Fail fast. Recover gracefully.
You might dream about starting and running your own business. I did in my late 20s and with that achieved an extraordinary career-building experience—even though it was a massive failure. I hope my story about how it all went down provides some perspective on how this might all work in the event that you want to pursue your own endeavor.
When you don’t know much about something, it’s tempting and easy to say, “how hard can it be?!” Well, that’s what happened with my women’s-active-wear-apparel-brand-turned-unofficial-graduate-degree-#2 (or at least it left me with as much debt). A business plan conceived during my MBA program at Chicago Booth became a “thing,” a start-up, for a bunch of reasons, probably most significantly because I didn’t have the confidence or the juice to get a real job. Plus, my saint of a husband, Paul, who’d somehow put up with me for 5 years at that point, said “Why don’t you do it? I think it’s a great idea!”
So, with that bit of encouragement and a whole bunch of naiveté, Aviddiva was born (I’m a huge sucker for an anagram and palindrome coming together to create a word that’s not really one but had some meaning embedded into it). Anyway, the “Active Wear for Everywhere” (athleisure, as it’s called these days) endeavor gave me all sorts of great stuff—a full line of cool clothes, deep knowledge of manufacturing processes, an understanding of modeling financials, one of the world’s first e-commerce sites, a bunch of great suppliers, a dozen cut and sew contractors, a small staff that included a former Jones/JH Collectibles designer, a CFO and a CMO, sales reps, cool story boards, a presence at trade shows, big and small accounts, all sorts of new connections, features in pubs like Shape & W, and more…except profits.
And just when I was quietly realizing and starting to panic about the fact that my brave entrepreneurial endeavor, my “baby” at that point, was inevitably going to fail/die, my amazing husband, “St. Paul” (the same person who encouraged me to hold my nose, borrow money, and jump in the pool), said something important. As I coerced him into affixing hang-tags with teeny tiny safety pins onto knit tops and box them up for shipments while he was trying to watch his favorite sporting event on TV, he turned to me and said, “You know, you could actually make money vs. spending money.”
Well, that might sound harsh or even soul-crushing, but it was EXACTLY what I needed to hear. After dedicating 3ish years of my life (and other people’s lives), accumulating more than six figures in debt, and expending all sorts of blood, sweat, and tears, I knew after two seasons that we had no business embarking on our third. The reality is that my well researched and prepared business plan failed to understand the challenges with achieving scale economies selling into mostly small accounts where men who didn’t care about women’s stuff were the buyers and could only take on minimal inventory in what were mostly small physical retail spaces. Meanwhile, I was manufacturing in the US, which is nearly impossible—not just because it’s more expensive but because there are very few manufacturers remaining and the quality of those that are is questionable. Sure, some people break through the boutique brand quagmire, but it’s rare, expensive, grueling, and comes with massive opportunity cost.
So what does one do at that point—when you realize the thing you’ve created and poured everything you have into just isn’t going to make it and needs to be unwound? There are probably a few ways to play this one, but here’s how I tackled what felt like daunting disappointing drudgery. The Monday morning after my husband told me I could try making money vs. spending it, I picked up the phone and started dialing with the goal of achieving three things—1) someone to buy and come take away all of my inventory, 2) someone who would hire me and give me a job back in the real world with a salary, benefits, and everything else that comes with that, and 3) someone to buy our suburban house where we lived with no kids so we could move into the city and walk to work while having a 20-something dual-income-no-kids (DINK) life that made more sense for us given the stage of where we were at that point. By the end of that week, I'd accomplished all three objectives—1) I found a buyer to pick up all of my remaining inventory for $5/garment (I had invested $25+ in each, but I had to let it go and figure out how to repay my $100,000+ in debt some other way), 2) I found a job at a cool tech start-up in downtown Boston that paid me more than double what I'd ever earned, and 3) I sold our house to the neighbors across the street without ever having to list it with a broker while also finding a kick-ass old townhouse in the cool city neighborhood. From there, we moved and I started my new job within a month and I paid off my outstanding debt over the next couple of years.
Fast-forward 20ish years and I wouldn’t give up the Aviddiva experience for anything, despite the fact that it was extremely challenging and disappointing. Those 3 years taught me so many invaluable things. It solidified every class I’d taken in business school and made all of the amazing curriculum and book stuff real and actionable. It taught me how to conceive of a product from scratch, brand and price it, find a market and customers for it, get it made and ship it out the door, take orders and money from customers and collaborate with them throughout the process. It provided an amazing decision framework that still guides how I evaluate and execute business initiatives. It equipped me with the scrappiness required to attack all endeavors and provided the foundational ingredients that have guided me through all sorts of hairy projects at some of the biggest companies in the world. It showed me how to make decisions—both independently and efficiently—and avoid becoming paralyzed and overwhelmed by everything swirling around me to make progress continuously. It made me appreciate that “working for the man” isn’t such a bad thing and comes with all sorts of amazing benefits and opportunities. And most significantly, it showed me the importance of failing fast and recovering gracefully.
So much money, so much failure, so much concern about what people would think, so much worry that I’d dead-ended myself from a career standpoint, so much debt that saddled me for years after I got a “real job”—and yet exactly the right thing in the whole scheme of my career and life that gave me so darn much in the moment and without a doubt turbo-charged my career over the longer haul. Aviddiva in all of her blaze of glory taught me the importance of taking risks and recovering quickly when they don’t work, rebuilding and reinventing yourself into something bigger and better on the back of what didn’t work.
One last thing on this…a friend/colleague once told me I was a member of “Over-eager’s Anonymous” (love that one). As one of those annoying types, I really struggle with failure and realizing that I haven’t done something right or did something that wasn’t a success in one way or another. However, I’ve come to terms with the fact that Aviddiva was an absolutely critical chapter in the heroine’s journey that is my career. Heck, the best stories always have protagonists who endure a bit of agony while ultimately earning a bit of ecstasy in the end.
P.S. When the whole thing wrapped, I was left with what I called “The Coffin” that was a large Rubbermaid container filled with all sorts of samples of everything we ever made, loads of our cool catalogs, articles we were featured in, and more. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in a flood. Maybe some old fans/friends of Aviddiva can unearth old logo tees, pics, or other goodies for me and we can resurrect her as a new athleisure brand for the 2020s. :)
The “Lucky 7” lessons I took away from the whole experience are:
- Take risks and pursue a dream: Starting your own business can make sense at any point, but I think it can work best during your younger years when you’re fresher and more idealistic while having less to lose.
- Go big or go home: Build a detailed plan, make it clear what you want to create, rally an ecosystem of people and resources around it, do everything well (branding, product, pricing, packaging, etc.).
- Fail fast: Don’t be afraid to admit that it’s not working as soon as you see it has a fatal flaw that you just can’t overcome. Continuously monitor what’s working or not, adjust early and often, continuously picture in your mind and with everyone involved how the “movie” is going to play out over the coming 6+ months.
- Recover quickly: Avoid dragging out the pain and suffering once you know it’s over—rip the Band-Aid off, shut it down as cleanly as you can, do whatever it takes to get another gig rather than wallowing and/or getting stuck in a romanticism prison.
- Find your next big career “love:” Take the opportunity to pursue something cool and new—create a framework that nets out the strengths you’ve gained from the experience and be honest about what you’re good at (or not), brainstorm new opportunities based on industry, role, or other relevant factors to determine how you can add the most value to your next gig.
- Capitalize on your endeavor as your “portfolio:” Use your newfound entrepreneurialism to show off what you can do for employers—you basically just created a ton of collateral for yourself that shows all sorts of cool stuff you can do. Other strong business people and leaders will love learning about that and want that kind of person (brave risk taker who can get stuff done) to be part of their team.
- Share & reuse what you created and learned: Don’t let all that great stuff you did “die” when you shut it down—take the ingredients and share them with others who might want to pursue a similar business, use them yourself in a different form to achieve success in future gigs, etc.
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Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.