The path to success isn’t always straightforward - all entrepreneurs, even Richard Branson himself, have tales of setbacks and challenges that threatened to end the business, but which they overcame. Failure is a word that we shouldn’t be scared of; instead we should look at these difficult times as a learning curve, an opportunity to change and grow.
Lindsey Ahmet is a graphic designer and entrepreneur, whose difficult experience with her first business ended up leading her down an unexpected new avenue, resulting in her going to university and discovering a whole new industry that she loves - the world of graphic design - and starting a second business, Local Women in Business. Here she shares her story with us.
In 2013, I was diagnosed with depression. I got counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, which led me to start knitting. I’m a creative and anything that allows space for my mind to focus on the task in hand, works in calming my depression and anxiety. At the time, I had recently given birth to my son and decided to knit him a changing bag, and realised it needed to be reinforced with a fabric lining. I thought about sewing the lining in by hand, but it wouldn’t have done the job, so I went out and bought a sewing machine. Nothing fancy, just enough to do the trick, and I set about lining my bag.
Looking back now the end product was terrible, but at the time I thought it was fantastic and it made me feel good. I had managed to complete something (which is a hard thing to do when you have a mental illness) and I had made it myself, so it had a positive impact on me. Feeling accomplished, I started to make things for my friends. Then my son started to grow out of his baby clothes and I got rather sad at the thought of placing them in a bag in a cupboard. I had seen someone make a blanket out of their child’s clothing and decided to give it a go with my new sewing machine.
I finished the blanket and shared pictures of it with my friends on social media. I was in love with it, it was sentimental and solved my problem of not wanting to store away the clothes. My friends loved it and started requesting one for their child. They were telling their friends about me and they wanted a blanket making for them. Then requests came in for different sizes and for teddy bears.
The birth of my first business
I started to realise that I had accidentally started a little business with my hobby, so I started to consider advice and support on starting up a business. I did my research and found Virgin Start Up. After considering it and speaking to a business development partner of theirs, I had secured my business loan, planned a trade show to launch my products, had a website teddy bear builder app developed, and bought fabric and machinery to get me started. I created my own website and the orders were slowly starting to come in. Virgin StartUp paired me with a mentor, and I featured in a number of business and entrepreneur online publications, even the Daily Mail business section. I started to go to events to exhibit for them. I spoke on a panel about my business and I won tickets to the IOD (Institute of Directors) convention in London.
Wake up call
All sounds amazing and busy busy busy, right? And it was for a while, but then things started to crop up that I hadn’t thought about or didn’t know enough about. All these things built up over time.
It started with where I spent the loan - the money quickly went on investing into new equipment, and on appearing at trade show. However I didn’t do enough research into the audience and buying habits at this event, and my product didn’t suit this trade show - it wasn’t the simple immediate purchase experience that did well at these events. I generated one order across the two days of this event, which saw over 15,000 visitors.
The second issue was the ‘design a bear’ online builder application. I knew nothing about picking the right developer or about testing my target market first. I had the app built, but it was expensive and of very low quality.
I had also priced my product too low. This was something that I discussed in my first meeting with my mentor. We talked about the sentimental value and the longevity of the product that I was producing by hand and the time and care taken into making each one. So I researched my competition and the market leader and worked out my prices under theirs. I slowly increased my prices, which was fine to begin with. Then people started to ask why they were so expensive, and each time I would kindly explain my services and process and that each blanket was tailored to my customer and that they last for years. We were still reasonably fresh out of the recession and people were not easily parting with their money for things that were not considered a necessity. I started to look at ways I could engage my target audience, including things like advertising, design, social media and marketing, and quickly realised that I had no idea where to start and was not educated in any of these areas. Finally, I knew nothing about SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and how to get my website in front of my target audience.
The death of my first business
Money was running low and the business slowing, so I decided to enrol on a graphic design degree at my local university so that I could improve my advertising skills and try and get ahead of the game again. Six months into my degree, I realised that I really loved learning and designing - and it made me realise that I needed to close the business for good. It was a very hard decision as the business was my baby. I had created it, nurtured it, and worked hard to try and grow it. But I had to realise that it was not working, and say my goodbyes.
I cried, panicked, procrastinated and was generally really grumpy during this time. I felt like I had failed and I was ashamed. But a turning point came when I decided to list all the things that I had learned from my first ‘failed’ business.
Things like: market research, target audience research, advertising research, price research, sales research, supplier research, business research, finance research and competitor research. Creating a solid support network around me to help me make good decisions and calculated risk decisions. Keeping things simple - the app builder was ahead of its time, it wasn’t built well and it was too complicated. Choosing the right business name that my audience could instantly get and know what it was I did.
All these things I now had the opportunity to look at in detail during my degree. The benefit of a graphic design degree is it teaches you to solve problems, to advertise and sell a product or service, and to do it beautifully and to communicate well.
Going back to education
I had wanted to get a qualification for a good number of years. I started to study law when I left school and wanted to be a solicitor and I got high grades in my first year of college. Then due to personal issues at home, I left college before completing my A levels and had to get a job to support myself.
Now I’m on my path to being a graphic designer. Understanding that the market for a career in this industry is tough and it needs an amazing portfolio to get you through the door of a creative agency, I have been getting my name out there for freelance work while studying. I scoured social media for people looking for graphic designers and got a couple of jobs that way, but felt that I still wasn’t really getting to show my potential and skills to my ideal clients.
The birth of my second and current business
This got me thinking about business expos and networking events and how they can be useful in generating new clients. But this was still a competitive arena and one I was new to. I then had a little light bulb moment - why not create my own events where I can then advertise my services to all the clients in the room who knew who I am as I was the host, thus allowing me to get an opportunity and access to the full audience?
I remembered the IOD convention and how large and amazing it was but also how the bulk of the attendees were men in black suits, white shirts and black ties, and I remember feeling completely out of place and out of my depth. There were no supporting others, no genuine interest in others from the interactions I had with people there.
It was an intimidating environment, but when I looked into events for women in business, most were limited to just women. This then really got me thinking about a gap in the market of business networking events, along with the gender equality conversation and how the gender equality agenda can be pushed closer to its desired point of 50/50 - events where we can get men involved in the equality conversation. And so “Local Women in Business Ltd” was formed. The response and comments I have received in the 5 months since starting on this journey have been amazing.
To be able to not only say that I am graduating with a degree in July this year at the age of 30 with two young children and all the struggles of life we have as parents, but to say that I have gained an education and a degree in something I love, because of starting and failing my first business, and now I’m starting my second - to me, this is definitely a success!
If you would like to follow Lindsey's journey, want to find out more, or you are interested in attending one of her events, you can find local women in business on social media at @LocalWomeninbiz, @localwomaninbusiness, and Local Women in Business.
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