This interview with Michelle Castelloe of Moxie Mercantile is part of my 2021 Autumn Adventure Tour‘s Entrepreneur Interview Series. This trip promotes small businesses along the East Coast, shares interviews with my past and current clients and highlights my upcoming business mastermind.

Transcript:

SPEAKERS

Megan Morrison, Michelle Castelloe

Megan Morrison  

Hello! My name is Megan Taylor Morrison and you are tuned into the interview series for my 2021 autumn adventure tour, a trip that celebrates entrepreneurship, the fall season, and the launch of my business mastermind program. From October 1 to the 19th, I’ll be traveling from Maine to Georgia, interviewing badass small businesses along the way. Entrepreneurs will share about their experience, including tips to help you build your own dream company. Today I’m here with Michelle Castelloe of Moxie Mercantile in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michelle’s community-centric shop features curated vintage and modern goods from a lot around the south, but all around the world. Is that right?

Michelle Castelloe  

It is absolutely correct, yes. 

Megan Morrison  

Wonderful! Thank you so much for being here with me! I’m so excited to pick your brain. You have such a fascinating background and I love what you’ve done with Moxie, so I’m very excited for this interview.

Michelle Castelloe  

Thanks for having me! I’m excited to answer some quick questions and where it goes.

Megan Morrison  

So before starting Moxie, you were a brand director at the retail giant Anthropologie. What was it like to make the transition from the corporate world to entrepreneurship?

Michelle Castelloe  

Uh, is heaven a good answer?! I had a very long career with them. I was with them for 14 years. By the time I left, after 14 years, I had grown my family from one child to four children, and my life was really busy. I was traveling. You know, when I was a lot younger, I always told myself sex success didn’t equate to money. But somehow you get caught up in the sense that you have to make more and more and more and more. And that’s how I found myself ending up in this brand director role. It was like, “Oh, more money? Sure, I’ll take this job!” Then I remembered that I believed that success didn’t relate to money, that it related to happiness. To me, that’s when that light bulb went off in my head that I’m not happy doing this, even though I’m making all this money. I want to be happy doing something that allows me to be with my children instead of trying to raise them from the road while I was traveling everywhere. So ultimately, that shift was very welcomed in my lifestyle. It obviously causes some shift in financial security and things like that, but I didn’t do it off the cuff. It actually took me almost three years of working with open doors at Moxie before I left Anthropologie.

Megan Morrison  

So you grew it slowly as you were making the transition.

Michelle Castelloe  

I did. And that allowed me to not have to pull a salary at all from my small business. I was able to get it started while I was working full time. I had an incredible staff. I still have them, actually. The people who helped me start it are still with me. And I just started really slow. I started with really low expectations and just creating a community space through retail.

Megan Morrison  

Yes. I like to say that there are bridge builders and boat burners. It sounds like you are the bridge builder. So rather than saying, “Forget it! I’m leaving Anthropologie and going full time into my business,” you really built the bridge slowly, methodically, with intentions to make that transition easier for you. 

Michelle Castelloe  

Yeah. I’ve worked with a life coach since before leaving Anthropologie. My biggest fear was living up to not having enough money. You know, I do have four kids. It’s expensive to have four children. But I grew comfortable in the space that money wasn’t going to make me happy. You know, the belief that I grew up with. Yes, it makes things easier, but I had to get over that fear in order to leave. I had to actually work through that process and be like,”It’s okay to have less money when you have more happiness.” So it was a process for me. I was also building the business over that time. While not everybody has that luxury of being able to run a tangent business and work a full time job with four children, I have this capacity for chaos that I think a lot of entrepreneurs have. So it was fine for me to do that for a while. And then that bridge really helped me get to a place where I could start planning to leave appropriately. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, the company had a shift in 2017, another in 2018, and again in 2019 toward manpower reductions. Eventually they came to me with this, and it was something I had been silently begging for, to give me a little bit of security to leave but also help push me out of that financial security blanket that I was in.

Megan Morrison  

Yeah. I was going to ask if there was some number that you wanted to hit before you left Anthropologie? Or did you have a way to know when you would pull the trigger?

Michelle Castelloe  

Yeah. When I first started Moxie, I was renting our building from the owner with a contract to buy it in 2017. I rented it for two straight years. I thought initially that I would jump in 2017 as soon as I bought the building, because that was my new security blanket. My new retirement fund was being able to buy this piece of real estate. However, I closed on the property three months after I got a big promotion. So I was back to that whole money struggle in my brain. I was like, “Well wait, maybe I can do this longer.” It wasn’t great for my psyche or for my family for me to keep doing this, necessarily, but I was still in that fear spot. Even though I had reached that milestone of buying the building. That was my milestone, my jumping off point. In my discussions with my husband and my family, we were going to be fine if I could get that building bought and under my belt as my next retirement issue. But ultimately, I was still scared. So I stayed another year and a half before I actually took the leap.

Megan Morrison  

If you had a piece of advice for that version of yourself back then, what would what would it be?

Michelle Castelloe  

For me, it was about conquering fear. Fear is all internal. Fear is not an external imposition on our psyche. It is what we do to ourselves. To balance the fear with the knowledge that I’m capable is probably my biggest advice. I work with small businesses through a different version of my business called Moxie Huddle, where I work with creatives that have a fear of pricing strategies and a fear of getting what they’re worth. Because I went through this experience of believing that maybe what I was worth was my big salary. In reality, my big salary was taking away from my worth as a human being. I just wasn’t happy. I wasn’t doing a job that felt like it was giving back to the community or giving back to a better good around us. So my biggest piece of advice would be not to let fear make your decisions for you.

Megan Morrison  

One of the reasons I love entrepreneurship is that owning a business allows you to take a stand for something. It seems like Moxie really does that in so many ways. What purpose are you having Moxie serve?

Michelle Castelloe  

Well, for sure. Our biggest purpose is community driven. We have three permanent locations right now with a fourth version coming. Each one works with its local community. They’re surrounding Charlotte. My first one’s in Plaza Midwood, and I have incredible ties to local charities here, local women who run different fundraising events, and things like that. I’m always on board with giving back to them. We’re also shifting month to month with what we’re focusing on. October will be breast cancer awareness month. It’s touched our Moxie family, it’s touched my clients, people who I’ve become friends with. So for the past three or four years now we’ve created a candle with a local maker. I’m giving back directly to a local maker and when we sell the candle, $20 goes back to Hattie’s Heroes, which is a local chapter of Susan G. Komen. Moxie doesn’t profit off of it other than I know I’m doing good and that good is a better profit to me than financial profit. It’s better for my family to see me in this place of giving and community than in a place of taking and sort of you know doing something that doesn’t make me happy. June is Pride Month, so we made a huge donation to Transcend Charlotte. There’s a group of people that aren’t represented well in Charlotte or in the nation. It’s sad. Anything we can do to help the underserved and under-supported groups is where we focus. We’re also doing a dog event with North NC Animal Rescue. So you know, anything that’s close to my heart gets a little attention.

Megan Morrison  

Yeah, I love that. I love giving yourself permission to have your finger in many really meaningful pots. Yep, I can hear a question coming in from our soon to be audience around, “Yes, I want my business to give back and I have to pay my bills. I have to make money.” How did you decide when to start those philanthropic endeavors.

Michelle Castelloe  

I started off the bat with philanthropic efforts. I have not paid for advertising since day one. The only advertising that I do is through philanthropic efforts. If I get to give back to a nonprofit and my logo goes on their paperwork, or on their thing, that is the only way I choose to advertise. That was part of my strategy in the first place. Beautiful. And then it came through brands that give back. I probably should sit down and write down all of the brands that I carry that have a giveback built into their purchase. I know if I’m buying something from them wholesale, and retailing it, that wholesale purchase is giving back. So I’ve already done a giveback before somebody even purchases something from me. I didn’t realize how important that was until I set foot in my actual physical space, knowing that I’m not going to pay for advertising through traditional means. I’m not going to pay for a magazine spread. Everything that I have done has been because I want to be a part of something. That resonates with me. Seven years ago, when I started this journey, I didn’t realize how many brands were doing great things, because it wasn’t part of the culture I was in. I was just working for somebody else. When I realized I could buy brands that are doing great things and sell them at a reasonable margin to pay my bills, I discovered that I could then also give back on top of it. It was this happenstance of goodness that came out of me understanding this whole other world that existed.

Megan Morrison  

Yeah. I hear two things. One is to be intimate with your numbers. Know how much you’re selling things for and what the return is. Know those numbers. Second, make sure your marketing efforts really align with your values and who you are, because there’s no right way to do business. If you want your only marketing to be through philanthropic efforts, it is 100% possible.

Michelle Castelloe  

It’s definitely slower. But it’s choosing those people that also care about philanthropy and about community services and events that help each other. So that’s my customer base. It’s people who actually care. I mean, people are gonna come in that don’t care. I get it. But I want people to know that they can buy gifts that are also doing great things around the world and around the community, helping independent artists. They’re not just buying a generic gift from a big box store that was made without intention. It was an organic process going through that whole evolution of what Moxie was, starting from knowing what I didn’t want to do.

Megan Morrison  

Yes. I know that everything you stock in your store is carefully curated. Tell me about one product that you feel super excited about right now, and why.

Michelle Castelloe  

Well, I mean, there’s so much right now it’s kind of ridiculous. One thing that we do as a brand is let people know not to expect to see an item every single time they come, because I like to move and shift through different types of product. We evolve with trends and community needs and desires. We also carry staples, but those staples evolve through the process of me owning the business. For example, we carry a candle line called Linnea that I found while working for Anthropologie. I bought one of their candles 14 years ago and coveted it. I never burned it. I held on to it forever. I said, “I can’t believe nobody in Charlotte offers this candle. I can’t wait to open a store, and this is the line I want to carry.” So from day one, Linnea has been my number one candle line. They’re also a women owned brand that gives back. It’s a product I’m always excited about because they have grown their business alongside us. They’re obviously much more prominent in their industry than I am in my little gift industry here in Charlotte, but that’s the one I’m always excited about. We get so excited for their seasonal, holiday scents. They’re incredible, and now the community knows about them. Recently I’ve been expanding into apparel more, and I’ve been searching for brands that are doing all the things that I love. They’re giving back, they’re women-owned, they’re not hurting our environment in their process. It’s really hard to find brands that actually aren’t hurting us. I’m super excited about a new brand that I picked up and started carrying maybe last spring. It’s called Ophelia & Indigo. They are based in Brooklyn. They’re two women from England. They have cotton dresses. There’s no polyester in them. All of their clothing is 100% cotton. It’s all hand-printed in India. They give back to the Pajama Project with the scraps of all of their cuttings. So they’re just two wonderful women. I have their entire line coming to Betty by Moxie when I open that store. I’m just so excited to know that there are other brands out there that are just like me. They’re the makers and I’m their portal to get it out to the world. But yes, it’s so great to find these brands. They’re probably my most exciting apparel line right now.

Megan Morrison  

Nice. You keep referencing these other locations that you have. I think that’s one thing that’s really cool about your business. In my business as a business coach, I often talk with people about scaling. You have two locations now and you’re opening a third. Is that correct?

Michelle Castelloe  

I have three Moxie Mercantiles. One in Charlotte. One in Davidson that opened in 2018. And then one in Matthews that just opened this past May. All are quaint, downtown-type areas. That’s my strategy. And then I’m opening Betty by Moxie. It’s also in Plaza Midwood, sort of diagonally from my original flagship store, but it’s a teeny little space. Most people turn flagships into big giant stores, but my building is a two storey 1700 square foot building, and it’s old. And my selling square footage in that space that’s really usable is only roughly between 8-900 square feet. Because for the upstairs, I don’t want people walking up and down the old stairs. There’s a lot of issues that come with that. So Betty is going across the street into a location that became available. I just wanted to take the opportunity that was presented to me even though the timing wasn’t perfect. By no means right after opening a store in May did I intend to open another one in October, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. It is going to pull out all of the kids apparel that’s currently in Moxie Mercantile and Plaza Midwood and expand it. We don’t have a kids or women’s clothing shop in our community. We live 20 minutes from a mall. We don’t live in a space where everything is accessible, but everything is accessible, if that makes sense. So Betty is just another concept, but it’s still a Moxie Mercantile. Logistically, you can’t call it the same thing and have it across the street from each other. Google is not going to understand when you say,  “go to the other side.” When you say “Betty by Moxie,” it’ll direct you to the right place. So it’s just an expansion. My Matthews location is really big, and I was able to expand apparel there, so I know it works. It’ll still feel like a Moxie, it’s just going to have a very big, expanded apparel and kids section.

Megan Morrison  

You keep dropping the best wisdom bombs, so I just want to underscore them as we go. One is to notice what’s working and build off of that. Do not beat a dead horse in business. And the other piece was that sometimes the timing doesn’t make sense. But if you feel in your gut that it is the right decision, trust yourself. That’s what I hear.

Michelle Castelloe  

Trust yourself and make it work. By no means am I in a non-stressed financial state right now with opening a second store five months after opening the other one. I’ve made the choice for myself to do a lot of the work in Betty because I have a lot of pride in it. I love doing woodworking, and nobody’s gonna hire me to do it. So why don’t I do it for myself? And learning new things is really exciting. This has just been an opportunity for me to learn some things. I never knew I could do drywall corners before, but now I can. I’m just taking the opportunity when it is presented and knowing it’s the right thing. I also did a poll amongst my community and asked them, “If I were to expand, what categories would you want to see come to Plaza Midwood?” So I’m not going off of just a hunch. I did some research and asked all the right questions. I’m incorporating local book authors and local artists. There’s still so much local stuff happening with it that it still feels authentic to Moxie. It’s just with a different representation of product.

Megan Morrison  

Yes. I’ll underscore what you just said. Talk to your customers and figure out what they want. What are to you the most important lessons you’ve learned about scaling a business?

Michelle Castelloe  

Intellectual property is real. Don’t be offended when people come, look at all you’ve curated, and try to copy you. You just need to keep moving forward and let them stay two steps behind, because they’re copying. That’s been a hard lesson to learn because I’m a very personal person. I’m a very open book, as you can see. I’ve let people come into my world that then have taken advantage of my knowledge. I’ve had to break that cycle of being hurt by it to just be proud that I have something that somebody wants to copy or somebody wants to follow. It’s not the easiest transition in your brain when you take so much pride in the work that you do. But it’s important to continue to be the leader that they’re following, instead of reverting back to their behaviors of following and chasing. That’s not been an easy lesson. It’s caused some friendships to go awry that I thought were real friendships. But I’ve learned some really great boundaries in doing small business. It’s okay to have boundaries. It’s okay to be hurt by things, but not to hold those things so dear to your heart that you can’t move forward. And that’s kind of a strange response or answer, I guess. But it’s probably the most poignant because I am an open book. I’m so trusting that I never thought anything of the way I curated my space or the way I chose my products until other people started trying to do it the same way. My husband always tells me, “They’ll never be in. They’ll never be Moxie because they’re not you. So keep moving forward. Just keep letting them try to copy you, and the community will understand and just keep going.” So when you know that something is dear to your heart, and you’ve taken the time to curate your choices and your selection and find the right products to fit your brand, just keep going and don’t look at the others that are trying to do the same thing.

Megan Morrison  

Yeah. It’s inevitable. When you are a changemaker, when you do something new, when you do something well. People will copy it. It’s just a fact of business. Learn to set those boundaries. Try not to take things personally. But then sometimes it is so near and dear to you that you’ve got to feel your feelings, process it, learn the lessons and then move on.

Michelle Castelloe  

Exactly. I’m just gonna keep standing firm. I did a lot of reflection about those behaviors of people that I’ve let in, and I just keep standing firm. I do want to be flattered that people want to copy me. It can be a good feeling, even if it feels like a little bit of somebody not being loyal to your friendship or respecting your original, or your boundaries that you didn’t explain first. It’s my fault for not explaining my boundary. I take responsibility for it. But I am so grateful for learning that boundary. It’s amazing to know that I have that boundary now.

Megan Morrison  

Yes, yes. Give us an example of a mistake that you made while scaling and what you learned from it.

Michelle Castelloe  

Oh boy. I think I’m still growing and making mistakes every single day. I might have to come back to that one. There’s some really fresh in my mind, but I need to find the right way to explain them. 

Megan Morrison  

Yes. Let’s skip and then if the inspiration hits you a little bit later on, we’ll come back. You mentioned that some of the people that you started your business with back in 2015 are still there. What’s your secret to retention? Because we all know that training new employees takes time and money. How do you keep ’em?

Michelle Castelloe  

Going back to the mistake question, that had to do with employee retention. One of the women, Heather, I’ve actually known for almost 20 years. She was a part of my focus group at the very beginning. She was working a big corporate job and wasn’t happy. She came to me after the focus group and she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to be a part of this because I have this job but I want to be a part of Moxie. I just know I want to be a part of it.” I was like, “Great, we’ll figure it out, right? Like, I have no clue how to do this yet either. So we’ll figure it out.” Another one, Amy, was a woman with whom I had many mutual friends and connections but had never met. She came to me looking for other opportunities. And I was like, “What do you know about retail?” She’s like, “Well, not a ton, but I’m a rep. And so I understand this side of it.” So I brought Amy and Heather together for this awkward little meeting one day, and I was like, “Are you guys in for this? Are you ready?” and they’re like, “We’re ready.” I’m super respectful of the hours that they work. My expectations and agreements with them are that they can have whatever time off they want, if I can make sure the schedule is covered. Let’s be flexible with it, right? They’re moms, they’ve got things to do. They’ve got baseball and football games, and just so many things that I knew I felt constraint with for asking for time off when I worked in a corporate job. So I wanted to release that constraint not just for myself, but for anybody who worked for me too. I think because I give them so much autonomy, and they cobuilt Moxie from scratch along with me, they have their hearts in it just as deep as I do. They see me working just as hard. I am not a leader that takes a step back and says, “You do the work and I’m going to reap the rewards.” I’m not that kind of person at all. I’m in there doing drywall. And I love it. So it’s filling my bucket. 

We just had our first all-employee meeting the other day. Amy and Heather have been with me for going on almost six years. In October it will be six years. Another employee has been with me for three, yet another for two, and then on and off. I had an employee who worked for me one day a week whose daughter now works for me. She loved it so much but wasn’t capable of doing more, but now her daughter works in my Davidson location. It’s a professional family. I couldn’t function without Amy and Heather. And they know how much I appreciate them. I wouldn’t be able to grow without a good team. We’ve slowly brought other people on as managers now. I have a manager in every location, I have an assistant manager in one location that helps Heather so that Heather can support me more. It’s all heart. I think because the whole job is heart, they love it and they stick around with it. The employees that have moved on know that they’re not the right fit because they don’t feel the same heart that I do. And that’s okay. You know, I haven’t had a lot that have moved on for any other reason than going to school or moving to other cities. Retention for me is just about being really, really open book and really honest. They see my struggles, they see my joys, and they get to celebrate both of them. I haven’t asked them directly what’s made them stay for six years, but I think we have a lot of fun. We’ve become so close as friends and family. They’ve learned a lot from me and I’ve learned a lot from them. It’s mutually beneficial for all of us.

Megan Morrison  

Creating loyalty through transparency, values-driven business, flexibility, and really looking for the people whose heart is in the work and actually share those values with you.

Michelle Castelloe  

Yeah. I mean, retail isn’t the most lucrative career for any of us. Top retail isn’t the most lucrative career. They know how little I make, but they know how much I love it. So it’s okay. And, you know, we do try, anywhere we can, in each community, to pay a living wage for anybody who’s no longer dependent on family members for anything. It’s an expensive job as a small business owner to honor that, but it’s important to me.

Megan Morrison  

Mm hmm. Yeah. I like to say that if your values are in your business, it’s a sustainable business. Values and you gotta make money, obviously. But we really choose. I think it can be easy to chase after the money, like you said at the beginning of the conversation. But what really makes our lives beautiful is creating this ecosystem where we get to do business in the way that feels really fucking good and support people we care about. It’s an ecosystem. It’s not a standalone way to bring in some cash.

Michelle Castelloe  

Oh, absolutely. I get more joy out of the giveback process of my business than I get out of my little paycheck. I’ve obviously opted to take a smaller paycheck so that I could grow the brand. This is my strategy. Somebody could just be running Moxie as is and take a really great paycheck with one store and just be that person. I think because my background was so busy and big, I was managing a lot of business and a lot of money that one store wasn’t challenging enough for me. Now, going on four, I’m challenged. It’s good. I’m learning my limits. I’m learning to delegate and ask for help in areas that are not proficient for me. But yeah, I think that as a small business owner, your goal isn’t always just to make money. I think it’s a really valuable lesson for my kids to see their mom working really hard and being okay with not financially being able to go buy a new car every year if I want to, or those types of things. I guess that doesn’t really work with my values anyway, as we still have the first minivan that we bought when my daughter, who’s now going to be 17, was born. We’re still driving that. So you know.

Megan Morrison  

You just hit a key word for all entrepreneurs: delegation. Oh my gosh, oh, my gosh. What are the best practices that you use for delegation?

Michelle Castelloe  

Recognizing my limits first. I’m a todo lister in my head. I’m not a todo lister on paper. I have three employees that love to support me with todo lists on paper, and I love the cross-off portion. If I can get it out of my head, they can actually go, “Well, I’ll do that, I’ll do that, I’ll do that.” Because while there’s a lot of things that I’m holding onto that needs to be done by me, there’s also a lot of things that other people can do. But if I don’t get them out, nobody can support me. And so I’m learning my boundaries. For example, with giving back, I was trying to manage it all myself. All of the donation requests that are emailed to me, or people stopping in all three locations asking for a donation from Moxie for something. Now I’ve hired an external person to handle it all. She gets the email, calls each store, and says, “Hey, get this product ready for such-and-such person to come pick up.” I don’t even look at it. I gave her a budget and just said, “Please take care of it. There are certain things that I don’t want you to say yes to for personal reasons, or whatever. But anything else that you see fits my brand, please offer a donation. And here’s your budget. When your budget is out, you just say, ‘Sorry, I have no budget left.’” So I was able to delegate those things. While it’s super important to me, I didn’t need to hold on so closely to it and manage every aspect of it. Otherwise, ultimately, it wouldn’t get done because my list is too long. Also, I don’t need somebody asking for my sign-off on everything. So yeah. I’m still working at delegation. I do believe in autonomy. I really think that I’ve got people that work for me that I fully trust. Should they make a mistake, I’ll help them through it. But I’m not going to punish them for it. You know, it’s going to be a learning lesson for all of us when these mistakes come up. And so, right now, autonomy is my form of delegation. Letting people take action and make mistakes or do things that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of. It’s an awesome solution. So why not open up the mind to other ways things can get done?

Megan Morrison  

Yes. Final question for you. What is one system tool or philosophy that’s made a huge difference for you in business?

Michelle Castelloe  

I think we actually already touched on it. I think the philosophy that you can do good, give back to your community, be an active part of social well-being, and still make money, survive, and have a profitable business. My business is not a nonprofit. It’s for profit. But I still give back. Not everything that gives back has to be a nonprofit. There’s like a little mystery around some of that stuff. How do you engage in these brands and find them, but also make sure that they meet the aesthetic of your brand and everything else. I think the philosophy that it doesn’t have to be the way our parents did retail. It doesn’t have to be the newspaper or magazine advertisement that you pay for to gain business support and the loyalty of your customers. It does not come from that advertisement. It comes from them knowing your heart and your intention. I now have a new employee whose mom has been my customer since literally the first week we opened. Your customers become your family and you become so connected with the community. This is what I was missing from my big corporate job. It can be done if you’re doing it with these incredible intentions to fulfill yourself, you’re going to meet the needs of your business too. Whatever your business is. It might be slower than you anticipated. I mean, I’m not out there trying to get Instagram followers constantly. I’m building it very slowly and organically. I just want them to know the authenticity of who we are.

Megan Morrison  

Beautiful. Michelle, thank you so much for all of these fabulous stories, tips, and the sharing of who you are as a businesswoman. It’s really fun to get to know you and I’m sure that our viewers will take a lot for their own businesses.

Michelle Castelloe  

I hope so. I hope at the very least they take with them not to let fear stop them.

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