Last week, I introduced you all to Lisa Hackwith - the founder and designer behind her namesake company, Hackwith Design House. Join me this week as Lisa and I sit down to discuss the origins of her company, how it's evolved, and why bigger isn't always better for business.
Lisa : I’m self-taught. I was an art major in school which I think informs a lot of what I do now. But definitely, in retrospect, I [think] “Oh a pattern-making degree would have been nice.” So after I graduated from college, I was planning on taking a year off and thinking of going back to grad school maybe for curation or just to further my art degree. It was during that year off that I just didn’t miss art like I thought I would. I’ve always been making something with my hands, whatever that is, so I missed that part of it but I wasn’t excited about going back. During that time, my mom had this old sewing machine that her mom had given her when she was younger and she gave it to me. I just started sewing in my free time and taking apart clothes and figuring out how they were made. I did that for maybe a year and a half and it just kind of snowballed. But I fell in love with that medium - it felt like the right medium finally, of all the other ones I had tried.
So I probably did that for a few years and then I started an Etsy shop in 2010. I actually started with more menswear than womenswear. I have 3 brothers-in-law that I all made these sweaters for for Christmas, so that’s what I started selling online. I sold so many of those sweaters that now I hate them because I had to make so many of them! But I think it helped on Etsy that I had men’s and women’s clothing offerings. I started that in 2010 and then by June of that year, I started doing that full-time. I did Etsy for about three years, and I had a few wholesale accounts, but I just got to a point where I was sewing and working all the time but not really making any money. So I took a break and took some time off - my husband and I had bought a house that we had fixed up and sold, so as soon as we saw the house, it was like I was gonna have some freedom to just stop sewing and breathe and research. I took maybe 4 or 5 months off and read a bunch and met with some people to ask them their advice. I didn’t know if I should just go work for someone for a while and get more experience, but I decided to start my own online shop. I was super nervous about that because I had no idea how people were gonna find me. But everyone takes that plunge at some point, ya know? “I don’t know but here we go!”
TC&G: I don’t know that anyone can be fully prepared for what it is to own your own business.
L: Yeah, so many things! That would have been in the summer of 2013. I planned to launch the website in September so I joined Instagram around that time and came up with the idea of doing limited-edition pieces like how art prints are all numbered and limited. I thought maybe that would help bring more people to the website. And you’re making these small quantities. There’s this great local fabric shop in Minneapolis that just buys runoff fabric from all over so when these companies don’t use enough fabric, this company buys it back. So [I] could [get] one big roll but that’s it of this beautiful fabric. I [thought], “Well I can do that. I’ll buy the fabric, make as many as I can under 25, and that’ll be it.” So I did that, releasing one new item a week. [I] reached out on Instagram and found a bunch of bloggers that I thought aligned with me or had similar aesthetics. So I had people lined up for every single week to promote the piece that was coming out. Which I think was really instrumental and also the right timing with Instagram - it was a lot more doable [then]. People weren’t asking for money in exchange, so I could just send them the piece. I think I was only 2 months in and still a one-woman show doing everything. It was going well so I was like, “I could add two pieces to Monday - I’ve got time!” I did that through December and I was just working 80-90 hours a week and [couldn’t keep] up with it.
It was going well - you have no idea how it’s gonna go but when it goes well, trying to go with the momentum and being able to capitalize on it is key. And then I got to hire my first employees in January of the next year. And Erin, my now business partner, is one of my good friends from college and she had just moved back from New York. She’s a lawyer and was waiting to be admitted to the bar here. During that in-between time, things were going great for me and I was kind of drowning in all this paperwork and emails and I have to sew and design and do all these other things - so we teamed up then and that was also hugely instrumental in how we were able to keep growing and growing at that rate. Because we just kind of split up and I got to do all the things I loved to do and she got to do all the things she loved to do.
TC&G: Do you still use that run-off place where everything is limited batch?
L: No. I go there once in awhile but I got to a point where I was there every other week buying as much as I could, and it just wasn’t sustainable to keep doing that. Our website was still doing limited edition up until last spring, which is crazy. So we’re right now into our third core collection and we still do the limited edition one-piece every Monday, but the core collections are what we needed bolts of fabric for so people could order wholesale a lot easier and we could get as much as we need. I ran up to the fabric store this fall because I wanted just a few extra fabrics for limited edition, but for the most part I’m not there so much anymore.
TC&G: That totally makes sense. It’s a good thing when your orders are big enough that you need more rolls of fabric. What mediums of art had you been working in?
L: I feel like I experimented in all of them. I definitely went in loving painting and got to do some photography and mixed media and got to try the gamut.
TC&G: Do you still do any of that in your spare time?
L: Sometimes I go through spurts of it. It just depends on if I have the energy or need another outlet. Last winter, I went through a phase where I was doing lots of watercolor. But haven't since then. I’m sure I will at some point again.
TC&G: It's not just a one-woman show anymore. How big is your team now?
L: There are 10 of us total.
TC&G: So it’s still super small. You guys do something really cool where you manufacture in house, so that’s including all the seamstresses and the production people?
TC&G: That’s great for you because you get to overlook all the aspects of production right from the floor.
L: Yeah it’s really awesome. So many things are more immediate that way too. Especially for limited edition stuff, there’s no way we’d be able to do that unless we had this model. It’s really great and probably a lot of it is because I was at home sewing for so long that I had strong opinions on the way I wanted this to run. We have lots of seamstresses, so let's say there's 5 tops [needed]. [One seamstress will] cut them all out and sew all of them and [she] goes all the way to putting the tags on and hanging them up and then goes onto her next project. So it gives you a really nice sense of accomplishment, as opposed to a lot of cut+sew shops where there’s one person doing one seam all day over and over and over and over. I'm sure that’s a little more efficient and, of course we want to be as efficient as possible, but we also wanted really happy employees who love coming to work and like their job. So our girls are always constantly learning new things and we're growing together and learning new ways to finish things.
TC&G: Is it all female employees?
L: Yes it is.
TC&G: That’s so rad!
L: We had a few male interns at one point but none of them stuck around.
TC&G: And [the studio] is based in Minnesota right?
L: In St. Paul. It’s the Twin Cities, and we’re kind of smack dab between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
TC&G: Have you always lived there?
L: I grew up in Wisconsin. My parents' house is like an hour and a half away, so it's pretty close. And my sisters all moved here so I’ve got family here which is great.
TC&G: You mentioned you did photography at one point. Do you do the photography for your site?
L: I do most of it. Once in awhile if I do a bigger lookbook, we bring in a photographer. This last year we only brought in a photographer once, but we’ll probably do that again for the fall. I really like it - I’ve learned the necessity of buying a nice camera and just figuring it out because it's so expensive if you have to hire photographers all the time. So it was more out of necessity than anything, but I do enjoy it. Definitely got a lot better the more I had to do it.
TC&G: Has social media been pretty fundamental in terms of your success would you say?
L: Yes. We’ve utilized every kind of free social media we can possibly use. I think that was definitely key.
TC&G: Do you still work with any of the bloggers that you started out working with years ago?
L: Yes. It’s not weekly like we used to do but we have a big rotation of bloggers that we work with and there's always new people cropping up so we are always adding new people to the mix.
TC&G: I think just being a millennial and not being super tapped into social media, I'm always so curious how that has affected business and how so many brands have been able to come of age in a time where people just wanted to see really nice shots of other people wearing really nice things. I'm always curious to see how that plays a role in people's business plans.
L: For sure. We've definitely found that it has to be a natural fit. It can't be forced - otherwise the outcome isn't as good so a lot of times we’ll use people who have actually bought from us before and genuinely like our product. Those have been our most successful partnerships for sure.
TC&G: Especially because Instagram and social media can have a seemingly perfect fog to it, so it's nice to retain some sort of authenticity with it. What else would you say has been pretty fundamental in terms of your success?
L: We definitely utilized Instagram. And we're always trying to get better at Pinterest and being pretty active on that. We're still trying to figure out the best way for us to use Facebook, but there's always wells of these roads you can go down trying to get better. Starting our newsletter was key. We didn't have one right away for maybe a year and a half and people asked for it, so we were like, "Oh yeah we can do that." It makes sense because they're all return customers but that's our highest return rate, so we do the newsletter. We usually send out 2 newsletters a week, and we do have a blog too but it's a lot to keep up with all of those things. Now we have a gal to help us get better at those areas where before we just didn't have time to do everything.
TC&G: Do you have future plans you want to work toward with HDH, or do you like to be present for each season and focus on the task at hand?
L: We do both. Erin and I make space in our schedule to have a concept meeting once a week. It’s that time where - we always end with logistic things - but it’s always big picture first. A lot of times we have these big goals that we kind of think this is where we’re going toward and we give ourselves the space to think about and dream, so we do have big ideas. I don’t know what will happen or what the timeline is for those, but I think it’s important to give yourself space to think about it. At least for us, it’s been great and it’s been nice to have this idea and make sure we’re on the same page of where we’re going toward. And those definitely change. Especially in the U.S., there’s always this idea that bigger is better and I feel like we both had more of this idea of wanting this bigger company. But then the further in you get, we talked with a lot of people, and I think it’s more now for us about finding the right balance and just figuring it out - there probably is this perfect size for us and I don’t think it’s gonna be huge, ya know? It’s not that idea anymore but it’s more like: Where is this right balance? Especially with maintaining a balance in our personal lives.
TC&G: I think that’s really curious because I definitely feel that. But then there’s all those studies that show that you get to a certain point or you’re making a certain amount of money, and any more than that doesn’t really benefit you in any productive way. It’s just excess at that point.
L: Or it gets to a point where you could make a lot more, but then your personal life goes down the drain. For us it’s finding that sweet spot of where we can do both well.
TC&G: I think there’s something that gets lost in translation sometimes when you move onto a bigger company or all of these lofty goals where you lose some of the inherent truth to what made the brand so good to begin with. So I think that’s great that you guys are organic builders of HDH. What has been the coolest part of owning your own business?
L: My favorite part of my job is when I actually get to design. That's the fuel I need to do everything else. And then probably just all the lovely, lovely ladies I get to work with. My team is amazing and I get to work with them every day which is awesome. We eat lunch together every day. And we like to hang out on weekends sometimes and do happy hour. It's really nice. And I get to work with Erin who’s been my friend forever, so that’s always nice.
TC&G: I’m so happy to have learned more about HDH. It’s inspiring to hear all the different ways that someone can pave their own way. When things sort of just start to happen and you know you’re on the right path that can happen whether you have 20 years of schooling in it or whether you taught yourself out of a book or by just doing it. And especially as a business owner, you’re always learning. If you got to the point where you stopped learning, I would get a little bit worried.
L: I wouldn't believe you.