There are numerous reasons I am fortunate to have my career in Downtown SLO but one in particular stands out to me quite often. There are a lot of amazing people down here and they gladly share their wisdom with me. This month’s interview was with a woman who I admire and respect due to her success and the way she has become successful. Kannyn January is the owner of Ambiance in Downtown SLO and Paso Robles; she recently launched her latest shop named Branded, in Mill Valley. She is also the current Board President for the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association, committee chairwoman for our Downtown SLO Farmers’ Market and heavily involved in the community. To say that Kannyn is a busy woman who enjoys the success afforded by her strong work ethic and keen business sense is an understatement. For that reason I knew I had to interview her for my Downtown Perspective series. I really wanted to interview a dynamic female business owner who represents independent businesses, not only in Downtown SLO, but across America.
Sitting in her upstairs office at the Ambiance SLO shop we settled into a conversation while her shop bustled just outside her office door. Her shop is adorned with bright white accents and pop music but inside of her office I found myself surrounded by cool colors and a calm quiet, the contrast of the retail floor and the office was evident that this was an office of a woman that gets things done.
How did you decide to open Ambiance?
Ambiance has actually been around for 40 years. When I was at Cal Poly I worked here and helped with running the store and assisted with the buying of our products. I was studying Bio-Chem at the time and my focus was on pre-med. In fact, I was thinking about finding another job when the opportunity came up to purchase the store. I ended up taking out a SBA loan and buying the business. What started out as a 5-year plan ended up becoming a lifelong plan. My plan was to eventually sell the business for a lot of money and go to medical school.
That is a pretty big commitment for a young woman.
The first couple years were pretty scary. I remember at one point calling my dad in tears. He told me to stick with it, that I had a commitment I needed to stick to. I was just 23 years old at the time with a big SBA loan that I had taken out to buy the business and remodel the space. I had actually decided to purchase the business and cut it in half both in terms of space and products. I wanted to focus on the clothing and not the lifestyle products. Back before I had Ambiance, the store used to bring in furniture and paint it and fix it up, the shabby chic thing was really in at the time but that wasn’t where I wanted to go with Ambiance.
Today you have multiple stores open and you seem to be very successful, what changed from those first couple of years?
At one point I had to run the shop by myself without employees in order to take a paycheck home. The year that I bought the business I also met my husband. Eventually we had our first son and making sure that I was bringing home a paycheck was really important. I literally worked the store alone and counted on friends to come in and work in exchange for clothes. All the while I was looking for the right employee. One day she walked in the store and I knew that she had everything I was looking for. That was the worst year of the recession and with her help we doubled our business. Eventually she opened her own store in Montecito. In those early years I gained the perspective of gratitude for my family, a business and a home to live in. It sounds corny but I believe that what you think about, you bring about.
That is so true. I know that you also believe in self-improvement, do you share that spirit of education to your staff?
I do my best to send all of my managers through formal training. Customer experience is very important to me and shopping in Ambiance is an experience for our customers. We will even do home parties where we take racks of clothes to a party of women, we make sure that we know what their styles and sizes are so that they get the same experience that they would in our shop. We want to make sure that when a customer comes in we show them everything that they might be interested in based on what they tell us they are looking for. Today, with the Internet customer experience is being offered less and less. You can order $1,000 dollars in pants online because they look good on the model but when you try them on you end up sending them all back but if you come into our stores our staff will make sure you look good in what we sell you.
You have running a successful business on lockdown. How about your involvement in the Downtown, what do you want your legacy to be for the community?
Oh that is a really hard question. When I got involved with the Downtown Association I was also on an economic activities committee with the SLO Chamber of Commerce. I chose to be involved because I wanted to work better with other shop owners Downtown. You know, how do we unite the Downtown community? I guess my legacy would be to build a stronger sense of collaboration among business owners in our Downtown because we are all in this together. There is some room for improvement there and I think we are on the right track.