Walking down Newbury Street in late 2022, I came across “Cambridge Uncommon.” The one word I would use to describe Cambridge Uncommon is “whimsical”; you know those stores that just make you happy?
I starting talking to co-owner, Jess, asking about the store’s background. She shared that she co-owned the store with her childhood bestie, Nic, and their Newbury Street brick and mortar was a pop-up shop, but they were primarily an e-commerce business.
After giving them a follow on Instagram, I thought that Jess and Nic would be perfect to feature in my “Fearless Females” blog series. Please read my interview below with these lovely entrepreneurs!
- Going back to your roots, are you both from the Boston-area originally? As an adult (i.e. as a high school or college student), what did you originally see yourself doing professionally? We are both from the Boston area, Cambridge to be exact and grew up right by the Cambridge Common (CambridgeUncommon.com), thus our name. Growing up in this area with all the amazing universities there is a lot of inspiration in all fields. As a high school student Jess wanted to be a ceramics artist and Nic wanted to start a magazine. By the time we were graduating from college we both had our sights set on the business world. Jess knew retail was her passion and Nic set off for the world of magazine publishing in NYC.
- How did you originally meet? We met when we were 4 years old! You never think when you enter the first day of pre-school that the little girl in the sandbox will be a lifelong friend, and one day business partner, but here we are! And we both still like to play in the sand, we just opt for the beach now.
- What made you decide to start this business together? We both think we’re hilarious! No really, we would come up with funny sayings and one of us would say “that should be on a tee shirt” so, we said “what if we actually did it?” and Cambridge Uncommon was born. We have complimentary backgrounds in retail so it was a business we could both wrap our heads around. Jess had worked in corporate buying and then had her own brick and mortar store and Nic had worked on the e-commerce side at start-ups in a variety of roles. Between the two of us we knew we had the knowledge and experience to really build something great. We actually have fairly different tastes and style when it comes to the products we buy, but we think that makes the business even stronger.
- Could you please speak a bit to the early days about starting up the business? You originally launched online, correct? We started Cambridge Uncommon as an online graphic apparel company. We wanted to make “clever” tees and sweats but we also wanted them to be comfortable, soft, and fit well – basically we wanted to make the perfect tee. We sourced all our cotton in Peru and would visit the Peruvian garment markets to pick reams of fabrics in the colors and cottons we wanted. We worked with a small factory in Lima who would then cut, sew and print all our apparel for us… until the pandemic happened, and everything closed, including our ability to travel. So we did what a lot of companies did during that time and we pivoted our business plan. We kept our graphic tee and sweats but started to source some of them closer to home and we also added home goods, accessories and other fun items to our store. We recognized that people were spending a lot of time in their homes and they wanted things that made them feel good, whether it was the perfect sweatshirt or some pops of color around the house. We wanted to create a “happy place” for our customers, filled with products to make them smile and so the current Cambridge Uncommon was born. We work really hard to find “uncommon” products that are from other small makers and brands and specifically to source things you won’t find on Amazon.
- What were your most popular items this past holiday season? The Gurgling Cod pitchers are always a favorite, especially in New England. We love their whimsical look and they are really a quintessential housewarming gift, one which we both grew up with in our own homes! We also made a lot of tees and sweatshirts for the pop-up store and our customers loved the new prints. Cozy sweatshirts never disappoint. The duck head umbrellas were a big gift idea this holiday season, who can resist a duck! And anything unique and funny like our Quitter bottle stoppers, “Nope” kitchen towels and humorous needlepoint message pillows, including “This is Why We can’t Have Nice Things” and “This is a Horrible Idea What Time Should I Be There.“
- What made you decide to open a pop-up on Newbury Street? Additionally, what have you learned from the experience? In the fall of 2021, we did a short two week pop-up in Harvard Square and we loved it. It was great seeing people’s reactions to our products first hand as well as to see what resonated and what didn’t. We knew we wanted to do another one somewhere new to try out other areas. Growing up in the Boston area, there is one street that is THE street for shopping, Newbury! If you have a shop there, you’ve made it. With the help of Popping Up Next, a local business who helps connect small brands with pop-up locations, we were able to find an amazing store front on Newbury Street. We thought we were only going to stay for one month and now 6 months later we are wrapping up our second location on Newbury Street! It’s been an incredible time in Boston and we couldn’t have had a better location or landlord. The pop-up model allows a small business like ours to minimize the risk of a long term lease and to showcase our brand to the community. And in our case, we got to do it on one of the best shopping streets in the country! It’s a win, win for both communities and small businesses.
- What are the favorite aspects of running your business? What are the most challenging? The best part of running the business is doing it with a lifelong friend. When your kid is sick, or you’re in need of a mental health day you don’t have to pretend you don’t have a life outside of work, you have a partner to pick up the ball. And let’s be honest, we all have days like that. Working with a friend also means that every business meeting is also time we get to catch up and connect. Also finding “uncommon” products that spark a smile or laugh from a customer is definitely one of our favorite parts of the job.
The most challenging part is choosing where to put our time, attention and dollars. We have big ideas for the future of Cambridge Uncommon so we need to choose carefully what we do and when we do it or we risk overextending ourselves and the business. Another challenging part is probably retail margins. They aren’t massive so you really have to be vigilant in paying attention to your real fully loaded costs, whether it’s shipping and fulfillment online or rent and payroll in store.
- What advice do you have for other female entrepreneurs? Don’t try and have a work life balance because the fact is, there will never be a balance. Something will always get more of your attention, and that’s ok! Sometimes it’s a work crisis, sometimes it’s a fun family event, but try not to spread yourself too thin and prioritize what needs to be given attention and when. You’ll be a better business owner in the long run.
- What are you looking forward to in 2023? Any exciting news to share about the business? We have some amazing new apparel collaborations coming up soon. We have met a lot of incredible small businesses and are working with several to make our own line of home goods as well as a few items (like our resin trays), so you will see a lot more of that. There will definitely be another pop-up in our future… but the question is, where to next?
Thank you so much to Jess and Nic for answering my questions! I am linking my favorite Cambridge Uncommon products below. Please be sure to visit www.cambridgeuncommon.com to browse all their fun products!
- Teal Heart Tea Cup and Saucer Gift Set: Elevate your caffeinated beverage with this fun tea cup and accompanying saucer. Fellow Swifties, doesn’t this give off “Lover” era vibes?
- Party Animal Wine Glasses: These are perfect to feature at your next get-together! I love how the set features four different animals; think the zebra pair is my favorite!
- Blue Elephants Apron: I love the blue hues of this apron, and accessorizing-even when cooking-is important!
- Feminist Icons Coaster Set: Featuring four inspiration women, these coasters are just in time for Women’s History Month!
- Embroidered Dogs Large Throw Pillow: I greatly appreciate all of Cambridge Uncommon’s canine-themed inventory, because dogs=happiness.
6. Black & White Striped Cake Stand: Serve tasty treats off this cake stand at your next social gathering!
7. This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things Needlepoint Throw Pillow: I will gladly purchase any product that features Taylor Swift lyrics.
8. Blue Bamboo Print Ice Bucket: I love this design. Plus, you need something to store the ice for the Party Animal Wine Glasses!
9. Palm Tree Candlesticks Set: These palm tree candle holders are classic and can be used for multiple occasions, as well as decorative purposes.
10. Red Leopard Tray: Cambridge Uncommon carries many lively trays. I love the pop of color that this one can add to a traditional space (you can also use it for your hosting needs, of course!)
In addition to Nic and Jess kindly taking the time to answer my questions, they are also generously offering an exclusive discount code for Busy as a Bee readers! Be sure to use code “BUSYBEE15” at check out (valid until 3/15/23) . Additionally, all orders over $75 are free shipping. Happy shopping!