The military brought Mike and Roni (Rondel) Dooley together, working, then dating and marriage. Two children and 29 years later, the spirit of entrepreneurship keeps them working together, often side-by-side, Mike as an accomplished photographer and Roni as a crocheter and knitter.
They met in the RI Air National Guard, and a two-week tour of duty in Panama led to their first date set up by mutual friends. A Quonset-based airplane hangar staged the courtship, where Roni was a parts supply clerk at the flight line side and Mike was the communication navigation mechanic for C130 aircraft on the opposite, parking lot side.
While serving from 1988 to 1997, Mike’s full-time travel included Germany and Italy, but it is picturesque Rhode Island land and seascapes that are the focus of his photography business. Prints of RI coastline adorn both homes and businesses, particularly restaurants and banks, according to Mike. Enlisting to Rhode Island art dealers, he acknowledges that his works sell very well in corporate environments. The large format prints are sometimes eight feet wide.
He is deeply involved with every facet of the business; he notes that both printing and framing are done in Rhode Island. “I prefer working with local companies, and find I get better results with the close interaction with those suppliers. The buyers’ final product is quality.”
His grandfather’s Canon camera is what Mike remembers using first. “My wife bought me a Canon like Pa’s in 2008, and three years later I started the business.” He has since upgraded to a Sony A7R II.” He never looked back, and continues to forge ahead by adding direct sales using digital media to his already established channel of using sales reps.
Social media channels connect him with prospective customers. Incorporating Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest widens the potential audience of buyers, and each media links to his website. The website features his fine art and photographs, which also include portrait, night, and still life photo galleries. Product information includes his work on paper, canvas and metal printing as well as “gallery wraps,” which means printing the photo on all 5 sides of the canvas. His store offers prints, note cards sold individually, and even his book.
His wife may have not only inadvertently opened the door to launching her veteran husband’s new business, but to her own small business venture as well. He comments, “Sadly, I am not retired yet, and work in the software development industry as my full-time job.”
Serving in the Air Force and the Air National Guard full-time for 23 years, Roni retired in 2002 to spend more time with the family. After returning to work, this time to a shorter, part-time stint at her children’s Norwood elementary school, she broke her foot. Confined and bored with soap operas, Roni returned to a pastime she learned and loved as a child, knitting and crocheting.
She started small, when it comes to her product’s size that is. At first, a small hat or two, made of different patterns. But it was what began as a gift for a neighbor’s 3-year-old boy that launched the business concept and evolved into flourishing small business. According to Roni, “A tiny blue crocheted dog, inspired by the animated “Blue’s Clues” TV Show thrilled him, and made me think about all the cute little critters I could enjoy making, and making quickly.”
One cousin’s order, another friend’s purchase, and suddenly success followed, all by word of mouth. Yet another friend suggested ETSY, the marketplace for selling handmade goods; she signed on and purchases began immediately. Exposure in Facebook expanded her sales reach and opened the opportunity for special requests.
Custom orders came from the expanding network of personal friends and social media followers, with the actual sale made by email or phone. Next came requests from a few storeowners to display her critters, on a commission basis, together with other compatible products. Retailers in Bristol and Tiverton carried a variety of her products, taking requests for the pink whale on display to be made in blue, and ranging in price from ten to thirty dollars.
Yet, similar to her husband’s “large format” work, she also creates large critters. In particular, her “Hippocampus” was a six-foot-long, part unicorn, part sea horse, commanding 75 dollars.
Asked which sales channel yields the best return for her labor of love combined with production and material costs, Roni notes, “Clearly, it is the retail stores displaying the adorable, crafty critters that produce the best results.
Both Mike and Roni are returning to Small Business Saturday ShopRI (SBSShopRI) for a second holiday selling season to be held Nov. 30 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza, “because it is effective,” comments Mike. As a result, Roni suggested this year that Mike get his own table, a positive sign that their businesses are growing, and need additional space. Without question, these retired veterans have both deployed their artistry and craftsmanship successfully.