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Secrets of Success: Laura Zander

There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.

Meet: Laura Zander, the cofounder and CEO of Jimmy Beans Wool. Laura’s path to entrepreneurship started when she began “accumulating degrees in political science, sociology and criminology.” She eventually wound up in California, writing software for a small company, where she met her future husband, Doug.

Laura worked as a software engineer for various dotcom start-ups, typically working late. She decided to learn to knit and took a class at a local yarn shop in San Francisco. And an obsession was born!

Eventually Laura and Doug got married, moved to the Lake Tahoe area, had a son and settled in Reno, Nevada.

Rieva Lesonsky: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Laura Zander: Many, many many things, in fact, that I ended up going to four different universities, got a couple of degrees, and majored in everything from pre-med to accounting to criminal justice (and an internship with the ATF—The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives). But then I ditched it all to be a software engineer!

In hindsight, my lack of focus (ha!) was so obvious that when interviewing for a consulting job with a Big Six [accounting] firm, I was told I wouldn’t be a good fit because of my...well, “inability to focus.”

Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?

Zander: Necessity! In 2002, after two years of marriage and a life-changing move from San Francisco to [the small town of] Truckee, California, my husband Doug and I emptied our savings account and I opened Jimmy Beans Wool. We both had worked as software engineers during the early dotcom era, but when the bottom started to fall out, we opted to turn our [Lake] Tahoe vacation home into a permanent one.

I had learned to knit just six months prior and became obsessed. While trying to figure out how to make a living in a mountain town of 14,000 people, I secured a job creating a website for a nearby hand-dyed yarn company, Lorna’s Laces. Lorna acted as my first advisor and encouraged me to combine my newfound passion for knitting with my passion for creating a market-leading business. She then introduced me to another future mentor, Diane Soucy, a brilliant Truckee resident who had created a successful knitting pattern business. Between Diane and Lorna, I had the support and experience that I needed to not only start the business, but to grow it.

The name “Jimmy” refers to a much-loved character in one of our favorite Todd Snider songs (and had become my nickname), while “Beans” referred to the coffee also sold in the yarn shop (I had also done a website for a local espresso cart manufacturer). Within 12 months, the coffee gave way to yarn, but the name stuck. For the first few years, I worked in the shop as the only employee and reinvested all of the profits back into the business.

Lesonsky: Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?

Zander: Yes, a few. The first was in 2007 when various business experts spent a day tutoring us as a part of a makeover for Fortune Small Business magazine. The pivotal lesson was this: If you’re trying to attract mainstream attention, figure out what your unique “story assets” are. For us, it was that we had left the dotcom world to start a knitting business in a resort town. That was an aspirational story, as opposed to us trying to get attention purely because we sell yarn!

Lesonsky: What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Zander: Cliff Oxford, CEO of The Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs, told me (I’m paraphrasing), If you’re doing $1 million in business and want to build a $10 million business, hang out with people who have built $10 million businesses.

Lesonsky: What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Zander: It depends. First, I believe the word “should” is a four-letter word (with two extra letters!). Every person’s motivation is different for why they are entrepreneurs. Our motivation is to:

  • Build something
  • Be happy and at peace five out of seven days (and pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zone the other two days)
  • Make enough money to make the uber-stressful other two days worth it.

To accomplish this, we’ve figured out that our ultimate goal is to build long-term relationships within our circle (our employees, vendors, customers).

To that end, our best practice is that everyone in our circle has fundamental respect for every other human being—and to recognize that every human—and every task—is an equally valuable part of the system. Without any one of those tasks or humans, the entire system will fail.

Lesonsky: Do you have a 2015 small business prediction?

Zander: Yes! It’s going to be awesome! For us, specifically, it’s going to the best year we’ve ever had, on many, many levels.

Lesonsky: What’s your favorite book?

Zander: Either Small Giants by Bo Burlingham or Sacred Hoops by basketball legend Phil Jackson.

Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Zander: There are lots! Here are two that speak to me today: Dalai Lama XIV: “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.” And Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

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Author information

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at [email protected], follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.