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Solo Entrepreneurship – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Starting a business on one’s own is never easy. But starting one in the fashion arena is a particularly steep hill to climb, full of lessons and paved with expensive mistakes. After a long and successful corporate career, Hema Selvaraj decided to do just that – launch a jewellery brand. Here she takes a look at the joy and lessons the first year in business brought to her.

Solo Entrepreneurship: The Good

This one tops the list! I always wanted to be an entrepreneur ‘someday’. As we all know, ‘someday’ is a convenient, almost endless time horizon. Pushing through the inertia and actually doing so with utmost dedication within a 3-month timeline… this, I am proud of! Ideating, developing, launching and trading Hep Audrey in style is something I will be proud of even when I am grey and old (regardless of the outcome)!

As a bootstrapped entrepreneur, I have chosen my manufacturers, vendors and agencies very carefully, after a lot of research. That said, I am glad to be able to contribute to the global economy in the form of jobs, stock manufacture and movement, taxes among other things. The artisans in India, the agencies in UK, the Brazilian illustrator, the Indonesian content creator, the aspiring movie maker who is thrilled to create videos, the guest blogger who is glad to air their opinions — all made possible by a new business called Hep Audrey!

I am left brained and, post MBA, I have made a career out of business strategy, analytics and project management. My creative side surfaced as I worked through the branding and product development for Hep Audrey. What a surprise! I actually created the Amore Collection from scratch myself. Styling the photoshoots, writing copy, creating social media posts, developing the banners and assets, directing videos — it’s been immensely satisfying. Now, I consider myself whole brained… what a feeling!

Joining the Hatch Incubator was a turning point in the year. It came at the right time for me. Most of the business frameworks were known and familiar to me but it was good to have the dedicated time to think through the big picture and growth strategies. It was great to interact with a bright, sparkly cohort of female founders. Their journey, motives and challenges put my own in context. Not alone!

It is interesting how well connected the start-up community is in London. I think UK is the second best country in Europe to start a new business (after Denmark).

Not surprised at all. Credit where it is due — Facebook is facilitating many meaningful conversations in this space. Like everything else, people make it! Almost all the start-up founders I have interacted with are collaborative and share knowledge freely. My network has been very productive and delivered almost instantly. I have participated in a few pop-up stores, featured in editorials and marketing campaigns etc on the back of this amazing network.

This is an offbeat one. As a solo entrepreneur, I wanted to do my best to drive awareness of the brand through my personal communication channels. As part of this, I write blogs like this one and post regularly on social media. Somewhere down the line, I seem to have developed a voice. The volume of messages of support and goodwill has been humbling.


Solo Entrepreneurship: The Bad

Whilst my capex was low, the opex was relatively high especially on digital marketing and new product development. With the benefit of hindsight, I would probably focus more on sales and less on marketing. I have probably pushed back the breakeven timeline by a few months with all the focus on a brand establishment.

“More is not more!”

I probably spread myself thin by having a presence on all social media channels. The effort wasn’t converting to traffic to the website over a sustained period of time. So, when Google+ was sunset, I also exit a couple of other social media channels. The idea is to contain the effort and focus on select channels to drive awareness and engagement.

In order to minimise management and pick up dependencies between channels, I created a one-stop marketing agency offshore. I even interviewed and recruited some of the team members. The idea was that they would act as an extension of my team and provide SEO, PPC, Social Media and Video Marketing services.

This didn’t work…

The learning is that different agencies have different niches in terms of marketing channel expertise. It is best to have multiple agencies for best results.

Solo Entrepreneurship: The Ugly

One of the jewellery marketplaces I worked with quietly increased their monthly listing fee and locked me into a 12-month contract without my knowledge. Worse, they were rude when I questioned them on when and how I had knowingly agreed to the new agreement. With a hefty joining fee, a monthly listing fee and 25% commission, it is the worst commercial model for start-up businesses I have seen. As I didn’t have the energy or will to hire a lawyer and put this right, I actually paid them off for the remaining 11.5 months and terminated the contract altogether. The concern was around what else they could do during the remaining tenure of ‘the contract’. Where there is no trust, we do no business!

A celebrity PR agency got in touch to showcase the product. Their roster included some interesting TV personalities and social media influencers so I agreed to it. Once I signed the contract and made the advance payment, they didn’t deliver anything. Worse, I am still awaiting the refund 3 months later… It is small money in the grand scheme of things but the whole engagement has left a bad taste in the mouth. We live and learn… 😊

Speaking of lessons learnt, the biggest one is to trust my instincts. If it doesn’t feel right, it is not right!

As a solo entrepreneur, I am more exposed than the average business leader but I have learnt that all the answers lie within us. Profound! With regards to 2019, I feel positive and enthused. I intend to apply all the learns from 2018 and iterate until the revenue model is established. Last but certainly not least, I am incredibly grateful for the support and understanding of family, friends and relatives. I am cognizant of how much of a stretch it must have been for them to get behind this as we are a family of risk-averse salaried employees… Somebody had to break the mould after all! Seriously though, their acceptance and encouragement has created a positive space for me to ‘Go live my dream’.

Related reading: How to Work with Fashion Manufacturing Companies as a Startup.