We sat down with one of our client's Whitney Surane, from Madly Wish, to ask her what it's like to be a business owner. Written by: Carmen Montopoli
Like many children, Whitney Surane once received a small sewing machine for Christmas. Unlike many children, learning how to sew changed her life.
She started small, with pockets, pillows—even a skirt, hand-sewn from leopard-print upholstery fabric. As she talks about her early forays into design, she laughs, reminiscing about her grandmother, who was a creator, who taught her how to crochet, and whose 20-year-old, now (and probably always) inedible fruitcake still holds a place of honor in the corner of the freezer. She talks about her mother, who taught her sewing basics, and her father, whose enterprising spirit infuses her thinking. “My dad always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “He worked in real estate—and we would always joke, from the time I was a kid, about different businesses that we would start, from sandwich shops to all sorts of silly things.”
With a husband who worked nights as a county sheriff, a job that required an hour one-way commute, and four children to support, Whitney didn’t have much time to build on those dreams. They always seemed like fantasies: fun to imagine, but not something that would ever come to fruition. Then, in 2011, in a moment familiar to all new parents, Whitney was up in the middle of the night with her newborn, the fourth of five children. “One night, I was nursing and looking on Pinterest, and I saw a quilt,” she says. “I just showed it to my mom and said, ‘Oh, we should make this one.’ So we went to Joanne fabrics—I think it was like $27 for all the materials—and we made this really fancy-looking quilt. We made it together. It was fun; we had all the wrong tools, and I used it as a cover for my daughter’s carseat. So I would take her out places and people would say, ‘Oh, you should put that on Etsy!’ So finally, in February , I did open up an Etsy shop. I was on unemployment, and I wasn’t thinking that it was going to turn into a full-time thing for me.”
Earlier in 2011, Whitney had been working long hours at a job that kept her away from home for most of the day. She describes her yearning to find something else, and her husband’s support as she tried work-from-home opportunities that never seemed to pan out. “I always say he makes sense out of my nonsense. He just kind of like goes with the flow, like ‘You want to try it? Fine, try it, we’ll see what happens.’” The long hours exhausted her and removed her from her family. She describes her marriage as a “roommate situation”: working opposite shifts from her husband and rarely seeing each other. “I missed out on all the kid stuff, and it wasn’t like—when I was on bed rest [during the fifth pregnancy], it wasn’t like something was physically wrong with me, it was just more a ridiculous amount of stress.” Something had to change.
Whitney might not be the kind of person who sits around waiting for signs, but she knows an opportunity when she sees one. “It was like December 20 of 2011 and I’m sitting in a line at Victoria’s Secret, because it was my sister-in-law’s wedding day and I was buying something for her,” begins the story. “My boss gave me call that I was laid off. And I was so overjoyed that I did not ever have to go back there again, and that they were going to give me unemployment. It was just the right set of circumstances. Because I was off and I was nursing this baby around the clock, and I was always on Pinterest, I saw the quilt, and I just thought...I got lucky.” She opened her Etsy shop, named it Madly Wish (an anagram of her children’s names), and started to forge a new path that would take her into the world of handmade, artisan goods, and the unknown realms of small business.
At first, Whitney made her items to order, doing all the sewing herself. She made baby items, felt wreaths, cloth prints, and more. Some of her fabrics were printed on demand, making them expensive and greatly increasing the turnaround time required. She rose early in the morning, often getting up at 4:00 am to get in some work time before the kids were up, working during the school day, and then going down to her work room again after the kids’ bedtime. “I used to drink a lot of coffee!” she says. The strategy worked at first, but the business began to pick up steam and quickly became too sprawling to handle easily. After attending several trade shows in 2016, Whitney realized, “I needed to make some big changes, to really make or break it.” The big question, of course, was what that meant. What changes would lead to long-term stability, to the legacy she wanted to build for her family? She felt unsure about how to proceed.
“One day I was on Facebook in a creative entrepreneur group,” Whitney says, “and Jen [Wakeland] posted that they had some openings in the Kinship and I thought, what the heck is that?” She’d worked with PR companies in the past—some of which charged steep fees for their services—but had never found the investment increased sales in any way she could measure. But something about this opportunity grabbed her attention. “I thought, okay, I’m going to try it and see what happens.” She contacted the Kinship to learn more, and found that the conversation she had was answering questions she hadn’t known how to frame. “When I first talked to Jen, for our first phone call—it was about two hours—I said, ‘I might want to make dresses, and I love linens, and maybe I’ll do that’ or all these different things. I was still doing the kitschy prints—but because I mentioned the linen, it just kind of transformed into continuing to talk about that. And February 24 of last year, we had our first photo shoot, but it was just mostly linens, and that kind of started the transition for me there.” Without quite meaning to, she’d found a direction for Madly Wish: a focus on home linens and decor that would increase her sales, allow her to hire a seamstress, and even expand into some wholesaling. And she’d found a PR firm that wasn’t just a PR firm.
She describes the experience of working with the Kinship as having a partner, a guide, a therapist, and a mentor rolled into one. Whitney has weekly strategy calls with Jen, but the relationship doesn’t end there: “It’s like she’s always there. And she is always there, because, I could text her or Slack her on a Sunday and she’ll still respond. So for me it’s just this feeling of not being alone anymore, being able to speak to someone who’s been through all of this and seen the other side and knows that, you know, you just have to keep going.” They talk about sales and strategy, about goals and steps to take, about how the week has felt. During rough weeks, the call might bring some consolation; during good weeks, celebration. Above all, though, Whitney returns to the idea of no longer feeling alone. Although she’s fluent and articulate as she talks, she hesitates, trying to find the words. Finally, she settles for, “I don’t know, it’s just...it’s everything to me. It’s the difference between being alone and having a team. It’s the difference between ‘we’ and ‘I’.”
That’s not to say it’s always the easiest relationship. “The things [Jen] asks me to do sometimes, it’s therapeutic—and also it’s sometimes the hardest thing I’ve ever done, because I’ve never even thought of the questions she asks me. But those are the places you have to go, like trying to secure funding or going to a trade show, or doing pop-ups.” It’s easy to do what’s been working well, but more difficult to push to the next level, or to work through aspects of owning a business that don’t feel natural. Just like any small business owner, Whitney has plenty of things she doesn’t love doing. “It is frustrating when we talk about things like SEO, or, I don’t know—things that aren’t of interest to me at all,” she says. “And [Jen] recently said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to work on your keywords, and your meta-text, and SEO, and this is what you have to do,’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t. If I have to do that, it’s going to take me months, and I’ll probably never finish, so can I pay you to do that?’”
What that progress means to her has changed over the years. At first, it was a few sales. Then: turning a profit, hiring other moms, contributing to other families’ wellbeing. She paints a picture of a simple future, but one that Madly Wish helps create. “I don’t need to live in a mansion,” Whitney says, but Madly Wish has paid for her children’s school, and has helped make up the difference in income when her husband’s hours were cut recently. She’s set her sights on $1 million in total revenue, a goal guided in part by the challenge of reaching it as a female entrepreneur. “It’s hard for me to actually imagine hitting that million-dollar revenue mark,” she says. “I remember being excited—this was a few years ago—that I actually turned a profit and had to pay taxes. So it seems huge, but then I talked to Jen about it and she said, ‘Oh, yeah, I think you can get there in less than five years,’ and I’m like ‘What!?’ But I want to be able to retire my husband early, and have him home, and have him be a part of it too—maybe he would just help with the kids. That would be enough.”
Whitney imagines bright growth for Madly Wish: expanding her wholesale, focusing on home decor, and creating pieces that are heirloom quality. “The items have a history to them, and when you see them, they evoke memories,” she says. “I have touched every single thing I’ve shipped out. It’s so, so personal.” She wants to focus on growing that aspect of her business, for customers who value something that isn’t disposable or replaceable, and who want even the ordinary to carry a little of the extraordinary with it.
That’s not to say it will be all smooth sailing. “I have doubts all the time, even still,” she says. “There has been growth, but it has been slow. You can read stories about people who in the middle of the night are woken up because some post of theirs went viral and they’re flooded with all of these sales. I think I used to dream of that, but then you also learn that sometimes those people end up, you know, short-lived. And I don’t want to be short-lived. I have a couple of friends right now who are closing down their small shops because they’re tired of it or it’s just too much stress or they’re over it.” The future might not be known, but for Whitney, that’s just the kind of incentive she needs to keep going. “Maybe today is great and tomorrow will be the opposite, or maybe tomorrow will be just as great, and even better. I think that unknown—because Jen has known it—continues to propel me further.” After she says this, she laughs, and admits: “I’m a hot mess over here. But I take it pretty well, and sometimes that’s why it’s really just week to week for me. Two weeks ago the kids were off for spring break, and my husband was off the whole week, and I was like Superwoman because I just got so much accomplished.” There are hard times. Late nights, early mornings, headaches, stresses. But there’s also something that keeps it all going: a deeper conviction, a thread that runs through it all as Whitney says, the words coming from somewhere deep within her, “I know—I know—this is what I’m meant to do.”