Car Trunk Selling to Owning A Gown Atelier
What this woman did. Well, her name is Jenny Johnson and she is the owner and sole designer of an extremely successful formal dress brand founded in Trinidad in 2016.
Jenny was pregnant at the time of this interview and well into her last trimester. Having had her baby shower just a few days prior, with bated breath, she and her husband were awaiting the arrival of a new addition to their family. Jenny and I confirmed our telephone interview, but soon after, I found out that she was experiencing contractions. Yikes! I WAS NERVOUS, to say the least, and wondered if we would have been able to pull this interview off or would have to cancel. Miraculously we did, with no contractions during our sixty minute chat. Our telephone interview was scheduled for 6:00 p.m and a cheerful Jenny answered the phone at approximately 6:01 p.m…
Gale & Co: Tell me about your happiest experience to date.
JJ: That’s a tough one…actually…it would be the birth of my daughter. It was the moment when she came out of me. I looked at her and the realization hit me like a ton of bricks that I can actually give birth to a human being! She laughs and I noted that her answer had nothing to do with the rise of her brand or the opening of her extremely dreamy bridal store in our capital city.
Gale & Co: Wow that must be an amazing experience!
JJ: Yes! I still remember her coming out. I remember them resting her on my stomach. I remember her not looking at me but looking at her father instead…
Gale & Co: Can you share one of your most challenging experiences?
JJ: One of my most challenging experiences was definitely leaving my job of ten years in pursuit of starting my business and transitioning from the employee to business owner status. It took me literally years to make this decision and even when I made the decision, there was a part of me that questioned whether I should really abandon all that I knew to take this big step into unfamiliar territory. In the moment I told myself that if I took this step, there would be no going back.
Gale & Co: To take a big step like that must have meant that you were resolute in your mind!
JJ: Yes! And everyone around me was so supportive! There was not a person who felt as though I should not do it. My then manager, supported it. My co-workers supported it. My family supported it. My friends supported it. And to be honest, I kept waiting for someone to say “no Jenny this isn’t a good move” and strangely enough, no one said no. *she laughs*
So I was taking that step away from my comfort zone. I mean, I had a permanent job, was climbing the corporate ladder and I had just received a promotion. Stepping away from that was really challenging!
Gale & Co: Wow! The first month of having launched out must have been mad scary then.
JJ: Actually, strangely enough, for the first couple of months I was on a high! When I left the corporate world, graduation season had just begun. Whereas, I would have done eighteen dresses while being employed the year before, I was now afforded the time to do more and was just telling everyone who requested a dress “yes!” Within a two month period after having left my job, I did close to fifty dresses.
Gale & Co: Wow! That's a big achievement for any designer! Now having launched I understand that there would have been a learning curve. What then was your biggest mistake?
JJ: [she gives a hearty laugh] Definitely trusting people too easily! In the business space, I got burnt a lot. The good thing is that I learnt from each and every one of those experiences and have since put processes in place to ensure that they do not happen again.
Going into it, you really do not know much about business. At the time, I didn’t know whether there were any programs in Trinidad that would have been able to teach me about start-ups and what to expect. So I went into business with a talent but with absolutely no business mind. As a result, I trusted people and I got burnt and lost money. It was really really hard.
Gale & Co: Thank God you learnt and was able to put things in place! Some people aren't that lucky and throw in the towel after a while. So what then was the most shocking and eye-opening experience that you’ve ever had in business?
JJ: That’s a tough one…So streamlining now on my previous answer about mistakenly trusting people too easily, my most shocking and eye-opening experience concerned a friend with whom I had done 5-digit business. We were friends for over ten years and he had actually decorated my wedding. Eight years later, he was hired to design my boutique and unfortunately, he did not give me what I wanted or expected. There was a certain standard that I was working with and a particular target market that I was pursuing, and it looked as though I was being given cheap, careless service by this friend. I knew his standard of work and I knew my standard, and I was getting was way below both. I confronted him about my dissatisfaction which was met with scant courtesy and excuses. It got really really nasty. It hurt me so much! The worst part about this whole experience was that this person was a friend and a very good friend of mine and I lost over twenty grand, and had to start over my budget and the entire project with another contractor. The result was that my store was opened much later than I projected and my overhead was almost doubled.
Fortunately, we are now getting back to a good place. He has since reached out to me and apologized. I try not to hold unforgiveness towards anyone. I mean, obviously I would learn from the situation but I would not let it keep me in bondage to unforgiveness. The situation has also taught me now how to deal with various contractors moving forward. My product definitely cannot be a great product without the test. In order for me to grow, I know that there must be an exam that I have to pass.
Gale & Co: I love that! You know, you think about all these big designers out there and you think that they must have gone through many failures and tests to reach to where they are now. It definitely could not have been a walk in the park for them either!
JJ: Exactly! I also definitely felt as if life went from zero to one hundred. The business just kept growing and growing and growing. I thought to myself that the business is growing really fast and therefore I have to go through my tests and learn from them really quickly. So I have experienced a lot as a new business owner but at the same time, the business just keeps growing and I do believe it’s because I have been able to learn from all of the tests that I was given over the years.
Gale & Co: Besides gown design, were you ever in any other entrepreneurial jobs?
JJ: Yup, there was a point when I was trying to get a job and nothing was opening up, so I decided to sell things out of my car trunk, to the staff of the same businesses that I was applying to work in! I did what I had to.
Gale & Co: Heartbreaks?
JJ: Definitely the death of my grandmother. We were close.
Gale & Co: [to change the topic from the pain of the memory] Tell me about your best family experience, the one you treasured the most since becoming a business owner.
[She scans her memory, and it is at this point that I realize that she was looking after her daughter while simultaneously doing this interview. “No baby, don’t do that”, she gently says to her five year old in the background. She has been well poised throughout the interview thus far and I am amazed by her ability to multi-task; daughter, pending contractions and all]
JJ: I will say our recent trip to New York. I would have waited thirty-something plus years to even step out of Trinidad. It was really enjoyable seeing my daughter at the age of five being able to experience this. That trip also signified our family's ability to see and enjoy the fruit of our hard work. My husband and I were always of the firm belief that we should give our kids what our parents were unable to give to us and that our kids should be in an even better position to give to their kids what we could not give to them.
Gale & Co: Wow, what a stance to live by!...
Suffice it to say, I was totally inspired by this interview. Here was a woman with no formal design experience, no business mentor or schooling, and no...crippling fear of it all! What this woman did? A whole lot more than some 'thirty something and pregnant' women can honestly say.
So what's my taking from Jenny Johnson. Trust the God-given skill that has been bestowed upon you. You may not have all the knowledge concerning business or even for the execution of your skill, but that’s ok! Don’t be scared to launch out into unknown territory as that may be exactly where you are destined to be and what God has sufficiently prepared you for. No beginning in the business world comes devoid of challenges; it is these same challenges that bring growth and make your business better if each is taken as an experience from which to learn.
Also, don’t make your business the only important aspect of your life. Your loved ones and time spent with them are equally important.
And finally, forgive, forgive, forgive. Forgiving those who hurt you, robbed you, used you and abused you is not easy but staying in the bondage of unforgiveness is so much worse! There is a lesson to be learnt in every situation – even in the most painful ones. See the positive side of these experiences by using them as a tool to help you grow as an individual both personally and as a business owner. And remember, you are not alone, others before you have faced the same. No matter what challenges may come, keep your gaze on the goal and always remember that initial push that drove you there in the first place!