A small business dreams big with help from Microsoft Store
At the height of the pandemic, when the ongoing economic downturn challenged businesses everywhere, two young women in Seattle did the unthinkable: They opened their own store.
Was it crazy or brave? Definitely a little bit of both, say Kaitlin Uemura and her business partner, Kaitlin Madriaga. It’s been a whirlwind few months since the pair opened Sairen, a small boutique selling clothing and accessories in the city’s International District. They’ve had to deal with vandalism, slow foot traffic and a fitful economic recovery, but they’re pursuing a dream and growing it a little every day, betting that in the end, the risks will be worth it.
Microsoft Store celebrated National Small Business Week in May by partnering with Sairen, providing its business consultation service and a range of software and devices to help Uemura and Madriaga streamline operations and free up time to be creative.
The Sairen co-founders recently met virtually with a Microsoft Store product expert and reviewed the technology they use for work, including the way they store data, their email outreach to customers and the point-of-sale system at the counter. They learned about combining the different systems into one cloud-based platform that protects their data and can be safely accessed on phones and other devices. The product expert recommended a package of devices and software specifically for their needs, which Microsoft Store will donate to Sairen, along with training on the best ways to use the technology.
“It sounds really nice to have everything on one platform if everything is connected,” says Madriaga. “In terms of what we currently use there are certain holes in it and that’s why we’re open to other possibilities.”
From health care to fashion
The road to Sairen was long and winding for Madriaga and Uemura. They met in 2009 at the University of Washington, bonding because both were from Hawaii (Madriaga from Maui, Uemura from the Big Island) and both planned to enter health care careers.
They worked in clinics after graduation but gradually began to explore new opportunities beyond health care. Uemura moved to retail, while Madriaga worked in research and technology. Then Madriaga brought home a sewing machine one day, and things started to change. They began designing and sewing clothes as a hobby, wearing them to work and impressing their colleagues.
“As we started sewing, just being able to do that on the side in my free time, it was super encouraging to see it grow into this passion project, and then finally being able to jump in and get to where we are now, being able to turn a side hobby into an actual career,” Madriaga says.
“It was the smallest side hobby,” Uemura adds. “We were like, ‘Yeah I made this,’ and people said, ‘You should sell it!’ It just seemed like the best fit of creative things to do.”
Madriaga and Uemura experimented with different fabrics and styles, hand-painting designs on clothes to make each item one of a kind. They created their own fashion line, called Morning Siren.
They began selling their clothes in a few local shops, including Momo, a clothing and gifts boutique in Seattle’s Japantown neighborhood. Uemura even became part of the Momo family, working there part-time and learning from the owners, Tom and Lei Ann.
In early 2020, the owners told Uemura they were planning to retire, and joked that she should take over the space. She was surprised by the suggestion, but it took root in her mind. She brought the idea to Madriaga during one of their business meetings for the fashion line, and over the next few months they worked up a full-blown business plan.
Opening in a pandemic
Starting a business in normal times can be stressful enough. Add a global pandemic and economic slowdown to the mix and you can understand why Madriaga and Uemura say they were on an emotional roller-coaster.
On one side were their partners and friends encouraging them to go for it. On the other side were their parents and other family members who wanted to make sure they had thought it all out and were prepared for the risks. Both sides were necessary, and both got them to where they needed to be to open Sairen.
“We understood that we were in lockdown for a really long time,” Madriaga says. “We knew people would be shopping again, and we really wanted to time it in terms of the space. If we wanted to get something we needed to act now.”
Sairen’s space occupies two stories and is in a neighborhood known for its tight knit community of Japanese goods stores and restaurants. Madriaga and Uemura decided to use the upstairs for developing their fashion line. The downstairs would be the retail side, ready for whenever the pandemic subsided and people began shopping again.
The grand opening was planned for December 2020. A few weeks before then, on election night, Madriaga and Uemura were in the store working to get everything ready when someone on the street picked up something heavy and broke the front windows. It wasn’t a political thing, they say, but it rattled them. They started a GoFundMe account and raised the money needed to repair the glass.
“We were really shocked,” Uemura says. “It was something we didn’t expect to have to deal with. That was a low point.”
Watching the business grow
But there have been so many high points since then. Sales were strong following the December opening as holiday shoppers stopped by, and Sairen expanded into online retail in February. Momo’s customers continue to shop in the new space, bringing in their children and introducing a new generation to Sairen.
Madriaga and Uemura are committed to selling products made locally and by people of color, and are expanding those relationships. They work with local artists to feature their wares, including hand-painted teacups, earrings and enamel pins.
They’re also attracting new customers and reconnecting with old ones. There’s Bill, a longtime Momo customer and community member who stops by every few weeks to buy chai tea mix and talk. There’s Phyllis, who is in her 70s and loves Instagram, cheering them on when they post to their account.
Madriaga and Uemura are working hard to develop Sairen while waiting for the world to hopefully return to normal. They send a newsletter to customers and sell goods online. They bring their dogs to work, and other dog owners stop by to say hello and sometimes make a purchase. Nala the poodle is a veteran shop dog that began working at Momo when she was a small puppy. She’s showing Kimiko, the 8-month-old terrier mix, how it’s done. “They bring a lot of dog therapy to our customers,” Uemura says.
Over the next year, Madriaga and Uemura would like to grow business to the point where they can hire someone to work the floor and free up time to expand their clothing line. The big dream is to open a second shop in Hawaii where they can cultivate more relationships with designers there.
“This is something that could last,” Madriaga says. “It could be successful even though it’s a big risk on our end.”
During the virtual meeting with Doonarine Lall, the Microsoft Store product expert and business consultant, they reviewed the way they use technology at the shop. The battery life on their point-of-sale system is so short they need to keep it plugged in all the time. They’d like to have new devices solely dedicated to the business.
Sairen’s main online presence is Instagram, but they want to build out their website with more product photos and descriptions. “One of our goals this year is to have a great functioning website,” Madriaga said.
“I’m trying to set up your business for security, productivity and mobility,” Lall said after talking with them about their needs. “That’s the goal.” He recommended they use the portable Surface Duo on the shop floor, which has an all-day battery and can act as a mobile point-of-sale system. He also suggested the Surface Pro 7+ for Business, a 2-in-1 laptop-tablet hybrid that can safely store data but is light enough to take from home to work. And Microsoft 365 Business Premium will give Sairen’s owners the ability to host online meetings, collaborate in real time and protect their data online.
Once they get their devices, Lall will assist with setup and deployment. Microsoft Store also has a wide variety of free training and workshops that Madriaga and Uemura can use to learn more.
Lall is excited to see where they go from here.
“They are heavily involved in their community and using social media platforms to market their business,” he says. “The sky’s the limit on how far they can go because they are already doing the little things to make a huge business impact.”
Lead photo: Kaitlin Uemura (L) and Kaitlin Madriaga with their dogs inside Sairen (Photo by Allen Wong Creative Space)
Learn more about how Microsoft Store works with small businesses:
- Business consultations – Book a free appointment with a consultant to talk through your business needs and determine solutions that will help your business thrive. Whether it’s about special bulk pricing, secure remote work solutions, or set up and deployment, our product experts are here to help.
- Business Resource Center – Discover tips, tools and technology to lead your business in a changing world.
- Free training and webinars – Microsoft hosts free one-hour virtual trainings and webinars to help your business thrive. Pick from trainings that teach you to become more efficient and better connected. Hear from business experts on how to drive growth in low-cost ways.