Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.1

The inspiration for this guest entry series comes from a DE I’ve had the pleasure to work with a few years. She started like nearly everyone else and grew her business into a wildly popular product line with rabid fans. Her product is a utility sewn product that is the farthest thing from “fashion” you could imagine but she’s managed to position her product to become a collectible and universally coveted item.

Here’s the spoiler to the whole series that she wants to share with you: After building economies of scale and using sewing contractors for production, she’s gone in the opposite direction to take sewing back in house. Not only that, she’s producing much smaller lots than ever before. She’s inspired to write this because I’ve been telling you this is the direction to go. Too many of you think you need to emulate the biggest players with the largest lots you can order, passing it all off to contractors but the opposite is true. If “Annie’s” story won’t convince you, nothing will.
I laughed and laughed and laughed when Kathleen suggested I write everything I wish I’d known when I started. “That would be an entire novel, Kathleen.” And oh, how I wished I’d had that novel in-hands five years ago.

I remember when I got started, I sent one of Those Emails. You know the ones, where you get up the guts to email someone you admire in the business and ask them for their advice? I don’t recall what I wrote but this is the kind of email I get these days:

Dear You, I really want to make some extra money. I’m thinking about maybe doing my own business too, maybe selling ______ [insert some totally oversaturated and overdone home crafty product here]. What did you do to make your business such a success?

I’ve gotten them myself and I can tell instantly if this person is going places or not. If they are asking me to point them to the Easy Button To Loads Of Cash, I know they won’t even get off the ground. If, however, their questions reflect work, thought and homework already done, I know they may have a chance. Of course the first thing I do is ask them if they have read The Book and point them to it. Then I encourage them to get back to me after they read it.

I’ve never heard back from anyone. Really! Do I make it look that easy? I doubt it. What I really think is people are either entrepreneurs or they aren’t, and there just isn’t any way to teach that. It’s inside you. Most people just want an Easy Button.

Back to The Email I sent. I did get a reply, and she said to me, “You are exactly like me two years ago. I have conflicting feelings. Part of me wants to tell you, ‘Don’t do it!’ and the other part of me wants to give you a filing cabinet.” Now I know exactly what she means.

I started out like so many of us. Sewing as a child. Making up designs. Creating my own prom dresses. Copying vintage styles. Dabbling in all kinds of fiber arts as the circumstances of my life allowed and didn’t allow large dining-room-table-consuming sewing projects. (Knitting just fits in a basket, don’t you know.)

I also started out running a business out of my cubby in the second grade. The teacher couldn’t get me to stop until she brought in the principal who very seriously informed me that I was not allowed to run a business without a license or the police would have to be involved. Nothing less deterred me, even at age 8.

I had a string of little businesses after that, none of them failures, but all of them outgrown by me or not taken to the next level due to other goals taking precedence.

Then five years ago, the bug bit me again. I saw a niche. I saw an opportunity. And I jumped. Pretty soon I was staying up all night sewing on my home machines. I knew I needed industrial machines. I had the money for industrial machines. However, I didn’t have an extra inch anywhere in my tiny house for even the footprint of a single industrial table. I measured. I really didn’t.

I sent The Email. I got that reply. I was encouraged. I found The Book. I can’t remember how I found Kathleen. I think I just kept doggedly googling until I found her. I couldn’t get the paypal checkout to work, so I called the number and Kathleen answered.

She spent over an hour on the phone with me.

I would say the biggest secret or the closest thing to one in this business, is that people are willing to educate you if you are willing to listen to them. I’m sure my story is an example of both Listening and Not Listening, but all the listening I did always paid off.

Because of my living circumstances, and because I had four young children, including an infant, I decided to go the Find A Sewing Contractor Route in my path toward Sewn Product Manufacturing, rather than the Set Up Your Own Shop in my pursuit of Design Entrepreneurship Success. I was over sewing. I was over staying up all night. Quite honestly I found making my flagship product nerve wracking. I was confident in my design and its abilities to go places. I just wanted someone else to make it.

Besides that, the Sewing Contractor route seemed hard enough. The Build-Your-Own-Shop looked like Everest, and I was tired.

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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  1. Kathy Jo says:

    That’s it for today, come on I am on the edge of my seat, what did you learn? I have the strangest feeling that your story is going to be an aha, I am willing and wanting to listen.

  2. Theresa in Tucson says:

    I am so looking forward to the next installment. I am home sewer with no pretensions of going “pro” but I really appreciate hearing your story and I can relate to the need to create. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Lisa Armstrong says:

    I am actually doing this now. I just purchased another industrial serger and am working on buying a buttonholer. I am doing all of the sewing myself, until I can find someone who can use an industrial machine. I don’t care what it takes, I am determined to make this work for me!

  4. Kathleen says:

    Kathy, I am waiting for the rest too! I published all she gave me. Annie is a tease -or if this gig falls through for her, she could write suspense novels. heh.

  5. Allen says:

    I hate repeating what everyone else has said but this is a really good article for any effort, not just sewing.

    When folks go looking for advice they take it. A few times people where disapointed when they got the truth, not just the answer they where looking for. It can be an odd feeling. To be caught between “I’m not giving up on my ideas” and “What if they are right?”

    One good quote a friend said was “Run your business like a Fortune 500 externally but as a startup internallly” That lets customers see a solid reliable company running on reports not post it notes yet be free& able to learn, change and do new niche market ideas like a start up on the insdie.

  6. Karen Judge says:

    I know of a few small(ish) manufacturers in my segment (intimate apparel) who have their sampling/production done in-house and it gives them such flexibility. For me, the biggest challenge I find is in finding the sewing operators. Managing them would also be tricky as I myself am not a good sewer. Because of this, partnering with the factory I currently work with provides huge value.

  7. Donna Wentt says:

    I just had to comment. This is my life story so far! (except I have 6 kids). I can’t believe this! This is so awesome. I use to think I was the only one out here going through this. This website is a God-send! Thank you, thank you. Please send part 2 soon.
    ps Haven’t been on the site too long. Found it by doodling around on the internet, too. I have to get the book!

  8. Susan says:

    Wow, this is so timely! I have bought The Book and am devouring it. My daughter and I are starting a women’s apparel business, are doing everything ourselves. We want to be smart, want to use our knowledge of sewing (considerable), our entrepreneurial experience (wide-ranging, sometimes successful, sometimes horrid), our energy and stamina (we’re dogged!) to make a go of it. We have been working on designs and samples, have a couple of outlets set up, are awaiting our first shipment of fabric from a jobber (not enough space for 100+ yard rolls of fabric just yet!).

  9. Marci says:

    This is so me right now! I have found a niche and a sewing contractor(s) and have considered sewing myself but it looks like Mt. Everest every time I think of taking it in on my own although because I am very much a penny saved is one spent somewhere else, on things I can’t do, I would rather start out on my own but …. Anyway I have to read part 2. I need this now!!!

  10. Marci says:

    I must say that I am a very cautious person (border line paranoid) about people and their intentions so I have avoided some of this but I was wondering how you handled the knock of situation. I still feel at this point my product seems like Mt. Everest to me. I have a patternmkr/sew contractor that I have left (possibly temporarily) who’s finished product was polished and hanger ready. Pricing was my issue even after trying to negotiate. I have found another sewing contractor that has his own line in addition to manufacturering. I have seen the work it is good but i was concerned about copying. What did you do? If anything!I feel like I do more research and back work than results I see, so I am not afraid of work and am a good listener. So overly cautious most of the time I get paralyzed thinking about what could happen.

    And though you may have made these mistakes so have millionares. Because the more you get lost the more routes/knowledge you acquire to find you way back. Thanks for any reply!!

  11. Kathleen says:

    I was wondering how you handled the knock of situation.

    The hint is the rest of that sentence: “I helplessly watched as my product got knocked off as I could not make changes fast enough or stock my store fast enough“. Iow, knock offs are inevitable. That’s life. If the fear of knock offs keep you from moving forward, well, you’ll never move forward. You handle it by innovating and doing something new.

    I have found another sewing contractor that has his own line in addition to manufacturering. I have seen the work it is good but i was concerned about copying.

    Personally, I wouldn’t use a contractor who competed with me in the same space because they have the internal infrastructure to sell whatever they produce. Most contractors don’t which is why they’re safe.

  12. Marci says:

    Thank you so much for the advice. It is actually a close family member of the manufacturer that works there for the meantime to help him out and though we sell in 2 different catergories that could always change if they saw opport. was my thought. Thank you again!!

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