Small sideline can become major undertaking

Bonnie Cook agonized over charging an extra $1 to hem a pair of pants but never thought twice about launching a global business selling movie-inspired clothes.

As well, she was actually relieved to learn she had it all backwards when it came to managing employees.

These three moments are a condensed primer on how even a modest home-based business can be-come something extraordinary.

The tale doesn’t take place on a farm, although it easily could have, and holds lessons for any small business owner who dreams big.

Cook’s company, AbbyShot ,isn’t well known, unless you’re a die-hard fan of hits like The Matrix, Doctor Who or the Devil May Cry video game. The company makes high-quality “wearable” versions of coats, jackets, and other clothing inspired by the characters in these popular series. It has sold tens of thousands of these items to customers in 53 countries. Coats selling for around $300 are a staple.

And it all started with a stay-at-home mom in Mount Pearl, southwest of St. John’s, N.L., sewing for friends and neighbours. When she started 35 years ago, Cook charged $1.50 for hemming pants because that’s what a jug of milk cost. However, grocery prices kept going up.

“I was afraid of charging too much. I remember worrying about asking for $2.75 for hemming,” says Cook.

“I probably worked for 50 cents an hour for many years.”

Of course, hemming didn’t take that long. Not like those special projects she was asked to make: a fancy housecoat, Halloween costume or flower girl’s dress. She spent hours modifying patterns and choosing the perfect fabric.

“Oh, it was so rewarding,” Cook says. “There’s nothing like making a little girl a beautiful puffy pink dress and when she puts it on, she swirls around and around in your sewing room.”

Then in 2002, she was asked to make a coat just like the one Keanu Reeves wore in The Matrix.

“We sold it online for $350 and used that money to buy fabric for two more coats. Then we got orders for four more. That’s when we realized this was a business opportunity.”

That’s the first key lesson: if your home business is a labour of love, whether sewing, crafts, welding or modifying equipment, you are learning invaluable skills.

“I couldn’t have just decided one day, ‘oh, I think I’ll start selling sci-fi clothing,’” says Cook. “A home-based business takes diligence and commitment. It just teaches you so much.”

Seizing her opportunity brought a whirlwind of change — e-commerce, continual website upgrades, outsourcing production to Asia and building a design and marketing team.

The second key lesson is about hiring employees. And guess what? Working alone in a home-based business is not great preparation for one of the most challenging parts of any business: managing people.

Although she hired good people, Cook found that her human resources headaches shot up in lockstep with sales.

“I was just so frustrated,” she says.

“They just weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. I thought I was communicating clearly, but somehow it wasn’t coming through.”

She took professional development courses and learned to her joy that she was doing it all wrong.

Out went guilt-tripping and in came a “no-blame” environment. Everyone shared in decision-making and problem-solving.

The logic behind these and other changes isn’t simple, but it comes down to basic things: people don’t always perceive things as you do, listening takes effort and making employees’ goals part of the business plan changes everything.

It’s not a quick or easy process, so get help, says Cook. Take classes, find mentors and coaches and read business management books. Double, Double by Canadian author Cameron Herold is her top pick.

But that’s not the second lesson. It’s believing the effort is worth it.

“Making it about my employees was life-changing for me,” says Cook.

“You should be here when someone has a problem. All of a sudden, people gather and say things like, ‘I can do this’ or ‘how about we try this?’ or ‘If I did this, would it help?’ This team pulls together like nobody’s business.”

There you have it.

Want to make your farm-based sideline into a “real” business? Your passion, dedication and long hours spent doing something you love is a great foundation for a business.

To make that business soar find a way to inspire others so the passion still burns when it’s no longer just you.

Archived columns from this series can be found at Farm Credit Canada enables business management skill development through resources such as this column, and information and learning events available across Canada. 

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