Feeling like a #girlboss

Just like I didn’t appreciate how American I was until I spent time living abroad, and just like I didn’t realize how Midwestern I was until I moved to the east coast, I didn’t realize how female I was until I started my own business in a male-dominated field. I became acutely aware of this while listening to the 5th episode of the Pancake Town podcast from Chicago business owners Emily and Michelle about their distaste for the word “girlboss” in particular and for women-focused business support groups in general because those things are, or at least represent, a lifeline for me.

I didn’t always feel like I needed to be a part of women’s groups. Industrial design is a male dominated profession (although that’s certainly changing) and I always liked working with the guys. In my mid-twenties, I was the Chair of the Chicago Chapter of the Industrial Designer Society of America (IDSA). At the annual meeting, where the Chapter Chairs from across the country got together, I got chummy with a woman of a similar age who ran the Atlanta Chapter. At one point during the meeting, a woman in her 60’s got up to speak about her Women in Industrial Design initiative. My new friend rolled her eyes and muttered to me, “I hate stuff like this. It makes it seem like women designers need special help or attention. We’re beyond that now.” I agreed with her. Even if women made up just 20% of the profession, in my personal experience, I felt respected and my input valued. I recall feeling a touch of embarrassment that this woman was talking about how women needed additional support. Why do we have to be women designers? Why can’t we just be designers?

Going from woman designer at a design agency to woman entrepreneur in the bike industry was a big adjustment because never before had I felt so acutely that I was living in a man’s world. I came from a place where women were the minority but welcomed, even if only because women do most of the shopping and as a woman designer you were expected to intuitively know what women would buy more than a man would. Then I went to the bike world where women were either a) ignored, or b) objectified. Definitely not respected.*

Interbike

Photo from some dude’s blog post about his trip to Interbike in 2009, also my first time there.

I recall walking through my first Interbike trade show, stunned that women were more likely to be wearing bikinis and handing out samples of energy bars than they were to be conducting business. Stunned at how many dick jokes and lewd comments about women’s bodies I overheard. Mind you, these comments were not made in hushed tones and they weren’t glancing around to make sure they weren’t being caught by someone like me, like guys normally do at bars or whatever. No, these comments were made in public, in normal conversation voice, and accompanied by pointing and/or gestures. Probably did not help that the show took place in Vegas, but also probably explained why it was there. Needless to say, it was rather shocking.

Yet rather than send me screaming, it only reaffirmed to me how important the idea of Po Campo was. How could we count on these dudes to design things for me and people like me? They clearly had no interest in what I needed or cared about, which is the very first thing you usually (and ought to) think about when designing products for someone. I felt like I had a calling, to build a company creating things for women who love to use their bike to get around.

And you better believe that I go to women business groups for support in doing that.

Why I love women’s business groups

First, it helps to be around women who understand what you’re trying to make and encourage you to keep doing it. Because it can be discouraging to continually hear that your market is too small and that you should design things for men instead.

Second, it’s nice to talk about building companies that do more than just make millions. Men, whether they’re actually this superficial or not, tend to talk about success as a fleet of expensive cars and a big paycheck, proudly sharing tales of whom they stepped on or over to get there. I’m interested in building a company that supports its employees, honors work/life balance, and uses its success to help others by partnering with organizations like World Bicycle Relief. Say this kind of stuff to a man in chest-beating entrepreneur-mode and they sneer at you like you’re clueless to how the world really works.

Third, women’s groups typically offer an environment where you can be honest about your insecurities. Sometimes you need help navigating the periods when your confidence falters without being looked down upon. Men, especially in entrepreneur-mode, see this as a sign of weakness and look at you like chum in the water if you publicly confess that your sales are below forecast, or if you have doubts about whether you should continue. Women tend to treat it as a naturally occurring phenomenon and help you work past it.

In the podcast, Emily wondered why men weren’t welcome in these groups. I agree that some men are great and could, in theory, be a wonderful addition to a group’s conversation. But, honestly, most men wouldn’t be. Something about the topic of business, and growing a business, seems to turn on the testosterone valve with guys. They suck the air out of the room, dominating the conversation and talking over people. No thanks.

Why I’m okay with being a #girlboss

I read Sophia Amaruso’s book #Girlboss back in 2014 and even wrote a book review of it. I don’t like the term “girlboss” because of the “girl” part, which, as a 40-year old woman, doesn’t feel like it applies to me. But, as I wrote in my review, this isn’t a business book for people like me. It’s a book for younger women and girls who need a role model of a successful female entrepreneur who built a business on her own terms.

When I had the idea for Po Campo, I just jumped in. I didn’t ask for much advice because the challenge of figuring it out for myself really appealed to me. It wasn’t until I had several (costly) setbacks that I realized that the learning curve was awfully steep and that I could benefit from learning from someone else’s experience. It took awhile of sifting through business books and attending networking groups to find the right people who would help me build my business on my own terms. Because the established mental-model of entrepreneur success, with the 70+ hour work weeks and fancy cars and sleek offices is not my aspiration.

If nothing else, to me the term #girlboss gives young women the permission to be bold and start her business on her terms. To determine what her own success criteria is and abide by it. And that’s why I give some of my @po_campo Instagram photos the #girlboss hashtag – because I’m proud of myself when I’m doing just that.

*For all my bike industry friends reading this who are thinking, “It’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad,” let me say that I agree that there has been some improvement over the last eight years. There is now a lot more attention placed on the inequities and sexism in the bike industry and concrete moves to fix it. But, stuff like this keeps happening:

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The Joy & Sorrow of Outsourcing

This morning, I read an article in the NY Times titled “To Understand Rising Inequality, Consider the Janitors at Two Top Companies, Then and Now“. The article compares the story of Gail Evans, who worked as a janitor at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY in the 1980’s and Marta Ramos, who currently works as a janitor at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino. Ms. Evans was an employee of Kodak and received full benefits, including help with college tuition, and she took classes at night. Upon graduating, she was promoted to a professional-track job in information technology and now has an executive position at Mercer.

Ms. Ramos works for the company that was hired to clean Apple’s offices. She makes a little over $16 an hour with no vacation pay and no help with college tuition. She may get small raises every year, but the likelihood of her moving from an outsourced janitor position to a professional-track job at Apple is pretty much nonexistent.

Ms. Evan’s experience at Eastman Kodak reads like the classic American story where you, by working hard, can rise through the ranks into middle class – and beyond. Part of that story that is often left out is that you need an employer to support you on that journey. With companies outsourcing so much of their labor, essentially anything deemed nonessential, the support system is lost.

It’s easy to sympathize with Ms. Ramos’ situation and it helps me understand the desire to “Make America Great Again”. Working hard and still struggling to make ends meet is a hard existence, but easier to withstand if you know you’re on a path that will eventually lead out of it. Yet, I am also sympathetic to the companies who decide to outsource so much of their labor because I have done that myself.

First let me say that I think that there is far too much emphasis on short term results to please stockholders.

Second let me say that I think CEO’s, venture capitalists, many people in tech, etc make way more money than they need. Yes, it’s a way to lure talent but seriously? This guy pays over $20,000 in rent per month for his apartment. It appears to just instill a superiority complex in people who aren’t superior.

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Back to my outsourcing story. I used to have employees but I let them go in 2015 to give me the space to focus on what was working for the company, and what wasn’t. Going from a 3-person company to a 1-person company meant that I had to eliminate, automate, or outsource a lot of things. Currently, this is what I have outsourced:

  • Manufacturing of my product
  • Overseeing the manufacturing of my product, including sourcing materials and finding new vendors
  • Warehousing and order fulfillment
  • Customer service
  • Product photography

Some of these things I didn’t know how to do. Some things I thought someone else could do better. Some things I thought someone else could do for less money. Once I started outsourcing, I became kind of addicted to it. It just seemed to make life so much easier.

I no longer had to “mind the shop” and could travel as much as a I pleased. I could take a weekday off and make it up on the weekend because I didn’t feel the pressure to set an example for anyone. The biweekly stress of having to make payroll was gone. I had less rent, and fewer expenses related to it. Besides the freedom of not having employees, I was free to focus on making Po Campo grow. In theory.

Common business wisdom tells us that companies grow when they can focus on what they’re best at, and do more of that. Yet, for me, my company has not really grown since outsourcing. Either I am doing outsourcing wrong and it has not liberated me to focus on growing the company. Or, my employees were contributing more to the company’s growth than I was accounting for.

I expect the answer is a mix of the two. While it is nice to feel liberated from a lot of the humdrum of running a business, and a lot of the stress of managing human resources, I also find myself obsessed with optimizing the outsourcing rather than moving onto to other things. Also, before, when I had employees, I had a team.

Which makes me wonder: do Apple and its employees lose out on something intangible by having its lower-end jobs outsourced to another company? Or is it true that in this world, the lowest price always wins? I hope it’s the former, but it sure feels like the latter a lot of the time. One of my mottos is “Beware of the high cost of saving money” and I feel like that could ring true with outsourcing too.

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Is cutting out the middleman a good idea?

I often hear small brands boast being able to offer better quality products at lower prices by “cutting out the middleman”.  The middleman they’re referring to is retailers, and they often follow up this statement with comparing themselves to brands like Warby Parker and Everlane who have had great success doing just that. But do we really want to run retailers out of business?

Independent retailers were traditionally where indie brands got their start. When we refer to desirable neighborhoods as being full of cute and cool shops, these are the places we are referring to. They’re stores founded and run by a passionate shopkeeper who curates a collection of merchandise to delight her customers. These are stores with only a handful of employees, and every employee knows the story behind every product and brand, and they’re only too happy to spread the word to everyone who comes in the store. And these are the “middlemen” that will go out of business if the new brands with compelling stories decide that they don’t need them.

I, for one, do not want to live in a world where there are no cute shops. I do not want my only options for in-person shopping to be Target or some bizarre Amazon storefront.

It’s true that “paying the middleman” brings up the cost of the product. For every product you pay $100 for at a store, the retailer probably paid between $40-$60 for it, and the manufacturer probably paid $20-$30 to have it made. This can vary greatly depending on the type of product but is a general rule of thumb.

By skipping the middleman, i.e. selling directly to you, the manufacturer can list that same product for, say $75, which makes it seem like a great deal to you, while at the same time giving them even more profit than they’d make selling to a store.

Alternatively, the manufacturer can create an even higher quality product, with better materials, or more features, that costs them, say, $50 to make instead of $20. Normally the retail price for this product would then be in the $200-$250 range. Instead, they bring this product to market for $150, hoping to lure some of those customers who were comfortable with spending $100 to spend $150 for a much better product with a great story. They just made $100 on that sale, which is a lot more than the $25 they’d make going the normal route, and even better than the $50 they’d make just dropping the price. And both the customer and the manufacturer get to feel good about outsmarting the system and cutting out the middleman.

Once the manufacturer decides to go this route, it’s hard to go back because you’ll never be able to offer wholesale pricing again – the margins just aren’t there. I think that’s the reason they preach about why it is so great to cut-out the middleman. They’re fully committed.

And, in the process, they change the whole value perception for the product. Before, Warby Parker, you’d get your eyes checked once a year or so and then you’d buy a pair of glasses for $300 or $400 or $500.  And it was like a punch in the gut. But now that Warby Parker exists, and you know you can get stylish frames from Warby Parker for $100, you feel like a schmuck for paying so much more for your eyeglasses from your optometrist. Even though he’s the small, local business owner and Warby Parker is the big corporation.

That brings me back to my original point. Do we really want all these small shops to go away? In many ways, what’s happening now reminds me of when Wal-Mart killed main street. From afar, it looked like small town folk were just blindly letting their main streets go to rot by being seduced by the Wal-Mart on the edge of town that had everything under one roof with incredibly low prices. It doesn’t seem too different to me now that people are being lured away from their independent urban stores by online-only brands that offer them the stories and products they’re craving at a price they can’t resist.

Or am I, as a small indie brand still committed to partnering with independent retailers, just being stubborn and not facing the reality? I bet there were a lot of brands that told their Main St. customers that they were going to stick with them instead of pitch to Wal-Mart, and I’m guessing that didn’t turn out well for them. I just don’t want to live in a world without the shops that define the neighborhoods I love.

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What’s so bad about selling to rich people?

I grew up in a middle class family, but we were very frugal. Creatively reusing things and figuring out how to save money was our way of life. Discovering that you overpaid for something was shameful, as was buying something you didn’t need. We would scoff at the idea of buying name-brand things. “Don’t they know that such-and-such is the same exact thing for half the price?” we’d say, shaking our heads at the thought of such foolishness.

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The Danger of Not Asking for Help

Being reluctant to ask for help has gotten me in trouble more than once. Yesterday was a good example.BQT.jpg

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What a Difference a Good Manufacturer Makes

I’m hot of the heels of a trip to China to visit my factory and suppliers and sourcing agents. This is the second time I’ve gone, and this year was as good as the first (see recap of first visit here).

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Working side-by-side with our Chinese sample room. This is one of my Top 5 Po Campo activities. It’s soo fun!

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The Entrepreneurial Journey as a Hero’s Journey

One nice thing about being a small, founder-led business is that telling your “story” isn’t that hard. It’s by nature authentic, because it happened to you and you’re telling it, and it’s probably going to be at least somewhat interesting because you started your business to solve some sort of problem that nobody had thought to solve yet. (If you’re still struggling with whole to get your “story” down to a 3 minute spiel, I highly recommend taking General Assembly’s “Storytelling for Entrepreneurs” class).

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How to Use Quickbooks to Keep Track of Pre-Orders and Backorders

If you’re looking for a way to manage your pre-orders and backorders, I just figured out how to do it with Quickbooks Premier. It’s super easy!

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My Lifestyle Business Makes Me Feel Like I’m on Hamster Wheel

Last year when I downsized, I was determined to run Po Campo as a one person business, which was all our revenue could really support. Going from a 3-person company to a 1-person company meant that I had to either automate or eliminate as many tasks as I could to be able to get it all done.

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Book Review: “The Dip” by Seth Godin

What helped me rise out of my downward spiral in 2012 was reading the E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber. It felt like it was written just for me, and it gave me specific tools for how to move forward. Another book found its way to me this year, and is acting as my guide for the next stage of my entrepreneurial journey. Well not really a book so much as an author: Seth Godin.

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