Joan Lettinga

Homemaker, Mompreneur, Pillar of the Community

"We rise by lifiting others."

"We rise by lifiting others."

 What is your personal story?
I was born in the small town of Sparta, Michigan in the USA in 1937. Two people greatly influenced me early on: my father, who decided I should start dancing lessons at age 3 because I had a natural talent for acrobatics, and my dance teacher, Mr. Osterhouse or Mr. O., who had a professional dance studio in the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had a good reputation and regularly provided dancers to entertain at local community events. Besides the performers who were in their 20s, he always included a few younger dancers, including me.

Grow together and take responsibility for making things happen
What I learned from these experiences was that you don’t go to a school like that to perform. You go there to learn and become better at what you do. Working with the other dancers taught me that you grow together. It also taught me to take responsibility for making things happen in my life. Those two principles have been important throughout my life.

Deel enkele van de belangrijke uitdagingen of doorbraken in je carrière die hebben geleid tot waar je nu bent.

Do what you love: dancing into business at 17
After I graduated from High School at 17, many of my friends went to college but that didn’t really interest me. I decided to start my own dance classes. I rented spaces in different towns on different days and put ads in the paper to teach 4-12 year-olds. When I dragged my phonograph and acrobatic matt to the locations and opened the doors, I was always thrilled to find kids waiting in line. At that point, I had never even heard the word ‘entrepreneurship.’ I was just doing what I loved doing and it took off. I did that for 3 or 4 years mostly ‘flying by the seat of my pants’.

Have fun and work with the right people: crafting the House of Ceramics
Soon after I began my dance classes, I met my future husband, Howard Lettinga, Sr. and we had our son, Howard Dean Lettinga, Jr. I closed my dance classes and became a stay-at-home mom. During that period I took some ceramics classes which were very popular in the 1950s. I liked them so much that I began buying my own molds and having friends over to work on ceramics. We even bought a kiln so I could fire my own greenware at home.

That’s when I thought, ‘I can do more with this.’ Like before, I put ads in the paper for a free ceramics class just to test the waters. I thought if 5 people show up I’ll be happy. Well, 21 people came and they all signed up for my paid classes. That was the start of a very successful business called the House of Ceramics. Over 13 years, my husband (who worked full-time at an iron foundry, and I built a very successful business together. I gave ceramics classes on 4 nights and 2 afternoons each week.

I guess we made people feel good. That´s why they came back. We kept adding space, new kilns and new employees. In fact, at one point, we had so many kilns running at the same time that we blew out our electrical transformer on New Year’s Eve. That was a cold, dark New Year. So we eventually upgraded the supply power to our house. I didn’t have a business plan. I just did what I wanted to do.

If I´m going to be involved in something, it should be fun
People ask me, ‘What’s your secret?’ I always say, ‘If I’m going to be involved in something, it should be fun.’ We had a good time in our classes and made people feel good. We also picked the right people to work with. And we kept evolving. At a certain point when more people got into ceramics, we stopped our classes and just sold supplies wholesale to other shops.

Hitting the spot in dry cleaning: Sparta Cleaners
In the 1970s, we closed down the House of Ceramics and decided to downsize a bit. But I’m not someone to just sit around the house all day. There was an old dry cleaning business in our village and I started working there part-time. Six months later we bought the business from the owner. Of course, I knew nothing about running a dry cleaning business at the time.

But we dove in and built the business. We invested in new equipment and even put our own clothes on the conveyer so it looked like we were the place to be. Success breeds success. I learned everything I could about the equipment, and hired people we could depend on. We only had that business for 5 years, but that is where our love affair with the Palace Livery stable began.

Buying the Palace Livery stable building
The Palace Livery stable building was located next to our dry cleaning business. It was a large building, built in 1907, and was home to several small businesses. We had a chance to buy the building in 1985 and decided to go for it. We didn’t have a clue what we were going to do with it, but the opportunities quickly presented themselves. We turned a small space at the back into a shop where we could sell various things such as crafts, antiques and other odds and ends. I always trusted my instincts when it came to adding new services, products and businesses, and they usually worked out. That little room in the back was the start of a booming new business: the consignment business.

Cruising into the consignment business
By now it was the 1990s and we saw a great opportunity. Traditional small, thrift stores that sold second-hand goods were being replaced by large, upscale consignment stores. We decided to use some of the space in our building to start a consignment store.

How does a consignment store work? People bring you things they don’t want anymore, and you put them on display in your store. When the goods are sold, the owner gets a percentage of the money and you get the rest. People brought us everything – clothing, toys, housewares, books, jewelry and more. In the beginning, I kept a list of all the merchandise on paper, but we soon had a completely computerized system. In the end, we had nearly 6,000 consignees bringing goods to our store, with 13 employees who processed incoming merchandise, tagged it with bar codes and put it out on the display floor. The business got bigger and bigger and we ran it for over 20 years.

Back to dancing- back to my roots
Most of the building became a consignment shop. But not all of it. One day a woman came to us and said she wanted to start a dance studio. So, in a back corner of the building, we put in a hardwood floor and a bathroom, and helped her get her business going. But after just a few months, she informed us she was going to stop. So I decided to take over the dance studio. For me, it was going back to my roots. I was nearly 60 years old, but I started giving dancing lessons and hired other teachers to help us run the studio and build the business. A few years later we sold the building to another couple, who run a thriving dance studio in the business to this day.

Making the Palace Livery stable building the hub of business and community spirit
During all those years, we worked hard to make the Palace Livery stable the hub of business and community spirit in Sparta. We helped many start-up businesses get going, including an artist, sewing classes for women, dance studios, and many others.

Every Easter we bought huge quantities of flowers and let kids come in and make Easter bouquets for their moms. It was a great marketing promotion, the moms shopped in the consignment store while the kids had fun. At Christmas, we turned the front of the building into a post office where kids could mail letters to Santa Claus. We had official letterhead for the letters produced by Santa ‘Joan’ Claus. People still talk about how important this was in their family.

One of the last things we did was celebrate the 100-year birthday of the building in 2007. People dressed up, a band played, there was a formal tea room, horse and carriage rides and a theater group entertained everyone.

Named Pillars of the Community - a beautiful recognition
In 2009, my husband Howard and I were named Pillars of the Community for Sparta, Michigan. That means a great deal to both of us because we love our town and have always been strong supporters of building and giving back to the community. Looking back, I think we always picked the right people, the ones who share our values.

Retiring to Florida and starting an online business
In 2012, we decided to retire to Florida. At first, I just focused on getting settled, but then I got that itch to do something. I started volunteering at a local thrift store and was amazed at all of the goods coming through the door. We live near some affluent communities and it just shocks me how much stuff people buy and throw away, sometimes with the price tags still on. Brand new Nikes, designer clothing, you name it.

A friend of mine was buying some of the things and re-selling them on eBay, so I thought ‘Why not?’ I can do the same. I set up an online resale business, selling on two different e-commerce platforms and it’s going great. Here’s the link to one of them:

I buy items at the thrift shop. I bring them home, photograph them, post them online and ship them when they sell. I enjoy the kick of repurposing perfectly good clothing. As long as I enjoy it, I’ll keep on doing what I’m doing. I even give tap dance lessons to a friend occasionally. Why not? I’m still 85 years young!

When you find yourself in a difficult situation, what is your go to skill?
I can’t really say I have one. I’ve had a cushy life and have always had what I needed. When there was a challenge, I always thought ‘We’re doing something wrong or need to change something.’ So I just ask myself ‘What do I need to do next to fix it.’

What advice would you give to other professional women who want to shine in their career?
I think camaraderie is very important. Everyone has something to contribute. If you think you have to do it alone, you will do it alone. But you can learn so much from the talents of other people. It’s important to listen to what others say and make decisions together. My favorite t-shirt shows three turtles standing on each other, and had the text: ‘We rise by lifting others.’ I couldn’t have said it better.

The other thing I can’t stress enough is to do what you love. If you are having fun, people feel that. People enjoy being around people who love what they do. When I got into business in the 1940s, I didn’t really think it was difficult to be a woman in business. It just felt natural to be doing what I was doing. But if I look back at the small villages in Michigan, the banker was a man, the barber was a man. All the main businesses in town were owned by men. I guess I never really thought about it. Women have gained more power in the last years. My granddaughter is an industrial electrician. I think it’s fantastic that she has that opportunity.

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