Hey folks! Remember a short while back, when we featured the awesome, indomitable Hattie Hasan and her army of women plumbers, aka Stopcocks? Hattie is up for the UK Plumber of the Year award and she needs your vote! Head right over here before Sunday 14th August to show your support for Hattie’s inclusive, ground-breaking work in the UK and beyond. You can vote from anywhere in the world, and yep, you can vote multiple times (just sayin’).
The world of online solopreneurship is both deafening and lonely at once. Whilst you beaver away in what’s likely to be your bedroom, kitchen or living room, working all the hours in the day and night, you’re usually contending with the fact that most of your friends just don’t get what you do. Who do you turn to when you have a business question? Who reminds you that it’s all gonna be just fine when you’re freaking out about that new product you just launched? And who makes you get out of bed in the morning when things aren’t going so well? Meanwhile online there is a deafening clamour of voices struggling for your attention, telling you the one sure way to make a ‘six figure launch’ and how to get fifty major tasks done before breakfast.
One clear voice that stands out above the others in my own online business community is Jeanna Kadlec, owner of LGBTQ-oriented lingerie store Bluestockings Boutique (featured on Autostraddle several times!) and more recently, the driving force behind Girlboss Woo, a resource for solopreneurs who lean towards the spiritual within their business.
Jeanna is a grafter, to say the least. Over the past couple of years I’ve watched her launch and grow two uniquely political and soulful online businesses from absolutely nothing, and have the grace, guts and wherewithal to share the whole warts ‘n’ all journey with us. Jeanna’s relentless commitments to inspiring business owners and continually improving her own business practice are humbling and motivating – just knowing she is there, putting in the hours and getting her job done is enough to get me going.
In this interview, fresh from returning from a well-earned summer sabbatical, Jeanna shares some of the highs and lows of her first year as her own boss. She discusses the reality of burnout, dealing with criticism, the joy of serving the queer community, and how she got Bluestockings off the ground with seriously limited financial resources.
Jeanna Kadlec, Founder Founder, Bluestockings Boutique and Girlboss Woo
Age 28, Brooklyn (by way of Boston)
Hi Jeanna! Can you introduce your business? What’s your mission? Who do you serve?
Technical mission: Bluestockings is the first explicitly LGBTQIA+ inclusive lingerie boutique in the United States. Our mission is to provide ethically made underthings to underserved groups of people. This looks like stocking gender-affirming items such as gaffs, packing briefs, and binders, as well nude bras for women of color, as well as lingerie that runs the spectrum of styles.
My mission, personally: to help people feel seen, heard, and empowered for their everyday lives. (I want a word that isn’t empowered, but that’s what English has given us.)
Being real, my biggest lesson after one year of retail business is that retail is not the most ideal business to get into if you want to help people feel seen and heard. You will be limited by capitalism: by how much money you have, by how much money your customers have, and by the very simple limitation of what the hell is even being made. It’s been a life-changing lesson in how to actualize my ideals and how to implement processes that will do the greatest good for the greatest number.
To get a little tarot about it, running Bluestockings has very much been a Five of Pentacles lesson: how to find emotional, communal, and spiritual abundance in material limitation.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
Educated risk-taking is probably the best way to put it.
Don’t get me wrong: I love structure. Structure and I are BFFLs. I’m a double Capricorn, an ex-PhD. My to-do lists have to-do lists.
But in business, especially when starting out, you need to be able to embrace risk with open arms, which is a nice way of saying you have no idea how to swim but are jumping in the deep end anyway. Risks can be educated; you just can’t be overly-married to The One True Way. That’s probably been my biggest challenge, as a planner: you cannot over-plan in business, or stick to someone else’s “sure” method when it’s absolutely not working for you. You need to trust yourself to be creative and agile enough to survive.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What is your workspace like?
I recently started working full-time at a startup here in New York City, and even though I work 9-10 hour days, taking a FT job is the literal best thing I could be doing for myself – and for Bluestockings. These are 9-10 hours where other stuff has to take priority, and it’s shown me just how much mental and emotional energy Bluestockings has taken up over the last two years.
In terms of what I do for Bluestockings: these days, I get up at 6 AM on weekdays to do creative work. I limit myself to only packing orders in the evening; evenings are for my partner. Weekends have transitioned from being dedicated work time, to being “work on it some of the time but make friends and socializing a priority.”
I work less now than I did a year ago, in terms of hours, but I’m more productive – and mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthier.
Why do you do this? What’s the best thing about your job?
My community. This business came into being because of a need. Every email I get from folks whose lives are positively impacted by Bluestockings, who feel seen and affirmed by this kind of store for the first time — worth it. Worth it all day every day. Worth the 6 AM alarm!
And the worst?
Obviously, the folks who, for whatever reason, I can’t help. Maybe Bluestockings doesn’t carry their size, or maybe looking at the images on the site activates their dysphoria. I could wallpaper my apartment in emails and social DMs from QT+ folks who have been disappointed in Bluestockings. I didn’t anticipate so much criticism from my own community, when starting out, and to be honest, that knocked me way back, mentally. Part of why I took a break recently was because I kept thinking, “If this only benefits some of the LGBTQIA+ community, and not everyone, why do this at all? Why put so much energy into something that is so imperfect?” And then I think, but who else would do this. So I keep going.
But at the end of the day, I understand that I get the long, personal, sometimes angry emails from LGBTQIA+ people who don’t feel included or seen or represented because they know I will listen. A human is going to read their email. They aren’t just shouting into the void. They know they aren’t gonna get an autoreply from a corporate bot email account that’s like “Thank you for your comment”, you know?
Honestly, I don’t respond to all the upset emails anymore – I did that for a long time and it took a huge toll on my emotional health. I’ve learned that, as a one woman show, I need to be thoughtful about where I invest my time and energy. Those are valuable – and limited – resources. In this, my partner has been amazingly supportive at helping me set boundaries and better understanding what parts of my customers’ experience I am directly responsible for, and what’s a (sucky) result of how society at large fails LGBTQIA+ communities.
What are the key challenges you face in your work? And what are your tactics for overcoming these?
A major challenge that all independently owned businesses face is establishing reasonable customer expectations for what a small store can do with no outside funding.
Let’s look at an example: If I could find an ethically made bra that was available 26-56 bands (16 band sizes) and AA-N (18 cup sizes, UK), and the bra itself retails at $60 but costs $35 wholesale: that’s $10,080 US. For one bra style in one color.
This is why Bluestockings has a limited inventory. Independent lingerie shops – and brands, generally – aren’t operating on a large profit margin, and they have to be really careful about what they bring in, and how much of it they bring in. And then there are the lingerie brands and shops that actually do lose money every year – but have a founder who is independently wealthy (these account for a not insignificant number of lingerie brands you’re familiar with).
So, money. Money is the elephant in the room here. Total transparency: Bluestockings does not have outside funding. I come from a working class background. My parents are wonderfully supportive and are now in a financial position to send me coffee money in the mail on occasion, but a business loan? Nope. I used credit cards to get Bluestockings off the ground (#protip: do not do this). The business’ survival is entirely contingent on sales.
However, I’m also aware that many of my customers are financially disadvantaged themselves. I’ve implemented payment plans as a possible option for folks in the checkout and am pretty much always looking for other ways that I could make quality, ethically made undies available to those on a budget. And Bluestockings donates to charity (a lot).
How do you approach time management? And how about work-life balance and the impact on your social life?
The most important lesson Bluestockings has (inadvertently) taught me is about work/life balance. I went from being a PhD student (read: emotionally working 24/7; no off button) to being an entrepreneur… so basically, I just transferred that intense work ethic from one thing to another. It so happened that Bluestockings energized me instead of burning me out like grad school had, so I didn’t initially notice that I was actually working the same way, just in a different industry.
My partner has been incredible about helping me learn where and when to set boundaries around work. (And I say this because at times, my work/life balance has been so shitty as to detrimentally affect our relationship like, a lot.) I could be on 24/7 – but that’s not healthy for me, or our relationship, or my business. She has been so amazingly patient and supportive.
Can you tell us about your financial situation when you started out?
Bluestockings was financed by many, many people and things. I used credit cards, which everyone says not to do and which I would tell people not to do – but hey, what are you supposed to do when you’re a 20-something grad student with no savings and no collateral for a loan? I got a fuckton of very small micro-loans from family and friends: like, $20 here, $50 there, $5 there. Folks with the least gave the most. (Isn’t that how it usually happens, though?)
Is your business sustainable now? How do you feel about the money side of ‘following your arrow’?
It’s a lean operation. Yes, Bluestockings is sustainable in that it can pay its bills, so that is awesome. No, it’s not sustainable in that there isn’t much room to grow right now – and I can’t pay myself.
I mention being paid because I’m gonna be real (and feel free to not include this since it might be a little too real for folks and I don’t want to be a bummer): starting a business will take a tremendous mental, emotional, and spiritual toll on you. Tremendous. There’s all the actual work and physical labor I do for the business, like packing orders, placing orders, going and standing in line at my local post office, writing blog posts, sending PR pitches, all that. But then there’s the emotional labor that no one really prepares you for. So, so much emotional labor.
Money is a kind of energy (a really really useful one in business!), and right now, my work for Bluestockings is strongly disproportionate in terms of the energy I’m giving and the energy I’m receiving. I hope that changes – but again. I don’t get paid in hope.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
For entrepreneurs and creatives, I cannot recommend Skillshare highly enough. So fucking helpful. Skillshare classes have helped me avoid so many headaches.
Similarly: Periscope. Seriously, y’all, Periscope is like live TV for folks hustling their asses off. So many awesome Milennial entrepreneurs talking about how to hustle and giving solid, half hour talks for free that you can learn from. Also, some industries are very into Periscope so it’s a great place to network (for example: spiritual entrepreneurs, which is my other business).
Specifically, one person I’d send folks to right now, immediately, is Regina Anaejionu of byRegina. Her work is geared to the online infopreneur business, but it is 100% relevant and helpful for anyone starting a business that will have an online presence. She also has a ton of really affordable resources available in her store (I’m talking $3 and $9 e-books and workbooks on branding and social media). Plus, she focuses on self-paced e-courses, so you don’t have to worry about her saying that you can only get X advice if you pay four figures for a coaching package.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Get your self-care practices in place now and start/keep doing things that emotionally and spiritually ground you. Every entrepreneur’s journey is different, and because of that, there’s no ultimate guidebook, no checklist. There will be things you fuck up. There will be things you forget to do. There will be many moments where hindsight is 20/20 and you look back and cringe at what you did.
Practicing self-forgiveness and knowing set aside time to take care of yourself now, before that journey begins, is vital. As you go, so goes your business. Taking care of yourself is the most important job you will ever have.
Are you a freelancer or a solopreneur? Running your own business or charity? I would love to hear about it! Email beth at autostraddle dot com with a little info about the arrow you’re following – or to tell me about someone I should be talking to. (As always, submissions from trans women and women of colour are especially wanted!)