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Life & Business

Redefining Entrepreneurship for You With Nicole Crowder

by Sabrina Smelko

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Entrepreneurship is a hot trend these days, but how the world at-large perceives that role is not for everyone — and that’s a really, really good thing. As Nicole Crowder has learned, everyone’s pace and each person’s approach to self-employment is unique and should be respected.

After quitting her full-time job as a photo editor, Nicole pursued her passion for upholstery and designing one-of-a-kind, custom furniture only to discover that the structure of her full-time business was draining her rather than uplifting her. So she asked herself: “How do I want to redefine entrepreneurship for me?” In the end, she jumped back into her role as Senior Features Photo Editor for The Washington Post in DC, and scaled her upholstery business down to a pace and size that she felt more comfortable with. As a result of questioning the system and being open to change, she has created some of her best work for countless small businesses and boutique hotels.

Today, Nicole is sharing more about how she redefined self-employment, how balancing a full-time job with freelance work helps each role, and insight into the modern model of work and how she’s managed to battle those expectations — all with a smile. –Sabrina

Why did you decide to start your own business, versus work for someone else?

I started out working in the publishing industry for about five years as a photo editor, and while I loved doing that, in the middle of working I discovered a craft that gave me another way to express my creativity — furniture upholstery — and I wanted to explore it full-time. When I discovered upholstery and started selling one-off pieces through Craigslist, it was the most rejuvenating experience, and I had this epiphany that I wanted to make it into a longterm business. The leap into entrepreneurship was completely foreign territory to me, but it was a leap that I needed to take during this particular point in my life. I was used to having a handful of ideas fluttering in my head, and this one (I felt in my bones) was my calling, and so I pursued it. I made a business plan, saved all of my money, asked my parents for a loan, and quit my job.

A year into having quit my job and working from my home studio, I was burned out physically and mentally. Taking on more client work was costing me more than I was making in return. I had to ask myself: How do I want to redefine entrepreneurship for me? The process of realizing I might not be ready to be a full-time entrepreneur was hard because the expectation is that we all want to be our own bosses. But yet the passion was not something I was ready to let up. And so I made the decision to go back to photo editing and keep my business to a pace and size that I could handle and would allow me to do my best work. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made because it’s allowed me to design smaller furniture collections that I roll out twice a year like a fashion show, and has opened opportunities to work on longterm projects designing chairs for individual clients at a time — like boutique hotels.

Can you remember when you first learned about your field of work? How did you discover what it was and how did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I remember coming across an article on a chair upholsterer in Philadelphia who had great designs. I was so inspired by her work that I went out to Maryland one weekend and bought two low-cost chairs from the Goodwill and some fabric from Jo-Ann Fabric and spent the weekend in my house practicing. Those first two chairs were terrible (haha), but I felt the desire to keep going with this. Within a couple of weeks (and after several YouTube tutorials), I had reupholstered and sold a bunch of chairs via Craigslist. The more I started buying and reupholstering chairs and posting them on social media, the more I heard from people across the city who had chairs in their homes for years just sitting around because they didn’t know where to get them reupholstered. That’s when I had an inkling that my hobby might be a niche skill.

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

The best piece of advice I was given when I started out doing upholstery was to simply not undersell my work and make sure to take care of myself. It was given to me by my closest friend, Melissa Frakman, who is the most business-savvy woman I know. My personality is such that I want to take on everything, and try to do it all, but I realized after a few tumbles (mostly financial) that it really was not feasible. I said yes to too many clients and last-minute requests that were offering too little money for the work that was involved. And now, when I’m balancing upholstery and my job as a photo editor, I’m more selective about client work I take on. I take time to ask myself, “What does my workload look like? Is this feasible to do without being stressed out?”

What was the most difficult part of starting your business?

The most difficult part of starting my business was getting comfortable with charging rates that reflected the work I was doing — and sticking to them. I had really bad negotiation skills starting out, and would spend days sourcing, designing and styling chairs, only to sell them for a fraction of what they were worth out of fear that I would miss out on clients. Or in many cases, having clients reach out to inquire about reupholstering one of their chairs with a list of things they wanted for the design and then backing out after receiving my estimate. It took me a while to become confident in my prices and find the right client base that would invest in my pieces.

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

I’ve learned a lifetime of lessons in running my own business, but being sensitive to how your business will change, how you will change, and being open to knowing those changes often lead to better things has been the biggest one. When I first started my upholstery work, my office hours were wide open. I thought I would enjoy working alone all day, and I said I was going to take on as much client work as I could, but my business and how I chose to operate it evolved towards the opposite spectrum almost entirely. I established office hours and didn’t feel guilty when I was “off.” I like working with one client at a time and being able to fully immerse myself in the design and production of those chairs — which is exactly why I focus on working with boutique hotels and small businesses because I can give their project full attention to detail and not worry about trying to complete four other client items in the same week. And I like having a full-time job in photo editing where I use a part of my brain to collaborate with a group of people on making ideas pop in print and online, and then the other part of my brain to make ideas pop in a more tangible way by using my hands in upholstery where I work alone.

I also learned when was the best time to sell. I was doing trade shows or outdoor markets in the fall and realized not many people were looking to buy furniture then because it’s right before the holiday season. But in the spring and summer months the requests and sales were bountiful. So I use the colder months to work on my designs.

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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?

There have been several moments. Again, trying to take on too much at one time leads you to sacrifice quality to some degree. One of the very first chairs that I designed and was going to send to the client was just not good. Tiny errors were visible in the details, and from that moment on, it has never left me that everything that leaves my studio is a reflection of my hand and me. It really showed me to be exceptional in my attention to detail. To this day, nothing leaves my apartment until it goes through a triple check.

If you were magically given three more hours per day, what would you do with them?

I would use an extra three hours to collect photos and design inspiration. My whole day is spent working — whether it’s on my full-time job photo editing or reupholstering — so I wouldn’t want more hours to fit in more work. I would love more time to just sit and gather photos for design inspiration from magazines and Pinterest and let them percolate.

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

The biggest sacrifice has definitely been time with my friends and family. In building up products and designing chairs (and trying to save money), I wasn’t seeing them as much, and I’m so grateful that they supported me throughout and understood and that we’re all still close.

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Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your business experiences?

I’m proud that these are pieces that will be in someone’s home or apartment or hotel for a while. I’m incredibly humbled every day to know that someone wanted a personal piece I created to be a part of his or her personal space.

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

The book that I first read was The Girlfriend’s Guide to Starting Your Own Business. The advice was direct and prompted questions that I had not considered. I also signed up for a few newsletters focused on women in business.

Has failing at something or quitting ever led to success for you? Walk us through that.

I remember wondering if I was a failure because I had decided to be a part-time entrepreneur as opposed to a full-time one. The expectation is everyone wants to work for him- or herself. I quit running my upholstery business full-time after just a year, and I took a break for nearly six months — putting all of my upholstery tools and fabric out of my eyesight — to see if upholstery was something I really loved doing or just something I needed to do for myself at a certain point in my life. And after six months or so I felt this desire to start conceiving a new collection of chairs, so I began sketching designs again, acquiring inspiration through photos and re-launching a website because I genuinely loved this craft. And I love being a photo editor, too. The change in lifestyle and pace showed that I was happier and more inspired, so that direct proof helped me re-evaluate personal success entirely.

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

A clear vision and promotional strategy. Visibility is crucial for any business to thrive. Also, sufficient savings (and that amount will be different for everyone), and persistence because as much as the great days will propel you to want to do more and grow, you’ll also need that motivation stored up in the slower times to stay energized.

What’s the first app, website or thing you open/do in the morning?

The first thing I open in the morning is Instagram! It’s an awesome platform for showcasing the work I do in all capacities: as a photo editor, as a photographer, and as an upholsterer — but just a great aspirational platform in general. I get inspired to travel and create through Instagram. Also, I love reading The Cut.

What’s the hardest thing about being your own boss that isn’t obvious?

The hardest thing initially was how to deal with taxes. I learned very early on that handling my own taxes as a small business was just not my cup of tea! And I use a wonderful accountant who thankfully is patient with every question I have, big or small. Also, time management and knowing when to check out was really hard sometimes, because if you’re working a full-time job and running a small business on the side at home, you feel like your office hours are 24/7. But I purposely free up my weekends a couple times a month so that I’m not doing anything related to work. If all I do is see my friends and watch a marathon of The Golden Girls, I’m okay with that.

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Comments

  • As a daily Washington Post reader, I recognized Nicole Crowder’s name right away. How cool to read about her other creative endeavors, too! This is one of my favorite Life and Business columns: I like the honesty and happy end that’s a mixture of a 9-to-5 and entrepreneurship. (Of course, I imagine newspaper hours are much, much longer.) And I especially *love* the last chair in gold, black, and white!

  • Hi, I haven’t been on DS for ages but happened across this article AS I was in the middle of composing an email lowering a quote for an upholstery job after the client pulled out because of cost!! I have just started my from home upholstery business and had an amazing launch at a local market with so much interest, I handed out hundreds of cards and got great feedback, even winning the stallholder of the month award, but since then have gotten no follow ups. It is really difficult staying positive when the phone stays so quiet so it is good to read about success stories to keep my determination going!

    • Hang in there JEMMA…
      Never giving up on your dreams will truly have a pay off one day and often when you least expect to have that breakthrough.

  • I just happened on this article at a timely crossroads in my own 3 side gig / full time job role. I was out of work for 9 months which forced me to become a solo entrepreneurs, learned a lot and made very little profit. Kept looking for a job the entire time and found one. Transitioned the no-income business to a side gig role and have been exhausted. Currently trying to determine if I need to change the side business to my first passion – interior redesign to make the exhaustion and effort at least personally fulfilling. The corporate side gig is exhausting, and an extension of my day job which I believe may contribute to the current level burnout and feelings of failure. Reading this interview has inspired me to revisit and refocus and maybe prioritize. Thanks for sharing this.

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