2018 is coming to a close. Oftentimes, as one year turns to the next, I find myself fixated on the future with little time or energy to spend reflecting on the past. I feel that urge now, too - and I’ve spent the past few days preparing my priorities for when we return to work this Wednesday, organizing my calendar, and envisioning how I want my life and days to unfold in 2019. But I also want to wrap up these past twelve months, and share some of what we’ve accomplished and learned with you all.
This past year has been the most challenging for me yet - responsibility has grown, and bandwidth has shrunk. In the early years of ES, I had no trouble bringing you all along as I faced obstacles and solved problems. But this year, as our challenges have become more complex and less tangible, that’s gotten harder to do. The puzzle-like but very delineated challenges of past years were things like sourcing good quality fabric, finding an affordable workspace, or getting holiday orders out on time. They weren't small or easy, but they were at least somewhat tidy and had definitive solutions if we were willing to dig long enough and work hard enough.
Now, the things that I’m working through are far more amorphous. Like developing our work culture, for example: how do we build one that’s inclusive and recognizes merit but doesn’t foster unhealthy competition, that supports individuals and cares for the whole human but doesn’t foster entitlement, that promotes individual ownership of the work but doesn’t undermine the spirit of teamwork, that welcomes new ideas but doesn’t succumb to distraction? Or navigating growth - how do we continue to provide more opportunities for professional development on our team when we don’t have aims to grow much in size as a company? How do we reconcile wanting to remain small in order to maintain our values and culture with our desire to provide as many good jobs as possible? What does a diversity initiative or new recruiting program look like for us? How do we keep revenue steady without constantly pushing new product, and how do we reach new customers without losing the niche symbiosis we currently have with our audience? How do I sift through the never-ending stream of ideas, suggestions, and requests to find valuable feedback without losing my own aesthetic vision and voice? Managing cash flow, streamlining operations, maintaining team health - the list is long. The challenges and roadblocks we’ve encountered this year have been time-consuming, at times heart-breaking, not at all simple, and while we’ve worked ad nauseam towards solutions, none have been neatly “solved.”
I suppose all of this is to say, I know my behind-the-scenes sharing has waned this year, and now you know why. It’s hard to tie up what we’re working on into bite-size posts, let alone find the time to share while trying to actually do the work. But be that as it may, I have no regrets. I know that everything we worked on this year was important. And the slight braking on my sharing was necessary.
And the real reason I’m here writing today - the most incredible part is that even though we faced a lot of growing pains this year, we accomplished SO MUCH. Maybe more than we ever have in 12 months? So, I want to pause while I do have some time to share and honor this year in the way it deserves. Are you ready to recap with me? Buckle up because this year was major.
We tore down the wall in our warehouse.
We had a large wall dividing our warehouse into production and office work. It was a visual barrier that prevented us from seeing all of our teammates throughout the day. We took it down, and now have an open mezzanine - we’ve embraced the noise-sharing and open air and all operate as one.
We hired Ari Weinzweig from Zingerman’s to come down and lead a full day of training with our team.
Ari is an author and business-owner that I admire deeply, and am honored to now call a friend. His book “An Anarchist's Approach to Building a Great Business” was the first time I’d ever read about another company operating the way I dreamed mine could operate. The deli he opened back in the 70’s has grown into a family of successful, inspiring businesses that are run with heart and passion. They eventually opened a training business to teach others to implement the techniques they’ve learned over the years. We’ve attended several seminars in Ann Arbor, but having Ari come to us and engage with our whole team was incredibly rewarding and inspiring. He focused on energy management, the 12 natural laws of business, and belief cycles, and we can’t wait to have him back and teach us more!
We hosted our 2017 annual retreat a bit late at Evin’s Mill.
Every year we spend at least two days zooming way out as a company (this is in addition to our 1-day company-wide meetings each quarter). Typically we go offsite to a lodge in Tennessee, Evin’s Mill, where we can have all of our meetings, meals, and team building nestled in the mountains. We recapped the previous year, planned for the one ahead, hiked to the bottom of the waterfall, and made lots of memories.
Our sewing pod structures were built and installed.
I worked with our friends Betsy Littrell and Manuel Zeitlin to design modular walls to create individual workspaces for each member of our sewing team. The walls house all of their equipment (for those who don’t know, every garment is sewn from start to finish by one person, which means every individual has several machines in their workstation) and provide storage and shelving for personal belongings, and also provide some visual privacy. Betsy’s husband, Austin fabricated them right here in Nashville. They are customizable with peg-holes and dowels, so everyone can change up their station to work for their needs. Super functional for sure, but they are also just beautiful and I love to look at them!
Our first collaboration with Alabama Chanin launched!
I designed a collection of organic cotton knit garments inspired by some of my favorite artists and sculptors, and we partnered with Alabama Chanin to produce them. They are such an important complement to our woven garments - they offer more accessibility at their lower price point and provide great layering options. From the get go these have been wildly popular, and we’ve been racing to keep them restocked all year!
We launched some exciting new Signature styles inspired by my favorite menswear silhouettes from the 1920’s.
The Andy Trouser, Parabola Top and Dress, and Harper Jacket all launched - oversized blazer shapes, pleated trousers, and sculptural dresses added something fresh to our evergreen collection.
We implemented product reviews on our website.
This was such an impactful decision, and we had no idea how much it would influence our business when we made it. We know that word of mouth and referrals are almost exclusively the way we generate sales (grassroots marketing and peer recommendations are always worth more than paid ads because the source is trusted, and you are usually telling someone about a brand you think they will actually find value in) which is why we wanted to pursue reviews. Without a ton of new product in the pipeline (our focus this year has been on expanding sizing for products we already offer), we knew we needed to keep conversion high in order to make enough money. Reviews on the site seemed like a natural thing to try, and boy did it work. Conversion for individuals who interacted with reviews quadrupled, and our sales skyrocketed. This was an incredible thing! It means trust was being generated by actual customers, shoppers were getting quality first hand information to make more informed purchases, and sales were looking very good.
Chris and I skipped town to evaluate the growth of the business.
The incredible sales boost we received from reviews was exciting, and then it got scary. We weren’t sure if it would be sustained or if it was temporary, but our lead time was increasing regardless and we had to decide what we wanted to do about it. If the demand for our products was permanently increased, that would mean lots of hiring and change for the company. If we did that and then demand dropped, we’d be in a bad situation. So we went to the desert for a few days to really zoom out and think about what we wanted for the business and for our lives.
Then we made a major decision - to cap sales weekly - and shared it all with you via an audio recording.
Ultimately, we decided that slow, intentional growth is what we wanted to pursue. Staying in our current warehouse for at least several years, and keeping our team to a size that fits here was our goal. Given those very physical and literal limitations we decided on, we needed to limit our sales accordingly. We chose to begin capping sales weekly according to how much we are capable of producing. We dove deep into the decision and shared all the nitty gritty details with you via our first audio recording (I call it a podcast in my head but it’s really not). Now, capping sales would prevent the rollercoaster of spikes in demand and surging lead times in the future, but we were still in a world where our lead time had risen to 8-10 weeks already from the launch of reviews. We’ll revisit that in a minute...
We started RECYCLING EVERYTHING and COMPOSTING!
We transitioned our internal waste management from the city’s program to a local company called Eternal Returns. They offer a divided stream recycling pickup - so we have a wild grouping of bins in our kitchen - one collects metal, one collects glass, one collects paper, one collects recyclable plastic, and one collects COMPOST (it’s composted industrially, so they can even take our bread and meat scraps). So much more of our waste is being recycled now, and I am stoked about the composting. We still have a long ways to go to reduce our footprint, but this was a really big step for us internally.
Our “Clothing Is” campaign launched.
The largest editorial campaign we’ve ever photographed launched this year. We featured women that we admire doing their thing in our clothing - bakers, photographers, musicians, artists, mothers, farmers - tactile imagery of our clothing being used in real life, but photographed in such an inspiring and beautiful way. The images we captured finally bring together how I envision our clothing coming alive.
We headed to the west coast to tour factories and businesses in hopes to learn from them and strengthen our own processes.
We were hovering at an 8-10 week lead time and feeling overwhelmed, a bit lost, and unsure of how to move forward. I reached out to everyone I knew in Portland, LA, and Seattle to see what factories, makers, and businesses would let us come visit and learn from them. It was incredible, so much fun, and we learned so much. The biggest lesson we came home with, though, was that we were incredibly proud of what we do and how we do it. We also hosted meetups with customers in each city - BONUS!
Flex schedules were rolled out company-wide.
In the spirit of ownership, flexibility, and wanting every individual to have the ability to blend work with their lives, we began experimenting with flexible scheduling. Now everyone creates their own schedule and works when it’s best for them, assuming everything gets done! Some folks are night owls, some love quiet Sundays, some of us try to get there super early and fail (ahem, ME).
ES turned five years old, and we celebrated by painting a giant mural.
We celebrated our five year anniversary as a company, and the incredibly talented artist Ellie Caudill designed a large scale mural for our warehouse. We all joined her in filling in the color to toast the event.
Team Yoga returned!
During the spring and summer we brought in local yoga instructors to guide a weekly 30 minute class. We used to do this with a team member leading the group, but this takes the pressure off and makes it a real treat!
We hosted our first ever ES Market.
Sample sales are old hat here at ES, and we wanted to find a way to take them to the next level, remove the icky “sale” feeling they can have, and bring in more of our Nashville community to the party. So we brought in a local popsicle company, a local plant shop, a local shoe repair company, a local cocktail company, and a food truck! It was so much fun, felt like way more of an event, and we can’t wait to fully bring the concept to life next year with other artists and goods.
You all helped us raise over $16,000 for the ACLU.
With a simple call to action and a bit of incentive (anyone who donated or shared the fundraiser was entered for a chance to win any ES garment of your choosing, past or present, sewn by me), you all donated $16,845 to the ACLU. We started with a goal of $5,000 and crushed it immediately. So, way to GO.
We bought the warehouse.
Oh yeah! That happened. LOL. It still terrifies me a little that there is a mortgage for over a million dollars in my name. But, this big old building we started leasing by happenstance three years ago is truly perfect for us, we love it, it’s in an incredible location and we have invested a ton of money into improving it (it had no heating or cooling when we moved in, it needed an entire new roof, we put in three bathrooms and a kitchen, it was a real hot mess). Purchasing it has provided so much security and a solid foundation for the business, and it feels so good to know we have real roots here.
Then we put in a second floor!
That also happened. Wow it has been a doozy of a year! We did some major renovations after closing on the building, the most notable being the addition of a second floor mezzanine. This created much needed room for expanded operations, and we moved all of our administrative/office-type work to the mezzanine. We also added another bathroom, built a conference room for our operations team downstairs, added lighting upstairs and downstairs, and put in a security system (we had a very strange break-in this year as well that made us get serious about security).
We increased our size range up to a US 28.
This was our major product focus of the year. Fit testing, developing patterns for new sizes, hearing feedback from women who wear the sizes we were developing and incorporating it into our grading - it was a time-consuming, iterative process. We didn’t simply take our patterns and add on new sizes; we wanted to do this the right way and take it one step at a time. Now most of our best selling styles are available in our new sizes, and we’ll keep working through them next year until our full line is rounded out.
And with new sizes we began our journey towards more inclusive and representative product imagery.
Selling clothing to women on bodies that don’t look like theirs is complicated, illogical, and often painful for the shopper. We are aiming to work with a group of 12-15 women that represent a range of sizes, races, ages, backgrounds, and body types for our product imagery so that you can hopefully find someone to connect with, even in a small way. We started this year with three models we are so honored to work with, and can’t wait to keep going in 2019.
Olive and Terra linen joined the collection!
This was just plain fun. Two colors that I’ve dreamed of adding to our Signature Collection were developed and brought to life!
Our common room got a total makeover.
The room we use as our lunch room/team meeting room/break room was feeling a little cold and neglected. I spent a week giving it an overhaul with warmer tables, a collection of vintage chairs, a bookshelf with our company favorites, some new rugs and plants, and a fabric installation on the ceiling.
We took our Team Leader’s to a training seminar at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.
Remember Ari who came to lead a workshop at ES earlier? We went to their HQ in Ann Arbor for a 2-day leadership workshop with all of our ES Team Leaders. It was amazing - highly recommend all of their workshops!
I took a break from Instagram and it was amazing.
Not much else to say about that. A cold turkey break was so restorative and EASY - try it!
Some of our super talented team members brought more art into our warehouse.
Abby and several other wonderful teammates transformed some of our essential but less than lovely equipment, utility boxes, and picnic tables into focal points and works of art. Abby organized this entire project, and the team pulled it off entirely on their own. I was so impressed and touched. If you need a little life in your space, hit her up!
We hosted our second ES Market!
And it rained and rained, but it was still so much fun!
We brought in a local speaker to educate us on respect in the workplace.
He touched on cultural sensitivity, microagressions, unconscious bias, discrimination, harassment - it was so informative, enlightening, and really good to talk about in an open and safe way. He brought humor to the conversation which lightened the atmosphere and it really allowed for a dialogue to begin.
We reduced our lead time from 8 weeks to 2-3 weeks!
This was the big one, the big effort of the year. From the launch of reviews in February, we have been battling the lead time. Through a lot of strategic planning, hiring, problem-solving, efficiency-improving, and hard work, we successfully got the lead time down to 2-3 weeks. And this time we did it without significant overtime, which is a big change from years past. This may sound simple, but it was a really big and important accomplishment for us.
For the first time ever, we offered personal shopping of our sample sale leftovers via e-mail.
This was maybe a wild-hair of an idea, but it was really fun and definitely more of our vibe than an online sample sale. We worked through 3670 e-mails!
I spoke to a class at MTSU about our company and what we do.
It was so refreshing and exciting to be back in a learning environment, and it re-ignited conversations about getting our internship program up and running again. We used to take on new interns but haven’t for the past year or so because I haven’t had time to manage the logistics, but this was a really exciting reminder of the talent pool that is out there. Connecting with universities to recruit interns is also a way we can work on diversifying our team by introducing ourselves to candidates who may not know about our brand yet.
We participated in Nashville Design Week!
Nashville’s first ever design week was a huge success, and we hosted a warehouse tour and I also spoke on a panel with a mentor and friend of mine, Manuel Zeitlin. It was so fun and I really never get out of the house, so a good reason to put on adult clothes.
As a team, we volunteered!
We partnered with Eternal Returns, who I mentioned earlier, to pick up trash at Percy Priest lake. It was eye-opening (picking up trash will make you never want to use a plastic bottle again) and also a lot of fun to do as a team.
We officially hired an in-house HR Manager.
Throughout the year we have been working with an HR consultant to help us with a few projects and one-off scenarios, and she helped us write a job description and recruit for an in-house staff member. HR at ES is so much more than policies and paperwork - we were really looking for a partner in developing our culture, providing support and resources for our team members, and keeping the workplace at ES as progressive and healthy as possible. We found all that and more in Mae!
Now we are recruiting for our next leadership hire, an E-Commerce Director!
You may have seen that one of our ES veterans, is transitioning out of her role as Sales and Marketing Team Leader, but that’s creating space for a really exciting role on our Leadership Team. We have our first interviews for this position as soon as we get back to work on Wednesday!
Throughout the course of the year, we have added 16 new folks to our team.
This has been a year of major growth, and there are so many incredible new faces. Lots of talented individuals have joined the crew, and I can’t wait to see how each of their paths unfold here at ES.
And a few final fun numbers to bring it home. This year we…
- Cut through 36,919 yards of fabric (almost 21 miles!).
- Sewed 18,052 garments.
- Shipped 15,317 packages.
- Caught 1,500 flaws and repairs before shipping to customers.
- Launched 6 products in 12 weeks.
- Gained 6,248 new customers.
- Sent 22,977 customer support e-mails.
- Became a team of 42 humans.
- Earned $4,418,517.
- And as all entrepreneurs know, we spent nearly as much!
Wow…that about wraps it up, I suppose! It’s really quite astonishing when it’s all laid out like that. Makes me want to take a nap! Team ES, you all should be so proud. And everybody else - not one part of it would be possible without your support. So, let me thank you. Thank you for cheering us on, for buying our clothes so we can stay in business, for encouraging and affirming what we do even if you can’t shop with us, and for sticking with us through thick and thin. I love you all!