OCOC BLOG


Sustaining yourself as you grow

Keeping yourself going financially is a common problem for most of us when trying to establish ourselves as working corset makers. I'm not going to pretend to have all the answers or to have cracked it myself, but will give you my pragmatic opinion based on my experience and that of many people I've spoken to. 

I've read quite a few blogs and articles saying 'pack in your job!' 'Go for it 100% and throw it all into your business' and so on. I've also read many of those 'I started my business in my shed and now it's a multi-million pound empire' articles. Sometimes you read them and feel inspired, but often they leave you feeling inadequate and doubtful. Please don't, but instead read between the lines. Is that shed attached to a big house because hubby works in the City earning 6 figures? Is the person prepared to throw in 100% to their business fresh out of college, used to living in a dive eating baked beans and could always go back to mum and dad if they had to? Very, very often the people who can throw it all in have a back-up income. It might be an obvious one, like a partner with a good job. Or less apparent, like a family member helping out indirectly or a nest egg.   Are they even telling the truth or does that old adage - fur coat and no knickers - apply? Things may look wonderful and so they should if the person has any idea of marketing.. but it doesn't mean they are doing well behind the veneer.

Nothing wrong with any of that , and I'm not saying you can never be that person on your own terms.. but the point is, don't use others as a benchmark and be wary of hype. People don't tend to be forthcoming with that sort of information so before you judge yourself against them, keep in mind that you don't know their circumstances. Give yourself a break: Beating yourself up because you can't be superwoman/man is pointless, and, in most cases it's based on a myth. It's like hating how you look because you don't match up to a photoshopped model.. it's not real. What's real is keeping a roof over you head, food in the cupboards and your sanity intact. Being sure of yourself, your goals and your priorities.

dandruff wee.jpg

Where are you now:
If you are starting straight from college, with nothing much in the way of responsibilities then in many ways you're in the best position. You're hungry, you likely have support and you have nowhere to go but forward.
However, many of us come to this industry as a second profession, perhaps after working for a few years. That means you probably have commitments. If you have a mortgage or rent to pay and if perhaps you've been the one solely or half responsible for it and nobody else can take up the slack, then you need a steady income. Some downgrading of lifestyle is easy enough to swallow, but going backwards is pretty unpalatable to most, and some level of maintenance is needed. Nobody wants the worry of repossession. You can't create beauty whilst stressed out your senses about paying the basic bills. Starving in a garret is not romantic, and besides, garrets are premium property these days!  In other words, financial worries can stifle creativity and prevent you from doing your best work.

So, what is the reality?
Corsetry is a slow business. It takes time to make a corset and it takes time to build up a business. There are a tiny number of people who can whirr out great RTW and can build a sustainable business on that. But those people usually have years of experience under their belt and have, over time, developed systems and procedures which maximise profitability, affording them more options and the ability to sell good corsets at lower prices.  On the other hand, it's hard to compete with the factories - it has been done, and I take my hat off to those who can do it. However, if bespoke is your thing then be prepared for the long haul, I reckon it took about 3 years for people to find me unprompted and in any numbers. It varies depending on many factors. Therefore, to sustain you and allow you to grow (if you're lacking other backing) you''re going to need some sort of supplementary income.

Now firstly I'm going to say - there is no law that says you have to do this full time! Either straight away or ever if you don't want to. That is a choice. Three clients a year is as valid as thirty, or three hundred if it works for you.

Secondly, make sure you know your reasons. If you want to make lots of money quickly, bespoke corsetry is the wrong business!  If you love creating beauty, then go for it.

Remember those two points and then decide your priorities. Is the day job a career in itself, or is it there to support your own goals. I suspect for most of us, it's the latter. That is something you have to keep reminding yourself of, as it's very easy to forget.

Full time or part time?
I've done the full time work plus business thing, it's bloody hard. It can be done if you restrict your workload, but as soon as your client numbers grow you knacker yourself and you start to resent the day job as wasted time. Nevertheless, it let me get started on my own terms.  I could finance myself without hardship while building up equipment and materials. Essential for me, as there was little or no opportunity for external funding, especially as I'd passed the 'youth' start up category. So, Working full or part time and building a business is do-able if you make the choice to accept limited clients or if you find a business model that allows you to choose your pace.

(After doing the full time plus business for a while, I then had my lucky shot. I got made redundant. I'd never have jumped so the push was needed. I had enough redundancy to last me a year covering my existing commitments. So, I spent a year promoting and doing wedding shows etc. Making samples as well as some orders. However, after 8 months or so the stress kicked in.. the fear. The redundancy money was finite, I hated feeling like I had to account for my every move to others. I was not able to support myself from sewing at that stage. So.. it was time to look for part time work.) 

Is part time the answer?
For most people, yes it is. It allows you to move from limited part time to more or less full time sewing depending on your hours commitment, whilst getting a regular pay packet to cover the basics.
I know a lot of designers and creatives, some pretty successful. Many of them outside corsetry. The vast majority require a supplementary income. Part time, although not a walk in the park, is the simplest solution. It removes the stress of bills, and it gets you outside and among other people. Also, as hours tend to be more flexible, it may be easier to decrease hours as your business requirements increase.

The trick, in my opinion, is to find something that feeds back to your business. Whether that's in skills gained, contacts made, or something as simple as a useful staff discount. I went into bra fitting as it seemed natural as I was used to visualising fit and had no fear of an intimate fitting situation. It also has the same transformative end result as corsets, and as that's my main motivation, it clicked for me. I also knew it would be a skill that would help my corsetry, so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Retail has it's drawbacks, but it's worth it for the trade-off, and its the easiest and most accessible option for many. And it's not likely to suck you in and change your priorities.

I know a milliner who is now stocked in Harvey Nichols among others and whose work has been worn by the great and the good.. While he was getting established he worked as an assistant in a well known trim retailer. Another acquaintance is a stylist who runs fashion events and also is an usher in concert venues. I have friends who run Graphic Design businesses, supplemented by part time jobs in printers.

While Julia was establishing Sew Curvy she found part time work with an employer who gave free job related training in photoshop, illustrator, and web development - however, Sew Curvy in itself was only ever supposed to be the 'day job'  for her corset making business Clessidra - a business she still has not developed to it's full potential after 6 years. Gerry trained people in pattern making software when she was in the UK and I know makers who work in legal firms, on receptions, in fabric stores.  

Other folk,  like OCOC founding fellow, Marianne Faulkner land lucky, and get to work in somewhere utterly relevant like Dark Garden. But even if you can't find a direct link, think laterally. Could a job in a museum provide daily inspiration and perhaps contacts. Fashion retail lets you see trends and gets you used to what people look for in their clothes. That desk job might offer training in web design. Or that fabric shop give you a great staff discount. Now I know in this climate, beggars very often cannot be choosers. But it's something to keep in mind when weighing up options - making connections relevant to your business (plan) is as important to your business as anything else you do to make it successful.

But if I need to work, I've failed!
Never, ever think that. If anyone tries to shame you for that then they should look to themselves, not you. Nobody else can walk in your shoes. A few years ago a friend indirectly and unintentionally made me feel really bad about working part time, leaving me wondering if I wasn't committed enough. Then I realised how different our circumstances were and how mine worked for me and benefited me. There is an argument often given that desperation will fuel success. Perhaps you're the type of person that will work for, then great. I'm not, that sort of worry would leave me catatonic with fear rather than driven. Do what is right for you. It is all a step towards the goal. And you might even enjoy it.

Other ideas:
Of course there are other self-generated options that might raise money. Perhaps you could, like Julia, create your own 'day job' as she has with Sew Curvy.
What other skills do you have? Or how could you apply your talents?
Could you teach? Write? What else could you sell that's related or complimentary?
Although these may not be ideal for steady income, they can be if the time, place and application is right.

There are the traditional sources such as loans, grants and investors. However, the banks aren't lending, grants only apply to very specific cases or age groups, and investors tend to want a faster return than bespoke corsetry can give.

Look around you and use the creativity you have. Look at people in very rural communities. Most of whom have a portfolio of jobs to keep them going, both paid and freelance. More and more people are finding that having several strings to their bow is a necessity these days.

Angelo Trezzini : A Tired Seamstress

Angelo Trezzini : A Tired Seamstress

One final point
There is no denying that dissatisfaction at work can be soul destroying and can colour the whole of your life adversely, but before making major decisions, check your motivation. There IS a tipping point where it becomes necessary, even essential to give 100% to your business (if that's what you want and if you're sure it's viable) and that in itself is a massive leap of faith - but get it wrong and you could regret giving up a good career or income prematurely.  Get it right and you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner - Catch 22!

So, in summary:

  • Don't be put off by what you observe, it might not be as it appears on the surface.
  • What fits one person may not fit you.
  • Be prepared for the long haul, there are no sudden shortcuts.
  • Think about whether you really want to be full time, or whether part time, limited clients or a completely different business model would work better for you.
  • If your full time job gives you a cushion, and lets you pick and choose and buy what you need (and buy time) then stick with it if you are able until it's too much. 
  • You are not a failure for needing a reliable income. Don't be shamed into thinking that.
  • Decide your priorities and keep them at the forefront of your mind.
  • Try to find part time work that feeds something back to your business if you can, however loosely.
  • Be creative about what else you can do to raise money.
  • If you get to the point when you believe you can be self-supporting then carefully think through your motivation, priorities and support structure.

As Neil Gaiman said in his his 2012 speech 'Make Good Art', keep heading towards the mountain.
I'll add.. if working lets you wear comfier shoes to get there, or provides the odd timesaving ford across rapids, then all to the good. If it starts to take you off course, then have a rethink.