The creative energy that would eventually drive Shreveport native Paul King to create his small business, Index Drums, was unleashed by an unlikely source: science. In the summer of 2006, King was part of a team building exhibits for the new Space wing at SciPort and “loving everything about it.” He started building drums on the weekends — “primitive” and “ugly” by his own description — and returned to school at Louisiana Tech that fall with a new focus. “Eventually it got to the point where I didn’t need to build any more drums for myself,” says King. “After the first 30 or so, it started making sense to build a business around it and start getting some better tools to take things to the next level.”
For King and a few of his compatriots in Shreveport’s entrepreneurial creative community, the “next level” has meant venturing beyond the local, exporting their products and vision to new customers and different markets. Expanding a small business can be a leap of faith — King describes it as “the adrenaline rush of spending money and time on an idea and launching, to see it either fly or flop” — but he, Jeremy Johnson of Pelican Parish Supply Co., and Kelli Cole of Good Granoly have all found creative inspiration and opportunities for growth in the challenge of exploring new frontiers. Their stories are uniquely theirs, but these Shreveport cultural ambassadors share a similar business philosophy that centers on creating and purposefully maintaining meaningful connections with customers. King, Johnson, and Cole are building brands, but they’re also building communities —in Shreveport and beyond.
Kelli Cole always liked the idea of owning her own business, and a move back to her hometown in the fall of 2012 got her brainstorming about possibilities. She soon learned that a small local granola operation — Aidan’s Place — was up for sale, and it seemed like a good fit. “They had an established customer base, delicious granola, and I liked the fact that it was based on distribution rather than a store front,” says Cole. “It had a foundation, and I could pursue growth while maintaining existing customers.” In one whirlwind year, Cole not only rebranded the business as Good Granoly and repackaged the product but also moved to a bigger, more functional production facility in downtown Shreveport that could handle higher volumes of granola. Aidan’s Place had existing distribution relationships at Brookshire’s grocery stores in Shreveport and Bossier City as well as at Counter Culture locations in Ruston and West Monroe, but Cole’s changes set the stage for even more expansion, especially into South Louisiana.
“South Louisiana has an abundance of small, local food businesses,” explains Cole. “It’s been beneficial to us to become acquainted with independent grocers and learn from other food businesses that are small startups like ours. We also were already traveling outside of Shreveport-Bossier to supply Counter Culture stores with granola, so it made sense to seek out other retailers along the way.”
Jeremy Johnson’s Pelican Parish Supply Co. was born from a “lightbulb moment” in a friend’s workshop, when he stumbled across a 1944 Louisiana license plate and was immediately drawn to the quirky design of a pelican stamped into the metal. That bold image seemed like the perfect emblem to represent Louisiana’s culture of “dreamers, makers, creators, and climate-changers,” and Johnson recognized an opportunity to build a dynamic presence that would champion the state’s unique outlook as well as challenge him artistically.
He eventually made some prints inspired by the plate to sell at an art fair, and noticed the immediate connection it had with an audience. Based on that initial positive response, Johnson had a feeling that a brand rooted in celebrating Louisiana pride — centered on a symbol that was not a fleur de lis – was something that could stand on its own. Leaving nothing to chance, he spent three months carefully crafting a suite of designs based on vintage Louisiana images, researching and selecting high-quality t-shirts, honing the messaging, and utilizing an online presence to build anticipation for the brand’s local launch in March 2015. Pelican Parish merchandise — t-shirts, hats, art prints, koozies, and more – is currently available in ten retail locations in Shreveport-Bossier, Natchitoches, Alexandria, West Monroe, and El Dorado, Arkansas. Johnson has sought out some retailers in the old-fashioned way — knocking on doors, visiting with business owners, and making relationships that have helped people get invested in the brand. Others have come to him as the buzz around Pelican Parish has grown.
“The shirts and aesthetic not only appeals to folks in our area, but to others in the region who have ties or good vibes associated with Louisiana and our unique culture,” says Johnson. “I’ve made plenty of online sales to people across the U.S. — New York, Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, Colorado — and the list continues to grow. It’s exciting to send my work out into the big, wide world.” Paul King’s decision to expand Index Drums beyond the local market was “pretty immediate,” with the first couple of orders going to Ruston and Nashville, where King had friends who played drums. The 2012 Texas Avenue Maker’s Fair in Shreveport turned out to be a huge success for Index and apivotal entrepreneurial moment for the brand. “I learned how to tell the story of my company, and people were free with their feedback and ideas,” recalls King. “They also bought a ton of my drums.”
Since then, Index has shipped drums and other handmade pieces all over the world, including some items whose surprising popularity has pushed the limits of King’s original vision. “Our best-selling products over the last five years have been our Dock Box Phone Amplifier and the JackSaw, an Electric Singing Saw with a pickup in the handle,” says King. “One has a mass appeal, one has a tiny target market, and neither of them have anything to do with ‘drums.’” A “big stamp of approval” for Index, and, in King’s mind, its greatest success, was landing its Dock Boxes and Bingo Drums in a holiday collection for eclectic national retailer Anthropologie. “We hit the aesthetic and the quality that we wanted,” he recalls, “and our marketing got us in front of the right people.”
WHY WE MAKE
The inner drive to achieve a certain aesthetic, product quality, or innovative taste motivates many entrepreneurs, especially when the going gets tough in the small-business landscape. The uncertainties of small business ownership are actually invigorating for Kelli Cole. “I love small business,” she explains. “I love the freedom you have for creativity, the challenges that come daily, and the courageousness it requires.”
Paul King says that the experience of seeing an idea make it from sketch to finished product (and figuring out how to make that happen) is “unlike anything else.” In reality, Index Drums — though clearly a business — is for King more “a means to that end, chasing that feeling, trying to come up with new things while still filling the niches we’ve carved out along the way. We’ll be expanding our product line until we shut the shop down — that’s what makes this fun.”
“I try to pay attention to what appeals to the customer and craft my offerings to their interests while still maintaining the integrity of our vision,” says Jeremy Johnson. With the still-young Pelican Parish, he’s been able to create this balance in a way that continues to refresh his own creative agenda but has also clearly struck a chord with customers. “The ‘You Are My Sunshine’ shirt tends to trigger a lot of nostalgia – most folks have a story about how they sang that song to their children, or their parents sang it to them, or they heard it at a special time in their lives. I like to help them make a connection to those cherished memories.” For Johnson and other local makers, the drive to continue innovating and expanding their brands is probably partly fueled by the “little thrill” that he experiences when he sees someone wearing a Pelican Parish shirt in public — especially someone he doesn’t already know, which is happening more and more. “The brand already has a life beyond my circle of friends, and beyond North Louisiana,” says Johnson. “I feel that I’ve tapped into something larger than myself.”
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Thanks in part to Index Drums, Good Granoly, and Pelican Parish, Shreveport’s maker scene is expanding its geographic footprint, introducing other parts of the state, the country, and even the world to the unique flavors, images, and sounds that animate our current cultural moment. But these businesses also remain firmly rooted in the local culture from which they originally emerged, and their creators are committed to keeping it that way. “The Shreveport creative community is very supportive and collaborative, and I often have the opportunity to discuss challenges and brainstorm with other like-minded individuals,” says Jeremy Johnson. “My peers have been a great source of encouragement and motivation — and have been honest with me when I have a dumb idea.” Katy Larsen’s Agora Borealis art market in downtown Shreveport, opened in July 2014, is intentionally harnessing this energy in an effort to stimulate the local economy and encourage the kind of supportive, collaborative creative community that Johnson describes. Larsen includes products created by Cole, Johnson, and King in the Agora’s eclectic inventory that showcases local products, many of them made by hand and a majority from re-used or recycled materials (not the Good Granoly — don’t worry!).
Small businesses like the Agora Borealis and Shreveport’s ever-increasing schedule of outdoor arts and farmer’s markets will make it possible for creative ventures like Index Drums, Good Granoly, and Pelican Parish to thrive and continue to expand. “We still ship drums all over the world,” explains Paul King, “but Shreveport Music and the Texas Avenue Makers Fair account for a significant chunk of our business.” “I love Shreveport,” adds Kelli Cole. “I’m thankful I can contribute to a community that I have received so much from.”
Learn more about how Kelli, Jeremy, and Paul are enriching and enlivening Shreveport, and letting the world in on the “secret,” too. Visit them locally at the Agora Borealis and online.