I’m in love with the idea of intentionally creating a unique life- hearing the stories of people who are in the process of creating inspired lives for themselves is fascinating, and always a learning experience for me. I’m excited to share those stories here through the Creative Life interviews!
I'm really thrilled to bring you an interview with Maggie Whitley, owner and designer of Gussy Sews and a prolific blogger at GussySews.com. Maggie is an incredible inspiration, and her interview features insight into how she found her niche, became an entrepreneur, as well as tips on how she stays grounded in times of self doubt. Maggie is magnetic, positive and an amazing resource- I know you'll enjoy getting to know her! :)
For readers who aren't familiar with your story, tell us who you are and what Gussy Sews is about!
Hi there — my name is Maggie Whitley and I'm the owner/designer of Gussy Sews. I spend equal time working on my blog and my shop. On my blog you'll find updates on my handmade shop, tips on how I left my day job 1 year ago to focus on my business, and different prompts/projects that help build a handmade community of inspiration & adventuring. Interested in what fills the “shelves” of my shop? All sorts of sassy, girly, colorful accessories: tote bags (3 different sizes), zipped pouches, eReader cases, headbands — all sporting my signature ruffle.
My husband and I live in Minneapolis, MN with our puppy Bauer. But we haven't always lived here — in fact, we're originally from the great state Michigan. Zack and I met in college and dated throughout. We were married in June 2008, and just a few months later we moved to Detroit. Just a few months after that we BOTH lost our jobs. Insane, right?! It was. At first it wasn't too big of a deal, thankfully we don't have a lot of debt so we were able to pay all of our bills and keep afloat. But once 3 months passed, then 4, 5, 6 months, nearing to our 7th month, we really started to feel sick over this unemployment “status”. We had just graduated from college ~ how is it that we were still unemployed?!
Unfortunately we weren't seeing hope for us in Michigan, so after a crazy quick trip to Minneapolis, MN for an interview, I was offered a job… and so we moved in August (2010). In one weekend. It was insane. Seriously insane. Everything happened so quickly but since it fell so perfectly into place we knew it “had to be” :)
Right after we moved to Detroit (back in August 2008) I taught myself how to sew, and throughout the 7 months we were unemployed I really put a lot of time into learning this trade. Once we moved to Minneapolis, even though I had a full-time salaried job, I felt like I needed to do more with my business. Around January 2010, Zack and I started talking about me quitting my day job to spend more time on Gussy Sews, and we talked about this a lot. It was a really exciting time for us, but this was all so new to us, too.
We started saving for 3 months of my salary as “back up” and by May 14th, 2010 I was walking away from my full-time job for good. Yeow! The following Monday was my first day on my own ~ May 17. I welcomed the career and life change my skipping all the way to the shower that morning, hah! (True story.) Anyways :) I have so loved this new journey and love to share it/others stories on my blog. Life is about connecting with others, right? :)
Before you made the jump to working on Gussy full time, what kind of work had you done and what was your life like? Did you always dream of being a small business owner?
I'll answer that last question first — no! :) My dream for a long time was to be a magazine editor. I loooove working with people, learning about their story, working with products and the like. Right after college I landed my first job proofreading [yawn]. Not my first choice, but it was a full-time job in my field (I'm a journalism and art major), so I took it. Then Zack and I got married, and a few months later were moved to Detroit. I took another job proofreading ~ and then we moved to Minneapolis and again, proofreading had found its way into my life. I think what I liked about the position was the sense that my job was important. I love working with details and this job title definitely had a lot of them!
Prior to Gussy Sews I was actually very, very content working for someone else. My husband comes from a self-employed family (both of his parents are as well as aunts/uncles), and I come from a family of just the opposite. Self-employement was something I didn't understand. At first. I mean, I had very little experience with it so initially it scared me. But once I lost my job (while we were living in Detroit) I soon realized that so much of my life can change because someone else decided “that was that”. And while I didn't like how that felt, I also didn't have any idea my story of becoming Gussy Sews was forming and that one day this would be my life.
Before Gussy Sews I was very content going to work, doing my job, and then coming home. And yes, I do find contentment leaving work at work (which isn't always easy, hah), I enjoy working for myself more (vs. someone else) because I feel my life is much more meaningful. If we're going to spend 83,000+ hours in our lifetime working, we better darn enjoy it!!!! :)
The way your blog tells it, it looks like you made a conscious decision to learn how to sew so you could start Gussy. When you were starting your business you must have had so many different ideas- how did you figure out that sewing was your niche?
When I started sewing I didn't know Gussy Sews was forming. I had recently found Etsy and it seemed like all the cool girls knew how to sew :) I sooooo wanted to learn, too, so I borrowed my parents sewing machine and checked-out about 30 books from the library. There were plenty of times (days, weeks even) where I felt lost and so unsure how to make this happen, but I kept on and asked questions to my unknown-at-the-time blog/biz mentors when Google couldn't help me out. I love Google and the satisfaction that comes with figuring something out myself. If you want to be your own boss I strongly, strongly encourage you to do this, too. It will grow you as a person and business owner.
As my talents progressed I did decide to turn it into a business, but that wasn't the initial plan. (I had dreams of it turning into a business, but because I had so little experience/knowledge I wasn't sure if that's what I really wanted, of if it would.)
When I first started selling with Etsy I was making jewelry. It was clear right away that wasn't the plan God had for me, hah! So I quickly added my sewn items and from there things progressed. How did I decide that sewing was my niche? I have always loved, loved, loved purses and little zipped pouches, so when I started sewing it was easy for me to make those items because I would definitely use what I made. I knew I didn't want to draw or paint or do something like that — mainly because I can NOT do those things, and sewing is something I felt like I could definitely teach myself.
It seems like attending the Blissdom conference was a turning point for you and your business. Could you tell us a bit about the conference and what were you expected going into it? Do you feel like it's important to balance face to face networking with being accessible online?
Oh my goodness — yes, Blissdom totally was. Since I'm selling a product, and since “Gussy” has essentially turned into a brand, I've realized it's important for people to feel like they know me (and vice versa). I think that is why Gussy Sews has had some of it's success — I'm not just a name on your computer screen, I make a point to meet with others face-to-face. I really like that about small businesses. I love to attend blog conferences, meet my online friends in real life; plan & host meet ups, etc. Blogging (and attending blogging “events”) is very much my day-to-day life.
I have been to Blissdom twice and both times were so different, but so amazingly necessary for my business. I first went in January 2010 when I still felt really new to blogging with a purpose. I also went solo, but had roommates set up (through Twitter) and a long list of people I wanted to meet ;)
My shop had been open about a year when I went to Blissdom for the first time, and I think my products were more recognizable than my business name. A key turning point for my business was during a panel session on niche blogging. With courage I stood up and asked the panel for advice since my blog is a mix of personal and business topics — how do I mix the two on my blog? The Nester was a panelist, and as she asked me to share my name, blog, what I make, she winked at me. The Nester KNEW who I was but wanted me to introduce myself to the room of about 250 women. As soon as I answered her questions the room filled with soft chatter and a-hah's as people realized that I was “Gussy”. It was really an indescribable experience. One of my favorites.
Another turning point in January 2010 was to change all of my online links/accounts to say Gussy Sews instead of my name, Maggie Whitley. I was referring to my products as “Gussy” ~ so why was my twitter handle “Maggie Whitley”, for example. Melissa Michaels of The Inspired Room is responsible for that amazing and oh-so helpful piece of advice :) I think it's very important for everything to be uniform — don't confuse people by using your real name if you want to be referred to by your business name, for example. Lisa Leonard has a really similar experience with this, and I think her story is really powerful as well on why choosing the right business name to go by is so important.
In February 2011 I went back to Blissom, but this time it felt very different. To be honest, it was quite overwhelming to see and recognize so many online friends. It's one thing to say “I know of a couple hundred bloggers”, but to put that many people in the same room and actually FEEL what that number looks like is something quite amazing :) I feel like my business has grown so much since 2010 and I really contribute that to the handful of conferences I attended since Blissdom 2010. Since then I've been to The Creative Connection (TCC), Relevant, MN Blogger Conference, and this fall I'll be at Blog Sugar (I'm speaking), Relevant and hopefully TCC again!)
*Blissdom meets in Nashville, USA and in Toronto, Canada.
As a small business owner, blogger, and wife your time must be stretched thin. But your blog, marketing and online presence always seems positive and collected. Do you have any time management tricks, or lifestyle habits that help you stay on top of everything? Are there two of you?? ;)
Hah! Well, here's a secret ~ I have a very lovely team of assistants, plus friends/family and my husband, who help me stay focused on the important things. My time is stretched thin, and I say I work 11-hour workdays daily. It's pretty intense, but it's no surprise owning your own business is a lot of hard work :) Right?
I currently have 3 assistants that work with me in my home studio or home office. While I don't talk of them often, it's not a secret I have help. It's been just over a year since I hired my first assistant and just this month I hired my third. Some times it gets crazy over here — did you know I also have a puppy? hah! — but I seriously love it.
I remember a year ago thinking a few times a week, “What do I do now?” There were times I felt so lost/idea-less with all the time I had to work on Gussy Sews. But now I find myself praying for more more more time. Funny how things change in the blink of an eye ;)
So some advice for new shop owners ~ don't stress or go crazy over those moments of uncertainty. If you've fun out of an idea, leave the house and go on a little adventure. One day soon this will all change and you'll regret not using all that extra time for ideas and inspiration.
As for time management, I am a big believer in an organized blog/business calendar, to-do lists and “silencing the noise”. Some times I turn off my phone or leave it in the other room so I'm not distracted by it. As for the positivity ~ you will never find me talking badly about someone and rarely do I say anything about a frustrated situation I may be in with the business. I just don't think online is the proper place for those things. Gussy Sews is meant to inspire people and be a place of adventure and fun. And I'm seen businesses seriously fail over saying negative/rude things about others online. It's very awkward and should be avoided at all times. If you need to vent, keep your frustrations to just one person you trust.
Your blog is so positive and encouraging, and on your blog and in your business you're constantly putting yourself out there creatively. When you're just starting out, or if you're steering your business in a new direction that can be seriously scary! Do you have any tools or tips for quieting self doubt?
Self-doubt — ohh, that definitely creeps into my life now & then. One thing I've noticed, which has been super helpful in working around it, is that the self-doubt always happens when I've spent way too much time online. If I'm looking at a lot of blogs, shops, products, tutorials, conversations, giveaways, reviews, photos instead of doing something creative or checking things off my to-do list, in walks Miss Self-Doubt. And she isn't pretty! Working on a creative project is really the quickest way for me to kill Self-Doubt.
My advice when steering your business in a new direction or working on a new project/item is to put yourself in the customers/readers shoes. Try to anticipate their reaction to your new idea. What questions would they have? How can you help them have the best experience with your new idea? Make sure your brand is accurately represented and consistent throughout. Run through the who/what/where/when/why bullet points to anticipate that you have everything covered. Also — don't rush things. Great ideas are most-successful when you can plan it with a clear mind :)
Thanks so much Maggie!
Are you following your passion (whatever that is!) and crafting an inspired life around it?
I’d love to feature you! Please e-mail me at kylaroma [at] gmail.com, let me know in the comments or
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