9 LESSONS FROM OUR FIRST YEAR IN BUSINESS (OR 9 THINGS WE'RE STILL WORKING ON)
May, 31 2017
It’s hard to believe, but Allette is celebrating its (her?) first birthday today. Of course, the planning of the business has been going on longer than that, but we launched the first collection of chic nursing clothes officially one year ago; on June 1st, 2016. I think Oksana, myself and everyone around us will always remember that day. It was a rush to the finish line and we were very excited to share our baby with the world. So, what’s happened since? It’s been an amazing ride. We did a lot of things right (pat on the shoulder). Probably our proudest achievement have been working so closely with women around the country, and world, by helping them navigate this new mama journey in style. And the Fast Company and British Vogue features were admittedly, pretty cool. But we also messed up more than once in the process, but I guess we learned some pretty important stuff.
Like a real human baby’s first year, it has been full of firsts, failures, joys and tears. And like a real baby, we wouldn’t trade any of those moments for the world. Ok, maybe some of those moments. Like that design we worked on three rounds of sample of and it still came out looking like a horror film’s school girl uniform? Yeah, maybe that we’d do without. But hey, we’d all give back some of real baby’s sleepless nights or poop accidents too ;)
Metaphors aside, it’s been a monumental year and one which will inevitably shape not only how we do business moving forward, but who we are as people. So in the spirit of sharing is caring, here are the 9 lessons we’ve learned from running a business. The caveat being it's only been a year, we're still figuring most of this stuff out.
1. We don’t know as much as we thought we did. But we are better learners than expected.
Despite not having any background in fashion specifically, we thought we’d come in and figure it all out in a flash and shake things up. While we still maintain that not having that background has helped us not limit ourselves and allowed us to approach things, dare we say, more entrepreneurially, some background may have avoided a few mistakes. But we faked it until we could make it. And make it we did. We used every and all resources available - and then some. Connections, training classes, networking groups, online searches, apps, you name it. On more than one occasion we sought expert help on specific areas but changed the scope of our requests after deciding we could handle a lot ourselves. We’ve become mini experts in several fields. I certainly don’t want to take away from the amazing work freelancers, agencies, and other services provide, much of which is indispensable, but there are times you can just figure it out yourself if you put enough time and energy towards it. AKA you can’t afford said super smart folks so have no choice!
2. We couldn’t have gotten this far without loads of help.
So, yes, to conclude point 1, we had to suck it up and learn pretty quickly. But people helped. Lots of people. Lots of help. We had to learn to ask. Ask that ex-colleague we haven’t seen in 7 years other than on Facebook posts, ask our know-it-all cousin, ask someone we just met at the gym. Ask. For advice, for an introduction, for a favor. This is much harder than it sounds. Especially if you’re a couple of introverts like us. We went from having admirable careers and discreet personal lives to asking our friends to follow us on Instagram and our neighbors with new babies if they wouldn’t mind posing for us. Sometimes people say no, find excuses or worst, never respond. We’ve had to learn to deal with those rejections without taking them personally. Ok, we’re still working on that one. But more often than not, people we hardly know have gone above and beyond by sharing their time, knowledge and resources. It’s given us a new appreciation for the human race. People want to help! And of course a big shout out to all of our family and friends who have helped in every way possible. Especially in emotional support; probably a new entrepreneur’s most valued currency.
3. Partnerships (of any sort) are complicated.
You know how the best part of fighting with your partner is the making up part (and what naturally ensues)? Nope, you don’t get that with the business partner. So you have to work a lot harder at mending things and moving on. We’re two in this. And sometimes that can be tough. Especially in such a highly creative business. Two opinions, two approaches, two voices. Compromise is a word we’ve become very familiar with. But most importantly, two has meant a built-in support system. Someone who gets it as much as I do. Two opinions, two approaches, two voices. Options. New ways of looking at things. Someone to bounce ideas off of. Someone who can get equally excited about a small success or bummed by a large setback. Someone to share an inside “work” joke over leftover pizza with or text alarmingly at 1am about a potentially costly wardrobe malfunction or new idea. This is a relationship like no other. We know each other in a way even our mothers or husbands will never understand. And as a result,we have each learned so much about ourselves. Compared to a year ago, we both have a much more tangible understanding of our limits, our insecurities and our behaviors (why didn’t my husband ever tell me I was so controlling?). But we have also learned to let go, share, respect and learn from the other. There’s comfort in numbers.
4. Setbacks suck. Sacrifices need to be made. But all that sh*t makes us stronger.
We’ve had to learn that we won’t be perfect at everything. And everything won’t go as planned. That applies both professionally and personally (see next point). Inevitably, we’ll inadvertently (or not) disappoint someone, make a wrong decision, miss out on an opportunity, send a customer the wrong size (only once...but oops!). It’s cliche of course, but we really do try our darndest to learn from our mistakes. Whether that’s making it up to someone or taking steps to make sure we don’t do the thing again. Work lessons are just life lessons with different consequences. We actively try and keep work and home life separated, but it’s often impossible. Think: ruined date night because there’s a glitch on the site. We’ve learned the power of taking responsibility and righting a wrong. In the end, everything blends together and hopefully the result is we’re better moms, entrepreneurs, wives, friends, social doers, teachers and contributors for it all. Or we’re worst, we haven’t quite figured out which way this scale is sliding.
5. Things take SO MUCH time.
Ugh, I hate this one. For a type-A person like me, accepting this is one of the hardest things. But things do take time. Building a brand takes times. Forming relationships takes time. Learning the production process in detail takes time. Being profitable takes time. Helping a new entrepreneur takes time. Filling out LLC forms takes time. Writing a blog post takes time (thanks for reading, btw!). But we know we have to do them. And do them right. The devil is in the detail indeed. I get it now. And we have to be patient. Patience is a virtue (another a-ha moment).
6. Owning our own business means we’ve had way more time for ourselves and our families (not!).
Haha. Biggest. Misconception. Ever. I imagined long daytime walks. Sitting in cafes and cooking three-course meals for my kids on a Tuesday night. Not so, friends. Sure, we have more flexibility on how we manage our time. But the dirty little secret no one tells you about owning a business is that you don’t have time to be flexible with. Oksana and I both made the decision to spend more time with our families (i.e. school pickups, present at school events, etc). This has been wonderful and not having to ask permission or put a block in my work diary to be able to attend my kid’s school sing-along is liberating. But the reality is that all these things we’re doing instead of working means that, well, we’re not working. And no one else is picking up our slack. Morning kid’s dentist appointments were so much more fun when they were on our employer’s’ dime. Learning to balance the two worlds has been challenging. Every working parent knows this. When it’s your own business though, it feels a bit like another child. But that child doesn’t play nice; it makes mom distracted, on her phone and not actively listen to the other kids. That child now has stricter rules. Jeez. And here I thought owning a business meant I’d be lunching all over town and making the occasional daytime spa visit. Ok, it’s happened but I don’t feel great about it.
7. We’ve got to do a lot of crap we don’t enjoy. But sometimes we enjoy something unexpected.
Accounting. Ordering more packing labels. Accounting. Making databases. Accounting. Owning a business means you have to do a lot of mundane boring stuff. The kinda stuff you were damn proud not to have to do anymore once you moved up that corporate ladder. Ladder knocked down. We do it all. Because we have to. And it takes time. Entire days sometimes. Like figuring out how to change all the ink cartridges in the printer. IT I’m so sorry for all the years of “just turn it off and back on” jokes! I love you! But sometimes you can surprise yourself with the things you actually do enjoy. Things you perhaps wouldn’t have had the chance to do. What’s that called? Ah yes, a sense of accomplishment. I can do it myself, thank you very much. It will take me more time and I’ll go through multiple cycles of discouragement, anger and lunacy, but I’ll do it.
8. We question our actions every day. But never our mission.
We second guess ourselves, of course. Is that the right color? Should we have collaborated with this one? Did I sound rude in that response? But we don’t dwell on these things. We are confident knowing that we’re giving it all that we can are doing our best. And we know why we’re doing it. We set out to make pretty clothes for nursing moms. Clothes they would be excited about wearing. We may be less wide-eyed and bushy-tailed than a year ago (more like dark-circle-eyed and messy-haired), but we’re still here and happy.
9. We’re pretty damn lucky.
Don’t let all the above fool you; we love what we do. Every day we feel fortunate to wake up excited for the day ahead. We look forward to tackling a difficult issue, packing orders, and yes, even doing the accounting. Because it’s our difficult issue, our orders to pack and our accounting to do. And the best part of all is the peeps. We work with all kinds of people; pediatricians, fabric vendors, the guy at the post office. And there’s something very real about that. Feels like we’re part of an actual community. Yes, that’s it. We have a community right here in New York. Made up of all sorts. And it’s awesome. But our biggest lesson has been how happy we’ve been to work with our customers, who lucky for us, happen to be new moms. We meet them at events, at our showroom when they come in to try things on, online through email or groups, and all over our neighborhood. We learn from them. Draw inspiration from them. We get to be there for them during this special time in their lives. Seeing the clothes we’ve poured so much time, effort, sweat and love into, being worn by them. And having them tell us it’s made breastfeeding so much easier and more pleasurable. Um yeah, we feel pretty lucky. Thanks, guys!
So why only 9 lessons and not 10, you ask? It’s our business, we can do what we want.