At twenty one I was living in Manhattan, then Brooklyn, pursuing a Master’s Degree and still blissfully unaware of how to handle money, almost entirely dependent on my parents for support. Although I was never to “make it” there in the way I fantasised, after my degree I took many interesting detours including web design work, night shift copy editing, writing and even, briefly, painting and decorating, to fund my artistic lifestyle. I learned how to find materials and talent on a budget and I also did many unpaid internships (something I do not advocate; I believe people should be paid for their time) and was surrounded by budding painters, actors, writers, performance artists and film makers all doing almost whatever it took to get their work seen and pay the rent. I credit my time in NYC for showing me close up that there was no shame in working a hustle and that, in fact, it could be creative in its own way.
I also got a little dog, René, who became my firm companion and was by my side through an abusive relationship, periods of mental instability and resultant homelessness. It was René, quite honestly, who kept me going when I returned to the UK in 2004 and endured almost another decade of emotional crises due in part to the trauma of prior domestic abuse and an undiagnosed mental health condition. If it hadn’t been for him I’m not entirely sure I would still be here. Throughout this period I retrained, worked, was homeless again, volunteered, worked, was on benefits and, in 2012, finally received treatment due to a particularly severe crisis.
René passed away in 2013. In January 2014 I started an adult education business course, mainly to pass the time and do something fun. It was on this course that I realised that what I thought was a jokey idea thought up mainly as a way to remember my dog could actually be a viable business. Certainly I saw the potential to combine some of my biggest passions – design, colour, photography, writing, René and dogs in general, and possibly even make a profit. Looking back to that course though I believe my deepest wish was for freedom; the freedom to define my own path independent of other peoples’ expectations, to wear what I wanted, create my own schedule to support my mental health recovery and to make mistakes and learn as I went along.
It is now the beginning of May 2016. Since November 2014, when I first put up a website with a few bandanas sewn up by my local dry cleaner’s alterations person I have stood on street corners asking dog owners to comment on my samples, done self-study crash courses in social media marketing, handed business cards out at my local dog park and written, gasp, a real business plan. Thanks to a small business loan I recently launched a new, vintage inspired canine couture collection which combines my love of classic, luxury fashion and dogs. And given my own experience I am delighted that a portion of the sales of my dog collar charm range is being donated to The Endeavour Project, a wonderful charity that helps families and pets escape domestic abuse and rebuild their lives afterwards.
All this hasn’t been easy. There have been many times when I’ve wondered what on earth I am doing and why I think I can launch and run a successful business. And yet… I have challenged myself, learned to do things I never thought I’d be able to, kept my focus even in the face of, at best, disinterest from many around me and learned to value the people who have been genuine cheerleaders for my idea. I have experienced the sense of esteem that comes from pursuing ones’ own, unique path without guarantees. And I’ve learned that comfort and freedom do not actually go hand in hand. And as I said at the beginning of this post, entrepreneurship is, for me, primarily about freedom. It’s about having the space to dream and carve out my own stake in the world while making a difference in my own small way. It’s about the freedom to embrace different facets of myself – my love of luxury, nice things and pretty colours and my belief in speaking out about issues like domestic violence, mental health stigma and even animal cruelty. It’s about having the time to be creative, manage my mental health and play with my dog. Being an entrepreneur allows me to define my values and goals and live them. It’s scary at times and a journey I recommend.