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Sisters follow their hearts into unique small business

Sisters Milly and Gabby Hill combined their talents to make Soul Sisters Southern Market a success using a blend of a brick-and-mortar storefront and the power of social media.

A little more than six years ago, when she started painting furniture to help ease the stress of her father’s battle with cancer, Gabby Hill was a college student who was pursuing career goals that had absolutely nothing to do with the retail industry. Little could she have imagined, at the time, what life — and God — had in store for her and her sister.

Fast-forward seven years, and Gabby and Milly Hill are the faces behind Soul Sisters Southern Market, a popular and still-growing furniture and home decor business in Oneida that has discovered a niche by connecting the traditional benefits of a brick-and-mortar storefront with the relatively new power of social media.

Jimmy Hill was always supportive of his daughters, whatever their endeavors. When he was diagnosed with cancer and it became clear that his road would be a difficult one, it hit the family hard.

“I thought this would be something good to take my mind off of things,” Gabby said. “I started painting little things here and there. The first thing I painted was a high chair. And I fell in love with it.”

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At the time, she was enrolled at Maryville College, studying to be a sign language interpreter. But she realized she could make a living painting furniture.

“My daddy would’ve supported me if I was out setting up a table and selling cow pies,” Gabby said with a laugh. “No matter what I did, my daddy was supporting me.”

Jimmy would pick at his daughter for her new hobby.

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“He’d say, ‘I don’t know why you want to distress that furniture. We grew up with beat-up furniture and now you’re choosing to make it look that way!’ But he always supported me,” she said.

Jimmy’s battle with cancer ended with his passing in May 2016. Two years later, Gabby and a business partner opened Soul Sisters. The arrangement didn’t work out, which led to her sister, Milly, coming on-board just a couple of months later. It’s a partnership that has simply worked.

“We just clicked,” Gabby said. “Everybody loves Milly. She’s mouthy, just like my daddy, and she has his sense of humor.”

At Soul Sisters, you’ll find all sorts of home decor besides distressed furniture — “basically, anything you can think of to put in your home,” Gabby said. You’ll also find Blackberry House paint and Antique Candle Co. candles.

“It just keeps growing,” Gabby said. “We’re small. The first thing people say when they come here from out of town is, ‘You’re not a big warehouse?’ But, no, we’re just a little bitty hole in the wall.”

However small their retail space may be, it works for Soul Sisters. And that may be due primarily to their Facebook Live videos. The Hill sisters have discovered a true niche with their weekly videos, which last for hours and attract hundreds of dedicated viewers.

When Milly came on board back in the summer of 2018, the storefront was “barely holding its own,” Gabby said. They started doing the Facebook Live videos, and “they just keep growing.” For a Christmas Live event last week, the sisters had more than 400 viewers each night, and totaled eight hours in front of the camera.

“We start every Saturday night at six and we’re typically live until 12:30 or one in the morning,” Gabby said. “I’m getting off-air with 250 viewers still watching. It’s crazy.”

Six hours or longer is a long time to be live on Facebook, but the sisters have fun with what they’re doing — which may be part of the secret to their success.

“We have the best time. It’s so fun,” Gabby said.

Behind the scenes, the work is happening. There are never fewer than six people working to fulfill orders, process the merchandise and create invoices. The sisters ship to more than 30 states, and have viewers all over the U.S.

“It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work,” Gabby said. “Me and Milly have the easy job. Everybody else gets the short end of the stick.”

There was, perhaps, no single moment that summed up how successful Soul Sisters has been with their Facebook marketing, or how loyal a following they have garnered, than their recent partnership with Kellie Walker, the executive director of the Children’s Center of the Cumberlands. Walker had an idea for a new non-profit effort that would provide clothes for at-need children in Scott County. She called it Kip’s Kloset, in memory of the newborn son that she and her husband, Dustin, recently lost. Gabby and Milly Hill partnered with Walker to promote the new venture — though perhaps unintentionally.

“It wasn’t meant to happen that way,” Gabby said. “It was 100% a Jesus thing. I wanted to mention it on my Live because I just love Kellie and I agreed with what she was doing. But that was supposed to be it. I just wanted people to do what they were gonna do.”

Then a woman who was going through the adoption process with her husband to adopt the two foster children they had raised since birth called to donate $100. And things snowballed from there.

“I think every woman on that Live donated,” Gabby said. “There were a couple of anonymous $500 donors. It was overwhelming. In less than 30 minutes, we’d raised almost $10,000.”

Women from across the U.S. who tune in to the sisters’ Live videos were pledging donations.

“These were women from all over who don’t really know us from Adam,” Gabby said. “Women who owned boutiques boxed up boxes of baby clothes and sent them. It was insane. I just wanted to mention it, but the Lord had a different plan.”

Gabby goes back to her relationship with God repeatedly, especially when asked about the secret to Soul Sisters’ success. Her grandfather, Ernest Woods, was a well-known local minister, and pastored Little Charity Ministries. Her father was a well-known musician and singer in local churches. And the Hill sisters haven’t strayed from the family’s faith.

“Every week before I get on Live I say, ‘Lord, let us let our light shine through you,’” Gabby said. “We want to get on here and be an encouragement for somebody. We want to make people laugh. We want to share with somebody. I think God knows the intent of our heart. We get dozens of messages each week from people who tell us things like, ‘You make me laugh,’ and ‘We wait all week for your videos.’ I think the Lord has a lot to do with that.

“We’re just two little country girls,” she adds. “We couldn’t do it on our own.”

In the beginning, the Hill sisters heard people talking in the community — saying they could never make it in the business world. “I was terrified we wouldn’t do good,” Gabby said. But after business quadrupled in the first week after the sisters joined forces, “I thought, we’re onto something and the Lord is gonna take care of us,” she said. “And He has. It just seems like we keep growing.”

It took time, of course. “I remember what a huge deal it was when we had 50 viewers,” Gabby said. “We thought we were doing big stuff.” But after just two years, it seems clear that the Hill sisters have discovered a calling.

These days, Soul Sisters is a full-time venture for the Hill sisters. The store is open two days each week — Fridays and Saturdays. Curbside pickups are available Wednesdays and Thursdays. Gabby spends the rest of the week painting furniture and restocking the showroom, in preparation for the Saturday night Live videos. All-told, there are about 13 employees who help make the operation a success.

“I was engaged. I had just graduated college. My daddy died and two weeks later I got married,” she said. “I thought I was just gonna be a housewife and stay home, maybe paint some furniture on the side. I never dreamed it would turn into a full-time business.”

Gabby expresses her appreciation to the employees who “love this business like their own” and help keep things running, and to the customers who keep coming back week after week, “letting me do what I’m doing to put food on my table and gas in my vehicle.”

And, she’s sure, Jimmy Hill is beaming down from above, proud of his daughters’ success and helping guide their efforts.

“I think he’s always giving a word, talking to the Lord and asking Him, ‘Bless my girls down there. Let their light shine and bless them extra,’” Gabby said. “And He is.”

Footnote: Soul Sisters Southern Market is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays at 20297 Alberta Street in Oneida. Facebook Live videos are presented each Saturday beginning at 6 p.m. Curbside pickups are available Wednesday and Thursdays.

This story is the November 2020 installment of Business Spotlight, presented by the Scott County Chamber of Commerce on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Back Page Features series. A print version of this article can be found on Page B8 of the November 19, 2020 edition of the Independent Herald.
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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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