Although Long Beach, CA-based shop Snake Oil Provisions is one of our newer retail accounts (we only began working with them late last year), they've quickly grown to become one of our strongest ones. After launching as an online shop in 2013, they quickly secured a physical storefront and are fast approaching their one year anniversary at the shop. What is immediately noticeable about SOP's operation is their deep connection to their customers, evidenced by endless conversation threads on their Instagram account. These online friendships have developed into real-life ones, too. We took some time out to chat with co-owner Ben Neuhaus to find out more about some of the things they've learned along the way.
For me, the old adages about learning the most from your bad experiences couldn't be more true. In my 20 something years in various retail gigs (big corporate giant companies, very small mom & pop businesses, and everything in between), I definitely learned the hard way how NOT to run a business. I watched company owners do almost everything wrong, treat their employees really poorly, throw money away, and still somehow succeed, so I knew for years before SOP became a thing that I could do it at least as well as them.
In a weird cosmic, masochistic way, I think I'm also glad I experienced some epically horrible work environments, because the end result was pushing me into working for myself. If I'd been satisfied working for other people, I might have become complacent and never taken the two biggest risks of my life: (1) relocating to Long Beach, and (2) launching Snake Oil Provisions online.
Specifically though, I learned that I do best when I'm with customers. I'll always be in the store as much as possible versus hiring full-time staff to run a shop for me, because it's what I'm good at and what I love. Above everything else, it's important to keep it fun and never take this too seriously. At the end of the day, we're not saving lives, we're selling clothes. When SOP grows and we hire staff, that kind of positive energy and mindset has to be there. And I guess business wise, I learned long ago from slinging things that weren't good products that I'm not wired to do that ever again. I just can't and won't put a brand or product in our store that I don't love and believe in. If I don't wear it, I ain't gonna sling it.
The shop’s involvement on Instagram is clearly a significant piece of the SOP puzzle. Tell us about the kinds of friendships you’ve been able to forge with customers via the internet.
Fact. Snake Oil Provisions probably wouldn't exist if not for Instagram. As cheesy as it might sound, we started jokingly referring to so many of our Instagram customers as "friendstomers" because, to us, they've become real legitimate friends who also buy things from us. This is seriously the best part of what we do - meeting new people and making new friends all the time, people who travel from other cities and towns, other states, and other countries and make it a priority to visit the shop. I can't quite explain in words how rad it really is.
One of our super loyal customers since the beginning, who became a friend through Instagram and emailing back and forth, visited us from Canada. He stayed in Long Beach, hung out at the store with us, and we showed him around town. Although we'd never met in person, it was more like reuniting with an old friend. Another one of our OG customers from Chicago has visited us four times already, and several other folks have emailed about their summer travel plans from all across the U.S. and U.K. to let us know they're coming to visit. This has been the most incredible and least anticipated perk of starting SOP.
Did some of these relationships begin even before SOP opened up shop (aka when you were still @thecincinnatisensation on Instagram)?
Quite a few of my friendships with both brands and customers started way back when I was living in Atlanta. At that time, my IG handle was @thecincinnatisensation , and I was just a dude stoked on wearing stuff. This is how I first connected with Dan Ewing (@beard_ewing ) before Ewing Dry Goods officially launched. For several of the brands we now stock, the seeds were planted during the @thecincinnatisensation era. At least a handful of our very loyal customers first connected with me through Instagram back then. #downsincedayone
When I moved to LA county in December 2012, Miranda and I fell right into a community of makers, shop owners, and other creative folks that was fostered across the country through Instagram. Looking back, I think IG was a powerful tool early on because I had already connected with a great network of people, but Instagram is only half of the equation. The other piece is that I moved to LA, where the industry is located, which allowed me to meet and form relationships with future brands, makers and customers.
Share with us some important lessons you are learning as a first-time shop owner.
No matter how much experience I thought I had or how confident I was from day one that SOP would succeed, there have been lessons I wasn't prepared for.
First off, it's ALL about relationships. This goes for relationships with our customers AND our brands. My take is to treat our customers like I want to be treated when I'm a customer. Golden rule steez. What this means to me is being very accessible and having a human connection with everyone, whether it be emailing back and forth, texting, private messaging on Instagram, etc. And doing all of that as immediately as possible. From the business perspective, 100% of the time we've taken a chance on a brand we didn't already have a strong personal rapport with, 100% of the time it didn't work out. At the end of the day, I've learned that what's good for relationships is also good for business.
The biggest thing I'm still trying to figure out is work/ life balance. Because I love what I do and am happier than any other time in my life, I don't always see answering emails, replying to text messages, posting on Instagram, etc. as "work," but it actually is. I'm dead tired at the end of the day. We're now open 7 days per week, thanks to bringing on our Monday/ Tuesday guy, Matty Knapil (@sop_matty), but that doesn't mean Miranda and I aren't working. We're still shipping, placing orders, answering emails, shopping for the store or whatever else needs to be done that we can't do when we're physically at the store. I really wouldn't have it any other way, but I know that the "never not working" mentality isn't sustainable long term. Josh still pulls a lot of double duty, too, so I know he's also forever trying to figure out how to juggle his full-time career, SOP projects, and personal life. I don't want this to come off as belly aching, because I wouldn't change one single thing about my life or work, but I think it's really important for anyone looking to start their own business to know that however much work you think it's going to be, go ahead and multiply that by 100.
What are some of your favorite small businesses in your area that you like to support?
Favorite small businesses in Long Beach? That's easy. Syndicate Barbershop across the street from our shop, giving the best head shaves and beard trims in the business since 2002. Tim, the co-owner, is now a dear friend and couldn't be a better shop neighbor. Miranda and I have made it a weekly routine to have breakfast at Sweet Dixie Kitchen in downtown Long Beach. Next time anyone is in our town, I highly recommend it. The owner also lived in our former home town (Atlanta), and her menu is a really great spin on southern-inspired food and baked goods. Trust me, it's delish! Every single time I visited Long Beach during the 8 or so years prior to moving here, I'd shop at the best sneaker boutique in LA county, Proper. I still stop in periodically when I need a Nike fix, and always refer customers who're visiting us from outside Long Beach. Finally, I have to include Alva's Music across the bridge from Long Beach in San Pedro. If anyone reading this is a musician, you have to visit this mom & pop store with the best selection of my favorite gear I've found in all of Southern California and genuine customer service that you just don't find anymore.
Left to right: Josh Eck, Matty Knapil, Ben Neuhaus
Snake Oil Provisions
2742 East Broadway
Long Beach, CA 90803