The Citizen Supply Story, Part One

     From day one, Citizen Supply has been quite the ride. That’s what happens when you jump into something like this and figure it out as you go. The whirlwind over the past 4 years has been so intense we’ve barely had time to pick our heads up and share our story. Over the past two months, as we’ve all be forced into a new normal, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on this journey. The highs and lows have come together to bring us to where we are now. With the right lens, even the hardest journeys can bee seen with gratitude. The way forward will be different and incredibly challenging, but the path here built us for this moment.   

     In July of 2015, I was about six months into starting a co-working space. I had this vision of a small space built to bring likeminded people in the community together to share ideas, collaborate, and invest in each other. It was my first business that occupied a physical space. One of the ways we tried to sustain the business was by regularly activating Maker pop-ups. It was really amazing seeing so many people from the community come out for these events and invest in makers. 

     Meanwhile, there was a massive development in the works a few blocks away from us that everyone was talking about. Little did we know that these little pop-ups out of our studio space would catch the attention of Ponce City Market. It led to an opportunity to pitch how we would make our pop-up a permanent store. Spoiler, we got it.

     Aside from a random holiday season stent in college, I’d never worked in retail, EVER. The space we were looking at was a massive 12,292 square feet; the largest in Ponce City Market. SO, so, so, many people in the retail world told me not to do it, so naturally, that just made me want to do it more. Those first two years I had a lot of days thinking that they may have been right.  

     The infrastructure needed to occupy a space like this is something I’m still wrapping my head around, but in those early days, we were lucky to have 42 vendors willing to risk helping us launch this concept. I will always be eternally grateful for that first vendor group. The intention was there but there were so many hard lessons learned. If not for the character of our team and vendors, who knows where we would be now.  

     The months leading up to the launch were probably the most action-packed months of my life! From August to November, the store was built out, we hired 30+ staff members, raised a fraction of the money actually needed, somehow convinced 42 vendors to take a risk on this with us, bought as many fixtures as our pennies could afford, processed in 1000s of products, merchandised the store …etc. I barely left the store during those months. My, then 1 yr old son even had a few nights sleeping in the store as we got it ready for launch :)  

     It was awesome and brutal at the same time. Honestly, NONE of us knew if what we were doing would work. The entire concept was hinged on the theory that people actually wanted something like this. It’s a bold move to create an entire company off of a gut feeling, but so much of the decision to move forward with this concept was based in the years of hearing small businesses struggle to be sustainable. Sitting here today writing this I’m so glad we chose to start Citizen Supply. Great things take time and we’ve already seen the signs that this concept has the potential to do really amazing things for the small business community.  

     After launch night the road turned rough, quickly. Any entrepreneur can tell you stories like this. Revenue wasn’t what we thought it would be, we hired too many staff, and everything cost more and took longer than we thought. Everything was rushed to launch the store and then the wave of reality came crashing down. Literally every day I felt like I was always a day late and a dollar short. I joke now that those beginning years were the reason I went bald. I will say this, a trial by fire is really the only way we could have learned the pivotal lessons we did. What worked stayed, what didn’t was cut. Pivoting became the mantra and a huge part of our DNA.  

     There is so much of me that wishes I could go back and do several things differently. A mentor of mine recently asked me, “When’s the best time to plant a tree? … 50 years ago. When’s the second-best time? Today.” I believe that’s what is ahead for us now; sowing seeds that we wish we did years ago, knowing it will take time and intention, and continuing towards the vision the best we can. The vision of creating a Citizen Supply that continually does better at delivering an experience that allows our communities to discover and connect with brands, and each other, while making a real impact on those vendors we serve. 

- Phil Sanders
Founder & Owner, Citizen Supply