Everything I wish I’d known when I started pt.2

Yippee, here’s part two of Annie’s lessons learned in continuation of yesterday’s entry. Speaking of lessons learned, Annie was a bit chagrined that people were looking forward to learning what those were when she did mention some of them yesterday. She wrote me saying “This time I have pulled out in italics the lessons I learned — or at least some of them. That way it will be more obvious to people What I Wish I’d Known!” Without further ado, here’s Annie:

Chapter 2: Finding a Sewing Contractor (or, How I Nearly Went Broke Before I Even Got Started)

If you pay attention, people are willing to educate you. If you don’t listen, they will stop trying.

That is the lesson from Chapter 1. The more you pay attention, the more you will learn. The school of hard knocks will teach you as much as you are willing to learn, and oh, I had much more to learn.

I read the book. I read it over and over and over until it started to make sense. I took it to bed. I read it in the tub. I took it on vacation. At first it was almost incomprehensible to me, but I had the sense to know that it contained information I needed.

I have since realized that this sense of Slogging Through The Hard Stuff is probably one of those secrets to success everyone wants.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. The harder it is to accomplish, the rarer and sweeter success will be.

In those early days I placed sourcing phone calls with The Book in my lap, telling me exactly how and what to say, to ask for what kind of supplies without sounding like a total newbie. This makes me laugh a little now, but I did this for a long time!

I placed orders for the basic supplies of my product, with large sums of money required up front for long lead times to receive this fabric from overseas. It had to be made, then we had to wait for the boat and blah blah blah. Later I would be told my order had been short and I’d have to wait yet longer. I did some homework and found out I wasn’t shorted, but that my fabric was being diverted to a more preferred customer, called my source back and confronted him about this. He backpedaled and agreed to send me at least some of what I needed on time.

Be nice but don’t be a pushover.

I knew what had happened because I was making contacts in the niche I work and had witnessed someone magically able to get these supplies so quickly – and in the same quantity I had been told I couldn’t have!

The lesson here is to make friends in your niche. However –

This is hard to do, especially because it can be catty, competitive and most of all, time consuming. Honestly, most of the time I keep my head down, mind my own business and work. It could be a full time job to keep up with the relationships and ensuing drama of knowing Everyone and I just can’t do it. But, it’s always helpful to know people, and the more people you know, the more helpful it is. Just balance it with actually keeping your eyes on your work.

Also, watch your back. Don’t be paranoid but don’t be careless. Everyone has a motive. Make sure you know what everyone’s is.

I spent lots of time overwhelmed by the seemingly closed world of the rag trade, and my inability to find the needles in the haystacks I needed. I spent more than one afternoon reaching overload, filling the bathtub with water, climbing in, slipping down and and holding myself underwater, watching the air bubbles wiggle their way to the surface.

Find ways to cope with the stress.

I also took some bad streets. I found a local patternmaker, she called herself, who charged me a breathtaking fortune. She promised to make my pattern “professional,” find all the sources I needed, and get it all made for me! It sounded great!

Of course, she took forever, her “pattern” was a joke, her sewing was laughable and her sourcing was ridiculous. She found me online fabric sources that charged well over retail, not the much-needed wholesale prices I needed. I’d already done a better job sourcing than she.

She also came back from her top-secret sewing contractor contacts with breathtakingly high prices and wanted me to make my products through her without ever disclosing to me where they were actually being made. (Note: you are liable for where your products are made, whether or not you know where that is.) She also wanted me to sign a paper saying she was entitled to some ridiculous sum like 25% of all my future production profits.

This is not only laughable, it’s downright criminal. At the time, she was preying on my insecurities and my total lack of knowledge about the business, besides what I’d so far eked from Kathleen’s book.

The most amazing thing is that this swindler was shocked and outraged when I fired her. I should have sued her for the money I’d already given her. I did tell her she owed me a refund but I decided to move on, calling it an expensive lesson.

You can’t buy your way out of learning or work. And don’t let anyone stand between you and information.

I then found a local sewing contractor who told me he would make my stuff for me, and then strung me along until I finally got fed up and fired him and collected all my stuff. I was small fry and he kept bumping me for larger jobs. I have no idea why he couldn’t be honest with me and just tell me he didn’t have the time or desire to work with me, but I have since found out that he’s done this to other people too.

This business is very small and people talk. Your reputation will follow you around, so behave yourself.

All this time, the sum that had been invested in my company was dwindling, with nothing to show for it. I tried not to panic, but truthfully I very nearly ran out of money before I got started.

I shared what was going on with the mentor DE who had offered me the filing cabinet. She shared her sewing contractor with me. They were kind of expensive, but their sewing was amazing compared to all the other samples I’d received. Their story was a perfect fit. Made in the USA. Fairly paid US workers. Woman-owned business. A success story in their own right. And they wanted to sew for me.

So, I placed my first order, sent them all the supplies, and waited.

By the way, do not underestimate your responsibility to make all this happen. No one can sew your stuff if they don’t have all the materials. They are not magicians. Many contractors won’t even put you on their schedule until they have everything they need. I’m sure they have learned the hard way not to count on us flaky artistic types to make sure everything gets there on time.

Now that we are rolling out fabric on our own cutting tables, I am even more sympathetic to the need to have enough supplies on hand to complete the job. Just because a roll of fabric lasts forever in the corner of your closet as you make one-offs doesn’t mean it will when you are making 100 of something. Do the math, plan ahead, order in time. This applies whether you are sewing in house or out of house.

But, I digress.

So I waited. Then one beautiful day, UPS dropped a box on my porch.

When I opened that first box, music played, angelic choirs sang, and it was like the best Christmas ever. There, lined and stacked up, perfectly the same, as if made by Santa’s elves, was my product. It was bagged, tagged and ready to ship, and I’d gotten a full night’s sleep the night before! I’d found the promised land.

I took pictures, put them up online for sale, and the sales started rolling in. I started shipping orders.

Then I got an email from a customer with a photo of my product, not surviving its first trip through the washing machine. Then I got five more emails just like this.

I felt a sickening helpless dread, as my inbox chimed from a cascade of photo emails, all documenting the same product defect. I’d done so much legwork. So much work! And now a sewing error I would never have personally made was literally unraveling my dream and I felt stuck between my customer and the contractor who had made the mistake.

Fortunately I called my friend who had given me the contractor’s name who advised me to take back the products, make no announcements, make the contractor fix them all, apologize to the customers individually, and most of all, NOT TO PANIC. She said this kind of thing happens all the time and to r.e.l.a.x.

It’s not if crap happens, it’s when. Crap always happens. Learn how to manage problems.

Psychologists say that one of the most stressful things a person can endure is to be responsible for something over which they have no control. I would say that is the perfect description of using a sewing contractor and it’s the worst part. You think all your problems are solved, but you are just trading one set of problems for another, and this time you are in the passenger seat.

Your contractor ships late? Your customers don’t care about your excuses. They want their product. It’s YOUR fault. Your contractor does crappy work? Your customers will hold YOU accountable. And what can you do? The buck stops with you. It has to. You have to accept that you are responsible. I have spent more time growing ulcers and pacing the floor and applying pressure to my sewing contractor, and negotiating that relationship than I have done anything else.

Well that, and fixing products that they didn’t quite manage to make correctly.

The other thing about using a sewing contractor is that you are putting a huge layer of bodies between you and new creative efforts. I had a list a mile long of associated products I wanted to make as soon as I got my flagship product launched. They all went with the product, they all fit into my niche, they all worked in my brand. The problem is, I could barely make a tiny change in my pattern without a huge rigmarole. Everything took forever, and was days back and forth in sending new patterns, sketches, specs, samples. I threw up my hands. I have been able to introduce new products, but everything was an almost insurmountable chore, and literally took months. If you hate bureaucracy, sewing contractors will not liberate you. They will sink you.

The biggest problem I had with my sewing contractor, besides arguing over quality, was their inability to ship me enough product to meet demand. I know this sounds like the best problem ever, and it is, but yet, I helplessly watched as my product got knocked off as I could not make changes fast enough or stock my store fast enough. I deliberately did not attend any trade shows because I couldn’t even meet my online retail demand. How on earth would I ship large orders? Getting my contractor to take me seriously took a long time, and very seriously affected the health of my business. I am certain my story would be very different if I had set up shop in house from the beginning. I try not to dwell on it because there is not a thing I can do about it, except do it right the second time.

Going this route also created other problems for me: later I was able to get my sewing contractor to produce, but they would also ship more than I ordered and charge me for it. I’d hired someone to oversee the tedious task of managing production (keeping track of inputs, picking design details, cracking the whip over the sewing contractor, etc.) and she was motivated by her desire to bill hours of labor and keep production going, whether we needed it that week or not. My employees created a closed circle around themselves and started keeping me out of the loop, all in an effort to protect their own jobs during cycles of time when less production was needed and I was trying to reign in the spending. I had a bloated overpaid staff and a warehouse full of excess inventory I’d had to pay for, and my cash reserves were quickly draining away.

No one cares about your business more than you do, and no one is more qualified to run your business than you are.

Finally, it all boiled down to money. By using a sewing contractor, I was paying her overhead and mine, and I could no longer afford to do so. I needed to take back control of everything, and I needed to turn my business back into the small, nimble niche-serving boutique that had made me successful. The world had changed and I needed to adapt or die. We ran the numbers all kinds of ways, and I realized I needed to do what I should have done from the beginning: set up shop at home.

Lesson summary:

  • If you pay attention, people are willing to educate you. If you don’t listen, they will stop trying.
  • If it was easy, everyone would do it. The harder it is to accomplish, the rarer and sweeter success will be.
  • Be nice but don’t be a pushover.
  • The lesson here is to make friends in your niche. However –
  • Also, watch your back. Don’t be paranoid but don’t be careless. Everyone has a motive. Make sure you know what everyone’s is.
  • Find ways to cope with the stress.
  • You can’t buy your way out of learning or work. And don’t let anyone stand between you and information.
  • This business is very small and people talk. Your reputation will follow you around, so behave yourself.
  • It’s not if crap happens, it’s when. Crap always happens. Learn how to manage problems.
  • No one cares about your business more than you do, and no one is more qualified to run your business than you are.

Related:
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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