Let me Tell You a bit about my life before becoming the Entreprenette®
From where I was to where I am now.
I’ll be honest. I’ve got a long story to share. And I think it’s all important to understanding how I’ve gotten to where I am today.
But I don’t know how much time you have. So I’ve decided to treat this like a book, with my very own table of contents. Is there a part of the story that speaks out to you? Click on the link to jump over to it.
My life in the movies
It all started right after college. I got a job in the film business as a costume supervisor. It was an awesome job at first (I stuck around for 11 years). It had it all: High powered, multi-million dollar wardrobe budgets, and hobnobbing with big celebs.
Over time, it became a grind. Tight budgets and “tighter” movie stars (I was so tired of caring about “Hot movie star’s supposed allergy to cotton”) made the job uninspiring. I was becoming a bitter party of one and just wasn’t enjoying my life (I was so busy, I didn’t even have time for friends or dating!).
It took me 11 years to see it but the lesson I took from my first job was this: Just because you have a supposed glamorous and high-powered job, it doesn’t mean it’s fulfilling.
I decided I wanted to be successful and fulfilled at the same time.
Does babysitting count as job experience?
I knew it was time to move onto something else. But other than babysitting, I realized that I’d never had any other kind of “real” job. I was embarrassed at my lack of expertise in the real world.
Some of the questions running through my mind include:
- If I left, what could I possibly do to make money?
- Could I be trained to do something else?
- How was I even going to figure out what I liked doing? (Was there a class for that?)
I had no one to turn to for advice in a career change, as everyone I knew was in the film business and just as stuck as I was!
Martha Stewart and my A-ha Moment
In the late 90’s, I was an avid Martha Stewart reader (Still am); I always loved her “Good Things” section with all the clever craft ideas. She did a story I loved about making “little brown lunch bags” out of red felt with pinked edges. I thought the idea was cute; I went out and bought some felt and made the bags to wrap my holiday gifts. They were a huge hit.
While making the gift bags, I thought about changing the size and adding handles to make them into handbags. How cute, right?? Well, I ended up sitting on that idea for about 9 months. When I was in stores shopping for work, I fantasized that my bags were on the shelves next to Kate Spade’s. But since I had no idea how to begin, no one to ask for help, and was too scared to leave my job, it seemed hopeless.
Sunday Brunch and getting off your duff
I was at brunch with a friend. I had read an article that really rocked me. A girl just like me started her own handbag line, the idea I’d been brewing for 9 months.
The worst part was they were ugly! And my idea was so cute.
I got REALLY upset; my friend demanded to know why I totally overreacted.
I told him about my handbag fantasy. I was scared to tell him (even though I had been dying to tell someone, ANYONE, about it. He challenged me to get off my duff and try.
I had no idea what I was doing
Because I’d never really thought about being in business for myself, I seriously had no idea where to start. I had supervised the manufacturing of clothes for lots of movies, so I knew a bit about the construction of garments, but had never made a handbag before. I went to a fabric store and found some really cool white felt to make a sample. I thought this would be a snap since I knew a lot about making clothes, but when I sat down to make the bag, I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I am totally NOT a seamstress so I cut and sewed over and over unable to get it right, with many tears in between. After all that effort, I finally sewed up my first sample. It turned out exactly as I dreamed and was totally adorable! I still have it on a shelf in my office to remind me where I started.
This is my original prototype
I got the prototype. Now what?
I needed to figure out all the next steps:
- Find a good quality felt
- Figure out how to make more than one at a time
But then what? Sell them? I seriously had ZERO experience making handbags, so who did I think I was? How do you do something you know NOTHING about?
I had always thought that handbag makers were little old men in Italy. How was I supposed to do this? How was I ever going to figure all this out and how LONG was this all going take?
Asking for Help
I had a few contacts in the fashion world. (Working in the movie business wasn’t all bad!) But first I had to overcome my fear of asking for help; I called my friend Todd to see if he could give me a few pointers on what to do next. He was happy to help (as so many people turned out to be) and gave me the idea to use pool table felt. This was genius. Then he sent me to see the people who could fuse the felt to make it stiffer so the bags would look better. Let me tell you – I barely knew that I needed fusing, let alone what it was when I started researching it all.
I was still too afraid to tell anyone else I was working on this I worked at night and on the weekends (I still had my movie job) cutting and sewing new samples on my dining room table until I got it right. After months of trial and errors…
The pinked bag was born
“She Made it!”
One night, my close friend, and a costume designer who I had worked for years with wanted to meet for drinks. What a perfect time to show off my new Pinked Edge Bag, right? I was totally nervous, but couldn’t understand why. (It was then that I realized I needed to stop all the negative thoughts from running through my mind.) If I thought it was cute, then everyone else should too, right? I mean after all, I do have good taste, I dress movie stars for heaven’s sake!
She LOVED it and congratulated me on taking the first step to being my own boss and taking the first step towards having my VERY own small business (and quickly admitted that she was jealous).
Here’s a fun epilogue to the story: So there we were, sitting at the bar in a restaurant in Los Angeles when a woman walked up and asked where I got my adorable bag. My friend was so excited for me, she yelled out “She MADE it!” I wanted to die. I was so embarrassed. But weird as it may sound, it was this stranger’s approval made this feel real.
Maybe real people would want to buy it.
Asking for help, part II
In between jobs, I got my friends to invite me to movie sets so I could sell my bags to the women in the cast and on the crew. This is how I got my first celebrity clientele. I sold mostly out of the trunk of my car.
The funny thing was: I was selling a lot of bags now. But all the cutting and sewing was killing my fingers and I needed someone to do it for me. I was reluctant to be a pest but I needed some advice; I went back I went to my friend Todd. He changed my life with a referral to a cutter and seamstress.
Suddenly, I could mass produce bags. This meant selling to stores. This also meant a whole new set of problems:
- WHERE and HOW was I going to sell them?
- How do you find stores to sell in?
- What happens if I got a big order?
- How would I ship it?
- Where would I store it all?
And the biggest problem of all – how was I going to pay for all this?
My head was spinning and for the next few weeks I could barely sleep thinking about all my potential problems. I could really do a number on myself and often turned out to be my own worst enemy.
Todd manufactured clothes for Anthropologie (he still does), and thought I should sell to them. He hooked me up with the buyer and after about 6 months of back and forth, they finally ordered 800 pinked bags! Yippee!
I was really in business.
Peace, movie biz. Hello Sarah Shaw Handbags.
Sarah Shaw Handbags was off and running.
I really needed to figure out how I was going to manage the production, store, ship and worst of all, pay for it. (And fast) But how?
I didn’t feel like I could just go and sit in Todd’s office and ask him the 80 million questions I had burning a hole in my head. So I went armed with a few bags for his girlfriend and got to ask about 10.
Things got super-busy and suddenly I was in over my head. I was wearing too many hats; designing, overseeing production, selling, and shipping. I didn’t even have time to think about the marketing part. I seemed to be getting by on a shoestring and not executing anything particularly well. My life savings were pouring down the drain and I had no idea how to stop it. I was spending so much money on filling all the store orders and making new inventory, but the money coming in never seemed to be enough to cover it all.
I was EXHAUSTED!
Was this the life of an entrepreneur? When was I going to feel like a CEO and be able to have those leisurely lunches with all those other fabulous entrepreneurs? I was supposed to be the boss of me, right? How come no one had ever told me that you have to work twice as hard for yourself?
Delegate! Delegate! Delegate!
I had forgotten how to delegate. It was almost laughable since I had spent YEARS delegating and telling people what to do for me as a costume supervisor. Yet when it came to my own company, money and business I was helpless. Why was I afraid to say what I needed? It was my name on the door – I should have power, right? Well, I came to realize that I had none. I needed an injection of confidence.
Costing For Dummies, Closing the Deal
I didn’t know how to “cost” properly. This was my biggest pitfall. There is no “how to cost” booklet for handbags. I really felt I had no one to turn to here. I had met other handbag designers along the way, but the business was so competitive that everyone was hoping the other would fail so no one was handing out advice.
One big thing I did know was how to close a deal! Call it inherited luck or whatever you want. But as a 2nd generation garmento, I do have the gift of gab and can sell ice to Eskimos (no joke!). Back in the day, both my grandmothers were major power players on Seventh Avenue in NY; they wielded a magic wand over all of the big department store buyers. I didn’t get all their magic dust, but I did get enough to charm stubborn buyers into trying out my handbags.
Bags and Bathrooms
I had seriously thought about giving up. I had never worked so hard in my life.
What kept me going was seeing someone wearing one of my bags.
One day in NY, I was in a restaurant bathroom and there was a young woman with one of my bags. I had never seen anyone with one before and wondered where they all went once they left the stores. I couldn’t believe it. I was standing face to face with someone who had actually BOUGHT one of my bags! I casually asked her where she got it and she said, “The Anthropologie Store in SOHO, but they were sold out last week when my friend went to buy one so you should call around first.” I thanked her and could barely breathe my heart was beating so fast. This was an amazing moment in my life.
Asking for Help, Part III
Although I had a showroom in LA, I soon realized I needed one in New York as that’s where all the action was. I signed with one of the top showrooms and they grew my business 400% in one year! This was such a huge growth and so far ahead of any of my projections that I was really unequipped to handle it.
I was in such a panic that I seriously considered going to business school at night to learn to keep myself above water. This was totally unrealistic. So I enrolled instead in the “Street School of Advice” and decided to ask questions of every and anyone i could think of. Amazingly, I discovered that people REALLY want to help you out and show you the ropes; all you really have to do is ask. Seriously – the next person you speak to can change your life!
I discovered of wealth of advice through the designers in my showrooms. They gladly handed out tips on shipping, merchandising, PR, and small tricks that helped make things run more smoothly. As I was learning the practical “nuts and bolts” from all these other people, what I came to realize was that when it came to designing the line and picking out fabrics I was confident and never wavered; when I trusted my instincts I was the most successful.
Blowing up (in a good way)
By this time, I was designing over 400 styles a year.
I was getting lots of major league press. Instyle, Lucky, Allure, The “O” list, ELLE, Real Simple and People, to name a few. I was feeling so confident and treasured all the accolades. I was even interviewed on ET and Access Hollywood, and had a few cover stories in the Los Angeles Times and in Women’s Wear Daily.
I was getting famous.
Fame is nice and all, but where’s the money?
I was on top of the world but the scary thing was that I still couldn’t turn a profit. In an effort to ease the financial anxieties I decided to bring in some reinforcement in the way of investors and shareholders. This seemed like a good idea for the next few years until I could figure this all out. Things were starting to turn around as I now had someone to teach me how to price the bags correctly (wow, had I been wrong) and revisit how we were spending money in general.
It was a great lesson for me but turned into a disaster as they didn’t raise enough cash. We turned to several other sources and seemed to float along for about another year. We had a ton of company debt and I was now in the hole personally for about $100K. How did this happen? I was really in the dark about how all the money stuff worked. I guess I just never wanted to face the music and hoped it would fix itself.
By year 3, sales were steadily increasing and profit margins rising and we were getting more press than ever before. We were selling in over 600 boutiques nationwide as well as Bloomingdale’s, Saks and Neiman-Marcus. I was doing something I loved and felt passionate about. I had found my rhythm and was having fun…and getting in some of those leisurely lunches I’d dreamed about. I had a staff of 4, including my sister Lizzy who I was able to bring in as my full time publicist. Our website was doing an insane business and we were winning customer service awards left and right.
Life was good.
The End of the Beginning
Year five was post 9/11. Like many other businesses our size, we couldn’t recover from the blow. I’d lost my biggest investor – he was having his own business problems. I had invested every last cent I had in the world, and was only making a small salary at this point because of all my past mismanagement and the debt we were paying off. After scrambling around – unsuccessfully – to try and hold it together, I had to make some painful decisions. In the end, I decided that the best thing for me to do was to close the company.
Months of painful and degrading meetings with my shareholders ensued. It was so awful; the only way to put an end to it was for me to quit – even though it meant losing the rights to my own name, as the Trademark “Sarah Shaw Handbags” was owned by the corporation.
My A-ha Moment, Part II
I was both devastated and relieved.
It was sort of surreal. The experience of being on the brink of bankruptcy was very scary and exhausting. I felt like such a failure. I couldn’t face my friends and investors. Nobody knew what to say to me.
I shed a lot of tears during the 3 months it took to finalize closing down the business. But I came through experience with an amazing realization: that Sarah Shaw, me wasn’t just some name on the door of a building. I realized that I was the BRAND.
And I realized that being the brand was way more important than having one.
I felt inspired to do something new. I was empowered.
Blowing up (In a good way), part II
I retooled. I hooked up with a partner and created a new online business called “The Style Council.” We sold celebrity-oriented items for up and coming designers who didn’t have their own retail websites. This online store launched with big fanfare from the press. We got loads of media placements, including People Magazine 2 years in a row for their biggest issues!
It was pretty sweet.
An Entrepreneur through and through, we were not content to stop there. After all, I was now a seasoned professional with a hard-earned “Street MBA.” Over the next year, my partner and I worked to create and patent a closet organizer for handbags called The Handbag Hanger. We put some into production and sold them both on our site and in a few stores since we weren’t quite sure what the ultimate business model should be.
You Take The Good, You Take The Bad…
This new venture proved both positive and negative for me. I proved to myself that I was able to start another successful venture with relative ease. It was great to help other designers launch their products, but at the same time, I realized I wasn’t TRULY inspired by what I was doing. I began to see that I had strayed too far from my real passion – I missed my first love: manufacturing and creating my own products. I was so busy helping everyone else bring their project to life that I wasn’t working on my own.
My partner wanted to use our new success to open a bricks and mortar store. I wanted to create more products and sell them wholesale. And with that, my partner and I broke up (although this one was much more amiable).
A Launching Lady
Towards the end of 2005, a friend referred me to Ladies who Launch, a national women’s networking group for entrepreneurs. I took their Incubator class, hoping it would redirect me with the Handbag Hanger and get me back to my manufacturing roots.
The incubator was a life-changer for me, leading to the creation of…
I was so inspired and encouraged by my launching buddies that I created Simply Sarah in Early 2006 and grew the company to be profitable in less than 10 months. Simply Sarah sells the Handy Hold All® (AKA the Handbag Hanger), Cosmetic Bags and Organizing Baskets. It is now sold in over 400 stores nationwide with exclusive distribution deals in Australia and Japan.
A happy Ending (and the birth of Entreprenette)
By 2007, I had raised my profit margin by 60% by moving my production overseas. I had simplified my work flow, and hired a textile designer in Los Angeles to custom design all my own fabrics (how cool is that!).
Using all the knowledge and “street cred” it took to get me here, I’ve created the life I’ve always wanted: I have total control over my day, and am finally living my new dream life. I am a mom to identical twin baby girls; I get to spend a lot of time with them as I run my business from home.
Had it not been for my years of hard work and mistakes, I would not have been able to create my latest passion, Entreprenette.com.
It is my gift to share with all of you, my fellow female entrepreneurs. It is your opportunity to learn firsthand from all I have been through without having to experience it yourself.
Want to learn more about life as an Entreprenette? Click here