Ready to call the shots? We talked to six inspiring women who mixed their on-the-job training with some entrepreneurial grit to chart their own course to success. Consider this your cheat sheet to self-employment.
FROM MASS TO LUXURY
Erica M. Young, 33
Founder, Erica M.
New York City
Before Erica Young had her intricately detailed hosiery land in the hands of Beyoncé, she spent nearly eight years designing shoes for the licensing company that owned Baby Phat, Phat Farm and Pastry. But the long hours and frequent international trips to factories wore on her. "It was really grueling," says Young. "It got to the point where I didn't even unpack my suitcase when I came home." On her many trips abroad, she began collecting funky tights from places like Hong Kong and Tokyo. "I always knew I wanted to start my own company—I just needed to settle on the right product that I could be happy designing every single day." Now with an expanding bodywear collection and a roster of celeb clients, including Anne Hathaway and FKA twigs, Young has finally found her footing.
• MAKE YOUR JOB WORK FOR YOU. "I knew I wasn't going to grow within the company, so learning all the parts of the business became my main goal. I was doing everything from working closely with sales to managing our factories overseas. By the time I started my line, I knew how much inventory to hold and the best way to present the product."
• TALK TO STRANGERS. A serendipitous meeting with a woman in an elevator led to Young's first sale. "She ended up being a writer for a fashion Web site and helped me secure my first press coverage in the spring of 2012. Soon after, stores in Zurich and London called to place orders." Now Young works with more than 40 retailers, and sales are rising sharply; she saw a staggering 74 percent increase from 2013 to 2014.
• GIVE SOME PRODUCT AWAY. In the beginning, sometimes you have to dole out your goods to get people talking. The tactic paid off in spades for Young, who handed over a few pairs of her tights to a close friend as a thank-you for a favor. A few months later, that same friend (a photographer) was booked on a gig to shoot Beyoncé—and she went to the session wearing a pair. "Beyoncé asked my friend to find out if I could send her some." A couple of Web sites picked up the story of the little-known brand landing a megastar fan, and Young's sales more than quadrupled.
• PREPARE FOR SLOW BUSINESS. While some companies experience sustained off-the-chart success, you're far more likely to see growth in fits and starts. "There have been some bad seasons," Young admits. "So you always have to have a strategy. If the A+ boutiques aren't buying, then look to B-list stores. Be prepared to tweak the formula every season, whether you're doing well or not."
OLD BOSS, NEW CLIENT
Tabatha Turman, 44
President & CEO, Integrated Finance and Accounting Solutions
Tabatha Turman enlisted in the military straight out of high school, and for nearly 20 years she served as a finance officer and consultant. But in 2005, she set her sights on civilian life. "What pushed me to finally transition out of the military was the year I spent in Iraq," says Turman. "We weren't exempt from the attacks—our finance office was actually hit with a mortar round. If I was going to take a risk, I figured it should be building the business that I'd always dreamed of." Three years after setting up shop in 2007, Turman hit the $1 million mark. Today she runs a multimillion-dollar company with 60 employees.
• GET YOUR PAST EMPLOYER TO HIRE YOU BACK. While trying to drum up business, Turman attended a conference put on by the Army. "I sat down next to a woman whose company managed the Army's billion-dollar IT budget and told her my story. Later, she called looking for someone to help track spending. I took the job and we still have the contract today."
• KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THE CLIENT NEEDS. After researching how to win contracts, Turman stumbled on an important finding: The government must award a certain number of contracts to women, minorities and veterans. Jackpot: Turman was all three. "When bidding for a job, I always focused on my capabilities first. Then, I'd add, "Oh, by the way, I can help you meet your small-business minority goals." "
• BRANCH OUT STRATEGICALLY. When clients came to Turman looking for services different from those she offered, she got scrappy and built the company around the needs of the client, branching out into IT and logistics. "I hired people to round out the team in areas that I didn't have expertise in myself," says Turman.
• TAP INTO EXISTING CONNECTIONS. When you're just starting out, you don't have a string of client references to fall back on, so you essentially have to sell yourself. "The only thing I could do was leverage my relationships by targeting past mentors and bosses in the Army who had moved into civilian life as well," says Turman. "I also made cold calls. The federal government keeps a database of contracts, so I combed through it and looked for companies that had been awarded work in areas I knew I could do. Then I focused on forming solid partnerships with them."
WHEN KEEPING IT REAL GOES RIGHT
Keli Knight, 33; Yondi Morris, 32; Jessica B. Reddick, 32 Partners
KMR Law Group
In 2011, after a particularly demanding day at her job as a contract attorney, Yondi Morris tweeted that she was ready to start her own firm. Her friend, Keli Knight, who handled property tax cases at another company, responded. "Keli tweeted me back saying, "Let's meet to discuss," " says Morris. The two women looped in Jessica B. Reddick, a friend and fellow lawyer, and they decided to open their own office with a specialty in entertainment and real estate law. Now, in addition to their firm—where they've served more than 80 clients— the trio has launched a legal staffing agency that provides temp workers to big corporations. With two more offices slated for development in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., they're poised to make an indelible mark on the legal landscape.
• DO YOUR HOMEWORK. "We met with as many people as we could think of," says Reddick. While talking with venture capitalists, the partners realized that being a young, all-female minority firm made them stand out from older White male competitors, so they owned it. "Now we add a dose of our personality to any marketing materials. As a result, we're able to work with clients who share our vision and mission."
• KEEP A SECOND LINE OF INCOME. There are those entrepreneurs who think, Either you're all in, or you're all out. But if you're not quite ready to quit your day job, don't feel like you have to. Reddick kept working as in-house counsel for a nonprofit for more than two years after KMR officially launched in September 2012, while Knight still takes on legal contracting work to reinforce her safety net.
• HIRE TO YOUR WEAKNESSES. "We knew how to be lawyers, but we had to learn how to be entrepreneurs," says Reddick. After passing the one-year mark, the team hired a consulting firm, with whom they meet weekly, to continue developing strategies to attract new clients and expand the business.
USING START-UPS TO START UP
Dani Arps, 31
Founder, Dani Arps
New York City
Dani Arps is something of a wunderkind in the design realm. After getting her master's in interior design in 2009, she began working under top creatives in the field. But it became apparent very quickly that Arps—who says she's always had the entrepreneurial bug—needed to break out on her own. "I think of interior design as three-dimensional art, but when you're creating art under someone else's vision it kind of sucks all the love out of what you're doing," she says. In 2013, she quit her job as an interior designer for Tonychi and Associates and started taking on clients. Within months, she made a name for herself by designing eye-popping and inviting spaces for budding start-ups (some with several million dollars in seed funding). In 2014, she formed her eponymous design firm; this year she's on track to make five times more than she would have if she were still working for someone else.
• PREPARE TO LEAP. "I had about five months' worth of savings, and I knew that as long as I paid my rent and my student loans I would be okay. The great thing about interior design is that you don't need much money to start because there's not much overhead. All you need is a computer and the right programs. Essentially what you're selling are your services."
• DON'T BE AFRAID TO BARTER. Arps is moving into her first office this year, but to keep costs down she's renting space from a client who just relocated to larger digs. She's helping them with design work, and, in return, she's getting an office at a cut rate.
• WOW YOUR FIRST CLIENT. Arps's first commercial gig was designing a 6,000-square-foot office for the tech school Codecademy, which she'd heard about through a referral agency. It was the largest project she'd ever done on her own, but the company's execs were willing to take a risk on her when they saw her portfolio and the bold proposal she created for their space. After the job was completed, other start-ups came knocking. "People think there's a magic trick to it, but there's really not. All you need is one client to spread your name—but that means you have to do a really good job."
Jihan Thompson is a magazine writer and editor in Brooklyn.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands July 12!