HOW IT STARTED....
Starting an independent small business isn’t easy, especially as a young Black woman. The first four years of Yala have been a rollercoaster: featuring ecstatic highs, gruelling challenges and you’ve-got-to-laugh lows.
I hope this account of the journey so far can help prepare and inspire anyone else out there toying with the idea of launching their own business.
The myth of bootstrapping
When I first started out, I thought I could ‘pull myself up by my bootstraps’ — just like all successful startup leaders tell us to do. But I quickly learned just how impossible that really is.
These days, we use the term “bootstrapped” to describe succeeding on your own without any outside help, but I wasn’t surprised to learn that this meaning has been corrupted over the past century. In fact, it was originally coined to describe a person trying to do something completely absurd.
What an accurate way to describe moments of Yala’s story so far! The struggles that come from starting your own business are relentless: burnout, rejection, sexism, racism, prejudice, frustration… the list goes on.
I recall wanting to give up every single day, wishing that I hadn’t even started. Honestly, I would give all the money in the world (that I don’t have) to go back in time and find myself at the exact moment I decided to start a business. I would say: “STOP! I’m you five years from now and I’m here to tell you, don’t do it!”
And still, knowing me, I wouldn’t listen… what a waste of a time machine that would be.
Out of my depth
A very wise woman, Alison Lowe (MBE), once told me that every new business needs three key things to get going: money, money and money!
I call Alison my Fairy Godmother because her industry expertise and no-bullshit advice has saved me from many, many expensive mistakes. Even now, when I encounter the things she warned me about, I ask myself “What would Ali Lowe do in this situation?” I’m this close to getting a ‘WWALD?’ tattoo as a constant reminder.
As an optimist, I went into entrepreneurship convincing myself that I could make it work by going light on capital but rich with energy. Surely I could be frugal, take on a massive workload, and keep costs low, right?
Of course, that mindset doesn’t allow for anything to go wrong — or for me to misstep as all business newbies do.
Not to mention the fact that, depending on your industry, “light on capital” is totally subjective. If the barriers to entry for your chosen industry are high, being light could mean £1 million or even £10 million.
When I started my jewellery business, I read all the books, researched all the articles and watched all the videos, but — spoiler alert — I soon found out that wasn’t nearly enough. No matter how much preparation you do, every business is unique and you simply cannot know everything in advance.
I prepped and researched for a year before launching Yala. Eventually, my husband said: “You need to stop preparing to do business and actually start doing business”. And he was right.
You’ll be forced to learn certain things on the fly, so you must be ready to improvise, adapt and overcome. Surprises are inevitable. You will spend money at an eye-popping rate, especially in the beginning. You will want to quit, perhaps several times in any given day.
Other, better, ideas will always exist. I prioritise passion
In all honesty, if I could go back and start again, I would never have shut down my first blog.
It had fantastic readership and engagement, but around the same time that it started to generate revenue through Google Ads, I started to hate doing it.
It had simply not occurred to me that I could leverage the super-engaged audience I already had into a ready-made customer base for an eventual product. Emily Weiss did it spectacularly with her blog Into The Gloss, which then became the mega-successful beauty company Glossier (you may have heard of it?).
Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, I could have started a service-based business; the overheads are drastically lower after all, and managing overseas production has given me many grey hairs.
But at the end of the day, Yala was, and is, something that I’m extremely passionate about. Bringing sustainable jewellery straight from the hands of artisans to consumers around the world, providing safe working conditions and fair compensation, is an important mission that I’m proud to fight for.
That’s why I’m so glad I persevered through the tough times.
Remind yourself why you can’t quit
My words of advice to any other aspiring small business founders? Remind yourself why you can’t quit.
Yes, you’ll feel disappointed at the sight of an empty inbox or orders list. You will question your worth, question your ability and question the viability of your business. You’ll wonder if you’ve already failed and simply haven’t been smart enough to notice.
But you have to stick with it. Think of the extreme happiness of a sale coming in –– it is absolutely true that when you buy from a small business, someone does a happy dance! Find your ‘why’, the reason you’re doing all this, and keep it front of mind on all your bad days.
Being hopeful, realistic and kind to yourself
Rose-tinted glasses don’t get you very far in business. You’ll need to strike a balance between believing in yourself and spotting potential pitfalls before you fall into them.
Putting my business degree(s) and experience as a data analyst to good use, I rely on the numbers to tell me the truth. Does the balance sheet balance? How does the P&L look? What’s our MRR (monthly recurring revenue) and ARPU (average revenue per user)? What burn rate do we see?
It’s always better to underestimate and get a happy surprise than overestimate and lose your business altogether. It’s a little extreme, but I treat my business finances as if every sale was the last one.
That said, the biggest learning curve I’ve faced over the last four years was realising that nothing is more important than my own physical and mental health. I thought that if I just worked a little harder, slept a little less, and logged a few more computer hours each day, my company would thrive.
Instead, I burnt myself out, snapped my Achilles tendon in the gym (several people around me heard the ‘pop’), and ended up having major surgery. Two years and three titanium screws later, I can just about walk without a limp.
I think we can all agree that no business is worth the loss of your body parts, right? Zoom out and remember that it doesn’t matter if the order is a couple of days late: we’re not curing cancer. These days, when I feel the heat of anxiety and panic rising up from my toes, I find it helpful to tell myself: “It’s just [insert your industry here], nobody is going to die”.
It’s OK to be disappointed when we don’t achieve our goals, that’s normal. But the truth of being a solo entrepreneur (or any entrepreneur) is that we experience disappointment on a level that isn’t healthy or rational. The number of sales that come in each day risks entirely dictating our mood. It’s an emotional rollercoaster; simultaneous misery and joy… all self-inflicted of course.
Despite the drama and tribulations of the last four years, I couldn’t be happier and prouder of the brand I’ve built. So here’s to the next four years, I can't wait to see what we achieve.
HOW IT'S GOING