When I first started thinking about starting an online retailer, my husband Bill suggested I talk to one of his tenants, Mike Russina, who owns http://www.123underwear.com/ and http://www.mensunderwearstore.com/, and has been in the business for a decade.

Bill asked Mike for a meeting and brought me over one afternoon - this was 6 months to a year before the site launched. I'd never met Mike before, and I had no idea his business was so big. They have 2 small storefronts on Washington Avenue here in St. Louis, but few people know that their space spans the entire ground floor of the Fashion Square building, and that behind the retail stores are a sizable warehouse, a photo studio and an office space housing a team of about a dozen employees. On any given day they have models in from Miami or New York and are shipping orders to Singapore, Germany and New Zealand. In other words, he's my idol.

Mike was pleasant enough, but he was ... what shall I say ... tight-lipped? Both Bill and I asked a ton of questions, from what their annual growth rate had averaged to their most successful customer acquisition tools. Mike was polite but evasive. Cagey even. I don't think he would have given me a straight answer on what he'd had for breakfast that morning. I'd see him on the street after that and would wave and say hi, and he'd avert my gaze. I figured he just wasn't a fan of overenthusiastic blonds, or disliked my (admittedly pain-in-the-rear) landlord husband, or just didn't have the time to humor the newbie. A few months later I rented a retail space adjacent to his, and we became neighbors. I saw him more and more frequently, but his demeanor remained ... indifferent.

Then he adopted Darby. And Darby and I fell in love.

Darby is an incorrigable but impossible to dislike chocolate lab. And Darby loves me. She loves Mike more, of course. A little bit. But I'm the super cool aunt who can do no wrong.

When Darby was a puppy she couldn't walk by Makaboo without slobbering all over the glass and chomping on the metal door handle trying to get in. Now if she's on a walk outside of the shop, Mike has asked me to stay inside until she does her business, otherwise she'll get too excited and won't go at all.

Over time, it got tough for Mike to keep ignoring me while his dog was shalacking me with lab love. Darby and I were able to wear Mike down. When he'd wrestle her out of a play session, he'd also ask how business was going (I'm sure just to be polite), and I would do the same. I would pop next door only in emergency: we'd run out of UPS labels, or I would have a question about a UPS claim, or ... it was almost always about UPS. Inevitably, we started chatting more, and sometimes he'd even invite me to sit down and talk shop. I grew more comfortable asking for his advice, and Mike grew more comfortable dispensing it.

And then one day it happened. He came over to our shop, and he asked for my input! I was so flattered I nearly hugged him on the spot.

I'm so comfortable with the folks next door now that sometimes I go over and they'll say "Mike's in front" and I'll say "that's OK I'm only here to see Darby." We talk nearly every day, and we bounce ideas off of each other all the time. It's still heavily weighted - he's been doing this a LOT longer than I have! But we definitely approach things differently, and it's good for both of us to hear the others' perspective. He has become a mentor, whether he knows it or not, and I am grateful to have him as a neighbor and a friend. And then of course there's the Darby love!


Darby, Trying to Escape & Attack Me With Love


Can You Resist Those Eyes?? Me Neither.