Four months ago, I woke up with a chilling thought that I was way behind schedule. It was a dreary September morning — September 15th, my twenty-sixth birthday — and as I leapt out of bed, I decided I had to start a company. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to start something of my own. I had many ideas, ranging from mundane to intriguing to downright unreasonable, and was just waiting for the right time, waiting for the right idea to “stick.” Truth be told, they all stuck. They stuck around in my head, in notebooks, in abandoned blogs, in emails sent only to my own inbox. But they didn’t come to life. I realized that most of these ideas had not even come up in casual conversations. Perpetually in draft form. I was living in my head, waiting around for some fantasy future that would never will its way into existence if I didn’t stop thinking and start doing something about it.
The best place to start? Talk to people.
stop complaining. start fixing.
“Patagonia for bizwear.”
That was one of two* ideas I jotted (er, typed) into Evernote on an A train into Manhattan one morning last October. By choice and by chance, a lot had changed since the birthday morning four weeks earlier. What had changed most radically? My attitude. Choosing to stop complaining was an instant and lasting redesign, a constraint where success and failure were both entirely in my control. Intentions to “complain less” had fallen flat in years past, so an extreme reset was the only logical option. Removal from toxic environments and a constant awareness of the issue were the keys to progress. I still catch myself complaining, but now considerably less. Time and energy previously wasted on complaints and mindless criticism were converted to positive thoughts and communication. I quickly found it was more fun and rewarding to talk about ideas rather than things or people. (This sounds obvious but when you’re on autopilot, bad habits creep in.)
Thirty minutes after typing that note on the subway, I was talking about the idea publicly for the first time with a friend in a Chelsea coffee shop. It was a new shorthand descriptor but not a new concept. I wanted to create a clothing line of businesswear (a.k.a. “bizwear”) to minimize waste in the garment industry. I loved what Patagonia stood for, but didn’t have a need for outdoorsy clothing. I would produce decidedly “indoor” clothing, with a conscious approach to manufacturing and eventually recycling, a fully closed-loop lifecycle. He didn’t hate the idea, so I figured I was onto something. The experiment began then and there.
Iwent to McNally Jackson and bought a copy of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s memoir, Let My People Go Surfing — the book that got me interested in the environmental impact of fashion more than four years ago as a fresh college graduate with big dreams and no focus. I was shocked to notice this book was published in 2005, over a decade ago and yet the notes and advice still rang true. Says a lot about Chouinard’s timeless vision, and perhaps even more about the stagnation in the clothing industry’s move towards sustainability.
I saw that as a golden opportunity; validation that there is room for improvement and for a new company to swoop in and help fix the problem (for reference: 25+ billion pounds of garment waste per year in the U.S. alone). Why shouldn’t that company be material? (BTW, material is my company name! Intentionally lowercase. It’s from a 2011 iPhone note I’d recently revisited.) I had been thinking about these problems—too much stuff, too much waste, and, perhaps most importantly, lack of stylish blazers on the market for women—in one way or another for more than half a decade. Now was as good a time as ever to test the market. I had recently come to the scary conclusion that business is really about gut instincts and the ability to follow through on a good idea. If I didn’t have the guts, I shouldn’t have a business. Since no post about entrepreneurship is complete without a mention of Steve Jobs, I’ll share his thoughts on the topic, a virtual slap-in-the-face moment for me:
Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.
get off autopilot.
The next hundred days brought about a whirlwind of change. I temporarily moved to Hong Kong, took on a new full-time job, went to events and summits and conferences (one surprisingly let me facilitate a discussion on “Lifecycle of Materials” even as a total novice, simply because I suggested the topic), spent a few weeks in Taipei with a traveling digital nomad community, wrote and published lists, read lots of books (including these and reread this classic and was clearly re-inspired by this), got my first blazer prototype ready, finally learned how to meditate, coded an early 2000s-inspired website, filled up over seven handwritten journals and 97 notes on Evernote, made #NoNewStuff my 2016 resolution, donated seven massive bags filled with items I didn’t need, completely and unabashedly abandoned all stalled side projects, spent more time with family and friends. I talked to people in the fashion industry for knowledge and inspiration. I talked to people out of the industry for user research. It’s crazy how much time you find when you cut bad things out and make room for what matters most. The only downside so far is less sleep. However, I’m finding that if the idea is not keeping you up at night, it’s probably not the right idea/time. To be sure the material idea would come to life no matter what, I set a modest goal: make and sell at least one blazer in 2016.
I am starting this raw_material project in tandem to share what I learn about the industry and about starting a company. I’m expecting more than a few mishaps, hopefully to be outshone by the eventual launch of material and by raising awareness about the messed-up garment industry and what we (yes, you) can do to fix it.
advice to younger self: do less to do more.
Now 26 years and 140 days old, the advice I would give to myself of four months ago is this: you are not behind schedule. The second major change since that pivotal day in September was Focus. With a capital ‘F.’ The relief of realizing you don’t have to solve EVERY problem in the world or in people’s lives is palpable. Define your space. You know what you want to do, and what you are capable of doing, better than anyone else. Figure out a way to start somewhere instead of someday. Once you decide a place to start, decide to focus, you can go back and review all the notes, emails, notebooks, Tumblrs, tweets, books, what-have-yous and see how the dots connect. You think you are wasting time but really you just need a box to collect everything in, a framework to bring order to the chaos. You can read up on the current state of the industry you are trying to enter. Discover facts and trends on Instagram, watch documentaries on Netflix — you have the accounts already. Start narrowing your content consumption to the problem you are trying to fix, and you will realize how far along you already are and how quickly you can catch up.
With a focused problem in mind, I was able to start communicating my idea to the people I knew and loved as easily as I could to strangers and any new person I met. Treating the “idea” as a constantly evolving experiment, I started looking for themes and inconsistencies to address along the way. I changed my description and even business model based on unfiltered reactions. Was I solving a problem for them, or someone they know? Can a first grader understand my vision and value proposition? I continue to tweak and refine everything as I get feedback. It is refreshing to see how overtly helpful people can be, if you give them the chance, and if you know what you need help doing. Another highlight of telling people about your idea and being weirdly passionate when you talk about it is that people will start sending you relevant content. It helps to see what they determine as relevant.
None of this would happen if I were still in my room, complaining about not having my own company yet (as if the term ‘entrepreneur’ would add itself to my résumé one *magical* day). There are endless things to be afraid of and to hide behind, and always more to come. The timing will never be right, and I will always be able to come up with an excuse for why I didn’t start what I wanted to start. Defining small steps I can take (now, today) to get closer to the goal makes the process seem less overwhelming and at the same time more adventurous. I get to view everything with a new lens, and see how tiny steps start to add up. As Voltaire once wrote,
Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien. (The perfect is the enemy of the good.)
Choose progress over perfection.
I will be the first to admit I have a lot to learn. Advice is easy to dole out but hard to follow. Writing this is a reminder for myself to show up, to keep improving and learning and finding ways to get unstuck. If I’m ever doubting myself, I can reread this and smile at the enthusiasm and naiveté, remember why I started, then get back to work. Since no post of mine would be complete without a mention of the incomparable Mark Twain, I’ll throw this in for good measure:
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
Bonus points if raw_material serves a purpose for anyone else looking to start and share something that matters. It doesn’t have to be a company. It could be a new habit, a campaign, an art piece. Anything with meaning (to you, to the world) — it all counts. Heads up: we don’t need permission to get started! Turn ideas in projects. Treat the project as an ongoing experiment. Find inspiration in everything. Turn up and be persistent. Enjoy the process. Show your work. Play nice. Be thankful.
Recap of what I’ve learned so far, for those scanning:
- stop complaining
- pick an idea and focus on it
- set a tangible goal
- decide on a next step, then do it. repeat.
- tell anyone who will listen, and pay attention to their reactions
I’ll sign off with a quote from the Swissmiss design blog (aptly posted on October 18, the week I decided to start working on material):
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.Partly by Goethe
2016 is the year to create more, consume less. Publishing this post, while terrifying, is one of the next steps for bringing my idea to life. If anyone reading has specific requests or comments, please reach out. I would love to hear your ideas and see your work in process, your raw material. I’m incredibly thankful for/forever indebted to all the people who’ve helped me get to this point. Here’s to building stuff that matters.