Community is everything. Be building your community and network from day one. As a business owner, you cannot just put your head down and push through walls alone. Get coffee with that person you admire once a week. Reach out to that investor that you think is onto something. Even if there is no immediate ROI, build the connections that matter to you and see how you can drive value in other people’s lives. It’s worth it. Don’t be afraid of actively pursuing things and people that are important to you.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elise DeCamp. Elise is a powerhouse female entrepreneur based in Brooklyn, NY. Originating from Kentucky, she prides her parents entrepreneurial ventures in planting the seed to pave her own way in the start-up world. A high energy individual and collegiate tennis player, by the time she was 28, Elise had garnered experience in a myriad of different industries and roles at name brand fashion houses from production to jewelry design. It was her pivot into start up and her experience growing the business development processes and teams at Yotpo and Goby that were most formative in leading her on her path into e-commerce and building her own company. After working in fast fashion, seeing a shift in the retail industry and spending three months travelling throughout Asia, DeCamp recognized a gap in innovative offerings in retail and an opportunity via the state of modern technology to connect with lesser known handicraft communities and responded with a solution, Ocelot Market, the online marketplace providing a curated selection of well crafted artisan made products from around the world. Ocelot Market’s mission is to give isolated communities around the world economic opportunities for growth as well as to give the modern, conscious consumer a place to shop thoughtfully. Her deep dive into this form of social impact on the cultural and societal level led her to become a thought leader in impact entrepreneurship. Her umbrella company continues to expand into other pillars of impact and sustainability with the goal of building a network of B2C and B2B companies that benefit society and the environment. Known for her keen confluence of forward-thinking design and thoughtful supply chain, DeCamp is paving the conversation on what social impact means at the community level and where the future of retail is headed. She continues to devote her career toward the founder/start-up community, sustainability and social impact.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, with two incredible parents and a younger brother. I was always a creative kid- getting into all sorts of pursuits from writing screenplays to taking acting classes to painting in my grandmother’s studio. I was always very active as well. I grew up playing tennis in the junior circuit and eventually playing in college. I was quite shy growing up and it has taken me years of practice to come out of my shell. I love people, meeting new people, working in teams and networking though I wouldn’t say this came naturally.
I was never very good at school. I had a hard time focusing on things that did not interest me. But the things that I loved, I became very obsessed with, in a sort of perfectionistic way. This started with my pursuit of tennis at age 13, was mirrored in my interest in art in college and has continued with my pursuit of entrepreneurship and business post-grad. I always loved working and started to work as soon as my parents let me. First teaching tennis, then waiting tables. I have always found myself very happy in places where I can take ownership, get my hands dirty and learn new things.
My parents have always been very entrepreneurial in their careers. My dad had his own law practice and my mother worked as an executive at IBM but they have always explored external ventures from fast-casual food franchises to retail chains. I have always been inspired by their business interests and excited by conversation at the dinner table related to margins and location scouting.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
In college, my parents invested in a chain of retail stores throughout the South. As an intern, I got to work in the offices and be involved in internal affairs: merchandising new locations, setting up their computer systems, building their website, and photographing e-com products. This introduction gave me an understanding of what it was like to have your own business, and, ultimately, I stayed in e-commerce/retail in one way or another for the next six years.
It wasn’t until I quit my job and traveled for three months that I had the ‘ah ha’ moment. I always felt morally challenged by the fast fashion industry I had worked in for so long. When in Asia for the first time, my eyes were opened to the opportunity to connect with sustainably-minded producers all over the world. The timing felt perfect. Here I was going to markets every day looking at handcrafted retail goods (a passion & hobby) and I realized I could actually sell their products online and share their stories and give the consumer the opportunity to have this beautiful explorative process just like I was having without hopping on a plane to Chiang Mai.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
My recommendation would be to keep an idea book. Hash out ideas as often and as deeply as you like. But do not dive deeply and commit yourself fully until you have been obsessed with that idea for over three months. Once it’s been that long on your mind, you know you love it. You have the passion necessary to commit. Now spend the next six months learning everything possible about your market, concept, opportunities, weaknesses, competitors, everything. And do not start the business until you have a financial model, CPA, and 2-year plan. You don’t need a business plan but you need the financial model and deep market understanding. A business must be profitable so you must have a plan in place to make this happen.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Try it out! There is no harm in testing what your life might be like if you further incorporate your hobby into your career. I definitely believe in building a minimum viable product before diving in headfirst.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
There is a very good book about this. Just because you love baking pies does not at all mean you should open a pie shop. Because chances are you will not be baking pies, but instead making schedules, balancing the books and cleaning the bathrooms.
Running a business is one thing, doing what your passionate about is another. If you really feel the need internally to combine the two, I would recommend having a plan in place which will allow you to offload the things you don’t love doing or are not good at doing to someone that does. Otherwise you will burn out. That is a constant process. As you grow, you will find new things you don’t like and will have to continue to offload. Also known as delegating. This is all to say- to successfully (and happily) make your passion a business you must like to delegate!
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
The answer to both would be- calling the shots. By running your own business you make the decisions on everything from the toilet paper in the bathroom to the go-to-market strategy. I enjoy this holistic full-scale control of my destiny and my business’s destiny. However the downside of that there is no one to blame when things go wrong. So there is a lot of pressure in the process. I try to build a strong support system around myself so I can ask those around me with experience questions to make more informed decisions and to also share the emotional weight of decision making!
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I am not quite sure what I thought my job would be. I guess I thought I would be traveling a lot more. I thought I would be at markets in Thailand a lot more often. In fact, my job is 5000 different jobs. And there is a new job focus every 3 months, it seems to rotate. So what I spend my time doing is probably the most striking difference.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Every single day. I think the fear of getting a ‘real’ job is so great for me that it will never happen. This is the best career fit for me I could possibly imagine so going back would feel inauthentic and completely unfulfilling. I don’t think it is for everyone. The idea of ‘entrepreneurship’ has been almost “celebrity-fied” in the past years with celebratory PR publications for successful fundraising efforts and exits. But really making something you love your business is a lifestyle choice that comes with sacrifices and immense challenges. The benefit is that in turn you receive incredible personal growth and learning experience. So if that what you want out of life, I highly recommend it. I do and so I use that fear of not having that opportunity out of life as motivation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I don’t know if I have any funny mistakes! Ocelot Market’s first website was atrocious. So if I saw it today I would probably laugh! But I heard a friend say the other day ‘if you aren’t embarrassed by your first product then you started too late’ which I quite like. There is a very good lesson there.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Probably similar to above, my peers! I have worked very hard to build a network of hard-working successful entrepreneurs and business people, especially in the New York area. I am constantly motivated by what they are doing in their fields and, if not, a little competitive with them. I feel appreciative that I get to ask them about leadership and growth and learn from them.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve tried to build a career and business that circulates around improving peoples’ lives. From our supply chain, working with secondary markets consisting of less fortunate family-owned workshops, to building out a diverse team that does not have the cookie-cutter backgrounds/experiences. But I would like to think I have just begun! I hope to build a long and healthy career that supports the growth of those around me, be it women in the start-up space or entrepreneurs from my home state of Kentucky. Global improvement can be demonstrated in the littlest of actions.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Well, first off, I am pretty sure that someone did tell me all of these things but I, of course, had to learn from experience.
- Have a co-founder (ore two or three, and no they should not be your significant other!) A solo journey is a very hard one. It takes a village to make seismic shifts.
- Plan for five years minimum. If this isn’t an idea you would be excited to still be doing in five years, don’t do it. Think about the worst-case scenario in five years and be okay with that.
- Don’t start until you have an awesome CPA and CMO. This is particularly important for my industry. I have had so much turnover in these two respects and they are the two most important aspects of my business model.
- Community is everything. Be building your community and network from day one. As a business owner, you cannot just put your head down and push through walls alone. Get coffee with that person you admire once a week. Reach out to that investor that you think is onto something. Even if there is no immediate ROI, build the connections that matter to you and see how you can drive value in other people’s lives. It’s worth it. Don’t be afraid of actively pursuing things and people that are important to you.
- It’s only going to get harder. You will be more worn out tomorrow than you are today. You will work harder than you thought possible. Take care of yourself because it is a marathon, not a sprint.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The movements that I think are the most important to me right now are the sustainability movement in commerce. I wish I could have a greater impact on the consumer movement and products that are being produced and purchased and their effect on the environment.
Second to that would be the food industry. I am incredibly frustrated by the lack of policy in the products we put in (and on) our bodies. I think we are just barely scratching the surface of the effects of these products on our health and I would really push education and more government involvement in this field.
I hope I can have more involvement in these issues going forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is so cheesy but I honestly think Phil Knight’s “Just Do It’ slogan is so good. I am forever thinking about the amount of time we have on this planet and how to maximize impact while here. I don’t think enough people act 1. Take time for self-awareness and then 2. Act on their intuitions. I encourage everyone to act and do and push until they find their passions. There is only one way to find them and it’s via trial and error so just do it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Oh gosh there are so many-Tobi Lutke, Jennifer Hyman, Andrew Chen, Natalie Massenet, and Brian Chesky. These are the types of people I look up to and hope to share a room with someday.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.