Life as a Small Business Owner: Successes, Failures, and Lessons (PART 1)

About a year ago, I shared my story of being a long-time small business owner.  I talked about the challenges I’ve faced, the adventures I’ve experienced, and most of all, the lessons I’ve learned over the last thirteen years since I opened my first business.

Yesterday, I sent out my monthly newsletter for my eco-fashion line – for the first time since November. We decided to offer a huge sale along with our apologies for the several month absence, but I still felt a little guilty about the amount of time that had passed.  It prompted me to do some serious thinking about how different things are these days in comparison to what they were in the past, and how much they have continued to evolve over the past year, since I initially shared my story with you.  And all of that thinking made me realize that this would be a great time to revisit the whole “life as a small business owner” topic here on the blog. 

This is going to be a two part “series.”  Even with attempts to keep things brief, there is a lot to share, and novel-length blog posts aren’t fun for anyone.  I also felt like it would be best to break it up because I want to be able to tell the full story – the past and the present – and I want to do it without completely overwhelming you guys.  In part 1 (today’s post), I’m going to be repeating many of things the things I shared last year.  The story of the first twelve years hasn’t changed, but it’s important that I include it.  Bubby and Bean has much a larger reader base than it did a year ago, and most of you won’t have read this before.  For those who have, it will be a good refresher before part 2.  Part 2 will be posted tomorrow, and will talk about the continued evolution of my businesses over the past year to the present, along with some important tips I use to stay on track in my career.

And after the longest intro ever, here we go…

Soon after college, I decided to start an eco-friendly clothing label.  I’d been making clothing for myself and my friends for years, and I was also heavily involved in several environmental organizations.  At the time, there was no such thing as “eco-fashion.”  There were a few companies who produced garments made from hemp and organic cotton, but the designs were the more stereotypically “crunchy” styles, without a lot of definition or style.  I wanted to design pieces that were fashion-forward as well as earth conscious, and began sewing one-of-a-kind designs and selling them at music festivals and local markets.  The line (called Mountains of the Moon) took off, and I created a website and started showing at large events.  I worked a LOT.  But I was very lucky because there were only a few other companies doing anything similar, and the business continued to grow.

In 2005, the business had gotten to a place where I was no longer able to keep up with the sewing on my own.  I continued to design and sew the prototypes and samples, but began working with a local manufacturer to produce full collections in larger quantities.  I also started doing regular events and trade shows, and set up a wholesale program so I could sell to stores.  By 2008, over 100 boutiques worldwide carried my collections, I was showing at Chicago and Portland Fashion weeks, and my designs were exhibited on two separate occasions at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  I was also getting some great press, including Women’s Wear Daily, The Discovery Channel’s, NBC television, and more.  I had four employees, a large commercial space with a studio, offices, and a shipping room.  I even won a small business award grant from Intuit, and a couple of years later starred in a QuickBooks commercial.  I received regular invitations to speak on fashion panels and at green events, and produced several eco-fashion events of my own in Chicago.  I was incredibly grateful for my success, and was certain that hard work and some talent were all you needed to make it as a small business owner.

After several years of steady growth and opportunities, something unexpected happened that really rattled my perception of exactly what it took to achieve success: my industry began to dramatically change.  First, the “eco-fashion” craze took over.  Suddenly, big designers were producing eco-friendly lines.  Brand new eco-fashion companies (with lots more money behind them) started to pop up left and right.  Even chain stores like Target were selling “sustainable” fashion – for much less than I could ever afford to price my items.  I no longer stood out, and for the first time ever, I watched my sales suffer.  To make matters worse, the economy fell flat on its face.  Many of the boutiques who carried my collections closed down.  In the fashion industry, you produce a season ahead, and the quantities you manufacture are based on purchase orders from stores.  When the collections are ready to ship, you get paid – except when the stores who placed orders went out of business during production.  In that case, you don’t get paid, and you’re left with a massive amount of overstock.  Big lines that have their collections produced overseas for cheap can drastically decrease their prices if faced with a situation like this.  But the little guys who produce locally and in smaller batches can’t.

I honestly had no idea what to do, and looking back, I probably became a little desperate.  I felt pressured to keep at it by the influx of competition, and it was suggested to me by a mentor that I try taking things to another level.  I ended up designing and producing a collection of high-end womenswear under the name Melissa Baswell Eco-Luxury, produced in very tiny batches with lots of hand work using expensive sustainable fabrics.  I marketed to a slightly different niche in an attempt to stand out once again while riding what had now become a major trend.  The new line got me some phenomenal press and a headlining slot at the eco-fashion shows during Chicago Fashion Week, but it just wasn’t selling like my lower priced collections did.  The market was oversaturated, consumers were no longer willing to spend the money for locally produced sustainable clothing, and there was truly nothing I could do to change that.  I’d also been working with a new pattern maker who decided to skip town with my samples, patterns and money.  (Isn’t the fashion industry glamorous?)  I was left with a lot of debt and a lot of frustration.

At this point, I knew I had to face the reality of the situation.  Looking over my numbers, it became apparent that I was going to have to cut back.  I continued to produce collections for Mountains of the Moon, but less frequently and in smaller quantities. I went back to my roots of focusing more on retail than on wholesaling to stores.  I had to downsize my staff, move into a home office and studio, radically reduce my advertising budget, and cut way back on events and travel.  I created a sale section on our website, and marked down items for which we had overstock.  I maximized my investments by using the same fabric in most of the designs in a given collection (eco-friendly fabric is very expensive, but the more yardage you buy at once, the more the price-per-yard goes down).  I met with other local eco-designers on a regular basis to brainstorm how to get through the tough times.  I forced myself to accept the fact that although my clothing company was still making a profit, it would likely never again see the level of success it did in the past. 

Downsizing was the best choice for my business, but on an emotional level, everything felt like work now.  A lot of work.  I was losing my creative motivation because I had to be so completely focused on the business end of things.  I was fried, and at a place where I was basically just going through the motions like a robot.  It was very difficult to feel inspired when I was having to practice constant caution in order to prevent the company from going under.  I finally recognized that in order to get out of this slump, make a decent living, and actually love what I do again, I was going to have to go beyond just reinventing myself within my market.  I was going to have to step outside of it completely.    

Without even realizing it at the time, I did something that I now know is crucial for creative business owners – I started creating things for fun again.  I’d become so used to thinking only in terms of business when designing that I’d forgotten why I started my company in the first place: because I loved to make things, and I loved to design.  I went to the art supply store and bought up a random mix of paints, colored pencils, canvases, wood blocks, etc.  I also bought a Holga camera.  Each day, after finishing my daily work, I’d spend time making mixed media collages, drawing, creating digital art, and taking pictures.  I was open for making almost anything, and I started to remember what it felt like to be creative for pleasure.  The experience was very liberating for me both personally and professionally, and I started to feel motivated again.

It was now fall of 2010, and I had a ton of completed art projects just hanging around my studio.  Friends started to ask if they could buy pieces, and a few suggested I open an Etsy shop for my art prints and greeting cards.  At first I resisted.  I honestly knew nothing about Etsy, and I hadn’t sold my art since college.  Plus, how would I have time to work on my clothing business – which took a whole lot more time and effort to keep afloat than in the past – and run an art shop too?

Eventually, I finally allowed myself to take the leap into new ventures.  I set up a shop – called Bubby and Bean Art – to sell prints and greeting cards of my typographic designs and illustrations.  Almost instantly, I felt rejuvenated, and had what I’d describe as a “career epiphany.”  By giving myself the time to create for fun, I remembered why I chose to work for myself in a creative career in the first place (something I’d forgotten along the way when my first business hit a road block).  I got my drive back, and by branching out beyond something that had defined me for so long, I found a new way to reinvent myself and my career.  It had been such a struggle to stay ahead within the eco-fashion market, and by allowing myself to partially step out into another market while utilizing the knowledge I already had, I was able to create what would end up being a successful side business.  I started to really embrace this new path, and focused on creating designs for the art shop that were inspired by positivity, empowerment, encouragement, and love.  This new business filled in many of the gaps that had developed within my other company.  The extra income helped me with the first steps of getting back on track financially, and I was able to work with other mediums than just apparel and textiles (which helped both my clothing designs and my art stay fresh). 

Around the same time I also started this blog, initially with the intention to use it for staying inspired and promoting my businesses. I knew very little about this world, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved blogging – something I never would have been open to explore had I continued to limit myself to just my clothing label.  Over time, my little blog evolved into a big part of my career.  I began to spend several hours a day on it, and eventually, it opened up some really incredible doors for me and presented me with opportunities that I never could have imagined.

And that brings us to the present.  I’m going to save the details of this (as well as what I’m calling my current “second wave of career evolution”) for part 2, but I do want to mention a couple of things.  First, I know that what I just shared reads like a very tidy story with a clear-cut, happy ending.  And it’s true – I was eventually able to create an overall solution to getting things back on track and rediscover a happy place for myself career-wise.  But I won’t pretend that going from owning one business to three solved all my problems, or that my career ended up in the same place as it was in the heyday of the clothing line. The point is that my struggles taught me invaluable lessons about how to be open to and prepared for the fact that creative markets are constantly changing.  I became a better business owner (and a happier person) by embracing my mistakes, accepting the fact that regular reinvention of your career is necessary in creative fields, and remembering that in order to do what you love, you have to find ways to keep that love alive.  Even with new sets of challenges that appear, being a business owner is rewarding for me again.  I look forward to going to work everyday, and combined with the lessons I’ve learned about how to create balance between work and play (more on that in part 2), I’m in one of the best places I’ve ever been.

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for allowing me to share my story (and lessons!) with you guys.  I know that many of you are small business owners as well, and I hope that my experiences will help some of you who are just starting out or are at crossroads in your careers.  For those who are established, maybe you’ve had to overcome similar challenges, or have faced and found solutions for different ones entirely.  (Either way I’d love to hear about them in the comments!)  And be sure to stop back by tomorrow for part 2.  It will be shorter (thank goodness!), and I’ll be filling you in on what is happening in my small business ownership world today, along with some tips and advice on how to stay afloat as a creative entrepreneur in an ever-changing industry.

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