Why I Decided to Start Mod. Merchant

As many of you know, I co-host a weekly vlog with Lauren Allen of Right Hand Business Coach.  We cover a broad range of topics related to entrepreneurship and business – last week’s topic was “How to Leave Your Full Time Job.” Throughout the episode, Lauren and I shared our own personal experiences from when we each left the cooperate world to start a business, along with lessons learned & advice for making your transition (if you’re considering it) smoother than ours. (If you missed the vlog, you can check it out HERE).

In reviewing the vlog after it posted, I realized we never addressed the biggest question  related to this topic – “why?”. Why leave the safe predictable job, with health insurance and 401(k), for the scary unknown world of entrepreneurship? Not knowing, or having confidence in, the answer to this question often holds people back from taking the plunge – which means you should start with “why,” then address “how”.

To close the loop on some of the post-vlog questions I received, I’m using this week’s Insights as an opportunity to share WHY I decided to leave corporate behind and WHY I haven’t looked back since.  

The short and simple answer is, some things are more important than security.  

As I share my own journey I hope you get a better understanding of who I am, why I’m so passionate about today’s retail industry, and why I’m so motivated to help YOU. 

None of this is meant to be disrespectful to my previous employers or team members. It’s to highlight my own experience and my own, personal journey that brought me to the place, role, and life that I’m in today.

SINK OR SWIM

Six months before graduating from college, I had secured a position with The Bon-Ton’s Executive Training program. I already knew I wanted to be a retail buyer going into the program – mostly because of how glamourous Rachel Green made it appear on Friends. All kidding aside, buying appealed to me because it combined fashion creativity with trend interpretation and analysis.  

I was like a sponge, ready to soak up and learn everything I could through Bon-Ton’s program.  There were courses in OTB management and retail math, opportunities to shadow and observe management meetings, mentorship programs, and much more. I quickly gained a strong foundation of traditional retail practices, and the momentum continued after completing the program.

Retail is a tough environment with a ‘sink or swim’ mentality. I was lucky enough to have a supportive manager who provided me with the tools and space to not only swim, but sprint.  She helped shape my view of the retail industry through encouraging me to question the status quo in pursuit of finding “a better way,” and challenging me to look for new solutions to traditional retail problems.

As I continued gaining experience and technical knowledge, I started recognizing how the traditional retail mindset was not in align with the direction the industry was heading – ecommerce and influencers (Keep in mind this is over 10 years ago, before influencers was an actual term). Yet, when I would propose ideas to capitalize on these industry shifts (such as, blogger partnerships) in key meetings, it would receive the same canned response of, “That’s not directionally where we’re headed.”

Sometimes it felt like there was a bit of stubbornness to listen to a younger voice speaking directly from the trenches. Most of the time, they were simply unable to envision the ROI on something they didn’t understand. Either way, there was a constant resistance to trying something new.

IN IT TO WIN IT

My experience with Kohl’s was a 180 and a complete eye opener. I remember sitting in a keystone meeting my second day stunned by the company’s aggressive funding initiatives. I couldn't believe the OTB and how the teams were challenged to be more assertive in their programs, buys, and to create meaningful and relevant merchandising stories. Their focus was being as competitive as possible, - whether it was across price, product mix, or sheer volume, every team was ‘in it to win it’. 

And the teams at Kohl’s (within my office, as well as cross-functional) were a thing of beauty.  Everyone understood their role and value on the team, which created an open-dialogue environment - stimulating creativity and innovation, while supporting calculated risks.  

As much as I thrived working in this environment, I eventually discovered the trade-off in working for an industry behemoth – extreeeeeeemely slow reaction time. With an infinity long chain of command, proposals, ideas, and strategies would grow stale by the time they reached senior management for approval. Don’t get me wrong, Kohl’s was not against change – but no matter how hard the company tried, it was like watching someone try to steer the Titanic.

Kohl's was great at supporting innovation, but struggled with bringing it to fruition. I knew I needed to be somewhere that could dynamically react to, and move nimbly with, the market.  

THE 5 YEAR PLAN

Searching for continued growth, I decided to change it up by moving into a wholesale role with Harley-Davidson’s General Merchandise Department. This was my first in-depth experience with a American heritage global brand, and I was amazed by how this massive business – apparel, outerwear, and accessories, with PD and licensing channels - was managed by less than 100 employees. 

Working on a global brand forces you to think differently. Growth strategies required extremely long-term planning and foresight that would shape the way I viewed the retail industry. Initially I fought this type of strategy creation because it wasn’t the “norm” in retail, but later saw the significant value in understanding WHERE you want your business to be in the next 3 or even 5 years out. While your strategies and methods may change along the way, the end goal remains the same and acts as your guiding North Star. 

However, an established brand, with generations of loyal customers, like Harley can sell itself in a way – which can create a sense of complacency and resistance to change. I found myself back to square one, struggling with traditional mindsets and last year-itus. The phrase “that’s what we’ve always done” rang in my ears daily and it became clear that innovation was defined solely by product, not strategy. Business driving ideas continually hit a brick wall.

GOLDILOCKS SYNDROME  

I entered each new role with an open mind, excited for growth and change. And over time, I found the same result with each company – the porridge was either too hot or cold for me.  

Originally, I worried that it was just me – were my standards too high, or expectations unrealistic? But eventually I noticed a direct correlation between the struggles within each company and the ongoing challenges in the overall retail environment. 

  • Stale Strategies
  • Slow Reaction Times
  • Lack of Innovation
  • Resistance to Change

These challenges weren’t localized to the companies I worked for – they’ve run rampant throughout the industry. So in order to find a role that was “just right” for me, I decided to make the porridge myself.

I thought about my various roles and many ideas that I had over the years and how many opportunities slipped by. I loved working in retail, from strategy creation to buying and product development, there wasn’t a part of the work that I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t want to move to a new industry and knew that I had much more to offer. So I decided that it was time to mix it up and move my career in a different direction. 

Insights

While I’ve certainly had my own ups and downs, as well as doubts, concerns, and the occasional melt down, I am happy with the decision that I made. I finally feel like I’m putting my passion and expertise to good use because I’m now in a position to offer others’ guidance. After many years of paying my dues, I’ve finally found a role that focuses on the importance of forward thinking, innovation, and necessity of change.

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