12 min read
“How are those aprons coming along?” I asked. “We getting close?”
“Oh, i’m sorry, Ellen,” my sewer said. “I will finish this week. I promise.”
He’d said that yesterday, too. Time was running out.
The year was 2013, and I’d just launched my workwear and apron startup, Hedley & Bennett. Today our aprons are standard in kitchens; we’re used in more than 6,000 restaurants across the U.S., and we make a new sale every four minutes. But back then, we were clueless upstarts. We were trying to convince chefs — any chefs! — to try our aprons. And then, miraculously, we got one of our biggest orders ever: Chef Bryan Voltaggio, who was the first-ever person to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, wanted 100 aprons for his D.C.-area restaurant, Volt. And he wanted them in just a few weeks.
Exciting! And also: Yikes! We didn’t know how to make 100 aprons at once. But aren’t these the stories you hear about — the fake-it-till-you-make-it tales, where entrepreneurs summon their grit and it all works out? There was no way I was going to say no to a massive order for a major player in the food world. So instead of checking my inventory, consulting with my sewers, scheduling check-ins with my team to ensure a smooth production, or even really asking myself if this was possible, I just said yes. And I put a big X on the calendar on the day the order needed to go out.
And then…I just expected it to happen.
What happened next would be the beginning of a slow revelation, and perhaps the greatest entrepreneurship lesson I’ve ever learned. It is this: Processes are good. I originally thought they’d stifle my creativity, but they do the exact opposite. They support creativity. Eventually, you have to step out of survival mode in order to thrive. It’s the brutal truth of being a founder. Yes, leap. Yes, run. Yes, get up when you get knocked down and try again. This is how you build a business. But once that business is built, and moving, and growing, you’re going to have to stop, reassess, and edit your methods. You have to find new ways to communicate, to tell your team what you need, and to hear what they need. You have to learn how to ask for (and give) help.
Building a business will always be a work in progress, and new processes will always be required as you grow. There’s no one system that saves the day forever.
But back then, I didn’t know any of this. Which is how I ended up throwing my team into madness.
The morning of our shipping deadline — the drop-dead date that I needed to send 100 aprons to Chef Voltaggio — I ran down the flight of stairs in our factory to where our sewers were. The order still wasn’t ready.
My already palpable panic spiked as I entered their workspace.
A tsunami of fabric exploded from literally every available space in the tiny room. A bag of half-eaten Cheetos slumped on top of an in-progress apron, the orange cheese dust millimeters away from spilling out and adding its own surreal accent. Takeout containers and half-drunk cans of soda were scattered everywhere.
I implored, and pushed, and said with audible fear: “We can’t be late!” I beamed every ounce of energy and need for these aprons to be done squarely at our sewers. I yelled. It wasn’t fun, for me or for them, but it had worked before.
Frankly, this had become my management style. I was years away from seeing my own role in the dysfunction junction that was the production pipeline at H&B. I didn’t have an MBA. I had no fashion background. And I was too fucking busy as a bootstrapped founder. The result was that we had no real system — not at any stage of the production chain, from us tossing the orders at the sewers, to them handing the aprons back (often with mistakes), to us finally getting the orders out to our customers (often late). And how did I move things along? I yelled. As long as we got orders out, I focused on the relief and success at the end of the day, not the six-dozen heart attacks that had occurred during the previous 24 hours.
But this time around, there’d be no such relief. By the time the 100 aprons were ready, we’d missed the drop-off deadline at our local FedEx. We drove the shipment to Los Angeles International Airport and tried to talk our way onto the tarmac to get the aprons on the plane in time. (That was a hard no from the security guard.) The aprons were not going to make it to D.C. All those other times we’d missed a deadline, we’d Scooby-Dooed some crazy work-around and saved the day. But not today. We’d failed.
I called Bryan’s assistant to relay the bad news. There was no one else to do it, and even if there had been, I would have made the call myself. It’s never more important to show up for someone than when you have to let them down. My palms clammed up and my heart raced.
“Hi there; how are you?” I said softly. “I wanted to let you know what happened. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to make the cutoff. We are so sorry. The aprons are ready, but they didn’t make it onto the plane. We did everything we could, but we just didn’t get them there. We’re going to overnight them tomorrow. And again, I’m so sorry about this.”
There was a long silence. I could tell that she was taking in the fact that she was now going to have to go and tell all this to her boss.
“Thanks for letting me know,” she said. “I’ll talk to Chef. This is disappointing, to say the least.”
She wasn’t responding with raging anger, but I felt it all the same.
We ended up not charging for the order — nada for the money it would cost to overnight 100 aprons across the country and zilch for the aprons themselves. Yes, the fine folks at Volt survived. And, yes, we survived (even if our monthly budget didn’t). But that right there was a serious hockey stick to the face.
Back then, this story felt like a failure. Today, it is a lesson I love sharing with others. When founders encounter a problem in our business, it’s easy to blame our team, or ourselves as leaders. But there’s a good chance it’s a process problem in disguise. Whip out your detective’s cap and do your due diligence. Obsessively document what you’re already doing. Zoom in on the recurring hiccups. Find the cracks in communication. Then design better systems that circumvent these unproductive habits.
It can feel like a huge, daunting task. And it is! But the first step forward is simply to just keep moving forward. Own your mistakes and realize that each misstep is a new chance to improve your operation.
I wish I could tell you that I solved all our process problems overnight. I did not. But here’s how I got there.
After we failed to deliver those 100 aprons, Hedley & Bennett made incremental improvements. We brought all of our sewers in-house and scaled our factory production accordingly. We built a valuable community of chefs across the country, growing our brand awareness, our reach, and our orders. We expanded our staff — and we gave them 401(k)s and health insurance! We’d implemented processes that helped cut down on the number of things falling through cracks.
But we were still understaffed and under-resourced. We were still regularly selling out of core styles. The staff still felt underappreciated, still constantly had to weather fire drills. (Even 401(k)s and healthcare can’t solve that.) Worst of all, my fiery personality was still getting the better of me in front of my staff.
Rather than taking the time to truly understand what the company needed, I tried to fill gaping holes in our organization as quickly as possible, on the fly. By 2017 we’d been Tonka trucking along for five years, and I did something I couldn’t afford to do before: I threw money at the problem.
I hired a series of part-time consultants and executives, hoping one of them would turn this canoe around before we went over the falls. Each had something to offer, and their own flavor of wisdom. Sometimes, their advice was great in theory, but in application it conflicted or just didn’t work. Some of these consultants were meant to be temporary. Others didn’t last longer than a haircut. We’d be left with half-implemented plans and processes, which the next person would come in and revamp, creating an ever-costlier and messier form of chaos.
Finally, in 2018, my CFO and head of HR sat me down for what we now call “the Intervention.”
They told me, kindly, that it was a miracle our self-funded business was still standing after five years of me trying to do everything on my own. They told me they expected me — and the company — to eventually crack under the pressure. And they told me that my communication style was creating an unpleasant work environment.
Related: Why Mindset Matters for Success
In short: “Are you going to let your company be full of people who are disgruntled about working here, or are you going to do something about it?”
I sat. I listened. I cried. But it was the wake-up call — and the show of support — that I needed. Together, the three of us finally got down to the nitty-gritty of what needed tuning up.
This time, instead of trying to Band-Aid our problems with outside help, we started attempting to heal from the inside, slowly and methodically. I began working with an executive coach on the very unsexy task of interdepartmental communication and relationship building. She had already met with my staff members for individual one-on-ones. The consensus: I needed to work on how I expressed myself and delegated to my team.
This meant taking a beat when we ran into a problem rather than stopping to fix it immediately, unnecessarily involving everyone. It meant talking to employees privately if there was a mishap, instead of in front of others. It meant being much more direct about what I expected and when, and making sure employees checked in regularly and renegotiated if they weren’t going to be able to meet their deadlines.
It meant more business, less emotion, and way more accountability. Creating this structured system of communication allowed us to have clear expectations — on both sides — of our roles.
At first, it felt like I was learning to walk and talk all over again. It took months for the smallest shifts to happen. But once we started overhauling my behavior as a leader, and overhauling the culture at H&B, things got real in a way they hadn’t before. Gaps in our production processes seemed to resolve themselves. Conflict among employees or departments was efficiently sorted out. I learned to proactively engage with unhappy team members, rather than hide from the problems causing frustration. And I learned to identify larger problems within our organization.
That’s the thing about taking the time to create processes and communication systems that work: All of a sudden, you have the headspace to spot what might become your next hurdle. By 2018, I had many incredible, loyal, talented employees. But I realized that almost all of them were kids like me, who’d come on board early because they’d cared more about the adventure than their compensation. Now they were different people, and Hedley & Bennett was a different company.
We set out to assess every person in the organization. We laid out what our next years would look like, and gave people the opportunity to decide to recommit to the brand’s future growth or to say, “It’s not for me” and form a transition plan.
Lots of really great people have come through our doors, done their part, left their mark, and moved on, and that was the natural course of business. My coach had said to me: “Your business is like a bus, and it’s on a long journey, so it’s only normal to have people getting on the bus and off the bus at different stops.” Normalizing that is just a part of the journey.
Today, Hedley & Bennett is 31 employees strong. We’ve moved our order fulfillment to a third-party logistics partner, which has allowed us to increase capacity and speed without putting all the weight on our staff. We’ve strengthened our production processes, which has led to a decrease in out-of-stock issues and a chance to focus on personalization for customers. We’re expecting our core business to double in 2021. And we still provide aprons to Chef Bryan Voltaggio, who forgave our early failure.
I, however, remain an imperfect leader. I’m not sure I’ll ever achieve perfection, or if it’s even possible. As a team, we still have frustrating days. Unexpected problems still appear. But I don’t take it out on my staff, and I don’t try to carry the weight of the company alone. Together, we know how to problem-solve. And together, with our process, we’ll keep moving forward.
→ From Dream First, Details Later: How to Quit Overthinking and Make It Happen!, by Ellen Bennett with permission from Portfolio, an imprint of The Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright ©2021 by Ellen Bennett.