Love Your Business: Guest Post #5

All month long join me here as I welcome amazing contributors with one thing in common
we love our business {blog/shop/etc} and we want you to love yours too!
To keep up to date with this series view all posts here.

Hello all you wonderful Just Lovely Things readers!  My name is Melissa Baswell Williams, and I am a sustainable fashion designer, artist, and blogger based in Chicago.  I run a lifestyle blog called Bubby and Bean that focuses on design, fashion, creative inspiration, DIY projects, and life/love/learning.  I'm so thrilled to be part of Heather's Love Your Business series! 

Today I'm going to talk to you about how to stay ahead of the game and remain creatively motivated in an oversaturated and constantly changing market. I'm also going to share my story about how I learned the hard way that sometimes you need to be open to making major changes in order stay afloat as a creative business owner.

Soon after college (almost 12 years ago!), I decided to start an eco-friendly clothing label.  I'd been making clothing for myself and my friends for years, and I was also heavily involved in several environmental organizations.  At the time, there was no such thing as "eco-fashion."  There were a few companies who produced garments made from hemp and organic cotton, but the designs were the more stereotypically "crunchy" styles, without a lot of definition or style.  I wanted to design pieces that were fashion-forward as well as earth conscious, and began sewing one-of-a-kind designs and selling them at music festivals and local markets.  The line (called Mountains of the Moon) took off, and I created a website and started showing at large events.  I worked a LOT.  But I was very lucky because there were only a few other companies doing anything similar, and business continued to grow.

In 2005, I partnered with a local manufacturer to produce full collections in larger quantities, and I began to do trade shows and sell to stores.  By 2008, over 100 boutiques worldwide carried my collections, I was showing at Chicago and Portland Fashion weeks, and my designs were exhibited on two separate occasions at the Museum of Contemporary Art.  I was also getting some major press, including Women's Wear Daily, The Discovery Channel's, NBC television, and more.  I had four employees, a large commercial space with a studio, offices, and a shipping room, and even won a small business award grant from Intuit.  I began to receive invitations to speak on fashion panels and at green events, and started to produce eco-fashion events of my own in Chicago.  I was incredibly grateful for my success, and was certain that hard work and some talent were all you needed to make it as a small business owner.

Then something unexpected happened.  Everything started to change at once.  First, the "eco-fashion" craze took over.  Suddenly, big designers were producing eco-friendly lines.  Brand new eco-fashion companies (with lots more money behind them) started to pop up left and right.  Even chain stores like Target were selling sustainable fashion - for much less than I could ever afford to price my items.  I no longer stood out, and I watched my sales suffer.  To make matters worse, the economy fell flat on its face.  Many of the boutiques who carried my collections closed down.  In the fashion industry, you produce a season ahead, and the quantities you manufacture are based on purchase orders from stores.  When the collections are ready to ship, you get paid - except when the stores who placed orders went out of business during production.  In that case, you don't get paid, and you're left with a massive amount of overstock.  Big lines that have their collections produced overseas for cheap can mark their styles way down if faced with a situation like this.  But the little guys who produce locally and in smaller batches can't. 

I honestly had no idea what to do, and looking back, I probably became a little desperate.  I felt pressured by the influx of competition to keep at it and somehow take it to another level.  I designed and produced a collection of high-end womenswear under the name Melissa Baswell Eco-Luxury, produced in very tiny batches with lots of hand work using expensive sustainable fabrics.  I marketed to a slightly different niche in an attempt to stand out once again while riding what had now become a major trend.  The new line got me some phenomenal press and a headlining slot at the eco-fashion show during Chicago Fashion Week, but it just wasn't selling like my lower priced collections did.  The market was oversaturated, consumers were no longer willing to spend the money for locally produced sustainable clothing, and there was truly nothing I could do to change that.  I'd also been working with a new pattern maker who decided to skip town with my samples, patterns and money.  (Isn't the fashion industry glamorous?)  I was left with a lot of debt and a lot of frustration.

At this point, I knew I had to face the reality of the situation.  Looking over my numbers, it became apparent that I was going to have to cut back.  I continued to produce collections for Mountains of the Moon, but less frequently and in smaller quantities, and I went back to focusing more on retail than on wholesaling to stores.  I had to downsize my staff, move into a home office and studio, drastically reduce my advertising budget, and cut way back on events and travel.  I created a sale section on our website, and marked down items for which we had overstock.  I maximized my investments by using the same fabric in most of the designs in a given collection (eco-friendly fabric is very expensive, but the more yardage you buy at once, the more the price-per-yard goes down).  I met with other local eco-designers on a regular basis to brainstorm how to get through the tough times.  I faced the harsh reality that although my clothing company was still making a profit, it would likely never again see the level of success it did in the past. 

Downsizing was the best choice for my business, but on an emotional level, everything felt like work now.  A lot of work.  I was losing my creative motivation because I had to be so completely focused on the business end of things.  I was fried, and at a place where I was basically just going through the motions like a robot.  It was very difficult to feel inspired when I was having to practice constant caution in order to prevent the company from going under.  I finally recognized that in order to get out of this slump, make a decent living, and actually love what I do again, I was going to have to go beyond just reinventing myself within my market.  I was going to have to step outside of it completely.    

Without even realizing it at the time, I did something that I now know is crucial for creative business owners - I started creating things for fun again.  I'd become so used to thinking only in terms of business when designing that I'd forgotten why I started my company in the first place: because I loved to make things, and I loved to design.  I went to the art supply store and bought up a random mix of paints, colored pencils, canvases, wood blocks, etc.  I also bought a Holga camera.  Each day, after finishing my daily work, I'd spend time making mixed media collages, drawing, creating digital art, and taking pictures.  I was open for making almost anything, and I started to remember what it felt like to be creative for pleasure.  The experience was very liberating for me both personally and professionally, and I started to feel motivated again.

It was now fall of 2010, and I had a ton of completed art projects just hanging around my studio.  Friends started to ask if they could buy pieces, and a few suggested I open an Etsy shop for my art prints and greeting cards.  At first I resisted.  I honestly knew nothing about Etsy, and I hadn't sold my art since college.  Plus, how would I have time to work on my clothing business - which took a whole lot more time and effort to keep afloat than in the past - and run an art shop too?

Eventually, I allowed myself to be open to new ventures.  I set up a shop to sell prints and greeting cards of my typographic designs and illustrations.  Almost instantly, I felt rejuvenated, and had what I'd describe as a "career epiphany."  By giving myself the time to create for fun, I got my drive back, and by branching out beyond something that had defined me for so long, I found a new way to reinvent myself and my career.  It had been such a struggle to stay ahead within the eco-fashion market, and by allowing myself to partially step out into another market while utilizing the knowledge I already had, I was able to create what would end up being a successful side business.  I started to really embrace this new path, and focused on creating designs for the art shop that were inspired by positivity, empowerment, encouragement, and love.  This new business filled in many of the gaps that had developed within my other company.  The extra income helped me get back on track financially, and I was able to work with other mediums than just apparel and textiles (which helped both my clothing designs and my art stay fresh).  Around the same time I also started my blog, initially with the intention to use it for staying inspired and promoting my businesses. I knew very little about this world, and was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved blogging - something I never would have been open to explore had I continued to limit myself to just my clothing label. 

For the first time in years, I was creatively satisfied, and able to get back into the flow of feeling like a successful (and this time multiple!) business owner.  Today, I am running the clothing label, the art shop, and the blog, and I am back in a positive place with my career.  In the end, it was all a huge lesson, and I'm thankful that it happened.

Creative markets are constantly changing, and the struggles I faced ended up teaching me how to be more open to and prepared for that.  Maybe some of you have had similar experiences as well.  Maybe you've felt backed into a corner within your market because something that was once unique to you became the latest trend.  Or maybe you've watched your once successful business start to fall because of a struggling economy.  Or maybe you've felt overwhelmed by the business end of things to the point of losing your ability to stay creatively driven.  Or maybe you've done the same thing for so long that you feel stifled.  If you've felt any of these things, or even if you just want to be prepared for curve balls, I have five key tips that have really helped me (and will hopefully help you as well!).

1. Be open to change.  This is the most important tip of all.  At some point, there will be a time where you'll be forced to make changes in your career.  These might be small changes you need to make within your business, or they could be major changes where you have to do something completely different.  If you're mentally prepared for the possibility of change and willing to accept it rather than fight it, you can use it to your advantage rather than allowing it to crush you.

2. Pay attention to trends but don't be defined by them.  Successful creatives observe detail in everything they see, take notice of what people like, and recognize patterns.  But they also stay true to their own unique styles and utilize them to explore different paths.  In order to run a successful business, you have to know what your customers want, but you also need to be willing to venture outside of  what's "in vogue" if you want to stand out from the crowd.  In my case, when eco-fashion became huge years into my career, I was blindsided.  I suddenly felt like I had to be defined by a trend that in the past (before it became a trend!) had set me apart. Instead of using my talents to branch out, I let the trend envelope me, and it backfired.  It was only when I stopped feeling defined by it, and focused on what I was good at rather than only on what I thought people wanted, that I was able to get my career back on track.

3. Reinvent yourself on a regular basis.  This takes #1 (being open to change) a step further.  Reinventing yourself within your business doesn't mean completely changing who you are as a person or drastically changing direction to the point of being all over the place. It just means that as a business owner, you are never done - and I mean that in a good way.  Brainstorm new, out-of-the-box ideas through scribbled notes in a journal or drawings on scrap paper.  Design new collections or product lines and try them out on a small level (it could lead to something bigger!).  If you feel trapped in a bubble, step out of it.  Try working on some side projects.  Redesign your blog, your packaging, or your marketing materials.  Just as redesigning your living room or reworking a thrift store find into something new is fun, so is redesigning your career and yourself as a business owner from time to time.  And in addition to it being fun, reinvention is crucial in order for a business to survive and grow. 

4. Forget about money for a minute and create for fun.  This is important to both your enjoyment of life and the success of your business.  Most of us in creative fields ended up here because - very simply - we love to create.  And as much as we love what we do, I think we all know what it feels like to lose some of the passion because of the pressures of owning a business.  Most small creative business owners are far from rich, and many even gave up well-paying jobs to follow their dreams.  Sometimes it can be difficult to pay the bills.  On top of this, when you do what you love for a living, the line between business and pleasure in your life becomes especially blurry.  I will confess that this is probably my greatest challenge as a business owner.  But I notice that when I put my  business on the back burner and create something for fun - even for just one weekend day - my brain is refreshed when it's time to focus on business again. By making time for creative projects that aren't associated with deadlines or marketing or income, we can remember the joys of creating and in turn stay inspired when it's time to return to the "office."

5. Embrace your mistakes.  (They make you a better business owner!)   James Joyce said, "Mistakes are the portals of discovery."  When you're unhappy with the outcome of a business decision you've made, instead of feeling discouraged, use it to your advantage.  In life, we learn by doing.  Mistakes help us gain wisdom and are essential to improvement.  And it's our scars and "flaws" that make us unique. The same can be applied to running your business. You will be faced with situations where you regret choices you've made for your business.  Rather than feeling down about them, view them as awesome learning experiences. Creative businesses are full of heart and soul, and I feel that it is real experiences - both good and bad - that make them that way.  The trials and tribulations you face with your business are what end up giving your company character and making you a wiser and more seasoned business owner.

Thanks again to Heather for asking me to be a part of this incredible series, and to all of you for letting me share my story and tips with you.  Remember - you are amazing, creative, and unique, and by sharing your talents and experiences through your business, you are making the world a better place!


:About the Author:


  1. This is so inspiring and helpful!!! Reading your story made me feel like I'm not alone in my business challenges and the tips are so great and useful!! I appreciate this and also thank you for introducing me to this great new blog through your twitter!!

  2. Melissa your story is incredible! It's amazing the directions life can take you even when you think you have it mapped out. Thank you for sharing!

  3. wow. this is powerful and your tips are serious soul searchers and inspirational. ive felt this way in many aspects of my business and creativity. thank you for sharing.

  4. This is a fabulous post, so inspiring and real. Your tips are just perfect and it's also kind of relieving to know that even the 'greatest' struggle...:D Thanks!

  5. Amazing story, and fantastic advice. Thank you :)

  6. Thank you again Heather for inviting me to share my story and tips here, and big thanks to you guys for your awesome comments! I'm so glad you like my tips and hope they can help prevent you from having to deal with things the hard way (like I did!) if you're presented with a similar situation!


  7. This post is so inspiring! I hope I can open up my own business someday :)
    xo Heather

  8. i really like what you said about embracing our mistakes and what you shared about making something successful out of what you. thought were wrong choices. it makes me feel hopeful for the new business i am trying to start, thank you. im bookmarking this article.

  9. Wow! I am glad I read this post, I have been getting out of kind of a slump with my business and I have needed some encouragement with moving forward. I think this is the push I needed. Thank you!

  10. my goodness melissa, i had no idea all the things you've gone through, & survived. rising like a phoenix from the ashes. :)

  11. Fantastic post--being adaptable is hard, but so important!

  12. Fantastic post. Your resilience is inspiring.

  13. WOW - that is an amazing and sad story Melissa. My family always laughs because I am constantly changing and moving on to something new or a mix of something I am already doing + something new. I try to explain that I have to keep things fresh because the market is so competitive and money is tight for buyers.

    I also know first hand when an investment has been made that wasn't a good one and when it is time to let go. Or on flip-side, when the investment was good but I am having a terrible time making whatever it was I started on - let go.

    Great article - congratulations on your huge success. Regardless of the outcome - you did something hardly anyone can do.


  14. Hi Melissa, I am a new reader to your blog and I'm loving it! I'm glad you invited me over here to Just Lovely Things which I will now follow too. I started a handcrafted jewelry business in the mid 1990’s. I am still blown away over all the changes in the handmade industry since then. I’m still in business today and I’ve had to change and overcome a lot to still be here. Your post is excellent I really appreciate your honesty, thoughts and great advice. I will be sharing this with my friends in business!


  15. Melissa, this was amazing! There's so much great advice here, and it's really inspiring to hear all of it from a small business owner who has navigated some super duper market changes. I have no doubt that your company will be around for a long time!

  16. Melissa, this was wonderful! I've been pretty bummed so far with my business, but you inspire me to keep doing it for fun.
    <3 Kiley