SCORE Mentor Gives Advice to Custom Sewing
In this age of the Internet, cell phones and satellite television with hundreds of channels, the most effective marketing tool remains the simplest—word of mouth. That’s something Ellen Baxendale knows all too well.
When her son, Tristan, was born 12 years ago, Ellen was happy to trade her career as a licensed veterinary technician for that of stay-at-home mom. But with Tristan growing faster than most babies his age, Ellen found it increasingly difficult to find clothes to fit him. So she fell back on her old hobby of sewing and began crafting parts of Tristan’s wardrobe herself. The more she made, the more she enjoyed it. Soon, Ellen was making clothes for herself and her mother. But even though she gave in to the lure of a high-tech, computerized sewing machine, Ellen never gave any thought to making it a career. After all, it was just a hobby. And, with Tristan’s sister, Victoria, on the way, the job of full-time mom gave her plenty to do.
A few years later, however, a friend of her mother’s asked if Ellen would make some clothes for her, and help with some alterations. Ellen happily agreed. Her mother’s friend told her friends, who also came to Ellen with their sewing needs. Before long, Ellen found herself with a full-time home-based sewing business.
“By 1996, I had a solid customer base, and was making too much money to claim this as a hobby,” Ellen recalls. “One of my customers had started a business and suggested that I call SCORE. I had looked into other business assistance services, and figured SCORE would be a great option because it was free.”
Ellen’s business was doing well. She now needed to consolidate her operations, which were spread out in several rooms of her house. Ellen was uncertain about moving to a storefront. “I enjoyed working at home because it allowed me to stay close to my family,” she says. “My husband and I decided to renovate our sun porch into a new studio for me. I now have a more spacious work area complete with changing rooms, countertops for my machines and a separate entrance for customers.”
The new studio gave Ellen an unexpected benefit: credibility. “Customers now look at me as a business owner, not someone who does sewing for extra money,” she says. “I have the look of a professional business, but also the flexibility to be home for my children. I’m also able to maintain my interest in my first love, veterinary medicine. I spend one day a week working at a local veterinarian’s office. He too is a customer and a fellow small business owner. We have a lot of fun exchanging ideas and experiences.”
Perhaps no part of Ellen’s career as an entrepreneur was as exciting as being selected for Rotary International’s prestigious Group Study exchange. In November 2001, she joined five other small business owners from around the country for a three-week expenses-paid trip to Japan. “The program is structured to provide experiences that will have an impact on my professional life,” Ellen says. “I spent a day at the Bluebird Kimono Sewing School, and visited a company that manufactures clothing beads, which is one of my niche markets.”
A call to SCORE’s Binghamton, NY, chapter led to a meeting with Volunteer Mentors Dick Hannis and Jack Kehoe. Ellen recalls that the two business veterans were supportive, but very direct. “Dick asked somewhat sternly why I wanted to start a sewing business,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I replied confidently that I already had a business; I just wanted to know how to make it legal.”
That icebreaker led to a wealth of advice for Ellen, who learned about the procedures she’d have to follow and agencies to contact. “Dick and Jack were very helpful and encouraged me to call back if I had other questions,” Ellen says. “As I was leaving, Dick said that his tailor had died, and asked if could I take him on. So along with getting a lot of great information from that meeting, I got a new customer.”
Since then, Dick has stopped by Ellen’s home every other month to check on her progress. “If I have questions that he can’t answer, he always sends me to the right person,” she says. “His advice is always on target. He has helped me with things like dealing with difficult customers, organizing my schedule and setting up an investment portfolio for my profits."
One person who eagerly awaits hearing about her trip is SCORE mentor Dick, who continues to serve as Ellen’s mentor. “He’s more than a teacher and advisor,” Ellen says. “He’s also a personal friend. He’s very dedicated to SCORE, which is great for other small business owners who need this kind of resource.”
Just as Ellen never dreamed that she would find herself preparing for an extended overseas business trip, she also never expected to be a successful business owner. “I started out just wanting a little something for myself,” she says. “Making this opportunity work required a lot of effort on my part. But without SCORE’s help, I wouldn’t be here today. They helped me with a lot of issues that I probably wouldn’t have thought of. They also gave me a lot of confidence to make this opportunity work for me.”