You spent your 20s working toward building your dream career, but now that you’re in your 30s, what do you do when you’ve, well, changed your mind? Or maybe you never quite figured it out, and you’re now ready to commit to something you’re passionate about, whether it’s a job, a city, or just a new way of life. To celebrate the career changes that can come at any age, we’re debuting a new series, Second Life. Each week, we’ll hear from women who got over their doubts and fears and made the biggest changes of their lives.
It can happen when you least expect it: You’re working in a profession you love and everything feels comfortable, but then all of a sudden you feel something shift. You try to resist, but change is in the air and the universe has other plans. This is what happened to Erin Condren. While working in her dream job in fashion, she gave birth to twins, and her life took on a whole new direction. So while they slept, she started planning (literally).
Since 2005, Condren has sold over two million of her LifePlanners (they've garnered a cult following) and built a $50 million-dollar business in the process. It’s crazy to think a paper company can do so well in a digital age, but that’s the power of passion. The lesson: While change can be scary, it’s also inevitable, and taking the leap to start something new just might pay off. Read on to find out how Condren made the switch, what she’s learned, and the advice she’d give to budding entrepreneurs.
Tell us about your first career path.
My first love has always been fashion. Looking back to my high school years, my parents used to cringe at some of the funky ensembles I’d put together, but it was the ’80s and Madonna was my muse.
Graduating from UCLA and looking for a suit to interview had me gasping for air. I settled on a bright orange skirt and jacket from Jones New York and landed my first job with a fashion swimwear company called Cole of California. I worked in the Apparel Mart in downtown L.A. and thought that would be my dream job, but I soon became bored with showroom sales and found myself making excuses to work from the factory and corporate office.
I loved watching Anne Cole work her magic with her team and see the process of a collection come to life. When that company folded, I landed my next job with a private-label apparel manufacturer. I learned everything from A to Z, from merchandising and design to fabric purchasing and wholesale distribution. It was there that I became a sponge and learned everything I needed to know regarding cost sheets, profit margins, inventory challenges, and more—all critical information if I was going to run my own business someday.
How did you make the transition from apparel to launching your own stationery business?
Well, that wasn’t really the plan, but motherhood changed everything for me. After years of manufacturing other major brands, my dream came true as I launched my own line of clothing called Reach (my maiden name) in 2001. We partnered with the sales team of Michael Stars, and overnight, we had orders from hundreds of stores across the country (including Nordstrom).
That year, I was also surprised with a twin pregnancy, but most people didn’t even know as I worked around the clock while on bed rest to launch the collection. Preterm labor started at 28 weeks, but with long hospital stays and strict bed rest, my preemies were healthy at 35 weeks. Tragically, only six weeks later, on September 11, 2001, I watched the twin towers collapse in New York as I held my twins and watched the news during the morning feeding.
The economic uncertainty that followed, compounded by delays in our production resulted in canceled orders and my lightbulb moment: My priority had to be the tiny babies who were counting on me. I lost my passion for travel and desire to be the fashion designer I thought I always want to be; my new role and focus was going to be on my kids.
After just a few weeks of being at home, I started to get cabin fever and really missed the energy of our sewing factory and the thrill of manufacturing. My babies were napping much of the day, so I started designing their birth announcements and thank-you notes to send out for all the gifts.
What all is involved in starting a business? Was it easier or harder than you thought?
I loved the early years when my business started, and I worked directly with clients at home shopping parties or private appointments. I loved designing something entirely new and unique depending on the photo, a number of letters in a name, or special occasion.
I even did hand-sewn beaded wedding invitations for one client. As the business started to grow and I contracted a web designer to help me launch a website, the scalability was the toughest part. I had to narrow the offering and focus on products that didn’t need so much of my personal attention. (Brides often need hand-holding.)
The website launched in 2005, and I hired my first full-time employee in 2006. It’s crazy to think my team has grown to nearly 200 people now. The hardest part early on was giving up some of the control over each process; after all, I’m a bit of a control freak. However, now that my team is so incredibly talented, dedicated and as passionate as I am, it’s much easier to release certain areas of the business so I can focus on the creative side.
What have been the biggest challenges in your various careers, and why?
The biggest challenge in any business is rapid growth and scalability. Sure, it’s a great problem to have too many orders, but incredibly stressful to let down customers while trying to improve the engine. Just like you can’t fix a train going full speed, it was incredibly challenging to fix the problems while the business grew 100% year over year.
What triggered your need to change this time around?
Looking back, my apparel business was ultimately buried by excess inventory. The current business model is mostly print on demand, which means we print and create each order as it comes through. We’ve sold more than two million LifePlanners, and every single one has been hand-coiled here in the Los Angeles or now in our Austin production facility. This offers an incredibly personalized product to our customer and keeps inventory under control. We even print while you wait in our flagship retail store at The Domain Northside in Austin.
Why is your current path suitable for your personality?
I have always been crafty and started scrapbooking at an early age. While this wasn’t my plan all along, it makes perfect sense that I find myself in this space. I’ve always been a list maker and a note taker, so this really is the perfect path for me to be on.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about making a big change in your career life?
My dad was an incredible inspiration to me, and as a teacher and coach, he would constantly reinforce the mantra “make an adjustment.” This basically meant to be prepared to bob and weave, and do what needs to be done to change to adapt and succeed. My career change was really not intentional, but when our world fell apart (literally), I knew I had to make an adjustment. Change can be terrifying, but it’s also inevitable.
How did you move past the fear of change to pursue your passion?
I’m always cautious with the advice to pursue your passion. While I absolutely believe we should not quit the daydream, it’s important to sometimes just take a paycheck and pursue passion on the side. I worked nights and weekends to make this happen; long hours and sacrifices were made to get this far.
Being an entrepreneur can be terrifying, and as my business partner told me early on, many people can be entrepreneurs, but few can make it and be successful businesspeople. I’ve been told many times throughout my life that I’m successful because I’m coachable. I listen closely, I take notes, I learn from every experience, and I use that knowledge to improve. I have zero ego, and accept advice and criticism; I think that’s important for others just starting out or going through any career change.
What are some mistakes you made along the way that ended up helping your success?
As I mentioned, scalability has been tough. Growing 100% year over year was painful, and a couple years ago we really struggled. We fell behind on orders, and we had a slew of other problems knock us at the knees. Looking back, it’s incredible to see how that forced us to take the roof off and totally restructure the company. Our new team, new workflow, and the new direction are working smoothly, and I’m so excited about the future of this brand.
What do you love most about your current role, and why?
Now that executives are in place and we have incredible teams in L.A. and Austin, I love that I can focus on new products and listen to our community to see what they want. It’s so gratifying to hear stories of success from using our LifePlanner and other products; I just love that we can truly help people plan for tomorrow and celebrate today.
When you look back and reflect on your previous career, do you have any regrets? Or are you still really happy with your decision?
I’ll always be a fan of fashion, and more than ever, I can appreciate well-made garment. I still dream of being front row at fashion week, but I truly believe that everything happens for a reason and I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.
What advice do you have for other women who want to branch out and make a change in their lives?
As women, we’re multitaskers by nature. However, sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves and get overextended. I believe we’re truly capable of anything, but perhaps not all at once. I encourage people to ask for help; there’s definitely strength in numbers. Create a squad that can help with kids, housework, and all the other commitments so that you can carve out alone time to be focused and productive.
Subscribe to our Second Life podcast for more career advice from interesting women who've made the leap.