I had so much fun at the talk I had at Knitty City last Thursday. There were a lot of familiar faces in the audience, and a few new ones too. A few of my friends couldn't make it, and were hoping I could write up something to summarize what I talked about. The focus of my talk was on the change I made from working in Big Law IT to working freelance as a Knitwear Designer from home and if I had any advice to those thinking about doing the same, or something similar. It was incredibly difficult to put my experiences into words, let alone coherently discuss any lessons. But, as I started to think back on my career and all the business ideas I've had along the way, there seemed to be a lot of things I learned and a lot of lessons I could share. I've broken up this post into three parts and I've bolded all of these so-called "lessons". I should preface this by saying, I'm a WIP, my life is a WIP and life is a learning experience.
It was last October, October 21st to be exact, when I quit my job. While I had been planning to leave my job for a long time, that exact moment wasn't really planned. And I don't necessarily recommend doing that. But when I calmed down (and crawled out from underneath my desk), I remembered it was something I had been thinking about and planning for for a very very long time. For as long as I can remember working in "Corporate America", I had been looking for a way out.
One of my earliest business ideas was to open up a bakery. I had just quit smoking and was desperately looking for a way to keep my hands busy. So, for reasons unknown to me, I thought baking would be a great idea. I went out and bought a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, a handful of cookbooks and got started. I made breads, cakes, cupcakes, frostings, fondant, cookies, tarts, pies, cobblers, crumbles... you name it, I made it. My very supportive roommates were very appreciative of all the homemade treats, egging me on to make their favorites. Confident in my basic knowledge of baking, my next step was to go over to a bakery and ask for a job. I'm not sure of our conversation, except something about a 4:00 am start-time. Once I heard that, I knew a bakery wasn't for me. I was young at the time, and 4:00 am was often a time I would be getting home. I played with the idea, and sort of kid myself into thinking it wasn't so bad. But, no. I came to my senses and realized it wasn't for me. I learned then and there that you really have to "Know Thyself" if you're going to work for yourself.
It's not just about what you're doing, but it's about the lifestyle and knowing what fits you... what suits you. So after a few other failed ideas of how I was going to make my escape from the corporate world, I realized that the exercise of just thinking of other things taught me a lot about myself. I started asking myself some hard questions about what I was willing to put up with, what I was willing to sacrifice and what kind of life I wanted to live. What was the life I envisioned for myself?
I put my KitchenAid Mixer away (not forever), and after gaining about 20 lbs., I started running. I eventually ran the NYC Marathon, and wanted to open up a high-end gym focused on women. That didn't really turn out (again, the lifestyle thing wasn't really for me), and I searched for something less active, and less having to do with my legs. So I turned to knitting. I was immediately smitten. I had to knit every day, and I remember calling into work sick to finish a scarf. Of course, I started thinking about business ideas regarding yarn and knitting. I wanted to open up a yarn store. I thought a yarn store owner needs to know as much about knitting as possible, so I started signing up for classes and this is when my life changed.
I enrolled in a class at Cooper Union with Lisa Daehlin, recommended by a dear friend. Lisa was (is) a huge fan of Knitty City, the only store in NYC at the time that carried her favorite needles. She recommended all of us to go up there and look around. She also mentioned that Pearl Chin, the owner of Knitty City, was a wonderful woman and that we should mention Lisa's referral. I went up to KC, looked around and really loved the warmth and friendliness of the store. Later on, I was online doing some research and saw that Pearl Chin of Knitty City was going to have a talk through a group called Asian Women in Business. The talk was a members-only event, so I immediately signed up, and went to hear Pearl talk about opening up a yarn store. About a week later, I approached Pearl, told her my plans, and asked to intern at the store. In true Pearl-style, she said, "Sure - why not. We've got to stick together." And since she was uncomfortable having me work for free, she insisted I at least work for yarn. So, I started working on the weekends, learning as much as I could about knitting, yarn, the customers and most of all, the business.
But because of this Cooper Union class, I also met Mari Tobita. She is an incredibly successful and talented designer and at the time was sample knitting for Shirley Paden. We exchanged e-mail addresses on the last day of class and she contacted me months later to see if I would be interested in doing some knitting for Shirley. I think the saying goes, "When one door closes, another opens." I was realizing that opening a yarn store was a little overwhelming and becoming a retailer involved a lot more than just yarn and knitting. But, when I began sample knitting for Shirley, I was realizing how much I loved the process, and she exposed aspects of designing that really piqued my interest.
I almost couldn't believe how much had come out of this one Cooper Union class. And I realized how important networking and researching are when stumbling into a new world. It was serendipitous and it's partly why I fell in love with the knitting community. After years of working in environments I disliked, I knew how important it was to really mesh with the industry you'd be working in.
So finally I was faced with something I really liked to do - designing. I started getting really excited about the thought of designing full-time and leaving my job. I finally found my way out! But I was really skeptical about how I could make a living doing it. I kept trying to talk myself into it with craziness like, "If I could just quit my job, I could devote all my time to it, and eventually I'd make enough money." That is a thought created out of desperation, not intelligence. And something I had read, popped into my head and I believe it was something Joelle Hoverson, the owner of Purl Soho, mentioned in an interview. And it went something like, "Do both for as long as you can." I think she was either debating between styling and painting, or painting and opening up the store, or styling and opening up the store. Anyway, It made total sense to me.
While I worked full-time, I started to design on the side. I started with a few pieces in Vogue Knitting and designed a piece for the Knit Noro book. And while I was itching to focus all of my attention on design, I just wasn't making enough money. And when I would daydream out loud to my husband, he would always ask me, "What's your plan? How are you going to do it?" I knew "designing a lot" wasn't a plan, so I stayed put and did both. I knit during all of my free time, constantly. And I realized that doing both was not just about money and planning, but it gave me the opportunity to really see if designing was for the long-haul. I had to make sure it wasn't a passing infatuation.
About a year and half after I posted my first pattern on Ravelry, I was contacted by Jared Flood to see if I'd be interested in doing a design for a collection he was putting together for his new yarn line, Shelter. He had seen my project page on Ravelry and thought our aesthetic was a good match. It would be for a one-time design for Wool People. I had no idea where this was going, or if I even liked his yarn having never used it. But I did know he was wildly popular, and that everything he touched seemed to turn to gold.
This one collaboration turned into a friendship and eventually he approached me about his idea for an In-House Design Team. Immediately I accepted and got to work on the Fall '11 Collection, and soon thereafter he launched the fingering weight companion to Shelter aptly named Loft. And then we started working on the launch collection for Loft. And then we began the Spring Thaw collection soon thereafter. It was exhilirating and an incredible learning experience. But, I knew I couldn't do both that much longer. The balance was becoming skewed, and I knew I had to make a choice soon.
Now, finally, I felt ok to truly plan for my departure. I knew I wasn't running away from something - I knew I wasn't just leaving my job because I was frustrated, or didn't like it, or hated the project I was on. I was leaving because I had something better to do. I finally had my alternative, and I finally had a plan. I realized how important it was to make sure I wasn't running away from something. Rather, I was running to something better. It was important for me to make sure this experience was positive, not negative.
Stay tuned for Pt. II & III... I'll be writing about making the actual change and working from home for yourself.