United States


Claire Pillsbury
May 8, 2017

When Jenny Doan and her husband lost their savings during the Great Recession, daughter Sarah and son Al convinced her to build a business around her passion for quilting in the small town of Hamilton, Missouri.

Today, Missouri Star Quilt boasts a workforce of 450 American employees of which around 85 percent are women, thanks to a devoted global customer base.

“We have the world’s largest selection of quilting fabrics,” observed Jenny. “In terms of our customer base, international markets are very important for us. We have big customer bases who have been bitten by the quilting bug in the UK, Germany, elsewhere in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.”

Co-founder and son Al Doan built their website and e-commerce platform from the ground up and notes that is their main portal to the world. The Doans also point to Facebook and other social media tools as other components of their marketing strategy.

“YouTube is a big platform for us,” said Jenny. She highlighted that, “we translated several of our tutorials into multiple languages so people around the world can get to know us,” which helped their small business take off.

Today, Missouri Star Quilt is the most popular quilting channel on YouTube, which helps drive their global sales.

Missouri Star Quilt uses its web platform and social media tools to elevate their brick-and-mortar presence and support their local community. In the company’s YouTube video overview, Jenny flags for viewers that Missouri Star Quilt offers, “the largest selection of pre-cut fabrics in the world both online and at our lovely store in Hamilton, Missouri.”

A separate website, Visit MSQC, accessible from the Missouri Star Quilt homepage, describes the suite of shops, lodging, restaurants and tours in Hamilton that benefit from the business. Missouri Star Quilt’s reputation and selection attract tourism to Hamilton from around the country and the world.

The company faces several challenges as a global business. For one, all of Missouri Star Quilt’s fabric is cotton, a global commodity. “When the tariff on cotton goes up, our costs go up,” notes Al. “There’s a large global effect on the cost of goods that we consume as a company.”

International customs have also proven challenging, particularly when an order gets caught in customs and there is no visibility into what is holding it up. “Governments could put forth some more effort to make their agencies and regulations easy to understand,” Al suggested. When you have to look through endless pages to find your tariff code, or figure out why a shipment of goods is held up in a customs warehouse hundreds of miles away, “it’s a pain in the neck,” he observed.

Tariffs can also limit the company’s exports. “We’re in a space where we’re selling fabric to ladies in Ireland,” said Al, as opposed to multinational businesses with legal and customs compliance departments. “We will sell our customers whatever they want to buy, but when they get dinged for a $40 tariff when they receive the product, they’re never coming back, there’s nothing that I can do about it.”

Al said that the company is constantly asking, “how can we better serve our customers in terms of shipping availability and costs?” He suggested that anything that governments could do that would let them move products back and forth from the United States into a country like Canada “would open up a huge market for us,” but says that even among our closest trading partners, there are still too many unnecessary hurdles for small businesses to overcome.

Even with those challenges, the Doans emphasize the importance of international markets for other businesses looking to grow. “You can feel pretty alone when you’re out there as a small business going global, but don’t be intimidated,” advised Jenny. “My advice? You Dive in and understand production processes, costs and customers.”

The Doan Family