Willie Wags, “Wih-lee-whags”\ (noun) 1. “off the beaten path” Origin: Maine. Used in a sentence: “He lives way out in the willie wags.”
Jamie Clark, “Jey-mee Ka-lahr-k” \ (noun) 1. “smiling whirlwind of wife, mom, and entrepreneur.” Origin: Maine. Used in a sentence: “Jamie Clark started the small business The Willie Wags nearly two years ago, and is only just getting starting.”
For Jamie Clark, it all happened very suddenly.
Returning home from a day of work, Jamie discovered that the national radio talk show, “The Elvis Duran” show, discovered her small, home-based subscription box business, The Willie Wags, on Instagram. Duran purchased boxes for all the women in his office and even mentioned the boxes, which feature hand-tested products created by female entrepreneurs ranging from jewelry and books to body products and more, on his show.
“It just kind of exploded. In the span of two hours it went from a fun little hobby to ‘What am I going to do now?’” Clark said with a laugh. After this national exposure, Clark realized her part-time hobby could turn into a full-time opportunity of a lifetime. But she couldn’t do it alone.
Since then, Clark and business partner Ashleigh Bachand have expanded the Willie Wags brand to include a storefront in downtown Bangor, a magazine that ships with each box and popular after-hours events.
But behind the growing small business is something simple: A celebration of female entrepreneurship and empowerment that had pretty humble beginnings.
In the Beginning
When Clark first launched The Willie Wags as a subscription box in January 2016, it was a so-called side hustle — something to do when she wasn’t working at her full-time job — that she ran out of her basement.
“Initially I thought that I could do The Willie Wags part time, and help my husband with the other business. But very quickly it was exploding online and suddenly it was a ‘I’ve got my feet in two canoes, and they are going downstream, and I have to pick one’ situation,” Clark said.
The other business is the restaurant-slash-convenience store in Levant, 20 minutes outside Bangor, that Clark and her husband opened a decade ago. As Willie Wags took off, she found that juggling two businesses can be challenging. Ultimately, she chose Willie Wags.
Bangor Director of Community and Economic Development Tanya Emery worked closely with Clark as she developed The Willie Wags into a downtown brick-and-mortar destination. Emery stresses the importance of new and revolutionary retail coming to Bangor.
“We have some amazing small businesses downtown, like The Briar Patch and Rebecca’s, which have been here for decades, and some new favorites like the Rock and Art Shop, but additional growth in retail creates the critical mass that people typically see at shopping centers or malls,” Emery said. “We want folks to feel like they are coming downtown because of the variety of options and experiences.”
Inside The Willie Wags
The downtown store is a bright pop of color with a warm, inviting atmosphere.
A pull-away door opens to an entrance to the neighboring coffee shop. A wall has been dedicated to public engagement by offering a place to write and stick positive notes in bright primary colors. Small info cards highlighting the background stories and inspiring journeys of the female entrepreneurs are placed next to the corresponding products. A large leather couch sits in the center of the store, accented by colorful pillows and surrounded by a patterned rug, inviting visitors to put their feet up and relax while shopping or having a friendly conversation.
Conversations are something of high importance to Clark and Bachand, both inside the store and beyond.
On their Facebook page, Bachand writes a weekly post called Founder Feature Fridays in which she highlights a female entrepreneur and her products that The Willie Wags carries. A recent post featured Maine native Kate McAleer of Brixby & CO., who creates clean, natural chocolate. The post, accompanied by colorful photos of the snack food, mentioned Kate’s inspiration.
“Kate faced an extremely challenging time in her life when her mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer,” the post read. “On top of an aggressive medical treatment plan, Kate’s mom dedicated herself and her family to an organic and natural food diet, daily fitness, and elimination of toxic household products and plastics. It was this courageous example that greatly influenced Kate’s mission to create clean and delicious chocolates and more.”
The mission of sharing the stories of the women behind the products they carry goes beyond the store and social media. Clark and Bachand tried a few methods of making sure their subscribers knew the stories behind each of the products they were being sent starting with “one-pagers” placed in all the boxes. They also tried tying individual rolled up papers to each item. But eventually they landed on Wicked Magazine, which they produce monthly.
“We wanted to do something more robust, that everyone could have access too, not just subscribers,” Bachand said. “In Wicked we highlight and feature awesome woman that we have met across our journeys.”
Both women also write small segments for the magazine that focus on the theme of each month’s box. For instance, the February 2018 issue had a note with tips and tricks for family vacations from Clark on the third page, following an framable inspirational quote.
A Creative Route to Business
Bachand feels at home in her role as Chief Operating Officer at The Willie Wags, where she acts as Clark’s “right-hand-gal.” Bachand assists in product acquisition, marketing, sales, managing the stores employees and anything else that Clark may need help with from week to week.
“Ashleigh does everything,” Clark said. “She is currently in Massachusetts, so while she can’t be in the store itself, she does a lot of analytical work behind the scenes. She does online sales and inventory, reporting, and the social networking needed to connect with customers and women we want to partner with.”
The pair met through Chloe and Isabel, a jewelry company where Bachand worked as a regional merchandise manager. She was in charge of recruiting and managing a team of other merchandisers and reaching out to Clark without an answer. Eventually Clark did answer and when the two finally met, they immediately hit it off. They became fast friends and talked over phone, text or messenger almost daily. When Clark first approached Bachand about her idea of The Willie Wags, she was immediately on board.
“I said that if Jamie needed help, I was there. I was excited for her,” Bachand said. “The first month I subscribed to show my support, and by the second month I was helping choose products. And I have been 100 percent on board ever since.”
The duo has created a successful, unique business that fits right in with the current national movement of women supporting women.
“There’s been this sense of urgency and reawakening in 2018. These movements [such as the Women’s March, Time’s Up and #MeToo] are fabulous and are creative awareness, but there is no direct way to go and making direct lasting impact,” Clark said. “Women have 80 percent of buying power in the United States, but we are making 70 cents to the dollar. It makes no sense. If we use our buying power to make impactful and meaningful purchases, and support female entrepreneurs and put money directly into their pockets, we can help them grow and then they are the ones making the decisions at larger companies.”
And the impact of The Willie Wags on women-run businesses is getting noticed. The Willie Wags was listed in the top 10 finalists for the “InnovateHER Business Challenge for Innovations that Empower Women’s Lives” in October of 2017. The competition was held in Washington, D.C., and looks for entrepreneurs that demonstrate innovation and talent with a unique product, service or technology that would positively affect the lives of women and families.
“The product lines that Jamie has in the store are fun, interesting and unique. People have told me how much they love having a store with such a strong point of view,” Emery said. “The focus on local products, women-owned products and interesting finds that you don’t see everywhere makes The Willie Wags a real destination in the region.”
A Look Ahead
Clark envisions her store helping other female entrepreneurs like her, who are starting out with the passion, the diligence and the fearlessness needed to make a business.
“We are trying to promote their brand through ours,” Bachand said, referring to the female entrepreneurs partnered with The Willie Wags. “We are posting social media features, constantly taking pictures on Instagram and giving businesses shout outs. It’s all about getting the awareness out there.”
The newest addition to The Willie Wags is their after-hours events. In an attempt to continue expanding the brand beyond the store and the subscription boxes, Clark and Bachand created the events for women to get out of the house to connect with and support other woman. Some of their events include salsa nights, plant and sips, book signings, and business workshops, all geared toward empowering women and creating relationships.
“The Willie Wags is all encompassing. We have after-hours events, subscription boxes, a store presence, social media, founders cards and more,” Clark said. “Everything we do it is mission centric, and the cheerleading and storytelling we do for our partners all has to do with support and how it creates relationships between customers and creators.”
Willie Wags, “Wih-lee-whags”\ (noun) Alternative definition: “A place to empower female entrepreneurs, create meaningful relationships and tell the stories that make a difference” Origin: Maine. Used in a sentence: “Check out everything The Willie Wags has to offer at their website: www.thewilliewags.com.”
“We are super appreciative of the Bangor community and the impact it had on the businesses we partnered with. A lot of our partners sold out of their products because they weren’t able to keep up with the demand.”
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.