"Starting a business in the middle of a pandemic was hard. But I guess I overcame that by seeing it as more of an opportunity than an obstacle."
Up until March 2020, Nancy was Deputy Head of Wardrobe for the Book of Mormon. But then her hard-earned career came to a halt when Covid-19 hit; leaving the arts sector—especially live entertainment—in freefall.
The closing of all theatres left Nancy not just unemployed, but having to face a situation where all her professional training and experience was difficult to transfer when it came to trying to find work.
However, while she clearly loves working in theatre, Nancy found that she had the time and a very real incentive to get started with something she’d often thought about as a sideline: setting up her own alterations business.
Hey Nancy! Tell me about your new business? What do you do and how did you get into it?
I've set up an alterations company. So, I do repairs and make adjustments to clothes as well as for interiors’ items; like cushion covers and stuff like that.
I got started now as I was out of work from March 2020, with the shutdown of theatres due to the pandemic. As Deputy Head of Wardrobe for the Book of Mormon, fixing and re-fitting costumes was already part of my job. So I've transferred those skills into my own business.
I’ve been doing alterations since going to Uni to study fashion. So, I’ve just tried to think outside the box and come up with something I could put my mind to and keep me busy. Obviously, it also gives me some income too!
Have you managed to enjoy the transition—even though it must have been so hard having it forced on you with theatres closing overnight?
Yes, I have enjoyed it. It’s been fun meeting new people and working for myself. I don't know if I'd say it's more fun, because I love my job and I obviously really miss that—but it’s nice to do something a bit different and to feel like I’m challenging myself.
So, yes, it’s been fun and it’s something I’d always thought about doing on the side anyway. But it’s hard still to weigh it up and compare it with my job.
Do you think that you will keep your business going when theatres reopen and you can go back to your career?
Yes. That's the plan. As I said, it’s something I’d always thought about doing and I feel I can do it alongside work when I go back to the theatre.
And then if there’s a time when the theatre isn’t right for me anymore—say, I have a family—then I hope it’s something I can carry on doing then, too. I’d like it to become a career that can last a lifetime and fit in with the different stages of my life.
So, if there’s an end goal for Nancy right now, it’s that she can pursue her career in theatre and keep her business going too. It’s partly so that she can have something to fall back on, but it’s also because she’s enjoying it and it’s added to her skills and confidence.
When you look back at those first months of setting up on your own, are there any things you wish you’d known then?
Yes: that it’s normal to make mistakes. It’s more about how you rectify those mistakes and deal with them in the moment. There are always going to be ups and downs, but that's part of running your own business, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.
Where did you go for advice when you started?
I got a lot from looking online. Using Google to find articles and blogs. I also looked at similar businesses to see how they did it. Knowing what I did and didn’t like about how they worked meant I could figure out where I could make mine fit—but also stand out from the rest.
And what that research showed Nancy is that most alterations businesses are run out of dry cleaners, with hardly any social media presence at all. So that’s one of the two key ways in which her business stands out. She sees her main clientele being younger women looking to get their dresses and going-out clothes altered, and so she’s reaching them with targeted social media.
And then the other thing that helps me to stand out is that I offer mobile fittings around London. People really like that at the moment, as it means they don't have to get on public transport or wait around. I can reach most of London with mobile fittings.
What do you think has been the impact you’ve had on your customers so far?
I like to think I’ve helped them to save clothes that they love without having to throw them away and so be more environmentally kind too. That and, like I said, it’s also saving them the time and effort of having to get around London.
How has starting your own business affected your life?
Doing something like this rather than nothing is obviously really good for your mental health and it’s also helped financially too. But on top of that, I’ve also really enjoyed the kind of flexibility you get from working for yourself.
And flexibility has definitely been a big bonus given that her job in theatre means that Nancy’s normally on a strict schedule of six days a week from 3pm to 10.30pm. Much as she loves the sociability of being at work (and misses that), it’s also great that—for a while, anyway—she can do a 9 to 5, enjoy her weekends, and lose that constant feeling that she’s missing out.
I always had this fear of missing out and I almost felt like every evening I had off, I always had to have planned something because it was my one evening off.
I work more of a 9-to-5 lifestyle now—I get up and get stuff done in the day and have evenings like normal people!
She’s also enjoying having her own headspace in her working day, and having a break from an environment where you’re often swept up in the hectic backstage life.
What have you found difficult about running your own business?
The main thing has been trying to figure out how much to charge people; having the confidence in my skills to know how much my work is worth.
This is a very common problem at the beginning for people who’ve been working at the top of their game and surrounded by others who are also very good at what they do. It’s so easy to underestimate the level of expertise you have in the outside world. It can be too easy to focus on the things that are new to you, and overlook just how much skill you can bring to your business.
So what would be your advice to anyone else who might be thinking about starting out on their own?
Trust your gut. And pick a field you’re comfortable in and that you feel passionate about.
Nancy’s clearly done this. She’s been able to hone in on what it is that’s driven her career path to date—and to find a way to use that now for her own business. It was being passionate about clothes and dress design that got her into university to study fashion, then into theatre, so she’s using that passion and her great skills as a seamstress to create her own business.
And if you do strike out on your own, you’ll find yourself taking on all sorts of things you’ve never had to worry about before, so you need to expect to make some mistakes; resilience is key.
It’s not always an easy ride but it will be worth it in the end. Anyone can do it: just pick a field that you feel comfortable with, confident in and are passionate about.