• Before we get into today’s post, I just wanted to express my incredulity that I received no comments on last week’s post. The incident I related in that post came as such a surprise to me, personally, that I was sure I’d get at least a couple people saying, “Go for it!” or at least, “Wow.” But no. Nothing. No comments at all, anywhere, on any medium.

    I can see through analytics that my posts are getting read. But it’s hard to keep posting when you aren’t hearing back from people. So please, if you enjoy these posts, take a moment to comment. Doesn’t have to be long or profound. Just a “yup!” will make a difference.

    And now, today’s post!

    A friend recently foolishly made the statement on Facebook that “Success in business is largely luck.”  Not being able to keep my hands off my keyboard, I proceeded to tell her (and the entire internet) my story.  The only “luck” involved is bad luck.

    While it is absolutely true that Jobs and Gates were lucky to be interested in home computing just when the micro-computer revolution was getting started. And certainly Facebook took off for Mark Zuckerberg when there was a hole in the market left by the decline of MySpace and similar social networking sites. But neither the software giants nor the social media moguls simply “got lucky”.

    I take statements about luck rather personally. They negate all the hard work that goes into building a business. Gates and Jobs and Zuckerberg wouldn’t have built empires if they’d only had luck. They were lucky, but they also put in years of hard work and strategic planning to get to success.

    For me, talk about luck is particularly poignant. As you will see, the only kind of luck I experienced in the early years of my business was bad luck. But I did it anyway. And you can too.

    When I was in my senior year at university, I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living. I had been trained in Japanese business and spent three years becoming fluent in the language and studying Japanese business practices. Previously, Japanese businesses in the US and American businesses heavily involved with the Japanese called my university’s Japanese Studies Department, seeking to interview graduating seniors with a view to hiring them for their companies.

    The year I graduated (1989) was the lowest job market for university grads in decades. The country was sliding into recession. Japan was teetering on the edge of what would come to be known as “The Lost Decade“.

    In other words, all those companies I was assured would want to hire me even before I finished my degree simply weren’t calling. My academic advisor wouldn’t risk his reputation by allowing me to contact his connections at these companies.

    I was on my own.

    I eventually parlayed my academic preparation into a job, but it certainly wasn’t what I had been planning and working towards the past three years.

    It was the beginning of things never going as planned.

    During that period, I read a book that was recommended to me by the employment advisors at my university. It was called “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” There are no secrets in this book. It is simply an 213-page elaboration on the title.

    In the early 1990s, I fell in love with historical clothing. Between the temp jobs I was working to make ends meet, I talked myself into the National Museum of Ireland and studied the 16th century artifact, the Shinrone Gown, for three days.

    THIS is what I wanted to do. THIS is what was calling me. I loved looking at it, talking about it, trying to make one for myself, trying to make one for others, writing about it, talking about it, and talking about it.

    But there was no money in it. When I approached the curator and asked how you become curator of textiles at the NMI, she told me that you don’t. Museums didn’t have the budget to hire textile curators. Her academic expertise was in ceramics. And the NMI lumped together ceramics, textiles, and glass. So she became curator of all three. In fact she knew very little about textiles even though she’d written a non-academic book on the subject for the museum.

    I did some further research with academic institutions when I got home from Ireland. I couldn’t find a single one that gave any kind of textile degree. Archaeology, sure. But not textiles in particular. And there were no faculty concentrating on the archaeology of textiles at all.

    So I couldn’t go to school for it. Maybe the people I talked to online in email lists and forums would help me find some way to make this into my living.

    I contemplated selling my research online in the new PDF file-type that was becoming popular. I could take people’s money through PayPal and email them the PDF. I knew I couldn’t prevent people from sending copies to all their friends for free. But maybe I could appeal to their sense of honesty by promising them more where that came from. Maybe I could finance a trip to Ireland even summer to do more research that I could come home, write up, and sell.

    It wasn’t a living. But maybe it would be a hobby that paid for itself at least. Maybe I could work nine months out of the year at a rotten contract graphic design job for a pharmaceutical company and spend my summers with 1000-year old textile dust under my fingernails.

    But it wasn’t going to work. No one would pay even 99c for what they could hear me blither about for free on the historic costume forums and email lists popular back then. Even all in one convenient place with original sketches, they wouldn’t pay.

    So I knew what I loved. But the money wasn’t coming.

    Then I met Claire.

    Claire was a textile engineer who was dating my then-husband’s best friend. Claire set up garment factories’ production lines for clothing companies or improved the lines they already had in operation.

    I met her because she loved dressing up Victorian for Christmas. Her boyfriend told her about me and we were introduced.

    We never did anything Victorian together as it turned out.

    In addition to setting up factories, Claire taught at her alma mater, a textile college in the city. She confirmed for me that the historical clothing classes were throwaways and that there were no degrees available in historical textile research. No one was hiring such people so the textile schools weren’t offering the training. They were focused instead on the garment industry.

    One day over lunch, Claire said to me, “Why don’t you make patterns?”

    “Don’t be ridiculous,” I laughed. “People don’t just make patterns.”

    “Sure they do,” she said. And then she proceeded to tell me what went into making a pattern. You need a drafter and a grader and a digitizer and a specialized printer. But really, that’s it. And she knew people.

    I had just gotten divorced and still paying the mortgage on a house I no longer lived in. I had no money to pay a drafter and a digitizer and a specialized printer.

    And then she was gone. Claire was going through her own divorce, and she moved out of state to be near her family who could help her care for her son.

    I finally figured out how to do what I loved AND sell it to other people, and my only resource was gone.

    I spent a couple of years sucking my thumb over this. Needless to say, I had bills to pay and I couldn’t sit around dreaming. But one day I got back on the horse and started calling around, looking for drafters.

    After a ton of weed-out phone calls, I met with a drafter who usually worked for engineering firms, drafting blueprints. Pattern drafts are basically blueprints for textile designs, so I discussed the job with him. I would provide him with all the measurements and a scale drawing, and he would provide the full-size drafts in a format that could be sent to a printer.

    I also wanted him to coordinate printing for me. I knew he had relationships with printers who specialized in printing CAD files. Plus he knew the file formats they worked in. I spent enough years as a graphic designer to know there would be a learning curve involved in getting to know what a printer wants, so instead I asked my drafter to handle it all.

    My first pattern was for the men’s léine. It was nothing but rectangles, in three sizes, one uniformly a few inches larger than the last. I laid out the covers and the instructions and historical notes in Quark Xpress like I did so many things at work. And my drafter drafted the patterns in AutoCAD.

    They were beautiful. Then he found me a printer. I had given him a price per pattern that I needed to stay under, and he found me a printer who would print 100 copies at that price per piece.

    We were all set to go to press!

    And then my bad luck struck again. At the day of the first test print, the printer told me that this job was “too much trouble” and that he was only going to do it once. He was fine completing the job that he had quoted to my drafter, but he would not do it again. I needed to find a new printer for next time.

    Well, that about clinched it. There was no point in printing 100 copies of one pattern if I didn’t have a printer for the next 100… or the next pattern. How did I know if we could find another printer who could keep to our price point?

    So I told my printer to cancel the deal. Nothing had been printed so no money was owed. We needed to find a printer who would go forward with us on future projects as well. I was not going to produce one pattern and then quit.

    So back to the phones he went.

    He called me a week or so later saying that he had been speaking with some colleagues and thought it might better suit our purposes to go with a traditional lithographic printer, using an offset press. I happened to be very familiar with this type of printer in my professional life as a graphic designer. Offset printing had a low per-copy price, but the up-front investment was higher.

    We were going to have to burn plates.

    Instead of simply sending the files to the printer as you do with CAD files, the printer needed physical plates with the pattern files engraved into them. The plates could be used many multiple times, but the up-front cost was high.

    While my drafter was discovering this, I found a pattern industry printer who would print to high-quality tissue. Factory folding the tissue, and packing the patterns in our envelopes with our instructions and notes was also included in the price. I would be a real pattern company, just like Simplicity!

    All I had to do was get them the plates and they’d do 1000 copies for far under my desired price per copy.

    One thousand copies was more than I wanted to risk. But paper doesn’t go bad, right? I figured the patterns would be popular enough to justify the number of copies. After all, the price was right.

    My drafter sent the files to the plate maker and suddenly the plates were in production. My drafter told me that he wouldn’t send me his bill until he had the plates ready to deliver to me.

    I had a plan for paying my drafter too. I would pre-sell the patterns to my followers on the costuming email lists and forums. They had been asking for me to make patterns for nearly five years at that point. They would give me money for the patterns they wanted, and I would provide the patterns once they came from the printers. I might not break even right away, but that’s what being in business is about, right?

    Then the bill came. It was $10,000. I’d only sold a couple hundred dollars worth of patterns. And I couldn’t stiff my drafter. He worked so hard for me! Plus he’d hold my plates hostage.

    Thence my shame. I let my boyfriend write a check for the plates. He told me it was a gift. And I let him. I had no choice. I had to pay my drafter.

    Then the worst bit: I found out that the pattern printer used different kinds of plates. My $10,000 plates were scrap metal.

    See what I mean when I say the only luck I have is bad luck?

    I almost gave up. Matter of fact, I did give up for a while. I watched other people start small pattern companies and I envied their resources. I didn’t have a husband who paid the bills or a family who gave me money or a bank that was profligate with loans. (I don’t know if they did either. But clearly, they had something to invest and I had nothing but bills from my first marriage.)

    Then a friend of mine bought a full copy of AutoCAD to design his home woodworking projects, and he burned me a copy (back when you could do that sort of thing). I installed AutoCAD on my home computer and struggled to make sense of a design interface made by engineers when I was used to the Adobe suite.

    But I learned it. And I started drafting patterns. The Irish patterns that had been my first love left a bad taste in my mouth at this point. But I was heavily involved with a 1630s reenactment group. So I designed a line of European men’s and women’s patterns from the 1630s (you’ll know them better as the RH100 series). My (new and improved) husband drew the covers and the interior art. I laid out the instructions and historical notes. And I drafted the patterns.

    I cannot tell you how many days it took me to draft the 1600s-1660s Caps pattern (aka RH102). It’s just a few simple lines, no grading into sizes. But it seems like it took me months. It was a steep learning curve, and I learned it all while drafting those simple caps.

    Down the street from my apartment was a blueprint printer. Before starting this endeavour, I dropped in to ask them if they could print patterns for me from my files in multiples of 100. I gave them the full list and they gave me a price for the whole job: printed, folded, collated, and packed into baggies and boxes.

    Then I took my covers to my business mentor who had a costume shop. She was familiar with my popularity online in the costume forums and suspected the patterns would sell well from my reputation alone. She placed an order for enough patterns to pay my printer’s bill. I made her bill due two weeks before I had to pay the printer.

    So with a little tap dancing, Reconstructing History sold its first patterns on 17 October, 2003 while owing no one any money.

    See? It ain’t luck. It’s getting up every time you get knocked down. It’s coming at it from a different angle and seeing if that works. Yes, I didn’t immediately get back on the horse and ride. The story related above spanned seven whole years. But ultimately, I started a business doing what I loved and I did it without any loans or family help or savings. Matter of fact, the only time I fell behind was when someone tried to help me with money. I am entirely convinced that the choices you make when you have no funds are better choices. This has been my experience for the 15 years I’ve been in business.

    Now I was going to go on and tell you the long sob story of how, just when RH was starting to make enough money that I could think about quitting my temp job and do this full time, the economy turned, my husband lost his job, a new boss took over my company and fired the whole department so she could bring in her own staff, and I got diagnosed with UC. Did I mention that happened two weeks before we closed on our first house? Yeah. Boo hoo hoo.

    It’s not important for me to prove to you that all my luck is bad. The message I want you to take away from this post is that you don’t need a big bank account, or a spouse with a good job, or a supportive family, or sterling credit, or a home equity loan. I had none of those things. In fact, I had some of those same things working against me. But here I am, today, supporting my family with the business I built back then. I made it by being tenacious, by never giving in, by never giving up, by always looking for a different way to do things when I couldn’t do them the “right” way. I did it while my nearest and dearest told me — begged me — to quit and “get a nice job working for someone else.”

    It was never luck.

  • 38 comments

    Good post. Not a boo-hoo story.

    Reply

    Thanks Christine! You were around for most of it.

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    This is the kind of story that people starting out need to hear. Not to discourage them but to let them know how it really works so they can apply it to their own experiences. College certainly does not teach real world examples. Heck high school doesn't even teach basic personal financial courses.

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    Thanks, M! That's precisely why I wrote it. Please feel free to share it with whomever you like. I waited so long to start my business because I didn't have all the boxes ticked. But when it came down to it, the thing that made me successful was not giving up. When my friend said that luck was an essential factor in running a successful business, I really looked at my personal experience. And it just wasn't true. If luck is at all a factor, it's that my luck was so bad that it made me angry enough to be determined to keep on going. Thanks for commenting.

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    Gosh, I hope it's *just* a matter of getting back up after being knocked down. I can work, I can work hard and I can keep going. You're a shining example of what I would like to achieve some day!

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    Well, it goes without saying that you have to have a good product, priced right, and an audience that wants to buy it. But once you've got that, you really just have to keep at it. My motto is: never, ever quit. If you keep going, you're still in the game. If you quit, you've got nothing.

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    Thanks for sharing this Kass!

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    Thanks for commenting, Lisa!

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    Fall down nine times, get up ten. Wouldn't be a doctor, or a swordsman, if I hadn't. Come to think of it, wouldn't be using OXYGEN if I hadn't. So Merry Christmas and Bright Solstice to you, and yours, and all of us who keep getting UP. love, Bill

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    Precisely! And I, for one, am glad you kept getting up. Happiest of holidays to you and yours, my friend.

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    Well said! And I'm so glad you are here helping us sew historically and reading about historical textiles!

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    Doing my best, Eliz. It's not hard when I love what I do AND I love to talk. =) Thanks for commenting.

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    Hope you guys are well. Love the blog and keep up with the comedy!

    Reply

    Thank you, darling. Stay tuned. I go up on 23 Jan!

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    Thank you for sharing your struggle and achievements ! I really enjoyed reading about the whole process of how a pattern company is formed, and the details on the different aspects of production . For those of us without a formal education in this field ( but with a strong passion for the art ) it is quite interesting . All the best to you and yours for this upcoming year !

    Reply

    Thanks Donna. And thank you for commenting. There's more to come on this subject in 2019. Stay tuned!

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    What a gem to read! And at such a poignant time for me as well. My partner and I launched a small hobby paint company this year (I must admit, not something that was either of our heart's desires, but merely a side hustle to help sustain our income as we both work in a gig based economy here in Los Angeles). But it has developed into a passion, and a business! With all the ups and downs and figuring out production versus cost and investment and *so much hard work.* But the feeling when people who have taken a chance on us, and let us know how much they love our paint, and what we're doing, is really rewarding (as well as being able to afford the ever growing rent in our building! ;). I don't think luck has much to do with success as does having an amazing concept, product and a niche to fill. Probably why I've been a repeat customer of RH for the last decade. ;D You've really honed in on something special, and special to me, and reading the story of how you built your business gives me a lot of encouragement as I continue on my own journey in this world of entrepreneurship!

    Reply

    Thanks for sharing your story with me, Meredith. That's completely awesome. As you'll see in future posts, I don't really believe the "follow your passion" model, but rather find something that you like that fills a niche. Doing something you love can lead very quickly to not loving it any more and everything becoming sour. But as you said, your company wasn't you or your partner's heart's desire, but it came to be a great business that people appreciated, and that is a wonderful thing. Thank you so much for commenting. I hope you'll continue to follow my blog and share the journey.

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    I'm really impressed with your determination. I love costumes but terrified of making them because I'll screw them up.

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    Oh Carol! I've got a post on that exact topic in the coming weeks. Expecting perfection from yourself is a trap. Even now, 25 years later, I screw up at least one thing about every costume I make. A lot of my mistakes you would never notice. And I learned a long time ago not to point out the flaws to people who were complimenting me. But every single time, I do something wrong. I either redo it or I consider it not that important. Don't let a fear of screwing up stop you, Carol! We all screw up. And the really cool thing is that sometimes your screw ups becoming happy accidents that lead to a variation you wouldn't have thought of doing on your own. Thanks for commenting!

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    I'm grateful for your tenacity! Loved this article ❤️ Mimi

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    Wow, Mimi! Great to hear from you. We knew each other even before this all started, can you believe it!

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    I bought my first RH pattern probably not too long after you started. My oldest daughter and I both love history — I’m most interested in late antiquity/early medieval, wNile she prefers late medieval/early Renaissance. Recently, we started making Renaissance gowns for ourselves and my younger daughter, and have purchased more RH patterns, enough that I joked that it would have been simpler to list the patterns we didn’t want. I love the format and quality of the patterns. It’s interesting to learn what you went through in starting the company. I understand what it’s like to work while dealing with chronic illness, having developed RA nearly a decade ago. Life is what happens to you; character is how you deal with it.

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    I remember you from long ago, Ann. I think you're right. You bought right after we started. Thank you! I also agree with your view on chronic disease. I had a friend who was diagnosed with MS right out of college. But she just kept living her life. Of course there were days when she couldn't. But every day she could, she just lived. I take her as my inspiration, although it's getting harder the older I get. As for character... oh yeah. Got that! Gentle hugs to you.

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    Love your work, really interesting to hear how it all began. Thanks for opening up about it all.

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    Thanks AA and thanks for commenting.

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    Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers claims that there are three factors to success. Graft, opportunity, and timing. Timing is one thing apparently we have no control over. I think this is what people mean when they say "luck". When we keep at it, timing may happen in our favour. I think your story fits Gladwell's hypothesis. Regardless, I still appreciated your persistence and enjoyed your story very much. Thank you.

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    That's a good point about timing, Joseph. I definitely wouldn't have been able to start the business when I first had the idea, in 1997. It took until 2003 to get all my ducks in a row. Opportunity is part of that too. If my friend hadn't bought himself AutoCAD and given me a copy or if my other friend hadn't owned a costume shop and ordered patterns from me, I couldn't have done it... at least not in 2003. Maybe I could have done it later. Graft... no. I have never done anything illegal. Okay, I had some speeding tickets... But I surely never bribed anyone! You may be right about what people mean when they say luck. But I think people think you have had no obstacles. I have watched friend after friend quit when something got in their way and they utter that contemptible phrase: "I guess it just wasn't meant to be". The reality is that things are going to get in your way. You have to keep at it and get through them. I admit that I didn't give up not because of determination but because I had no other income to fall back on. I had to succeed. So I just kept flogging that horse, even when it was nearly dead. I think you have to be a little stupid (or should I say "pigheaded") to keep going in the light of everything turning against you. But when you do, that's when you succeed. "Meant to be" irks me. Nothing is "meant to be". People just want to make an excuse. You are either willing to break yourself and go on or you're not. No shame in quitting because it's hard. Hard is hard. But "it's not meant to be"? Nonsense. Thanks for commenting!

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    Oh! By "graft" I meant in the UK English informal i.e. work. Hard graft = hard work. To which I read in your blog. You worked hard. "As you sow, you will reap". Keep up the good graft!

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    Ah! Divided by a common language once again. LOL Thanks for clarifying. Yes, I agree. This so-called luck that brings success is surely due to your kind of graft!

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    Thank you for your story, and your patterns.

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    Thanks Andrea, and thanks for commenting.

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    I agree with you...it's mostly not luck. But I think this is more true in the niche market you are in. More generic businesses rely a great deal more on connections, initial funding, etc. ("luck") I almost forgot! I have a photo of the beach pajamas I made from your pattern. Also some pattern notes. I'll e-mail them

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    Yeah, I can't speak at all about more generic businesses. You may be right. I still think it is never luck, per se. It's work to get those connections, secure funding, etc. "Luck" just seems like an excuse everyone gives as to why they shouldn't even start planning a business. I don't think there is such a thing as luck at all. And luck might get you started, but it won't keep you in business for 15 years. Please do, Alaina! I'd love to see them. Thanks for commenting.

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    I needed this. I've been lying here in bed paralyzed with fear over my new solo podcast venture. Thanks for reminding me to keep working and power through all the f-ups that are invariably coming my way!

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    Glad I could help. I'll be writing much more on this subject. But for now, always remember that some very famous people have been paralyzed with fear. And as much as I hate sports references, "Just Do It" is probably the best advice ever. Also, "Do or Do Not. There is No Try." I cannot wait to hear your podcasts. Where can I sign up?

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    I made a Facebook page for it, which is linked above. You'll note there is absolutely nothing there yet...I'm actually working on cobbling together a logo for it as we speak!

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    Rockin'! I'm going to have to keep an eye on it.

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