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).
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.
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.
I’ve written before about how I wish there were more female entrepreneur role models for me to look up to. The ones that come to my mind quickest: Sophia Amoruso, Sara Blakely, Martha Stewart, all have something in common. They are all white, like me. In honor of Black History Month, I wanted to learn about female African American entrepreneurs to be inspired by them, too. Their stories, their struggles, and their successes aren’t told nearly enough and are truly inspirational.
1. Madam C.J. Walker, 1867 – 1919
Sarah Breedlove, a.k.a. Madam C.J. Walker, started life in Louisiana as the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation. Orphaned at age 6, she went on to become the first female self-made millionaire in America through the success of her Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, which sold beauty and hair products.
After learning about hair and beauty products at her brother’s barber shop, she devised her own line and her own beauty college to train “hair culturists”. She emphasized the importance of philanthropy and political engagement as many African American entrepreneurs do, rewarding employees not just for their sales but also for how much they contributed to local charities.
2. Maggie L. Walker, 1867 – 1934
While attending school, Maggie Walker (no relation to Madam C.J. Walker) became involved with the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. She stayed active in the organization while raising her children, assuming control of it in 1899 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
In true entrepreneurial style, she refused to let her organization die. In 1901, she gave a speech on how she would save it and, in the coming years, followed through on each item she described. Soon she founded the St. Luke Herald, a newspaper to carry news of the organization’s work to local chapters. The following year, she opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank and served as its president, making her the first black woman to charter a bank in the U.S.. A few years later, she opened the St. Luke Emporium, a department store that offered African-American women opportunities for work and to give the black community access to cheaper goods.
Of all the women on this list, it was hardest to find information for Maggie Walker. I love the sense of her determination though, and to do what it takes to make her vision become a reality.
3. Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875 – 1955
Mary McLeod Bethune was born into a big family of 17 kids in South Carolina. She had an early love of education and was the only person in her family to go to school. She would come home and teach her siblings what she had learned.
After moving to Florida as an adult, she became determined to open a school for girls because she believed that educating girls and women was crucial to improve the conditions of black people. Ms. Bethune’s incredible ability to market and grow her school is what earned her spot on this list of African American entrepreneurs; her school grew from 6 pupils in 1904 to eventually becoming incorporated as a college in 1931, with herself as president.
Ms. Bethune went on to do amazing things as a public leader, which I encourage you to read about.
(Incidentally, I agree that educating girls is key to transformational change, which is why we support World Bicycle Relief).
4. Cathy Hughes, 1942 –
Cathy Hughes is best known for starting Radio One in 1980, which has grown into the largest network targeting African American and urban listeners with 55 stations across the country. Like the other women on this list of African American entrepreneurs, Ms. Hughes had humble beginnings, becoming a teen mom at age 16 and kicked out of her home a year later.
One of the best known stories about her is how she and her young son lived at the radio station in its early years when it (and, by extension, they) were struggling financially. This story really struck a chord with me, because while I have not had to sleep in Po Campo’s warehouse yet, I know that I would do that if it meant keeping my business alive. Ms. Hughes is very inspiring woman and I encourage you to read this interview in the Huffington Post about her.
4. Oprah Winfrey, 1954 –
Well, you can’t have a list of African American entrepreneurs and not include Oprah Winfrey. Her story begins with being born into poverty in Mississippi to a teenage mother. She became a millionaire at age 32 when her show went national and is now considered the U.S.’s only African American billionaire. Of course her vast wealth is impressive, but how she overcame so many barriers to get to where she is today is truly inspirational. This video from the Makers series lets Ms. Winfrey tell her own story of her upbringing, her fight for equal pay, her bold philanthropic visions, and how she had to tell all the non-believers “I’ll show you” – and then did.
Who did I miss? Please leave your suggestions in the comments below so that we can appreciate all the amazing things these women have accomplished. #28daysisnotenough
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.
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!
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.
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.
I 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.
Most 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.
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!).