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Building Out a Small Business Idea, Choice by Choice

Well-timed, well-focused decisions led this beekeeper to build a creative hive of her own.

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by Janice Holly Booth

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Merryman Cassels has explored many careers throughout her 50 years: a graphic designer, a mother, a certified beekeeper, an event coordinator. Now she is an entrepreneur. Her stationery and gift store, Hive Design, nestles inthe former Lyric Theatre (where Elvis is rumored to have performed before he was THE Elvis), on historic Main Avenue in Gastonia, North Carolina. Every item is carefully chosen by Cassels to reflect the ethos of her business: beautiful, useful or inspirational—often all three. But beneath the pretty surfaces—handcrafted paper and envelopes, hand-turned wooden fountain pens, locally made jewelry—a transformation is taking place, one that traces its origin to a single choice Cassels made about the future of her business and her life.

Recently divorced, she was working 16 hours a week as special events coordinator for the local Chamber of Commerce in 2013 when she realized part-time work was never going to sustain her financially. Cassels knew she needed to make a change. “Unsure of what to do, I resigned from the Chamber to take some time to breathe, be still and pray for direction,” she tells Life Reimagined. “Three months later, I found myself working in an orphanage in La Paz, Mexico. We started an arts/enrichment program for the children. While there, totally out of my regular world and filled with fears and uncertainty, the vision for the Hive began to reveal itself.”

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When she returned home, Cassels mentioned her small business idea to her daughter. “I shared with Bess my desire to open a creative resource center, a hive, for artists in downtown Gastonia.” Bess said she’d heard that the town’s high-end paper store was closing. “It wasn’t thirty seconds before I was in the car to drive over there,” Cassels laughs. “That was the missing piece!” She negotiated with the company’s owner to buy much of their inventory.

The day I gave myself permission to step back from the workshops for a few months and focus on the retail side of the Hive was one of the most freeing days of my life.

“When I started out I thought the Hive would have an old time mercantile feel with a little bit of this and that—gifts from local artisans, cards, art supplies for Gaston County’s growing artist population, and the stationery andinvitations I’d acquired from the other store. Retail sales would be supplemented with workshops, with each side ofthe business feeding the other,” says Cassels. But the art supplies didn’t sell well, so Cassels had to make a choice. She reduced her inventory of art supplies and stopped offering workshops. “I took a long hard look at what was making the Hive money and what was not. As much as I loved the workshops and the idea of a creative resource center, I was too scattered in my efforts. The day I gave myself permission to step back from the workshops for a few months and focus on the retail side of the Hive was one of the most freeing days of my life.”

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Cassels then made a series of choices that transformed her business. “As we focused more on our stationery products, a vibrant world of creativity sprang to life. We began designing our own stationery using a newly acquiredfoil press and partnered with a local artist to laser-cut our designs. This spring we’ll have our own laser in-house. Topair with our stationery, we have developed a series of glorious liners for our envelopes. By focusing on our greatesttalent, we have created exceptional products.” Her customers agree. Because the response has been so good, Cassels has made another big decision—to attend the National Stationery Show in New York as a vendor, not a customer,selling Hive-branded, hand-crafted paper products; the first step toward creating a national presence for he rbusiness.

When she talks about the Hive’s evolution and continued growth, Cassels’ energy is infectious, but she readily admits the path wasn’t easy. “I began with one vision, but have had to be very flexible and trust in the process. If something is causing me anxiety, I need to take a hard look and decide whether to forge on or seek a different path.” When faced with choices that will move her business down one road or another, Cassels ramps up her curiosity andtries to spot trends in other similar businesses. “I ask my co-workers, customers and other business owners what they are thinking, where there are gaps, what can be done better, what needs to go.” She also makes a point tomeditate on a regular basis. “The answers reveal themselves in their own time,” she explains. When she makes amistake, Cassels uses it as a learning tool. “I take a deep breath, ask myself what I can learn from this uncomfortable moment, and remind myself every step I take is taking me exactly where I’m supposed to go.”

To ensure those steps are intentional and focused, Cassels gave herself the gift of a business coach for her 50th birthday. “In five years, I see Hive products in stationery shops across the country!” she says. “I love to envision us creating our own coveted papers and excelling as design innovators. The Hive will be filled with busy designers whowill share their talent and knowledge with workshops teaching others how we create.”

As cosmic proof that Cassels is in the right place at the right time, a hive of wild bees lives inside a wall of her store. Cassels keeps them there as a reminder to always honor the flow—of honey, ideas, passion, energy and change.