My Entrepreneurial Journey
As an eight-year-old I was collecting postcards, stamps, highlighters, sharpeners, gum and chocolate wrappers. I loved collecting, curating my treasures and then trading them or selling them. I got good at it and my collection grew. Then, I wanted to own a bookstore and sell books as I loved reading. I thought I could have a section for my collectibles as well. Well, that idea never materialized, as overtime my priorities changed.
I was involved in my parents business. By the tender age of twelve, I traveled to another city by myself to pick up inventory for my family’s photography studio. The trip was six-hours, one-way by train. No cell phones, no contact. I felt like a super hero after completing that task!
My summers were spent camping with my family across Europe, which in itself was adventurous and life transforming. Then, the rest of the summer I would spend outside playing with friends, swimming at a local pool and for fun and extra money, my friend Margaret and I would sell used clothes at local flea market. That alone taught me to collaborate, negotiate, find the right value and learn what mattered to the customers! We made good money. The theme continued through college. Always with the side business. I didn’t realize then, but this was my entrepreneurship spirit in action.
I finished college and started working, but I felt somewhat confined by the corporate world and especially by words like “this is how it’s done here”, “you have too little experience to know these changes are not possible”. Or my favorite, especially in today’s reality: “why would you want to work from home”? There was one opportunity that I loved dearly though. What was different about it, was the fact that I was given a big responsibility to set up an international research department within a big company. I literally had my own company within a company. I had supportive leadership and trust behind me and I flourished. This gave me a taste of what entrepreneurship is like. After several years in corporate jobs where I worked over sixty to eighty-hour weeks, my husband and I started to think about our family. I got pregnant. I didn’t even think about it at the time but realized that I only have 3 months of maternity leave and need to come back.
I remember the first week coming back and talking to one of the executives who said and I quote: “Just so we are clear, I’m expecting your commitment to be solid”. This meant working until the work gets done 10-12 hr days. I refused to believe this was the only way. I was told that I would need to be either a full-time mom or a mother who sees children only a fraction of time. We all make choices and as a mother of two children I realize we all have different values and beliefs and I respect that. For me neither one of them was a clear winner. I decided to quit my job with no clear plan at the time.
With my 4-month-old I decided to travel the world. Wouldn’t this be your first thought?! My husband was joining me whenever he could. This lasted for 9 months and then I came back to Chicago.
I realized I really missed my intellectual stimulation my work was giving me. I called couple of colleagues and then former clients who said that if I’m interested, I can do some work here and there. That sounded great! Within 3 months of the contract work I quickly realized I needed a team and there was a bigger market for what I was doing.
At that point, I hired and collaborated with other rock stars: parents with young children who wanted the flexibility, wished to have the ability to work from home and work odd hours so they can be with their children when they are awake. I found my dream team. Most of them women: Katy, Amanda and Deb. All incredibly smart, committed, hardworking and just beautiful people inside and out.
My business started growing. Here’s what I learned over the years:
- Accept the unexpected. Yes, there will be a lot of uncertainty but the upside is so incredible and the journey is well worth it.
- Know the direction and be ok if you don’t know the destination. You will find it. In the process be ok pivoting and tackling roadblocks. Treat it as a challenging game. It will become easier overtime.
- Trust the process. Try new things, always at small scale with minimal investment if possible, to see if they work, then scale up.
- Hire the people that share similar values. They can all be from different walks of life.
- Experiment. Try new solutions. Pretotype. Play with ideas and see which ones resonate most with your clients. Apply design thinking into the process.
- Don’t be afraid to take on new things you’ve never done. As long as you have the key skills that are the building blocks to what needs to be done, it’s ok. You’ll get it done.
- Value the people you work with. Check on them if they are ok. Entrepreneurial world is not for everyone and it comes with “quirks”. Give them permission not to know something. Always be supportive and understanding. Because I hired people that really valued the flexibility, they always went above and beyond of what was needed.
- Learn from each other and be open to feedback. I had a situation where I had hired couple of people who were not a great fit, thankfully pretty quickly I was able to resolve the situation. This happened because I had an open dialogue with my team. With small teams, one “bad apple” can destroy the culture.
- Learn the value of making mistakes. Call those days: character building days. They are not easy but they are valuable.
- Value and care for relationships. Be good to your coworkers, clients and friends. You never know when they will be the decision makers and will weigh in about your future.
- Always learn, look for new solutions, be open to changing your trajectory. Adapt.
Because I took the leap of faith into the unknown, here are some highlights I was able to experience:
– Twenty-seven country project learning about beverage consumption habits. This was super intense. I made so many friendships around the world because of it.
– I managed to learn about bug repellents and appreciate this emotionally charged category.
– I learned about pet owners. Pets are family. In product choices, I learned how certain images are more important on packages than others.
– I learned about cleaning habits of people in multiple countries. Fascinating.
– We managed to scan 150 ideas at a time and look for potential, three to four times a year. We always found an insight nugget!
– We learned about coffee and wine around the world. It’s a serious business and again, super emotionally charged.
– We moved product concept ideas from Europe to the US and US to over 20 other countries
– I traveled multiple times to Europe, and visited Asia and South America to meet with clients and carry out research. I traveled with super valuable product prototypes in my suitcase which were almost confiscated on the way to Brazil!
– I got to work with dance studios and learn about the transformative power of dance.
– We created a major asset database for a company to help them with asset management. This was initially only our own internal tool but clients liked it so we scaled it up.
Here’s the reality. There were months where we had more business we could handle and we worked crazy hours, and other months where I thought I was going to lose my team because the business was drying up. In the entire journey I was grateful for the experience and I’m still at awe that I get to do what I love. I have flexibility. I can work from anywhere and I continue to learn. I am grateful for all our clients that we have worked with over the years, who entrusted Clarteza and put their reputation on the line to bring my team to help solve their business problem. Owning your own business is like going into a wind tunnel: it is scary, you toss and turn, but you need to trust the process, let go and know you will be ok no matter what. What an exhilarating ride and IT IS SO WORTH IT!
Mag Retelewski is a founder of Clarteza, a consulting company focusing on driving innovation for Fortune 500 and midsize companies. Clarteza leverages latest curated technologies to stay on trend with emerging consumer attitudes & behaviors. Mag is a boundary crosser, having moved countries three times. Her study of the violin, passion for dance, sports and travel has influenced her out of the box approach to business. She believes in creativity by design. She often crosses disciplines, categories or industries and connects them.