“Dwell in possibility.” These words from an Emily Dickinson poem sit in a frame on Hana Getachew’s desk. For Hana — and for many entrepreneurs — the very thought that her dream could be made into a reality was all she needed to launch Bolé Road Textiles. Though leaping into the unknown world of becoming a business-owner was scary, her vision was clear and carried her from the start: to pursue her love of weaving and textiles, all while supporting and celebrating local makers and her home country of Ethiopia’s culture.
All of the ethically-sourced, modern home products by Bolé Road Textiles are crafted with love using ancient weaving traditions that pay homage to Hana’s roots in Addis Ababa. And though her business has flourished, she admits it’s a marathon, not a sprint; a continuous process of learning, tweaking and improving, and one that requires plenty of heart and openness to feedback. Today, we’re thrilled to have Hana join us to chat about her business, the two biggest lessons she’s learned (patience and agility), why feedback is important, and a phrase she repeats often: “remember how Martha started.” —Sabrina
Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?
I started my own business for two reasons. The first is that I’ve always had a strong desire to be more connected to my home country, Ethiopia, which starting Bolé Road Textiles has allowed me to do. Working for another design company just would never have afforded me the opportunity to reconnect in this way.
The second reason is that as an interior designer, I love layering spaces with textiles, especially pillows, but I often couldn’t find the types of products I was looking for. I love the color and pattern of vintage textiles, but I wanted a more modern aesthetic. I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the craftsmanship and details of Ethiopian textiles, which have had a strong influence on my design work. So I thought I would create a line of home textiles that is modern and vibrant, handcrafted in Ethiopia, and inspired by the country’s textile traditions.
Starting my own company has allowed me to support artisans, businesses and communities in Ethiopia, and at the same time fulfill my own aesthetic vision with a brand that I think really fills a gap in the marketplace. It’s a dream come true.
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 started at Cornell University as a fine arts major, but realized early on that it wasn’t a great fit. A girl I knew from a student organization told me how much she was enjoying the interior design program, so I figured I would give it a shot. Right away I knew I’d found the right place.
I had a great connection with my classmates and professors and loved the coursework. What appealed to me most was the focus on the human experience in design. The first design studio I took explored aesthetics in design — composition, scale, color — all things I was interested in as an artist. I also loved the mix of left and right brain topics in the curriculum. It was my jam.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
Just start. Even if you’re only 60% there, just start. If I hadn’t heard this early on, I’d probably still be planning my launch. I’m not a perfectionist, but I definitely like to be prepared and to always feel like I’ve given my work as much thought and effort as possible. That, combined with being a first-time, solo entrepreneur, made it easy to keep telling myself I needed more time. At some point, though, I simply had to start. I chose to launch at BKLYN DESIGNS so I would have a set date to work towards. It was intense, but it was a success.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
The most difficult part had to be making the initial decision to leave my career at an architecture firm. It’s a huge leap to go off on your own, and to do so in a completely new field was extremely daunting. It took me a few years before I could say I was truly ready. Ultimately, I was convinced that I had to pursue it. The promise of being able to fulfill my dream to create this brand and have a positive impact in Ethiopia outweighed any fear of uncertainty or failure.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
Patience and agility. I’ve really had to learn to go with the flow. I am a huge planner but things often don’t go according to plan. Sometimes a shipment gets stuck in customs, or the labels come in the wrong size, or they run out of medium gray yarn in all of Addis Ababa (this really happened). I have to be prepared to take the givens of any scenario and press on to achieve the vision of the collection.
Regarding my textiles, there are so many things that are beyond my control when it comes to the weaving process. As an interior designer, if you design a piece of millwork or specify a finish, it’s not uncommon to reject it several times until it meets your exact specification. While I do strive to have the textiles match my designs as closely as possible, the nuances are what make the handwoven textiles amazing. The weavers interpret my designs and often enhance the final product by applying intricate weaving techniques. It is really a collaboration between the artisans and me.
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?
Since my company is only a few months old, I have the pleasure of having all of my failures before me! Most of the snafus so far are production-related. During my trip to Ethiopia, when I was searching for artisans to partner with, I was so eager to test out new ideas that I started requesting samples on the fly, in addition to the designs that I had already created for the collections. This became a bit expensive and didn’t always result in the best samples. Now I try to take my time, limit my samples requests, and wait for new collections to explore new ideas.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
I would relax! And spend time with my husband. I thought it was a myth that once you start working for yourself it’s hard to shut off and unplug at the end of the day. I suppose it depends on your personality type, but it certainly rings true for me. But even though I aspire to having down time every day, I don’t think it suits me.
What has been the biggest sacrifice you’ve made in starting your business?
A 401K. Kidding. Maybe a little.
I would say working long hours and sacrificing a social life, but I think that comes along with any dream worth pursuing. That’s one lesson my parents taught me. As immigrants to this country, we had to build our lives from scratch. My parents left everything behind in Ethiopia, their house, their families, careers, so there’s no way I can describe the work I put into Bolé Road as a sacrifice. If anything, it’s a blessing to have the opportunity to purse my dream.
Leaving an office environment has been a bit of a sacrifice. The main thing I miss is collaborating with other designers and getting feedback from clients. Any design process is always more successful as a collaboration, so at times it’s difficult to work on my own. But I am constantly sending new work to friends and fellow designers to recreate that experience and get another perspective.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?
I was so grateful for all the positive feedback during the launch! So many visitors were drawn to the colors and patterns. A few people that had only seen my products online commented on how soft the textiles were, how cushy the inserts felt. I mean, some people were really, really into the pillows. When you’re working on something for so long, it’s always a little nerve-wracking when you show it to the world for the first time. I was happy (and relieved) to have so many enthusiastic supporters!
It was also wonderful to see all of my friends and family that had come out to celebrate the occasion with me! It was like an episode of This Is Your Life.
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
I think those starting a creative business usually have the creative part down; it’s everything else that proves a little challenging. When starting my business I wasn’t sure what my first steps should be. I took a class run by NYC Business Solutions that was a wonderful immersion in how to start a business. It gave me my bearings and helped get me focused on the financial, legal and even marketing aspects. I’ve taken so many of their classes since then.
The Christmas before I finally left my job, my husband gave me a copy of Blake Mycoskie’s Start Something That Matters. Reading it really helped me hone my vision for Bolé Road Textiles. Of course the major takeaway was to start a company that you are passionate about and serves a greater purpose. It was also great to hear the slapdash way Blake’s company began. It let me know that we all have to start somewhere. I keep a Post-It note on my bulletin board that reads: Remember how Blake started. I also have one that reads: Remember how Martha started.
Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.
I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur, and for a long time I was focused on my career as an interior designer. I had to leave a leadership position at a well-respected architecture firm and let go of the goal of continuing to rise there in order to create something special and meaningful with Bolé Road.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1. Vision – do you have a clear idea of what your business is, who it serves and the value it offers those clients? Define it until every detail is clear in your head. Also, determine how you will define success.
2. Team – even if you are planning to go it alone, identify two or three go-to people who can help you build your business. You will need more help than you think!
3. Financial plan – even if you don’t create a full business plan, create a business narrative, and outline your budget for at least the first year. Determine what your top ceiling is for how much you’re willing to invest in your business in case you go over budget. Then find a backup.
Nobody tells you this, but it’s impossible to start a business AND support yourself unless you: a) continue working full- or part-time, b) have a financial support system or other income-generating scenario (i.e., property) in place, c) seek funding, or, d) are independently wealthy.
I would have had a much tougher time starting Bolé Road Textiles if my husband wasn’t around to keep the lights on. The rest was my savings.
What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?
Of course it’s the Gram. I’m on Instagram first thing each morning, to see what I missed overnight. It’s fun to see what people in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa are up to. Next thing would be my Shopify app, to check in on my shop!
What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?
Transitioning between the various roles to run a business is the toughest part; especially when some are completely creative and others are purely numbers. Executing the tasks themselves isn’t the challenge; it’s just switching your mindset to begin something totally different. I try to dedicate specific days of the week to one type of task, like Marketing Mondays and Finance Fridays. This helps me maintain focus, which as a soloprenuer can be its own challenge!