slight miscommunication, I ended up at a different Starbucks at the same intersection, so he actually waited for 40 minutes before we figured out what was happening.
Jim was gracious, though, and later explained that his penchant for extreme punctuality stemmed from his days as a professional trumpet player. As a freelance musician, he needed to be dependable — competition for gigs was intense, and band leaders didn’t want to deal with players who showed up late or weren’t prepared. Jim arrived at all his gigs early, with enough time to warm up and even grab a cup of coffee before the performance started.
That same discipline steers Jim through his second career as a business owner running Band For Today, the subject of our latest Distance story. He manages a staff of 17 full-time band teachers that see an average of 200 kids at various schools every week, and he handles almost all the sales, marketing and billing for his 30-year-old company himself.
Running a business well takes practice, creativity, heart and the ability to improvise in unexpected situations. Sounds a lot like playing music!