Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge that yes, my small business Fabricker is closing the retail chapter of its overall business identity. In September 2013, the store joined forces in one (Fabricker’s) location with a couple other businesses, Stitched Fabrics and Lilia Ballí Tailoring to form Austin Fabric Co-op— a concept that enables those who want to make their own clothing or buy their clothing locally and direct from the maker. My partners joined me in my current lease to mitigate overhead costs and relieve all of us of the grueling 60+ hour, 6 day weeks we were suffering under our own separate roofs. It worked great!
…Until both the other businesses, now profiting more than ever, felt the need to expand their space and diversify their service offerings, because with all the growth, we were indeed starting to feel rather cramped. For a number of reasons, including a lease I’m still locked into for another year, I got cold feet at the thought of investing even more money into an expansion, including moving and essentially starting over. Even worse, I couldn’t imagine going back to carrying all the overhead of this store on Fabricker’s finances alone, and going back to the schedule of one day off a week for everything that needed to happen for my family, like lawncare, housecleaning, grocery shopping, and just plain togetherness. On top of that, while Fabricker has been somewhat profitable, all of the profits went into reinvestment, making me an unpaid volunteer for two years and counting. Forming a co-op allowed me to work part time and at least bring in a small income on the side, but never in an amount that would offset full time childcare. Without the co-op, I didn’t feel like going onward, alone again, back to square one. Without the business, I could return to some semblance of personal income and financial self-preservation.
So what gives me the authority to tell anyone what small business success looks like? Well, in the experiment known as “small business,” no matter the outcome, you get let in on a few very real secrets. Allow me to share them with you.
1. There is more than one way to measure success.
Financial worth seems to be our society’s way of measuring the value of everyone and everything, and many including myself believe this mentality is a widespread illness. There are so many ways in which my business and any other’s can be a success without making money.
In the life of your business…
- How many times have you made someone’s day?
- How many times have you saved someone’s ass?
- How many times have you gotten someone back into a long-neglected hobby or interest, that now gives them joy again? Acquainted someone with a taste they’ve never experienced, or reacquainted someone with a flavor they thought they’d left in their past?
- How many people have you introduced to one another? How many partnerships, friendships, and relationships have resulted from those introductions? What’s the sense of community you’ve created? Lives you’ve permanently and positively changed?
- How much impact have you had on the culture of your neighborhood? Your industry? Your city and state?
- How much have you learned about your trade?
- How many credentials have you gained?
Opening a store, while profitable, didn’t make me money, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have value. Conversely, closing a store, while still profitable, doesn’t mean it failed. There are pop-up shops and restaurants all the time that exist with a limited expiration date, which creates an urgency among patrons and a freshness in the execution of their concepts. I admit that I never planned for Fabricker to close, but I did always hope to hand it off to others. In a way, I have. Austin Fabric Co-op is an entity that wouldn’t exist without Fabricker… or me! (I came up with the name.)
In these two years, I’ve forged countless friendships, formed a true community (and a venue for it), shaped the identity of the fashion industry in Austin (perhaps even Texas), won a “Best of Austin” award from my favorite local publication, was featured regularly in several periodicals, and on and on and on. How is that a failure?
2. Humble thyself.
When you’re first starting a business, you have a dream. In fact, you have big dreams. You see that big 5 bed, 4 bath house listed on Zillow? That’s going to be yours someday, with all that money you’re going to make with your brilliant idea and your fail safe plan.
NO, STOP. Please get real. They say you dislike in others the very things you hate about yourself, and this is precisely why I cannot stand to listen to untested entrepreneurs talk, because that was me two years ago.
“I have a degree and lots of experience.” “I am filling a niche.” “I am following a trend bigger cities have caught onto.” “I have capital, funding, savings.” “I have a sizable fanbase begging me to make it happen.” “I have a business plan with no spelling or punctuation errors.”
Other than your product, you cannot really sell any of that for money to recoup your investment. If your product is weak, undeveloped, low in stock, low in quality, hard to profit from, none of those “assets” you think you have at the beginning amount to anything except a radically inflated– and immediately deflated– ego.
Newsflash! Being an entrepreneur, no matter how good your ideas are, doesn’t automatically make you the special snowflake your mama always thinks you are. It doesn’t entitle you to easy cash, media recognition, or even a consolation prize. Time and effort MIGHT yield that for you, and don’t even for a moment hold your breath that it will.
3. The motivational posters can be bad advice.
Go for it/Just do it? Unless you are truly more prepared for failure than you are for success, please don’t.
Hang in there? Kitten, if you would just let go of that damn branch, you’re probably going to fall on all four feet and walk away to find yourself some kibble.
Everything happens for a reason? Maybe that reason is you needed to file for bankruptcy to evaluate what’s really important in life. Are you eager to learn that lesson?
4. You don’t have enough money.
You never will. The game is rigged that way. Thanks for playing!
For some reason we are sold this ideal in the movies that the best way to get rich and improve your life is to open a business, which is total bullshit. It’s more like joining the Peace Corps, “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
5. Don’t go it alone.
Find a partner. Enlist professionals. Hire employees (if you know you can afford them.) Delegate tasks to customer fans who are vested in seeing you succeed. Whatever you do, don’t try to be a hero and wear yourself out trying to be a one-man-or-woman show. You’ll find yourself a few months later disconnected from all your loved ones, trapped in a store or office prison for days on end with wonky bookkeeping, questionable legal practices, and unchecked messaging.
6. Don’t make promises (or announcements) you cannot keep.
Don’t “fake it until you make it.” That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard.
Don’t make grandiose plans and sell them in your marketing/publicity efforts, at any level, until the dotted line is signed. Nothing worse for your credibility than saying you’re going to do some big thing, like opening a new location, taking on a big new client, expanding, etc., and then DON’T. Didn’t you read “Boy Who Cried Wolf?” No one believed that kid and he got eaten. No one will believe you either if you talk yourself into your own personal tall tale, and people (read: clients) will either avoid your proven dishonesty like the plague, and others (read: competitors) will relish in your failure to deliver or worse, profit from it.
7. Your competitors can be your best allies.
…Unless they’re totally insecure and have trouble dealing with humanity, in which case, good luck to them, because they’re going to need it going up against you, oh great entrepreneurial superhuman!
My co-op came about as a result of having a competitor up the road who sold similar, yet different, fabrics with just a little overlap. People came to us looking for what they sold and we didn’t sell, and we sent them there. They, in turn, did the same. Our relationship became key to their success, so much that I even got flowers from them on Valentine’s Day! When they saw an opportunity for us to partner even closer, we all wished we’d done so from the beginning. Now that they’re taking the business onward, a part of me wishes I could share in the journey. If we had done so from the beginning, I wouldn’t be nearly as burned out and cash poor, and probably would be seeing this through. It’s nice to know that, on some level, I will stay involved, and I can always say I was there in the beginning. None of that would have happened if I treated them like an enemy.
8. You are not your business.
Don’t take ANYTHING in business personally. I may slip up from time to time, but never refer to your business with the pronouns “I” or “me.” In this way, you never verbally and mentally tie the results, bad or good, of your business with yourself. Your clients to some extent buy into your identity when they buy from your business, but ultimately, it’s really about your product and the actions you took to deliver it, not you as a person. Besides, the big idea is that the company grows, and that you eventually expand or even sell the thing. Then you really cannot refer to your creation as yourself, any more than you can call your natural born child “me.” If the business closes, fails, reinvents itself or otherwise ceases to exist, you are still here.
And so, here am I. My next move is to stay at home with my daughter and work from home as a publicist for a team who primarily deals in events with a substantial fashion clientbase. Public relations is one of the many hats I wore as a business owner, but something in which I also have work experience. Part of the job of being a publicist (a good one anyway) is being a business consultant. Knowing what I know now about business ownership has greatly enhanced my ability to market a client. We’ll see how it goes. I will definitely let you know.