Lots of people dream of leaving their day job to turn their hobby into a full-time career.
We spend much of our lives at work, so why not do something that we love?
With families, mortgages and other bills and responsibilities to consider, it can be a very tough decision to make and one that perhaps is not realistic for everyone.
Today, on Small Business War Stories, we talk with Celeste Austin of Savvyroot, who left her career in the dental industry after 8 years to start a designer handbag company.
She started the company as a side business after she taught herself to sew. She would work from 7 AM to 3 PM at her regular job and then work until 5am on her side business in order to fill orders.
It’s an incredible and inspiring story that takes a ton of guts to pull off, but in Celeste’s own words, her original career “didn’t give her life.“
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- Tell me more about SavvyRoot. What do you do and how did the business start?
- What were you doing before you started SavvyRoot?
- How long was it between when you started doing handbags to the time that you said, “I’m going full-time?”
- Who were your first customers?
- Tell me about your design process. So how do you start? Where do you get inspiration from?
- How long is the process from the first time you hand them your kindergarten sketch to having a finished bag that you can sell?
- How do you know what’s going to be a success?
- Have you ever overestimated demand, and have you ever underestimated demand?
- Are you going to start expanding your line to other things beyond the bags?
- How did you go about finding manufacturers?
- Where are your manufacturers? Did you ever look at abroad manufacturing?
- How do you balance selling directly to consumers vs. selling to retailers?
- What’s the number one piece of advice that you would give to people who are thinking about setting out on their own to do something?
- Can you think of a time when you had a particularly bad crisis?
- How do you manage your psychology?
- Can you think of a particularly odd, wacky story?
- Let’s talk about New Orleans a little bit. What’s it like to do business here?
Tell me more about SavvyRoot. What do you do and how did the business start?
Celeste Austin: I am a leather handbag designer. I started due to my love of design. I used to love changing the way a living room would look. So I would sew throw pillow covers and change them out based on what I was feeling at the time or whatever. It was a cheaper more efficient way to get the job done. So, I taught myself how to sew.
What were you doing before you started SavvyRoot?
Celeste Austin: I was in the dental field. I went to college for biology and all that. I just never felt like it really was … It didn’t give me life. It didn’t make me feel what I knew I should be feeling, every day, going through life. I did the dental thing for eight years, and then I started doing the handbag stuff as a side hustle. And then from there it got so busy, that I had to leave the dental field.
How long was it between when you started doing handbags to the time that you said, “I’m going full-time?”
Celeste Austin: Honestly, it probably only took about a year. I mean I stayed in it longer than I probably should have. But I think that was the right move financially, just because I wanted to make sure I had enough money saved up.
About a year, and I wound up … The reason why I wound up leaving dental was I got into 16 boutiques. So once I got into 16, I was like, all right I can’t keep up anymore.
So was that the time when you knew that it was time to make the leap?
Celeste Austin: Yep. That was it. I was hand-making all day, all night, once I quit my full-time job. So I knew that if I was hand-making all day, all night with no full-time job. How was I making it work when I had a full-time job? Looking back, I was just working until 5:00 in the morning. I got off at 3:00, and I would work until 5:00 in the morning. And then I’d have to go to work at 7:00. It was rough. It was rough. I’m so glad to be done with that.
Who were your first customers? When you were in the dental business, you started making these. How did you find your first few people who said like, “Wow… I want a SavvyRoot bag?”
Celeste Austin: Well so, actually I had a customer who had her own boutique, a lady in Baton Rouge who had been around for years, like 30 plus years in business. And that’s outstanding for a boutique. So I wound up getting with her, and she just was constantly saying, “Just go for it. Just go for it. Do it.” “Just reach out to people, what can they say? No?“
And she kind of gave me the backhand about everything, which she was like, “This is what I did to start. And here’s what we want as buyers. Here’s what we’re gonna look for.” And so I kind of knew from there where to go. So I started with her, and then actually I did a pop-up shop. A pop-up shop is just where you just take your handful of things and bring it to a little boutique or something, and you just set up a shop within a shop.
Or you can do it on the streets, or at festivals and things like that, which is also what I do. They’re really fun to be able to engage with customers and get your stuff out there. And they get to meet the designer, which is cool for customers.
So I did one pop-up, and I met probably 30 other women doing the same thing I’m doing, trying to build their brands as well. There were a few that were doing what I do, but I wound up getting close to a greeting card designer, like stationary designer, and a girl who does cosmetics. We’re all trying to achieve the same goal.
If you ever were to come across somebody who’s making also similar products as you would. Is that something where you would see them as competitors, or would you see them as collaborators?
Celeste Austin: Absolutely not. No, actually I have a few friends in the city who do handbags as well. We’ve all kind of taken different steps to do the same thing. Like we all started maybe hand-making, and then we talk and collaborate and things like that. Just getting ideas from each other, or feedback on customers and things like that.
We all face different challenges and get to talk about it together. And there’s so much room for everybody to succeed. Everybody’s style is different, and everybody wants something different. So, whereas today I’ll be wearing all black, tomorrow I’ll be wearing all white.
Tell me about your design process. So how do you start? Where do you get inspiration from? Do you carry a sketchbook? Soup to nuts, how do you make a bag?
Celeste Austin: This is my favorite part. Yeah, so the design process is fun. What I do, since I’m not formally trained in this, I just sketch it like a kindergartner would on a piece of paper. I mean it’s wretched-looking. I just sketch it, and then what I do is, since I’m no longer hand-making, now I turn it over to my manufacturer. So I just email it, submit it somehow, and then they take it from there. And they ask questions, and we get down like maybe eight emails in-
We iterate on designs every time, because they’ll never get it right exactly. I mean, unless you use the same manufacturers over and over again, which over time you will if you like the ones you’re using. So now I’ve formed a relationship with the ones I have, and now they kind of get my designs a little bit better. But in the beginning, when you’re trying to find the right ones, it’s difficult. Because they all perceive it differently, and then they come back, and they’re like, “Like this?” I’m like, “Well no. No, no, no.” But over time you get it right. It’s just you want to narrow down how many you have to submit to people.
How long is the process from the first time you hand them your kindergarten sketch to having a finished bag that you can sell?
Celeste Austin: It’s the design process. So like you submit the sketch. They’ll send you a sample within a week. Like they’ll work one up, and they’ll send it to you in a week. Then from there, it takes me a month, because I test it. So it’s about a month until the product is ready to sell.
How do you know how many to order? How do you know what’s going to be a success?
Celeste Austin: You don’t. You take a risk. I mean at the beginning I took a very calculated risk. I thought about what I put out, and just kind of went from there. I was like, okay if I can sell this many in a week, imagine what I could do if I had a manufacturer. And then if this many boutiques wants this many, I eyeball it.
Have you ever overestimated demand, and have you ever underestimated demand?
Celeste Austin: I have not yet overestimated. I have definitely underestimated. We are almost completely out of inventory from 2016, and my 2017 inventory arrives next week. I wish you would have been here next week because then you could have seen it. It’s really cool.
Let’s talk about cash management. This is a challenge for a lot of small businesses because inventory is cash on the shelf, right? So how do you think about that, and how do you manage your working capital so that you don’t end up in a bad place?
Celeste Austin: Well, luckily seasons change, and you go through sales. You kind of gauge off of department stores that post sales. They start doing all these end of the year, whatever. So those are your times that you get in there and you take advantage. And then that can help push through a lot. Like, just now, I only had about say 20 bags left, and two days ago I’m like, look making room for 2017 inventory, and they’re all sold out. I mean I have what, three or four left?
Are you going to start expanding your line to other things beyond the bags? What are you thinking?
Celeste Austin: Yeah. I mean I want to, and I always put that in my business plan, is that I’m gonna do this and that. But things change, and sure I wanted to do luggage by this time. And a mommy and me line, like for little kids. Especially guy stuff too, because I’m really into masculine and feminine type aesthetics, so I wanted to do really menswear (leather vests, suspenders, briefcases, especially briefcases). That’s what I started wanting to do. It’s tough, but it’ll come. I’m not rushing. I’m a very calculated risk-taker. I will take my time.
I want to hear about the transition from you sewing everything until five in the morning to using manufacturers. When did you know it was time to do that? How did you go about finding manufacturers?
Celeste Austin: It started when I was working late at night. I did not have a life, so I needed to make a decision. So it was either create my own little shop with people who worked under me, or I would do a manufacturer. And I decided to do the manufacturing route, less expensive, even though it is more expensive, because it takes all your money up front. However, there are no liability issues, and you don’t have to worry about insurance and other things like that.
You pick and choose your battles. I went that route, just to test that out first because I can always go back into, oh well now that I know everything behind hand-making, which I did. That’s why I did it, because I wanted to know every little piece of a business, and why I’m doing this, and how much every little thing is. And then I went to manufacturing, and so at least I can go back and say now, alright well that’s how the manufacturing world works, now I can do my own little manufacturing.
Where are your manufacturers? Did you ever look at abroad manufacturing? How was that choice?
Celeste Austin: So I have one in Jersey and one in Seattle. I know what the customers want. I mean, especially being from here. Everybody can really appreciate local and handmade and things like that.
Is that something that you use in your branding? Handmade, Made in the USA?
Celeste Austin: I don’t usually. I don’t put too much emphasis on it. I mean it’s all over my website and things like that, but I don’t make it a point. Because in case I ever do want to switch later down the road, I can, and I won’t have a problem.
How do you balance selling directly to consumers vs. selling to retailers?
Celeste Austin: Honestly it’s pretty even. Which is what I was hoping for, because I ultimately want to stay a boutique brand versus becoming like a big name. I don’t want to be much too like Gucci or Chanel or Michael Kors or something like that. That wasn’t my end-goal. I’m not the most expensive, not the least expensive. So that’s how I do my pricing, that’s how I want to brand myself.
What’s the number one piece of advice that you would give to people who are thinking about setting out on their own to do something?
Celeste Austin: Go for it. I mean, I don’t even know what to say, because that’s just my personality, is like I’m just gonna go for it, because why not? But truly, just go for it, and don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Take your time, really think about it, and be realistic with yourself. I mean really be realistic with what you’re doing, because anybody can say, oh I want to start a handbag line, and then they do it, or they start it, but there’s so many pieces that go into it.
Really do your research. You’ve got to be committed. Don’t blow all your money. I literally started from maybe a hundred dollars in my checking account, and it’s blown into this big thing. So, I truly cannot stress enough how much not to like just go, “Oh well I need a manufacturer, so I need to go pay all this money to this manufacturer.” Really do your research, and too, work from the ground up.
Start small. Because now when a manufacturer says, “oh we’re gonna charge this, or here’s the price for that.” I think, I know can do better than that. I can do better than that if I’m making it. And I would pay myself more.
Source your own stuff. And when you’re just starting out, you don’t have to pay a photographer to do a $10,000 article write-up, or whatever. You don’t have to get all these fancy things done. Do it yourself, just to establish something, and work your way up. Because eventually you’re going to get to the part where you can afford that, and it’s totally fine.
Can you think of a time when you had a particularly bad crisis where you thought like, “Oh shit. I don’t even know what’s going to happen here. I don’t know how I’m gonna make this work?”
Celeste Austin: I mean this move was huge. Going from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, I was coming from a place where I didn’t have to pay rent. So I was able to save every penny, and put everything into the business. And I never had to stress about that. Everything, every dollar went back into the business.
Whereas now I am a studio within my home, and everything has to go into this home. And now I’m paying all of these things on top of the business expenses. And it’s gotten a little more expensive because of manufacturing, so that has been a huge thing to have to worry about.
Now you have to really budget for the next year. So you can’t just budget for the next couple of months. Oh this is gonna sell really fast, let me hurry up and start saving a little bit of money. No, now you have to put out a good 10-12k to save up for next year, just to start. I feel like I go through some kind of like issue at least once a week. And you freak out, but I don’t really stress out too much.
How do you manage your psychology? Because I think that’s one of the hardest parts, especially because you’re a solo founder right?
Celeste Austin: I look at other businesses, other girls in the industry. A lot of other friends, we all use each other as a support system. It’s very informal. It’s like a text at 2 a.m. where you’re like “Holy shit.” Yeah, like “Help me. What am I doing? I feel like I’m losing everything. What is going on?” And then they text you back, “Funny I was just thinking the same thing last week.” And then you talk about it, and you realize that like, look it’s just another day.
I mean you’re gonna get through it, and really, there’s always a move, and truly if you’re working … If this is your main job, if this is all you’ve got, you can’t stress out too much, because this is all you have, so you can’t spend time stressing out, crying, worrying, and being all down on yourself because I don’t have time for that. Like I got bills to pay. I got things to make. So really you gotta lean on yourself.
Now I’m sure that in that same time, you’ve seen some really odd wacky things. Can you think of a particularly odd, wacky story? Like customers, like crazy things that happen at pop-ups?
Celeste Austin: Oh gosh, where to begin? Honestly, I don’t know, I mean customers are always going to throw you curve-balls. Yeah, they can be a little, how do I say it? I guess they just don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes, so it’s rough, and they just want to blame like one person. And you’re like, “Yeah, but the shipping is not my fault.“
But those things I can understand. I don’t let that get to me. It’s the manufacturer, there is a funny story. So I sent off one of my sketches, right? And I got a sample back made of card stock. Yeah, I’m like, “Oh I wanted leather. I’m not sure if you got that?” They were like, “Oh well, you sent us a sketch, you didn’t list what kind of leather.” I’m like, “Well shouldn’t you ask me at this point?” You’re going to send me like a paper workup?
I mean it was weird. So I’m like well I can’t test that for a month, so then that pushed me back another week.
Do you ever get wacky ideas from customers as to like the kinds of designs you should do? And you’re like, “Ooh, yeah. About that.”
Celeste Austin: “Yeah, but no.” Not really, honestly. They all give you ideas, but none of them have been too, too crazy. I mean if anything I might be coming up with something crazy. And then I have to stop myself. So I wanted to do these leather fringe anklets, to where you put them and they hang over your heels. But then it’s different, because like heels are all different heights. So I was like, how am I gonna do that, because then they’re gonna have to like cut them themselves if they’re too long. The whole thing was just a wash. I mean, just because you’re good with scissors and leather, doesn’t mean that everybody is right? So then you’re like, all right, let’s just can that idea.
Let’s talk about New Orleans a little bit. What’s it like to do business here? What’s been your relationship other small business owners? Also what’s your relationship with the city?
Celeste Austin: People here are just fantastic. This city is magical. I mean honestly, I can go outside on my sidewalk right now and sell something, and people would just love and appreciate it. They have this genuine love and appreciation for like crafting and anything you make, or even if I don’t make it, if I design it, they want it, so it’s been really neat. These people are great.
I haven’t had too many issues with the city itself. I haven’t needed to, since I’m mostly online, and then I sell through my boutiques and stuff. So they have to deal with all those things. But they’ve been great. I mean there’s so many avenues that I feel like they’re here for us. It’s almost like they want you. Like, “Small businesses, come to New Orleans. Stay here.“
So I have to ask you. You were here pre-Katrina. What’s your take on what’s happening with the city, and where it’s going with the re-building?
Celeste Austin: I mean I can’t even explain it. We are completely a whole new city. I mean we’ve rebuilt. Everybody’s come together. It’s just amazing. Everything is being rebuilt. I mean it’s just, I can’t even explain what that is. Because honestly, it’s brought everybody together. I don’t even have words for it.
Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about your business? So what are your websites? Where can people find you?
Celeste Austin: So just SavvyRoot.com. On Instagram same thing just SavvyRoot. Facebook, SavvyRoot. I do most of my own Instagram. I have an intern that helps when things get really crazy, but other than that it’s just me.
It’s really scary to decide to leave a successful career that pays the bills and try something new, but that you think you’ll really love. It takes self awareness, drive and guts to pull it off.
Celeste sacrificed a lot to build Savvyroot and make it successful.
She recognized that the path she was on was not right for her and chose to make a change. Her hustle and drive helped her succeed.
If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.