Lala Letter #1 - Starting a Business Ain't Easy
This is a story of the time I quit my business.
But before we get there, let me tell you about how it all started... This is the story of Lala Letter.
Entrepreneurship says "no" over and over again. Learn to hear "yes."
As the daughter of four inspiring parents, all of whom are entrepreneurs, entrepreneurship is in my veins. My first business endeavor happened at the ripe age of 5 years old—I made jewelry from pipe cleaners & beads and, believe it or not, people actually bought them on a retail display at my mom's salon (haha poor customers).
From there on, I was hooked, whether I was selling bookmarks in elementary school, drawings in highschool, or etsy jewelry in college—I was constantly making and constantly selling. It's like a bug, and I had been bit. And you know exactly what I am talking about if it's happened to you.
Every time I have happened upon a startup endeavor (if you even want to call it that lol), I was not trying to start a business. I was just making something for myself & other people happened to like it.
Summer 2016, I was a design intern at a local magazine when I got a promo email from a planner company about the new 16/17 school year planners. As a lifelong planner lover, I was stoked to buy a new planner for the school year. I clicked on the email, but was a bit dissatisfied; I kept shopping around for one online, and my dissatisfaction grew. Quite simply, they just weren't good enough for me.
A feeling overcame me—like y'all, it wasn't subtle, I was flipping out & had to call my mom lol. I knew some things for certain at that moment: I am a designer, I freaking love planners, I'm pretty good at book binding, and my style is unique & admired by friends. I knew I was going to make a planner perfect for me—who knew, maybe it would be perfect for a whole group of people.
That night I went home, opened Adobe InDesign and created a file called "The Bella Planner" (I still have the original file on my computer as we speak). I designed a page or two, but I was not ready.
Let's break from the story for a second to impart some important entrepreneurship advice. Creating a product takes a few key ingredients:
For starters, you have to have a good idea—phenomenal may be a better word here— and yes, this is the hardest part.
Passion for your idea. If you aren't on fire about it, why should anyone else be?
This one is the most overlooked, wisdom to know the right timing. Make a plan. Jumping into something too quickly without proper research can ultimately cost you. Waiting too long, is just as detrimental. Sometimes you have the idea & the passion, but not the resources. There is no formula, no perfect time. But if you listen to your mentors, the market, and your heart, you're so much more likely to be successful.
Back to the story. I was not ready to make a planner yet. I was a mediocre student designer still learning the rules of the game (gosh I'm still all of that sans the student part haha). This fire in my heart dying to make a planner deserved the best planner, not the "sophomore-intro-to-layout-design special."
Fast forward 2 years, I'm was a 5th year in college (lol here's to a victory lap) at Ole Miss pursuing a BFA in Graphic Design and BBA in Marketing. My design skills had GREATLY improved, I had saved every cent I could in those two years & had a sizable savings dedicated to the planner dream, newly gained mentors, and lastly a perfect opportunity to begin pursuing my dream of creating the perfect planner—my senior thesis.
So not everyone has the time, resources, or opportunity that I just outlined; I get that. I'm not suggesting you wait for that moment. I set a timeline for myself with my thesis being the end goal, all the while, I was researching, brainstorming, and saving for that moment.
My beginning was scrappy, and boy I LOVE a scrappy start. They give you a place to reflect back on, plus it's cheapppp, and I love cheap lol.
My advice to you is to JUST START, wherever and with whatever you have. Start small, start scrappy, but start. Make a plan & start with #1. Listen to this amazing #Girlboss Radio episode by Aimee Song about starting to gain more insight on this.
At the beginning of that year, I did something that I recommend every budding entrepreneur do for themselves; I asked for help from someone wiser than me. I once again was blessed with the awesome resources freely given to students on a college campus, this time it was in the form of the CIE, Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, and specifically in a mentor by the name of Owens Alexander, the "Entrepreneur in Residence" at the University.
The first time I pitched my idea to another person outside of my family & friends was to Owens. Imagine presenting an idea about a cute/feminine planner to a weathered, intimidating, CEO-like, older professor in a suit... yeah, I was nervous AF and the meeting went on for about 3 hours. I walked in and met with a skeptical stranger and left with a mentor who was utterly on my side and ready to put Lala Letter on the map. What an insane blessing right??
Find a mentor. A mentor that intrinsically wants to help, who has your best interest at heart, who loves your product (even if they aren't necessarily your target audience).
The following week I pitched Lala Letter in a short Shark-Tank like competition. There were 5 presentations that day, 3 people placed, I did not place.
Yep, you heard that right—I failed, badly. I was so embarrassed, and thought, "Why in the hell am I doing this?" The question of quitting came into my mind over fear of embarrassing myself further.
You're going to think about quitting all. the. time. Quitting is easy, it's "smart" according to risk-adverse people, and it's the only option you can truly control.
But here's the thing, if you have the true entrepreneurial spirit, the passion we talked about before, and an idea that's worth failing for, then you won't quit. You won't let yourself. EVEN WHEN YOU DO QUIT, you'll come back to it. Just like I did, we'll talk more about that later.
So yeah, needless to say, I did not quit. I embraced the embarrassment and failure and I used it as fuel to be better. I learned about informed pitching, and knowing your audience. My pitch got better and better and better.
Three months later I was competing in pitch competitions & winning large sums of money, working 15 hour days everyday to create the first hand-made Lala Letter products, maintaining A's in my 19 hour college course load, writing a 50+ page honors thesis business plan, building an online Lala Letter presence on social media, and even had a little fun every other weekend.
I'm not here to brag. This is a testament of what it's like to work at something you absolutely love with every ounce of your being. It was hard, but it was amazing—and still is. It's how you know you're doing the thing you're meant to.
To make a long story short, I completed every goal I had set for myself in the last semester of my education. The most important being delighting in the fire that was placed in my heart two years prior—to create the perfect planner. Little did I know then that it would be an entire brand! A brand that I treasure.
April 2018 was the best month of my life up until that point. It was a whirlwind of work, competition, presentation, and success for Lala Letter. I will never forget that.
It's funny how, just like in movies, extreme success is usually followed by humbling failure. Sure enough, I ended that semester with some of the most embarrassing failures of my life. A failed Kickstarter Campaign, heartbreak, moving away from friends. After months of hurricane force winds, my life suddenly stood still.
I quit Lala Letter.
Yeah, that's a tough one to type out. It's easy for me to pretend like it didn't happen. I usually don't even tell people it happened, but I am being vulnerable with you. I did. I quit Lala Letter on May 22, 2018 with no intention of ever coming back to it.
Two months went by. I rested, I reflected, I made new friends, I enjoyed the summer. I heard opinions from everyone under the moon about what I should do with my life and with Lala Letter.
Someone wise once told me not listen to the "should's." Everyone wants to tell you what you "should" do, but you can literally do whatever you want. Listening to someone else's "should" is effectively letting them make your decision for you. Don't lose your free will.
I tried my hardest to shut Lala Letter out, but yet it slowly crept back into my mind. I had these expectations and hard rules set for what I wanted Lala Letter to be, and realistically I couldn't do it with those expectations and rules in place.
Some times you have to pivot. It's not a fun part of being an entrepreneur, but it's necessary to be a good one. Your original intentions may not be realistic or attainable. You may have to change something to make it work, but it's more important to make it work than lose it forever because of your stubbornness (lol I'm referring to myself).
So I began to brainstorm Lala Letter in a new way—in a realistic, scalable, and fearless way. I couldn't let Lala Letter die, I would regret it forever. The following day after my initial brainstorm, I took the first step toward the new and future Lala Letter.
Smile in the face of those who doubt you and hold close the people who support you. Make a plan, start at the top, risk it all, and go for it. I mean, you really will never know until you give it everything you got.
So here I am. I fell down, I got up again. I will fall down again and I will get up again. If the winds are strong or if all is at a stand-still, I'll keep moving.
My parting advice:
Listen to your voice. There is no roadmap of entrepreneurship; it's a trek with no clear end in sight and it's only just begun. Start climbing, one step and a time; rest when necessary, push when it's tough, but keep on. There's something amazing in store for you at the peak.
All my love & strength to you,
Bella will be speaking at the REDe Entrepreneurship Summit for women at the University of Mississippi October 19, 2018. Click here to learn more.