They Call It Pivoting


Back in August, I took a scary leap: I quit my salaried job and signed a lease for a commercial studio and showroom space at Northgate Mall, an independently owned mall in my neighborhood. The landlord, whose family had operated the mall for nearly sixty years, was open to all kinds of creative uses for the vacant storefronts that had once housed national brands, before malls across the country began to decline. My new neighbors included a pottery studio, an extension of the county library, and an independently owned custom sign business. The studio was filled with light, and it was perfect. Or, it would be, after some major work.

With the help of my partner (now husband) Oliver and my brother Tom, we spent weeks renovating: we knocked down walls; cleared debris; painted, painted, and painted; built work surfaces and leather storage; assembled cabinetry; and hauled in all my machines, tools, and materials, one carload at a time. By mid October, I had yet to put the final touches on the space (better lighting, plants, artwork), but had shifted into production mode to prepare for the looming holiday season. My wedding was only weeks away, and I was feeling overwhelmed but optimistic that I would build some momentum and pull off a successful holiday season despite being exhausted from the still unfinished renovation and stressed from last-minute wedding logistics. It was a period where I felt like everything was kind of crazy but essentially fine, and that soon the craziest parts (the renovation, the wedding, the holiday rush) would be behind me and I could focus on building a happy routine in this new phase of my business.

But then, just three weeks before the wedding, I got the news that Northgate Mall was facing foreclosure. And, because I was a new tenant (and also, I see now, because the mall was in financial trouble), I had only been able to sign a six-month lease. The plan was to negotiate a permanent lease in February. In December, the mall officially became the property of a private equity firm. (I have a lot of thoughts on Durham’s gentrification, but this post is already going to be a long one, and many are writing eloquently about it already.) I did have the option of staying in my space beyond the end of my lease in February, but given that the long-term future of the mall in its current state is looking grim, I’ve decided to cut my losses and move out at the end of February. It is sad. All. That. Work.

The whole situation with the mall really threw me for a loop. I felt that I had failed. I had taken a leap—left my job working for someone else, struck out on my own—that is so celebrated and idealized in our culture. I had received so much applause and encouragement for “going for it,” then, as I saw it in my darker moments, had crashed and burned. My holiday sales were lower than the previous year’s sales, despite now working on my business full time. I hadn’t made an original design in many months, and had made a series of costly mistakes (more on that here and here) that had deflated me even further. I was struggling to standardize and simplify my production processes with an eye toward training others to assist me. And my problems were compounding each other: I was facing some real logistical stresses, which led to me losing my confidence in my ability to have this business at all, which led to me having no creative drive to make new designs, which led to general fatigue and lack of motivation, which led back to feeling like the logistical stresses I was facing were insurmountable. It was, in a word, a bummer.

Luckily, I got to have an insanely fun wedding in the middle of it all, which resulted in getting a very wonderful spouse who has supported me through all of this. But, despite what Instagram might lead you to believe, people are complex, and it’s possible to live in a state of newlywed euphoria while also feeling very anxious and depleted when it comes to your life and business. That was me.

Now comes the out-of-left-field part of the post, just to keep you on your toes. At the end of February, I will move out of my gorgeous studio space. Then, two weeks later, I will fly to Milan for a four-month handbag design and fabrication program. What in the...? Allow me to explain.

Up until this point, I have taught myself how to do leather work. I have scrutinized people’s bags out in the world, lurked in fancy stores just to examine their handbag displays, pored over pictures and videos on the Internet, and done a lot of experimenting. I have made it pretty far this way, but I’m feeling stuck. And it’s not just because of the drama of mall. There are certain methods of construction and finishing that I want to achieve that are not possible with the equipment I currently have. I want the opportunity to have access to all the equipment I could possibly want, learn how to use it properly, and then be strategic about what I invest in next. I also want to learn techniques that will scale well, so I can grow to a point where I can train a small team to handle production so I can focus on design and growing the business itself.

But Margaret, there is a simpler way! You could just make very simple yet beautiful designs that others could easily be trained to make, then focus your energies on marketing the hell out of them and make millions!

That is true. I have thought of this, a whole lot. But that just isn’t me. I want to learn the best way. I want to be fully immersed in a craft that is centuries old. I want to make objects that are transcendent. I want them to be so beautiful that people gasp when they see them. I am choosing to go a challenging route, because this isn’t just a business for me. I am not a serial entrepreneur. This is how I’m going to spend every day for a long time, so I’d better be sure I’m building a life that’s a joy to live. Also, hello, MILAN.

This post is the first in a series as I work toward being more open about what it’s like to start a business that means so much to me. If you’d like to follow along as I prepare to move to Italy, then go back to school for the first time in years, then return with what I hope will be a new outlook on my business, sign up for my newsletter at the bottom of the page. I have so much to tell you!

And PS: I’m currently accepting orders, but not for much longer. So, if you’ve had your eye on something, seize the moment! It will help finance my schooling in Italy.

Margaret HennesseyComment