Tag Archives: Failure

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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Rebounding from Major Setbacks

2015 wasn’t the first time I felt like my business was falling apart. It also happened in 2012.

The disaster of 2012 actually began in 2011. Newly split from my co-founder, I was excited to take over the reigns of the business and really start growing it as I had always envisioned. I moved production overseas to make the product more viable in the marketplace, and, for the first time ever, got large orders from nationwide stores like REI and Title Nine. When I did my revenue forecasts, 2012 looked like it was going to be the first year when I could pay myself, plus another person or two, plus get our own studio space. It’s hard to express how meaningful that felt after slogging away without anything for 3 years.

It all started to fall apart when the product from our new manufacturer showed up months late. I didn’t want to upset our new customers by not being able to ship on time, so I produced product locally, which demolished the profit I was planning on making. Then, not all of the products that showed up were up to our standards, so I took a loss on those too. Then, the bags that we did ship didn’t sell as well as the stores had thought they would, and they canceled their future orders.

This left me deep in the red and with a lot of inventory that I didn’t know what to do with. All I could think about was, “Who can I sell this stuff to??”. I didn’t care who bought it, I just needed to sell it.

My wake-up call was when I was talking to my business coach and she asked me who I thought my customer was. “I don’t even know!” I wailed.

In my design agency days, “Know your customer” was my mantra. I did user research and built customer personas all day long. And here I was, with my own business, not even knowing who my (true) customer was. My customer was anyone who would buy bags so that I could live another day.

Not good.

I survived that year, and became stronger, or at least more resilient. (Hear a podcast interview with me about this whole episode on Fashion Brain Academy). It took awhile to recover and get everything back in order. In 2013 and 2014, we started doing a lot more consumer facing events, and I got to meet my customer in person. We did a big research project in 2014, which helped me get to know her even better. But, knowing your customer isn’t quite enough to have a successful business. You also have to have a vision for your company, and know why it is doing what it is doing.

I always thought I had a vision. It was this: “Po Campo to be the go-to brand for urban minded individuals who seek to make every day a day worth living”. I guess that’s kind of a vision. But it doesn’t give you the “why”. Why do I want this? And why does my customer care?

So that’s what I’m working on now. I started Po Campo from a very genuine place. I wanted to make these bike bags because I knew they would help people bike more to get around, which is something I care about deeply. I don’t feel like I need to fabricate a “why”. I just need to articulate it, and embrace it.

 

 

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