A Few Good Machines
2015 was the year of broad shoulders and the bay – moving from Chicago to San Francisco to see about startups and product management; more specifically, to figure out i.) what, if anything, made a good founder vs. a bad one and ii.) what it was about SF and iii.) which companies, if any, needed to be started there.
After a few months I got what I needed to know, and this all segued into 2016, the year of a few good machines. And a worthy problem.
How it looks
Last Monday, I woke up to a 7 am text telling me I was on a 9:15 flight. I was up, packed and out the door in 15 minutes. I was flying standby to see my factory.
Truthfully, when I say “my” factory, I mean the one I’ll probably work with, at least for a while. And when I say “factory,” I mean sew shop, which is smaller. But when I call it a “sew shop” people only hear “shop” and then they think I have a storefront and wonder why it’s in another a state. (Then again, when they hear “factory” they think “sweat shop,” so it’s really a lose/lose, which is just part of the reason why I tend to not spend a ton of time getting people up to speed when they ask “how’s business?” That, and I just spend way too much of my day talking and thinking about it as it is.)
I’d been meaning to take this trip for weeks, struggling to fit in between client appointments, production, and capricious flight loads. And now it’s like a perfect storm of “open” across all three and here’s this text on my phone at 7 am, and I’m now making this 24-hour trip to another state. I even got the middle seat, which I love. (Seriously. Don’t make it weird.)
Most normal days, I am on client appointments all over the city and working on production in town for this little company that I started earlier this year, and more often than not, I feel good about the way that company is growing. I work odd hours and every day, though frankly I kinda dig it. I ride a motorcycle to see my clients, which makes no sense at all in terms of either professionalism or product representation, because I sell dresses, but I don’t care, either count.
I spend most of my time with – or thinking about – clients, playing this game of “being a woman” and trying to better understand them, as it pertains to my business but also in general. And I love my clients and love solving the fit problem for them; love meeting them and making them feel awesome.
But part of starting a business is that you will go a little crazy – first from isolation and then from client interactions, because they take on a certain nature that’s deeply satisfying, but only in very particular ways.
End of day, I want little more than to crack open a beer and talk to a dude, about anything other than dresses.
It takes a degree of risk-taking to do things. You make these tremendous investments in areas of your life and you’ve got energy outstretched way beyond your core in one direction, you end up doing things to balance it out in others. You toe the line of recklessness and sometimes you have to brush up against the wall to know it’s there. It’s deliberate and it’s rowdy, it’s tender and it’s rough.
You practice restraint in some areas; you bleed out in others.
I love my clients. But moreover, I love the game. And then the game seeps into your life and that right there is the shit.
I started a company.
I was frustrated with women’s clothing. There are big problems with the way it fits, the poor quality, the inefficiency of shopping. There’s a lot I could write about this – and a lot that I already have – but, in short: shit’s broke, yo.
I worked backwards from retail through production until I stopped getting bullshit and excuses from people in the industry telling me why it couldn’t be solved. I ended up going all the way back to machinery and motors, because they’re honest and clean, and built the company with my own industrial equipment for production and a motorcycle for client meetings.
I shared the frustrations, and clothing was also something I could touch, which meant it was something I could test and then stand up myself. Costs were low, turnaround time was low, and I developed a pretty intimate understanding of the production that, now that I’ve brought on support, has really benefited the delegation. Which is the next step.
What it is
TL;DR – Made to measure dresses. I went from not even knowing how to sew to having my dresses worn on Steve Harvey in under a year. So I guess you could say things are getting pretty serious.
In that timeframe, we also collaborated with local businesses and organizations (such as Glowout Salon, BLVDier, Forth Chicago, and Windy City Cosmo) as well as individual influencers, female founders (such as Bela Gandhi of Smart Dating Academy, Mal and Coco Strong of Goldplaited, and Rebecca Borges, President of Chicago’s FemCity), stylists (Meghan Jedlinski, Mallory Sills, and Hanna Lee), fashion bloggers (including Lauren Nolan), podcasts, blogs, etc.
We have averaged double-digit growth in sales per week since it started, and if that’s good enough for Paul Graham of Y Combinator, it’s good enough for us. (August was pretty sweet, being our fifth month in a row of 20%+ weekly growth.) Plus, virtually all of that growth has been word of mouth, which is extra cool.
Clients have worn their dresses at speaking engagements, offices, date nights, bachelorette parties, rehearsal dinners, weddings, holiday parties, New Years Eve parties, and 30th and 40th birthday parties (including my own.) 25% of the dresses are ordered as gifts for sisters and friends and daughters and wives.
We have seamstresses and a small factory and soon we’ll have sales people, and then new prints and fabrics and styles. But most importantly, we have clients who are excited about an attempt at a solution.
It’s clothing, but it’s not about fashion. It’s about people. Because people deserve better.
Look, like many firsts, nothing beats the feeling of the first customer.
I say our sales started in April, but really the first sale was in March, from a stranger, before I even asked for or expected it. I was still learning how to make dresses, using a bunch of “guinea pig” women I’d found online, and one of them insisted on paying me. Frankly, it was a total turn-on.
Similarly awesome feelings: hitting revenue growth goals a bunch of months in a row, getting word of mouth, getting traction, getting visibility, and that feeling when a client loves your product so much she shoots you a candid photo of her wearing it at 10 pm Friday night. That’s pretty cool.
Worst part of starting a company is the period of deafening white noise between quitting your job and getting your first customer, when you’re not sure if this is a thing or people value it.
Thankfully, this period was relatively brief for me. I pushed hard to get a client asap, so it was just a couple of months at the beginning of this year when I was still figuring out patterns and sewing and practicing on those “guinea pig” women. (It made it harder that this was during the winter. But one main saving grace was that it was a relatively mild one, and there were quite a few dry, mid-30’s days when I could at least take the bike out for short rides.)
It’s better once you get started, though it still sucks when you disappoint a client – her dress needs alterations (again), or it takes longer than expected, or – god forbid – you make a mistake in design (it’s only happened once or twice, easily fixed.) The only thing you can do is show up, own your part (and then some), take your blows, and then bend over backwards for as long as they’ll let you try to make it right. But behind closed doors, that low-belly sinking feeling still sucks.
BIGGEST LESSONS LEARNED
(1) By far the biggest lesson this year was: Neurosis is not the same as introversion.
I can’t believe I got this far in life not knowing this. But I’m also glad I figured it out when I did. Introversion is healthy. Neurosis is not. It’s totally okay to be reserved, or recharge on your own, or prefer books to parties. What’s not okay is to succumb to actual social anxiety, and too often we don’t realize that and chalk it up to “introversion.” It’s not.
Some helpful tips:
- Always assume people like you. People want to like other people. Normal, healthy ones do, anyway, and those are the ones you want to work with.
- Similarly: never assume it’s you. People are busy and they have entire lives outside of getting back to you. If you don’t hear back after they expressed initial interest, keep following up until you do. It’s not you. It’s them.
- Worry is wasted energy. The best solution for anxiety or stress is action. Do something already. Nothing will ever happen while obsessing over your manic scribble-lists and stress notes. The last year has given me a much deeper appreciation for composure – the only thing sexier is decision and action, and very little is unsexier than panic. I still get nervous every single time I see a client. If I waited until I was 100% ready, I’d still be sitting on my floor surrounded by bad scrap fabric.
- Oh my god, just smile already. It’s not a sexist thing. I assumed it was, too, until I hired an interpersonal coach and the first thing she did was film me interacting with her. It took less than 10 seconds of watching that footage for me to be convinced. Smiling makes a huge difference. I’m still working on it.
(2) Context is king. Time and place is everything.
In the same sense that you wouldn’t want to be hit on at your grandma’s funeral, there’s a time and place that people want to be sold to. Even talked to.
(3) You’re not special.
I say this in the most loving way possible. The sooner you realize you’re not the only one with your problems and frustrations and idiosyncrasies, the sooner you can capitalize on them. You think you’re the only one who loves coloring books or forearms? Wrong. Find your people.
(4) Put your best foot forward, but don’t spend a ton of time convincing people.
Another way sales is a lot like dating. Focus your energy on those who want you. The others will come around when they’re ready. Or not.
(5) Nothing is really that hard.
You throw energy at it every day and eventually it’ll yield. It’s amazing the headway you make if you just sort of lean on things.
This time last year my biggest concerns were: figuring out how to use an industrial sewing machine, make patterns, and find customers. At the time, they all seemed nebulous and daunting. Now they’re all part of my everyday life, and my new biggest questions are: how to scale production, improve pattern accuracy, and build a sales team. A year from now, these will ideally be “everyday” too.
(6) Incidentally, a lot about patterns and clothing production. And quite a bit more about sales.
(1) The bike
I picked up the second bike, a Ducati, in early November, after months of trying to just make it through the season on old boy and finally caving (mostly because his front end threatened to.) The Duc doesn’t have a name (neither does old boy – it’s not really “old boy”), but he does have a personality, though perhaps not what you might expect: it’s the light, floating prance of an Arabian horse. Or a jingle horse (“pick up your feet.”) Sometimes he’s an actual duck.
…Or the bouncing DMX llama:
In short, he’s adorably light underhand, which makes him super playful and fun.
(Incidentally, old boy’s personality has always been best summarized with the gif of Clint Eastwood having coffee, from Gran Torino. Still a little badass; mostly sick of your shit. Though, as of late, he can also be characterized by this horse. Because: front end, as I said.)
(2) The apartment.
Probably the “sexiest” apartment and my favorite while living in Chicago (apart from my tiny white box in Oak Park, which served a very different purpose and was loved for entirely different reasons.) This one has the doorman and quartz countertop pizazz to please the boy, but also the warehouse history and matchstick hardwood grit for me. And perhaps most importantly, space. So much space. For all of our hardware and machinery and the work we both do. All without leaving our ‘hood or sacrificing walking distance to our favorite spots.
It’s also the only apartment I’ve ever named, and her name is Anita.
(3) The 30th birthday.
Threw a couple of bomb-ass birthday parties. And bought a bike (see above.) It was great.
(4) The Whilk and Misky concert.
Still one of my favorite artists, and they delivered. They played a ton of shit I’d never heard and played it all well and at the end I applauded them using their real names and they ignored me. It was great.
(5) Dat final, winning play between Bryant and Rizzo, game 7 of the World Series.
Okay. Yeah, I got sucked in. I said I wasn’t gonna get sucked in – even swore I was gonna hate the city of Chicago even more than I already do if they won – but in the end I couldn’t not get sucked in.
I’m not a sports fan, let alone a baseball fan, but I watched the games in the way everyone in Chicago was watching the games. They were on everywhere. You couldn’t not.
I was mid-conversation with someone during the game and didn’t even see that final play live, but when the replay surfaced the next day, I rewatched it like a million times.
Everyone fell in love with Kris Bryant and his idiot grin. And sure, I did too. But what I loved even more was the moment just after it: first baseman Rizzo, knowing, his arm outstretched and unmoving, no adjustments, just rock steady like “right here, buddy. Get it here and I gotchu.” Like Snow reaching for Rickon in Battle of the Bastards. And like Kevin Costner’s character reaching for the letter in the final scene of The Postman. I apparently have a thing for this, and Rizzo put out. Afterwards, I tumbled into a 24-hour rabbit hole of Rizzo first-base highlights. I could watch that guy dive for hits for days.
Everyone fell in love with the Cubs – and the Cubs fans. Nobody hates a Cubs fan. If the Cubs were the lovable losers, their fans poured on enough love to make them lovable, too, and the whole city was a cesspool of affection. During their losing streak, you never heard a hateful word from a fan. On the contrary, the whole city trekked up to Wrigley to chalk their love and encouragement all over the stadium walls.
People were worried there’d be riots if the Cubs won, and I was like “have you seen these fans?” Midwest right to the end, even the parade was a cordial “no please, after you – let’s cheer together!” affair.
Not this year, bro. It just didn’t excite me in the ways it usually does. The only trips I made were for work or fam (my brother and his wife went and had themselves a baby, so some for that. Because #niecelove.) Next year, more. Probably much. Still work, in other ways.
Took a hiatus from this blog, mostly because I was focused on the company, thinking about other shit, and writing about it all elsewhere. Will probably share it eventually, but it’s mostly your garden variety first-year-of-a-company questions, baby “revelations,” and other notes.
I read 75 books this year. Mostly business. Some better than others.
- 15 on clothing, fashion and manufacturing
- 11 biographies and autobiographies, mostly from entrepreneurs
- 7 dating books intended for men (“player books”) in an effort to figure out women, and 2 on love + relationships in an effort to figure out me
- 17 other introspective / “self-improvement” ones
- Only 2 works of fiction: Atlas Shrugged and – wait for it – The Call of The Wild
- Way too many (like, 20) business books, most of which were what I call “bullshit business books” – the ones written by people who have only studied and never actually done the thing they’re talking about*. You know, the books sold in airports and shit.
The best of all 75 were:
- Shoe Dog (Knight)
- Scaling Lean (Maurya)
- The Woman I Wanted to Be (DVF)
- Made in America (Walton)
- Grinding it Out (Kroc)
- Let My People Go Surfing (Chouinard)
- Pour Your Heart Into It (Schultz)
I don’t normally include film mostly because I don’t watch a ton, but in the same vein as the best books: I watched Coco Before Chanel like half a dozen times this year, which obviously isn’t typical (for anyone, but especially me) but it’s so good. Coco Chanel is my spirit animal.
*A word on “bullshit business books:” about a year ago I reached my saturation point and tolerance level for authors out there who lacked firsthand experience with a subject and yet still felt entitled to write (and sell) books. This includes everyone with “credentials” such as “expert,” “insider,” “advisor,” “thinker,” “chairman,” etc. associated with “forums,” “organizations,” “committees,” etc. (One author included that he’d traveled to 41(!) countries in his bio – for a technology book. Dude, this impresses nobody except you – and other insecure, fake-accolade-motivated people.) In short, all of these authors are inferior to any author with an actual degree in the domain, especially if it’s science or engineering, and/or anybody with “founder” following their name (when it’s associated with an actual company, not a committee, forum, or org.)
As an aside, “expert,” like “couture” or “humble,” is one of those things you should never call yourself. Weirdos.
The problem, of course, is that the “theorists” – unsurprisingly – make up the vast majority of the books out there (since the doers are busy, you know, doing.) So unfortunately they do sometimes slip in. But what the doers write, when they do write, is so much more valuable, and I’d take a single poorly-written paragraph from a doer over 100,000 words of rambling nothingness from a theorist any day. But we do what we can.
SCATTER SHOT SUMMARY
Tasted like: beer. So much beer. Also white cheddar popcorn, burrata and arugula pizza, feta cheese, and black coffee.
Smelled like: gasoline, faintly, from a leaky gas tank cap. Good cologne. Dude deodorant. “Leather” and “wood” scented candles.
Sounded like: MØ, mostly. But it started with Gomez / Same Old Love and Beiber / Love Yourself and ended with La Roux / Sexotheque, K Flay / Blood in the Cut, Johnny Cash / Hurt, Cigarettes After Sex / Nothing’s Gonna Hurt You Baby.
Looked like: patterns, pattern paper, rulers, ink smudges on your hands. Thread, needles, stitches, seams. Ribbons, roads, addresses, front doors. The good fit of a dress done well; the alterations – usually hips – of most others. The bodies, but moreover the eyes, of clients.
Felt like: the rush of several new clients or successful client meetings in a row, the rush of brushing up against new things. And people. The anxiety of each new client meeting. The warmth of getting it right. The thrill of being in charge – and free of bullshit. Pushing yourself to do something even when you don’t want to. Wondering if you’re doing enough. Wondering how to do more. Leaning, prodding. Bad fabric, better fabric. The instability of a bad front end, the joy of taking a curve on a more stable and sporty bike. The pleasure of riding, either way. Pain in your wrists, from bike riding and fabric cutting. Apprehension and courage and joy.
MAJOR THREADS + UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
Things I’m still chewing on but haven’t fully figured out:
- The idea of a thing vs. the thing itself. (Also looking for better ways to describe this.)
- Accurate vs. false logic / the right reason to do things
- A bit on love and being a woman
More travel, as I said. More books. More sales. Far more robust production. Maybe a kid.
Lolol, just kidding.
The company’s my kid.