Q&A with Three Potato Four
By Sonja Rasula
One of the cool things about entrepreneurship is that you get to know other businesses and the people doing work in similar fields as you, and you get to watch each other grow. Before I even had the concept for Unique Markets back in 2008 I was a fan of Three Potato Four, a website from husband-and-wife team Stu Eli and Janet Morales. Like me, they also seemed to have a passion for finding and collecting vintage things. When they started Three Potato Four was a small online shop where you could find anything from vintage clocks to old paint-by-numbers art. I felt a bond and kinship with them immediately.
Over the years as technology, the internet and social media brought change and offered new opportunity at rapid speeds, the company transitioned from selling one-of-a-kind items to designing their own products and collaborating with big brands. Their unique point of view and design aesthetic was fresh and they not only managed to survive through a terrible economy, but they evolved and are now one of the most popular gift/stationery/ lifestyle brands I know.
While we have yet to meet IRL, we’ve cheered each other on over the years. Their story is so inspirational and interesting, I asked Janet and Stu to share some of their history and wisdom.
Why did you start Theree Potato Four?
We started our business primarily to be able to work for ourselves and have more time with our kids. In the last 10 years, we've had that time and feel super fortunate.
You’ve pivoted and evolved so much, can you share your business timeline?
2007 – 2010: We began the business in 2007 as an on-line retail store. We wanted it to be a different kind of web shop filled with super fun, unique, and unusual housewares, accessories, and souvenirs - items that we loved and knew there was a market for but were difficult for people to source. We included a section of "Vintage" because we thought the items could give our brand a personality/ feeling/vibe and a unique point of view. At the time we started, the only other prominent online resource for vintage goods was eBay and so the antique portion of our business took o very quickly and we adjusted to selling primarily antiques.
A couple of years later we found ourselves in Philadelphia with our own antique shop and working on a line of our own vintage-inspired products (starting with milk bottle carafes, posters, key tags, and pennants) to supplement vintage sales. The kids were small and time was limited to source vintage to meet the demand and so designing, producing, and selling our own line helped with balance (both business and personal). This was a pretty important pivot for our business as, soon after, the influx of antique-focused reality TV (American Pickers, Storage Wars, etc.) changed the antique industry fairly abruptly (lots of weekend warrior antique dealers) and having a diversified business with our own line of products, not just the vintage, allowed us to keep things moving and growing.
2011-2015: During these years, we were selling less vintage and so we closed the antique shop and moved to a smaller studio closer to home. We focused heavily on what was
working well for us - product design; both for the Three Potato Four brand as well as linking up and developing product collections for larger retailers (Urban Outfitters, West Elm, Nordstrom, Fossil, etc.) who were keen on our style. During these years we also began cultivating the wholesale side of our business - more products, more trade shows, etc. I think that having gone through two fairly significant pivots in the business model, we wanted to make sure that we always stayed diversified in what we o er. If retail/wholesale was slow, then we had design and vice versa.
2016-Present: During the past few years the business has grown quite a bit. Larger collaborations, bigger accounts, expanded product lines, employees. We've learned so much about business over the last 10 years. Many highs and many lows, but what we're trying to do now is take all of those business lessons learned and apply to what we love most - designing and putting out products that combine good design with nostalgic roots. We've been making more time to shop for inspiration at antique markets and collector shows and trying to not fall into analysis paralysis or deep doubt with our o beat product ideas. As a business, it's easy to fall into the trap of wanting to follow trends, but we've come to realize that our most successful products have always been ones that people didn't know they wanted till they saw it. It's tough sometimes as we always feel like we are outliers, but it's the love of what we do that keep us going and trying new things. 2018 will see lots more new and different Three Potato Four products that we love and hope others are keen on as well. It's hard to be different, but it is fun to be the oddball.
What’s been your most successful product?
It’s been and continues to be our motel key tags.
Why do you think you’ve been so successful over more than a decade?
On the creative side, we'd have to say that it's a combination of keeping true to our "eye"/point-of-view along with our fortunate knack to foresee a possible trend in bringing something old back in a new way (key tags, pennants, letter boards, etc.). We sometimes use the tagline "Making old things new again" and it really does speak best about what we do and who we are.
On the business side, I think that being diversified in what the business offers (retail, wholesale, design services, sourcing, etc.) has meant a lot. There is never a time where all of these facets are up and being able to focus our efforts on what is currently working allows the business to keep moving while you work on the ones that are not. I would add that being humble, as a brand, as a business, as a vendor, as a partner - is paramount. Also, it's super critical to do your best to foresee upcoming potholes and pitfalls and preparing accordingly. It's not if you will hit them, it's when. And keeping our business small has allowed us the nimbleness and flexibility to both roll with the punches as well as capture some pretty fun projects and be better at customer/client service. Also luck. Lots and lots of luck.