Yep, you read right – Nina Lee Patterns has just turned six years old! Technically the anniversary was last week, but I was hit by a nasty case of sinusitis that left me in no fit state to celebrate/write coherent blog posts.
Of course, six years feels simultaneously about six minutes and six decades ago. I have spent those years having an intense love-hate relationship with running a small business. Last year I co-founded another one, and this year I am aiming to significantly expand this one, so it seemed like a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned, what I would (will) do differently, and what I would say to anyone else just setting out.
First up, you do not need a lot of anything to start a business.
Not a lot of money, not a lot of expertise, not a lot of followers.
I started my business with an old laptop, from my dining table. I now run my business with a newer laptop, from a different (but still my own) dining table. My product photos have all been taken by me, inside my home, using an entry-level DSLR or my phone. I built my first website on Wordpress after learning some very basic HTML and CSS so because I couldn’t afford a web designer and was nervous about committing to a service like Shopify. Sure, I don’t have the slickest branding, the most gorgeous photos or, let’s be honest, the world’s most successful sewing pattern company ;) but I do have a nimble little business that I can scale up and down as needs be. I’m not saying don’t invest in all those things, I’m just saying you don’t have to.
You get by with a lot of help from your friends.
Ok, so I said you don’t need a lot of anything. But that’s not entirely true – because even a one-person business needs a good support network. Right at the start, I had some brilliant sewing friends who championed Nina Lee – people like Megan (Pigeon Wishes) and Gabby (Gabberdashery) – and brilliant non-sewing pals who offered to pack patterns, take photos, even man my stand at fairs. So – don’t be afraid to ask those around you for help. And if mentoring, expert advice or an in-depth understanding of spreadsheets is offered, grab it with both grateful hands!
Sewing friends (Eleanor, Megan and Gabby) at the Great British Sewing Bee Live event in September 2017
Insecurity is your biggest obstacle.
Putting yourself and your work out into the world is not easy. And if you have any self-doubt at all (which, as I’m assuming you’re normal, you will), every time you try something new, or release something new, your worst critic will be ready and waiting – right there inside your head.
Honestly, I haven’t learned much on this front. I still feel consumed by fear and self-doubt ALL THE TIME. But what I’ve learned is that that is normal. To accept that it’s part of the process. To know that I can achieve things in spite of myself.
And here’s a tip I use for dealing with negative thoughts: say them out loud, and imagine you’re saying them to a close friend about their work/personality/lifestyle. Do the thoughts still sound reasonable? Helpful? Respectful? Or do they in fact sound like unhinged rantings? Thought so.
You can’t sell without, well, selling.
It’s not enough to make good products and then just wait for people to stumble across them. You have to promote them. This is absolutely not my strength, but fortunately there’s an abundance of people and tools out there to assist or even do it for you. And don’t think of it as selling; think of it as sharing your enthusiasm!
It took me a long time to learn this one. I struggled for quite some time with the sense that because I was selling at all hours of the day, all around the world, I should in turn be available at all hours to anyone anywhere in the world. I constantly checked my emails, Instagram and Facebook. Unsurprisingly, this did not feel great.
When you email a company with a query or a complaint, do you expect a response within the hour? No – so why would anyone expect that from you? Reality is, they don’t. Nowadays, especially on Instagram, where a person can see if you’ve read their DM, I deliberately don’t open messages unless I’m working and in a position to respond. Setting boundaries doesn’t harm anyone, but not setting them sure as anything will harm you.
Be proud of yourself.
It’s all too easy to overlook your successes when you’re working for yourself. After all, you’re too busy adding things to the to-do list to stop and see how much you’ve ticked off. But even if it’s just taking the afternoon off, buying yourself a treat or telling your friends and family what you’ve achieved, mark those wins (big and small). It’s the best way to stay motivated.
Throwing a party to celebrate the launch of the Kew Dress.
I want to thank you, because if you’re reading this then in some way you have supported my business over the last few years, even if it’s just by visiting this blog today! I wouldn’t be where I am today without the willingness of people to take a punt on a new brand, to give kind feedback, and to support small businesses like mine.