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Women in Small Business: 5 questions with Joanne Lee

Name: Joanne Lee

I first met Joanne in San Francisco, another lifetime ago. I remember her oozing creativity and always fun to be around. Today, she is living in Brooklyn, and creating beautiful one-of-a-kind pottery. Her journey from handbag designer, to potter, to business owner who gives back (20% of her online sales go to action-oriented nonprofit groups), is a lesson in listening to your inner passion, not being afraid to leap into something new, and being adaptable as you grow.

1. What led you to owning your own business?

After being laid off from my job as a designer in the recession of 2009, I decided to start a handbag line with my best friend in my youthful and naive optimism. It was many late nights of trying to figure out a lot of things I had no idea about, but it was also a great learning experience for everything that followed after. Four years ago, I started pottery as a hobby and realized I missed the actual hands-on making of a product in the fashion industry. I started putting up photos of things I made on Instagram and participating in pop-ups and shows, and people seemed to like what I was doing, so here we are.

2. What is your business philosophy?

Impact positively. Everything we put out there, words, actions, thoughts, products, etc., affect something and someone else. It's too easy to do things that are convenient and fast and cheap these days, and it often has a high environmental and human cost that we don't think about. Of course, being a potter means that I'm still adding to the "stuff", but what I love about the material I work with is that it’s literally dirt that can be recycled and reused infinitely in its unfired state. That means that I can make a bowl, but if I'm not happy with it, I can let it dry, add water to it, and once it dries out again to the appropriate consistency, I can make it into something else. And hopefully someone finds the value in what I’ve made and it makes them happy to look at it and they find it useful in some way, and in turn I donate a portion of my sales to organizations that promote progressive social and environmental causes.

3. What have you learned about yourself by owning your own business?

Even though a lot of people think a huge perk of owning your own business is the flexibility of hours, I've found that I need to be really tough with myself and set a schedule and deadlines or things never get done! Being a small batch potter means every step of the process is just me, so I don't have someone I work with who expects me to show up at a certain time. Once I start working I don't stop even if it's late into the night, but if I'm not "clocked in" before noon, the whole day is pretty much wasted.

4. What has been the most surprising thing for you?

The most surprising thing has been the change of direction. I always thought that being a handbag designer would be a lifelong career, and when we started the handbag brand, we imagined it growing into something successful in the traditional sense, that it would eventually become big enough that it would be both of our full time jobs and a company with employees. But a couple of years into it, both my business partner and I started taking our lives and interests in different paths. I also started becoming more conscious of the fact that the fashion industry as it is, is difficult to sustain, and I felt like I was contributing to a disposable mentality of constantly buying the next new thing and throwing it away after a few seasons. I realized the root of why I was in fashion was because I was passionate about creating and making something special, but designing in the way that I had been was very far removed from why I got into it in the first place.

5. What advice would you give to a woman starting a new business endeavor?

Know your brand, know your customer, and define your own measure of success. There's a lot of competition out there, and it's easy to get distracted and pulled in different ways and second guess yourself. You can definitely learn from others and evolve (the customers you want to keep will evolve with you), but be conscientious about checking back in with your core values and reassessing your direction based on how your business has grown. Also, spend some time on building your social media presence in a very intentional way. I'm way past being a Millennial so I have a hard time embracing new technology and such, but Instagram has been one of my most successful outlets for selling and connecting.

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