A familiar and favorite Hollywood storyline is a small-town character moving to the big city and finding great success.
The Doan family did the exact opposite. In 1995, Ron and Jenny Doan decided to move their family of nine from California to Hamilton, Missouri, to find their American dream.
Having been a clothing sewer and costume designer in California, Jenny quickly found her passion in this small town of 1,800. “When you love to sew, you have to sew, so I took a quilting class in nearby Chillicothe as soon as we moved to Hamilton,” she says. “The piecing and the blocks fascinated me; I’d come home and turn my blocks around, and different patterns would appear. By the end of the class, everyone had made one, and I had made twelve! I fell in love with the art of quilting really quickly and took as many classes as I could.”
Things were going well for the Doans in their new hometown until 2008 when, like many Americans, they lost almost all of their retirement savings in the stock market crash. Times were tough, with Ron making a ninety-minute commute to his night job at a local newspaper and Jenny working at a school for troubled teens to make ends meet. So their son Alan and daughter Sarah started looking for a way to help their parents with finances.
While thinking about how to earn extra income, Alan got a fortuitous call from Jenny, who told him that she had taken a quilt in to be completed for their sister and that she would have it back in a year. “There’s nothing on this planet that you wait a year for,” Alan says. “I asked her, ‘If I got you a machine, can you do this?’”
Jenny said she could, and with his mom enthusiastically on board, Alan and Sarah had to figure out the logistics. They first took out a loan to purchase a 5,000-square-foot former auto showroom in Hamilton for $24,000 and then another loan for a quilt machine for Jenny. “A $40,000 quilt machine for our $24,000 building. We weren’t very logical about it in the beginning,” Alan says, laughing.
Daily Deals and Tutorial Tricks
They figured Jenny would do the stitching on about ten quilts a week to bring in revenue and dubbed their venture the Missouri Star Quilt Company. When people started bringing in their quilts, however, they often asked for fabric, so Missouri Star kept a shelf full of fabric—a harbinger of things to come.
After a year, business was stagnant, so they decided to take it online. While Sarah ran the shop and the day-to-day operations, Alan turned his focus to creating the company website.
That’s when he came up with the Quilter’s Daily Deal. “In college, I’d seen companies with these daily deal sites, and I was hooked on them,” Alan remembers. “I didn’t understand why nobody was doing this for mom’s demographic, and she agreed. Fabric is really hard, though, to sell as a deal, which led us to sell precut fabrics.” Now, instead of looms of fabric, people could buy small, precut swaths of it, cut into various shapes and sizes, which Alan says turned them into the “LEGO blocks of quilting.” Thanks to word of mouth about the Quilter’s Daily Deal, people started flocking to the website.
Equally successful was Alan’s next idea: taking advantage of a year-old website called YouTube. “He kept saying it was going to be a center for learning, and he asked if I’d do a tutorial,” Jenny recalls. “I said, ‘Sure. What’s a tutorial?’”
That wasn’t the only communication confusion. When Alan started making the videos, he was often baffled by Jenny’s quilting terminology. She quickly realized that she had to simplify and explain things to make it more user-friendly and accessible—and it worked. “People love the fact that they could view a tutorial and they could quilt what they saw,” she says. “I have a trick for just about everything, which makes it easy for people.”
And, just like that, an internet star was born. Jenny’s weekly quilting tutorials on YouTube became massively popular: to date, they have over 400,000 subscribers and over 120 million total views, with the top videos gaining over two million views. “We never expected that to happen,” Jenny confesses. “Once we went online, it developed a life of its own. I mean, I was fifty years old. Who would have thought that I’d remake myself and became famous online? It’s pretty amazing. The best part is that I got to do it with my family.”
But that’s just one of many meaningful rewards for Jenny and her family along this journey. “I thought the tutorials would benefit women who work, women with kids, and women who couldn’t afford quilting classes or didn’t have time for them,” she admits. “Well, I started getting mail, and the first women who wrote to me were disabled. They could never take a class, so they were so grateful for the videos. So many others: a man with agoraphobia, children, people from other countries. People who could never take this type of class now could through our tutorials. I was stunned. I would read these letters and just start sobbing. It was amazing to me how many people they helped. The desire to create is healing for people.”
And, as it turns out, Missouri Star’s customers were eager to pass on that healing to others. “These people love quilting so much, they really can’t stop,” Jenny continues. “So then they start donating—that same fabric they had to have is now being given away. And when they make a pillowcase for a child who’s lost their hair to cancer, it changes them, the child, and also every person who walks in that room. It’s a brighter, happier, more colorful place, and it changes everybody who sees that pillowcase. This quilting business is blessing so many people’s lives, and it’s changing people and the world we live in. It’s pretty amazing.”
Today, Missouri Star Quilt Company is a multimillion-dollar business that’s the world’s top seller of precut quilt fabrics—making the Doan family a true rags-to-riches story. But as much as their uccess means to them, they’ve been sure to share it with their customers and with Hamilton.
“Quilters are the most kind, loving, forgiving customers you’ll ever have,” declares Alan, who’s now the company’s chairman. “They are very, very good to us, and we try to be the same to them. That led us to building this Disneyland for quilting. We are not geniuses at business planning, but we’re really good at listening to our customers and creating things they like.” The company now owns fourteen shops in town—including a dozen fabric shops with a variety of different themes, much to the delight of quilters all over the world.
In addition, Missouri Star Quilt Company employs four hundred people, making it the largest employer in Caldwell County. It’s a responsibility the Doans take seriously. “You have to be good to your community,” Alan says. “We are very focused on our community and our town. We put a lot of time, effort, and energy into it. As a young, growing company, we needed to take care of our employees, so we offered good benefits and a 401(k).
“We also had to be very, very conscious about how we gave back to the community,” he continues. “The local store stuff is actually only 5 to 10 percent of what we do; we’ve sunk millions into Hamilton. It’d be way easier to tear down these old buildings and replace them, but we buy them and completely refurbish them because we want to show this beautiful place to the world. I can’t think of another place where I’d consider building another business.”
The Doans came a long way to set down roots in Hamilton, and finding their slice of the American dream has helped reinvigorate not only their town but also the creativity of millions through quilting. Once known as the birthplace of James Cash Penney, founder of the retail giant JCPenney, Hamilton is now known for a different type of retail business, according to Alan: “Retail is dead, but here we can’t get enough of it because Hamilton has become an advocate for creativity in people’s lives. Quilting is functional but also magical. It breathes creativity back into you. And this town has become a torch—people come here because this company has changed them by letting them rediscover who they are as creative people. It’s really a symbol of life, passion, and excitement.”
For more info, visit missouriquiltco.com.