We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
Ellen Bennett is the founder of Hedley & Bennett, the maker of high-quality and colorful aprons for home cooks and restaurant workers. She founded the company when she was a line chef, frustrated by how flimsy and frumpy the aprons were at the restaurants where she worked. She's also the author of a new book, "Dream First, Details Later: How to Quit Overthinking and Make It Happen!"
Bennett spoke to TMRW about her journey to success, which included quite a few "bumps in the road," and shared why those bumps shouldn't stop anyone from pursuing their dream.
TMRW: I know you've had some interesting jobs in your life, particularly when you were living in Mexico and going to culinary school. Will you tell me about some of them?
Ellen Bennett: I was the lottery announcer on television. I was a tutor for teaching English. I was a "booth babe," which is slang for the cute girls who wear a suit at a trade show and talk to you about a bank or canola oil or whatever they're selling that day. I did commercials. When I came back to the U.S., I had two jobs at two different restaurants and was a personal chef for a family. I was constantly working more than two jobs to make ends meet and learning to really multitask and juggle.
You were working as a line cook at Baco Mercat in Los Angeles when your head chef said he needed to order new aprons and you blurted out that you had an apron company — even though you didn't. But you did have an idea. Tell me about that moment.
I heard him say those words and it felt like the sky ripped open. It was like, 'This is your opportunity, are you going to take it?" It almost spilled out of me faster than I could figure out the steps. But that is why the book is "Dream First, Details Later." It doesn't mean details never. The crazy thing is that he gave me the order. I had no sewers, no business plan, nothing.
So what did you do?!
Because I'm Mexican, I called a bunch of people I knew. I found a Latin guy who knew another guy who was a sewer. I was like, OK, you need a pattern, and what does that look like? I bartered for a lot of stuff. I found someone to make the pattern and said, "Hey, I work at Providence, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Help me make this pattern and come in and I'll make you breakfast or lunch or something. He made me my first pattern. I went to downtown L.A. and started going into a bunch of fabric warehouses. I got the fabric, took it to the guy who was sewing. He made them, I turned them in. And no joke, 24 hours later, my chef said, "Bennett, these aprons suck." I was dying. He called me into his office and said, "The straps are falling off, what the hell is happening?" I had to fully own it and make it right because he was my one and only customer. And he was my chef! I worked for him. I said, "Chef, that's on me. We'll get it fixed."
There were so many bumps in the road along the way like that. A lot of business books are like, "And then I sold the company for a hundred million dollars!" And it's like, "Wait, how did you get your first employee?!"
Do you think it's necessary to go to business school or have business experience before launching a company?
Absolutely not. I think that when you're starting something and you don't know everything that's ahead, not knowing the walls you're going to hit, you kind of just walk through them sometimes. There's a spread in the book where I list what I had and what I didn't have. I didn't have a four-year degree or a business plan or money or loans or investors or a trust fund. On the plus side, well, I had a North Star, chutzpah, grit, three or four hundred dollars in savings, humble enthusiasm ... I actually had quite a lot! It's just about perspective. It's important that people just begin and start learning by trial and error, rather than keeping everything in theory. Just do it. Those first aprons sucked. But if I hadn't done that, I wouldn't have learned the things I learned and kept moving forward.
What does success mean to you?
When you get somewhere, you go to the next somewhere. That, to me, is success. Surviving every failure and every bump in the road to get to that "somewhere." And when you get there, it's like, "Awesome, high-five. Now where is the next somewhere?" This perpetual desire to keep moving forward and to always grow and never stop wanting to learn. That is truly success.
I did not used to think that. I used to think, "When I hit this much in revenue, that's success." Or, "When I get my own factory, that's success." It quickly became obvious that those are just things. They're fleeting.
When you get somewhere, you go to the next somewhere. That, to me, is success.
What advice do you have for other budding entrepreneurs?
Think about what you have and not what you don't have. A lot of times I hear people say, "Oh, I don't have business cards yet." Or, "I don't have a website." They spend all this time thinking about it instead of just doing it. It doesn't need to be perfect! Make it OK and then evolve from there. Be willing to feel failures. Don't take them personally. The most successful people I know are the ones who failed the most and kept getting back up again.
What do you want people to know about your book?
That this is the inspiration you need to just begin. It's not a step-by-step path — but it's the push out the door, the kick in the butt. It's not just making it OK to fail, but making it normal. When you go to a business book section in a bookstore, you see the books and they're all black-and-white and they're written by guys. This book is full of color and it's written by a Mexican woman who started a business with $300 out of her house, and it became a multimillion dollar company. And hey, you can do that, too.