When I sat down with Kendall Barber of Poppy Barley, it wasn’t hard for her to answer my questions about what the term “good business” means to her and her company. Integrity, honesty and transparency were all high on the list. But as we talked, I learned that perhaps even more important is the attempt to connect with, support, and build community, in all the different ways that might happen.
Poppy Barley is a made-to-measure footwear company based in Edmonton and co-founded by Barber and her sister Justine in 2012. Described by Flare magazine as offering “reasonably priced, ethically made bespoke boots and flats,” the company gives customers the opportunity to submit exact measurements of their feet and legs, and choose leather colours and designs. Six weeks later they receive their handmade custom boots or shoes in the mail. It’s a unique concept for Edmonton, but it also stands out on the international scale: there are many custom shoe retailers out there, but none do it quite like this. Says Barber, “In the online space, there are some that do custom design, but not the focus on the fit.” The company has also received a lot of press for its focus on a transparent and ethical manufacturing process, something that was integral to the business from the start.
In the short years since it was founded, Poppy Barley has become a popular local success story, and is often held up as a shining example of a local business. However, when I asked Barber about how the company fits into a local economy, the answer was a bit complicated. The business is based in Edmonton, but the boots and shoes are made in Mexico, and then sold over the Internet to customers as far away as Norway, New Zealand and the Philippines. So what exactly does “local” mean in this context? Barber says that recognizing where they’re from is important, but that it’s equally important to be aware of the role the company plays in Mexico by honouring the local values and traditions, and respecting and serving the local community there. Customers are part of the Poppy Barley community as well, whether they live in North America, as most of them do, or across the globe. “It’s really challenging our entire team to figure it out — we know where we’re from. But who do we serve?”
It seems like Barber and her team are working pretty hard to answer that question, both here in Edmonton and abroad. Unlike many shoe and clothing companies, the company didn’t choose a manufacturing partner based on what would be the cheapest. They looked long and hard for the right place, from China to Argentina, and finally to Mexico. Barber says that finding the right partner was one of their biggest challenges initially. They eventually settled on the city of Léon, which has been a shoe manufacturing hub since 1645. When the shoe industry went to a mass-manufacturing model, many artisans — who had learned the trade from their fathers and their grandfathers — found themselves displaced. “They were really struggling,” she says, and initially their Mexican operations manager thought that setting up production there was crazy. Now it’s clear that the operation is anything but crazy, as it is helping to revitalize a centuries-old industry while “employing the best people with the talent and then fairly compensating them for that talent.”
Not only have displaced artisans found a new home with Poppy Barley, but women are finding jobs that might not normally exist for them in Mexico. With women in the roles of both factory manager and operations manager, Poppy Barley is empowering women in a way that is almost unheard of in the region. The value the company places on their Mexican employees is evident from the passion with which Barber talks about them: “They are as much a part of our team as our team is here. We are so proudly made in Mexico.”
According to Barber, good business also means “being open to a dialogue: with your suppliers, your customers, your community.” A key part of this dialogue is their commitment to total manufacturing transparency. In the wake of the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh, this commitment is more important than ever as customers are becoming more aware and concerned about how their goods are manufactured. Poppy Barley devotes a portion of their website to telling the story of their boots and shoes, and the story of the people who make them. Customers can feel confident in their purchase, knowing that the artisans who built it earned a comfortable wage ($17,280 per year compared to the median income in Mexico of $15,300), and were given adequate breaks and vacation time (vacation starts at six days per year and goes up each year the employee stays with the company; the factory also closes for a week at Christmas and Easter).
In addition to openly sharing information, Poppy Barley frequently reaches out to their customers for help and guidance. Early on, the company used a crowd-funding campaign through Alberta BoostR to raise almost $30,000 toward operating costs. Currently, the company uses their blog and their Facebook page to solicit feedback from customers, and runs polls to determine which style they should bring out next. According to Barber, their most popular boot was voted in by a Facebook poll. She says the interaction with their community of customers is “fundamental to what we do.” It helps develop long-lasting relationships, as their unique business model allows customers to have a say in the products from start to finish.
Of course, the feedback they get isn’t always positive, though Barber’s perspective on criticism certainly is. On the whole, she says that Edmontonians have been great in terms of support and cheerleading, but not everyone loved what they were doing: “You’re always going to have your critics, but if your critics are asking you interesting questions, I think they make you a better business.”
Closer to home, the company’s community-mindedness plays out in a different way. Here Barber says the focus of their contribution is on giving back to other entrepreneurs, in particular encouraging female entrepreneurs to “think bigger.” When they were starting out, the Barber sisters received plenty of support from formal business organizations, and from individuals who were willing to sit down with them or introduce them to other influencers. Now, by spending time with students, presenting at conferences or having coffee with people who reach out to them, the team hopes that they can, in turn, help to “grow and build great things in Edmonton.” According to Barber, “being an entrepreneur can be really lonely, and so having people that you can have honest discussions with is really important.” Startup companies in Edmonton tend to band together as they share workspaces and share experiences, overcoming many of the same challenges and roadblocks. When it comes to creating a culture of entrepreneurship, Barber emphasizes that this collaboration is essential to making this the type of city where “when you can’t find the job you want, you just make it.” Small businesses need to work together to attract talent, and to convince investors that the businesses should stay in Edmonton, rather than moving to different cities. As she puts it, “It’s about recognizing that we need to raise the bar together.”
A big part of raising the bar is proving to people that interesting, important things can be done in this city, and that is a big hope for Barber and the company. “What I hear from others is that people think it’s really cool that something like Poppy Barley exists in Edmonton. I think almost anything can exist in Edmonton, so if in any way what we’re doing inspires someone else to think, ‘Maybe this is a possibility in Edmonton’, that’s how I hope we’re making the biggest difference.” One way that Barber in particular contributes to this “do it in Edmonton” sentiment is through her blog City and Dale. Conceived as “a continuous love letter to Edmonton,” the blog was born when Barber decided to stay in Edmonton and to teach herself to love the city. She poses the question that many of us ask at some point when we decide to make a city our home — “What if you really committed to trying to like this place? What would happen?” In Barber’s case, at least, some pretty incredible things have happened. With the blog being a go-to source for information about what’s going on in Edmonton, and Poppy Barley being a highly publicized Edmonton success story, it seems her strategy is working. “I live here, I love it, this is my home. How can I somehow contribute to making it a better place to be, in whatever small way that might be?”
That idea of contribution seems to come naturally to the Poppy Barley team. For Barber, “there’s no separation between being community-minded and being a business. I think that the best businesses consider both and I think by considering both it’s possible to be a stronger company.” In Edmonton, we’re lucky to have such passionate entrepreneurs who care so deeply about their impact on communities near and far, and who are leading the way for others.