Today’s Biz Ladies profile comes to us from Stefanie Lynen of Winter Water Factory. Early on Stefanie knew she would somehow enter the world of making and establish her own business doing so. Through gradual steps, and eagerness to learn and a focus on sustainability, Stefanie has slowly grown her company into a successful business powered by passion. Today she shares a bit about that journey from idea to business. Thank you for giving us a glimpse at your career path! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I’ve been obsessed with designing and making things since kindergarten, so I don’t really remember a time when I sat down and actually decided to start a business. I somehow always knew I would. As a child in Germany, my sister and I founded the Winterwasserfabrik, a “factory” where we made “winter water”–melted snow–and tried to sell it to our parents. We even employed some classmates and loved to talk about our factory. It was an obvious choice for a name when years later, I went down to the Brooklyn County Clerk’s office to get my DBA as Winter Water Factory. Back then, I wanted to sell tote bags at a street fair and had no idea it would turn into the amazing business it is today.
Now I also see WWF as a socio-economic experiment–we’re trying to run a socially and environmentally sustainable company and do all the right things. We decided early on to use only certified organic cotton, and manufacture everything in the US, starting with the fabric. We make sure everyone gets paid fairly and (hopefully) enjoys working with us. I want us to be a company that cares, and I hope we can stick to our principles and survive in today’s business world.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
Our company started very small and grew organically. I didn’t sit down and write a business plan–that all came much later. I started out by selling knitted hats and felt bags to a small boutique on the Lower East Side. Soon thereafter, my friend Margaret and I rented a desk in a studio with a full screen-printing set-up, darkroom and all. We learned how to screen-print, built a small printing table, and started to design and print our own fabrics. That’s when I knew that I had found what I wanted to do. We made women’s clothing, bags, pillows and kid’s clothes from our brand-new fabrics, anything we could think of. In the end, we loved designing for kids the most – it gave us the room to be playful and have fun. Margaret has since moved on to become a successful freelance illustrator and designer, and we’ve moved to another, bigger studio — with enough space to do things we’ve always dreamed off, like setting up a full-scale printing table.
So overall, we’ve tried and explored many different directions. We ended up being very successful with our baby and children’s lines, but I have to admit that secretly, it’s always been about the prints for me. That’s been the common thread throughout our journey. And now, while continuing to focus on our kids line, we’re coming back around and launching our home textiles line which I am very excited about!
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
When we were doing one of our first trade shows, our little booth was sandwiched between some really funky fashion stuff, leather belts, and jewelry. We sat there and watched as they would get loads of customers but almost everyone skipped over our booth. Someone walked up to us and said, “You girls look stressed out –let me tell you something–this is really hard, to be out here and show your creations, very stressful psychologically.” He was so right! You invest so much, and then think that this one trade show will make or break your business–which isn’t true at all. You realize that there are very few companies that are a success overnight. If you look closer, they’ve all been doing business for 10 years or so.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Finding the right people to work with for our production. We decided early on that we wanted to produce everything locally, and work with manufacturers that treat their people right. To us, where and how a product is made is just as important as the design, so we spent several years trying different factories, fabric printers, pattern makers, etc. We were lucky we found our t-shirt printer Victor early on, and have been working with him for many years. We even share a studio with him now! He’s an amazing resource for anything related to screen-printing. We also work with a great factory that does our cut-and-sew production. It’s about 10 blocks from our house in Sunset Park – perfect for us since we love to be really hands-on and visit them often. It’s great to personally know the people making your products – I bake a cake for them when they finish production for a season! So when we do find the right people, we stick with them and develop a close relationship that works for both of us.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Delegating is a beautiful thing! I still work a full-time job as a Design Director, so it’s really the only way for me to make it all happen. Once I figured out how to let other people contribute, I was able to focus on what I love the most – designing prints, and turning them into beautiful things. To this day, I continuously ask myself, “Do I really need to be the one doing this or could someone else take care of it?” Whatever you can get off your plate gives you more time to focus on the things that really only you can do. I used to run around Manhattan’s fashion district and haul our production from the cut-and-sew place to the guy who puts in the snaps. Of course, as a small business owner, you start by doing everything yourself, but as you grow, you need to learn when to ask for help! I am also very lucky that my husband is a big part of the business now, he runs the company during the week.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
I don’t know if I would call it a failure but a lesson we learned. We got our first big order from a large catalog customer, and were nervous and excited. When we sent in the TOP, they rejected it. We then found out that the garments were completely messed up–all 400 pieces, which was a lot for us at the time! We took a deep breath and decided to remake them all (with a different factory) as fast as we could. We made no money on the order, but the re-orders we received later from them more than made up for it all! Now we know how important it is to keep a close eye on production, and when something does go wrong – which it will, although no one likes to admit it – it’s best to stay calm and figure out how to remedy the situation. It might cost you in the short term, but will be well worth it in the long term.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
I think our greatest success is our happy customers. There is nothing quite like seeing kids wearing our clothes and parents telling us how many compliments they get, that we are helping them get the kids dressed in the morning. Kids want to wear our clothes! It’s great to see when they notice that we design with them in mind, and find their favorite animal, toy, or construction equipment printed on their shirts. Our clothing becomes an instant favorite – it’s soft, bright and comfortable. Parents also love it because it doesn’t wear out or go out of style so they can hand it down. They often wish that we made things in their size. Additionally, being able to work with local manufacturers and keeping them in business is another huge success in my book.
The best thing we ever did to support our own success is to hire the crazy talented Tiffany King to run our marketing and social media. I was never going to have time to run our social media platforms, contact bloggers, and magazine editors. She’s done an amazing job getting the word out there and finding new fans for the brand. Hiring someone to take care of social media and publicity is something I would highly recommend for anyone who doesn’t have the time–or the skills, in my case. It’s well worth the investment!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I read several of those “how to start a business” guides, which were helpful to an extent. One of them said you can do it in 17 weeks–yeah right! I learned the most from talking to other small business owners, our storeowners, and our manufacturers. Understanding manufacturing, and listening to your customers to me is essential to being a good designer. And exchanging experiences with other small business owners is really important, and will help you through it all. I think it’s silly when small businesses get really competitive. In the end, it’s us against the big guys much more than us against one another.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
A business can only be truly successful if your heart is in it. You can make a ton of money and do a lot of things otherwise, but it won’t be nearly as rewarding. How can you tell? If you’re willing to do what you do in your business without getting paid for it, and if it’s something that has stuck with you for a long time, those are good signs. I’ve been obsessed with prints and fabrics since I was a kid. I had a mini sewing machine and was sewing clothes for my dolls to go along with their hand-made knitwear collection. You could say that after a long detour through med school, I knew when I came back around to design and textiles that it was the right thing for me. You have to be willing to give up your weekends, your extra spending cash, and your vacations for a while. A business will take over your life for a few years, so you better pick something you enjoy a lot! I think that’s the most important thing, and will take care of the other two, which are patience and persistence.