Work & Studies All Sewn Up
Stitch by stitch, Ali Gillum turned a sewing project into a business at university. We asked about her experience as an entrepreneur, the rewards and challenges of juggling work with studies, and how it helped her subsequent career in social media.
How did it all start?
I needed a new laptop case, couldn’t fine one I loved, so being a sewer, I decided to make one. I then made cases for friends and family, and 6 months later I was selling them on campus.
Exeter University has a real culture of enterprise and entrepreneurship, and I met a couple of guys whose job was to help students start businesses. They supported and funded me to put together a business plan, design collections, build a website and find a factory.
So my sewing project turned into a small business – Macaw Designs.
Tell us about your experience
My vision was a Company with a Cause – we partnered with Exeter-based charity Magic Carpet, who inspire personal growth and wellbeing through ‘arts for health’, and we ran workshops for kids. My other focus was to promote British manufacturing and female entrepreneurship. Business was pretty much male-dominated down there, I think I was the token female for the Exeter Innovation Centre guys! They were great, taught me skills, sent me to events, we organised pop-ups, I learned so much! In fact my business got me my first full-time job; Born Social (social media agency) sponsored a competition that I entered, and when I finished my degree, I applied for a position there.
I ran my company while I was at uni and for a year or so afterwards. But I’m an all-or-nothing person and it was tough running a business alongside a full-time job, more because of headspace than time constraints. My passion had cooled and I felt I couldn’t do both well, so I have put it to bed, for now at least. But I loved the start-up scene, the creativity and bringing ideas to reality. And I gained so many transferrable skills.
Working with start-ups in social media, I totally related to the dilemma of entrusting an agency to help you grow your business vs. feeling reluctant to hand over anything – it’s your baby. I’m sure my experience helped me build rapport with those clients.
What were the best parts of running a business at uni?
Being young, with no real idea what I was doing, just winging it – that was a great feeling!
It was really fun, and a low-risk way of learning a huge amount. You’re protected from the pressure of having to make money. I was on a student loan at the time, and whilst you’re not rolling in the dollar when you’re at uni, you don’t need to earn an income to survive (unlike now!) Also I had funding and fantastic support from the Innovation Centre at Exeter, which really helped.
What were the main challenges?
Time – there’s always so much that needs doing, but you don’t want to miss out on the fun stuff at uni, hanging out with your friends.
It can be lonely; it’s tiring and feels like a big responsibility making all the decisions by yourself. Of course, I had support from the Innovation Centre, but it’s not the same as always having someone there to bounce ideas off, to share the ups and downs. Having said that, I knew it was better to work on my own than with the wrong person.
There were real frustrations – with a small business your quantities are pretty insignificant to a decent supplier; but it’s a Catch 22 – you can’t grow with unreliable suppliers. There’s an awful lot of waiting for people to get back to you, and you have to gauge when to push and when to accept they will be slow.
It is hard dealing with knockbacks, and very important to keep things in perspective. You can easily get caught up in the day-to-day stresses, and I often needed to take a step back and reflect how it really was amazing to be doing it at all.
‘Surround yourself with the right mentors to give you advice,
including people a few steps ahead of you, who can share their insights.’
Has networking helped?
I hate the term ‘networking’, but yes, I’ve had some really good conversations that led to useful outcomes. I was looking to venture into bespoke company products with Macaw Designs, and at one event, I started a conversation with a lady, only to discover that she ran a sewing project with ex-offenders, making products for IKEA. They had spare capacity, and we ended up using them as a supplier – win win!
‘Don’t feel that you have nothing to offer as a young person
– just ask what people do, show a genuine interest,
and seize opportunities that arise from the conversation.’
What does it take to be an entrepreneur?
I think there are 2 types: an accidental entrepreneur like myself, who comes up with an idea that grows organically. Or the person who knows they want to start something, but just needs to find a concept that will fly.
People think being entrepreneur is living the dream, but in reality, it’s a real slog. Whether it works largely depends on how much grit, time and passion you want to invest. And there’s a definite art working out whether it’s worth the slog, or whether to stop because the idea won’t have longevity.
You never feel qualified enough, you just have to wing it a lot of the time – but it’s the best way to be, otherwise you’re not really pushing yourself enough. That’s certainly helped me working in social media – yes we know what we’re doing to some degree, but the nature of social media is constantly changing, so we’re all learning and discovering new opportunities as we go on.
Thank you Ali 🙂
Ali studied Geography with Theology at Exeter University.
Whist there, she founded her business Macaw Designs, making tech cases and accessories, and has since worked in increasingly senior roles for social media agency, Born Social. Ali is also a wedding planner and is currently exploring work in company culture and events.