Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.3

Annie is back and picking up where she left off from part one and part two. Her guest entries explain how and why she went from using sewing contractors for production to making the transition of setting up her sewing factory. The specific lessons she learned and wishes to emphasize appear in italics. Thanks Annie!

Chapter 3:  It’s Not that You Have to Get Your Hands Dirty, It’s that You Get to.

The truth is, none of the events I have detailed are remarkable. I don’t consider my story to be special, except for the fact that it is mine, and as such, is being lived by me. I share it with you precisely because it is perfectly ordinary and within the scope of what you can expect.

There were so many more things that happened, but I’m just telling some of my stories to illustrate some of the things I learned. Additionally, some of the events of the last five years are excruciatingly painful to me, and I can only cope with their aftermath by working to ensure that while I will surely make more mistakes, I am determined not to make the same ones twice.

Kathleen said she wanted to do a follow up post detailing some of the things I did right. I know I did some things right, but I am mostly plagued by all the many things I did wrong, many of them not detailed here. Wallowing in them all at once for the sake of writing would be an unproductive exercise in negative self-indulgence I cannot afford.

So, back to my abbreviated, unspecial, ordinary story, the one just like the one you might have. I guess I am hoping you will learn from some of my mistakes and maybe make others, but hopefully not these. Of if you make these, you’ll know that you too are ordinary and not alone. There’s solace in that too.

It became painfully obvious to me that I needed to clean house, resume total control, and rebuild my company from the ground up. The fact of the matter is it was a financial necessity, and only later I learned of the backstabbing betrayal I had received from people I had trusted completely. Never again would I allow my fatigue and burnout seduce me into thinking anyone had my company’s best interests at heart more than I did.

Don’t be afraid to do what needs to be done. And don’t be afraid to fire people. It’s just a job to them. It’s your life to you. Sometimes it’s you or them. Choose you. Seth Godin says that you should be the only person in your company who is irreplaceable. Don’t be afraid to replace anyone else.

Choose you. Choose your business. Don’t be afraid to make or execute difficult decisions.

For a while after that, it felt like the early days: staying up all night working, figuring out all the new systems that had been implemented since I’d started, shipping orders and driving to and from the post office. It was good for me to get my hands back on the nitty gritty work. This time was different in that I was wiser, less excited by “playing store,” more cynical and tougher, but I knew I’d done it once and I could do it again. I wasn’t distracted by excitement, but was rather strengthened by knowing I had to make it work. Failure was not an option.

It is never beneath you to get your hands dirty. Never.

During all this, we started setting up shop in house. I bought three used industrial machines. They aren’t pretty. They require oil and maintenance. We have had to figure out their care and keeping, mostly by trial and error. We built a cutting table. It fits a spreader, and yes, a room of people can stand on it.

My business partner works tirelessly, building, maintaining, experimenting, rolling and organizing the fabric, making patterns, marking cutting lines, and cutting. We spend hours at the white board arguing, doing math, planning, questioning, working. Today he spent the entire afternoon filing away burrs on the thread path of our straight stitch. Tomorrow I will go pick up another machine I hunted down on my local online classifieds, strap it to a pickup truck, and deliver it to our sewing area, adding another gear to our future.

You’re going to have to work. There’s no way around it.

The transition has not been completely smooth. I am still periodically using my sewing contractor, but we have gone to an airtight system where I submit extremely detailed purchase orders, pay in advance (due to their financial necessity), and only get what I paid for and with guaranteed ship dates. It sounds brutal but honestly it works for both of us. It’s important to work things out with all of your suppliers. My relationship with my sewing contractor is like any other relationship in my life and requires constant communication and negotiation. In this case they enjoy the money up front to actually produce the product, I enjoy getting exactly what I ordered and nothing more or less, and I very much enjoy receiving my goods on time. I have been honest with them about my need to sew in-house. They are a business and they understand that it is all about the numbers.

Negotiate your relationships. Do not underestimate them.

Don’t burn bridges if you absolutely don’t have to.

It is all about math. Everything is about math.

My current project is putting together a stable of sewing machine operators who are competent to produce our products, organizing their workflow, and managing them all. This feels just like all the other mountains I have climbed, but this time I know what the climb feels like so while it’s hard and some days I have wished I had a wet bar in my office, or I want to crawl back into that bathtub I used to hide in, I look back on what I have accomplished, what I have been through, what I have survived, and I know I can do it.

It’s not that I think I am better than anyone else, because I don’t. It’s that experience has taught me if I just keep plodding forward, if I keep showing up, if I listen to advice from people who know more than me, and ignore all the naysayers, eventually I’ll break through, and then, well, I’ll find myself some new goals. There’s always something to work on.

I’ve decided the best personality combination to be successful is to have a tough skin, a steel spine, an unlimited supply of gumption, an always-returning optimism, and most of all, an utter lack of hubris. Arrogance is not an acceptable substitute for confidence. (But don’t be afraid to be confident!)

Be brave. Be humble.

It is hardly glamorous, but it is hugely rewarding to ship out a product that I personally oversaw or finished. I go home covered in thread and lint, sweaty, dirty and exhausted, sometimes frustrated but always and finally, in control.

Maintain control. You are responsible, so don’t lose your power. You’re going to need it.

When I hear back from a crop of customers that they don’t like something about what I am shipping, I can immediately change it. I no longer have to wait days or weeks for changes.

Sewing in-house means I am nimble again.

I am moving toward only carrying the bare minimum inventory, sewing just ahead of the orders. I am pretty good at picking winners and knowing what my customers will like, but sometimes there are surprises. My customers are notorious for asking for things they won’t actually buy. I have learned not to listen to what they say, but to what they order.

So, I sew to order.

Never again will I have a bloated warehouse tying up all my cash in excess inventory.

When I get my shop humming, then I will finally get to ship all the other things I have been dreaming of, the things that are listed on our original business plan, and others that have occurred to me since, and I’ll be right there, overseeing it all.

Never again will I pace helplessly wondering when I will have promised products in my hands. If I have to, I can work all day and then go in after hours, when all the other offices around are dark and all I hear are crickets outside, and I can make the orders myself.

My future is literally now in my own hands, right where it needs to be.

Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.1
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.2
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.3
Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.4

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