August 19, 2019

How a Stay-At-Home Mom Started an Empire

by Without Fail

Jenny Doan and her husband, Ron, lost most of their savings in the 2008 financial crisis. Retirement was just around the corner, and they didn’t know how they would make it through. That’s when the family went all-in on an unlikely businessa quilt shop.

Without Fail is hosted by Alex Blumberg. It is produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany and edited by Alex Blumberg and Devon Taylor. Music and mixing by Bobby Lord. 



Transcript

ALEX BLUMBERG: From Gimlet, I’m Alex Blumberg and this is Without Fail, the show where I talk with artists, athletes, entrepreneurs, visionaries of all kinds, about their successes and their failures, and what they’ve learned from both.

I’m going to start the episode today this way: I’m going to describe a company to you, and I want you to see if you can guess what that company makes. 

OK, this company, it has multiple lines of business, from retail and online sales to multimedia publishing. It has a brand new downtown campus that’s often compared to Disneyland. Hundreds of employees, tens of millions in annual revenue... 

[ ARCHIVAL NEWS CLIP: Now it is a worldwide franchise that has totally transformed one local town...Quiltown, USA. Take a look. ] 

That’s right. The company I’m talking about? It makes quilts. It’s called the Missouri Star Quilt Company. And if that answer surprises you, its co-founder will surprise you even more. 

JENNY DOAN: My name is Jenny Doan, and I am the face of the Missouri Star Quilt Company.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Is that your official title? Is that what it says on your business card?

JENNY DOAN: No, it says Quilt Diva.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Of all the long shot founding stories I’ve heard, Jenny Doan’s path to quilt diva stands out as one of the least likely. Her story begins years ago, when she was a stay-at-home mom raising seven children. This was the mid-90s and Jenny and her husband had recently moved their entire family – her and her husband and all their 7 kids – from california, to a small town in rural Missouri. A town called Hamilton. 

JENNY DOAN: We came in '95, and we used to have festivals and the carnival would come and all these kinds of things, but all that had stopped. And our whole downtown is like two or three blocks, but most of the shops were boarded up. There were two grocery stores, and there was a stationery store, and there was a pharmacy store. And within a very short time those businesses just closed up. They just couldn't make it. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: You launched the company in 2008, right?

JENNY DOAN: Yes, we did.

ALEX BLUMBERG:I want you to go, like, the year prior. What was your life back, let's say in 2007? Like, what was your day-to-day life? What were you doing?

JENNY DOAN: So ...

ALEX BLUMBERG: Paint me a picture.

JENNY DOAN: I have always been a stay at home mom. We have seven children and you can't afford daycare, you know, when you have seven children, so you just gotta stay at home with them. [laughs] So I was a stay at home mom. And my husband is a machinist, and he's always worked in a factory. And so when 2008 hit the big market crash came, and our retirement was all set up in a 401k. We lost most of it when the market crashed. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Ugh.  

JENNY DOAN: And that was our retirement. You know, that was the only thing we had in place for retirement was that -- was what was in that 401k.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How much -- how much was in there?

JENNY DOAN: I think it was down, like, in the -- below $20,000. It was so little. 90 percent of it was gone. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: That's -- that's a -- that's a lot to lose over...

JENNY DOAN: It's a lot, yeah. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: ... a lifetime of work. Yeah. Yeah.

JENNY DOAN: My husband was just sick. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And -- And how are you feeling?

JENNY DOAN: I'm just trying to cheer everybody up. Keep everybody cheerful, you know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: You're not even permitting your own feelings. You’re just trying to like… 

JENNY DOAN: Now that -- Now that is true right there. [laughs] I'm not even allowing myself to be sad. You know, I can remember being shocked. I can remember being, "Wow, that's pretty tough," you know? But, I just thought, "Well, I'll just get a job and we can make enough to eat and enough to live and keep the lights on and we're good to go."

ALEX BLUMBERG: The rest of her family though? They didn’t share her optimism. Jobs were hard to come by in Hamilton, especially for someone like Jenny, who was in her fifties, with very little workplace experience. Jenny’s kids were grown at this point and two of them decided to convene for a family summit: Jenny’s son Alan, who had moved to California for a software job. He flew in to be there. And Jenny’s daughter, Sarah, who lived nearby with her family, she joined as well. 

JENNY DOAN: So we're at the house. And Alan and Sarah started talking about what they could do to help Ron and I so that we could have some sort of a future, you know, where we didn't have to work all the rest of our lives.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Your husband Ron. Yeah.

JENNY DOAN: Yeah. So, I think part of their concern is, you know, what can we do to make Mom and Dad more solvent so they don't have to live in our basement? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] 

JENNY DOAN: And, they were over talking and they're like, "Mom, we just feel like we've gotta find something for you to do that has some longevity." And I said, "All right. Well, you guys talk about that. I'm gonna go pick up a quilt." And they said, "Well, what quilt is it?" And I said, "I don't remember. It's been at the longarmers for, like a year." And they said …

ALEX BLUMBERG: It had -- it had been where for over a year?

JENNY DOAN: At the -- at the longarmers. So there's these big machines in the quilt world that are called longarm machines. So it's a woman who has a great big quilt machine, and she puts the back on it and the fluff in the middle, and then she stitches pat -- a stitch pattern all over it. And that's what keeps the quilt together. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it. Okay. And anybody who quilts, the last step is always like you have to go to the longarmer and get it longarmed?

JENNY DOAN: Or you quilt it by hand with a needle and thread. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Which takes forever.

JENNY DOAN: Which takes forever. And I have -- I've -- I've done plenty of that, because there are lots of times I couldn't afford to get my quilt quilted or I've tied it. But for some reason, this quilt I -- I wanted to take to the -- to get it machine-quilted.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And so, what you're saying is that there was this huge backlog of, like, getting it machine-quilted.

JENNY DOAN: Yeah. And so like, if you wanted something for Christmas, you almost had to take it a year in advance.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Whoa!  

JENNY DOAN: And so Alan looks at me and he goes, "Mom, is this a thing? Are all the longarmers backed up like this?" And I said, "Well, they are in our area."  And he's like, "Wait a minute. Could you do this?" And I was like, "Well, I can sew so I probably could learn it." And he said, "What if we bought you a machine? Could you -- do you think you could do it?" And I said, "Sure, sure." So, he saw this as a viable opportunity for me to make some money.  

ALEX BLUMBERG: So, Al kicked in some money, Sara took a second mortgage on her home, and together they bought their mom a brand new, state of the art, 36 thousand dollar, long arm machine. The Gammill Statler Stitcher. And they bought one of those boarded up buildings downtown to it put in. Real estate was so cheap in Hamilton at the time, that the building cost less than the machine. 

JENNY DOAN: So the little building that we bought used to be an old car garage that was built in the 1800s and it was called Hawk's Car Garage. So we had the whole middle part of it, like, was a place where you drive in your car to get it fixed. And so we built a room on the front. And we had -- we had a giant easel where we had a quilt sitting. We had our quilting machine, the big longarm machine over against the other wall. We had a little counter that we'd set up that -- where you could pay when your quilt was finished and you came in to pick it up, and an area where you could drop them off. And, um I practiced and practiced and practiced. And then I felt comfortable taking quilts, and we started advertising and taking quilts for me to quilt. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Do -- do you remember your first order?

JENNY DOAN: Yes, it was terrifying because I was so afraid that I was gonna make a mistake or ruin something, because these are people's heirlooms These are their precious things that they've taken time on. They're generally for somebody, you know? And, um, your machine could put a hole in it. You could stitch the wrong pattern. But, you know, I had practiced a lot so that I felt confident that I could do it, but still you put that first one on and you just kind of take a deep breath and you're like, "All right, let's give it a try."  

ALEX BLUMBERG: And if I were to visit you at, like, a day at this point, what would I walk in and see? You're -- you're working the -- the … the longarm machine?

JENNY DOAN: Yup. I'm at the quilt machine and I am working that quilt machine all day long. And my daughter Sarah and my daughter Natalie came in and worked with me, but I mostly did the quilting. And, Sarah was always in on the computer answering emails and things like that. We actually even put up a little piece of plywood, 'cause Sarah had a baby and we didn't want him to crawl out where we were, so we had like a plywood board across the door so that he could stand up and see us but he couldn't actually get out there, you know? I mean, it was a -- it was really a little family business we had going. And so we had some regular customers. And um, we tried always for a two- to three-week turnaround, because we felt like one of the drawbacks to quilting was that it just took too long to get your quilt back. So we were -- we were the people you'd come to if you wanted it faster. But I can remember, man, there were late nights and things like that, because we wanted to keep this two-week turnaround.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh, so you would just, like, sort of like keep running the machine all night long, just to get...

JENNY DOAN: Oh gosh, yeah. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Really?

JENNY DOAN: We'd do shifts. We'd -- whatever -- whatever it took, you know, to -- to get people back their quilts. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: The thing was, for every week where demand was so strong they had to work all night, there were other weeks, Jenny says, where they’d be lucky to make just 10 bucks. And whatever money they did make, it wasn’t going to Jenny and her kids.

JENNY DOAN: You know, the money went back in to pay for the machine, to pay for the building, you know, to pay for any materials that we used. but I didn't actually get paid.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How were you -- how were you surviving without getting paid? It was just on Ron's salary?

JENNY DOAN: Yeah, just on his salary. Yeah.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it.

JENNY DOAN: And, I mean, I always remember the -- the UPS man would come and he would bring us some supplies or something like that. And he said -- later he said to us, "I just felt so sorry for your family because I just knew you were gonna fail because businesses just don't make it in Hamilton."

ALEX BLUMBERG: What do you do when even the postman is betting against you? After the break, Jenny and her family get creative. 

[Break 1]   

ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Jenny Doan, co-founder and star quilter of the Missouri Star Quilt Company. When we left off, Jenny’s shop was struggling. The Doans were staying up all night long to finish quilts for their few customers, but things were not looking good for the Doan family retirement fund. And then Jenny’s tech-savvy son Alan had an idea. 

JENNY DOAN: His arena is the computer. And to be honest, I spent his whole childhood saying to him, "Alan, get off that computer and go do something." You know, because I didn't see the value in the computer. I didn't know that, I don't know, a few years later we'd all be carrying a computer in our pockets, you know? I just couldn't see the value of that. And -- and so he -- he went right online to look and see what was happening with quilting. Well, in 2008 quilting hadn't made the jump. And so he -- he said to me, "Mom, do you want to do tutorials?" And I said, "Sure, honey. What's a tutorial?" And he said, "I want you to teach people how to quilt online." And I said, "Well, how are people gonna find these videos?" And he said, "Well, I'm gonna put them on YouTube." And I was like, "Oh, whoa! Isn't that where all the crazy teenagers have their videos? I'm pretty sure you don't want your mom on YouTube." And he's like, "Mom, just trust me on this. Trust me on this. This is gonna be our center for learning." And I was just -- I would just look at him, I was just like "Whatever, Al. I just don't see it, you know? Nobody my age is gonna go to the computer to learn how to do this. We're gonna take a class from a quilt shop." And he just said, "You just gotta trust me on this.”

 ALEX BLUMBERG: Had -- had you ever watched YouTube. Anything on YouTube?

JENNY DOAN: No. Never. [laughs] 

ALEX BLUMBERG: So he was like, "You may not see your name in lights, but I do."

JENNY DOAN: Yeah. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alan’s idea was that if they could post these quilting tutorials on YouTube, they could maybe raise awareness about their company, and possibly drive some traffic to the shop, and then maybe could even make some extra cash from YouTube ads. 

JENNY DOAN: And so he came with a little camera to film me, and -- we put a little sign on the door that says, you know, we're -- we're -- we're filming a video. You know, don't knock on the door. You know, we -- it was just like this little fledgling, you know, video thing. And he started taping me. And I was -- you know, I'm goofy so I -- I'm kicking my leg up and, you know, showing different things. And I got my leg caught in the cord of the quilt machine and I fell over. And he's like, "Are you okay?" And I said, "No, I really hurt myself." And, so they got me to the doctor and it turns out I broke my leg.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Oh my gosh!

JENNY DOAN: And, you know, they get me -- they get me all propped up in bed and I'm fine. And he comes back and he's like, "Mom, I'm really sorry that you hurt yourself, but I'm only here two more days and we really need to film some things." You know. And I'm just like, "Are you kidding me?" So you know, I mean, I crawl back down the hallway, down the stairs, out to the car. We're in a wheelchair, there are crutches behind me, you know? And we filmed a few tutorials... 

[ ARCHIVAL YOUTUBE CLIP: JENNY DOAN VIDEO ]

ALEX BLUMBERG: So in this, you're sitting -- you're sitting behind a -- you're sitting behind a desk -- Is that it -- is that a -- you're sitting in a wheelchair!

JENNY DOAN: I'm sitting in a wheelchair!

ALEX BLUMBERG: So that was the first video you ever did, and you were in a wheelchair from a on set-related accident.

JENNY DOAN: Yup. 

[ ARCHIVAL YOUTUBE CLIP: JENNY DOAN VIDEO ]

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow. What -- what was going through your head as you were doing this video?

JENNY DOAN: What was going through my head was that I wanted to please Alan. When I said, "Today we're gonna make a four patch," he was like, "Whoa, whoa. Mom, I don't even know what that is." And so that caused me to change the way I taught because, like, I realized that there were people who wouldn't understand if I didn't explain from the beginning. And so, I had to rewind. And I went, "Oh, we have our own language in this industry." So it's like, "Okay. Today we're gonna make a four patch, and it's gonna consist of four squares that are same size. Two are gonna be light, two are gonna be dark. We're gonna sew a light to a dark and a dark to a light," you know? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And while you were filming these early -- early videos, before they went up but while you were sort of filming them, what was your expectation about what would happen?

JENNY DOAN: So I actually had no expectation because I didn't see it going anywhere. I didn't think anybody would really watch them. How would they know to go there? How would -- you know, how would my demographic find this? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: But people did find the video. Jenny didn’t pay attention to the computer stuff, but Al, he was watching the view count tick up. First in the 10’s, 100’s, 1000’s. The audience wasn’t big enough to make any real money from YouTube yet, but the growth was definitely encouraging. Encouraging enough to keep making more videos. 

JENNY DOAN: In the beginning, I just was showing people how to do things. And then, you know, people would say, "Hey, that fabric you used?" And I'd say, "Yeah." And they'd say, "I'd like to buy some of that." And I'd say, "Well, it's my fabric, you know? It's not really for sale." And so we -- we thought, "Well, we should sell some fabric. And the kids, they were pretty excited about what was happening. Enough so that they decided they were gonna put up a website. And you know, you think when you launch a website, everybody's gonna -- gonna flock to it. And nobody knows it's there, you know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah.

JENNY DOAN: And so I think it was a couple of weeks. And my niece went on and bought something, and they were super excited. And then I think it wasn't too much longer and we had made eight sales one day. And they were so excited doing the happy dance. They had made eight sales, you know? When we got those first sales we would wrap them like presents because we were so thrilled, you know? And we'd write them a note and thank them. And then we started watching, you know, numbers and things like that. And I can remember when, you know, a video had a thousand, and then how shocked we were when it had 10,000, you know? And -- and -- and, you know, I mean, it just -- it just started growing. And I think once you get to a certain place it, you know, the -- the rollover is huge, you know? Because if -- if, you know, if 300,000 people see that and tell their friends, then the next video you even have more, you know? And so -- 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right. So you're getting from 10 -- from a couple thousand to 10,000 to like hundreds of thousands?

JENNY DOAN: It started getting big. Yeah. And, you know, because of the videos more people were watching. They wanted to buy more stuff. We could sell more stuff. We realized that if -- if I -- if I did a tutorial and used a certain fabric we would sell all of that. And so we started buying bigger quantities and selling more. And it was all tutorial-based. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And what was that -- I don't know. What was that like for you?

JENNY DOAN: Oh, my gosh. It was awesome. It was amazing.  I was, like, surprised and really pleased, you know, just like, “oh my gosh, I can't believe this is happening to us." You know? And I remember about that time was when Alan said he was gonna hire somebody to clean. And I said, "No, Alan. Don't do that. Don't -- then we have to work really hard to make sure this person gets paid. I'll come in earlier. I'll stay later." And he said something to me that changed my life. And he looked at me and he said, "Mom, you are worth more creating than you are cleaning the bathroom. I want you to create. And I'm gonna let somebody else do this part." And I was just -- you know, before it -- my -- my brain set had always been I can just work harder, I'll just work longer, I'll just do more. Because I just felt like, you know, we didn't need to spend that extra money. You know, I'm so frugal. I've lived my whole life on a mechanic's salary with seven children. And I think the fact that he valued what I was doing in a way that I didn't, was -- was -- was -- it just made me look at it completely differently.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Did you start to see the value in it too?

JENNY DOAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And if Jenny needed any more convincing that what she was doing had value, she was about to get it — in a very big way. Because at some point in those first couple of years, letters started to arrive at the shop in Hamilton. Lots of letters.

JENNY DOAN: I remember I got a a letter from a woman in Iran about how much she loved what I -- she was learning, and she was -- loved the videos and doing all these different things, you know? And, I got a letter from a woman in Norway who told me she was like the last watchwoman in Norway. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: A Norwegian watchwoman. What does a watchwoman do?

JENNY DOAN: She stands. So it's part -- when the -- when the king comes, it's part of the procession that somebody stands and holds a lantern and watches for the boat to come. And she said, "It's always gone father to son, father to son." And her father didn't have a son, so she was the last -- the last one in that line to carry on that tradition.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Wow!

JENNY DOAN: Interesting, yeah? 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. 

JENNY DOAN: I mean, who would think? And honestly, I still don't get how we can call Hawaii without a wire. And so the fact that the internet, that YouTube is everywhere was so far beyond anything I could grasp. You know, it's like other countries are watching me!

ALEX BLUMBERG: And my understanding is that around this time fans started showing up at the store as well? Do you remember your first visitor?

JENNY DOAN: I remember we had a call from a woman in Brazil, and she wanted to come and visit our shop. And we're like, "Whoa, whoa. Wait. Wait. You're where?" You know? I mean, we just -- And so she came. And we put her quilt on together on my machine and I showed her how it was done and we quilted her quilt together. It was like the most -- I just couldn't believe it, because here she was from another country.

ALEX BLUMBERG: What did you guys talk about when she got there?

JENNY DOAN: Oh, I can talk to anybody. So we probably -- you know, the country, our families, quilting, how -- you know, how she started, what she loved about it, what I loved about it. We became very fast friends.

ALEX BLUMBERG: That’s amazing. 

JENNY DOAN: But, the fact that all of a sudden I was famous for sewing? That was really weird. You know, that was not -- that was not in my wheelhouse. I wasn't thinking that at all.

ALEX BLUMBERG: You're a celebrity.

JENNY DOAN: Not me. I'm a sew-lebrity. S-E-W. Sew-lebrity.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Coming up in just a stitch, more visitors go the extra yard to visit Jenny, and a sew-prising change happens in Hamilton that affects the entire fabric of the town. That’s coming up. 

[Break 2] 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Welcome back to Without Fail and my conversation with Jenny Doan. When we left off, Jenny’s YouTube videos had gone viral. And thanks to her and her family’s new tutorial-based business plan, the Missouri Star Quilt Company was doing better than ever. She and the rest of her family were finally taking a paycheck - albeit for minimum wage. And, soon they bought up another old store front, and turned it into a fabric store. And then they bought another one after that. And so on. They were hiring lots of people. And all the while, more and more people were making pilgrimages to Hamilton to see Jenny in person. 

JENNY DOAN: Now our little town has one little Main Street and we were one block from it. And people start coming and they say, "Well, where can we eat?" And we say, "Well, we have Subway and the gas station," you know? So then we have to come up with places for them to eat, because we want them to enjoy their experience here, you know? And -- and we never wanted to be in the restaurant business, but it's like -- 

ALEX BLUMBERG: Right.

JENNY DOAN: We've got to provide something for everybody to eat who's coming here. And so we -- we go find the people in town who've always wanted to have a restaurant and we say, "We'll make the building if you guys run the restaurant, and -- and then when you make a profit, some of that will pay us back so that you can have your own business." And we have a hamburger place and we have a little bakery and we have a little, you know, a nicer restaurant. And, you know, so now we have places for people to eat and then all of a sudden they want to stay there. You know, they've driven all this way, they want to stay. And so we have to have -- we open a retreat center where women can sleep upstairs and sew downstairs. And, you know, it's just snowballing now. And we're not planning anymore, we're problem-solving, you know? Everything is like, "Okay, now we need this. Okay, now we need this." 

ALEX BLUMBERG: You're, like, literally building a town around quilting.

JENNY DOAN: We are. We are building a town around quilting. We actually had to put in our own sidewalks. [laughs] We put in a couple of streets.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How many people -- how many people now are coming to visit you?

JENNY DOAN: Oh, I would say we get between a couple of hundred and a thousand a day.

ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] Oh, my God! I didn't know it was that many. Wow!

JENNY DOAN: And we get a lot of buses. You know, we're -- we're definitely a destination. We're not -- we're not their local shop but we're definitely a destination. 

ALEX BLUMBERG: And how many employees are you -- are you today?

JENNY DOAN: We now have about 450.

ALEX BLUMBERG: 450 employees?

JENNY DOAN: Yup.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And how many people live in Hamilton?

JENNY DOAN: There's 1,800.

ALEX BLUMBERG: So that's a fourth of the town is now working for you.

JENNY DOAN: Yup.

ALEX BLUMBERG: How's that feel?

JENNY DOAN: I'm proud of the fact that we can provide a living for 450 families. That's huge for me. I've had mothers stop me at the dollar store and say, "Thank you so much for giving my son a job." You know, I'm so proud of that when that happens. And you know, um, our county is one of the poorest in Missouri. And, you know, we had families that have been on welfare for generations and now they can have a job. You know, it's like who ever thought I would get to do such a thing. Not me.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Do you have a street named after you yet?

JENNY DOAN: No! [laughs]

ALEX BLUMBERG: [laughs] I think that's the next move. I think when you employ a quarter of the town, and you’ve turned it -- I think you can get a street, right?

JENNY DOAN: Well, there -- our town is the home of J.C. Penney. It was where J.C. Penney was born. And I told Al, I said, "I think I need a billboard that says Penney and Jenny." He's like, "Yeah, whatever Mom." You know?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Jenny Doan continues to film tutorials each week, now in her upgraded studio. At the time of this taping she had made a total of 729 videos with about 168 million views. The Missouri Star Quilt Company is still expanding in Hamilton, but if you can’t make it there yourself, you can catch Jenny at her traveling trunk show, Jenny on the Road. And if you see her there, you have to make sure to say hi. 

JENNY DOAN: If I go out, like you know, if I get on an airplane, you know, there'll be two or three people that'll be like, "Oh, it's Jenny!" You know? And -- and -- and I just love that. And so, I kind of eat that up. And so if I'm someplace and I'm like -- nobody recognizes me, I'm like, I can't believe nobody knew me here. You know, I'm just like, "Oh, I'm kind of surprised nobody knew who I was." Wait, there are no quilters in this land?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Without Fail is hosted by me and produced by Molly Messick, Rob Szypko and Heba Elorbany. It is edited by me and Devon Taylor. Music and mixing by Bobby Lord. If you like Without Fail, follow us! You can get every episode for free through Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening.