I recently took a workshop led by Learn with Pickles from A Jar of Pickles, who is a product designer that I met at the SJ Made Holiday Fair last year. While the workshop's main topic was business goal-setting for this year, it was also an opportunity to review and solidify my core values for Old River Design Co.
Why a set of core values?
At a basic level, core values help guide you. This is really important when you are a one-woman show. As a solo entrepreneur, my options are limitless. I could do anything that I want to! My time, however, is not limitless. Neither is my energy.
Last year, I found that when a new opportunity or idea came my way, I had to stop and think about if it was right for me and my business. All that time and energy evaluating these opportunities took a lot of my decision-making bandwidth up, making it challenging to do anything else. Some examples of opportunities that I considered last year include:
- Should I start selling my items at wholesale? (How do I price this? What contracts do I need to have? Where to I find wholesale customers? Can I make enough product to meet the demand of a multiple wholesale accounts?)
- Should I start making (insert customer request here) products?
- Do I need to take another part-time job to make ends meet more comfortably?
- Should I teach classes? What topics should I teach? Are there supplies needed? How should I price the workshops?
- Should I start carrying sewing supplies in addition to finished crafts?
As you can see, there's a lot of paths that I can travel down and explore. More than once, I spent more than a week researching different options and opportunities, feeling good about my decision. I'd move on confidently, and then two weeks later another thing would come my way. I'd once again become paralyzed by analyzing things to answer a few basic questions:
- Is this something I should do?
- What is the opportunity cost of doing this?
- If so, is it something I should do RIGHT NOW?
When you have a set of core values, it's easier to evaluate something without getting lost too deep in the process.
Core Value 1: Kaizen
If you're not familiar with the term, kaizen is essentially a Japanese thought process centered around continuous improvement. I formally learned of this when I was earning my certificate in Project Management, but I recognized that I had been practicing this for years. One of the things I got to be pretty good at in my last job was process improvement. Essentially, I looked at every repetitive task that I was assigned and ask:
- Can I do this in less time?
- Can I do this with less resources?
- Is there a way to ease pain points in this process?
- How do I tweak things to make a better quality result?
This applies to my approach to business because I know that I will continue to evolve and grow what I do. My first collection of items for sale were custom-cut cards. If I had named this business "Katie's Card Shop", then it would make zero sense for what I currently sell now! Instead, I was deliberate in choosing a name that felt unique and spoke to my identity, but could still allow for that growth in what I do.
Another way in which this value guides my decision-making mindset is in understanding that I am not aiming to have my business be an "overnight success". Chasing some trends to "go viral" is counterproductive to this value, and if an idea I have doesn't align with the process of kaizen, it's likely it isn't for me.
Core Value 2: Community
Although I am an introvert through and through, I really hate to feel alone. I have consistently sought out experiences and careers that require team work because of this. This often surprises other people, because if I have a task to do, I generally prefer to get it done myself. Having lots of distractions can be over-stimulating for me - that's where the introvert part kicks in - but I love to teach others and to learn from the people around me.
So, when I had the opportunity to teach sewing classes, I jumped at it. Did I feel like I had absolutely no business teaching people who were decades older than me? Absolutely! But I went after it anyways, because I knew it would help me build community.
This value is influencing which opportunities I pursue to prioritize doing events that allow me to connect with people who appreciate what I do, such as Japanese cultural festivals.
I've also given myself permission to take time to seek out mentors and network with other creative business owners. It's been refreshing to be able to connect with other people who have similar values, dreams, and challenges as myself.
The idea of community has also encouraged me to keep connected to others on social media. I no longer put a lot of value into the metrics that go into posting content such as views and likes, but I fully recognize that I have to show up on there if I want others to show up for me.
Core Value 3: Craftsmanship
As someone who is a little obsessed with process (see: Kaizen), it's not surprising that craftsmanship is important to me. To me, it feels like it takes an absurd amount of time to introduce a new product to my line. Even with a simple idea, I make several prototypes of products before I decide to sell them. I've abandoned many ideas because I couldn't quite get it right.
Craftsmanship is about quality, but it's also about decisions. I take great care to make sure that linings are color coordinated with exteriors on my storage baskets, and when I make bento buddies I make sure to use matching thread for all my top-stitching.
If I wanted to make this easier on myself (and my pocket book), I'd probably have the same fabric lining every basket. But those details matter to me, and I believe that the result in a finished product that people can appreciate.
In the past I have, on occasion, rushed something to market because I wanted it to feel like I had more items to offer. Time and again, the items that I didn't put my heart into making did not sell. Consciously or not, people can tell when you've put your best work into making something.
Core Value 4: Sustainability
Oooooooof, I know that this is like, a very annoying buzz word. Let me clarify what sustainability means for me: waste & longevity.
When you manufacture your own goods, you see just how much material can be wasted. I take steps to re-purpose my scrap fabrics into new things. That's how my best-selling key fob wristlets got their start! If a fabric absolutely cannot be used in another thing, I partner with Sew for Love to take those fabrics and make them into "cubies", which are used in children's classrooms.
I also strive to use as little plastic as possible in the packaging and shipping of my goods. I have a few plastic supplies that I bought when I first started out that I am still trying to use up, but outside of that I package and ship with materials that are recyclable or compostable.
I also receive a lot of stuff from my suppliers that come in resealable plastic bags, and I re-use those often.
Since this isn't a hobby for me, it's important that I make decisions that allow this business to continue to grow and operate. That means taking care of my body: over-use injuries and burnout means that I cannot sew new items or sell at events. As I start to understand the rhythms of this job, it is important for me to set up habits and routines so to support this. I've invested in equipment that helps to reduce fatigue, and I prioritize getting enough sleep each night to give my body the time it needs to repair itself. I often remind myself - this is a marathon, not a sprint!
I also made it a priority to set the back-end of my business up so that I wouldn't have to make a ton of changes to it each year. Right off the bat, I started as an LLC (despite the hefty up front costs) and I am conscientious about making sure that I am operating "above board" at every location I pop up in.
This also shows up in the business relationships that I form. Although I do purchase some things on Amazon (it's a great way to try out some things due to low minimum order quantities), I work to source my materials and supplies from trusted sources. Luckily, sourcing high-quality materials goes hand-in-hand with buying from small and family-run businesses. I'll have to share some of those businesses in a future blog post!
Now that I have taken the time to identify these core values, I hope that they will continue to help guide my decisions in a more streamlined way. I've already caught myself a couple of times, contemplating something and then stopping myself to ask how it aligns with my values. And both times, it has made that decision much more clear.