The idea behind my company, Morgan & Milo, was pretty simple: I wanted to design the best kid's shoes ever. For me, that meant creating shoes that were design savvy and on-trend, while also being super comfortable, durable and affordable.
I also knew I was ready for different challenges and that I wanted to build something from the ground up. So eventually, I went for it. And while it hasn't been entirely smooth sailing, I wouldn't trade a minute of the experience. I would, however, definitely do a few things differently if I knew then what I know now! Thirteen years in, here are a few mantras I try to live by:
1. You Can't Do It Alone
You can't do everything yourself. Not only is it physically impossible, you just don't know everything you need to know.
Two pieces of advice:
- Tap your connections, find mentors and ask people to share their experiences and perspective. The process and relationships you build along the way will be invaluable.
- Build a super strong team you can rely on and trust, comprised of people who strive for excellence every single day. The old saying that a team is only as strong as its weakest link is even more true in the context of a new company.
It's also critical to assess your team periodically and make sure everyone is performing at the level you expect. If they aren't, you need to have an early and honest conversation about what expectations are not being met.
Without a strong team, you will be the person worrying about all of the little things, all of the time. You can't be in the weeds 100% of the time or you'll never be able to pick your head up and reflect on the big picture.
2. Strong Management is Critical
Good management skills don't always come naturally, and for me there has definitely been a learning curve. Learn how to inspire your team, how to make them feel invested, how to keep them motivated. In order to do any of this, you have to get to know them as people, not just as your employees there to perform Task X or Task Y. Get to know your team a little bit removed from the daily grind. It's also important to have have fun sharing the successes and to learn together from those inevitable failures. Team dinners or mini-retreats can be a good way to do a little of both depending on how your business is structured and what kind of resources you have. The point is to collectively pause long enough to process why and how you've had a particular success or failure, so you can learn from the experience and move forward to whatever is next.
3. Cultivate Your Company's "Soul"
Tadashi Yanai, the CEO of Fast Retailing, which owns Uniqlo, has described the essential nature of what he calls a company's "soul" or "spirit", just like that of a person, and it's so true. It's not always easy to articulate what that might mean, but for me going through the process of doing so, and periodically revisiting the question has been a really valuable exercise. It's always somewhat evolving, but at our core we have always been about building products that really work for kid's lives, and that respect and embody the spirit of childhood.
4. Don't Get Complacent
This is possibly my biggest lesson so far - and candidly, I learned it the hard way. When things are finally clicking, especially after you've been slogging away for years, it's easy to be lulled into a bit of complacency. But that's also when you have to be thinking about the next phase of growth, anticipating what you will need to do to stay ahead of the curve, and not just on it. When you stop anticipating your next moves, you become vulnerable.
5. Reinvent Yourself Every Few Years
This is a bit of an extension of the last point, but I think it's important to periodically take a step back and revisit the big picture -- how you see your business and the market evolving. It's difficult, especially if you're really focused on day-to-day operations - but it's crucial if you are going to stay relevant and competitive.
There's no question that striking out on your own can be daunting, but if you have a vision that you believe in, and you're willing to dig in through the ups and downs, it's more than doable. It sounds so basic, but finding ways to tune out the background noise and focus on what you need to do each day to move forward, one step at a time, can make it all feel much more manageable. As President Obama recently said, "Show up. Dive in. Stay at it."
Mia Abbruzzese is the heart and soul of morgan & milo, which she has built from the ground up. Prior to forging out on her own, she had a 20-year career with established global brands like Stride Rite and New Balance. After launching three new brands for Target, it was time to build her own. She has a degree in Economics from Smith College and two free-spirited little boys who serve as a constant source of inspiration for the brand.