Running a small business might just look like fun and games from the outside, but it’s not until you’re knee deep into the whole process that you realise how much work, sacrifice and persistence it takes to succeed. It is so inspiring to follow the journeys of other small business owners, to hear about their stories, to watch how they navigate small business owner life and to learn from the decisions that they have made to grow their business from strength to strength.
I first came across the super talented, self-taught designer and small business owner Imogen from @imogenapparel in 2018. I discovered her account on Instagram and fell completely in love with her stunning lingerie designs – so much so that I got some sent all the way from the UK to Australia for my own wedding! Not only does Imogen use Instagram to share her gorgeous product and brand images, but she also shares a huge amount of valuable insights into the journey of Imogen Apparel and behind the scenes snippets of her life as a small business owner.
I have loved watching her business unfold and grow and I recently had the pleasure of chatting to her in more detail about all things small business and entrepreneurship; including her inspirational personal journey, how she grew her business to where it is today, her tips for creating a beautiful brand, what she loves most about being a SBO, how she has overcome her biggest challenges and some epic advice for anyone out there considering starting their own business.
Imogen has provided SO much incredible value in this interview and it is an absolute must-read for any creatives, business owners, freelancers or entrepreneurs out there – no matter what stage of your journey you are on.
Please tell us all about Imogen Apparel and how it came about?
After graduating from university in 2015 with a degree in Media & Communications, I returned to where I call home – a small British island called Jersey, in the Channel Islands. I wanted to pursue my professional career in marketing, however with Jersey being so small, my options were limited. Jersey is an international finance centre and there are an abundance of roles in the finance industry, so naturally I ended up landing my first professional role as a marketing assistant for a promotional finance company.
Finance was never my thing, so after the initial novelty wore off, I was beginning to feel unfulfilled. Around the same time, I also went through a bad break up, so I soon found myself feeling really unhappy about my current situation. It wasn’t before long that my best friend told me, in so many words, to get a grip. It was enough for me to stop thinking about my ex and start thinking about me – what made me happy and what I wanted to spend my time doing.
I’ve always been creative, so I decided to find a creative project to take my mind off things. I’d always loved sewing class at school, but never found a reason to do it since, until I came across a picture of a bralette on Instagram and thought I’d try my hand at making one. After a LOT of trial and error, I had perfected the bralette, then the matching set, and before long I’d been granted my business license and I ran my little side hustle out of my parent’s kitchen whilst balancing my unfulfilling 9-5 office job.
For around 6 months, I ran the business very much as a side hustle to make a bit of extra money to go travelling. Still very much in a state of ‘woe is me I’m so bored of my life’ I decided to quit my job, pack up everything with the business, and move to the other side of the world for a fresh start.
It wasn’t before long that I’d secured a 6 month contract role as a Receptionist in Melbourne. Though I wanted to pursue my marketing career, being in Australia on a working holiday visa desperately limited my options, and I soon found myself in the same situation; bored, unfulfilled and tired of working for somebody else.
I’d soon realised the potential I’d left behind. I’d always dreamt of working in a creative industry centred around fashion and design, but that kind of opportunity simply wasn’t available to me in Australia, or in Jersey. All though my schooling and how I was raised, I had this idea that I would always work for somebody else – it hadn’t crossed my mind that maybe I had to create that opportunity for myself. So, after ten months away, I returned home to fully commit myself to growing my own business and Imogen Apparel was officially born.
What key steps helped you to grow your business to what it is today?
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what has helped me build the business to what it is today, but I’d say it ultimately comes down to commitment, patience, trial-and-error, research, networking and marketing.
Commitment: I think it’s important to be committed to your business in the same way you are committed to a long-term relationship or friendship. You know it’s not always going to be sunshine and rainbows. You know sometimes it’s going to be mundane and routine. Yet, your passion overrides everything and the fulfilment you gain from having it in your life is non-comparable.
Patience: Coming from the least patient person ever, I’m struggling to take my own advice here! But, good things take time, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your business isn’t going to be an overnight success either. I think it’s important to be patient with yourself, be open to the fact you will probably experience failures, or changes in direction, or moments of despair! Just remember to take time to enjoy the process of becoming.
Trial & error: You are not going to get everything right the first time. But, if you’re a perfectionist like me, the thought of failing something you’ve put effort into can feel so vulnerable! But, it’s all part of the process and you don’t get anywhere from staying in your comfort zone.
Research: It’s so important to stay ahead of the game in an ever-changing market. I make a conscious effort to stay educated within my industry; whether that’s reading books, attending seminars, or just observing what my competitors are doing!
Networking: I owe the success of my business to so many different people I’ve met along the way. It’s so important to build relationships with people within your industry, as you never know what door they could open. Again, for someone who struggles with the thought of failure and being told ‘no’, this was a difficult one for me to overcome: but if you don’t ask, you don’t get!
Marketing: It’s true – you have to spend money to make money. I know as a small business it can feel so vulnerable putting your own money into something you’re not guaranteed a return on. But, from experience, I’ve found the more I commit to spending on beautiful photoshoots, professional models and photographers, the better the return.
Your products + branding are absolutely gorgeous! Do you have any tips on how to create a beautiful and consistent brand?
Branding is so important, but it’s something I see being overlooked so often by smaller businesses. A lot of people don’t realise how many elements come together to relay a certain image and ethos. As consumers, many of the messages we absorb from brands are actually subconscious, so I think it’s really important to pay attention to how other brands make you feel, then try to replicate their strategies to influence how you want people to feel about your own brand.
During my full-time marketing role, I was lucky enough to be part of a team who were responsible for the company’s branding. The company went through a large rebrand during my time there, so I had to familiarize myself with the brand guidelines and gained a sound understanding of what it takes to build a consistent brand. On a basic level, you need to have a strong logo, a defined colour palette and a primary and secondary font, which you then need to keep consistent across all of your channels and marketing.
However, branding nowadays is much more about the psychological connection you make with your customers – it’s your tone of voice, what feeling your imagery evokes, what your brand stands for and who it speaks to. This needs to be at the forefront of your mind when it comes to creating content for your brand – from the music you play at photoshoots to evoke a certain feeling in the models, to your email signature, packaging, your Instagram feed, even the way you present yourself. They are all building blocks for creating a consistent and defined brand.
PS – I’d highly recommend the workbook ‘Style & Substance: How to Create a Compelling Brand’ by Liz Dennery Sanders for help with distinguishing your brand!
What do you love most about being a small business owner?
For me, it’s the fact that I can draw my own path. Where the business goes, how successful it is, what my brand looks like – it’s all down to me. Yes, sometimes I sit there and long for someone to tell me what the right decision is to make. Hell, I’ve found myself a few times in tears thinking it would be so much easier to go back to working for someone else, with a steady paycheck and an off-switch at the end of the day. But it comes back to my previous point about commitment – your business becomes your baby and you would do anything for it, because the satisfaction you gain from having it overrides everything else.
What’s been the biggest challenges of being a small business owner and how have you overcome them?
Jheez – where do I start?! Owning a business is challenging. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and you’re forced to face situations that you wouldn’t normally choose to. But, in doing that, you are given the choice to sink or swim – so owning a business is the most incredible tool for personal development as you’re forced to overcome situations you’re not comfortable with.
For me, aside from the obvious answer of not having a steady income (or just having to get my head around basic accounting, which is still a minefield for me), it’s learning that not everybody is going to clap for you. You really do learn who your real friends are when running a business. It’s painful to accept in the first instance, but you soon realise that without your business putting you in these difficult situations that test your friendships, you would have carried on holding onto a relationship that no longer serves you and your growth as a person.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering starting their own business?
Just start – before you feel ready. So many great ideas never come to fruition because doubt and fear sets in, particularly with women. If you’re a perfectionist like me, it’s very easy to find yourself just planning and planning, researching and researching, without taking any steps forward in the right direction. There’s no such thing as the perfect time to start something, so I’m a firm believer of learning on the job. Yes, you might experience a few mishaps on the way, but once you accept that failure is part of the equation to success, it all becomes easier.
What’s on the horizon for you and your biz and where can we follow along with your journey?
I recently went through a rebrand which saw me expand my product range to include clothing, which has been a great success! I’m currently taking the time to research into how to navigate the world of fashion design, as I’d love to start designing my own line of clothing in the next few years. In the not so distant future, I’m working on a really exciting collaboration with a social media influencer – but that’s all I’m allowed to tell you!
I hope you loved hearing about Imogen’s small business owner journey as much as I did. If you would like some further advice on how to get started as a small business owner yourself, please feel free to get in touch!