Time Out with ….Susan Widlake

You can’t help but notice Susan in any kind of room. We first met over 12 months ago at a Thrive Collective Meet Up. She’s always the one wearing the most amazing head pieces. And it stands to good reason. Susan is a wonderful milliner (that’s a hat maker to me and you). She makes bespoke and ready to wear hats and headpeices. And at the moment. Masks. And lots of them!

Susan studied language at university (Russian and Bulgarian) and she’s an auditor by training and a milliner at heart. She now calls home a converted windmill just outside Saffron Walden. Hence the name, Mill House Millinery.

Like many of us, Susan finally gave up her corporate world in exchange for the world of running her own business.

Here at Thrive we’re always curious how other women run their businesses and their top tips to thrive in business. Susan is kindly sharing her top 5 tips on creating success in business.

Why do you do what you do?

I’ve always loved wearing hats, and did a taster course run by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2009, and from then was hooked. I’ve worked in IT audit for most of my career, and was fortunate to travel the world with my job, and visiting these places sparked my creativity. I’d always take some sewing materials in my suitcase, and do hat courses in my holidays! I’ve even made a hat on Eurostar.  After spending 2 years in Switzerland, and being known as ‘the lady in the hat’ I decided to return back to the UK and turn my passion into my career. It has been a huge learning curve starting my own business and applying ‘big corporate’ principles to my own enterprise, but now I’ve got data and can do data analytics on my sales, it’s rather exciting!

What practical advice would you give to anyone about to start, or in the early stages of owning a business?

Done is better than perfect!

(And I’m sure I picked that up from Thrive Collective!) I’m a terrible procrastinator, and with my audit background wanted everything perfect before I actually did anything. I’ve agonised for days over fonts, and what sort of boxes to use.  I’m really not sure anyone really cares too much about the relative size of the ‘O’ in my brand name, or the width of the stripe on the hat boxes.

What or who has been your greatest influence in business and why?

One of my old work colleagues once had a great conversation with me as to how to place a monetary value on my own time. He knew how I liked to try things and be bloody minded, so if I knew something was possible, I’d want to do it myself. So, I could take 3 hours to put together to do something or I could get someone else to do it for me and instead use that 3 hours to do something I would either enjoy more, or be more effective at. And this was his caveat as I set up my own business. Very wise words and something I’m still learning.

What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given in business?

It costs nothing to say thank you. Not just in business, but in life in general! During lockdown I went into the Saffron Walden Tourist information to say thank you to them for re tweeting and re instagramming my posts, and ended up getting an order from them for crocus face masks!  I also did a fun post pairing facemasks to local roughacre brewery beers, and ended up getting some orders from CAMRA members!

What one thing have you learned as a small business owner that has served you well over the years?

(Very closely linked with 2&3 above – I can’t single out one particular thing!)

What has been the most effective marketing initiatives or programs you have used to promote your business?

In the middle of  May I took part in my first ‘virtual event’ organised by The Trove in Cambridge, as ‘shop Cambridgeshire’, and set up my hat models wearing some of my masks, videoed my set up and then and put these for sale on my newly created Etsy shop. This was how my business really took off, with me getting to know other local creative.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

Lockdown has been a really challenging time to be a milliner as all my fairs where I would have been showing, and events where people would be wearing my creations were cancelled!  For the first couple of months I sewed scrubs bags and masks for the local area and my family, and was then asked (by a Thrive member!) if I was selling them. So, in conjunction with the ‘Shop Cambridgeshire’ event I pivoted, and turned into a mask production line. I’m so pleased I’ve been able to provide stylish and comfortable masks to people and businesses. I’ve used up over 1km of thread, and 75m of elastic since mid May.

For Christmas, I am going to be creating some silk headbands to match up with bags made in vintage kimono fabric stocked in the Wonky Wheel in Finchingfield.

Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, your tips and insights Susan. We absolutely love having you in the membership and seeing you Thrive with all your business ideas and initiatives.

Keen to connect with Susan. Check out her Facebook page, Instagram and website and Twitter.

Thrive Collective is a community of business women supporting each other to connect, collaborate, learn and thrive together in business.We’re women who are energised by other women’s successes and equally motivated by our own.Thrive Collective is the combination of both the Thrive Collective Meet Ups and Thrive Collective Online Membership, whatever help you need, we’ve got you covered!