5 Things I’ve Learned in My 4th Year Running a Social Enterprise

It's official: our 4th year of business is now in the books!  The last couple months have been somewhat surreal for me, reflecting back on where our business was at just a couple years ago, to the presence we are growing currently.  This holiday season, my heart fluttered every time a customer would run up to our booth with a friend, telling them about our mission and how much they love this company. I remember being SO thrilled that we made 50+ sales our first holiday season, and now, we're easily making 50+ sales daily... I can go to the grocery store and see someone wearing one of our pieces.  I am so humbled by the way this incredible community has helped us grow and create fair trade jobs for women around the world-- thank you, thank you for being part of this journey.

I'm usually in go-go-go mode, so it has been a healthy annual tradition to reflect on the past year of business and see how we've grown.  I secretly hope that these little tidbits can be helpful if any of y'all decide to start a social enterprise, too!  We need more mission-driven businesses... maybe you'll start the next one!  See my reflections from years onetwo, and three on our blog.

Here's the lessons from year #4 that I know will stick with me:

1. Early is on-time, on-time is late, late doesn't cut it

I am the type of person who arrives to meetings approximately 10 seconds after they start... I've calculated everything down to the second, and I tend to arrive places almost exactly on time. I am all about efficiency, so showing up early for things tends to feel like a waste of time. This year I learned, however, that when it comes to working with our artisan partners, early is completely necessary. 

Nearly every single one of our artisan shipments arrived late this year.  Because we're working with 19 artisan groups, it can be difficult to stay on top of sending reminder and check-in emails about how production time is going in comparison to what we had been promised.  It became a pretty nasty cycle: because they finished the Spring products late, production on the Fall pieces started late, and therefore arrived super late.  We were sold out of most of our best-selling products from June to late October, and we couldn't launch our full Fall collection until early November, meaning we lost a lot of potential revenue that could have helped our mission grow.  Some of these things we could have better planned for: if we would have better anticipated our growth, we would have ordered more of the best-selling products to begin with, so we wouldn't have been sold out for so long.  However, some aspects can't be predicted: major flooding in India and Peru set back a lot of the production schedules, because (of course!) safety of our artisan partners comes first. 

From here on out, we are having products arrive super early.  Before, I would have thought this was a waste of our space, or I would have thought we should launch all the products as soon as we get them (why sit on them?!), but now I know that it's way better to have the peace of mind to know we have a little wiggle room.  When our Holiday 2019 collection arrives at my door in July, it will be a little odd, but, heck, I'll call it Christmas in July and be a happy camper!

2. Keep the faith, but prepare for the worst

We had our fair share of crisis moments this year.  Most recently, we were preparing for our biggest event of the year at Colonial Church, where we've historically sold $10k of product in 1.5 hours (an enormous feat, thanks to the generosity of that ever-supportive community and our incredible volunteers!).  I go in Saturday night to set up 15 tables worth of product, so we'll be ready to sell by 8:30am on Sunday.  This year, however, there was a horrible blizzard on Saturday night.  Anna was going to come help me set up, but the roads were so bad, I had her stay back... it took me 1.5 hours to drive what normally would be 20 minutes!  I arrived at Colonial, frantically started setting up, then realized I had worked so much that day I had forgotten to eat-- I almost fainted.  I laid down on the floor, ordered enough Chinese food for like 3 people, and tried to regain my balance.  I got a chunk of it set up, but not nearly enough to be ready for Sunday.  When Sunday morning arrived, my mom and sister had graciously offered to come early to help finish setting up, as had some of our wonderful part-time staffers. My fam was hard at work setting up when Anna got a call: one staffer had slid off the exit ramp, hitting a pole and ending up in the ditch. Five minutes later, Anna got another call: second staffer in the same ditch. Anna erupted into tears, feeling terrible for our teammates and also letting the reality of the day sink in.  We were filled with anxiety: if the roads are bad, people don't come to church, and if people don't come to church, there is no way we will meet our goal, a critical one to being able to pay artisans for Spring orders.  I started preparing for how I was going to keep spirits alive with our staff and volunteers if we only did $2k in sales-- I wanted them to still know they did good work, even though we'd all inevitably be disappointed to not meet the goal.

Every year, the church lets me speak in front of their congregation, sharing our impact over the last year. This year, I spoke of our artisan partners in Ethiopia, a group we had been fortunate to visit, who make jewelry from recycled bullet casings.  When I was finished, a man came and found me outside the main doors.  I was unsure what he was doing (he was missing the service!), but he made me a promise: he would match all sales from the day with a cash donation. I, having super leaky eyeballs, started crying, of course. We rallied our staff and volunteers, sold our booties off, and ended the day at $17k in sales-- the highest we've ever done.  Keeping the faith is so important: if we would have succumbed to our anxieties and feelings of "doesn't matter, it's not going to happen anyways," there is no way we would have had such a tremendous day. 

3. Making time for yourself and your personal life allows space for the business to thrive

Oh man, I've struggled with this. Historically, I could work all day every day, no problem.  But this last year especially, I've given myself more "time off" (I put this in quotation marks because as an entrepreneur, your brain is always at least a little bit with your business, so it's difficult to truly take time off, but regardless). I make time for happy hours with friends, for my weekly therapy appointment, to binge watch the occasional Netflix series, to hang out with family. Giving yourself some time away allows you to remove yourself somewhat from the immediacy of what's happening in the business, which can allow you to see the bigger picture and plan for bigger things.  When you're fully rested, you're better at the work, too-- fewer mistakes and more joy in doing the work, which is evident to your customers. This is the one thing Anna has gotten in trouble for many times this year: I really have to twist her arm to get her to take time off.  Kudos to her though-- she's getting better at it, and so am I, so we can encourage one another to make it a priority.

4. Collaboration is a great way to scale the mission and have a wider reach

This year, we made a big move: in May, we started partnering with a warehouse/fulfillment center to manage our inventory and ship out our orders.  I've been pushing for this for a while, but Anna always claimed to enjoy doing it, until April when we were SO busy with orders that it became too much to handle. Looking back, we're realizing there is no way we would have been able to make it through the last few months without this partnership. 

In the new year, we're hoping to collaborate with our community in new ways: we're starting an affiliate program, raising money for a donor advised fund, and looking for new retail stores to partner with.  All of these pieces will permit us to dramatically increase the scale of our mission!

5. Keep the heart work front and center

Honestly, I entered 2018 in a really bad headspace. I was over-worked, freshly heartbroken, consumed with anxiety.  The best thing I did for myself in the last year was reconnecting with the heart work of our organization -- our mission. I booked tickets to visit our artisan partners in India, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Ethiopia, and, wow, were these trips transformational.  Firstly, for my mental health.  Reconnecting with the incredible women we partner with around the world and strengthening those relationships helped me regain my sense of purpose and agency.  Secondly, I believe it improved our designs.  Designing products is so much easier in person, and collaborating with the women is a true joy!  Thirdly, it gave me the opportunity to bring these stories back to our customers, our community, and remind them why we do what we do.  We want to build stronger empathetic relationships between supplier and consumer, so being able to share your stories with our artisan partners, and returning to the US and being able to share their stories with you, has been so rewarding!  No matter what it is that you do in life, I hope you're able to connect to the "why," the purpose behind it.  I find it fills me with a greater sense of appreciation and humility. 

Thanks again for making 2018 a great one for us.  Here's to a fantastic 5th year!