Lisa Lam is one of my favorite entrepreneurs. She has been both a creative and business inspiration to me as I’ve watched her grow her passion for sewing bags into a full-blown eCommerce business.
While her business of making handbags and selling handbag hardware and fabric at U-Handbag might not be of interest to everyone, the way she runs her business should be of interest to anyone who wants to pursue a dream of working for yourself. Lisa is one smart business woman, and I’ve only built up more respect for her as I’ve gotten to know her better.
Q: Lisa, you’ve mentioned to me in the past that you have run a business before—can you tell us a little bit about that first business and what you learned from it?
A: I ran a small Chinese restaurant for two and three-fourths years. I was very fortunate in that the restaurant belonged to my parents. I officially leased the restaurant from them, paid them rent, and took all profits. My lovely Dad initially worked for me in the restaurant as paid member of staff for the first eight months until I fully knew the ropes. I feel I learned so many transferable skills and it gave me a real taste for being my own boss despite the fact that it can be very stressful and seriously hard work! With my father’s expert help I learned all aspects of running the business: from stock control to dealing with suppliers, and customer service to managing staff.
I think one of the most important things that I learned from the restaurant is that if you give value for money and you make your customers feel special they’ll will come back to you again and again. The restaurant business is so competitive, yet my modest (and shy) Dad was so well liked in our town and had lots of loyal customers whom he knew on first name terms. Because of him, I try my best to be friendly and helpful to all of my customers.
Q: How did that first business prepare you for U-Handbag?
A: I think it has helped me a lot in all sorts of ways. Besides giving me a grounding in business (as explained above). I think (importantly) running the restaurant helped prepare me mentally for running my own business; it helped psyche me up for what (possibly) laid ahead in terms of the sheer amount of work and worry. From the start, I was aiming for U-Handbag to be my sole source of income; that meant a lot of planning and a narrow margin for error. Whilst running the restaurant I saw that hard work and good product are only part of the equation, I learned you need to be very driven and passionate—I think the passion of the management/owner is what sets businesses apart. With drive and passion you will (somehow) bring your dream to life, you will put the hours in, do the research, you will learn what you need to learn, you’ll pick yourself up when you trip, and you will pay for expertise you don’t have—you’ll just do it or you won’t be able to sleep! Another important thing I learned from running the restaurant is that you have to be nice to your suppliers, but never ever hesitate to be firm if needs be.
Q: Compared to many other home based businesses, U-Handbag had a decent amount of startup costs. How did you come up with that initial investment, and how did you decide how to spend it?
A: The investment needed to start up the business was a combination of savings and loans from various members of my family. Three years ago, I went to a business start-up fair and I got into a wonderful conversation with the author of The Small Business Handbook and (amongst other things), he said two memorable things to me: “Sell online, that’s where the future is,” and he also said, “You’re a small business SO DON’T borrow from a bank. You don’t need the interest payments to put you under even more pressure as you’re starting up. Make money organically, use your profits to plough back into your business to grow your business”—I have never forgotten his advice. I divided up the start-up money something like this: some money to live on for four months (supplemented by another job), money for website design, money for website programming and hosting, and money for stock and stationary. Fuel costs were taken care of because I started in our spare room.
Q: You know I write a lot about the personal challenges of entrepreneurs. What have been some of the things that you have had to overcome in order to get where you are today?
A: Ohh challenges, yeah there are a few … I do get cabin fever sometimes. (It was worse in the beginning when I was putting in an excess of sixty-plus hours a week—don’t ask!) There’s always loads of stuff to do if you go looking for it! For the first eighteen months, I had no social life (it’s still pretty limited), but now I have more confidence in the business and myself. I can easier walk away from the office and get a life! I do worry during the quiet times and I of course take it personally. When there is a lull, I try to get practical and perhaps start a promotion in the shop or do some bag making, or have long chats with my family.
At times like this, I do my very best not to get insecure about myself, or defeatist. This of course is hard at times, but my partner is so encouraging and supportive, which makes all of the difference. It has also taken quite a while to learn how to enforce a structure on my day to make the best use of my time. I found having a whiteboard, stickies, and starting the day with a checklist of duties that I’d like to achieve really helps. The more I get done in this way, the more I get satisfaction from ticking the boxes, and the less stuff to carry over to the next day. Another challenge is my severe control-freakery, I have always found it hard to believe that anyone would care about my business as much as I do which means that I do most of the daily running myself, but I am getting better at letting go and getting help from outside.
Q: What’s in the future for you and U-Handbag? Where do you hope to be with it in 10 years or so?
A: I think the future for U-Handbag lies in branding my own products such as patterns, kits, and books. Also, I would very much like to be able to run a wholesale operation alongside the retail. Ten years!? It would be the best compliment to have happy customers in ten years time! In ten years time, I would love to have achieved the aforementioned things, but on a more global scale.
Q: If you had to give an aspiring craft business owner just one bit of advice, what would you say is the most important thing they should know?
A: Just one bit! That’s hard! Um, I think it would have to be Love. It may have been said before, but I think in terms of success it’s the source of everything. If you really love what you do, you’ll do whatever it takes and the love will really show, it will be infectious. Even though U-Handbag sometimes drives me totally insane, I love her very very much. :)