The business of making mistakes
Let’s talk business mistakes. And I don’t mean the “spin it positive, so you still sound good” kind of mistakes (You KNOW what I’m talking about. “We just didn’t prepare for that kind of sales volume, so our inventory was depleted within hours!” THAT IS SO AWFUL FOR YOU.)
I want to talk actual mistakes. Mistakes that make you want to lay on the floor and play dead, because you feel like such a loser.
Honestly, some of these mistakes still make me feel like a loser. But I’m going to share them anyway, because you know what? I’ve succeeded both in spite of and because of them. And if someone reads this and thinks, “Wow, maybe all my fears about making mistakes will come true, and I’ll still kick ass anyway,” then mission accomplished.
I’m bored of reading “10 Mistakes You Should NEVER Make When Starting Your Own Business” articles.
You are going to make mistakes. You are going to eff this up. And that’s okay.
Here are some of the boneheaded things I’ve done:
1. Relying on my ex-husband for design work (It’s fine).
So, to clarify real quick: there’s nothing wrong with relying on people for stuff. But this was a little different. My ex-husband was my main designer for Fourth Wave (my Etsy business) while we were still married. When we divorced, and I was forced to learn a new skill set and actually, you know, hire people (both things I had avoided because they were intimidating and I thought I didn’t need to), I recognized all of the ways I’d held myself—and my business—back by structuring a significant part of my business around favors and sporadic “free” work. (Important note: I very much appreciate work he put into Fourth Wave, and we amicably co-parent our kids.)
2. Misspelling the word Berkeley.
I don’t know how to categorize this one. But I feel like I should share it anyway, because it was just so stupid. I got a big, custom order from someone at Berkeley who wanted to give “We Can Do It” tote bags out at the staff Christmas party. Exciting! They looked beautiful. And I got a message a few days later that I had misspelled the word “Berkeley” (I have misspelled it twice just within this paragraph. It is an unnaturally hard word to spell). Anyway. I had to rush ship a new order in the middle of the Christmas rush, and I lost all the profits on that order, and I looked like an idiot to someone I really wanted to impress. It sucked.
3. Making business decisions based on my insecurities.
I had this idea somewhere in my head that for my business to be legit, my shirts needed to be stocked in every brick and mortar shop I could find. Which resulted in a few lasting relationships—and a bunch of mediocre relationships with a LOT of inventory floating in the ether. It really did not work out for my business model. And it was a bummer to admit to myself that I’d done it primarily because of my insecurities about what “real” business looked like.
4. Falling for scams.
Someone found my Etsy shop, told me how much they LOVED it, and wanted me to be part of a curated show with all the bells and whistles. No cost! So great! So, without doing my due diligence about the company, I signed on—only to learn that the event required me to sell a billion tickets at a ludicrously high cost to all my friends and family (or make up the cost out of pocket myself). Something I learned AFTER I had spend a lot of time and energy preparing for the show.
5. Using my gut instead of my data.
There’s plenty of room for hearts and guts in business. But there is something to be said for recognizing the difference between my own preferences and my customers’ preferences. And insisting that I know better than them (when it comes to a particular design, for example) usually results in a dud and a lot of wasted effort. I’m getting better at this. But I’ve also had numerous moments where I get a “meh” reaction from customers I trust, and secretly think to myself, “But maybe it’s still a REALLY good design.” And inevitably I’m wrong.
6. Fearing the trolls.
If you post many things related to feminism on the internet, you’re going to get trolled. Hard. Anymore, I’ve made peace with this fact, and cope pretty well. I’ve also learned that those trolls aren’t my market, and that making them mad is usually a good sign. But in the early days, their mean messages really got to me. Which meant I sometimes avoided posting stuff I knew would get trolled hard by insecure dudes. Which meant I missed a number of opportunities I wish I would have taken.
7. Selling underwear.
Fun fact: I sold hand-screen-printed underwear in my Etsy shop for a while. That was mostly purchased by one person in Provo, Utah (I hope they are working out great!). I didn’t really research the idea. I just knew that “we can do it” on a pair of underpants would be HILARIOUS. And it was. But…underwear shopping is a little weird anyway, let alone hand-screen-printed underwear. It was just too much. Which meant I had like 100 pairs of underwear in one of my bins at the studio for a long time.
Speaking of underwear, you’ve figuratively seen mine now.
But to quote an old roommate who had just made a decent-sized error, “We’re human, hooray!”
Mistakes are okay. Even permanent ones. It’s one of the reasons I got a tattoo. To remind myself of that fact every time I look in the mirror. I knew parts of it it might turn out different than I was hoping. It might be a mistake. But what if I loved it anyway? Mistakes, even big ones, even permanent ones, are the fabric of life—and business. It will never be perfect. I will never be perfect.
I can’t tell you 10 mistakes to avoid in business (unless you’re thinking about selling hand-screen-printed underwear, but even then, who knows? Maybe you’ll do it better. Maybe you’re the chosen one.) All I can tell you is to do what you love with an open heart. And when it doesn’t work out the way you hope, reevaluate. Do better next time if you can.
Then claim it. And persist.
Noelle Ihli is a feminist, a screen printer, a mom of two boys, and a writer. Her ultimate fantasy would be riding a black stallion through a field of wildflowers while eating a can of cherry pie filling.