Photo by Kristen Marie Photography
Andie's post about "failing up" really struck a cord with me. Being a small business owner comes with perks and drawbacks. One of those drawbacks is isolation. When you work with a big team you have an opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other, give encouragement and also commiserate when things aren't their best. Aside from Ryan I don't get a chance to hear from other small business owners about the challenges that we all face trying to make our way alongside big corporations and established businesses. It's easy to get stuck on all the things that we could be doing better. It's easy see every little setback as a failure. Andie's post helped remind me that I'm not in this alone and how important it is to use what may seem like failures to learn and improve.
My last corporate job was as a Store Manager of an Urban Outfitters. I ran a 7mil a year store and had 50+ employees. At 24 I had achieved something in my life that I was very proud of. When I left Urban I knew I was on to bigger and better things but I was having a hard time giving up "my store." Every time I walked into the store I felt respected. I felt empowered. This tangible, enormous, beautiful, well oiled machine was run by me. I felt proud explaining where I worked and what I did. I felt accomplished in my life. My friends and parents were skeptical about me leaving a great job that I was very good at.
After Urban I started running an unnamed vintage furniture business out of my house while I went back to school. I wanted to sell furniture so that I could buy more furniture (and not be a hoarder). I ended up loving the job but I needed an extra set of hands to grow the business, so I asked my husband for help. With Ryan's photography and muscles we were able to buy more furniture, move furniture around easily and take more professional looking pictures. I was selling exclusively on Craigslist and my price point was super low, but I still made almost as much money as I was making at Urban. I could see the potential in my business but I needed to make it more real. I felt embarrassed telling people my job was selling used furniture on Craigslist. It's definitely not the same feeling as telling someone you run a well known, successful store. My new goal was to pick a brand name and create a website. That was in July of 2011.
After the launch of the website something great happened. I was extremely lucky that photos of our home, from our wedding, were featured all over the internet with a link to our photographer who linked to my website. Because of those amazing wedding photos our home was featured on Apartment Therapy (a life goal of mine) which also linked to my website and gave a lot of credibility to the business. It was the first time that I felt really proud of the new career path I was on.
Photo by Kristen Marie Photography
Business was going great, but I needed Ryan full time. He was exhausted from essentially working two jobs and I couldn't continue to grow without him. In November of 2011, after some very forceful persuasion from me (and a severe lack of support from our friends and families) Ryan finally decided to quit his job. Just as I had felt sad and like a bit of a failure leaving my fancy corporate job, Ryan was in the same funk. However, in general we were feeling pretty confident and still getting featured frequently which was encouraging. We were starting to build the business that I dreamed of. We were really proud. Then we had the fire.
I don't want to go into lengthy details, but we had an electrical fire (on Dec 28, 2011) in the middle of the night that destroyed the second story of our home. Luckily we and our pets were safe along with our inventory, but we couldn't live at our house and we had to find a place to run our business. Less than two months after Ryan gave up his steady income. A few months after we had finally finished making our fixer-up of a home beautiful enough to be featured on Apartment Therapy. Never have I felt so down and so hopeless. This was a perfect time to just quit, get regular jobs and try to bounce back from this tragedy. I was a depressed shell of a person. My house was gone, but I refused to give up on our business.
For the first month we showed furniture out of our friend's 800 sq ft house while living there with four adults, three large dogs and two cats. In February we moved into a rental that we picked to best house our business. We had relied heavily on our customers' excitement to see our home, so not being there was an adjustment. We had to explain why we weren't there over and over again. I couldn't tell the story at all. I had to stop dealing with customers, it was too much for me. Ryan was happy to start working directly with customers. He is a rock. He also moved all of our product from our house to the rental. I physically couldn't go to the house, I was in tears the entire time, even driving by was too hard for me.
Everything seemed terrible but we kept going. Ryan worked on his furniture refinishing skills and I worked more with fabrics and our upholsterer. Ryan learned more about photography and photo editing. I learned more about writing copy and what product to buy. We had to go though the first year of our business (and marriage) living in a rental while overseeing a massive ($130K) renovation of our home that we didn't even want to renovate or have the life experience to deal with! We also lost both of our dogs to cancer - trying to motivate yourself to work thought that is impossible.
We didn't have our fancy corporate job titles, we didn't have our beautiful home and we didn't even have our dogs. It was hard not to feel like we failed, but we had this business and we had each other. When we felt stifled by selling solely on Craigslist we made an Etsy shop and then learned everything we could about shipping furniture. When we felt like our name wasn't really us we re-branded, had a couple of slow months because of it, but came out happier and more proud of what we had created. We learned more about furniture designers and the value of what we were selling, then got better product. We spent weeks looking though online shops that inspired us and then upgraded our logos, improved photography even more and launched a new website. We took what seemed like the ultimate fail and used it to motivate us to improve.
We are back in our house and the contractors were gone as of last week. We still have a lot of work to do to get the house staged and really feel proud of it again but we can finally focus on getting settled. We are happy, our business is doing better than ever and we have a new dog. Life goes on.
Photo via Ryan Tansey's Instagram
Even though things are going so well I still beat myself up over not being good enough. I cringe looking at the vendors on competitors' sites and seeing the exact things we sell priced 2-10 times higher than we can price them. My initial reaction is, "what am I doing wrong!?" Instead of getting down on myself for all the things I'm not doing I ask, "how do we get from where we are to there?" and focus instead on how far we've come. Maybe one day that will be a good fit for us, but right now I am thankful for where we are with our business and all of the progress we've made despite the odds being majorly stacked against us. We could have given up so many times, but thankfully we didn't let ourselves fail, we grew.