Women in Small Business: 5 Questions with Allison Lince-Bentley
Name: Allison Lince-Bentley
Company: Tilden House Studio
Allison Lince-Bentley took her talent, experience and passion for sewing, and created a new professional path for herself. Her business, Tilden House Studio, is a place where aspiring designers, home-sewers, and experienced craftspeople can receive tips, lessons, and refine their craft. Her studio, located in the backyard of her Brentwood home, is a sunlit space filled with sewing machines, specialized equipment, fabric and design inspiration. Over the last ten years, Allison has built a name for herself as a go-to resource for pattern making, design, sewing and more. Her instruction and talent has been featured in the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, Capital File magazine, NPR, Fox 5 News, and Threads Magazine.
1. What led you to owning your own business?
The short story is that I had an itch that wouldn't stop. Even though my previous career was going well, (international development, and then strategic communications), I kept feeling like I was wasting something in myself. I had skills, resources, and ideas that I wasn't going to be able to put to use in a traditional professional environment, and the urge to explore those aspects of myself was louder than the voice of reason. I wanted my work to be more creative and more meaningful, on a daily basis.
My transition to "sewing teacher" and "sewing shop owner" didn't happen overnight, however. I spent about a year volunteering and organizing a free community sewing group, which showed me that there was enough demand for private lessons. For another year after that, I taught part time on the weekends and in the evenings after my day job. Eventually, a gig came up that paid enough to cover my needs for a few months, so I left my full time position, but continued as a contractor work for a year or so while I started my own shop. It was a process.
2. What is your business philosophy?
Running a business is an opportunity to align my highest goals for myself and my life with the work that I do, in a very literal way. If the business is out of synch with those goals, the nature of the business needs to change, or the business needs to end. I also am grateful every day that I have the opportunity to do what I love, and I check myself on a daily basis to make sure I'm passing that gratitude on to my clients. The opportunity to work with them is an honor, and I strive to embody that respect in the quality of my work.
People often say "my business is my baby." I know those words have come out of my mouth at some point. But having owned a business for 10 years now (and having become a parent in the midst of this), I feel the inaccuracy of that phrase keenly. You may love your business, you may feel you have given birth to your business, or that it is your brain child, your pride and joy, you would do anything for it.... but it's not your baby. Unlike a baby, you can make a decision to end a business, and that is okay. Sometimes it's actually the best choice.
I think a business is more like a relationship, something that evolves on a daily basis, that you have to work hard at to keep going... and sometimes it needs to change completely, or dissolve, for the sake of your own growth. Staying awake to that evolution is the important part.
3. What have you learned about yourself by owning your own business?
This could take 1,000 pages... In short, I've learned that my image of myself prior to owning a business very incomplete. Running a business is like standing in front of a mirror in a changing room with fluorescent lighting, every day. You are face to face with your choices (good and bad), your skills, and your lack of skills. Blaming anyone else for your successes and failures is pointless.
Before I owned a business, I thought of myself as likable, creative, positive, and energetic. But running a shop, I had to make difficult choices. I had to fire people... while they cried. I had to get nasty with deadbeat property managers when the building had rats. I had to call up angry customers and talk them out of going on Yelp (sometimes unsuccessfully). While there were far more positive moments than negative ones, the challenges forced me to unearth parts of my personality that I didn't know existed. I have become much more honest with myself, and ready to admit that there are aspects of my character that I have yet to meet.
4. What has been the most surprising thing for you?
That failing in business has been more valuable to my personal growth than succeeding in business. For eight years, I ran a brick and mortar studio with employees, hundreds of customers, and lots of overhead. Miraculously, it all worked pretty well for the first five years or so, long enough for me to think the success was due to my sheer brilliance as a compassionate female business owner. Then, new factors came into play. I started a family, and my time and priorities changed. There was more competition, which hadn't existed in the beginning. The cost of running a business kept increasing, and I couldn't figure out how make the revenues catch up fast enough. Eventually, the scales tipped and I had to make a very, very difficult choice.
While closing the studio was heart wrenching and ego crushing, once I emerged on the other side I realized how much energy I had been pouring into maintaining a massive operation, for years. Now I could redirect that energy in new and positive ways
. I could choose to continue what I loved - teaching - without the parts that I didn't love (managing employees, dealing with property managers, etc). I was able to rebuild my life so that I could be a more present parent, wife and friend. I've become a better sewing teacher. I have the energy to stop and smell the roses. I feel alive again.
5. What advice would you give to a woman starting a new business endeavor?
Make sure you spend time reflecting on why you want to own a business. How does this fit into goals for yourself and your life? Is running a business the best or only way to achieve those goals? Are there any ways this could interfere with other goals you have? Once you've answered that question, slow the temptation to acquire stuff (like rent, furniture, supplies, gear) before you acquire customers. Run the numbers, and if you don't know how, get help. Talk to people who are doing exactly what you think you want to do, and be willing to hear all of what they have to say. And be ready to get to know yourself a little better.