Suzanne Paquette is the owner of Atelier Six, a company that makes modern heirloom quilts from sentimental clothing like baby outfits or the shirts of a passed loved one. A seasoned entrepreneur, Paquette shared with us how she is leveraging past experience to launch Atelier Six.
How did you get started with your business?
I had a business for many years as a milliner (a hat designer) with a retail store. Then I worked for Cirque du Soleil for 12 years, first as a buyer and product developer in the merchandising department and later in creative direction and project management.
I always knew I would go back to having my own business because I have an entrepreneurial way of working and I love doing my own thing. When I was laid off from Cirque du Soleil, I thought about all the different things I like to do and how I could combine them into a business. After mulling it over for a while, I realized that this is what I should be doing.
A quilt business is something I’ve always wanted to do. My background is in sewing, I have a degree in fashion design; it’s an area I’m very comfortable in. Through my work with Cirque, I really developed a specialty for translating a memory or a moment into an actual physical object. Once I had the idea for heirloom quilts, I knew it was time to do it.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
I’m still in the beginning stages. It’s exciting and it’s also up and down. Things are going well, and then I come across a challenge. That rollercoaster is part of any new enterprise.
With this business, I am purposefully doing a very lean startup. For my last business, I didn’t do a very expensive startup either, but I did do a loan right away and took a bit of a different route. Because of the nature of this business, because I already have a majority of the equipment necessary, I don’t need a loan right now. But it is definitely something I plan on doing when I reach a certain level.
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Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
When I started my first business, I had been laid off from the costuming industry in Toronto. As part of the layoff, I was eligible for an entrepreneurship program. There were a few hundred applicants and they chose 20 people. It was a rigorous training program with an individual coach.
That program was the start of my entrepreneurship education. And then I always say that having a brick and mortar store was how I earned my “masters,” because you learn a lot! Adding on to that, working for Cirque du Soleil … Everything I’ve done, I’ve found has really added on to my education as an entrepreneur.
Who was your first customer?
My first customer was a woman I met through an online parenting group that I’m part of. When you start your own business, you have this idea that you feel strongly about. You think you can make it work. So, getting the first customer for me started to concretize the fact that I’m not the only one who thinks this is a good idea and something that’s needed by people. The feedback I’ve been getting so far has been very positive and I find that very encouraging, not only from a business standpoint, but from a personal standpoint because I really do believe in the project and the work.
What’s the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
Especially at the beginning part of a business, it’s an ongoing work of testing things out and really understanding what your customers want and need versus what you think they want and need. I’m trying to remind myself to take my own assumptions out.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
This is something I learned from running my business the first time. I’m someone who tends to see things 360° – I see what the business should look like now and what it should look like in five years. This is a great skill, but at the same time it’s problematic because I doggedly went after what I thought my former business should be.
Now, the second time around, I’m consciously trying to take a different approach, which is that I know where I’m going and I know what I want to do, but I’m flexible enough to shift that based on the feedback I get from my customers and my market. I know there are lines I won’t cross and things I will not do because it’s not who I am or something I’m interested in pursuing. But at the same time, I’m not foolish enough to think that I have all the answers and that my customers can’t tell me something about the direction my business should be going.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
There’s a lot! The thing that strikes me about this particular business is the emails I get from people that say, “I’m so glad I found you, I have my father’s clothing from five years ago when he passed away. I wanted to do something with it, but I didn’t know what to do.” Just being able to help people do something emotional. I want to have meaning in my work and being able to guide the work I’m doing means I can build that in, which I love.
I had another email from a woman who said, “You’re going to think I’m crazy, or maybe not, but I’ve been saving my kids’ clothes for 20 years because I want to get quilts made with them. My family thinks I’m nuts, but then I found your site.” Things like that, being able to do work that matters, being able to do work that I love and that helps people, that’s the most rewarding thing.
On a more basic level, I enjoy the flexibility and being able to work from home because I have a young son. Being able to set up my work schedule and my environment in a way that works best for my family is rewarding. Obviously, that doesn’t work all the time, because when it’s your own business your hours tend to expand a little more sometimes, especially with a startup. But that’s the second basic benefit of owning my own business.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
By far it’s the financial instability until you get things running, and even then it’s still your business … You don’t have the benefits of a stable weekly paycheck. Getting over that instability or building in systems to manage it, especially at the beginning, is by far the most challenging.
What has been the most surprising thing about running your business?
How much networking is needed. I’m an introvert, so it’s easy for me to go in my cocoon and do my work or stay behind the computer. You do need to be talking about what you’re doing with people because, if not, they just won’t know. You have to somehow get the message out.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
Two favorite entrepreneurs that spring to mind are Vicky Saunders, founder of SheEO, and James Victore, graphic designer, artist and owner of James Victore Inc. They are favorites for much the same reasons: innovative thinkers, authenticity in the way they conduct their businesses and incredibly astute businesspeople with a human-centered approach.
What I’ve Learned
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
You can’t do it all by yourself. Help or strategic collaborations in areas that are not your strength will bring you farther, faster in your business. And on top, it will challenge you to be better at what you do and to create a better, more successful business.
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
I have lots, but the biggest is to talk to your customers and don’t make assumptions. Making assumptions can get you into a lot of hot water, whether it’s on why sales happen or what customers need or want. Try to get as much information as you can get, really listen to it and use it to guide you. The more you do that, the better off you’ll be.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.