I quit my first real agency job in tears. To this day, the story is cause for embarrassment, but also serves as a testament to how unhappy I was working for someone else, and how much anxiety I had when I realized what I was working towards if I stayed. For Charlotte Cannon, her road to self-employment was similar. After years spent working at a design firm, Charlotte’s spirit became crushed, and her creative muscles, never exercised. Sure, she had job security and made enough to live large in a material sense, but she couldn’t help but revisit the question “at what cost?” over and over again.
Taking the plunge and quitting a job is never easy, but ever since Charlotte left her position to launch her own company, The Vintage Vogue, she hasn’t been happier. The Vintage Vogue offers modern, handmade home goods from Baltimore. From wallpaper and paper goods, to scarves and pillows, to ring dishes and coasters, each product in her shop is her own design and creation, and a true extension of her personal aesthetic and vision.
Joining us today is the tenacious Charlotte, chatting about all things self-employment, why it’s okay to start (and stay) small, the three most terrible words — can’t, won’t, and never — and why her proudest moment to date was at the hands of two pre-teens. –Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I’ve always had an itch to create, but as a working mother, I found it harder and harder to split my time between an ever-increasing amount of work and responsibility at the office and my home life. I looked toward the directors of the firm, at positions I might one day fill if I stayed on that path, and felt a strange mixture of emptiness and anxiety. I didn’t wish to continue, and certainly not at the expense of my family. I finally decided if there was a way to create and a way to be based at or near my home, it was an avenue I needed to pursue. Apart from the co-workers I’d grown close to, there was no love lost when I packed up and left.
Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how you knew it was what you wanted to do?
I am a PBS junkie and have been since I was a child. I’m the kid who would be just as eager to wake up on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons as I would be to watch This Old House. Born with an innate desire to create, I always looked up to people who were making stuff. At eight years old I enlisted my best friend to help me sell my drawings around our apartment complex. To say I discovered what I’m doing doesn’t feel quite as accurate as saying it’s always been there. I get restless when I go for extended periods of time without making something.
When it came time to decide what I wanted to major in, my thought process went something like this, “I love making stuff, but I also want to get paid.” I ended up studying interior architecture and design and quickly found that the world of interiors, at least as I experienced it, was roughly 12% creative, 85% project management and 3% daydreaming about being anywhere else. I am thankful for those few years in design firms, though, because they informed the way I design my goods, which are primarily objects for the home, and it gave me a mastery of tools I habitually use. I draft in AutoCAD on a regular basis and it feels as natural as pen to paper.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Don’t do it for the money. This, of course, sounds like a pretty terrible piece of advice as related to business, but it rings very true for me. At this point in my business I am bringing home far less than I did when I worked a steady job at an established architecture firm here in Baltimore, but I can honestly say that the atmosphere there sucked the joy and the life right out of me. Sure I had some measure of “security” and “disposable income,” but at what cost? In pursuing The Vintage Vogue I found that I have less materially and monetarily, but I live more, and that inevitably has an effect on what I produce. I have more to give and, year by year, The Vintage Vogue has been growing, not because I’m focusing on how to multiply profits, but because I’m honing in on what interests me and this curiosity engages future customers.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
It is easy to be intimidated or discouraged by seeing polished Instagram photos of creative entrepreneurs, incredible websites, social followers in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Do not despise the day of small things! To learn to be okay with starting — and maybe even staying — small was something that was difficult to accept. I’m competitive by nature and driven to excel. I had to reconcile that with my naturally introverted nature, knowing that I’m not interested in growing beyond myself and perhaps one other person. What I’ve found is that it is okay to be small. Work with what you have now and put your best self out there. The strongest relationships will develop with those who connect with your creative story. It’s a big world with many people who connect to different things and there’s room enough for your ideas and your voice.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Even though you might love something so much you would do it for free, don’t. Not doing it for the money means you charge enough so that you are able to keep doing it, not giving everything away and struggling to survive.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences that you learned from or that helped you improve your business or the way you work?
In this age of perfectly Pin-able and über stylish product photo shoots, at times I felt (and sometimes still do) like what I put out there isn’t good enough. That’s the monkey that’s always on my back. I’d think, “So-and-so just got a new studio and look at how amazing her work looks now. If I don’t get a new studio I’ll never make it to the next level.” “That girl’s got that camera and if I don’t get one right now, I’ll never get good enough photos to grow my following.” Can’t, won’t, and never are terrible, terrible words. Why are they so hard to let go?
I had water damage in my home that forced me to get rid of my mattress and boxspring. While making for very uncomfortable sleeping arrangements, this also coincided with attempting to shoot new pillows that I was working on. I decided that the air mattress I was sleeping on would have to work and so I did my best with what I had. And you know what? Those shots don’t look awful, I kinda love them. Whenever I get frustrated with what I think I don’t have or my inadequacy, I literally tell myself to stop. There is a way around every problem and something to be thankful for in every situation. I think being a self-taught optimist has saved me from many possible downward spirals.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I’d have to give it to my husband and my kids because the to-do list is never-ending and will always be there.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
The most difficult aspect of starting my business was the financial fluxes. I couldn’t have gone forward with The Vintage Vogue without the support, mentally and financially, of my husband. There has been a lot of ground work to gain momentum and the minute money came in, it went right back into the business. I found that my genuine interest in what I was making and my curiosity to see if I could push myself to really make a go at this business thing helped propel me through the most challenging times, both in terms of being financially in the red as well as the exhaustion from wearing so many hats. There is a certain comfort in having a “steady paycheck” and that stability was something I consciously set aside.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
My 12-year-old daughter had her first sleepover a few months ago. Instead of showing her friends her room, her clothes, or anything that a preteen might think to show her friends, she went around the house and pointed out all of the things I had drawn, painted, created with my own hands. Her friends “ooh-ed” and “ahh-ed” and I could sense the pride welling from her. I wanted to cry seeing how proud and excited she was. I also thought of how special this moment was; this amazing opportunity to show young girls a life they weren’t familiar with — that they can carve a path for themselves and not be conformed to the world. Though my home is falling apart at every corner, her friends are now of the opinion that my daughter has one of the coolest homes (and one of the coolest moms — yeah!) around.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
The path of my business really solidified when I came across Seth Godin and his notion of “tribes.” I dug deep into his writings and took to heart much of his advice. Etsy’s seller handbooks and Shopify’s newsletters have also been a tremendous help.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
I quit Facebook. Hang on, I’m going somewhere with this! There were a ton of personal reasons for shutting down my personal page, but I also felt like my business page — while having a decent number of followers — just wasn’t doing anything for my business. There was no visible return on my time spent there and it became a chore to keep it up. I just felt like my posts were contrived and lacking life. Most business writers talk about the importance of a social media presence and hardly any conversation goes past mentioning the “F” word. But Facebook just didn’t work for me and I didn’t have any interest in being there. Instead, I focused more on Pinterest (which I adore) and Instagram. Though my following on Instagram is small, it is mighty. My takeaway from that experience is everything doesn’t work for everyone and success for someone else may not be my definition of success, so why try to shadow their path? This thing called being a “business owner” is some sort of code word for Ultimate Puzzle-Master or Rubber-band Man. I don’t have the answers, but I’ve got to find my own way. It continues to be a process of putting myself out there and just figuring it out as I go. At least this is how I’ve found it to be. As a one-woman show, leverage, creativity, and flexibility are the greatest tools at my disposal.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Do you possess a mixture of tenacity and flexibility?
2. Do you have a vision, and can your work stand apart?
3. Will you be able to forgive yourself (and others) quickly as mistakes on both ends will abound?
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
I check my email, then a round on Instagram does to me what coffee does for others.
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Finding the “off” switch. I think about The Vintage Vogue all the time. I think about it when I go to sleep, when I wake up, when I’m not supposed to be thinking about it. I’ve wondered if this makes me a workaholic or if this is just par for the course when setting out on your own. In any case it’s something that I’m conscious of and that I hope I’ll get a better handle on as I continue to flesh out what The Vintage Vogue is, and where I want it to go.