I cannot believe today marks the day that exactly one year ago I launched In the Folds as well as The Rushcutter dress pattern. Part of me feels like no time has passed at all, while the other part feels like I have been steering this ship for ten years! I cannot believe how naively I took the plunge into starting my own business - and how much learning I have had to do this past year just to survive. I thought that a good way to wrap up the year would be a little reflective post about all that I have learned this first year, as a reminder to myself about how far I have come, and hopefully some tips for you if you are about to start this crazy journey too.
1. Sometimes not having a clue is a great thing
Thank goodness for the blind faith of a beginner. It's so easy to jump blindly into something when you have absolutely no idea of what is involved. And this truly is a blessing. If I knew when I started what I know now about running a business (which is still not a great deal), I don't know if I would have been brave enough to do it at all. I see this trait in so many parts of life, sewing in particular. New sewers often jump right into projects far beyond their skills, because they have no way of judging what's involved and have no fear, or knowledge, of what could go wrong. I think this is fantastic, and something to really aspire to. I wish this was something we could control and bring into our lives more often, because fear really does stifle our potential. So see it as a bonus when you don't have a clue about something - it often will work in your favour. Step naively into the face of it, and take the challenges one by one as they come.
2. You can learn a lot from the internet
When I did start to lose my naivety and started realising the beast I was creating, I also learned that worrying about what you don't know is just pointless. Because basically there is going to be A LOT you don't know, and there's just no point dwelling on it or getting worked up about it. Soldier on and face each obstacle as it comes. It is incredible what you can teach yourself with the help of a good Google search (I learned how to draft patterns digitally by trawling the internet for blog posts and tutorials) or a podcast. If you break whatever is daunting you down into small steps, suddenly it looks much more manageable and achievable and then you can face each challenge one by one.
3. Sometimes you're just not ready for the information
This leads me to the point that sometimes it's best not to know something. There's only so much brain real estate we have, and there's no point filling it with useless things that you may not need until a year down the track. For example, before I started In the Folds I did a small business course. The teacher harped on and on about marketing. I listened, but I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Of course I knew it was important, but it all just seemed too big and too daunting for me to think about. So I didn't. I chose to focus on more pressing issues. At the beginning the most important thing I had to do was learn how to make a great digital product (I have always been a pattern maker, but only knew how to draft patterns manually). There would have been no point spending hours working on marketing when I didn't even have a product to marker. Twelve months on, and now that I have mastered creating a PDF pattern, it's time to take the next step. I am finally realising what a huge impact marketing has on your business's success and I am ready to learn. I am ready to take it all in. I have been reading marketing books, and listening to marketing-related podcasts, and actually understanding them, and even enjoying them. Because I am ready for the information now.
4. Having your own business can be very lonely, but that doesn't mean you have to do it alone
While I was still at university I did work experience with a local fashion designer. I went to her studio one or two days a week to help out with anything and everything she needed help with. Early on I was struck by what a lonely working life this designer led. She spent her days in the studio with no-one around but her dog, and me when I was there. At that moment I vowed I would never have my own business - it would be far too lonely for me. I need to be around people all the time. Or so I thought. Fast-forward seven years and here I am sitting at my desk writing this post. Totally alone. And extremely happy to be doing it. What I have learned is that although you may get lonely running your own business, it doesn't mean you have to do it alone. I choose to work in a shared studio space, so that I am surrounded by others. I choose to collaborate with businesses that believe in the same things that I believe in so I can bounce ideas around with other creatives. In the past twelve months, I have met more like-minded individuals than I had met in my entire life pre-business. I may not get to see these people every day, but when I do see them, they re-fuel my energy and inspiration in a way that sustains me in the lonely times. And then of course I have my friends and family, who have been absolute troopers throughout the journey so far.
5. People generally want to help you
And this leads me to another major lesson I have learned. People generally want to help you. There is something about "the little guy" (or gal) who has said 'Stuff you normal job / normal lifestyle' that excites and inspires people. They may not want to take the leap themselves, but they will often want to be part of the journey. I find it really difficult asking for help, but what I am slowly learning to accept is that I cannot do it alone and people do actually want to help. There are always going to be times when I'm going to need to call in a favour. And that's okay.
6. Starting a business forces you to look internally
The biggest surprise to me this year is how much having my own business has made me look internally. If you mentioned the term 'self-help' to me a year ago, I would have actually laughed in your face. I didn't understand it, I didn't get it, and didn't believe there was any need for it in my life. Then I started a business and realised that when you pour your heart and soul into something, it becomes part of you, and any cracks or strains in the business are often reflections of some part of you that needs to be looked at a little closer. Blocks in my business often relate to personal blocks I have. For example, when I started In the Folds I wasn't too worried about how many patterns sold. Money wasn't driving me. I thought this was a good thing, it meant I could be creative and free without thinking about money. Then I realised that it wasn't liberating to work like that. Having no money doesn't give you freedom, it limits you and your potential. I wasn't worrying about money, not because I had risen above to some higher plane where money wasn't an issue, but because I felt I didn't deserve it. This was a huge revelation to me and something I must continually think about and work on. I now work on different things internally, as I realise how these things manifest externally. It is a never ended process, but a very rewarding one.
7. Creating a routine is really important
When I tell people I have my own business, they often remark about how great it must be 'being able to work whenever you like.' Any business owner will know that it's not like that at all. Having your own business encourages you to work ALL THE TIME - whether you like it or not. There is always a million things on the to-do list and only you to do it, so you just work and work and work and work. I definitely have work-aholic tendencies. I love to work. I have always enjoyed working, and working for myself has made me love work even more. I truly love what I do and it makes me feel incredibly happy and fulfilled. But that doesn't mean it is good for me to work all the time.
I do not want to be defined by what I do for a living. I want to be defined by my relationships with others, by what I give to the world, the stories I share, the places I go. This article from Womankind that I read recently resonated so much with me - and was a great reminder that I cannot let work absorb me, nor should anyone. This means trying to find some work-life balance.
I am definitely not going to pretend I have worked it out. I haven't. But I am getting better. And the main thing that has helped is the routine I have created for myself and my work. I try to work normal working hours. I get to work between 9am and 10am. I have lunch around 1pm, just like I would do if I worked in an office. I leave work around 6pm so that I can spend time with my partner or friends in the evenings. I work weekends when I have a deadline, but I try to refrain from working so that I can spend time with my friends and family, and just relax and re-group. This work takes a huge mental toll on me, and I like to have the weekends to reflect and gear-up for the week ahead. I went to a great talk earlier this year and the speaker discussed the idea of our "Golden Hours." By this she meant the hours in the day where you do your best work. Realising that my "golden hours" are first thing in the morning and later in the afternoon / evening has been a great lesson. I now plan my days around these peak times. First thing in the morning I do my most important work, the things that have to be done, while I am full of energy and ready to go. After lunch, when I am feeling like crawling under my desk for a siesta, I try to do my favourite work. The work that I don't find challenging and I love to do no matter how exhausted I am - sewing and pattern making fall into this category. And then in the evening (if I have a deadline and need to work) I get back to the important stuff.
8. Put everything into it - it's so much easier than only going halfway
I worked in London for two and a half years or so a couple of years ago. I moved there with the grand dreams of interning in the fashion industry and working out what I wanted to do with my life. I got there and realised that although it would be easy to find an internship, a paid one was almost impossible to come by, and if I wanted to eat I was going to have to find another job. After calling my parents and having a mini melt-down on the floor of a 12 bed dorm in a backpacker hostel I remembered that I had been tutoring kids for years back home, and maybe I could find some part-time nannying work. Fast forward a couple of weeks and there I was at the park with three gorgeous young children who were now my responsibility four afternoons a week. It was not ideal, but it would pay the bills and let me do what I wanted each morning (i.e. interning). A year or so later I started working on my first pattern making blog and although I loved my job as a nanny, I quickly realised how hard I was finding it to focus on the job at hand. All I could think about was working on my blog. Pushing a child on a swing, I would be thinking about the next tutorial I would write. Walking through the park with the stroller, I would be thinking about what I would sew next. Then I would finally have time to do all that I had been dreaming about and I was just too exhausted to do the work. Now that I work in my business full-time, I finally feel focussed. No longer do I catch myself (as often) day dreaming of the work I want to be doing, while eating dinner with my partner or while talking to my Mum on the phone. By being 100% in in my business it is no longer a chore to do the work. It has become a non-negotiable. I work every day. And then I rest on the weekends and evenings, and actually give my attention to the people around me that deserve it. Here is a great article that illustrates it really well.
9. You just can't do it all
When I started In the Folds I just knew I had to do everything myself. I didn't have the budget to pay anyone for help, so I didn't even think about it. I learned how to do the things I didn't know how to do and just got on with it. Until I hit a road block. I wanted to change something on my website and I just couldn't. I trawled forum pages and blogs, trying to find the solution, wasting hours and hours and not coming up with an answer. I finally bit the bullet and decided to call an expert for help. His rates seemed astronomical at the time, but I knew I didn't have a choice. Then he did the job in no time at all and it was perfect. And suddenly I had no problem handing over my credit card details. I have learned that my time has value and can often be spent doing something far more useful than trawling the internet for a solution that may not exist. I am now learning that it is a good investment to outsource some of the work, even when my budget is very tight. I sent my last pattern for Peppermint Magazine to a pattern digitser and grader. I couldn't believe how much time and frustration that saved me. For future pattern releases I plan to hire someone to illustrate the instructions. I know that I can do all these tasks myself. But I also know that I could find someone that could do it better than I can, and I can carry on doing the things I couldn't outsource to anyone.
10. Having a plan is great, but you've got to be flexible
When I did the small business course I mentioned earlier, we had to write a business plan. It was a tough exercise, but I found it so useful in getting my head around what I was setting out to do. I handed it in and then haven't looked at it since. How come? Things changed. I realised that I couldn't pump out the ten patterns in the first year like I had planned. Things took far longer than I thought they would. Things cost far moe than I had planned and I needed to take on an occasional freelance job just to get by. And that's okay. It is really difficult to make a plan when you have no idea of what processes you will use and how long they will take. There is no point sticking to a plan just because it's there. To me, business is about constantly pivoting and adapting to what's going on around you. I do plan to write that business plan again though. With a year's worth of experience under my belt, and finally a clue about who my "ideal customer" is, I think I am in a much better place to put pen to paper. But I will be flexible with that plan too.
11. Enjoy the process and celebrate the successes along the way
And the final lesson, and perhaps the most important. Celebrate the victories along the way - however small they are. Our definition of success is constantly changing, as we move the goal posts back each time we achieve something. So I am learning to celebrate the moments along the way. Like today when I'll be having a glass of champagne and giving myself a pat on the back and saying "Girl, you did it. You survived your first year in business."