What starts out as an interest, a hobby, can evolve into a passion. The question is, what does one do with that passion? Stephanie Ohnmacht learned to sew as a small child and now has her own designer clothing label. At the same time, she has a fulltime job unrelated to her passion. Here’s how she does it.
Dennis: Many of us have dreams that we want to pursue but sometimes, in order to pursue our dreams, we have to maintain our day jobs alongside of them in order to sustain our living. With me today, I have my friend, Stephanie Ohnmacht. Stephanie, glad to have you here today.
Stephanie: Hello. Thank you!
Dennis: And Stephanie, you are in a similar situation where you have a dream that you're pursuing and at the same time have a day job, right?
Stephanie: Yes, I do. [Laughs] I wish I didn’t but I do.
Dennis: Well, tell us about your dream, please.
Stephanie: So my dream is to have a clothing line that serves and caters to the busy woman, just things that fit, that work, that you know, that kind of fit into your lifestyle. And part of the dream of… the end result of the dream, is really having a creative business where I am making sewn goods, right? So I've been sewing since I was seven. When my mom finally allowed me to sew is when I started sewing. You have to be a certain height to be able to reach the “go” pedal, so…
Dennis: That sounds like good criteria! So you started at the age of seven, really?
Stephanie: Yeah, so I was a little begging and “No, no, no, you cant. Not yet. Not yet.” So finally, she thought I was old enough or big enough or I wasn't going to hurt myself sewing, I guess, that I finally got to sit down and start sewing. And I've been sewing ever since. And I was one of those kids... although my mom actually encouraged this bad behavior because we’d go to a fabric store and when I saw something I liked she’d buy it for me and say, “I’ll buy you more if you make something with this.” So, done! I had sewn with the next piece of fabric.
Dennis: Oh, how nice!
Stephanie: So I would make something and she’d buy me more. And I'm a perfectionist at heart, so just making something really well-tailored and put together was fun for me. Actually, in third grade, I made this really – I still remember, it’s one of my favorites – this little polka dot top with top stitching and a button and a button hole – which is pretty big when you’re in the third grade – and there’s like a skirt/skort thing that went with it. And I so thought I had done such an excellent job on it that the teacher wouldn’t know that I had made it.
Stephanie: And of course the teacher says, “Did you make it?” And I was like, “Ah! You weren’t supposed to ask me! You’re supposed to look so good that you would have thought that it was something that you bought.”
Stephanie: Or, whatever the case, she knew I had made it. I still think it was probably well made. Maybe it just wasn't quite in style at the time, so she knew I had it made. So that was somewhat disappointing but I’ve always strived to have it look like something that you bought off the rack. So I've been sewing every weekend, primarily. It was kind of my getaway from homework or not having to do chores. I grew up on a farm, so if I was in the sewing room, maybe I could get away without having to do chores!
Dennis: [Laughs] That's a great way to escape some of the farm work, huh?
Stephanie: Yes! I escaped farm work, basically. Yeah, I took my sewing machine to college, too. I went and got a business degree in finance and marketing at a big school. And was probably one of the very few people that actually took their sewing machine to college with them. So I just continued sewing. And the dream was… I enjoyed creating and being creative, not so important, I think, at the time, that I thought I’d have a clothing line.
After I graduated and started working corporate, I entered a competition. I did really well. People started wanting my custom pieces. I couldn't maintain production on that. I mean, I'm making one piece a week and still working a job, so I knew the only way to actually make money in the business was do multiple pieces in multiple sizes. So that's kind of how it grew organically into what it is now.
Dennis: Right. So you entered the competition and you had third party validation from a credible source, I assume, right?
Dennis: And that sort of inspired you to do something more with this passion of yours, then?
Stephanie: It did. And I thought maybe I was the only crazy kid in their 20’s sewing. And in this competition, actually there’s a community of folks, creators, designers, who actually are still my friends today, and all of a sudden, I realized that there's a larger community in the Denver area that was doing the same thing. So that was really enlightening because I thought maybe I was all alone in my age range sewing.
Stephanie: So that was eye opening.
Dennis: So you're doing the one-off pieces for individuals, you know, the bespoke work for individuals. Where have you gone with it since then?
Stephanie: So, I was looking into whatever it takes to do a production. Actually it scared me a bit. That I'll work to source fabrics and find, you know, get a pattern made that is set up just for a production facility. Those kinds of things kind of scared me. I'm like, “Oh, I've got a day job! This is so intense. There’s so many issues with this.” But somebody tapped me on the shoulder and essentially pushed me over the cliff and said, “Hey, will you make me this custom collection?” So, I made a custom collection for this woman who was going on the road because she said, “I love it so much!” It was like these mix and match pieces that were very business-oriented that you could, you know, wear two of the pieces and add a third or wear three of the pieces or wear only two and you’d have a new look or you’d go day-to-night – all these kind of things.
So she pushed me to start producing because she would sell; when she was on the road she’d sell my pieces that she wanted. So that kind of pushed me really quickly into, “I've got to figure out how I'm going to do it.” And otherwise I probably would have been too tentative and too knowledgeable to know how crazy the industry is. But it pushed me to go there, figure it out, and that kind of started this whole ready-to-wear thing. That deal in particular fell apart but then I came at it again on my own about a year later. That was about 2011. So that’s four years now, I've been pushing my own line.
Dennis: Your own line, okay! So, what kind of obstacles did you encounter? I mean you're pursuing your dream – this has been a passion of yours since you were a child and you bumped up against you know, trying to understand how to scale this business, how to get your line out there. What are some of the obstacles you’ve encountered along the way, then?
Stephanie: If I realized all the obstacles I would have met [laughs] working in the past four years just in trying to do production, I would still be where I was, you know, ten years ago and not have done it. It’s a different obstacle every day or every week there's something different that pops up. And as an entrepreneur… anybody listening to this would probably agree that you have no idea what’s going to come next and you just kind of say, “All right, here’s the obstacle. I’m going to work hard and I’ll figure it out.” I mean my first obstacle was finding somebody who could do collection pattern making. The patterns I make – at least other than, you know, you have to have somebody who knows production and they’re set up differently than a home sewing – and they are, I mean different seam allowances and different ways of thinking about constructing a garment. So you know, the only thing in my vision, in my sight of things I had to fix right now is finding a pattern maker, right?
Stephanie: Once I figured that out, then I was like, “Well, how do I get the fabric?” Because you can’t just go to the fabric store and buy fabric because if somebody orders a hundred of them… the fabric store isn’t going to sell you two hundred yards of something, right?
Stephanie: You have to go to the wholesale guys and a lot of wholesale fabric or mills or whatever – they only sell certain amounts. Like, a minimum amount they will sell you three hundred yards. So then… but I only need fifty yards, so then you have to dig and find only suppliers who sell fifty yards at a time, right?
Stephanie: You’ve got to find enough of those suppliers to find the fabrics you want for the pieces you have in your head, right?
Dennis: Oh, man!
Stephanie: So you get that and oh by the way, you need buttons, but then you have to go find the guy who will sell you buttons and they'll answer the phone and the first word out of your mouth is “So, what are your minimums?” They’ll hang up on you because they know you're too small to deal with if you're asking those questions.
Stephanie: So every step along the way, you're like, “If I can just get production figured out, life will be easy!”
Stephanie: So along the way, I figured all of this out and now I'm up against sales. How do I get sales? And how do I grow sales? All these things. How do I get into more boutiques? How do I get to department stores? Like, I hope someday I figure that out? And there's going to be financing issues or there's going to be employee issues or rent. So I just try to think, [laughs]
Dennis: So look, I mean, you're talking about a massive amount of obstacles. I mean, just you know, every step of the way, you're bumping up against, you know, you're too small for some people and yet you're too big for other vendors to try to achieve that. What makes you move forward? What keeps you motivated? What keeps you making this happen?
Stephanie: I’m going to call it craziness.
Stephanie: You know, it's the passion to make it work. Like, I really… I know that I can do it, right? I have the confidence to say, “If I can just work hard enough, [laughs] and keep doing this something great will come of it.” It’s insanity, really. But with the passion to see it through. And I've come so far, I've learned so much and I want to make it work. So yeah, I don't know, it’s insanity, really, but it's been fun.
Dennis: That's cool. I started the conversation with the statement that “sometimes you have to keep your day job going while you're pursuing your passion.” Do you still have your day job?
Stephanie: I still have my day job, actually, because of business – as you’ve heard of all my obstacles – every one of the obstacle costs money. [Laughs]
Stephanie: And I am doing something kind of remote from the big epicenters of fashion. So like shipping charges and charges to fly somewhere to go meet somebody to help you out or to get somebody to pay attention to you, those things. So, it costs money. And I'm self-funded. I've used a lot of savings in this process. And without the day job, I would definitely have to quit just because it takes… I think there's two ways to make in this industry: either you have a one-hit wonder product that just takes off instantly or you slowly build recognition and brand recognition into the mind of the buyers, right? And I did not have the one-hit wonder, random patented piece or just the one skirt that everybody had to have to have for one season. And start off again, which is great. Had it been that, I would have probably failed with a big hit at the beginning because I wouldn’t have had everything in place to support the production and the staffing and the shipping and the whatever, right? So growing organically has always been hard work to move forward and as things increase I can slowly build the business and learn as I go.
Dennis: I wanna go back a second there. You said that if you'd had the one-hit wonder… or not the one-hit wonder, sorry. If you’ve had the one big hit, you might have failed at this point?
Stephanie: Um, yeah.
Stephanie: [Laughs] It scares me actually, cause I’m like [laughs] what’s happening that something that goes so well, right? All of a sudden, let’s say somebody wants to buy a thousand pieces of this one top. Well, first of all, I’d have to be able to afford the thousand yards of fabric. Basically a yard a shirt, right? My factories that I work with now can’t deal with that one piece. They're not set up for that. They’re still catering to much smaller brands. So now I have to go find a manufacturer to produce it. It may be my first time ever working with them, right? And all of this has to be financed. And if you don't deliver on a big order on time – or actually before on time – they have the right to decline your order. So you could have it all done, you show up a day late, they’ll say, “A day late. Here’s your thousand pieces of top back. Good luck.”
Dennis: Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness.
Stephanie: So it can be really… I mean, this can be really tough, the big buyers. You have to have it labeled with the shipping label in a certain corner; it has to have the name of the order in another corner. And if it’s not exactly how they want it, they could turn it away. So you have to have all these things figured out and the vendors to help you, right? Even just trying to get tags printed with the code that you need to have on the seam tag. All these different things. There’s vendors to help you do this. But, had I gotten that one, I mean I would’ve been drinking from a fire hose and I would still be working with maybe even my home sewers. When I first started, I just did home sewers, I mean a home sewer. I wouldn’t have had, I didn’t have the network yet with the production either. I would have failed.
Stephanie: I would have ended up with a thousand units of this really great whatever. [laughs] And I’d still be selling them for $5 a piece or something trying to get rid of them. So it's, yeah, going too quick can be really tough especially when you're new to the industry.
Dennis: Oh, sure. I mean, we oftentimes when people talk about, “Oh, I want to be a hit. I want to make it big right now,” and not realizing that there could be some downside to that type of success. So, you said you’ve maintained your day job because of funding, you know, or trying to finance what you're trying to do, your organic growth that you're having success with. When do you have time to do your passion? When do you have time to chase this dream?
Stephanie: [Laughs] Well, that happens when I get home from work and until I go to bed. Or on the weekends and then you know, life gets in the way. So it gets tough. It's not easy for sure. And you know, I got to perform well at work otherwise I don’t have a job to pay the bills. So it gets tough – there’s definitely a rollercoaster. You can go through some kind of down weeks where you're just working and things aren’t going and you get one high, one press release or one order or one thing and it makes it all worth it. It kind of gives you the energy to keep moving forward. It's not easy, but I wouldn’t be able to be here if I wasn't doing it. I would have had to pick one over the other a long time ago. Actually, I would have had to keep working because then I would not have maybe the money to live on.
Dennis: Right. Interesting. That's great. So all this combined, you know, what's been some of the hardest aspects of trying to move forward? You know, I talked about obstacles but just, do you ever hit those points where you're questioning what you're doing or no?
Stephanie: Oh, for sure! [Laughs] I definitely do. That's why our community is helpful. So back to the friends I met in the competition years ago, they’re all still doing it somehow. So having other people who are somehow… they are in a different cycle of that rollercoaster ride than you are, so they can help you see the light. Or just actually listen to entrepreneurial self-help books. So, on my way to work, [Laughs] I'm listening to self-help books so it’ll be like, “Entrepreneur, go, go, go! You can do this!” Whatever you're running into, how to think about it or it's okay that you're in a down, things can go up.
Dennis: Which in itself is sort of a community because you realize that this is a self-help book for entrepreneurs that it's not just you struggling with some of the same issues that other people are struggling with. You know, you're in this together with other entrepreneurs as well.
Stephanie: Yeah and podcasts are great for that too because there are some great entrepreneurial podcasts out there. They get on and share like, “Oh, I'm not alone!” and “Oh, they are still succeeding!” Like, “Oh, I can’t give up now! Somebody else is succeeding! They're ahead of where I'm at! I can do this!”
Dennis: There you go, I like that. What's been the biggest surprise thus far on the journey?
Stephanie: Biggest surprise is [laughs] I’m still this far along but in terms of… I guess the biggest surprise… I guess really it's I've surprised myself by thinking that I've come this far and I've figured out how to make it just scrapping along and have been this resourceful. I don't think I had… I didn’t know I had the tenacity that maybe I do on this. Maybe it's just more self-reflection and self-awareness of what I'm capable of has mainly been my biggest surprise. The industry surprises me always because it's ever-changing and very unique in itself, but yeah, I think it's personal growth more than anything that surprised me in this.
Dennis: That's kind of a nice surprise to have, I think, no?
Stephanie: It is a nice surprise. It is. Although it’s really scary but yeah, it's a good surprise. I guess it's part of being wiser as you go through the journey of life.
Dennis: That's great. So, do you have any advice that you’d like to share with others who are trying to pursue their dreams?
Stephanie: You know, one thing that helped me make it through this and anybody who’s trying to pursue their dreams is there are expected obstacles that come up along the way. And you're just biting off what you can get done in one day sometimes is all you should expect of yourself to get through. If you can do that, that's a big deal because if you start to… you get wrapped up in just thinking about the big picture and how you may never get there or you’ll get there, it can be daunting.
Stephanie: And if you're kind of just like eating, you know it’s like eating an elephant one bite at a time. You know, like try to eat the whole elephant at once. So it's the same kind of thing, not that I would eat an elephant. But you know, just take it day by day. And you have a big dream; you kind of know where you want to be so just kind of moving your business towards that. But if you really look at all the issues you're going to deal between there and this one concept of where you want the business to be at a certain point in time, it's overwhelming. And so really it is like a day-by-day where you have, you know, a six-month goal or year goal and then every day you just kind of think, “What one thing can I get done today?” And before you know it, something’s going to… you know, an obstacle is going to come your way and you’re going to figure out how to approach it, attack it. And then you keep moving forward. So it’s kind of a goal but then it's just little bites – well, at least for me. I would probably have exploded a long time ago if I thought I had to work through all of these issues.
Dennis: I think it's valuable because we oftentimes put so much pressure on ourselves to achieve and move things forward. And sometimes, it is just taking one step today instead of a big leap, you know, but it’s, you talked about the persistence, you talked about believing in yourself and keep moving forward and learning as you go. And I'm sure, as you said, some days you make bigger steps than others and other days you just get through the day.
Stephanie: Right! Yeah. That's it.
Dennis: That's great. Stephanie, this has been great. Really appreciate your time today. I want to share with the listeners that your website is www.StephanieODesigns.com, right?
Dennis: Perfect! And Stephanie, thanks again for your time. Glad to have you with us.
Stephanie: Thank you, Dennis. Great to connect. And I'm glad I could share my story and hopefully inspire somebody out there to keep moving forward with their dream.
Dennis: It's a great story. And again, I appreciate it very much. I'm Dennis Hodges. Dream. Believe. Do.
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