10 Things You Should Know Before Starting a Maker Business

I recently came across a post entitled 10 Things You Should Know Before Opening a Cafe on ladyironchef.com. I was surprised to see how many similarities there were between running a cafe and running a maker business, as I’ve always thought of service businesses and product businesses as completely different animals. Feeling inspired, I adapted her ten lessons to create my own take on 10 things to know before starting a maker business. *Note: I switched around the order of her points but kept the titles the same.

#1 The Owner Has to Be Hands On
Sure, this means all the grunt work that goes along with running a small business, like calling the post office to track down shipments, taking out the trash and sweeping the floor, schlepping box after box up and down stairs, in and out of cars, fixing the printer, fixing the network, answering angry customer calls/emails, etc.

Beyond the grunt work though, you have to be intimately aware of how each aspect of your business functions, and how it all works together, because you’re responsible for all of it, even if you don’t know how to do it. This includes everything from managing your supply chain to putting together human resource policies. If anything goes awry, all eyes turn to you, so you better know what’s going on.

#2 A Mountain of Paperwork and Admin Stuff
As someone said to me early on, if you want to spend your days designing things, get a job as a designer and don’t start a design business. I started my business because I wanted to design the products that I wanted to exist in the world. That’s still the case, I just don’t have much time to actually spend designing them, because I’m too busy managing my supply chain, sorting our human resource policies and fixing things to do it. Excel is open on my computer at all times, which I never thought would be the case in a million years.

Can’t you just hire someone else to do the things you don’t want to do? Sure, but keep reading…

#3 It is difficult – or almost mission impossible – to hire good staff
First, having staff costs money. A lot of money. Generally speaking, it’s best to have enough money for 4-6 months of payroll socked away to make sure you can pay people when your sales slow down. (Full confession: I don’t have this but sincerely wish I did. Skip down to #10 to see why). Revenue for a product company can come in waves, so you’ll want to be able to ride out those quieter periods and not lay people off.

Second, you have to know what the job generally requires before you pay someone to do it. It’s tempting to just hire someone to “take care of social media”, for example, but without know what exactly that entails, it’s too hard to align your expectations and to know how to measure her performance. So doing every job yourself, at least initially, is important.

Lastly, hiring is both art and science and is totally harder than it looks. My two employees at Po Campo are pretty excellent, but I’ve had some mis-hires too, and that’s rough.

#4 Motivating Your Staff
As the business owner and founder, you’re pretty devoted to making your venture succeed no matter what. Nobody else that works for you shares that devotion. Generally speaking, people like to do their job, do it well, and then go home. That’s why they work for someone else. That means that that inexplicable force that keeps pushing you ahead no matter what happens does not exist for the people who work for you, or, at least, not anywhere near as much as you feel it. You have to constantly be motivating them to try harder, push harder, see the bigger picture. You have to do that on top of managing suppliers and the mountain of paperwork and everything else.

#5 You Have to do a lot of Research about What You Want to Sell
One of my favorite parts of ladyironchef’s list was commenting on how there is a common misconception about opening a cafe that you mostly have to focus on the design and interior and then you’re good to go. I think we designers make a similar mistake about assuming that with a good product and good branding you’re good to go. Not true. Everything from your operations to your customer service policy has to be at the same level as your product and your branding or you are quickly discredited.

#6 Dealing with Suppliers will be your Worst Nightmare
This one really hit home for me. Suppliers suck! At least cut-and-sew suppliers do. Who would’ve thought it would be so hard to manufacture things, especially when you have a growing business and money to pay for everything. Po Campo has done more than 25 production runs and seriously something goes wrong each time. Bags aren’t made correctly, materials are substituted unknowingly, shipments come late, and it’s all like “tough luck”. (Before you tell me to switch to domestic production, please note that I have experienced just as many headaches with our US production partners as our overseas production partners). Most makers I know have similar experiences, but if you’ve had success with small production runs, I’d love to know about it. I’m always asking myself, “Is it seriously this hard for everyone to make things???”.

#7 Dealing with difficult customers
There are two types of people that you’ll have to deal with on a daily basis when running your business: vendors (suppliers) and customers. Customers are obviously key to your business’ success, but some of them can make your life so miserable! I’ve been screamed at, insulted and just plain treated rudely and unnecessarily harshly. Developing a thick skin without becoming too reptilian is a serious balancing act.

#8 You have to be at the cafe every day
Okay, this may be one area where it is a little different not being in a service business or not having a storefront. We have a pretty flexible work environment at Po Campo, in that I don’t have to be at the studio every day for it to keep humming along. That said, if there is a problem, I always have to be available. That means no complete vacation, ever. Have I worked on Po Campo each of the last 2,008 days? Yes. Have I taken “vacations”? Yes, absolutely. Since starting Po Campo, I’ve traveled several times to Asia, South America and Europe, all masquerading as vacation. And I checked my email and dealt with issues every day.

#9 You won’t have much time for yourself
You know that constant ticker tape on the bottom of CNN’s screen? That’s what goes on in your mind when you have your own business. Some of it is to-dos, some of it is business goals, some of it is managerial duties, some of it is turning a conversation with a difficult customer supplier over and over in your head. I get a glaze in my eyes that people call the “Po Campo face”. Once you go off on your own, commit to meditating at least 10 minutes a day to be able to operate like a half decent human.

#10 You’ll be constantly worrying
Obviously much of those ticker tape thoughts are worries. I’m going to use this last point to describe another omnipresent concern: death. Before starting my own business, I had no idea how close to death most small businesses are at all times. One extended street closure and that little shop that depends on foot traffic is dead. One big power outage and that online store runs out of cash and is dead. One faulty production run and that small maker business loses its most trusted customers and is dead. Sure, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it also makes you realize your own mortality, and how close you are to oblivion at all times. And that makes you worry.


Dealing with Entrepreneur’s Anxiety

I started blogging about my experience of building Po Campo three years ago but I only began regularly posting this past summer. I usually base the topic on something that I’m presently focused on, whether that be grandiose big picture things or nuts-and-bolts executional things. As far as I’m concerned, it’s all fair game and all part of the entrepreneur’s life.

Well, this weekend I drew a blank on what to write because I spent the last week doing little other than being overwrought about how much we would sell between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I wish I could tell you how I managed to overpower the anxiety in the end, but I can’t, because I haven’t. However, I am going to hold true to the promise I made to myself to post every week, which means that while anxiety about Christmas sales is not the most interesting topic, I suppose I will just have to write about that, because it’s all I can seem to think about.

The core of my anxiety is that our December sales need to be good to end the year with a profit, a goal that has eluded me for the last five years. In addition to just making me feel like I am doing a good job at running my business, being profitable would increase my likelihood of getting a bank loan, or some other kind of financing, so I could start to improve my balance sheet. There’s nothing I’d like more than being able to pay back some of those early friend and family loans that make me feel guilty and some of that high interest credit card debt that just makes me feel like a loser.

I put together a solid holiday marketing strategy to hit our sales goals, but that has apparently done little to assuage my anxiety. When I’m in a state like this, I feel paralyzed by my inability to control the outcome of a situation, and so I sit around watching movies until an idea strikes me (Change up the card abandonment email! Reactivate the Google remarketing ads! Think of another clever facebook post – and boost it!), in which case I jump up and do that post haste. I don’t feel like there is time to do the things that normally help me feel balanced, like yoga or cooking or socializing, because I feel too busy, when in reality I’m just waiting…for something.

December 13 Update

Holiday sales are going splendidly, thank you very much. Our last shipping day is Dec 19, which means by this time next week, I’ll be ready to sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the holiday season!

Is “Taking the Plunge” Worth It?

A couple weeks ago, a friend asked me to lunch, saying she was weighing an important decision and wanted my input. The important decision turned out to be whether she should quit her high paying job that was fine enough but not fulfilling for a very low paying job working for a nonprofit that she really believed in. She knew I had quit a high paying job to work on Po Campo, which pays me very little, and did I think it was worth it?

Of course I gave her the enthusiastic “yes!” that I give to everyone who asks me this question. I offered up the usual reasons of why quitting a good paying job or leaving a career is actually not as scary as it may seem: you can always go back to the old career later, you have savings to help you transition to a lower pay, you don’t actually need that much money anyway, and what’s the worst thing that could happen anyway? It’s not like it will kill you.

She ended up turning down the new job and staying put, saying that it just “made more sense”. I don’t blame her for that. It did make more sense. Yet, I had to admit to myself that I was disappointed to hear her decision. Why?

At first I thought it was because misery loves company. We romanticize the thrill of “taking the plunge” but in all actuality, it sucks most of the time. Well, starting a bootstrapped business does, anyway. It’s stressful. It’s tiring. It’s thankless. It apparently never gets easier. I treasure my relationships with my fellow bootstrapped entrepreneurs because they are the only ones who can sympathize with my struggles and whose encouragement to keep going matters most.

But why would I want my friend to share my misery? And am I really miserable?

No, of course I’m not miserable. I would even describe myself as happy.

When I started Po Campo, I made a pitch to a colleague to join me in my venture. The first slide had the Gandhi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Despite all the hardships I’ve faced since quitting my good job and taking the plunge, overcoming the challenges with starting and growing a business have definitely made me stronger and more confident. I know the future will be similarly tough, but I feel ready for it. I feel more in control of my destiny and I believe in my ability to change the world, at least my little corner of it. Before Po Campo, I had hoped that I could be a positive influence on the world someday. Now I know that I can. And therein lies my happiness.

So, maybe I was disappointed with my friend’s decision because I thought she was going to miss out on experiencing this source of happiness. But honestly I don’t think so. I think I was disappointed simply because I thought it would be another thing we could share, just like our love of recycling and our love of foreign travel. I’m glad she chose what was right for her.

I’ll close this post with a quote from Henry David Thoreau from Walden:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

The inspiration for this post came from a lovely interview with designer/artist Elle Luna on The Great Discontent. I recommend reading it.

Why I don’t use a Fulfillment Center

After 2.5 years, Po Campo is getting ready to move into a new home! And we’re taking our warehouse with us. There are many places that will warehouse and ship your products for you, so why are we doing it ourselves? You need more space, you have to stock a lot of shipping supplies, and it takes a lot of effort.

Short answer: Because we always have. And I kind of like it. And it’s cheaper.

When we started Po Campo, we were making just 200 or so bags at a time. My co-founder and I didn’t have space in our apartments to store them, but my parents lived in a nearby suburb and, as empty-nesters, that had plenty of space and liked the thought of helping me with my business any way they could. We trained my parents on how to ship orders and they would dutifully take care of that for us. We did this for the first 3 years of Po Campo’s existence.

Once we started importing the bags in 2012, we were getting 8,000 bags at once, rather than at most 500. Clearly that was too much to keep in my parents’ basement, so I started looking for a warehouse space. My friend Annie of Mohop shoes was setting up shop in a raw commercial space and had extra room so we moved in there.

Our first raw commercial space
Our first raw commercial space
First Warehouse 2
Our first warehouse

Looking back, this would’ve been a good time to outsource the warehousing but honestly it didn’t cross my mind. I don’t know if it is because I didn’t know fulfillment centers existed or because I wasn’t ready to let go of it yet. Our operation still seemed pretty small scale.

As it turned out, our first production run from China had a lot of issues. We had to hand inspect every bag before shipping it out, which we wouldn’t have been possible if we had had outsourced it.

As the business grew, shipping and fulfillment became more complex. We established processes for shipping items from our online store, how to handle drop-ship accounts, how to export, how to work with different stores’ vendor routing guides (basically very specific instructions on how you ship products to them). We negotiated better UPS rates and got discounts for shipping supplies. We installed software to better manage our inventory and sync with our online store and Quickbooks. I always thought it took my parents so long to ship bags because they were older and slower to learn new things, but it turns out that shipping actually takes time and effort!

However, our office/warehouse space had some downsides. It didn’t have a loading dock and we were in the basement, which made moving pallets in and out with the freight elevator a pain in the neck. Also, it was horribly cold in winter and just kind of crappy overall, with flickering fluorescent lights, cracked cement floor and lots of spiderwebs. We were ready for an upgrade.

I was picturing moving into a cool lofted studio space that we could use for an office and maybe a showroom and then outsourcing the warehousing and fulfillment. I shopped around and found some suitable fulfillment companies, but after getting estimates on the cost, it turned out to cost about a third more than we were paying to do it ourselves. (See how most fulfillment companies charge below). Was it worth it?

I decided it was wiser to just move the warehouse into a better space. After looking at other warehouse spaces, I realized our warehouse was actually pretty small, and could be even smaller if we found a place with taller ceilings. I’m happy to say that I found the kind of lofted studio space I was originally dreaming of, and it’s large enough for a small office and warehouse. I think this space will hold us just fine through the next period of growth, and which time we will reassess.

Packing up our current warehouse, getting ready for the move.

Things to think about when deciding if you want to self-fulfill:

– You can make sure it is done right (mis-ships from fulfillment centers are not uncommon)
– You can access your inventory easily, should you need to do pop-ups, retail events, or sales calls
– You can customize your shipping process on the fly, e.g. if you want to add gift tags for the holidays
– It’s nice to have your product around you because it’s tangible proof that you’re making things
– It’s often cheaper, assuming you’re not paying for a high rent space. Rawer, commercial flex-space is about half the cost of office space.
– If there are any problems with your product, you can catch it before sending it out to your customer.

– It’s very time-consuming and you’ll probably want to hire someone to do it. A college student will suffice.
– It’s more complicated than you’d think. You’ll have to learn about how shippers work, how to get the best rates and how to do the appropriate documentation.
– Depending on your product, it can take up a lot of space. Plus, you’ll need to stock shipping supplies. This isn’t feasible if you live in a high-rent area. Fortunately, Chicago has many affordable spaces in good locations.
– You have to be there to do it. I always dreamed of a virtual office, but storing physical inventory means that someone has to be there everyday to ship it out.

Example of Fulfillment Center Fees
– Rent, for how space you take up in their warehouse
– Picking fee, for every time someone has to pick an item off the shelf or out of a box
– Receiving fee, for every time you send new inventory to them
– Packaging and shipping materials, like boxes, tape, etc.
– Pallet loading fees, if you are shipping out product by the pallet
– Order processing fees, if they have to log-on to any accounts to download orders
– Labeling fees, if your customers require specific labels or bar codes
– Paperwork fees, if your shipment requires special paperwork, such as for exports
– Returns fee, if your customers send back unwanted product directly to the warehouse
– Shipping account usage fee, if you ship using their UPS/FedEx account

This is more specific than how I account for fulfillment costs in our system. I just have two line items in our books for fulfillment: Shipping costs (i.e. UPS) and fulfillment costs (i.e. shipping supplies and the hourly wage of the person who’s doing the shipping). When I was comparing the cost of doing fulfillment ourselves versus outsourcing it, I went through the painstaking process of determining how much we would’ve spent had we priced everything like an outside fulfillment center does, which is how I found out it would’ve cost roughly $500/month more to have someone else do it.

3 Lessons From When a Big Break Went Bad

Po Campo exhibited at Outdoor Retailer for the first time in August 2011 and it felt like we were the stars of the show. Despite being in the back of a tent in a parking lot across the street, there was a flurry of traffic the whole time, with buyers from nationwide chain stores calling their colleagues on their cell phones, saying “You gotta get over here and see this bag line!”.

I thought this was my big break. Finally, we were getting interest (and orders!) from large retailers, dramatically increasing our sales to the point where I could not only start paying myself but maybe get a little office and a little staff, the whole bit. The buyers said they needed the new product within five months for a spring launch and I said, “Sure, no problem!” even though I knew this was actually a big problem, since I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the bags. We had recently decided to split ways with our existing manufacturer and hadn’t lined up a new one yet. 

The next few months were the most stressful of my life. From having to come up with $50,000 in two weeks for the factory’s downpayment to taking a call on Christmas Day to learn that the bags would be months late, to paying out the nose to get bags made locally to meet our January order commitments, to finally receiving the bags from China – in April – only to learn that there weren’t all perfect. All those big customers I was so thrilled to line up dropped my product line and rather than propelling Po Campo forward, the whole episode set us way way back. I hope I will never have to go through that again

And I hope you won’t either! Here are a few lessons that I learned so that you won’t repeat my mistakes.

1) Rushing manufacturing leads to problems. You may be able to pull all-nighters with your local team to hit a deadline, but this just doesn’t seem to work with manufacturers, especially ones on the other side of the world that you have a short history with. There are just way too many things that can go wrong and your business will bear the brunt of it. I think it’s better to communicate delays with your customers (or not take the orders in the first place) than to force manufacturers to go beyond their comfort zone and try to do the impossible. We now agree on a development and production schedule with our manufacturer that we are both comfortable with and don’t rush it.

2) You do dumb things when you’re desperate. I was feeling so rushed to get manufacturing started that I shelled out for a big downpayment before seeing any good samples from the factory. I know, very scary – and stupid! But I was feeling desperate. The factory said they needed the money to know that I was serious before getting started, which is fair enough, but I needed good samples to know they were serious about making my product. I put their needs ahead of my own, which irreversibly put Po Campo in an inferior position that I paid for later. My desperation mindset is similar to the scarcity mindset, where you make bad decisions because you feel like you have so few options. Whenever I hear myself think, “But I have no choice!”, I try to think of as many choices as possible.

3) Look before you leap. Do I regret taking those orders? A little bit. Part of the thrill of the entrepreneurial journey is that you are in unchartered territory most of the time. You do a lot of leaping off of cliffs and hoping for the best. I just wished I looked before I leapt, because I probably would have realized that in this case, the risk outsized the reward. The risk, the very real possibility of not being able to fulfill the order on time and losing customers was much greater than the reward of launching in new stores in January. A safer route would’ve been to tell the stores we weren’t ready to launch in spring, but how about summer? We would’ve missed a few months of selling in their store, but the likelihood that we would’ve been able to coast into the finish line would’ve been much greater.

I recount this story, and some of my other lessons of the “big break” in a podcast with Jane Hamill on Fashion Brain Academy. Have a listen!

I’d love to hear some of your stories about when you bit off more than you could chew, and how you recovered from it (hopefully). Please share in the comments.

Designers as Entrepreneurs

Last Friday, August 15th, I had the honor to present at the IDSA International Conference in Austin about one of my favorite topics: Designers as Entrepreneurs. Here is a recap of my presentation.


Now is a great time to start a business. There is better access to capital, it’s getting easier to make and sell products, and there is a growing support network.


I launched my company Po Campo in 2009. We make bags for modern urban living: bike bags, yoga bags and travel bags. We sell our bags mostly through other retailers nationwide and internationally in Canada, Mexico, Europe and Australia, as well as through our online store.

There are lots of qualities that industrial designers typically possess that come in handy as an entrepreneur, particularly creativity, optimism and tenacity, because people are always going to be telling you that your idea isn’t going to work.

Yet there are other ways that I feel like my industrial design background has led me astray as I transitioned into the role of entrepreneur, which I’ll share through some anecdotes.


I had two jobs before Po Campo. I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2001 and wanted more than anything to become a design researcher. That was right after the first tech bubble burst though and jobs were hard to come by. I was thrilled to get a position at Arctic Zone, a Chicago-based manufacturer of soft coolers and lunch bags. That is where I learned cut-and-sew manufacturing and how to work with China.

Next I took a job at Webb deVlam, then called Webb Scarlett, as a structural packaging designer. In this role I learned about the power of branding, as well as the importance of standing apart from your competitors at shelf. Eventually I transitioned to heading Webb’s design research and design strategy department, focusing on helping our CPG customers identify white space in the market and learn what design language would communicate the desired benefits to the intended consumer.

Then I started to get the itch to do my own thing. As a consultant, I was working on projects for months that I cared deeply about, just to have them vanish with the final deliverable. I really craved holding onto the reigns longer. But doing what?


I always loved biking to work yet I wished there was a better way to carry my belongings. Backpacks and messenger bags didn’t do it for me and the bags that were designed to go onto bikes were very utilitarian. I felt like I was being made to choose between biking and having normal looks bags, which just seemed illogical.

IDSAPresentation.005I realized that with my background in soft goods design and branding, starting a bike bag company would be a perfect fit for my talents. Plus, when I started doing my market research, I learned that cities around the world were investing a lot of money to build up more bicycle infrastructure to encourage people to bike for transportation. I knew there would be a lot more people like me, looking for crossover products to help them integrate biking into their daily lives. I could claim this emerging market space as my own. Easier said than done!

I teamed up with a industrial designer friend and these were the first two products we developed, a “Going to Work Bag” and a “Going Out Bag”.

In the beginning, I was so excited about building a company led by two female industrial designers. I really believed in the power of design and thought that it would give us a tremendous competitive advantage. I was convinced that, compared to most companies run by old businessmen, we would do everything differently and everything better.

It wasn’t until I had to start doing all the other jobs in the business that I realized how wrong I was about the importance of the design. Everything from shipping logistics to accounting to customer service had a spirit of creativity and craft to it, especially in the start-up phase where you are building the company brick-by-brick and figuring out how it all fits together as you go.


This is Po Campo organization chart. Learning the other jobs within a company really leveled the playing field for me, which is why you see Design at the bottom with everything else, instead of at the top where I first thought it would go.


We launched in 2009, before Kickstarter and Shopify, so we went straight to selling in stores. I went door-to-door cold calling on shops. We got our bags into over 15 stores in Chicago that first summer and got great press right out of the gate. REI asked to bring in the line during our first month, and we soon had orders from Japanese and German distributors for our next season’s production run. Woo-hoo!

We started daydreaming about quitting our day jobs, about all the other great products we would develop, about what a cool studio space we would get. But that didn’t last long.

When I started calling our shops to get re-orders, I didn’t get any because they hadn’t sold any bags. After two and three months, they still hadn’t sold any, and would we mind taking them back? We panicked.

Looking back, I know what the two main problems were. First, our bags were about twice the price as the competition. Sure our bags were a lot cuter, as is evident in the photo above, but not THAT much cuter. Second, we were selling to an emerging market, which meant that our consumer not only did not know that products like ours were available, she didn’t even know that she needed a product like ours yet! We needed to do a lot more marketing that we hadn’t planned for.

Hindsight is always 20/20. At the time, we just felt like we needed to stop the leak and started asking our customers about what we could do to improve sell-through.

IDSAPresentation.010Most of the suggestions seemed like pretty simple fixes, such as streamlining the design to reduce cost, adding different sizes of bags, adding different colors, creating non-bike bags for people who like the look but don’t bike, etc. And here is where you have to be careful as a designer leading a company: Since design was the easiest thing for me to do, I just designed a lot more stuff. Our line ballooned from 6 SKUs to 68 SKUs just a few years later. Sure, we were growing, but it was haphazard growth that was hard to manage and almost certainly impossible to sustain.

So I went back to my design background and thought about what I would’ve said to a client who would’ve approached me with a similar situation back when I was a design strategy consultant. I would’ve told her to reconnect with her consumer, so that’s what I did.
IDSAPresentation.011 We started spending time with our core consumer, identified which values we were aligning on, and refocused our line-up and marketing strategy around those values. We realized that we were not just making bags but building a community around the joy of modern urban living. We’ve started doing a lot more events, selected our retail partners a lot more carefully and started creating videos to show how people can incorporate biking into their daily lifestyles easier. Sales continue to grow – sustainably.

One of the biggest changes for me is learning to use numbers to understand what’s working in my business and what’s not, both for operations and design. Before Po Campo, I rarely used spreadsheets. Now data is my best bud.

I always liked design research because it enables you to make a sincere connection with the people you are designing for and helps you see how the products you are designing will make people’s lives better. But making people’s lives better isn’t enough to sustain a business; you also need revenue & profit. It took me awhile to really internalize that.

The design community doesn’t talk about sales much, as if talking about money that a product makes diminishes its value. I think this is a mistake, as it makes us think that good design is above trivial matters of money, when it’s not.


Part of the reason our line grew so big was that I got attached to the products that I want to have in market. I started my own company to make the products that I want in the world, so it is hard to kill them off. For products that didn’t sell well, I would always want to give them a second chance, thinking if I had marketed them differently, they would’ve sold better.

However, a bootstrapped company doesn’t really have the luxury to give products second chances. I’ve had to alter my definition of good design to be not just products that are made responsibly and meet a consumer need or desire, but also makes us money (preferably quickly and easily!).

IDSAPresentation.014 IDSAPresentation.015Thank you!

Book Review: #GIRLBOSS

The list of prominent female entrepreneurs in product and design businesses is short. Martha Stewart? Sara Blakely of Spanx?  And yet there is no shortage of tales of successful male entrepreneurs in these fields. While I find many of their stories interesting and informative, they too often end the same way: some dude kicking back with his millions of dollars, luxury watches and a fleet of sportscars. Yawn. Just because I want something else as my endgame does that mean my aspirations are any less important or my business acumen any less acute? No, of course not, but if you listen solely to these dudes, you might think so. If women define success differently than men, what is the female equivalent to this vision of “making it”?

#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso
#GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amoruso

I was thumbing through a copy of Sophia Amoruso‘s #GIRLBOSS in the bookstore and read the phrase “I stopped feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, and realized that I actually belonged anywhere I wanted to be.” That sentence really struck a nerve with me. Here I had this idea for these great Po Campo bags that I was so excited about and passionate about and then for five years had to listen daily that they didn’t quite fit into the current marketplace and that it probably wasn’t going to work. When so many people tell you “probably not” for so long, and people that you respect, it takes awhile to build up the courage and turn that dialogue around and say, “Well, actually, yes it will!!” That’s kind of where I am now, which was why I was eager to read about how Amoruso made that transition herself.

First, #GIRLBOSS is not really a business book, even though it was in the business section of the bookstore and about her business Nasty Gal. Regardless it was certainly fun to read, as the writing style is distinctly her own and about as different from a normal business book as possible. In the book, she candidly talks about the qualities that she possesses that helped get her to where she is despite not having a college degree or even a prior office job. I think I would have absolutely adored this book when I was 17 years old, wanting to believe I had greatness in my future but not being able to imagine how a 17 year old pimply dork with no boyfriend could ever become great.

While I suspect my 17 year old self would be happy with where I am now, my 37 year old self craves more. Despite feeling like the book left me a little empty-handed as far as business lessons go, there was one meme in #GIRLBOSS that I’m taking with me, and that is that you have to believe in yourself whole-heartedly before you can ask other people to believe in you. That’s certainly not a new idea, but coming from Amoruso, a most unlikely powerful CEO, it really rang true and was incredibly persuasive. All those years of people doubting me (and me doubting myself) have definitely left their marks on my psyche, but Po Campo needs a thoroughly confident leader to attain its goals, so that is what I will be.

Everything is half-assed, and it’s okay

Being a scrappy, bootstrapped small business means that I can’t hire the pros to do the job right very often. I really struggle with this because I want everything that Po Campo does to be amazing.

In the past I would usually just say “f#@k it”, and hire the pros anyway, despite not being able to afford it. It’s just so hard to resist, because with the top-notch talent you know you will get a quality outcome with less oversight and in less time, and when your plate is too full and you want everything to be awesome, this seems like an obvious choice. And if everything you do is awesome, your business will grow that much faster, which means there will be more money, quicker. Right? Sadly, not in my experience.

Instead, I’ve learned that if you can’t afford it, that means that you will not have money down the road for other important things, like buying more inventory or paying your employees (or yourself). Clearly, this is not sustainable, which is why one of my goals this year is to ween myself off of this practice.

This decision means that I have to settle for the less than perfect version of some things, and just say “no” to many others. I have to decide what is “good enough”, which is a departure from thinking “only the best”. I don’t know if it is the designer in me or some kind of perfectionist inclination, but this is incredibly difficult.

I’ve opted for the cheaper versions of some things (lighter-weight paper in our catalogs for example) and postponed other projects that I know I want done right but can’t afford right now (like redoing our website). I made image templates so my team can generate their own brand visuals without having to pass things by me all the time. Are they awesome? No, but they get the job done and keep everything moving forward.

However, this resolution has already shown greater rewards than just saving money. It has given me a big confidence boost. See, I have learned pretty much everything about running a business while on the job and admit to always having doubted if we were doing everything “the right way”. Because of this insecurity, I was treating most of our business activities (everything from how to record orders to how to make forecasts) as stop-gap measures in place until we can afford to bring in a pro to kick things into high gear.

Now that I’ve said that we are not hiring anyone we can’t afford, for both contractors and employees, that puts the onus on me to confirm that we are doing things the right way, or, at least, doing things that are pointing us in the right direction. We’ve double-downed on writing processes for everything that we do to help us streamline it and identify ways to improve it ourselves. We agree on specific measurable goals and work together to figure out ways to meet them. I’ve come to appreciate that it isn’t so much about getting to a point where you can hire the best people, but it’s about building something brick-by-brick with good people. 

Saying that we are doing everything “half-assed” isn’t quite right, because that implies that we don’t care. Instead, we’re trying our best, with a full heart, and believing that we’ll get there eventually.

Creating my business in my own image

let-my-people-go-surfingI recently read “Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman” by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. There were many parts of the book that I found inspirational and informative, but perhaps the lesson that stuck with me most was how strongly he carried his values through to his company. Of course this includes the company’s famous environmental policies, but also how the company manages its finances, the relationships it builds with its customers, the benefits it provides its employees and on and on. Sure, some aspects of Patagonia’s culture may not be as close to his heart as others, but it is clear that he built Patagonia to be an extension of the things that he cares about through and through.

Then, today I read an interview with Cadence Dubus, who owns the Pilates studio Brooklyn Strength. In explaining her commitment to creating an eco-friendly space, she says, “If you’re going so far as to open your own business, that is such a statement about your beliefs. I would hope that every aspect of that would be as close to my values as possible”.

This really struck a chord with me because it acknowledged that starting a business requires a lot of courage and commitment and you don’t just do it willy nilly. But, strangely, I never thought about how the business you start is an automatic reflection of yourself. Why did this seemingly obvious thing never occur to me? Maybe because the start-ups you read about nowadays are high-growth tech companies intended to be sold as quick as possible, thus having a fingerprint of the founder is not necessary, if not undesirable. Or maybe it is because I always pictured Po Campo living on beyond my involvement, in which case I would not want the whole operation to lose its sense of identity without its founder. Possibly it is because I started Po Campo with a dear friend, and since it was “ours” it could never be “mine”, or “me”.

Regardless of the reason why I never thought about how my personal values should be shared with my company, my new “flex time” policy showed me why it is important. Declaring that no one has to come in to work when they don’t want to as long as they get their work done was my biggest managerial statement to date. And experiencing the freedom of not having to come in to work every day is incredibly liberating and joyful to me. I finally saw for the first time just how cool Po Campo could be. Po Campo can become my dream company to work for, and for others who share a similar idea of how a dream company should behave.

Sure, there are certainly other aspects of myself that the company has already assumed, like a persistent frugality, a certain mellowness, a respectful position towards others. But now I’m thinking of things that I always thought that we would do later when we had more time or money, like recycling or volunteer work or decorating, but now I am thinking we should just do it now. Those things are important to me, would be a part of my dream company, so what am I waiting for? I want to start working at my dream company today.

I’m a cobbler and my children have no shoes

My background is in design research and design/brand strategy. I believe in the importance and power of these disciplines. Yet, for my own business, I rarely do either. What the heck?!!?

Since acknowledging that the adage about the cobbler’s children without any shoes applies to me, I googled the expression to find out how I turned out like this.

A couple of theories of why this happens:

  1. Externally Motivated. Is my drive to please others stronger than my drive to just do high quality work? It’s a possible explanation as to why I conducted proper research for my clients and just do minimal internet research for myself. With the former, I would have an audience gathered around a big conference room table to listen to my every word and congratulate me on what a good job I did. With the latter, I have to wait months to see if my conclusions from the research were correct and, even if they are, there is still no one to pat me on the back. I never knew that praise was important to me, but it is.
  2. Limited Resources. Whether money, time or talent, you’ve only got so much of each. Whenever someone would suggest that I do research, I would say, “But I don’t have time!” even though I knew that research doesn’t have to take a lot of time or money. So, while this may be true for others, for me it was just an excuse.
  3. Lack of Confidence. I never received proper training or education for design research and strategy. I developed my methods myself based largely on intuition and what seemed to work in the field. Interestingly, I felt like that sufficed when working with clients but fills me with doubt when working on my own business. The stakes certainly seem higher now, so maybe just going with my gut doesn’t give me enough confidence?

Obviously, these are all rather lame excuses for not doing something that is incredibly important. Doing my first bit of consumer research this past week, albeit a very small bit, was a good confidence re-builder. It forced me to acknowledge that there are things about my consumer that I do not know and that I can use my old research methods to start to figure them out. I’m looking forward to doing more in the future.

Any other examples from other entrepreneurs out there that found themselves neglecting their specialty in running their own business?