Lately I have been thinking a lot about how to get a business started. I have a couple of friends who are just starting out on their small business journeys, or are just in the pondering phase, and it has got me thinking about the kind of advice I can offer them.
I am obviously no business guru. This is all very very new to me, as I myself, have only been officially in business for about six months (I also had a little warm up period three months before I officially launched my business). But I know, there are a few things I am very grateful that I thought to do (or was told to do) at the very beginning, and there are also many things that I have learned in the last six months, which I wish I had thought about in the beginning!
So I thought I'd share a few things with you, just in case you are thinking about taking the plunge too!
1. Research is key
When I started researching for my business, I didn’t even know that’s what I was doing. Long before starting In the Folds, I had stumbled upon the online sewing community (which I somehow had remained oblivious to until about three years ago) and was just completely blown away by how many people were sewing.
I became a blog addict, following every blog I could (thanks to Bloglovin’) and soaking up all the amazing sewing goodness I could find. I hadn’t bought a sewing pattern for years (as I had learned how to draft patterns at university, and didn’t really feel the need to buy patterns), but suddenly indie patterns became very appealing. I wanted to know what all the hype was about. I bought a few patterns and gave them a whirl. I saw the incredible detail that was put into the instructions, the beauty of the packaging and the online support that was available. I suddenly understood the excitement.
And at this point, a seed was planted in my mind. What was stopping me jumping on board and producing patterns too?
This is when I realised how much research I had already done. I had been looking at sewing blogs daily by this point, so I already had a really good understanding of who was making patterns and the types of garments that were already on offer. I started taking note of what designers seemed to be the most popular, and what people liked about their patterns. I read countless blog posts about indie patterns and reviews of garments sewn with particular patterns, getting a good idea of what people expected from their pattern and what they did and didn't like.
I put my hand up to test a pattern, knowing that it would be a good way to learn how to go about testing a pattern, when I eventually got to that point. At this point I had no idea how the process worked, but by getting involved and doing it, I quickly learned the things I liked about pattern testing, as well as the things I didn’t like - and how I could iron out these creases when I was the one getting people to test my pattern.
When I finally launched my business in October last year, I knew the world I was going into. Oh boy, there was still a tonne to learn, but my research had put me in good stead to know what to expect and to envisage (some of) the obstacles that were likely to come my way. There is an amazing group of women who made the indie pattern scene what it is today, and I think it would be crazy not to listen to them and learn from them.
When my business started, my research did not stop. I am still constantly researching ways I could do things better, how to be more productive, more efficient and how to create a better product. I set time aside regularly to just sit down and absorb what I can. I continue to read blogs (although a wider range of blogs appeal to me now), search for interesting articles online, and listen to tonnes of podcasts (which is a great way to keep learning while you work on something else), as I think it is just so important to keep my finger on the pulse and always be questioning how things are done, and how things could improve. Once upon a time (albeit very recently) you needed to get a business degree to learn the ins and outs of starting a business, now you can find everything you need online. It is incredible.
2. Just do it already
This is a piece of advice I have come across a lot (thank you Nike), but it does ring very true to me. After stumbling upon the online sewing community, I was busting to start a blog, but it took me months to finally do it. I didn’t know where to start, what people would think and if there were already too many blogs out there. I questioned whether there was anything new I could contribute to the conversation. I am so thankful that I pushed myself to just get the ball rolling and hit publish on that very first blog post.
The only way to find out what's going to happen, is to go for it. The cliche of ‘you’ll never know until you try’ is just so true. Just starting a blog gave me a chance to work out how to put a tutorial together and work on my writing style. It gave me a chance to find and develop my voice. It gave me the confidence to realise that I was adding something new to the conversation, and that people were interested. Although I look back on some of my first tutorials and cringe, I know it was so important in the development of my style, and I had to work through that awkward stage, to get to where I am now (which is still continually growing and improving).
I think this quote from Ira Glass really sums this stage up very well:
In short, your work may (is likely to be) a little bit crap at first. But you won’t know that till you try, and you won’t be able to get it looking better if you don’t just put it out there and start ironing out the creases, developing your style, working on your process, and getting feedback from those around you. It can be scary at first, you wonder what people will say, what people will think, but all you can do is be brave and put it out there. Just do it.
I recently watched this TED talk by Reshma Saujani about the importance of women being brave instead of being perfect, and it really struck a chord with me. And this blog post by Heather Lou form Closet Case Files, is also another great read about just biting the bullet and doing it (just in case you need a little more of a shove).
3. Practice makes perfect
No-one goes into business knowing how to do everything. No matter what they tell you. I went into my business with a lot of knowledge and skills related to my business - I have a degree in Fashion and Textiles, I knew how to create a website, I knew how to put a tutorial together, I knew I could write well.
But that was far from the skills and knowledge I needed - I didn’t have a clue about marketing and advertising (and still don’t know much), I had no idea about book keeping for a business, and I also didn’t know all the ins and outs of drafting and grading a pattern digitally. But I didn’t let these things turn me off.
There is always going to be things we don’t know how to do (I still hit these obstacles daily), but the internet is an insane resource. We are so lucky to live at a time when finding the answer to a question is as simple as typing it into a Google search, or reaching out to a friend on Facebook or Instagram.
One thing I found really liberating was to accept that there were things I did not know how to do, but I also knew I didn't need them right away. So I decided to file them away in a corner of my brain, labelled as 'work it out later.' By compartmentalising the tasks at hand, I could focus on what needed to be done, and learned, in the present, with the understanding that I could cope with the other things in the future. For example, when I decided to start my business, I had no idea how to grade a pattern digitally. Although I knew it was an important thing for me to learn how to do (and was crucial to me being able to launch my first product), I also knew I didn’t need that skill on the first day I started my business. There was still A LOT I had to do before I got to the point that I would need to digitise my pattern (I had to design the pattern, make up countless samples until it was just right, scan in the paper patter and build a website to house said pattern) and there was no point wasting mental real estate on it.
When it was finally time to grade the pattern, that’s when I faced it. I started experimenting. I read everything I possibly could get my hands on on the topic. I knew how to use Adobe Illustrator, but had never tried to draft a pattern with it. I was learning from scratch. I practiced, I tried out different techniques, and I made mistakes. Lots of them. I trawled the internet for information and took snippets from many different sources, until I found a process that worked for me. My process wasn’t perfect, but nor did it need to be. It did the trick, and I knew that the next time I did it, I would be faster and more efficient.
3. Find your people
Finding your people is so important to the success of your business. I did a short small business course before I started In the Folds, and there was a lot of talk about our ‘ideal customer.’ At the time it seemed like a very abstract concept to me. I didn’t know what my ideal customer liked, didn’t like, what she did for work, what she did in her spare time (apart from sew, obviously!). None of it. I didn’t even know how I could find this information.
Then I found Instagram. [This is not to say that Instagram will work for everyone. Your ideal customer may hangout elsewhere, they may not even be present online (although I think that is doubtful if you are taking the time to read this post), but this is just an example of working out where your ideal customers spends their time.]
Unfortunately, this was a lesson that took me a while to work out. And this is one of those lessons I wish I learned before starting my business.
There was a three month period between my official first day of business and the day I launched my website and my first pattern (the Rushcutter). I had my head down designing my first pattern, putting it through testing, and getting my website up and running, and I had very little contact with the outside world (particularly with the outside online world). A girlfriend kindly offered to help me get some social media up and running (see point number 5 for the importance of calling on favours), as it was something I had been neglecting, and for some reason just couldn’t seem to face. She suggested I get on Instagram, as it would be a great place for me to be in touch with people who may be interested in my website or even my products. I told her it was fine, I already had an Instagram account from my previous blog (with a whole 34 posts and 226 followers) and I could just carry on with that.
Thankfully, my dear friend knew far more than I did about the power of social media. She created an account and said she’d just have a play around with the kinds of posts she thought would work for my brand. I quickly realised the power of Instagram, as well as what all that fuss was about… Apparently sewists love Instagram (myself included). Due to the generosity of my friend, I quickly learned the kinds of posts I should be publishing, how hashtags worked, and how to use Instagram to chat to like-minded people. I quickly connected with hundreds of amazing women (and maybe a few men) who loved sewing as much as me, and wanted to see photos of all the things I was working on. Suddenly I felt part of a community. A community that is incredibly supportive and inspiring - which is worth its weight in gold, when you are knee deep in a business that you run on your own.
Although I have now found my people, I do think it would have made launching my business and my first product much easier if I already had an online presence back then. Not only because I think I would have had customers from the get go, but also because of the huge amount of support and encouragement I get from my online friends (and some have even become offline friends now too). So, if I was going to go back and do it all over again (which I obviously can’t do, but I am writing this in the hope that it helps someone like you), I would have opened an Instagram account the moment I knew I was starting a business, and built some hype (and some friendships) in the months before my launch.
4. Plans are much better than lists
This is another one that took me a little while to learn. If you asked me a year ago which camp I was in - To-do lists or plans - I would have proudly said that I was a to-do list addict. Fortunately, in time, I learned that to-do lists just don’t cut it. I find a to-do list a really good place to start, if my mind is overflowing with information, but it really is just the first step.
I use a to-do list as a way to just clear my mind and get everything down on paper, but then I use a schedule to allocate time for each thing on that to do list. It has made me become much more realistic about what I should get (and can get) done in a day, and also allowed me to overcome that disappointing feeling at the end of the day when I haven't managed to cross off the 332 (and possibly 82 hours of work) off my To-do list, because now I don't have those crazy lists that were setting me up for disaster before I even began. If you’d like to know more about how I manage my time, take a look at this post where I go into a bit more detail.
5. Ask for help
I am notoriously bad at asking for help. I always worry that people are too busy doing their own things, and asking for help will be too big of an ask.
What I learned when I started In the Folds, was that people really do want to help. People are inspired by those who are going out on their own, and even if they don’t want to, or can’t do it themselves, often they will still want to be part of that journey.
When I told my friends and family that I was starting a business, I was surprised and heartened by the number of people who came forward to offer their time and expertise. One beautiful friend offered to get started on my branding, while another (who I mentioned earlier) got on with my social media. Help in these two areas (which were two areas I had very little confidence in my ability to do well) was just what I needed. I quickly learned that with a bit of a push and some encouragement, I did know what I wanted, and I also did have the skill to handle it, once they had got the ball rolling for me.
So this is the moment when I say, TAKE THE HELP! Be gracious, be humble, be very very thankful, but just take the help. Who knows when you will be able to return the favour, but you can always find a way. And don’t be surprised by the people who come forward to say they’d like to help. You can find wisdom in weird and wonderful places. A friend of mine who is a computer coder offered to look over my pattern digitisation process, to see if he could streamline it at all. He showed me a shortcut that literally saved me hours!
6. Start book keeping from the very beginning
This one is a boring one, but a very important one! Book keeping is something I neglected until about six weeks ago. Yep, seriously. It was something I just kept putting off. And putting off. And putting off. There always seemed to be something more important to be doing. But when I finally decided to bite the bullet, after a friend told me about the success she was having getting her taxes sorted on Freshbooks. I quickly realised it was nowhere near as bad as I thought it would be. Yes, I have spent far more money than I have made, but at least now I know exactly how much. And I also know where my money is going. And now I have a process.
I would suggest working out a book keeping system as soon as you can - particularly when you are right at the beginning. As this is something that can grow with you if its done right, and you will spend less time rummaging through your handbag looking for receipts!
7. Be authentically you
Being authentically me is something I find so important in my business journey, and something I am always thinking about and continuously working on. In my offline life, I am outgoing and positive (well at least I try to be) and this is something that I wanted to shine through in my business. I know some people have their online persona, which is intentionally quite different from their offline self - and I think this can work very well. But for me, I wanted to be as much myself online as I am offline. Starting my first blog gave me a chance to develop my voice and see how it was received. The chatty way I write online, is just the way I speak offline, and people seem to respond very well to it.
As well as being genuine and authentic, I think being as open and honest as possible is a really good thing in business. When I think about the blogs I love reading the most, they are definitely the ones where I get a realisitic idea of the life the blogger or maker lives. I love when people acknowledge that their business journey has been hard, and that their lives are not always as shiny as their Instagram feeds. It makes me feel normal, and that I may too be on the right track.
I am not here to say it is easy being open on the internet. It is definitely not. And this is also an area I have not explored as much as I would like, but I know it is the way forward for me and my business. I have learned so much from others who have opened their lives and their businesses for me to see, and I want to be a part of the movement for more transparency in business (if you would like to know more about why I think it is important to be transparent then have a look here).
8. Reach out
Reaching out is possibly the thing I have found the most difficult in these first months in business. I find it very hard to compose an email to a complete stranger, but I am learning that it is so crucial to success. I am also learning that people are generally nice, and will reply to you. As I said earlier, just like friends and family wanting to get involved in the amazing journey of going off on your own, even strangers get inspired to come along for the ride too!
Inspired by someone in your industry? Write them an email and tell them! They just might get back to you and say that they love what you are doing too.
I studied fashion design in an environment that I felt was was very cliquey. People kept their ideas to themselves. What I love most about the online sewing community is that it is the complete opposite to that. Designers are not competing with each other. We are working together to make our community better and greater. Because in the end, this is the most beneficial to all of us right?
For example, I contacted Beth from Sew DIY late last year, asking if she’d be interested in reviewing the Rushcutter for me. She suggested a pattern swap. We sewed each others patterns and then blogged about it. Not only was it fun, but we both broadened our audiences, and sold some patterns too! And I made a new friend through the process.
9. Save some money
Exactly one year ago, I moved back to my home in Sydney after spending almost three years in the UK. While I was living in London, I had really started thinking about the possibility of starting my own business in Australia, but it always seemed like quite a far fetched idea. When I moved back to Australia though, I realised it was the perfect time to do it. I didn’t have a job, and no strong desire to go and work in the mainstream fashion industry.
I was lucky enough to be in a position that I didn't need to pay rent, and I had the opportunity to apply for a government funded program to help get new enterprises get off the ground. I also had a bit of money in the bank. Not a lot, by any stretch, but enough that I could invest in a few things I needed to get me going.
Although I knew I was going to have to do all the work required to get my business off the ground, as I didn’t have the money to employ anyone, I was relieved to have enough money in the bank to get some professional help when I needed it. After days of playing with my Squarespace theme, I just could not get it to do what I wanted it to. Having some money in the bank meant that I could contact a freelancer who could do it for me. Although it was pricey, it did save me from days and days searching through Squarespace forums, for an answer that may have not even been there.
This is the moment where I say that if you are thinking about starting a business, save some money! Having the ability to get professional help when you need it, is priceless. Although I have learned so much by trying to do everything on my own, it would have really relieved some of the stress, if I could have outsourced more of the work. If you are thinking about quitting that job to get started on your own business, try and hold on and save some money first. It will really make your life easier in the long run if you have some money behind you. I listened to a great podcast recently, which happened to be an interview with a very good friend of mine, where she says exactly the same thing. If you are thinking of taking the journey, have a listen, Caitlin has some great tips!
If like me, you are not really in a position to hold onto a job and save some money before taking the plunge, there are still lots of options. Diversify. Accept (and even celebrate) that you can make many from many different places. Get a part-time job - I work one day a week as a nanny, so that I know I will be able to afford to at least eat each week. It also forces me to get out of the studio every Friday and get some fresh air and to focus on something that isn't my business (try thinking about work when you are chasing a three year old around the park). I am always surprised by how many great ideas I come up with when I finally leave my desk and focus on something totally different.
You could also consider getting some freelance work. As you know, I am a pattern maker. Although I love most to make patterns for myself, and all of you lovely people, sometimes I take on a freelance pattern making job. It is a great way to bring in some bucks, as well as develop my skills. Win win I say!
There is probably another million things I could have included in this post, but these are the things that I have found to be the most important at this early stage of starting a business.
There are tonnes of resources out there, to get you started on your small business journey, but here are a few of my favourites: