Not only did I start my own business with my best friend, but we designed a product, produced it in China, imported it, and sold it both wholesale and at markets too. We were exhausted, way out of our league, and unbelievably excited for our futures as young entrepreneurs.
We’re all told when we leave high-school that our twenties are the years where we figure out our place in the world. It’s drilled into us time and time again that mistakes are unavoidable, but only the successful will learn from those setbacks.
When our business began, we were young and inexperienced 20-somethings who wanted to make a huge income by starting our own fitness label. Neither of us had skills in management nor successful track records writing business plans, projecting market growth or managing income and expenses. We thought we had nothing to lose and everything to gain. But let me tell you, it wasn’t all we thought it was.
My business partner (my best friend) and I planned to start a ‘small business’ through university to generate enough income to quit our casual jobs while also gaining some business experience for our portfolios as aspiring young professionals.
But with limited experience and connections, where do you start? In our case, we asked some of the most successful people we knew for their advice, went to countless networking drinks around Brisbane, and spoke at a number of events that discussed the successes of young women in business. From putting ourselves out there, we learned so much. Founders explained that the market is tough to get into – and even harder to stay in. For success, the product should be non-perishable so the shelf life is endless. To really ensure success, there has to be a need for the product, or a gap that it’s filling. And finally – if we didn’t believe in our product, who else would?! Practicing what we preach (or sell) is key.
Top+Tail Designs was founded in 2015. We designed microfiber fitness towels perfect for the gym, for travel or even to put in kids’ swimming bags. With $9,000 in the bank from slogging it out in retail, and as a bartender and barista, I decided to splash $8,000 of my life savings on towels. Yes, TOWELS. My business partner matched this figure and we then opened a joint ANZ business bank account. We knew we weren’t Lorna Jane or LuluLemon. We weren’t even Insta-famous goddesses that had modelling managers. We were just two girls willing to risk it all because now was better than never.
From the get-go, we were aware of the hard work that would be required – we knew starting a business wasn’t all networking events, long lunches and the bragging rights to telling EVERYONE you own a business. Your social life suffers, you work over the weekend and you have many sleepless nights thinking about how you can find a prospective customer who wants to buy 2000 towels off you.
With the dwindling circulation of traditional media, we adapted to the practice of surfing the web 2.0 and primarily promoted our product through social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. We wanted to tap into our target market: women like us who could use this product in their life, whether they realised it or not. At our age and with our communication strategy, we were quickly introduced to the new revolution of modern digital entrepreneurial culture.
We were inspired by the likes of Steve jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – all people who founded some of the most successful companies of our lifetime between the ages of 20-22. Despite the fact that we were women who were both juggling double university degrees, living out of home and trying to maintain healthy relationships with our mothers and boyfriends… we thought we too could balance everything. We had no mortgages to pay off, no kids to feed and no car loans to repay. In our minds we were invincible.
The depressing truth is that most small business will ‘fail’ within the first 5 years. However, we read statistics that stated, “Nearly 66% of small businesses will survive their first 2 years”. This number urged us forward, as the probability of success was higher than half-a-far cry away from the high failure rate so commonly claimed.
However, building a business requires unwavering determination and persistence. Without time and focus, a business cannot grow to its full potential.
When people asked us how the business was doing we would reply with a vague, ‘yeah really good thank you, we’re learning a lot’. But in reality, we were thinking, ‘f#ck I could’ve gone on a really extravagant holiday for the money I’m watching flush down the toilet bowl’ (hypothetically speaking). Although failure in entrepreneurship is pervasive, we kept reassuring ourselves that it was all going to be worthwhile. Entrepreneurship increases your employability, your productivity and initiates the formulation of new industries – just look at everything that Facebook’s become! A study by Rita McGrath, stated that entrepreneurship unleashes the ‘gales of creative destruction’.
The overall rate of successful entrepreneur business ventures has consistently been between 55-60%. However, success doesn’t just happen; it’s an absolute shit-show for many of us, but can be served on a silver-platter for some. Unsurprisingly, The Wall Street Journal revealed that people over the age of 35 are more likely to start a business and succeed at it than 20-somethings. Why? Because they have more money to burn (greater chance of financial backing), have an extended network of acquaintances (professional connections) and more life experience (learnt from past mistakes and triumphs).
Three years after we sold our first towel, we mutually decided to close down the business. We were one of the ‘lucky ones’: we had made our money back, so we hadn’t lost a cent- but we also didn’t make a profit. Indisputably, most small businesses don’t make a profit in their first year, but they also have the potential to make a huge loss. At the start we interpreted our progress as failure, but truthfully, we were wildly successful in our venture.
Today, companies that are invested in innovation, creative difference and individual initiative seek employees who will challenge the norms and encourage technological advancements. Whether you actually take the plunge and create an ABN and pitch an idea to an investor, or write a bunch of ideas in the notes of your iPhone, never stop thinking about what difference you can create. Stop and think how you can differentiate yourself from the dude with the same qualifications as you as you both wait in the foyer fighting for the same position. Thinking innovatively will enhance your creative perspective and experience will often trump a qualification. In other words, “successful entrepreneurs are likely to obtain a broad range of managerial experiences, seek to reduce risk and see firm success as within the sphere of their control”.
It’s easy to live in the future when starting a business. It’s so tempting to build castles in the air. Although we dreamt a lot, we also relished the moment we were in and the opportunities that we were a part of.
Having a small business was terrifyingly uncertain, time-consuming, exhausting, and frustrating at times. But at the same time, it was one of the best learning experiences of my life. Take the leap and pursue your passion. Realistically, you meet people who inspire you, people who keep you humble and people who just want to see you fail. But, that’s the game we are all playing and expectations will always be smacking us in the face unless we choose to change the way we look at these obstacles and experiences. Depending on your perspective, your vision, your plan, you can create the change you want to see in the world. My venture wasn’t a failure, it was a lesson I needed to learn and an adventure that I was extremely grateful I could experience. I’ve learnt that a wrong decision is better than a demeanour of uncertainty.