Owning and running your own business is challenging. Very challenging. And no matter how many Ted Talk videos you watch, how many process-improvement books you read, how many “how-I-did-it” podcasts you listen to, you’re never fully prepared. Entrepreneurship is more like becoming a parent – there is no one-size-fits-all. Every circumstance and child is different.
Here are the three hardest lessons I learned in becoming an entrepreneur:
1. Not everyone will support you – and they’re not always honest about it either.
The hardest lesson for me was finding the right people to fit within the FOTINI family and brand. Being laser-focused and driven is great, but one does not work alone so I learned through some tears and a lot of frustration that it’s not just about creating a team. You have to surround yourself with authentic, positive people who want to see you succeed and have your best interests at heart.
The fix: I discovered very quickly that I had to be very clear about what I and the brand stood for. From interviewing possible candidates for the internal team to selecting suppliers, I needed a team that worked together. I learned that honesty is not always everyone’s best policy and I had to quickly learn how to navigate through those who pretend to support you, as well as those who just tell you what they think you want to hear. There are all types of imposters. Those who pose as your supporters. The so-called “cheerleaders” who say they want to see you succeed, and eventually the green-eyed monster comes out. They can be right under your nose.
I also created a business environment that wasn’t diva-friendly, which can be a tough sell in the fashion industry, admittedly. I did not tolerate “Negative Nellies.” I also choose to believe that people in general are either the right fit or not for the brand. And even though I expressed this clearly and often, every once in a while the pessimistic attitude crept out. Those people did not have longevity at FOTINI.
2. There is no time to obsess over your mistakes. You have to move on!
Remember that part about never being fully prepared for entrepreneurship? Remind yourself of this every day. I made mistakes in the beginning, but I tried to learn from them. (A cliché but true, especially when running your own business.)
During challenges, you have to act and react thoughtfully with the best long-term interest of your business. Don’t dwell. After I realized that the proposal to run my business in Italy was not a viable possibility, and after researching for a year and a half to run production in Canada, I decided that I had to be savvy about the best location for the viability and vitality of my business. The production houses and support staff that my brand required were available in Italy, but not in Toronto. In addition, the challenges of a different language and the currency exchange of the Euro at that time were significant barriers. While in Toronto, at that time, there were only a couple of boutique luxury production houses in operation. They did not have the capacity or the niche aesthetic to support the FOTINI brand. The few artisans available in Toronto were already working with other fashion houses. So, in 2010, I met with a retail and brand strategy firm in New York. After careful discussions, around the vision, all the boxes were checked for what I needed to make my business dream a reality – it was all there in NYC.
The fix: You want your business to be profitable and successful. And that is why it is all too easy to beat yourself up or even place blame on others for a bad decision. You will ask yourself, “Why did I do that?” Instead tell yourself that you will not repeat that mistake:”What did I learn from that mistake?” Share your learnings with your team so everyone is on the same page and has a clear understanding. It is about looking and moving forward, while keeping yourself and your team motivated and inspired about the vision.
Your business strategy should be about distinguishing your brand from others. What is your niche? Why would the customer want to invest in your product or service? It is extremely important to have a clear business model that can support a sustainable business. After all, in the fashion business, creating beautiful collections without being able to sell them does not pay the bills. These are important points to keeping your business’ momentum.
3. It’s lonely at the top – and at the bottom. And in between.
That is just the reality. I’ve already described how you’ll find detractors and distractors in the first point. But you can also feel lonely as an entrepreneur. The workload is heavy and the hours are long, but that is part of entrepreneurship. The loneliness can be especially difficult when you don’t have your immediate family and friends around you for support. And balancing between living two cities – NYC and Toronto – was difficult for me, but, like anything in life you want to achieve, it is what you are willing to do and what you are willing to sacrifice.
Always be you – no one else. When you stay true to yourself, you’ll naturally attract those who fit with you as a person, and your brand. Lastly, your brand should stand alone. It should be different. I kept reminding myself to stay focused in the business, and in the authenticity of what my brand stood for, no matter how some people around me tried to steer me towards their vision. I never overpromised or under-delivered. With that as the ultimate goal, I never lost focus.
Some things evolve as they should without us knowing it. Just let them. –Fotini