Life & Business

Life & Business: Erin Dollar of Cotton & Flax

by Sabrina Smelko

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

In a digital age, it’s so refreshing to find brands that still value the tangible and putting pencil to paper. Every piece from Cotton & Flax begins as an ink drawing using a brush and sumi ink before being transferred to a silkscreen and printed on natural fabrics with eco-friendly inks. I first found Erin Dollar, the founder and designer behind C&F, on Instagram and double-tapped nearly every photo she’s shared of her studio process since her launch in 2012. Though she may not have a lot to work with (her LA studio is only 72 square feet!), she uses this to her advantage and employs a small-batch approach to her textile goods, coming out with a new design and palette every season! Today Erin’s discussing how she got to where she is today, the importance of not taking business personally, asking for help, and getting out of your head. —Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business?

Timing had a lot to do with it. I finished my undergrad degree (in Fine Art and Literature) right as the recession hit in 2008. Finding full-time work in a creative industry in Portland was very challenging, so starting a business was initially a way to supplement my income from my part-time job. My family is very entrepreneurial, so I had some great models of what you can achieve when you strike out on your own.

Over the years, the business became something much bigger, and I realized how fulfilling it is to build something from the ground up. As a fundamentally creative person, becoming a small business owner empowered me to choose exactly the type of work I wanted to do.

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?

Cotton & Flax was born out of my fine-art practice. I had been selling my fine art prints in local galleries and online, and started experimenting with printing on fabric as a fun side project. Every textile piece I made was unified by my hand drawn patterns, which made it easier to create a cohesive collection to launch as a separate identity: Cotton & Flax. I wanted to create a business that would allow me to try out different ways of making (although printmaking will always be my first love), tied together by my aesthetic vision and personal affinity for simple design.

What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?

Figure out your strengths/weaknesses, and ask for help! Asking friends and other business owners for help or advice has often led to finding workable solutions for challenges that have cropped up over the years.

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

Saving money to fund the early stages of the business, and getting the nerve to quit my day job. Starting a business felt like a real risk — it meant walking away from a job I actually enjoyed. For me, the most painful parts of the process were in the beginning: Worrying about whether I was making the right decisions, and struggling to develop patience and self-discipline as I worked nights and weekends to build Cotton & Flax into something that could support me.

Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?

Take care of yourself first, then take care of your business. I do my best work when I’ve gotten enough sleep, eaten healthy meals, and gotten some fresh air and exercise. Easier said than done — this is something I hope to get better at in 2015.

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?

I put a lot of time into product development, but the products that I personally love the most aren’t always the best sellers. I take it too personally — I feel so disappointed if a particular favorite product doesn’t sell as well as I’d hoped. I’ve had to learn to strike a balance between creating products I love, while also keeping my customers in mind with each new piece.

Cotton & Flax tea towels 3 Cotton & Flax tea towels 1

What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?

My free time is very limited now, and it’s hard for me to fully enjoy time off from work in the way I did before I ran the business. It’s hard to escape the never-ending to-do list, and to really, fully relax and turn off my “work brain.”

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?

Completing my first big wholesale order for CB2 was pretty monumental. Seeing all the boxes of tea towels stacked up taller than me felt like such a huge accomplishment. It felt very validating to have a big brand showing interest and investing in my work.

Personally, I get the most joy from collaborating with friends on projects for Cotton & Flax. Having the freedom and opportunity to work with fun and talented people feels like a huge success to me.

What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?

The Life & Business series on D*S is stellar! So much helpful advice packed in each interview. Rena Tom’s writing about running a creative business has been very helpful to me over the years. I use Lynda.com to learn to use specific software, like Photoshop and Illustrator. Honestly, don’t underestimate Google as a resource; there is a wealth of free information available to new business owners, if you’re willing to dig for it.

Life & Business: Cotton & Flax

In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?

1. Understand your motivations for wanting to start a business. This may be the best thing you can do for your sanity and well-being longterm. Keeping those motivations in mind as you grow your business can help avoid burnout, and will help you to achieve the goals that are most meaningful and satisfying to you.

2. Build a support network. No one grows a business completely on their own. Find out who you can ask for help when things get tough, and likewise, how you can help other makers in your community.

3. You’re gonna have to get out of your head, and just do the work. Many people starting a business spend a lot of time planning, worrying, and trying to avoid making mistakes. Yes, you should make a general plan for the trajectory of your business and how you’ll make money, but at some point, you’ll have to stop planning, and actually go do it! In the words of Tina Fey: “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the waterslide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”

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  • I’ve had the pleasure of working with Erin and it’s so great to see her featured here. I couldn’t agree more with her advice to ‘take care of yourself first, then take care of your business.’ Congrats on your success, Erin!

  • I love hearing that you, too, feel personally disappointed when something that you have proudly created has not seen as much success in the marketplace as you would have anticipated. It is a nice reminder that it does not have to be all or nothing- that there is a balance somewhere in the middle.

  • love your work Erin and some great advice in there!

    Also – Where did you get that couch?!?! I’m in LOVE!

  • Thanks for the kind words, everyone!

    Ruthie – the sofa belongs to a friend, she bought it at HD Buttercup.

  • I really appreciate the point about taking care of yourself, thought it’s definitely easier said than done! It’s frightfully easy as a maker to fall into a schedule that just burns you out. Remembering to be good to our bodies is so important.

  • Its amazing how all of us , with new creative businesses , go through the sames ups and downs, questions and joys.
    Thanks a lot for sharing!

  • Thank you for this article. I really love what you are doing and understood where you are coming from on so many levels. Some days you just need someone else’s story to know you aren’t alone:)

  • I really loved this interview! Erin, thanks for sharing your thoughts and some resources. I love your work and I’m off to your website!

  • I love Cotton & Flax! Erin’s designs are whimsical and she chooses great felt and cottons – so nice to have in the house.

  • “Work brain!” I love that and I HAVE that. All the time. It’s so true that you have to take care of yourself because, really, there are so many things we need to be doing all the frickin time to keep up. Ya gotta get that downtime. Owning a business is great, but it’s a balance. I’m a Libra so I’m actually fairly comfortable with that intersection of self/work.

    Have a great day, all!

  • Greetings from India, very inspiring thoughts and very motivated.
    It’s a right time I read your article, working as surface designer for more than 12 years having plans to start by own. Will appreciate and thanks for sharing it. ☺

  • Your designs are so concise and sweet. Thank you for showing us that simplicity is also beautiful.

  • Your article makes me smile. We all start our own business because the satisfaction of doing something from the ground up is so gratifying. I love your passion, it’s so contagious! I am excited to start my own business, too in the food and art world =)