What ignited the spark of passion in you to start a new business venture? How was the idea born?
In 2003, Branson's and Carter's girlfriends made them needlepoint belts. At that point in the not-so-distant past, the only way to obtain a needlepoint belt was to make one yourself or have one made by a nice gal in your life. The running joke is that needlepoint belts are also known as break-up belts, as one's girlfriend typically leaves before actually finishing the belt!
Both loving their thoughtful gifts, Carter and Branson sold their professors on allowing them to do a few independent studies on starting a needlepoint belt business. "We always joke that this was the first sale we ever made," laughed Carter.
Amid myriad other start-up concerns, Carter and Branson eventually encountered the problem of finding somewhere to manufacture belts. The samples they had seen were not up to the quality standards they had hoped for, and they certainly wouldn't sell to a discerning audience.
In Fall of 2004, after a fair amount of research on the industry, Carter and Branson made a trip to Vietnam and worked face to face with their manufacturing partner to perfect their product. "We weren't leaving until we got it right," said Carter.
Carter and Branson came home around Thanksgiving and began to show belts to stores, whom wanted to purchase their prodcuts right away. "The funny thing is, our quality has still come a long way from those initial belt samples. We have always continued to improve our product," said Carter.
ManufacturingSmathers & Branson manufacture all of their products in Vietnam from the same manufacturer they originally approached. Carter and Branson started out with one village of about 50 people and have replicated that with thousands of skilled artisans throughout North Vietnam.
What is your brand about? How did you establish this unique aesthetic/culture and why does this fit your brand? How are you distinguished from competitors?Smathers & Branson is all about needlepoint and “capturing our customers passions through our designs” says Carter. There is a needlepoint accent on every product they make. "Our needlepoint is all done by hand at a very high quality. It's probably the highest quality needlepoint produced anywhere in the world," said Carter. Smathers & Branson is very particular about the materials they use and the way in which their company grows. "We've grown every year since we started. Maintaining our high quality standards had always been more important to us than growing as fast as possible. We look at our business as a marathon and not a sprint," said Carter (Ed. Note: here's one of our favorite custom jobs, created by CCP for the University of Virginia Alum in your life).
Who or what is your greatest inspiration for starting your company? If not applicable, who is your role model? What business do you admire the most?
“It’s hard to pinpoint one person or one company that inspired or motivated us to start our company. There have been so many incredible individuals that we met while launching and growing our company. We’ve been very lucky with the help that people have offered us. We would have never gotten this far without the kindness of others and support of our friends and families. Also, we can’t forget Matt and Steve from CCP. They are an inspiration to us all. ☺” (Additional Ed. Note: those guys really are great).
To what do you attribute your success? Do you think it was luck or hard work and dedication?"The harder you work, the luckier you get. To continue driving the business to where we want to take it, it will be necessary to have a little bit of both" shared Carter.
What’s the greatest aspect of being a co-founder of Smathers & Branson?"There's so many great aspects and I don't think I could bottle it up into just one," said Carter. One thing Carter is proud of is “the thousands of job opportunities that Smathers & Branson has created in both Vietnam and in the US.”
How do you discover individuals to bring into your company that possess passion towards the brand the way you do?Within the last 5-7 years Smathers & Branson has gotten big enough to where people are interested in what the company does. "A lot of people approach us and have the initiative to reach out to us. You can tell pretty quickly if someone is excited and passionate about the brand," said Carter. Smathers & Branson also works with 40-50 colleges to find recent graduates to join their team. "People that we’ve hired that share the passion for our company are running divisions of our company now and doing incredible things. It’s amazing to see what our team can accomplish." recollected Carter.
Where do you see yourself/business in 5 years? 10 years?"I hope that we follow the path we have carved out for ourselves. Continuing to add new products, foster retail partnerships with great stores like Country Club Prep, and maybe even open a flagship store someday. And all along the way, never deviating away from our high quality standard and the customer service that we’ve become known for," said Carter.
What’s your biggest fear, and how do you manage fear? Do you believe in the American dream?
"The American dream is alive and well for people that want to go after it. That takes a certain type of person. There are a lot of people living the American dream in all sorts of different ways—it can be a very personal thing from individual to individual. All I know is that Austin and I are both living our American dream," said Carter.
Some folks believe in the myth of overnight success. What sacrifices have you made to become a successful entrepreneur? About how many hours do you work a day/week? What motivates you to keep going?"Lottery winners have overnight success, and that's it. It's been a 15 year grind for Austin and me. We still run our business as if it were a startup," said Carter.
Carter lived in D.C. for 10 years before moving to San Francisco. While living in D.C., Carter was never home for more than two weeks in a row without traveling because he was working to build Smathers & Branson. “Life is definitely more balanced now than it was when we first started, but our motivation comes from knowing that there is still so much room for growth at our company. That keeps us going for sure!”
If you had the chance to start your career over again, what would you do differently? What are some of your greatest failures that have resulted in teaching you the most valuable lessons?"I wouldn't change a thing. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have started this business, have a partner like Austin, and work with our great employees," said Carter.
Carter and Branson make all of their business decisions together, almost to a fault. However, this has allowed the pair to minimize both big and small mistakes. "We've had plenty of oversights, but together we do a pretty good job at avoiding mistakes. I like to look at our failures as valuable lessons in a sense" said Carter.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? Do you believe there is some sort of pattern or formula to becoming a successful entrepreneur?"There are definitely personalities that are more conducive to entrepreneurship. For a path to success there isn’t one recipe, but a combination of things. For us, there was a lot of luck, hard work, grit and persistence. You need to be good at avoiding bad decisions and be able to listen carefully because sometimes opportunity knocks very softly. In other words, you need to have the ability to recognize an opportunity and pivot when necessary," shared Carter.
"Austin and I are unique in the sense that we never raised money or focused on that, we just bootstrapped it. That's a little bit overlooked and under-appreciated these days. Don’t get me wrong, raising money can be completely necessary to grow a business. However, only do it if it is 100% needed. Having ownership and control of our business has allowed us to continue with our vision for our company.”
Wondering where to buy needlepoint belts?
Check out the collection right here!