This week on the Post Some Live podcast, Steve Strauss interviews Daria Knowles of Hot Skwash. Hot Skwash by Daria is a family business that designs and manufactures high-end home décor. Listen to her story about moms coming together and the importance of positive online reviews.
Post Some Love: Hot Skwash Podcast Transcript
Steve Strauss: So, you were a stay-at-home mom at the time?
Daria Knowles: Yeah! Stay-at-home. Just moved here, had been here for about a year. Met some other mommies at school that loved the pumpkins, and had said “oh, I’d love to go into the field and get stems with you.” And I’m thinking ok… Well as soon as Richard…Richard from Richard Blooms he came back in January with 12,000 dollars in orders, I immediately called my friends and said, “I need help.”
Steve Strauss: Hi! I’m Steve Strauss, USA Today’s Senior Small Business Columnist. And author [00:00:30] of the Small Business Bible and you’re listening to the Post Some Love series on Bank of America’s small business podcast. This is the series where we speak with small business owners about their journey and share some of their great customer reviews. This episode of Post Some Love features Daria Knowles of Hot Skwash. Located just outside of beautiful Portland, Oregon, Hot Skwash by Daria is a family business that designs and manufactures high-end couture tabletop décor. It was a business that evolved from a modest home-based hobby selling crafts to family and friends, to a 9,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that employs over 20 people, and distributes their home décor to over 500 independent retailers as well as some really big-name clients, like Gump’s and a whole lot more. So, Daria, great to have you on the show!
Daria Knowles: Thank you.
Steve Strauss: Why don’t you tell us, just to start with, a little bit about yourself, how long have you been in business, that kind of thing.
Daria Knowles: Well, I’m originally from the East Coast. And, I was a stay-at-home mom, two small children, and I decided, how can I make a little extra money? Really, just a little mad money, and…
Steve Strauss: Had you ever been an entrepreneur before?
Daria Knowles: No, when I was little I used to knit and sew mittens, and I used to knit sweaters and sell them because I’ve always been, sort of, “what can I make?” And my mom taught me to knit when I was very, very little. And I’ve always been in love with textiles, and fabric, and yarn. And honestly, at the time I was living in Arizona with two small kids and I saw this fabric pumpkin with a stick stem, and I was sort of looking at lots of fabrics at that time as well, because we moved into a new house and I wanted drapes, and I wasn’t going to pay a fortune for the drapes. So, I really started admiring all the different types of high-end fabrics. So, when I saw this pumpkin, I thought “wow, this is so cool. What a great idea! It’s so simple, though. Why didn’t I think of that?”
Steve Strauss: So, obviously you’re a crafty person.
Daria Knowles: Yeah, I am.
Steve Strauss: You’ve done that for fun at home, things like that.
Daria Knowles: Yep, yep. I do have an art history background and growing up on the East Coast my father would take me to the museums and the MET all the time. He was definitely a lover of the arts. And, I do think that that was sort of influential. So, as I saw this, I’m thinking “how could I play with this?” And so, I sort of experimented and created this velvet pumpkin and got a real pumpkin stem. And you know, “wow this is great, I love it, it’s so fun” and my friends thought they were the coolest thing. So, I just started making them and doing little home shows by collecting stems that were on the ground in October after the majority of the pumpkins had been collected. And so there was the first pumpkin, really. And once I moved to Oregon, some of my friends here said, “you should put them in a store.” I’m thinking, really? And, so I did, and then I went to one little teeny, tiny farm and the owner said “you should really take those to R Blooms” and I’m thinking what’s R Blooms? You know, I’ve been here a year. And so, I did, and I brought in a little book and a couple samples and said, “oh, I have these pumpkins, it’s just a little home thing,” but I was told maybe you might like them. And they loved them. Richard Bloom came to the house, and at the time, I had pumpkins all over the table because they were in one store and they said “these pumpkins are the hottest thing ever.”
Steve Strauss: So, I got to say, I was telling you this off the air, my wife is an interior designer and she loves your product. And if people want to know what we’re talking about, because it’s a little hard to imagine it if you haven’t seen it. You should go to Daria’s website which is hotskwash.com, which is h-o-t-s-k-w-a-s-h.com, and then you can see a picture of her incredible designs. Because they’re really, very beautiful. They’re velvet pumpkins, and corn, and cashmere and different products like that. And so, it’s really evolved. So, you start out with one store…
Daria Knowles: One store…
Steve Strauss: And I wonder because a lot of people might see a pumpkin in an art store, and maybe think “oh, that’s a beautiful pumpkin” and maybe even make one at home. But, what was it that compelled you to try and turn that into a business?
Daria Knowles: Well, initially it was there was no intention to start a business. It was really, like I said, just a little pocket money for a stay-at-home mom. And at the time it was 2008, the market was horrific, but I was doing these little home shows and people loved them and then I dabbled in a couple little stores, and Richard picked it up, and he said…
Steve Strauss: And Richard is…
Daria Knowles: Richard from Richard Bloom’s…
Steve Strauss: Ah, okay.
Daria Knowles: And, he said “you have done it! This is couture tabletop.” And I thought, “okay… You’re kidding me!” But, he took them to Atlanta, which is the premiere gift and home furnishings show. At the time, he was the creative director for an ornament line, and just wanted the pumpkins as display, and said “I just want them as a backdrop.” Well, once he brought them there and buyers across the country saw them, they were literally running up to the showroom – “where do I get these pumpkins?” And, he calls me and says, “I think we’re going to have to take some orders on these pumpkins, and he came home with 12,000 dollars in orders.
Steve Strauss: That’s the kind of story you love to hear.
Daria Knowles: Crazy.
Steve Strauss: Crazy great, right? How old were your kids at the time?
Daria Knowles: My son was probably six, and my daughter was eleven.
Steve Strauss: So, you were a stay-at-home mom at that time?
Daria Knowles: Yeah, stay-at-home. Just moved here, had been here for about a year. Met some other mommies at school that loved the pumpkins and had said “oh I’d love to go in the field and get stems with you” and I’m thinking, okay… Well as soon as he came back in January with 12,000 dollars in orders, I immediately called my friends and said, “I need help.” And so, it started in the kitchen, I had one other gal that helped me. And once I fulfilled orders for the following fall, then more stores started seeing them as they travelled across the United States. And started seeing… “oh I saw these in Chicago, I saw these in Arizona…” and they started calling me, and the business grew. And I had 13 women in my kitchen, you could not walk through the house.
Steve Strauss: So, let’s get to that in a second, the name of the show is Post Some Love, and what I’d like to do is read one of the online reviews we found about your business. And have you comment and tell us what you think about it. “Your pumpkins are the perfect addition to any fall décor, mine is a tiny one but I love it. I have seen many knock-offs but none display the careful craftsmanship as yours.” And I’ve seen your pumpkins as well, and your other products, they’re really beautifully made and very well done. Did it take a long time to perfect what you were doing, at the start?
Daria Knowles: Yes, it really did. I think that they’ve definitely evolved. When we first started making them, it was “we have to make it look seamless. We have to make it look natural. We have to make it look like that pumpkin stem is really truly growing out of the velvet. And I think that it took off so ferociously because it sort of tricks the mind. We’ve married this very high-end, luxury silk velvet with a natural creation. Mother earth, you know this mother nature has its natural stem and it’s beautiful in its own right, and you pair them and it sort of tricks the eye. And everybody loves pumpkins. I think there’s a sensibility about pumpkins that takes people back to their childhood. Every October when they go to that pumpkin field, and they see pumpkins, and it’s just a joyful time.
Steve Strauss: Well, let me read another review then. Apropos of that. “Love Hot Skwash pumpkins, I have an addiction to them year-round.”
That’s exactly what you’re saying, right?
Daria Knowles: Yeah, there’s something about pumpkins, in general. So, I think that we’re fortunate to have found that niche. The pumpkin then, we were waiting to see what was left over from the pumpkin fields to get stems. Then we realized, people are really falling in love with these stems! How do we get great stems? So, we had to sort of evolve and talk to our farmers and decide, well can you grow just the right varieties for certain stems and they absolutely thought we were crazy! You know, they were just - “what do you want?”
Steve Strauss: So, how did you go… I’m always interested in how someone scales a business. You weren’t an entrepreneur, obviously in your heart you’re an entrepreneur, but at that time you were learning about business. So, Richard Bloom came back from his show with 12,000 orders… 12,000 dollars in orders or 12,000 orders?
Daria Knowles: 12,000 dollars in orders.
Steve Strauss: And what did you do? How did you decide to scale your business at that point?
Daria Knowles: Well, first it was- what do we name it?
Steve Strauss: You weren’t even at that place yet?
Daria Knowles: We were just pumpkins by Daria. And so, people kept saying, “these pumpkins are so hot, they’re so hot.” And I’m thinking, ooh hot squash, that’s very catchy. That was easy, and my husband is really into computers and web, and so he’s like we can make a little website so people can look at the product. We had no intention of selling direct we were just going to be with stores. So I was learning as I was going but my gut told me, you want to make sure you’re focusing on this niche market. And Richard was incredibly helpful in encouraging me to stay high end. It’s a very luxurious looking product, focus on marketing to luxury stores… “You should do Atlanta.” So, I thought okay, I gotta go find velvet. Then it was sourcing velvet wholesale, and what are we filling it with? And how do we get the raw materials wholesale? And where do we get our tags? Where do we get the little gun that puts the label...? I mean, everything! It’s comical. I used to drive my minivan down to Grand and Benedicts to fill it with bags of peanuts and drive it home!
Steve Strauss: So, you started out as small as you can start, part time, at home.
Daria Knowles: Small as you can. I would go and pick up stems from local farms, I used to bring them home and I used to dry them in the oven, and the whole house would smell like manure. And the kids – “what are you making mom?” And it was ridiculous!
Steve Strauss: Right. Daria, one of the things I really like about your business is that there’s a sense of community about it. From the beginning, you hired other moms and they came to work with and for you. Why don’t you tell me about that?
Daria Knowles: That is true. Once Richard Bloom took them to Atlanta and came back with some orders we realized that, okay, this could potentially grow. We’re not even trying, and we have to ship out of state now. So, I literally drove up to the Safeway and saw my girlfriend Karen. She’s selling Girl Scout cookies with her daughter, and I roll down the window, and I’m like “Karen! How much do you love the pumpkins?” And she says “what’s going on?” And I said well, I need you to come to my house on Monday. And so, she came, and so my other good friend Lanie, and I had Karen, and Karen’s like “well, why don’t we call Shannon,” like “okay.” And so, then we get more orders, well we need a shipper, and then we need somebody to sign and tag, the more we tried to present it as this professional, beautiful, quality product we realized- “oh well we need somebody to help us with this, and we need someone to help us with this.” I mean, we used to just call it the stitch and bitch. I mean, we were having so much fun. I mean, they didn’t even care, it wasn’t work. The kids would get on the bus at 7:30 in the morning, and the moms would come to the house at 2:30/3 o’clock. The bus driver would literally drop off 10, 12 kids at my house. And the foyer was the shipping. They’d drop off their backpacks, the shoes, I have two huge 150-pound Mastiffs. The peanuts are falling over, and Lisa who is doing the shipping is thinking – “something’s gotta give here.” So, the kids would run in, have their snacks, go out, jump on the trampoline, and the moms would work until 4:30/5 o’clock, go home, and I would say maybe 4 or 5 of them, they’d come back at night 7:30/8 o’clock, and we’d be making pumpkins until 11 o’clock… We’d drink wine and watch movies!
Steve Strauss: How fun was that, right? Well, you know, there’s lots of ways to run a small business. That’s how you should run a small business.
Daria Knowles: Well, you know that was the start!
Steve Strauss: And you know, people could be in your situation and hire people and have a very assembly line kind of thing, but you clearly went in the complete opposite direction to create a community that was invested in you, and your success, and in the product’s success, right?
Daria Knowles: I didn’t realize how important that was early on. I just knew, I don’t know anybody. I have a few friends, and they know people. And when we were having so much fun doing it, and people were buying it and loving it, we soon realized this recipe seems to be important. And so-and-so’s husband is out of work, and it’d be great if she could make a little cash. And I had like 3 or 4 women in the neighborhood that were just so grateful to have any money coming in. So that became also a strong reason, so I had women within a 1 mile radius some of them walked, some of them drove. The kids came, they’d help sort pumpkins. It became a lot of fun for the whole community of West Lynn. We expanded into the garage, and neighbors thought – “what are they doing in there?” But it was fun, and we loved that. We loved being all part of something that was taking off. It felt special, and they all loved being part of that.
Steve Strauss: Well, we do call this the Post Some Love podcast, and clearly when you love something so much, people get it.
Daria Knowles: I think positivity spreads, it’s infectious. I think you put the positive out there and if it’s natural and you love it, other people will too. It’s worked for us.
Steve Strauss: Fantastic. One of the things that I love you did from the start and it was very smart on your part is to know what you’re doing, and who your trying to sell it to. And creating a brand around that. Because one thing I always say is a great brand is very specific, and doesn’t attract everybody, it may even turn some people off, it may not be their thing. Someone may not want high-end beautiful, luxury pumpkins for their home because they have a different kind of home. But for the people who it does attract, what you’ve done is hit that right on the head.
Daria Knowles: I think that Richard definitely encouraged me, but there was a common sense about that point, that early on I saw what types of stores were attracted to it. And I saw between the first time Richard brought it and the first time we did the show in Atlanta there were knock-offs. And I thought ooh, okay, that’s flattering but that’s maybe not a great thing. They’re going to saturate my idea, we have to be the Rolls Royce of this category. So, we tried to get into the premier stores Gump’s, Niemen Marcus, and we were successful very early on, getting into those stores. So, we secured that we’re the Rolls Royce of this category.
Steve Strauss: Fantastic, let’s read another review then. “Hot Skwash is the original. I’ve seen others try and copy this amazing creativity, and they fall short every time I see one. I’m needing one more for my collection, the feathers are amazing” So, have knock-offs been an issue for you in your business?
Daria Knowles: Yes and no. Yes, it’s happened, nobody really is in love with the process. They’re creating a commodity. And I don’t want it to be a commodity. I really am catering to people who love it. And like I said, I didn’t start a business to support my family. I started this business and when that I realized I’m employing people in 2008 when their husbands can’t get work and stores are actually spending money on my product and they’re up 20%. I’m feeling like this is more about them than it is about me making money. And for them to continue to be successful, we have to care about this product.
Steve Strauss: I think that’s true for all great small businesses, that’s one thing I have seen. Is, look we all like to make money, making money is great. But making money for the great small business it’s a goal, but certainly isn’t usually the main goal. It’s about creating something your passionate about, or making a difference, those are the things it sounds like have been important to you.
Daria Knowles: I’ve been fortunate enough to let that be what drives me. As soon I saw somebody else trying to create a crappy pumpkin with velveteen and a plastic stem. I thought, okay, well we really got to elevate it. We have to continue to find ways to have the most spectacular stems. Richard said oh, you have to sign them in gold, everyone has to be signed. Then I came out with Swarovski crystal embellished pumpkins when we started selling to Niemen Marcus, and then we had fully beaded pumpkins that were all hand beaded, and then I started doing one of a kind pumpkins with designer Valentino and Pucci.
Steve Strauss: So how big is your business now? I mentioned in the intro that you have a 9000-square foot facility.
Daria Knowles: Nine thousand square foot facility.
Steve Strauss: How many people do you employ?
Daria Knowles: We have anywhere from 20 to 25 depending on the time of the year.
Steve Strauss: And mostly it’s other moms, is that right?
Daria Knowles: They are other moms, now they are working moms! But, I still have three people that are original moms that started in the house with me. And then I have other people, part time / full time sewers, people who just do crystals, my shipping department, it’s a big learning curve.
Steve Strauss: So, I’m speaking with Daria Knowles of Hot Skwash by Daria and you mentioned the learning curve, what have been the challenges for you along the way?
Daria Knowles: I think every time we grow, and take on something new. We have to go through the process of- is this going to work? If we’re going to invest in the labor in putting Swarovski crystal on this, how do we get them on there? How long should it take? What are the right tools? What is the right glue, if you will. How much should it cost me to make this, how am I going to price this? Oh, I love making that, but it takes 2 hours to make it.
Steve Strauss: Right, so is it trial and error mostly?
Daria Knowles: A lot of trial and error, shipping is huge especially when you’re dealing with cooperates, they have all these specifications and compliances and the first time I had a compliance manual that’s 36 pages, I’m thinking do I need a lawyer? I’m still just that stay at home mom, but you get savvy fast.
Steve Strauss: So, one of the things that’s very interesting about businesses is often people will start a business because they’re passionate about something, so they find a pumpkin that they love and they decide to turn it into a business. That part of your business, no one can teach you that. How to make this beautiful pumpkin in front of me right now is something you’ve learned and perfected. But there’s so many other things that go into running a business that allow you to make and sell your pumpkins. And that is the hiring, the firing, labor, insurance, taxes, marketing. Did you bring in help, did you hire experts, did you figure it out, what did you do?
Daria Knowles: I do think that there’s some common sense that is innate to an entrepreneur. We didn’t pay rent in the house, but when we started and we had to hire and fire. It was natural. I had all these other women who had no business background, I’m like well we need to have a team that’s cohesive and has to work well together. And that became apparent very quickly and we had created a community within Hot Skwash that we loved so much working together, that we were all willing to work harder at finding out the answers. Because we wanted to continue this team and the success. So with shipping we had FedEx come in and say “you need to tell us the best way”, and once they saw how much we were shipping then they agreed to negotiate rates every year. And so, you learn as you go for sure. As far as doing ads and what not, I think for me it’s natural. When I am paging through, I stop at something that’s eye catching. And I always had this idea that if you want people to think your something special, you better present yourself as something special. So, we went right in and did a full-page ad,
Steve Strauss: Where did you do that?
Daria Knowles: In any of the market magazines, pre-show magazines. Like, we’re going to do a full page.
Steve Strauss: So, you just went for it?
Daria Knowles: Yeah, you know as long as it looks good, they’ll stop and read it, they’ll read it if there stopped visually. And so that was sort of common sense to me, and people came in. We learned early on that our product and our print got people to come to see us. They had never seen anything like it before I think it was a combination of its unique home décor piece, and just showing it. Like this is what we make, not a lot of words, just - Hot Skwash and come see us here - and that was enough. I think if you present it in a luxurious way, and have these great ads then people are going to come and that worked for us. We were fortunate enough to learn that. Then we would do some trade magazines, a little bit, and then I got on Instagram and really started learning like people are really responding to these images.
Steve Strauss: Sounds to me, like the keys of your success is, if I can distill it a little bit, is One, mentorship is really important to you, right?
Daria Knowles: Yes, staying on track, for sure.
Steve Strauss: Second, teamwork, you’ve created a great team. And third, there’s this passionate word of mouth about your business. Is that accurate?
Daria Knowles: Yeah, I think that deciding early on who do you want to be, who do you want to cater to, who is your customer, what’s your demographic. That was very, very important early on. If we want to maintain that demographic, and we want to cater to that niche market, we have to create this exceptional niche product: very handmade, incredible quality, we have to keep elevating it, we have to keep coming out with new things, people love the brand for the customer service and for the quality. So, whatever we bring them, has to possess those same handmade quality. And they trust the brand. We had a choice early on, the same year that we picked up Niemen Marcus, we were approached by another big name that had many, many stores but a totally different demographic, it could’ve been incredibly lucrative. We turned them down.
Steve Strauss: Because…?
Daria Knowles: It would’ve been one and done, had we thrown the seat up, then it would’ve been good for maybe one or two seasons. Then we would’ve lost our high-end market entirely.
Steve Strauss: Well you clearly know who your market is, and who you want to market to. And people, in that market, really respond to your business. In fact, let me ask you about some of the reviews you’ve gotten, I’ve been reading a couple of these reviews, here’s one more. In fact, how about have you read it.
Daria Knowles: “Just when I think that Daria simply can’t top what she’s done already, she comes up with a stunning creation unlike anything before it, absolutely amazing”
Steve Strauss: So, right, is that kind of what you get from people?
Daria Knowles: I do, and I think that at a certain point once we did the pumpkins and were in Neman’s and Gump’s it’s like okay, well what’s next? The fear of, what if I can’t deliver something new? It encourages me to never just sit idly and assume that, oh well this should be good for three years, I always wanted to bring something new. And I think it has to be of that level of oh wow.
Steve Strauss: To the point that people in fact will write reviews about your business online, how important are reviews for your business?
Daria Knowles: I think that is what keeps me going.
Steve Strauss: And why is that?
Daria Knowles: I am doing this for them. When they don’t love it anymore, I’m not doing it anymore. Because my job is… I love employing people and I love creating that community for everyone, but the morale and the bigger reason if they’re not loving it anymore, then I’m just a commodity at that point. It’s not special.
Steve Strauss: The fact that people not only buy it, and like it, and put it in their home, but actually go online and share their experience with others, is kind of amazing. Right? This idea of reviews… You know I mentioned to you, my dad was an entrepreneur he started off with one carpet store and he grew it to 14, and then at the end of his career he was back to one giant carpet warehouse. He was marketing wizard, my dad, really, very successful, and at the end of his career when he had one giant carpet warehouse, his marketing had boiled down to one thing. He had a big banner it said “our word of mouth advertising starts with you”.
Daria Knowles: It’s true!
Steve Strauss: And word of mouth we all know is the most important kind of advertising, but these days it takes a different form than when my dad was an entrepreneur. You know, it shows up as online reviews, shares, and things like that. You clearly get that from your business you’re your clientele.
Daria Knowles: We do, and that was a huge learning curve for me, because I can’t even do a word document. I have the compute skills of someone who’s never seen a computer. I mean it’s terrible! For my husband, this is his world. For me getting on Instagram and Facebook, and doing anything online was a little, ehhhh… But once I saw I post a picture on Instagram and I get likes, and people love it and they share it. Or they’ll send me emails – “I bought your pumpkin.” And I really started to understand how unique and how special it is. And after 10 years doing one-of-a-kind and having people call me to do custom one-of-a-kinds, it’s special. I know this is why I’m doing it, these people love it, and if my market shrinks, that’s fine, I’m fine with that. Because I really, I don’t want to sell out. I don’t want to manufacture in China and just stick a stem on it.
Steve Strauss: You won’t get word of mouth, you won’t get reviews, you won’t get love, those things, right? If you just did it the other way.
Daria Knowles: It’s just a thing. And I love creating. I think that that’s the selfish part of it, I love creating, what can I make out of this? I’ll go to a trade show and see a jeweler. There’s this jeweler Tzuri Gueta from Paris and he does silicone and silk jewelry. And I saw it in New York, and I thought “that is the coolest thing! How can I put that on my pumpkin? And I had this beautiful coral, Valentino fabric, and this Tzuri Gueta almost sculpture coral, and [00:30:00] I put it on top of it, and it’s magnificent! And I look up Tzuri Gueta and he’s prolific and Paris and works with Gaultier and all the high fashion designers, and I’m wow! This is so exciting! Or I’ll find fascinators from Germany that I put on the pumpkins, and they’re like these giant feather hats, and people respond. And I learned, you have to create that drama. The more creative you can be, people want to be surprised when they go to trade shows. I want people to come to my booth in Atlanta just to see it, even if they don’t buy pumpkins. If that makes them happy, then I’m happy!
Steve Strauss: Awesome. Well Daria, we’re just about out of time. If people want to know more about your creations, see them, get them, where might they go find you and them?
Daria Knowles: Nationally, well, you can always go online at Gump’s, Love Feast, R Blooms, Shop.com, small, high-end boutiques across the country.
Steve Strauss: And at hotskwash.com.
Daria Knowles: hotskwash.com!
Steve Strauss: Great. And Daria Knowles thank you for being with us today.
Daria Knowles: Thank you for having me!
Steve Strauss: And congratulations on all your success.
Daria Knowles: Thank you!
Steve Strauss: Bank of America is committed to helping small business owners achieve lasting growth. And is now asking everyone for their support helping small businesses grow and asking them to Post Some Love. We know that positive online reviews help drive small business success. So, we’re encouraging everyone to do just that. Choose your favorite small business, and write a positive online review. Bank of America does not endorse or guarantee the perspectives, the advice, or the products or services sold by any business referenced within this podcast. Copyright 2018. Bank of America Corporation.