Perspective. I have benefited from gaining the perspective that the highs and lows are normal. I listen to business/startup podcasts. I have friends who also have their own companies and listening to them helps normalize what I am going through. Having a cofounder also brings so much perspective. We can remind each other of the good things when we are down, and that we aren’t alone in this.
Being a founder, entrepreneur, or business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur” we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Bassett.
Nicole Bassett is the co-founder of The Renewal Workshop, a circular business that is leading the apparel and textile industry toward circular business models by restoring value and reducing waste through partnerships with apparel brands to process their apparel and textile waste into Renewed Products at its state-of-the-art factories in the U.S. and The Netherlands. Prior to launching The Renewal Workshop, Bassett applied her passion for environmental responsibility and human rights in consumer products, serving in leadership roles in the outdoor and bicycle industries, including as Director of Sustainability for prAna, Social Responsibility Manager at Patagonia, and Head of Human Rights at Specialized Bicycles. She has led the introduction of Fair Trade Apparel into the U.S. market and is industry-recognized for her work championing and integrating social and environmental responsibility through businesses and supply chains, as well as developing and implementing business strategy within apparel brands.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Way back, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I even worked as a TV editor at the Discovery Channel for four years. But as a person who loves the outdoors, I realized that sitting in a dark edit bay for the rest of my life was not going to make me happy. During those years at the Discovery Channel, I was exposed to really cool companies and the technologies they were implementing to reduce their negative impact on the environment. That was it. I was hooked on the idea that businesses could be a catalyst for positive change. I quit my job and went back to school to get a master’s degree in environmental studies and business. My first job out of school was an internship that led to a full-time job at Patagonia, and I haven’t looked back since. I worked in sustainability and supply chain for 15 years, problem-solving how to take ideas and put them into practice for various companies.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I remember standing in a clothing factory looking at thousands of black yoga pants and thought to myself: Who is going to buy all these clothes? And what will happen to them when people are done wearing them? It became so real to me that the apparel industry is built on a business model of making new things and relying on customers to constantly buy more. No matter how sustainable we made clothes, at the end of the day, growth was tied to making ever more stuff, and that undercut all the good we were doing.
That was the moment I knew I had to figure out a new path away from the current model — a way to give brands another option, or reduce their risk enough, that they could transition to another business model and still have the financial success they needed to meet their other objectives.
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
I’m definitely not a natural-born entrepreneur, and in fact, I don’t really identify with that word. I’ve always been drawn to finding the root cause of a problem, so that a team could truly solve the problem. That drive to discover the root cause often revealed that the path to solving a problem hadn’t been forged before, so I grew comfortable figuring out things in a new space. While I can appreciate that this might sound entrepreneurial, I feel like I am fumbling around, asking lots of questions, and then testing or trying solutions. I didn’t seek out to start a business; I just wanted to accelerate change and improve the world.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
That would be my cofounder, Jeff Denby. I had an idea how to start a company, so I spent two years with a ‘how-to-write-a-business-plan-101’ book, did the research, solicited feedback, and drafted a plan. But then I was staring at this 80-page document and asking, ‘Okay, now what? How does one actually start a business?’
Fortunately, Jeff was leaving the company he had founded and was pondering what his next chapter would be. So I said to him, ‘Hey, you know how to start a company. Will you help me start one?’ He very kindly said, ‘Sure, I can help you.’ After a few months of working together, I knew he would be able to move this idea from that business plan and into something real. So he came on board as the other founder of The Renewal Workshop.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes The Renewal Workshop stand out is that prior to starting this company, I had lived the job of our customers — apparel brands. I had designed services and products to solve actual problems in the industry. If you are inside an apparel brand and you’re asked to transition your company circular, there is a LOT of work involved to get there. Jeff and I knew that from the start, and we, therefore, designed solutions so a brand can become a partner, and we take them along on a journey to restore value and reduce apparel and textile waste.
Our goal is circular, and we break it down bit by bit. For example, we help brands re-commerce their waste apparel. Then we help them get their products back from their customers for resale. And then we help their design teams design for circular. We even link a brand’s waste to recyclers.
One our partners, Coyuchi, was able to make a new blanket out of their badly damaged items, closing the loop and showcasing that circular is possible.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Belief in the Vision. Since The Renewal Workshop emerged as a natural progression of my 15-year career working in the apparel industry, I had total conviction that this was a good idea. I believe the apparel industry needs to change, that it cannot continue business as usual, and that we can help with this transition. This really matters to our team. I often hear how much our staff appreciates working for a company that is contributing to a solution, and not being part of the problem.
- People-Centric. I care about the user experience, and that shows up in how we design our products and how our company operates. The Renewal Workshop creates products that brands actually need, and we organize these so it is easy for brands to sell the idea internally and get started quickly. The Renewal Workshop itself is a unique company because we are organized under a TEAL structure, a self-organizing management structure where people are at the center of decision making. To me, this allows for innovation to move quickly, and we can hear from all voices, regardless of who they are.
- Good Listener. Humans are terrible at communicating, we think we are being clear when we aren’t, and we often don’t say what needs to be said. I know that as a CEO, I need to really listen — not only to what people are saying but to what they are not saying in order to get to the heart of an issue.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
This wasn’t advice, but a situation. There was someone we trusted who was a leader in the industry and alluded to potentially funding us. They pushed us down a path toward a service provider that oversold their technology. I was too green to ask enough questions and too naive to understand what was happening. We wound up getting into a bad relationship with this vendor and the leader never invested. It was a painful lesson to learn.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
Well, I am addicted to my work. I love it, and I get a high from working. So I set a terrible example for my team. But I often tell them, ‘Do as I say, NOT as I do.’ There is no expectation that anyone should live like I do.
My co-founder and I have a saying that I do follow: ‘Eat well, sleep well, exercise, and be with loved ones. Do that first and then work hard.’ If you make sure you’re doing the former, then you are able to work better.
Nature is also my reset. I live in a rural area and can go on hikes before and after work to just be out in nature. It also helps that our U.S. factory is located in a National Scenic Area.
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Time. You know that saying, ‘A 20-year overnight success’? Well, I didn’t realize until later that one of our strengths is Jeff and my social capital from having worked inside the industry for so long before. We both were doing leading work with organic cotton and Fair Trade, so our values and intentions were creditable because we had a track record of doing hard work.
I think doing the work over talking about doing the work adds so much value. I know I appreciate and admire those who understand what it takes to change something and make the hard decisions to do the right thing.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
When you start a company, all you have is you and your idea. In order for someone else to trust your idea, they have to trust you. Ask yourself, why this is worth other people’s investment. Because in order for someone to take a risk on you, your creditability and authority mean everything.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
For me, it was not understanding the startup and investor world, how it works, how the money flows, what the expectations are, and what the CEO/founder journey entails. I was learning about this whole ecosystem at the same time I was experiencing it, and I hated not understanding what was going on. It was so different than my previous experience of working inside existing companies.
It’s hard to know what questions to ask when you don’t even know what those questions are. So my advice to my former self is this: find people who have raised money and built a similar type business and just ask them to tell their story.
For example, we also had help from organizations like VertueLab, a nonprofit that funds and supports cleantech startups that are working to helps solve the climate crisis. It’s important to seek outside support and advice from organizations like VertueLab that have long track records, good insights, and can offer hands-on support at the early stage.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride the Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Ba ha! This question is fantastic. My husband also runs his own company, and we often say we would be the most amazing employees now that we have run our own companies, because now we know what the leaders of a company are going through. Earlier in my career, I often wondered about a former boss: ‘What does that guy do all day?’ So I called him a while back and told him I had no idea what he was going through and apologized if I had been an annoying employee.
As a CEO, when problems arrive at your desk, they are the serious ones, usually situations that cannot be easily solved. I am so grateful every day that I am a co-CEO/cofounder because if I didn’t have Jeff, I don’t know where we would be. I feel like I am on the edge every day, playing whack-a-mole with issues, some in our control, but most of them not.
I also realized the loss of being an expert at one thing. I was really good at my job when I had jobs. As a CEO, you have to be a person of all skills, you have to know enough about finance and tech and sustainability and production and marketing to be in service to the purpose of the company. It is hard when you know it isn’t your skillset, but you are the best the company has at that moment.
When you’re an employee. you have a safety net around you that you often aren’t aware of. Someone is dealing with your wages, taxes, making sure you have the tools to do your job. And you have only one accountability: the job you were hired to do. You also have someone you can go to, because everyone has a boss, and you can always escalate the issue up. And you can always leave if a better option comes up… there is a chance to move your career along.
Daily, I ask myself what would I be doing if I weren’t leading this company? And daily, I realize I am so lucky, and regardless of how hard this is, it is a VERY rare opportunity to see your idea become a reality and to be making direct change in the world. Through the ups and downs of it all, I realize and appreciate what a gift it is for this to be my life.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Luckily there have been a lot of highs — from bringing on new brand partners and launching re-commerce sales channels to seeing customers respond to our work, being honored with awards, and seeing the impact we are making on the planet by reducing carbon and waste.
One particular story comes to mind: When Jeff and I were first pitching our company there was one investor we were really interested in, and we were just grateful they would talk to us. In our second meeting, they said they were ‘in,’ that they wanted to invest, and offered an amount much higher than we expected. Jeff and I both kept a straight face for the rest of the meeting and said thank you before we left. Once we were outside, we made sure to walk around the corner, where we started jumping up and down and screaming. We couldn’t believe it! This was going to happen! It was starting!
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Again, there are so many. Our very first employee got cancer and passed away two years into our business. She was critical in developing our technology, and that was a surreal experience. Once, there was a forest fire outside our factory, and we were evacuated for a couple of weeks when all we could do was watch from afar. The impact of Covid this year was ground-shaking as we tried to figure out what to do with the business and protect our employees.
Another time, we were launching a new product with a client, and at the eleventh hour before a deadline, we discovered a bunch of things we hadn’t realized that needed to be fixed. We were scrambling to pull things together at the last minute, which made our client incredibly stressed. They called and lectured me as if I were a child, reiterating how disappointed they were. I broke down in tears, a 42-year-old woman who couldn’t have been working harder for this client, but there we were. In the end, we wound up making the deadline and launching the product, but it was a stressful stretch.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
I have a toolbox I always go to when I am down. Inside that toolbox are: Call a friend. Meditate. Take a bath. Exercise. Or paint. Just like anything, you need to have medicine ready when sh*t’s going wrong. So, I have my go-tos that calm my brain, put things into perspective, and then I can approach the issue at hand from a better place.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Perspective. I have benefited from gaining the perspective that the highs and lows are normal. I listen to business/startup podcasts. I have friends who also have their own companies and listening to them helps normalize what I am going through. Having a cofounder also brings so much perspective. We can remind each other of the good things when we are down, and that we aren’t alone in this.
- Celebrate and Mourn. Celebrate the highs when they are there because the next day might deliver bad news, so catch that moment while you can. And when sh*t gets terrible, mourn that moment, understand that feeling is real, acknowledge it, but don’t stay in that low state. Mourn it and move on.
- Get a Hobby. You need something that’s not work to help your brain see that there is life beyond work. Sadly, between 2016 and 2020, my hobby was politics — not exactly a lower-stress choice. But I learned so much about local politics and got involved, and that kept me connected to the world outside of my work. I also picked up learning Spanish on Duolingo, so I had a healthy hobby, too.
- Family & Friends. You need people who are going to love you unconditionally, so you don’t get too attached to your work. I have this amazing group of girlfriends that I have known since elementary school. When I see or Zoom with these women, we cut each other down to our younger selves. We are all super proud of each other and, at the same time, we don’t let anyone’s ego get too big.
- My Husband. I realize this is not helpful advice for someone else, because my husband is taken. But he has been so incredibly grounding throughout all of this. He will remind me that we have a good life, we have everything we could possibly need. He will buy me flowers when we have success, and he will tell me he will still be there if it all falls apart. I couldn’t be more grateful and fortunate to have someone like that who has my back.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to do your best and keep putting one step in front of the other. Resilience shows up in so many different ways. I am completely blown away by the employees of The Renewal Workshop who show up to work in some way every day and say, ‘we are in,’ despite all the rules that were implemented, all the limitations, all the fear around the virus. It wasn’t every day all the time, but it was little moments that added up to a culture of willingness to be in it. I think having something to work for is motivating. And there is also a need to rest, which is resilience, too, because people know to take care of themselves for the long game.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
I grew up on a farm in northern BC, Canada. My dad specifically was not interested in whiny girls and would often say, ‘Oh, toughen up.’ Most of the time he was right. We would scream at cold water, or frogs, or other things that weren’t that scary if we only became curious and checked them out in a different way. Where I grew up exposed me to a lot of experiences that tested me mentally and physically. And that showed me that I could do a lot more than I ever imagined.
This might sound overly dramatic, but every time I ‘survived’ something, I realized I would be okay and errored on the side of trying over not trying.
I believe this is the base of my resilience. Just the other day, my husband dared me to jump into a frozen creek. I assessed it, figured I wouldn’t die, and assumed he didn’t think I would actually do it. So I jumped in!
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
I was born an optimist, so that is helpful. I am also a practicing mediator, so I have practice at seeing situations as ‘just is.’ That helps not getting caught up in the extra story around a bad situation.
My optimism can also get me into trouble because I can over promise and think that it will all be alright when sometimes it isn’t going to be.
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact, both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
I consciously choose to lead from a place of love, not fear. That shows up for both the company and our clients. Our whole company mission is to create a positive social and environmental economy through circular. That is inspiring and motivating and something that others can attach themselves to. I love pitching to brands and talking about what is possible if we shift out of an extractive and polluting way of doing business into one that values people and the planet. I love how they see the possibility, too.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
My favorite quote is Thoreau’s, ‘The only way out is through.’ This was something I learned from my grandmother. There is no skipping over something to the good part. Sometimes it is about recognizing the only way to the other side is through.
I use this most often when there is a difficult situation — a situation I wish would just go away. But that’s impossible. It means having a hard conversation, making difficult decision, working through something to get to where you need to go.
I find it motivating and grounding that there isn’t some secret shortcut, but leadership is stepping into the work and getting it down.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!