Launching an Online Retail Business in Midlife: Starla’s Story

After working long hours for many years to support herself and her son, a health crisis would force Starla to slow down and find another way to make ends meet. She opened Southern Rich’s, honoring all things southern.

Tell us a little about your background.
I was born along the Gulf Coast in Mobile, Alabama to a typical southern family. I was a Daddy’s girl: My father was a hard-working man, a skilled machinist with a keen eye for detail and precision. He was a strong provider and protector of my mother, younger brother, and me.

Our family was traditional. My mother was a southern June Cleaver, who kept our house spotless, our meals well-prepared, and never sat as long as there was something in the home that required attention. All the women in my family were strong southern women, who perfectly balanced feminine charm, Southern belle etiquette, and quiet strength. Daddy tended to everything outside the house – the car, the yard, repairs, the garden etc.

I suppose you could say my childhood was extremely sheltered and structured. Children were raised to respect their elders. I learned southern belle etiquette before I was old enough to even know what the word meant. While I was a “girly girl,” I also had much of Dad’s personality in me—a strong will and a stubborn streak.

Age 3

When I was twelve, my mother went to work as a bookkeeper, which caused one change in our household. I had learned to cook from some of the best southern cooks around (both my grandmothers and my mother) and since Dad got home from work before Mom did, he and I would get in the kitchen together and start “supper” for the family. I still love cooking and entertaining to this day.

My family was a very religious family, and faith was at the center of everything we did. Both my parents were leaders in our church and my brother and I “cut our teeth on the pews,” as they used to say down South. Their leadership in our church and in our community instilled in me both a strong work ethic and a generous heart. Children flocked to our house as Mom was always the perfect hostess with snacks, and Daddy’s unassuming ways and dry sense of humor always made them feel safe and protected. It was those childhood experiences and examples that developed my people skills and my gift of encouragement early on.

Early family portrait

Our extended family were all very musical and involved in church music in one way or another. I began piano lessons at the age of nine and practiced for hours each day. Everything growing up pretty much revolved around church, music, family, neighbors, community, and school. We were always singing! Because I had a natural talent and a love of music, it was a given that I would be either a church musician, a performer, or perhaps a music teacher. There was never really another path made clear to me even though I had other skills that I had not tapped into.

I have lived in other areas of the South, but have been back in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama since 1999. My parents, my 25-year-old son, most of my extended family live either in town or within a day’s drive from me.

During my formative years, I was an excellent student. I entered Lee University, a religious liberal arts college in a small town outside of Chattanooga, TN, on a piano scholarship. I eventually realized that the last thing I desired was to perform on a professional level and that I had little patience for teaching children. After getting a work-study job in the Public Relations Department of the University, and tapping into my writing and interviewing skills, I changed my major to communications, with an emphasis in public relations.

My college senior portrait

After graduation, I returned home, secured office administrative work, married, had a son, and (ironically) became involved in faith-based singing, public speaking, and performing. My passion for writing fell by the wayside though my love of public speaking continued to be a part of my career choices. After ten years, I ended my marriage. Now a single parent, I made many career choices based on what served me best in caring and providing for him. There was a great deal of “living” from that time until my “after 40” life change. My last two jobs, prior to the beginning of the change of course in my life were in Executive support roles in the telecommunications industry. I served as a Facilities Coordinator and then as an Assistant to the Regional Retail Sales Manager before life began to take an unexpected turn.

During the worst days of my illness, with my sweet son Josh

When did you start to think about making a change?
Sometimes life changes because of a strong desire for change or an “aha” moment, and then sometimes it changes out of sheer necessity. In my case, it was the latter. After relationship transitions and a personal health crisis, I was forced to make a change from the fast-paced corporate world that had completely eroded my health. I was working as much as 90 hours a week to progress financially for both my nine-year-old son and myself.

I ended up flat on my back, unable to get out of bed for no more than an hour at a time. All my independence came to a screeching halt. During the many months that it took to get a proper diagnosis (fibromyalgia and peripheral neuropathy) and find a path towards managing my health, I was forced to take a long look at another way to live and provide for my son.

What is your next act?
I am the co-owner of Southern Rich’s, which promotes the southern lifestyle, history, and tradition, through a variety of products. I launched this business in April 2016, at the age of 55. Southern Rich’s is a family business co-owned with my son Joshua. My father contributes through the creation of his one-of-a-kind wood handcrafted designs of tables, bowls, lamps, plant benches, coat racks, picnic tables, rocker/gliders, etc. We also have a private line of all-natural jams and butters that have no preservatives and are gluten free. Within that line, is a selection of naturally-sweetened jams for diabetics and those who do not want sugar in their diet. Those jams are sweetened with white grape juice instead of organic sugar. This product was a huge success over the Christmas holidays. We place great value in natural products and promote a healthy lifestyle. The jams are a private label for our company, manufactured by a wholesale distributor that grows the fruits and manufactures the jams and butters on their family farm in Georgia.

My dad’s handcrafted wagon wheel rocker-glider

Southern Rich’s does not have a retail storefront; all the work done on our handcrafted creations and subsequent inventory is kept in a shop on our private property. We sell online, but our customers primarily consist of contacts in our local community through churches, beauty salons, neighbors, friends, family etc. We are in the process of working with a local retail shop owner who is interested in displaying and promoting our products in her collectibles store. We are seeking to expand the jams to a regional grocery chain that showcases local businesses and their food products. In the last couple of weeks, we have also signed on for a new exclusive label product—all-natural soy candles that are infused with essential oils. The candles offer a variety of aromas that are reminiscent of life in the South such as Magnolia Blossom, Southern Sunshine, High Cotton, Ocean Breeze, Sweet Tea & Currant, Peach Nectar, Sage & Sweetgrass, Oakmoss & Amber, etc. These candles come in both feminine, masculine, and gender-neutral designs of mason jars, tumblers, and tins. We hope to have this latest product available within a month.

A major goal of ours is to “pay forward” our success by taking a portion of our proceeds and building a foundation that we call “Blessings For Belles.” Our mission is to help women and children in shelters and safe houses, or those who are living on their own after suffering abuse and abandonment. We have helped a limited number of women who were out of work and struggling with paying rent, groceries etc. but hope to fully establish the foundation and expand its scope as our business grows.

I am also a writer. I am re-launching my first book Journey Within My Heart and am working on the launch of my second and third books. My books are all related to Southern Rich’s in that they are an extension of the life I treasure as a true “southern belle.” Journey Within My Heart is a look back into my own life and struggles, both with my health issues and a time of domestic abuse. It’s also a journey to reconcile those experiences with my childhood memories, in an effort to discuss self-esteem and worth. My second book, Southern Whispers is a lighthearted look at life in the South as told by a true “southern belle.” It is filled with humorous anecdotes and family stories and experiences. The third book in the queue is titled Halo & High Heels and explores the role of women and their struggle to be true to womanhood, motherhood and more, while being unique and authentic. It makes the claim that it is possible to be a lady and all-woman too; and that while it is true that “little girls are made of sugar and spice,” sometimes we find we are much more spice than sugar! It is written from the expectations I personally experienced being raised in the South by southern women.

Aside from writing as a book author, I am a blogger for Fibromyalgia Living Today and a health contributor for the New Life Outlook online health network—both owned by Perk Media out of Canada. I maintain my own blog and discussion forum through my website and on my Facebook page.

Writing about what I treasure and sharing products that evoke memories of those treasures, makes what I do anything but work. It is simply sharing what I love. Walking this next act journey with those I love in a family business just makes it doubly rewarding. And did I mention I LOVE being my own boss! The creative and artistic side of me despises routines and schedules and having someone to answer to or hover over my shoulder. I suppose I lead much better than I follow. Also, due to some of the health challenges I have dealt with, flexibility is paramount.

How supportive were your family and friends?
The one thing I know without a doubt is that I would not have made it had it not been for the encouragement, support, and care of my family and close friends. My parents literally nursed me back to health and helped with day-to-day tasks. They, and other family and friends, patiently listened to me and encouraged me with each new idea I developed along the way.

The family business came through my sweet Daddy turning his wood crafting hobby into beautiful pieces that I could couple with my marketing skills to promote and sell. He was giving of his talent and what he loved to do, using it to help me financially and to help me find a way forward. As my son Josh grew up, he jumped in with a desire to learn skills from his “Paw Paw” as well as a desire to simply spend time with him in his wood shop. His ideas on how to reach a young market and trendy tricks of the trade have been immeasurable. He is a computer geek so he helped me with technical things that would bog me down when I had computer woes. He is also the one who encouraged me with the writing of my first book telling me to “think big” in my audience outreach. He believed I had a message for everyone, and challenged me not to think too small or to write to a narrow group of readers.

Finally, I had a couple of close friends who supported me beyond expectations. Laura challenged me to find my voice and my confidence in what I had to offer. She gave me constructive criticism and “tough love” when I needed it. She pushed me to enter an international “transformation contest” hosted by the Early To Rise organization. During that contest, my journaling was a part of our daily exercises towards transformation—the words in my little “journal” were being read by 47,000 people! At one point in the contest, the President of Early To Rise, Craig Ballantyne, asked me to be one of their featured contestants on their Friday “stories.”. This is where I found my courage to begin writing my first book!

The other friend instrumental in my life during my “next act” was my friend Clint. He was my encourager and esteem-builder. I had gone through so much that I had kind of lost “me,” and he helped me to see beauty again in myself, my gifts, my heart, and my spirit. I had really dwindled in self-esteem with the setbacks I had encountered. He was my kindred spirit and my resident fan club.

What challenges did you encounter?
As I stated, I think the biggest challenge was finally getting a proper diagnosis in my health issues so that I could find my new “normal” in life to balance my energy in such a way I could begin to reach my goals. Many people with health challenges tend to live in a state of denial for a while, wanting to get their “old” life back, and it takes time to realize that some detours take you on a path completely different—never to return to where you were before.

The other challenge for me was financial. Because of setbacks and of my responsibilities as a single parent, I didn’t have a huge financial foundation, especially when it came to launching the business Southern Rich’s. Writing was easier, in that you simply put yourself out there and research writing opportunities until you find the right niche and following. But launching a new “products-based” retail business was another thing altogether. As the adage goes “you have to have money to make money” so finding a way to develop a product line and even have minimal money to market it was challenging.

Handcrafted Deluxe Captain’s Table

Were there times when you thought about giving up?
I suppose I felt like giving up in my weakest moments, but when you really have no other option, it isn’t a thought you dwell on for very long. Each person who takes that step towards their next act should really look at it as a point of “no return.” If we are too comfortable in mediocrity, then we often do not find the courage to keep going and pursuing our dreams and goals. There are no shortcuts—and “easy outs” are very self-defeating.

What/who kept you going?
That is the easiest answer for me: my son, Josh. He and I had been through “hell and back” from the time he was born three months premature. I was in an abusive marriage to his father and then faced with a preemie baby towards the end of that marriage. I didn’t know if Josh would live or die, so my life had already been motivated and conditioned by that big brown-eyed little boy, my miracle baby. I developed the motto “Never give up!” When life had finally settled in and had become good again—only to be turned upside down with health issues—it was that sweet little boy who had grown from a fragile preemie baby to an energetic nine-year-old, who kept me motivated! It was also my faith in God and my family’s faith in me that kept me going.

With Josh, my right-hand man

What did you learn about yourself through this process?
That I didn’t have to be perfect and that messing up sometimes is a part of the process! I also learned that I didn’t have to have everything all figured out to take a step forward. I just had to have courage for that one leap of faith. I realized that I didn’t fully know who I was inside until I was squeezed a bit and what was in there oozed out! I learned that the very things I had spent a lifetime being afraid of were the things that pushed me forward and that they were mere shadows holding me back with no substance. Finally, I learned what really mattered to me and how to let go of those things that didn’t matter so much.

Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would’ve listened to the “whispers of my heart” sooner! I spent way too many years trying to please others with life choices and also second guessing my own desires and choices opting for what was “expected” or “safe.”

What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
It isn’t always easy but it is liberating! If you find something that you love, then no matter how hard it is to obtain, it will never seem like a chore. Also, you must fully believe in what you do or in what you have to offer before you can expect others to. You must sell yourself first! Passion combined with need, desire, determination, and joy in the process will give you much of what you need to change course.

One thing that I share with people along their journey is to be kind to yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst critic and if we feel nothing is ever just right, then we lose heart. On good days, be your own cheerleader. On bad days, your own nurse, refuge, or encouragement coach. It is so important to take care of yourself in the process of “reinventing” life. Women tend to be all things for everyone else in their lives and spend no time on themselves. But what I have learned is that if we don’t treat ourselves well, and if we give all we have to others without giving to ourselves, then we aren’t at our best and everyone suffers! It takes times of rest, solitude, reflection, and honest soul-searching sometimes. It is the “being that energizes the doing.”

I wasn’t able to move forward into the areas I desired until I was brutally honest with myself. Transparency is necessary so that we can discover our true beauty and worth. Also, if we aren’t up to par physically then we struggle to reach our goals as well. Our worth isn’t tied up in our health, but our energy level is.

Historic Southern charm: Bienville Square in downtown Mobile, AL

What advice do you have for those interested in starting a product-based business?
If you are interested in a career path that takes you into the collectible retail market, find products that have meaning. Don’t just look for things you think others will like or that might be big sellers. People shop for everyday items out of necessity, but collectible or novelty items out of emotion and sentiment. Whatever products you choose, let it be something that you would love or want or that evokes special memories for you. Don’t cut corners. Make sure that what you offer is quality above quantity always!

Also, do your homework. There are fewer excuses with the Internet, Google, and YouTube. Educate yourself as much as possible. See what others have done and how they have done it. Then tailor that to your lifestyle.

Finally, realize that “no man (or woman) is an island.” Solicit help when needed and involve those around you. No one is successful trying to do everything themselves. You’d be surprised how many around you are waiting to be asked for help!

What selling products out of your home looks like

Any advice on starting a business with family?
Going into business with family does have its own challenges as well as rewards. Sometimes the family roles do not coincide with the business roles and the lines become a bit blurred at times. For instance, my father is the creative genius of our handcrafted creations. His love of the hobby and desire to bless others with his designs have produced a greater challenge for me in sales to our network of acquaintances. He had given away so many pieces as “gifts” prior to the launch of our business, that it has made it more difficult to sell to those who have not received a gift from him. Everyone wants something for free!

Also, because his expertise is in the design while mine is in the marketing, sometimes I have to take a more dominant role to ensure that he adheres to what we have established in the way of pricing, offers, etc. We can’t relate typically as father/daughter but as designer and business owner. So far, he has not caved in by reducing the pricing that I have set! Because of limited knowledge of retail pricing versus collectible designer pricing, he tends to want to sell the collection pieces for much less than their true value.

My advice is to make certain everyone understands and respects their roles in the business. My son, as a millennial, has many creative ideas and perspectives that I value and respect. We cannot allow his youth and my experience to deter us from finding the most innovative and productive ways to market our products. As with my relationship with my father, so it goes with my son as well. We are not mother/son but co-owners.

Lastly, it is inevitable that as a family business develops, there are outsiders—extended family members—who are not a part of the business, who see the growth and suddenly want to become a part of it. It is important to hold your ground as owner. Just as you would not allow outsiders in your public business just because they want to “get in on the action,” nor should you allow relatives. A family business has its many rewards; just remember though, it is a business and should be treated with the same professionalism as any other business.

The team: with my dad and son

What about advice for those interested in writing?
My advice is what I told one of my writer friends and penned in my book Journey Within My Heart. Here is the quote: “One thing I have come to understand as a writer, is that the words that come forth must be expressed regardless of who reads them, or even if I am the only one who reads them because a writer writes.”

I shared this thought with my friend Anita, who is a fellow writer, not too long ago. Here is what I told her “…if my words fall on one ear that is ready and in need of what I have to say or a thousand, I have given birth to a thought that is meant for someone, somewhere, or maybe even just meant for me to realize from the deepest part of me.”

If your words touch you, they will touch others who are meant to hear them. It is kind of like “if you build it they will come!”

My “writing den”

What resources do you recommend?
Writing:
The best way to develop your skills and techniques is to write, write, write! Also, you need to find your “niche” by researching companies, media groups, publications, etc. that are interested in contracts with freelance writers. After my time of illness, I felt that some of what I had learned could be of benefit to others in their own health struggles. I came across a few networks that were looking for health contributors, one of which was New Life Outlook based in Canada. They have sections for most of the major illnesses and health conditions and welcome application from freelance writers.

If you aren’t certain which genre you want to pursue, you could use a network such as the Freedom With Writing Resource Network. When you subscribe, they send out weekly writing opportunities to explore.

There are a few bestselling authors who offer valuable insight into the world of writing. I highly recommend Brendon Burchard’s books and seminars.

If you are interested in exploring the world of an indie author (self-publishing/independent publishing,) Amazon’s self-publishing division CreateSpace is a viable and inexpensive option to get your early writings into print or ebook form. They offer many services and tips along the way as you learn about the process and the world of writing… Through CreateSpace, you will be listed as an author on Amazon and can format your book in electronic form for Kindle Publishing also.

My books of inspiration

Retail Business:
Concerning launching your own retail business, it is of utmost importance to research the laws and regulations of your state. Go to your state’s Department of Revenue website and research business licenses and information. You can also learn a great deal from the Small Business Administration.

If you are not creating your own product solely but looking for products to sell, research viable distributors who accept wholesale customers. Some wholesale companies also offer “private labels” or exclusivity options, where the product is manufactured by their company but distributed under your company name. Make sure you do your homework on reviews and history of the companies you are considering. Those who will provide a sample of the product before requiring an order are usually the ones with a stronger business ethic and easier to work with.

If you are offering a product for consumption such as food, drink, or something like a perfume or body lotion, it is important to research liability insurance for your company should someone become ill or have a reaction to something you sell. Liability insurance isn’t all that expensive, but necessary. Contact your insurance agent or any local agent that offers business liability insurance.

What’s next for you?
I hope to turn my story into one seen on the big screen. I am talking with an independent writer/producer to see if it would make a good video or not. I want to branch out to doing more personal videos as well as blogging and life coaching.

I also have a strong desire to pay it forward. In addition to “Blessings for Belles,” I want to help people who are dealing with chronic illness and loss of income. My idea is to tap into the talents and skills of those who have faced lifestyle changes, not so much out of a desire for a “next act” but out of necessity for a “next act.” I want to build a network for them to showcase their talent and skills so that they can find hope and a hand up from their situation.

Connect with Starla Rich
Email: starla@starlarich.com
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