The very reason my book is being written is because A Few Cool Hardware Stores have been embraced by the recovery community where we opened our first hardware store. Once I stopped to reflect on this — and one of my teammates said I had to start talking about our employment practices — I realized how unique our stores are.
As a part of our series about “How You Can Grow Your Business or Brand By Writing A Book”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gina Schaefer.
Gina Schaefer is founder and CEO of a chain of Ace Hardware stores — lovingly referred to as A Few Cool Hardware Stores — located in Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, and Alexandria, VA. She is a passionate entrepreneur who grew her company from one to 13 stores in only 14 years and now leads a multimillion-dollar business that employs more than 250 people. She has served on the Ace Hardware Corporation Board of Directors and tirelessly promotes Shop Local campaigns and community revitalization in urban areas. Accolades include… Women Who Mean Business Award from the Washington Business Journal, an industry Top Gun by the National Retail Hardware Association, and most recently, named to Top Women in Hardware & Building Supply. When she pauses from her work of providing second chances, she serves on the Corporate Board of CCA Global and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. To unwind, she creates greeting cards (as a big believer in the power of the written note), kayaks, travels, reads all things inspiring and DIY, and of course — mentors other small business owners.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/8588173daa7a677b93e2d6984fdca454
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share a story about what motivated you to become an expert in the particular area that you are writing about? Can you share a pivotal story that shaped the course of your career?
I consider myself an accidental expert. I opened my first hardware store in 2003 and within months, I had hired an employee named Shane — who was a recovering crystal meth addict and in rehab at a clinic down the street. I didn’t know it at the time, but that one moment kicked off a culture at A Few Cool Hardware Stores to hire teammates in recovery. I had no idea what a difference this second-chance philosophy was making until one of my employees said to me, “You know, we call this place Recovery Hardware.”
Shane only worked with us for 11 months. One day, he got really angry and left in a huff, screaming that we were awful and he was never coming back. We didn’t speak for a couple of years — he was busy getting well and I was busy building a business. But I needed employees who cared about the work, and Shane remembered his time with us so fondly that he had started to tell his friends in rehab, “Go see the lady at the hardware store, maybe she’ll give you a job.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? Are you working on any new writing projects?
I am currently writing a book called Recovery Hardware, based on not only the ups and downs of running a localized business but also hitting pause on traditional hiring practices. If we want to build human-to-human businesses, we need hire on that same human-to-human level.
Recovery Hardware is a memoir of my own precarious start and includes dozens of stories of teammates like Shane and how they taught me to be the leader I am today. It’s been a roller coaster, but I’m glad to be riding the rails with such dedicated people.
Thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you please tell us a bit about your book? Can you please share a specific passage or story that illustrates the main theme of your book?
I open my book Recovery Hardware with a quote from Shane: “Don’t give up five minutes before a miracle.” His optimism would prove to be prophetic even before we ever met.
I opened my first hardware store in Washington, DC in 2003, when I was 33 years old. I had just been let go from yet another startup tech job. A friend liked to say I was a layoff magnet, and she had a valid point. Truth be told, it was getting pretty old. For as long as I could remember, I wanted my own business, but I could never figure out what I wanted to do. I just kept hitching my star to someone else’s wagon, and the wagon kept crashing.
To break the cycle, I worked up a business plan around a hardware store — a field I had zero experience in but plenty of confidence I could learn — and A Few Cool Hardware Stores was born. A total of 14 Ace Hardware stores, to be exact. But my story is not a straight path to success by any means. Did I mention Ace didn’t want to approve my store? They didn’t think a woman could open a hardware store at all, let alone in some decayed gay urban enclave. It was pure serendipity paired with doing things backwards that sealed a deal they couldn’t back out of. See, don’t give up just before your miracle.
Recovery Hardware is about more than meets the eye in your local hardware store. It’s about stumbling onto your dream career, sharing that dream with others needing a second chance, and learning how we can shop small and think bigger together.
You are a successful author and thought leader. Which three character traits do you feel were most instrumental to your success when launching your book? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Self-promotion — I know I can’t rely on anyone else to tell my story, which means I cannot be afraid to speak up — from my business to the book. I was once called a shameless self-promoter by a business owner and I thought, “Well, if I don’t talk about us, who will?” Own your space and speak up.
- Patience — Like any new venture, I assume launching a successful book will not happen overnight. It is going to require patience and perseverance, to get the message out and into the right hands. Be ready to hurry up and wait.
- Thick skin — This might be the most difficult for anyone sharing their baby with the world. Writing a book can take years. And once you’ve opened yourself up to critique from others, be prepared for the great and the not so great.
In my work, I have found that writing a book can be a great way to grow a brand. Can you share some stories or examples from your own experience about how you helped your own business or brand grow by writing a book?
The very reason my book is being written is because A Few Cool Hardware Stores have been embraced by the recovery community where we opened our first hardware store. Once I stopped to reflect on this — and one of my teammates said I had to start talking about our employment practices — I realized how unique our stores are. By telling the story of the stores and our people, I can hopefully use my voice as a platform for change for small businesses everywhere. Plus, when I’m giving a speech or participating in a panel, everyone asks if I have a book… so I’m writing as fast as I can to make that happen and already taking email signups to keep everyone in the loop.
Can you talk to our readers a bit about the benefits of becoming an author and promoting a book? Can you explain to other leaders why they should invest resources and energy into this? Can you share a few examples of how writing a book in particular and thought leadership in general can create lucrative opportunities and help a business or brand grow?
Recovery Hardware is more than just a book — it’s a building block to creating more speaking opportunities. I feel compelled to share my hard-won lessons with other small and growing businesses. Be the change you want to see, right?
I also plan to use the stories on my social media platforms, to elevate awareness of workers with less traditional resumes, coming from prison or rehab… explore what a living wage really means… and how to transform local businesses into places of real camaraderie.
The book and subsequent speaking panels expand the message of second chances from A Few Cool Hardware Stores to beyond my front doors. I want to share the inspiration and lessons learned with every Main Street in America and beyond.
What are the things that you wish you knew about promoting a book before you started? What did you learn the hard way? Can you share a story about that which other aspiring writers can learn from?
Recently, I was listening to a speaker talk about the use of social media as a platform to build a personal brand or book. She gave the most practical and helpful advice I’ve ever heard. She said, “Pick one, no more than two, platforms or mediums that you are or can be really good at and don’t deviate.” For example, are you great on video? Then use TikTok or YouTube. Inspired by photography? Instagram is your go-to. Don’t try to be all things to all people when you are promoting your book. Before hearing this advice, I was frantically trying to figure out how to master all social media. It was overwhelming and I was going to ultimately do it all wrong.
Pick the platform that lets you tell real, human stories in your unique voice.
I also believe that writers might be good at writing but NOT at self-promotion or social media. Don’t be afraid to pay for those services when appropriate.
Based on your experience, which promotional elements would you recommend to an author to cover on their own and when would you recommend engaging a book publicist or marketing expert?
We can build our own brand website content, a bio, and press materials. Just Google templates for each and go from there. Then check out affordable sites like Shopify or Square Space to do yourself or hire someone. It’s much easier than learning or paying for a full WordPress site.
As I mentioned before, set up one or two social media platforms and give it a try. But if you’re not comfortable with social media, set your budget and outsource it too, because it’s such a huge part of how anyone goes to market now.
I would also recommend leaving certain negotiations (like speaker fees or volume discounts) up to an agent or publicist, if relevant.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your own experience and success, what are the “five things an author needs to know to successfully promote and market a book?” If you can, please share a story or example for each.
I would say in my top five, one to three is all about list building… it’s that important.
- Start building a list the minute you start writing a book. Think deep about who you know, talk to, interact with. What groups are you, your spouse, partner, co-workers, friends, or family involved with?
- Don’t prune your email list. Leave that for later based on responses.
- Sign-up for a free mail service like MailChimp, so you’re ready to go.
- If you’re already doing speaking events, be sure to tease your book by name at the beginning and end of your speech.
- Be mellow about talking about your book. Keep it in the mix but don’t be obnoxious. By that I mean, don’t start every introduction, “Hi, I’m writing a book. You should buy it.” Remember, just like in writing, it’s more about your audience and how your story might help them.
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, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
I would sit down with Amy Poehler in a heartbeat. Not only did she write a kick-ass memoir, Yes Please, and go all in on empowerment with Smart Girls — but she also stars in and produces the NBC reality show Making It. Her show is next-level, DIY maker creations that any hardware lover can aspire to… just watch the Shed Hack Staycation episodes filled for inspirations. But Poehler also scales it down to fun smaller projects too. Just a dreamland of possibilities… the whole “you can create too” attitude.
And, you know, if she brought Nick Offerman and his carpenter awesomeness along as well, no complaints there. It could be a real round-table on all things creative and life and second chances. I think they could truly understand how Recovery Hardware is so special.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent. We wish you continued success with your book promotion and growing your brand.