Urbanum, with its creatively decorated windows and sophisticated black and gold color scheme, sits in a busy, revitalized strip in the New Center neighborhood of Detroit. For gifts and decor, this spot can’t be beat if you’re looking for charm, European flair, a bit of antique luster or industrial swagger.
“Detroit is this incredible up-and-coming place for creative people,” founder and entrepreneur Brigid Beaubien says. She was kind enough to respond to our Q&A on topics like entrepreneurship, juggling multiple jobs and challenges she’s faced (and she’s faced a few!).
- Tell us a little about your startup background and your journey to opening Urbanum. The pandemic only increased the number of people looking to turn a side hustle into a career or to add a side hustle to a 9-5 life. You have other careers. What made you want to add store owner to the list?
Brigid said in a Business of Home article: I was a kindergarten teacher for many years in Detroit schools, and I have a Ph.D. in education. My mom worked for Greenfield Village in the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation [in Dearborn, Michigan] in their merchandise department, and then in my early adulthood, she and my father opened their own home store called the Kindred Spirit. I was really fortunate to learn firsthand from her. She would take me to shows, and I got to the point where I would help with buying and display. My dad, in the 1960s, was the head of merchandising for a Sears in the local community. And so both of them had very clearly defined ideas of what being a shop owner should look like. I was really steeped in that, so it came really naturally.
Prior to Urbanum, my husband and I owned two high-end craft beer and wine stores. When we opened the one in Detroit, I used all reclaimed materials from homes or buildings that had been demolished here in the city, and I was nominated for a UNESCO design award. It was at that point that I really started thinking, I can probably do this. Then there was this moment—my mom wasn’t living in Michigan anymore, she was coming to visit and I couldn’t find sheets and a lamp in a store within the city limits of Detroit. I had to go to the suburbs. I really, frankly, got pissed. That was the final step [that made me decide] I’m going to do this. We opened in September 2018.
- What are the plusses and minuses of being an entrepreneur in Detroit?
Brigid said in a Business of Home article: I don’t think Detroit has any challenges other cities don’t have. If I could, I’d flip that sentence around to what opportunities Detroit offers that other cities may not be aware of. I think Detroit is uniquely positioned to help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow and thrive. There’s opportunity here I don’t think can be found in any other city in the United States.
I think Detroit is uniquely positioned to help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow and thrive.
Detroit is this incredible up-and-coming place for creative people. What is unique about Detroit is that there are systems in place other cities never even thought about, and a lot of that was because of where we were prior to and during the city’s bankruptcy. For small entrepreneurs like myself and my husband, there are funding opportunities that you don’t find in other cities, and small business incubators that offer support each step of the way. All of these things allow people with really good ideas and creativity to thrive if they’re willing to take the risks.
- Your store has a European flavor to it. How do you achieve that and was that your intention?
Several things. First, I’ve always designed very eclectically and liked experimenting with different styles. My travels have substantially impacted my aesthetic. Most importantly I have really reflected on what has made Detroit Detroit and I try and reflect that in the shop.
- When you first envisioned your store and its products, what changed in their development?
I thought I would have substantially more furniture. I started the business carrying a really lovely line of upholstered furniture that I just loved and wanted to highlight. I struggled to get the line off the ground and then the pandemic hit and supply chain became such an issue. It was just no longer prudent to invest in those lines when growth was happening elsewhere.
5. What product did you have high hopes for, but it didn’t resonate with shoppers? What product was a surprise success?
The furniture is obviously one I had high hopes for that didn’t work out. Most product successes are seasonal successes — meaning that folks love them for the first season I have them in the shop and then, like any fashion piece, the desire for them wanes. I carry some core products that really perform very strongly.
- Urbanum prides itself on customer service. Explain what makes it exceptional.
My husband, Tim Costello, and I spent a great deal of time, well over a decade ago now, thinking through how we wanted our businesses to feel and try on to focus on “Warmth, graciousness, and hospitality.” Those who work with us know that is our focus. We hire for those traits and I think folks coming into our businesses can feel that. At least I hope they can.
- If you could give small business owners one piece of advice, what would it be?
1) You’re going to be afraid — just take the leap, don’t overthink it or you won’t do it, AND 2) Make sure you leap with VERY good support professionals by your side.
- What was your marketing strategy?
I have to be honest, I really didn’t have a well-thought-out one because I knew with 8º Plato Beer Company that word of mouth and social media would drive the business in those early years. It has. Instagram is critical to my success. For the first time this past holiday season, I ran ads on a local radio station and Instagram still out performed my targeted ads. Social media is critical to my marketing.
- Explain how you overcame an obstacle and what it can teach other entrepreneurs.
LOL, this is actually a funny question. As an entrepreneur, I’ve survived a polar vortex, numerous complete dust outs from construction on both sides of my building, a pandemic and a major flood (last June). When you are in these situations, I think you just keep on keeping on. What other choice do you have?
- What is a surprising thing you’ve learned about being an entrepreneur?
I’m a pretty even person. I’ve been really surprised by how high the highs are and how low the lows are. The extremes were surprising.
11. What book or podcast has influenced your entrepreneurial strategy or mindset?
I actually don’t read many books on entrepreneurship or business. I find them very male focused and I can’t relate to them, even many of the ones written or produced by women follow this “business” mindset that I just can’t be bothered with. I spend my reading time immersed in books on design. Coffee table books take me hours to go through and I pour over them for weeks and go back to them joyfully. I do enjoy Debbie Millman’s Why Design Matters podcast.