In her new column the journalist and entrepreneur Elisabeth Oberndorfer explores how founders figure out the next steps for their companies
It was one of these lightbulb moments during an hour-long drive. “Wait a minute, I can do this myself”, it dawned on me while I was listening to a podcast interview with the founder of a fashion startup. Maybe this is my calling, maybe I’ve wandered all these years to come back to my roots and realize my dream to be a fashion designer. And so I followed this dream and started working on a fashion brand – until the pandemic hit.
It took me months to this point. I spent the past summer and then fall trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I started working as a journalist while I was still in college, I always considered myself a reporter and writer. Then, life happened and I wasn’t so sure anymore. So I quit my job without knowing what I wanted to do. It was one of those “What would you do if you weren’t afraid” moments, to speak in Sheryl Sandberg’s terms. It wasn’t until that car drive in November of last year that I figured out what exactly that was for me. I know I needed change, but little did I know that a drastic change would come only months after my summer of reflection.
Back to the roots
When I was growing up, I wanted to become a fashion designer. I decided to go to fashion school, only to learn that I wasn’ the best seamstress in the world. I’m aging myself here, but back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, no one told you that you can be anything you want. People didn’t tell you that you could start your own business, make things happen. Hence, I killed my plans to be a fashion designer.
Almost two decades and a career as a journalist later I realized that I don’t have to be the best seamstress, the best designer to start a fashion business. In fact, I wouldn’t even need to do any of it at all and still be able to create my own fashion brand. Yes, maybe I was lacking all the experience in the fashion industry, but at least I kind of knew how to communicate and sell a brand. Most designers don’t.
And so, in late 2019 I started working on my own womenswear label. I wrote business plans, taught myself how to use pattern making software, created fashion sketches for my first collection and found a manufacturer. I was ready to push the button to launch my startup.
Then came the Covid19 lockdown, and as the world stopped turning, I halted my plans. I wasn’t directly affected by the pandemic, the manufacturing facility I was partnering with was still up
and running. The brand was supposed to be a direct-to-consumer business, selling exclusively through digital channels. So the lockdown wouldn’t have affected my brand strategy at all.
And yet, I found myself reflecting on my business venture: Do I want to start a fashion brand during a recession and pandemic? How will consumer spendings change in the next few months and even years? Do I really want to take the risk and put a huge chunk of my savings into my startup when a worldwide crisis could change anything in a matter of days?
As most entrepreneurs and founder friends around me, I spent the first weeks of the lockdown reevaluating my strategy. Everyday I religiously read all the fashion industry news, studies and reports that tried to forecast the post-pandemic world. Here’s my executive summary for you: We just don’t know what will happen. The fashion industry – as so many other industries – is going through major changes right now and even the changemakers, those who disrupted fashion in recent years, can’t tell you where we’re headed.
In the midst of all of this, while I was looking for answers, I found myself consuming even more news than I usually do. For reporters and editors, this happens to be one of the most exciting times of our professional lives – as absurd as it may sound. Slowly I’ve realized that my journalist´s heart started beating again. Maybe news is now more important than a fashion business?
I don’t want to say that I scraped my plans to build a fashion startup just yet. I put those plans on hold and already made adaptations to my strategy. What leads all of my professional decisions is my mission to inform and empower the leaders of the future. I figured out ways to follow my mission with a fashion and lifestyle brand, and I’ve always been able to follow this mission throughout my career as a reporter. Right now though, I’m trying to figure out what my next steps will be and how I can continue with this mission in a post- (and mid-)pandemic world. Because remember: we just don’t know what will happen.
All I know is that in the midst of this craziness, my curiosity is stronger than ever and I’m excited to hear how other founders and entrepreneurs are going through their own transformations and figure out their next steps. That’s why I started my newsletter Smart Casual – to inform and empower future leaders and entrepreneurs to make better decisions. And I’m happy to share my learnings with you via this column. We’re all affected by this global health crisis, but when we see the good and the opportunities it brings, it can lead to bigger and better transformations.
Elisabeth Oberndorfer covers the intersection of business and technology in her newsletter Smart Casual. She has worked in digital media and journalism for 15 years and founded her own tech site Fillmore. After covering startups and technology in Silicon Valley, she moved back to Austria and joined media startup Addendum as its founding editor-in-chief and head of digital products. In 2020 she decided to pursue her own business ventures.