While I was working for the second day on a clean-up project in our kitchen-turned-dye-room at work, I was also thinking about some emails I had recently received asking about how I started and grew Tutu.Com. It occurred to me that growing a business was not unlike the details of my current project- cleaning and organizing - it was very tedious. I cranked up Pandora, and let my mind wander. I started thinking about how it always takes way longer to get anything done than I think it will. This led me to think about the emails I had received, and the answers I had given, all of which were short, encouraging them to “hang in there and do consistently good work.” The emailers had expressed frustration with trying to grow their businesses, something I understand very well.
When I decided to start this project - re-organizing the Dye Room, I figured it would take one, long day....I was on the second long day, and I now knew it was going to take two more days to finish it all. I guess I never developed a good sense of how long things take. I certainly never thought my business would take as long as it has just to get to this point.
I remembered eight years ago, we had finally moved the business out of my house, after 13 years. I actually started the business part-time 6 or 7 years before that, at the Charlotte City Ballet studios, while I was still teaching ballet.
At first, I was happy working from home. I was newly re-married, and I had a newly-blended family of four teenagers and a five year old to deal with. At that point, I wasn’t looking to build a business with employees. I simply wanted to make a little supplemental income doing something I loved to do. Over the years, the business slowly took over the house. People would call and ask if I would sell them some of the fabrics and trims they had seen in pictures I posted of costumes I was making. I started ordering more and more fabrics and other items for customers, and would take requests for various items when I had a shopping trip planned to New York, Los Angeles, London, etc.
For many years, people found us through word-of-mouth. The ballet world is a small world, with only one degree of separation between people. If you don’t know someone, you can bet one of your friends does know them. Personal recommendations were, and still are a huge part of this world. The internet was growing and in a constant state of flux. Looking back, I think it was extremely difficult to make decisions because the technology was changing so quickly. Literally, every month there seemed to be some big change that had to be made, or something “new and better” to upgrade to.
My older children grew up and went away to school and work. Poor Sophie, the youngest, thought it was normal to grow up in what, for all intents and purposes, had become a fabric warehouse. My neighbors were used to giant, semi-trucks delivering coffin-sized boxes of fabrics to our little cul de sac several times a week.
I had started the business in the early 90’s, before there were shopping carts on websites, among other things....Suddenly, shopping carts were everywhere and we were behind. Behind everyone. Where we had been the only tutu business on the internet for years, there were now others. And they had shopping carts and fancy websites.
Somehow, at this point, we had over 3000+ items to photograph and upload to a shopping cart just to catch up with everyone else....that took three years, partly because I had no idea what I was doing, or how to take a good still photograph, and not a strong enough cash flow to hire an extra person to help me. I’m still changing out many of those original photos for better ones today. It never ends.
It was a problem that all businesses that had already been around for years had at that particular time. Back then, it was so much easier to start a new business than it was to re-adjust a business that had more than one or two (never mind ten or more!) revenue streams. Changing from the mail-order/catalog mentality to the internet/computerized mentality was difficult at best.
At around this time, I got a divorce. Suddenly, I had to learn how to use a computer - Word, Quickbooks, online banking, Shopify, too many passwords. I had to hire a company to build a website with a shopping cart. I had to hire a shop manager since I would be spending the next few years learning how to run my business since my ex-husband had done that, while I made tutus. I hired and fired several website development companies. No one seemed to think that my opinions on what I wanted for my own business, mattered. They did not understand why it was important to me that we have pictures of real ballet dancers wearing our costumes, rather than free, dreadful stock images of models who couldn’t point their feet, much less turn out their legs, wearing fluffy little catalog costumes that we didn’t make. This is important - make sure you have beautiful pictures of your costumes on beautiful, talented, professional dancers, or at least pre-professional, advanced level students with beautiful feet and legs. If you settle for less, your credibility will be less in the eyes of the dancers considering your costumes.
Finally, thanks to my friend, and extraordinary ballet photographer, Gene Schiavone, I met, and hired, an amazing web designer, Vicky Shaw. She is absolutely the best person for the job - extremely patient with me and my complete ineptness when it comes to computers, and a talented designer with extraordinarily good taste. She also has a ballet background, which is invaluable.
Gene and I worked out a trade. I would supply him with costumes for his shoots and he would supply me with extraordinary pictures of beautiful dancers wearing them.
Summer came on board as the Shop Manager. I’m so thankful every day to get to work with her. Another important point: my ballet teacher and mentor, David Howard, once told me that when you are ready to hire other people, find people who are experts at what they do and let them do their jobs. Do not micro-manage. This is the best advice anyone ever gave me.
Everyone, especially many of my costuming friends and colleagues, seemed to think they knew what was best for me. What it really boiled down to was this: they wanted me to work on what they perceived to be in THEIR best interests. Many of these people perceived me as being too slow to get anything done for them and pretty much wrote me off.
Here it is seven long years later, and I am STILL taking pictures and loading items up to the website. The latest projects were rhinestones, which took six months and is still not totally finished, and Dye, which I am almost finished with. It was hurtful knowing that my credibility had diminished in the eyes of some friends and colleagues, but I am so happy that I dug my heels in and stuck to what I knew was best for MY business. And it turns out that most of them have an even worse sense of time and what it takes to develop a successful business than I have. It is a good thing that I was too busy doing what needed to be done to allow myself to take their not-so-good intentions too seriously. This is important to developing a successful business: make a plan and stick with it. Be consistent in your work ethic and do not let anyone pressure you into anything that is not in your plan. Have both a short term and long-term plan - maybe three years and ten years, or whatever works best for you. Take the time to write down your plans, adding as much detail as you can, then work your plans. Make changes or additions as you see fit. Remember that no one knows your business better than you do.
A successful business is all about TIME and the three P’s - Patience, Perseverance, and Passion. All three are tied to detail which is tied to time. The more detail involved, the more time something takes. But keep in mind, detail for detail’s sake is not always a good thing. Building a great business is like designing a beautiful costume. Detail is important. But knowing how to edit yourself is even more important. And that is hard because, just like with designing a costume, there is the danger of allowing your ego to become dependent on other people’s opinions and praise. You have got to be able to look beyond yourself to what is in the best interest of the whole project. Same when building a business - you have to look beyond yourself, beyond your ego, to what is best for the big picture. If you can do that, you have a chance at success.
All of this was running around in my head while I worked on the dye room. Definitely helped the time go by quickly....two more days to go on that project. Then on to the next project. There are three more to go from the last ten-year plan I made almost eight years ago. I may be slow in the minds of some people, but I think I’m right on track, and more importantly, I’m enjoying the ride.