Retail Ready Lab helps smooth ruff ride for local entrepreneurs

The new small business incubator at Willy Street Co-op is helping first-time entrepreneurs like author Corina Rogers bring their ideas to market with the benefit of real customer feedback.

Since its launch in September, the Willy Street Co-op’s Retail Ready Lab — its version of a small business incubator — has already aided several local entrepreneurs in bringing their ideas to market and providing a real-world test of their products.

A special helping paw was extended in the programs second month to first-time author Corina Rogers and her dog, Charley, and English Labrador, about whom she’s written a children’s book, Backwards Dog.

Rogers, a Waunakee High School social studies teacher by day, says she’s wanted to write since she was 13 years old, but because she didn’t personally know any authors she never seriously considered it as a career choice.

However, she kept scribbling bits and pieces of books all over the house, and finally decided to do something about it.

“I took a one-year sabbatical from teaching to write and was spending lots of quality time with Charley,” Rogers says. “He always sat backwards in the family van which was definitely different than most dogs. As a teacher and mother, I started thinking about our differences and how they make us each wonderful and unique. Eventually Charley’s doggy friends realized what he had always known — he was a backwards dog and that was okay.”

She had her book idea, but turning it into reality proved more difficult.

Rogers tried the traditional publishing route to little avail. “I initially had an agent four years ago, but after six months of communication difficulties and the book still unsent, I decided to end the traditional publishing route. At that point, I put it back on my own shelf until last fall when I decided I was ready. I met Kristin Mitchell from Little Creek Press during my sabbatical and picked up the phone.

“As a new author, especially as a non-traditional author, it is up to you to ‘sell’ your book,” Rogers continues. “For me, it’s awkward and uncomfortable at best to self-promote, but I was determined to move the books from my shelf to others’. Nearly every door I knocked on was warm and receptive to selling the book and very happy to promote a project from a local author (Waunakee), illustrator (Milwaukee), publisher (Mineral Point), and printer (Verona). Even the dog is local!”

Rogers says after the book was published this past spring, she found herself wandering the aisles at Willy Street Co-op one day, just “killing time before I was back on carpool duty. I noticed their displays of local products and went, ‘Hmm.’”

She checked out the co-op’s website to learn more about the new Retail Ready Lab, and decided to send an email inquiry. “Angela, from Willy Street, got back to me and said they’d consider Backwards Dog. I was thrilled!”

Since she was picked to participate in the Retail Ready Lab, Rogers says the entire team from Willy Street Co-op has been fantastic to work with. “They answered every question and really cared about the success of my book. Even the employees at each location were excited to meet Charley and help promote the book. I’m hopeful that the visibility at all three locations will not only help spread the word about Backwards Dog but also encourage interest in future books.”

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Bringing local ideas to market

The idea to offer an avenue for local entrepreneurs to realize their dreams is an obvious one, says Willy Street Co-op Communications Director Brendon Smith.

“Part of Willy Street Co-op’s mission statement is: ‘We are a cornerstone of a vibrant community in south-central Wisconsin that provides fairly priced goods and services while supporting local and organic suppliers.’ We’ve been selling locally made products practically since the first day we opened, and local products account for about one-third of everything we sell.”

Willy Street Co-op is also a perfect testing ground for new products. With three stores across Madison, the co-op reaches a wide audience. Smith notes the almost 35,000 co-op owners are also used to being asked for and providing feedback. “And we are invested in our local vendors and want to help them succeed.”

Smith says the co-op’s category managers are always on the lookout for new products that the store’s owners would like to see on shelves. “They do a lot of research into not only the specific product — the ingredients, quality, and packaging — but also who makes it, how it gets to the stores, how workers are treated, is it locally made, is it organic, is it fair trade, etc.

“Most of the products we’ve said ‘no’ to are things that we just don’t have enough space for,” he adds. “Before the Retail Ready Lab, we had to decline to work with vendors whose products were too many steps away from being ready to sell.”

Cress Spring Body Care and owner Patricia Nicholes was the first graduate of the Retail Ready Lab. “Their products were a hit with customers,” notes Smith. “They did a great job with their packaging, pricing, and product and our category manager felt is was ready to have a regular place on our shelves.”

Charley the backwards dog has fit in at Willy Street, as well. “Having Charley come to readings at our stores was a natural fit,” says Smith. “Everyone wants to meet the star, and Charley is such a great personality!”

The burgeoning canine celebrity even has his own Instagram account now, too: @backwardsdogcharley.

“We provide an opportunity for local vendors to directly connect with the customers who are buying their products,” Smith adds. “As part of each Retail Ready Lab ‘experiment,’ local vendors come into the store to sample their product and talk to customers. That connection is something that just doesn’t translate online. Plus when you invest your money locally, it helps the local economy; it helps keep jobs in our community, and it generates more opportunities.”

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