March 2020 brought changes into my life that I never saw coming.
Aside from, you know, the global pandemic, my university switched to complete online learning, I had to frantically pack up my dorm room and move back home, and everything I had planned and was looking forward to for the next six months was canceled. As an extremely type A, has-the-next-five-years-mapped-out-in-an-excel-spreadsheet person with very specific deadlines and requirements for my college degrees, I was rattled.
I had a summer internship planned in New York City, two jobs that I would be working, and a volunteering gig at my local hospital. Like a lot of people, I lost my job, my internship program got canceled, and every other opportunity I was excited for seemingly disappeared. I suddenly found myself stuck at home and bored out of my mind. A person can only binge-watch so many Netflix shows before going mad, so I knew I needed to figure out something to do, and fast.
How I started my small business
As a double major in Apparel and Textile Design and Molecular Genetics, I have always had a passion for medicine and a talent for art and sewing. In late March, the idea of wearing masks was just becoming commonplace. Many hospitals, businesses, and people found themselves without the means to acquire a mask. I saw this as the perfect opportunity to combine my dichotomous interests.
As a gal with a sewing machine, a few yards of cotton fabric from projects long completed, and a desire to feel like I was doing SOMETHING to help through all of the craziness, I started out on a journey to make 50 cotton masks to donate to my local church. With plenty of facemask tutorials to pick from, I drafted up my pattern and crafted my first few masks, proudly showing them off to my family.
My mom, an avid Facebook user and my #1 biggest fan, started offering up my masks to neighbors and friends who said they were looking for masks, and I was thrilled! Not only was I helping people in my community, but I also had stumbled upon something to DO, which was incredibly valuable in the long days of quarantine. I gladly started making and delivering masks to everyone from friends to complete strangers, doctors to essential workers, women in retirement communities to little kids.
Before I knew it, posting my masks on Facebook turned into a frenzy. Orders were coming in left and right, and I found myself sewing for over five hours per day. I quickly realized the need to improve my process, and with the help of my mom, created a log to track orders, established a pick up/shipping procedure, streamlined my sewing process, and the official business of “Maddy’s Masks” was born.
From small business to big success
I started an Etsy store, turned my dining room into a workshop, and started making masks with “VOTE” and the Black Lives Matter fist painted on them for my friends and family to wear to protests. The number of Maddy’s Masks grew to 100, and then 200, and then 500. As I am writing this, with the help of my family, I have made and distributed over 1,200 masks all around the country in a matter of three months.
To be honest, this whole process still doesn’t feel real. What started as an effort to make a couple of masks to donate to people in need turned into a full-blown business. I want to make it clear that I had no intent to profit off of this pandemic. Initially, I was only accepting small donations to go toward sewing supplies, but when things switched from people needing masks to people wanting cuter, personalized ones, I started charging. It took time and skill to make these masks, and at the time, I was massively unemployed with tumbleweeds blowing through my bank account, so I could use all the help I could get.
While this business hasn’t been as easy and relaxing as I originally thought—there were days where my fingers were literally bleeding from sewing too much—this little mask-making venture has allowed me to take back some control into my life and finally do something that I have always wanted to do: start a business.
My advice for starting a small business
I’m constantly seeing stories of people who are spending their quarantines starting small businesses and selling their wares, and it absolutely warms my heart. I am in awe of these people making products and doing what they love every day, and it always takes me a minute to be like, “Oh, I am doing that too!”
At the ripe age of 19, declaring myself a “small-business owner” almost feels too… adult…but I really HAVE started my own business. Granted, mask-making was definitely not the entrepreneurial path I intended to travel down, but starting my mask business and learning how to sell something I make has given me the confidence to start brainstorming about new products to sell. I am by no means a business expert or a life coach, but from one entrepreneur to another, I wanted to share what I have learned through this process so that you can do it too.
1. There is no time like the present.
I know you have probably heard this kind of sentiment like 50 million times, but it is the truth! Life is wayyyyy too short to spend your time thinking that you should wait to start a business until you are financially stable, or that you won’t be successful, or you don’t have the means to make your dreams a reality, or whatever. If you have an idea for a new product, research how you can make it happen.
If you have always wanted to learn a new craft, buy the materials and get cracking! 50 years from now, you will likely regret all of the things you didn’t try rather than the things you did, and who doesn’t want to put “self-employed” or “small business owner” on their resume?! And if you fail, just know that failing gives you the opportunity to try again, or switch gears and try another project you’ve been thinking of. I know it’s scary, but you’ve got this!
2. Understand your worth.
The first hurdle I had to jump over was understanding that I deserved to be successful and make money for the things that I was doing. Often we think that of ourselves as worthless or not as talented as we really are. If you can understand how incredible and original you are, this will help you succeed in everything you want to do. This confident mindset doesn’t come naturally to most people, so read up on self-help books or practice positive affirmative meditation—both of these things have helped me a TON along my journey.
3. Don’t be afraid of feedback.
You likely won’t be an expert at whatever you are doing right when you start, so be patient and always be willing to learn how to do and be better. The first mask that I made was definitely kind of jank, but I have used what I have learned from research and the customer feedback I have received to make my product—and my confidence in myself—stronger.
Whether you know exactly what type of product you want to make/business you want to start, or like me, stumble into a trade you had no idea even existed, just know that you can accomplish anything that you can imagine, so go out there and start creating!