Sarah Cronin and Natalya Nikitina built a small Freeport business that’s big on community
It’s a great time to be a woman-owned business in Maine. Women-owned businesses in Maine last year ranked first nationally for both revenue and job growth, according to the 2017 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, commissioned by American Express. Two women riding the momentum of the female-charged wave are Sarah Cronin and Natalya Nikitina, who both moved to Freeport with a vision to find a better work-life balance for themselves and their families.
Cronin and Nikitina met through their husbands, who worked together, and they started talking over the phone about their idea to start a retail business. These conversations inspired Nikitina, a fashion industry designer in New York, to move from northern New Jersey to Maine with her husband and two young children in 2016.
“We sold our house in New Jersey and moved to Freeport in three months,” Nikitina says of their rapid transition. “Sarah and I didn’t know each other well, but our lives were heading in the same direction and we both wanted to start a business.” Cronin, originally from Connecticut, had moved to Freeport in 2003 for her husband’s job. She worked in the oil and gas industry and spent most of her year traveling, which wasn’t conducive to work-life balance or a family.
“Maine is a healthy place to live, especially compared to where we came from. It’s not us leaving at 7 a.m. and getting home at 8 p.m. like it used to be,” Nikitina explains.
The two women opened their store, Rustic Arrow, in May of 2016 on Bow Street in Freeport with only their vision and $30,000 cash they scraped together. “It was kind of a wing and a prayer,” Nikitina says. They quickly outgrew the 800-square-feet space and be gan looking for a bigger place with more visibility. In May 2017, they moved to larger retail space at 116 Main St.
The store offers baby/children’s and adult clothing, jewelry, gifts and home furnishings with a focus on quality and a low price point (they rarely stock items over $100).
“Our aesthetic is unique and laid back. We wanted young moms to be able to come in and leave their kid(s) in the tent to play and hang out or come in with a stroller,” Nikitina says, pointing to a small teepee with toys and pillows inside. “We also added a baby line since we moved to Main Street and it’s been a great category.”
Nikitina and Cronin’s children attend Freeport schools, and Rustic Arrow has sponsored their schools’ sports teams, as well as donated items for auctions and school events. The store’s proximity to the schools means their kids and friends can drop in often after school.
The store stocks an eclectic mix of products from designers from Freeport to California, with a focus on startups and women designers who’ve incorporated fair trade into their businesses.
“We wanted to build a business that would help support our families but also support our community of women designers and makers,” Cronin says.
“At first it was us reaching out to designers and now it’s designers and brands reaching out to us. We try to cycle designers and brands pretty frequently and we always bring in new products,” Nikitina says.
They also host pop-up shops on weekends, featuring new designers. They’ve created sustained relationships with many of their designers who, Cronin says, “know that we’re a good match and we know they’re a match so that’s pretty powerful. We’re not just out grabbing brands and filling space, we’re curating based on our aesthetic and what works well.”
Rustic Arrow has relied primarily on social media and word of mouth to attract designers and customers. They also partner with other small local businesses to run workshops, which are held in their designated workshop space at the back of the store. “It helps to get the community together, especially during the winter months,” Nikitina says. “We get to know our customers on an intimate level through the workshops. We’ve done candle-making, wreath-making and terrarium workshops. We’re trying to get local makers who want to host workshops to come and use the space and we’ll co-sponsor.”
So far, Rustic Arrow’s growth has been steady, but not without challenges. “One of our challenges when we first started out was companies wouldn’t think about giving us terms, so we either paid up front or put it on a credit card and paid 28 days later,” Cronin says. “We’ve now established terms, which makes it easier to cycle inventory and buy in bigger quantities. We’re into our third year now and I think we could approach a bank to talk about a working capital loan if we want to go that route.”
As the business has grown, so has the need to manage product stock and inventory. They have to account for seasonal ups and downs, including the busier summer months, when Cronin says, “we can literally get wiped out of product in a weekend. We are realizing we need to have more backstock, which is a good problem to have.”
Another challenge has been being a small fish in the big ocean that is Freeport, a shopping destination filled with national brand outlet stores. “We’re thinking about how, as a small business, we can shift the focus to draw more attention to the small businesses that sometimes get overlooked,” Cronin says.
Cronin and Nikitina helped form Shop Small Freeport, a group of small local businesses that have banded together to leverage each other’s talents. “It’s free to join and we have meetings, get together and come up with ideas. We created a small flyer to put up at businesses around town. It’s collaborative and we check in throughout the year,” Cronin says. They also started Shop Small Freeport First Thursdays and host cross-promotional events to bring attention to small local businesses in the area. “There’s a current lifestyle trend that shopping small businesses makes a difference (to both shopkeepers and customers) and we’re tapping into that trend. Every day we get a comment ‘you’re so different for Freeport!’ which is nice,” Nikitina says.
As they look ahead, Cronin and Nikitina want to grow their online business to add more products, (including their own signature line, and increase staff so they can focus on long-term growth. They hit their summer sales growth goal (20 percent per month) and project continued growth into the holiday season. They’re also hoping to add more workshops and events in the fall and winter.
116 Main St., Freeport
Mercedes Grandin is a freelance writer, editor, English teacher and tutor. She lives in Brunswick with her husband Erik and their chocolate Labrador Fozzie.