Latoya Gibbs, Owner of How Bazaar Fashion, spoke to Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how she turned her passion for vintage clothes and fashion into a successful small business in Hartford.

NAN PRICE: You’ve always been an avid vintage clothing collector and somewhat of a fashionista. When did you decide you were going to launch a startup clothing boutique?

LATOYA GIBBS: The idea festered for about 10 years. I knew I was eventually going to do this, but part of my brain was telling me I needed to be responsible and have a “real” job with insurance and benefits.

I have a teaching degree and I enjoy working with kids, so I did that for a while. I liked teaching a lot—I just always wanted to have my own store. I started an online store while I was still teaching.

NP: When was that?

LG: I launched the website in 2009. I had all my business stuff together earlier because I knew I was going to eventually start my own business. I wanted to take some steps so my idea didn’t would become a reality.

I felt like I was getting sucked into the professional realm—and the security. It feels good to have a steady paycheck and know you can go on vacation. All those things are so comfortable and you become accustomed to them.

I slowly kept on stepping a little closer to having my own business. The store wasn’t actually my first idea. I never thought I was going to have a brick-and-mortar store. I thought I’d have an online store and then a mobile store.

NP: So what changed?

LG: In September 2015, the storefront on Whitney Avenue in Harford became available.

Originally I didn’t think I could do it. All my fears were circling around my head—I didn’t want to owe someone money. I didn’t want to have all these different things on my plate. But, I decided to get over my fears. Life is too short! I agreed to a lease and within a week I opened this store.

I had friends and family help me set the store up. I was really creative. I knew if I was going to pay rent for October, I wanted to be open by October 1. I wanted to be selling. So there was one week of no sleeping, just living in the space—painting, patching holes, putting up racks and shelves.

NP: How did you fund everything?

LG: This is all my money. I already had the inventory. I had tons of stuff already ready to go.

My first five months I didn’t close the store. I felt like I had to be here. I stayed open seven days a week. I figured even if one person wandered into my store, that was one more potential customer.

NP: How are you marketing and building a customer base?

LG: I keep it where my skills are strongest, which is on-on-one. I like meeting people in person and telling them about the store. I also use flyers and social media, the main one I focus on is Instagram.

NP: For something visual like clothing, Instagram is probably the most effective social media for you.

LG: Right. I also put stuff outside. That draws people in. And I go to many events in Hartford.

NP: That’s where we met—at the AIDS Connecticut Red Carpet event last year.

LG: Yes! I try to show my face and form personal relationships. It’s more likely that someone will come to my store because they met me and made a connection.

Another thing I recently started doing is having events in the store. That also gets potential new customers because I always keep my store open. People can still look around. Sometimes they shop. Sometimes they come back another day.

And even if they come back a month or two later, the seed was there. I put the seeds out there in the community and the more people who see me or hear about my business, the more seeds get spread.

The other thing is, this is a great building because it was a clothing store before, so people have that association.

NP: Was it important for you to have your store be located in Hartford?

LG: Yes. Being in Hartford definitely was important. Anything I did I wanted it to be within the Hartford community. I was born and raised in Hartford. I love the city. And I personally know so many talented people within the city. So it makes sense to network with them.

I also get a lot of support from the community. When I started out, people told me there wasn’t a lot of support for small businesses in the community, but I’m a living witness. Without this community, I would not be here and my store wouldn’t be so successful.

NP: Let’s talk about success and how you define it as an entrepreneur.

LG: Success for me is knowing I got through the storm. Because people warned me that with new businesses there is 40% that you’ll succeed. They basically told me: You’re going to fail. You’re not going to be successful—but keep on doing it! Don’t give up!

At the back of my mind I knew I couldn’t fail. I couldn’t afford to fail. Because I didn’t get startup money. This is all me.

I needed to figure out how to survive without a daily paycheck. And it was tons of hard work—going to meetings, being at the store, dressing up and going out to hand out my business cards, and coming back the next day and doing it all over again. But it’s totally worth it.

The definition of success to me is also being happy and doing what I love.

Being able to take care of my needs in my personal life and my business life and knowing there’s an opportunity for me to grow are also important. I’m financially okay. It’s been great. My initial fears were way worse than the reality. Now I can see how far I’ve come in a year—how much I’ve grown and how much the business has grown.

Before I started this business, I had a great job and loved it, but would I consider that as my success? I don’t think so. I was good at it, and I worked really, but I always felt like I wanted to do more.

NP: Do you have a business background? Did you have to write a business plan?

LG: Like I said, I’d been thinking about starting a business for a while so I had a business plan. I used one of those “how to start a business” books. I spent a year going writing it.

When I first started this business, I didn’t have any real business background. I just kind of jumped in. But I used all the skills I had. I feel like we all have business skills we’ve learned in life. For example, as a teacher I learned how to be very organized. So that came in handy with the business. I’ve learned to figure out how to be responsible with bills along the way.

I’ve also been using a lot of the community resources. I think a lot of people don’t realize there are so many resources out there for business owners.

I’m a part of the Upper Albany Main Street Merchants Association, which is run through the University of Hartford Barney School of Business.

I’m also involved with the University of Hartford’s Women’s Business Center. I attend meetings and go to classes. It’s amazing. I pay an annual fee a year to be in the University’s technology program and I get all these services.

For example, I attend roundtables where I get great advice from established business owners. Through them, I can see what owning a business may look like after 10 years, which is a good thing, because right now I’m running, chasing my tail.

What I’ve learned is, after five years of success, you have clientele but then after 10 years you have to almost go back to the beginning and reinvent yourself to get new clients. So meeting with these long-time business owners gives me a glimpse into the future, allows me to see what’s going to happen, and helps me prepare for the future.

NP: Do you have any advice for those who want to start a business?

LG: I would say: Just do it. Put your all into it. And get it involved with organizations, such as the Small Business Administration. There is tons of help out there—you’ve just got to go out and find it.

NP: Do you think you’ll open additional stores?

LG: I see where I’m going to have to expand after a couple of years, because my vision is so big and the store is growing so fast. I’m good at many things—and there are many things I love to do. I’m always wondering: How can I do what I love with what I already do?

For example, I still work with kids and I’m currently taking classes to be a foster parent. I collaborate with NIRO Design Center and run an afterschool program within my store. We try to see what girls are good at and build upon those skills, creating a vision so they can say: I can do this.

My next goal is to create a community-oriented store that features all Hartford-made products. I feel like that’s really missing from the community and it would be great to support the community like that. I think that’s the goal to keep Hartford thriving—to create avenues where people can stay creative and use their talents to actually make a living.

I’m not sure if I want to leave Hartford, per se, or Connecticut. I want to really build my network here. I still have the mobile store idea in my head. That is definitely going to happen. I want to put a Hartford stamp on it and take it cities in other states because I feel like people don’t associate creativity, fashion, or art with Hartford.

I would love to let people know that great things happen here in Hartford. So that’s my vision of expanding—staying in Hartford and bringing Hartford to the rest of the world.

Follow How Bazaar on Facebook and Instagram at howbazaarfashion. Visit the boutique at 11 Whitney Street, Hartford.