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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  1. Kathy Jo says:


    Thank you so much for writing about your experience, the lessons you’ve learned are definitely helpful to those of us that are learning these same lessons or have yet to get to that point. More than anything you have made me realize that I am not alone and yes my story is quite ordinary too and that is probably the best lesson I’ve learned thus far. Somehow it seems easier to continue on when you feel you are not alone. Thank you for all of your insight.

  2. Thanks! This is so much my story with a different ending (I’m not doing production any more, but I’ve made plenty of mistakes and I have the debt to prove it). Here’s one thing you said that I need to tatoo where I can see it:

    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

    I fight continually to stay true to my vision while listening to what others say. Too often I take throw-away comments to heart and think I’d better make changes. What a good way you expressed it! As they say, money talks!

    I’ve also learned that those who lament that I’m now producing in Bali are first to line up to buy at my lower prices. For me it’s win/win as I’m providing jobs for women here whom I’ve gotten to know (I’m in Bali now), income for my reps, and revenue for my stores, and, finally, the prospect of income for my family.

    Whatever path we take, you are so right about being in control and seeing it as a business when tough decisions need to be made. My husband is good at this, I always waffle when I might hurt someone’s feelings.

    Thanks again.


  3. SteveQ says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting on the sizing rant. I was making a rapid, only half-serious statement, rather than something deserving of serious consideration. I’m glad I came here, though, as the advice on starting one’s own business is extremely valuable, as I’m planning on doing just that (but different industry).

  4. Sara says:

    Fantastic articles, absolutely inspiring and simply stated. After reading The Book I have lent it out to all my aspiring DE friends (and have yet to get it back…holiday gifts?) and we all say the same thing: Crap. Because yes, it is a lot of work. And yes, we all have a lot to learn. But it is always good to know we are not alone in this adventure. Thank you so much for sharing your story!

  5. Kathleen says:

    The point I constantly stress (as Marguerite also mentioned) is this

    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

    It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I say this, DEs don’t really process it until they pay the costs of not having heard it. Meaning, they end up with inventory their customers said they wanted but did not buy. That’s just another reason why I think focus groups are close to useless; both points I make in my book ad nauseum. Money is the only thing that talks that is worth listening to when it comes to style development.

    The biggest problem we had at the very first manufacturing boot camp I did in the late 90’s was related to this. We set up product reviews (like Refine My Line) but without fail, the designers in the audience felt compelled to “defend” their colleague being critiqued by saying “I’d buy that”. The result being, that designer felt validated and nothing we said mattered -hey, there were “buyers” in the audience who said it was great so what did we know? The only way I could put an end to it was by opening the product review sessions by saying that anyone who said “I’d buy that” was going to have to fill out a purchase order with their credit card number or write a check. Being forced to back up their words with money on the spot was the only thing that ended it.

  6. Dawn says:

    “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”

    Hear, hear! So true. When I first started out on the F-I forum, I was very interested in the idea of crowd sourcing, of using social media to have customers help pick design direction.

    “I am pretty good at picking winners and knowing what my customers will like”

    I was really nervous about this, so I relied on internet surveys of *potential* customers. Kathleen was clear this was a bad idea. I didn’t believe her. Maybe it does work for some tee-shirt slogan companies. But the thing I didn’t understand is that they aren’t really customers until they open their wallet. What people like as an idea is not necessary what they want to buy!

    What I came to find out is that this “knowing” can be developed over time — if you are doing very small production runs that you control. Then you can see exactly what sells and move in that direction nimbly.

    More power to you Annie. You go girl.

  7. sfriedberg says:

    My day job is in a completely different industry, and we just ran into an example of this. A really big customer (RBG) has been telling us lots about what they would like to see, but their purchasing managers are actually signing checks for a rather different product mix.

  8. Miracle says:

    just another reason why I think focus groups are close to useles

    As are the opinions of most people you know, especially if you’re related to them.

  9. Paul V says:

    Since you have brought the sewing in-house, do you find that less crap happens? Can you tell us what the failure was when the item was washed the first time? Would washing the sample that the contractor produced have indicated the failure prior to making the products that customers received?
    Your experience shows exactly why things should be done in-house where you have control over what happens. Sewing/production to order makes so much sense that I am surprised more manufacturers aren’t doing it. At one time, automobile production was done this way too.

  10. Samantha Terry says:

    Really great read, Annie, thanks for sharing your experiences with us! I am going through some similar things now, trying to change our production process to have more in house control over the quality, quantity, and timeliness of our products. As arduous as your journey has been, it is encouraging to read and see you forge your way through to success. Kudos and Best Wishes.

  11. Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin says:

    What kind of product do you manufacture? Do you have to worry about seasonal cycles? More specifically, do you have seasonal slow periods where your production staff works reduced hours combined with busy seasons where everyone does overtime?

    Before going to school for fashion, I worked in machine shops and data factories that often went through boom/bust according to the contracts they received; I’m just wondering how it ends up working for a sewn-product design/manufacturing company.

  12. Kathleen says:

    Seth, Annie can’t answer these questions in public. I think your questions point to load leveling and job balancing. It’s better to take for granted that this is something that most of us have to deal with being the nature of the business.

    The only way to prevent boom and bust is to control the number of orders that one will accept. This is something that a lot of new people don’t understand. Just because someone places an order doesn’t mean you will or should fill it. There’s a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t. Again, this is discussed in my book -which Annie recommends everyone should read. I’ve also written about it on this site but off hand don’t know which entries those may be.

  13. Gabrielle says:

    I understand that in Economics this gap between what people say they’ll buy and what they actually will buy would be referred to the difference between Stated Preference and Revealed Preference (eg revealed via purchases). I’m a predictive analyst and when we try to model likely future behaviours we always use past behaviours rather than surveys or what people SAY they’ll do… the statements of intent are just not predictive!

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