Amma Johnson started her business with, as she says, “just one hand bag and a hundred dollars.” Her inspiration for wanting to be a fashion designer began at just four years old.
When she graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1999, Johnson sought out to work for five years through a major retailer in both Pennsylvania and Maryland called the May Company. While there, she never lost touch of her goal to eventually have her own business.
Johnson later began working for Harrisburg Regional Chamber and CREDC for almost 10 years. She held several positions throughout her time with the chamber, working her way up to Vice President of Chamber Operations.
Her time at the chamber gave her the opportunity to work with a lot of entrepreneurs. Johnson, who always dreamed of having her own brand, embraced that new role.
In December 2015, she launched the showroom for AMMA JO shopping, located in Harrisburg’s Strawberry Square. Johnson’s business primarily designs women’s accessory. While focusing primarily on handbags, she has started rolling out other lifestyle collections jewelry.
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Johnson generally runs things on her own. A lot of contractors are used because it is small. Johnson said she learned early on that one of the ways that you can really go down as a business really fast is if you hire too many people.
Below, Amma Johnson gives insight on what it takes to own your own business:
Has your business been the success you’d hoped?
“I think any small business owner would say, ‘it’s everything I hoped it would be and it’s everything that I didn’t know’ because there’s just so much that you don’t know. I definitely would say I’m very happy with how it has progressed. Especially in today’s time with it being so difficult for small businesses, I’m happy that I’m still standing.
“I’m happy that I’m still here and I think as an entrepreneur sometimes you have to remember that the road may not always be what you thought it would, but if you have a strong vision and you’re committed to your strong vision, you may ebb and flow and do things a different way. But you find a way at the end of the day to stay standing, that’s what it’s about.”
What is the most significant factor in your success?
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m always going to say sales. You cannot do anything without a sale. Right when the coronavirus happened and we were trying to figure out what to do when our showroom couldn’t be open. And guess what? We started selling things that people needed. Essentials, face masks, disposable gloves, things that people actually really needed.
“So there are some times where your business may not have something that’s part of your core business, you may have to go. Like right now, it’s a tough time for every small business. They’re going into survival mode, but you can’t have a business if you don’t have a customer and if you don’t have a sale. So I’m the type of person that sometimes I say, ‘Oh my gosh what I’m going to do?’ I roll up my sleeves and start calling people, and I start selling.
What has been the factor most hindering the growth/success of your business?
“I think that as a small business and fashion, it’s a very noisy world right now. There are so many people that you’re competing for credibility because you’re competing against brands who are heritage brands who have been out forever. You are trying to figure out who you are and it can be really challenging, but you’re just competing in a very busy space.”
What was the effect of the pandemic on your business?
“We had to close our retail showroom and we had to figure out how to stay relevant, and how to stay alive. This retail showroom is so much a part of our brand, people being able to come in and say hello and be that friendly face. We just really had to convert that and take that experience digitally. We do videos and we’ve had to really pump that up.
“We’ve had to really be very clear with our customers about the product online because now people are going to buy online. They want to know what they’re getting. So we had to add more information to our product listings. So we really have been forced to recreate and enhance our digital experience online.”
Were you prepared for the demands of running your own business?
“No. You know your business is like a child. You just say, ‘I think I know what you’re gonna look like,’ and then ‘boom,’ something else happens.
“I don’t know any small business owner that says, ‘This journey went exactly how I thought it was going to go.’ In today’s world, in fashion, I’m sure if I was a heritage brand opening hundreds of years ago, I’m able to set my own trends tell people what they want, and basically say, ‘this is what you’re getting.’ In this world, people have a million choices. They can buy from all these different retail outlets. So our customers’ response to our collections and where our brand goes has made a real difference.
“So there have been some times where we thought ‘Oh my God, one collection is really going to take off.’ But then the customer likes something else. So you have to be feedback- and customer-driven, which I think takes you to unexpected places sometimes.”
What would have better prepared you?
“I think if I would have just maybe, submerged myself in more of the fashion circles and had more industry-specific mentors within my field. Advice is always good, mentorship is always good. So maybe like a mentor who was in fashion.
What resources would have helped you in building your business?
“I think just more network. Industry-specific networks, because you’re always kind of looking to leverage. Also, understand what the trends are. I’m in fashion and so fashion is not like a dominant industry in central Pennsylvania. So I think getting into more of those fashion networks, out of the area, to just kind of bounce ideas off of probably would have helped me more.”
What resources or information would be most helpful to you now?
“The most important thing right now is trends because everyone has to realize and come to terms with the fact that not only did the coronavirus happen, but the world changed in the last few months. People have been forced to make changes because of COVID-19, but then people also are changing their buying habits.
“We’re going to change the way we shop for groceries, we are going to change the way that we find fashion. Some of us are finding out, ‘Oh, you know what? I don’t have to run to the store three times a week. I can just go once a week and then order online and actually have time with my family..’
“So I think the fact that the entire world has changed forces everybody to think differently. You’re not just thinking differently about the next six months, you’re thinking differently about permanent changes that you’re going to make.”