Last week, I had the AAAAAAAAMAZING experience of teaching at Custom Workroom Conference .
Afterwards, I enjoyed a visit with two friends: Jeanelle Dech, founder of The Workroom Channel and The Curtains and Soft Furnishings Resource Library, and Ceil DiGuglielmo, host/creator of The Sew Much More Podcast.
As we discussed the many challenges of running and thoughtfully growing a small business, Jeanelle used a term I hadn’t heard before: Strategic Partnership.
In simple terms, a strategic partnership is a mutually beneficial relationship between businesses.
As shop owners, the finite nature of our own time and energy is often the biggest hurdle we face: We simply cannot do everything and there’s a limit to how much we can do well.
In these cases, it can be really smart to seek out a strategic partner.
Case in point: The Curtains and Soft Furnishings Resource Library sponsors the The Sew Much More Podcast: They produce one episode a month together called, “The Opportunity Thinking Series.”
(if you have not yet discovered these, I cannot recommend them highly enough. Like, REALLY. Ceil is a great host and Jeanelle is hella smart. They are among my favorite episodes in all of podcasting history.)
Jeanelle’s very sage advice was that sometimes what we want to achieve requires a strategic partner.
She is, of course, completely right, and I LOVE the idea of businesses working together. But after thinking a moment, I told Jeanelle something you already know:
Strategic Partners are really hard to come by in upholstery.
Which is not to say that they’re easy for anyone, mind you. But let’s consider a few factors currently at work in the field of professional upholstery:
#1. We are geographically scattered, often without ways to easily find one another. Your nearest neighbor may be very far away and effectively invisible to you.
#2. We are overwhelming a community of people phasing out and people phasing in. Older professionals are likely not looking to grow (though I’d argue benefits to connecting with the right young upholsterer.) Our younger professionals have their hands full just getting skilled and through the door.
One characteristic of an attractive strategic partner is that they are in a healthy, stable position – ducks in a row, ready to connect.
I haven’t spoken with many young professionals who would use those words to describe their current state. I wouldn’t use those words to describe my own.
So as our small upholstery businesses hit the limits of what they can do alone, where do we find the strategic partners we need when the pickings are decidedly slim?
I don’t have all the answers, but I CAN offer two possibilities that have helped me grow:
#1. Connect with sister communities
At present, The Funky Little Chair benefits tremendously from several strategic partnerships in the custom drapery industry.
- When I teach at Workroom Tech in North Carolina without having to solve all the logistics of space and marketing? That’s a strategic partnership.
- When I present at Custom Workroom Conference, an event created by another professional? That’s a strategic partnership.
- When I avoid the time sucking horrors of video editing by partnering with The Workroom Channel? That’s a strategic partnership.
These are EXCELLENT partnerships, but they were not fast or easy to find, oh no.
Probably 5 years ago, I got serious about trying to find opportunities bigger than the ones in front of me. And I cast a WIDE net, hoping to catch something of value, talking to anyone that seemed remotely connected to the work I was doing.
The ven diagram for upholstery overlaps with many sister industries. I explored everything from fiber arts to technical theater in my hunt for strategic partners, hoping to find opportunities that did not exist within my local upholstery circle.
Eventually, my online floundering attracted the attention of Craftsy, which led to an online class filmed in Denver, which a couple years later led to another Craftsy instructor – Susan Woodcock in North Carolina, which led to Workroom Tech, which led to The Workroom Channel and Custom Workroom Conference.
That path was invisible to me five years ago and it involved more dead ends than I care to remember.
When we’re looking outside upholstery for strategic partnerships, I think we have to keep an open mind and see what gains momentum: Then lean in.
At a time when our own trade is precariously structured, strategic partnerships with healthier communities aren’t just smart: They’re arguably necessary.
#2 Grow your own
I think a lot of us look for someone who can pull us up. I certainly did. And it was frustrating to discover that my local upholstery community, though supportive and encouraging, wasn’t in a position to do that.
This was not my intent or expectation two years ago: I simply promised as a teacher to fully support their professional aspirations.
Now I’m close friends with the owners of two local, healthy businesses and we’re able to work together as strategic partners. NICE.
I think there are a few important lessons here: firstly, we can’t always look up – we have to look around and we might even have to look down. Who’s trying to come up behind you? If you want strong strategic partners to connect with, may have to help bake the bread.
Amy and Lindsay are exceptional women: They were getting there with or without me. But by helping, I sped up my own access to a valuable strategic partnership.
It’s also important to acknowledge that a strategic partner is an equal, not a subordinate.
I couldn’t demand that Lindsay and Amy hang out in my shadow. I had to wholeheartedly support and encourage their independent success.
THIS WAS SCARY.
I think we all know that this can empower our competition. We hear it a lot. It was pointed out to me more than once.
But if we have no potential competitors, we also have no potential partners.
STILL – “Growing your own” does NOT mean opening the floodgates to every casual stranger who happens to wander through.
Let me repeat “One characteristic of an attractive strategic partner is that they are in a healthy, stable position.”
Amy and Lindsay were both paying students for two years. In order to help them, I could not accidentally get pulled under. And I turned away students who needed more than I could give.
I’ve heard so many stories of professionals with great big hearts, trying trying trying to help everybody and completely burning out in the process.
It’s like being on an airplane: Get your own air mask on first.
It isn’t selfishness – you can’t help anyone when you’re passed out on the floor.
Additionally, we aren’t just talking about education, which many busy shops are unable to accommodate.
Sometimes, it’s a simple as supporting other professionals, instead of pretending they don’t exist, or trying to stomp them into the ground.
On a personal note . . .
My conversation with Jeanelle and Ceil struck an sensitive unconscious chord.
In the past 9 months especially, The Funky Little Chair has received an overwhelming number of requests to connect – to plan events, or talk about possibilities for training. To discuss education or create content. People looking for mentors, people looking for skilled help.
As a potential, “Strategic partner” I feel utterly tapped out.
And it blows. Because I want to say yes.
And I frankly hate to say no . . . because I understand first hand the lack of options we’re all experiencing.
But this little boat is only two years old, and we’re just now learning to float.
So I’m using this year to say instead, “Let’s look around. Let’s see what we can ALL do about this”
It isn’t an easy landscape – but that means we each have an opportunity to improve it.
I think this is a really important topic for us right now, so I’d like to pick it up again next week. Please join me then for some specific thoughts on how to begin your search for Strategic Partners. . .
Thank you to our community of Collaborators on Patreon for working together this year towards a stronger upholstery community, especially in October, #upholsteryawareness month.
And an extra big thank you to Fabric Supply Inc. for being an invaluable Strategic Partner in our quest to better understand and provide professional upholstery education. We simply could not do it without you.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s an article I’d recommend: Grow Your Business with a Strategic Partnership
See you next week, upholstery friends