By Danna Burns-Shaw
It is interesting to learn what inspires and influences young entrepreneurs. How they let go of their security blanket (9 to 5 job) and take the plunge into the unknown to start their own company / brand .…without funding, just using their hands and vision to create unique products. Believing in something so strongly that they are willing to banish their doubts, throw caution to the wind and follow their hearts.
This story is about Erin and how she left a good paying job to pursue that burning desire that lay deep within her soul. A desire to create products with her head, her heart and her hands; products that would endure and get better with age, that would sustain the journey they were taken on by the people who invested in their quality.
The Awl Snap Company began in 2008 inside Erin’s tiny apartment in Richmond, Virginia. Erin was previously working in an industry which sold cheap, plastic logoed products to big corporations; she soon realized she needed more meaning and purpose in her life than this job that was slowly beating her down. So after years of selling plastic products which would flood the landfills, Erin, like many millennials, found herself recycling as much as she could, shopping for vintage and handmade quality products and sacrificing some of her fast-fashion habits to invest in products that would last.
Growing up in a military family, Erin was no stranger to having to embrace change. Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and often made their clothes. Erin watched as her mother took a pattern, fabrics, notions and a sewing machine and created wearable clothing for the family.
In middle school, Erin was greatly influenced by her home economics classes, she would daydream about what she could do with a sewing machine and her imagination would run rampant while creating useable items using her own two hands. Not able to afford the taste she had in store-bought clothing, Erin and her mother would create together, with a sense of accomplished satisfaction purchasing from a store could not provide.
Erin’s creative zest carried her into college, where she received an art degree in painting. After college, she quickly realized that painting was a love-hate relationship. It seemed that with painting nothing was ever finished. No matter how many hours she spent on a painting, something more could be done to improve the overall look of the piece. Deciding she needed to grow up, Erin set her creative passion aside and did the so-called responsible thing and got a reliable 9 to 5 job.
After work and on weekends, Erin would immerse herself into creating with her sewing machine. Needing a bag to carry her essentials to and from work, she roughly handmade her first bag using functional material and leather. It seemed everywhere she went with her bag she received compliments. Folks were asking her where she purchased it and she would tell them she made it. One day a woman told her she wanted to purchase one…and so Awl Snap began.
Erin’s Take on Getting Started
“I had no clue what I was doing when I started.”
“My mom taught me to sew with different fabrics when I was young and I took to it naturally, but leather was a completely different animal (pun intended). I had no experience.”
“Skills aside, I was creative and determined to make a quality leather bag that didn’t exist in retail. I started working on my first design and built my first studio with a dusty old sewing machine and a pop-up card table. I YouTubed leather-working tutorials for hours on end. A few days later, I had my first product–the Tom Tom Tote. Shortly after, I was receiving custom orders from people who had seen me with my bag, and thus the business was born.”
“Over the next five years, I spent thousands of hours researching, experimenting, failing, getting back up and ultimately bettering myself and my products.”
“In 2013, I quit my day job. The Entrepreneurial Gods were beckoning and I had to oblige. I threw myself deep into building Awl Snap and have since grown the company organically in tremendous ways”.
There are many pressures that come once you decide to hang your own shingle. You can never underestimate the upfront costs that it requires to get started; however Erin’s good fortune has been aligning herself with the right people, places and circumstances. Sharing a studio with a jewelry artist for $75.00 per month gave her an affordable place to get started. Doing part-time work for a well-known photographer helped with overhead costs and taught her more about running a business.
Erin thought her ultimate goal was to end up in New York City to launch and run her business, however things just kept falling into place in what had become her hometown city Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a smaller city, but certainly has a creative vibe. It is compared and referenced to an east coast Portland, Oregon. Two hours from Washington DC, one hour from skiing and a community full of artisans and young entrepreneurs, Richmond is where Erin has decided to live and grow her business.
Selling the Dream
There are numerous venues to sell hand-crafted products; Erin’s first site was Etsy. She remembers the first order that arrived via email – how thrilling it was – until she realized it was her cousin. That cousin still owns and carries the first bag sold online, however Erin stresses out when she sees it and begs to build a new one because in her mind the quality is subpar to the bags she creates today.
One obstacle Erin has had to overcome is not setting her prices high enough. Understanding if she is ever going to grow her business, there has to be enough margin in order to wholesale them. Also, she’s had to take into consideration the costs to move into a larger shop and hire help in order to expand. Valuing your own work can be difficult; Erin realized that just because she couldn’t afford $250 for a bag, didn’t mean others couldn’t or wouldn’t pay that much for one of her bags.
Setting up Shop
Erin’s shop is small, approximately 600 square feet with three sewing machines, two cutting tables and racks of leather. She specializes in leathers that are soft and supple, but strong enough to hold up to extended use. She likes semi-aniline tanned leathers, not overly finished or dyed. It is all about the texture and feel.
A typical week for Erin begins Monday morning as she goes over emails and prints out orders that have come in. She plans out her production on a big board, schedules what needs to be done with her part-time assistant and rarely works on production on Monday. She finds it increasingly difficult to get into a set routine, with the many interruptions and distractions that occur throughout the day. Sixty percent of her time is spent on a computer and the rest is spent building her products. She enjoys both and likes the mix of working on the business and working in the business. Erin likes the variety, which is rare; many artisans despise working on the business and prefer to be building and creating.
For Erin it is not about the money, it is about living a certain lifestyle, the opportunity to create and the added bonus of being able to make something of lasting value with her own hands.
Erin’s Advice to Upcoming Entrepreneurs:
- Talk to a variety of different business owners in your community, ask them questions, and learn from their mistakes and successes.
- Don’t follow your competitors, it can get you down. Avoid constantly comparing yourself with others and their work, it is an unnecessary evil.
- Don’t talk yourself out of doing things, banish the doubt and jump – believe that it is now or never!
- Don’t over-read-yourself, reading too many “how to’s” can give you option overload and slow you down.
- Start. Write a plan down (knowing it will probably change) but just get started.
- Find ways to alleviate stress.
For Erin, she deals with stress by getting outside, walking or running with her dog – she knows that staying physically active clears her mind and strengthens her creativity. She also hired an assistant and a life coach to help her deal with the mental stress of business and daily life. Water is a relaxing; she gets recharged with long baths and trips to the ocean. Finally, Erin has had to learn to love and approve of herself, by being compassionate, patient and understanding, and that not everything will work out the way she originally planned, but it will work out.