10 years of Wren : Finding happiness

10 years in business: Me, the company, the people that I work with, the people that work for the company…. where to and what has the journey of the past 10 years been as a business owner rather than as an employee of a business.

I guess the journey started in 2008. Some may say earlier when I was a student or even younger – as a self starter always challenging the norm, but for the sake of this short blog post, let’s say the beginning was in 2008 because this is when I conclusively realised I was not employment material. I was working in the fashion industry as a textile designer and I was hating life: I could not understand how I was going to go on for another 30-odd years watching the sun rise and set through the rear-view window of my car. Worst of all was that between 7.30 and 5pm, I spent my time in a hamster wheel churning out soulless reproductions of design patterns looking forward to lunchtime which was at my desk. Naturally, I got fat and became unhealthy and had to spend most Saturday’s buying bigger clothes. Sunday was my only day to “live” and I was not okay doing this till I retired. So I resigned (much to my mother’s horror!).

I saved up some money: R5000 to be exact, opened an etsy shop and learnt to blog. I had several business ideas but the objective was the same for each: to create a work environment that was creative, challenging, enjoyable and made me, and hopefully others, a living.

“Making” seemed to be the foundation of all of the business ideas so I pursued it. I learnt to sew and sewed simple bags. I was a very slow sewer but it did not matter becuase I had time and so my labour was cheap. It all started in my flat kitchen and bedroom floor with my mom’s borrowed sewing machine (read “I live where I work” blog post from 2008)

Soon an opportunity came my way to substitute lecture. I wasn’t making any money yet and my capital was spent. I saw this “job” as a great way to “buy time”. I am not afraid of hard work so my days became filled with class and my evenings sewing, blogging and trying to grow my “company”. I learnt that I really enjoyed teaching and being involved with making a difference to other’s lives. With parents as teachers I really should have known that teaching and helping others made me happy. Nevertheless, my day was always made when my inbox had an etsy order email! Creating, making and selling excited me.

Other opportunities came my way in the first few years that kept me moving forward. There were five big ones that I reflect on that were really pivotal:

  1. In 2009 I was accepted to be at Design Indaba as an Emerging Creative. I had just developed the PPC Laptop Bag and I got the brand agreement document signed only the night before! This was the first time I showcased the concept of sewing paper to the market and it flew! I started interacting with wholesalers, retailers and customers for the first time. Business really started!

2. The Biscuit Mill Market (from 2008 to 2012), every second Saturday, was a fantastic platform for me to get market feedback, cash/capital. I also made many contacts and met many customers – some who are still customers today (Watch “It’s in the bag” a video all about us with snippets from the Biscuit Mill Market).

3. A group was formed called “Too Good To Waste” curated by Eva Ploder . The name describes the group and together I learnt about government support programmes that can be accessed to open up the export market and grow. I also made many valuable business contacts again…. networks and contacts are very important and there is so much that can be learnt from people that have run creative businesses longer than you have.

4. In 2014 the Dutch Government invited me to be a part of the CBI 5yr Export Programme. This mentorship programme included refining and developing product offering, setting up systems (production and pricing) and planning for a “road map”. In 4 years since joining I have gone from having essentially 2 paper product silhouettes to over 10 with a much clearer vision of what we are as a company.

5. In 2016 I was invited to join The Collective Shop at the V&A Waterfront as a partner. This bulked up production which offered more job security and allowed us to drop prices as we were creating more volume. Most significantly it gave us a platform to showcase and naturally rose turnover and profitability.

Product is one part of the business – and is certainly the most visable, but it is the behind the scenes nitty-gritty parts of growth that are thought of as complimenting to a great product, that I am really very proud of. I am most proud that our studio is a great place to work: everybody works on their own clock with respect for each other. This is not that easy in a country with eleven languages and even within our small team we are different cultures, languages and personalities. The business overall supports more than 10 people and contributes to over 5 families – some of which the Wren income is the main one. We have systems and an unusual way of operating that many said would never work and even though it has limitations and challenges, I am proud that our teams of sewers work from their own homes and that we have encouraged and fostered a sense of entrepreneurship. We have shown off South African Design, South African tenacity and South African quality. I am really proud of all of this.

It’s a funny thing – it seems easy to reflect on the beginning: those first two years of “discovery”, and then to reflect on where we are: with a clear brand, innovative product and self supporting… but somehow the years in between of hardship, growth and discovery blur together. Perhaps that is why I am most excited about our future – running a growing creative and manufacturing company never seems to plateau into the mundane, and now that I know it wont, I’m encouraged – it will either keep me young or make me age way too quickly. Either way, short of winning the lotto and being able to work for the love of it without any concern for money, going to work each day at WREN makes me happy (most days).