You Are Not Always Fabulous: There is no such thing as a perfect business (ever). You will make mistakes, so learn from them. And sometimes it won’t actually be your fault — we got a bad review one time from someone who was mad at the delivery service but ended up taking it out on us. We weren’t to blame and we did our part to remediate the review the best we could, but it just happens. You have to let go of these mishaps and control what you can control. Use the opportunity to improve anything and everything you can, if possible, and move on.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brit Wilkins. Britt is a military wife, mother-to-be, marketing and communications professional, and co-founder of FreedomFoundCo., an online retail shop that creates “contemporary apparel for the wild-hearted.” Her online store has an important mission in mind: improving the lives of Veterans. Her husband and co-founder, Sean, is a decorated U.S. Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and struggled with the transition to civilian life, so this mission is deeply personal. A portion of the proceeds from FreedomFoundCo.’s online sales is dedicated to matching homeless dogs with military veterans. The Wilkins want to combat the painful statistic that 22 veterans take their own lives every day, using their clothing line to bring awareness to this issue. FreedomFoundCo. is a side hustle business for both Brit and Sean.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up in a small rural town near Toledo, OH. At age 3, I started ballet and competitive dance, which I did until high school. My mini-dance career allowed me the opportunity to travel all over the country and shook a lot of the “small town mentality” out of me pretty early on. I learned very young and saw firsthand that big cities and lots of excitement existed outside of Toledo, and I’ve wanted to be a part of that energetic fabric for as long as I can remember. In high school, I was super-involved in sports and after-school activities because I loved being a part of and serving micro-communities because the identity was so strong and specific. Despite the doubt oozing from all the Midwestern culture around me (hard work, blue collar), I chose to go to college 3,000 miles away from home in California, where I pursued a degree in Graphic Design. The Recession hit Toledo hard, but I knew that if I worked hard enough and continued to take risks, I could find a job doing what I loved. Even if it was in an art-related field where the jobs were pretty much non-existent near my hometown. My roots in rural, northern Ohio have always kept me grounded and humble, but the fire inside of me to push for something bigger in my life has never been something I’ve been able to ignore or suppress.
Traveling early in life prepped me and gave me the guts for the “big stuff” which came later in life. For example, it gave me the courage to go find creative work in any big city of my choosing after college, even if that meant knowing no one in that city or state and living in a garden apartment with my Chihuahua and only 600 dollars to my name. I moved to Charlotte, NC on a prayer and managed to get a job within three weeks of living there. Moving and taking risks, ironically, became a scarlet thread throughout most of my 20’s, when I met Sean, my now-husband, who was on active duty at the time. Together, we have weathered 10 moves in seven years in four states, and I can’t express enough how these experiences all paid off.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
When I entered the workforce, I was almost immediately unhappy and unfulfilled. I learned very quickly that you give your creativity and talent to an organization that shows little to no appreciation in return. The bigger the name brand, the more “mechanical” and “machine-like” the creative department felt. I was missing the passion and collaboration that so many designers crave, and I was desperate to get away from the ordinary corporate project pipeline. I craved more meaning and substance.
At the same time, my husband Sean’s experience transitioning out of the military as a combat veteran was heartbreaking. I thought he was going to have this amazing safety net, but in reality, even if you check all the transition boxes the Army gives you, you just end up free-falling into oblivion. One of the best decisions we made early on in Sean’s transition was the purchase of a support animal, his Great Dane, Rome. After countless predatory corporations hiring him for a quota and endless battles emotionally with loss of identity and camaraderie, we decided it was time to start doing something about the “transition” for veterans.
One day, it just hit us over Saturday morning breakfast in our grimy studio apartment in Philly. All of these pains and frustrations started blossoming into this beautiful plan: we were going to start a business and give our talents and abilities to the veteran community. We were going to reach back to our brothers and sisters and help them through what seemed like the darkest storm of our lives. So FreedomFoundCo. was born. In our greatest expression of love, we hope to combat the painful statistic of 22 veterans who take their own lives every day by giving back a portion of all proceeds to a nonprofit that pairs unwanted animals with struggling veterans.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I know it sounds cliché, but my husband has a tendency of “talking freedom to me” (this expression is now on one of our top-selling shirts, by the way!). By this, I mean that he uses military speak in ordinary life. “Adapt and overcome” is one of our favorite sayings because it resonates in everything we do. There are times we’re up until 1:00 a.m. pushing out orders and we just adapt and overcome! Truthfully, we both consider ourselves hungry entrepreneurs. You have to be able to face failure, and you should always try to fail in a sense. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough and you’re just leveling with everyone else in the playing field. To be the best, or to be one step above, you have to live this constant lifestyle of taking risks and overcoming your fears and setbacks. My husband says it best, Fail Fast and Fail Forward.
We have carried my husband’s military values into every nook and cranny of our business. Integrity, for example, is so important to us. We refuse to send out any products that don’t meet our extremely high standards, and we source only the best, American-made products for our creations. We went through two years of brainstorming and product testing before actually launching our business. Accepting that it’s not going to happen overnight, and that it takes time is a big part of the “translation” challenge.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Be honest with yourself. Just because something is a hobby or passion doesn’t mean it will be profitable. I recommend testing the market first, or gathering a focus group of outside, unbiased consumers to see if the idea sticks. Any entrepreneur will tell you that if you really have an idea that’s eating away at you, you can’t deny it. At some point, it will take hold and it’s all you can think about. Starting the business at some point becomes inevitable in that sense.
I also believe that there are endless micro-communities out there who are just waiting for your precious idea to take hold and become something tangible! Talking to a professional or group of professionals is always a good idea too. Vistaprint is an amazing example of this for small businesses. Their design team is out of this world. They have created such an awesome and thought leadership-geared environment, that their creative work and guidance is explosive in the marketplace.
We were fortunate to be selected by Vistaprint to be part of Micro Main Street, a celebration of the impact of small businesses on their communities. Sean and I traveled to Los Angeles Fleet Week, where Vistaprint built a pop-up store front that was fully branded and just beautiful. We sold our FreedomFoundCo. apparel and accessories there, and really got to connect with military families and veterans. Sometimes, just working with a fresh set of creative eyes, you can start to visualize and see your ideas come to life in physical products that might give you that push you need. Even taking that first step by designing a business card can give you the encouragement needed to launch your business and make it real.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
FreedomFoundCo. cherishes skill sets and utilizes talents in a very specific way. For example, I revel in the creative details and packaging experience and my husband is an absolute pro at the operational side of things. I try to stay away from those tasks that don’t excite or fulfill me, and he does the same. Together we’ve found a pretty delicate balance that compliments the business and our well-being perfectly. We also listen to a lot of uplifting music in our workshop — we invested in a nice Bose speaker system a while ago and we just live “wild and free” out there, always creating and making and dancing and laughing. I will add that we have also use time-blocking and it works like a charm! Mondays are for inventory; Tuesdays are for production; Wednesdays are for social media scheduling, and so on. It helps us know the mindset we need to be in before the day has even begun and prevents us from feeling overwhelmed or like we’re missing something on our to-do list.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Giving is living! We exist to help our precious veterans. We know that every sale, every Instagram post, every follow, and every conversation is an opportunity to make a lasting impression and connection with our customers, so they keep coming back. The better we do, the more we can give back to our vets through our efforts to combat the 22 statistic. The downsides of running a small business are time management when you have a full-time job, while trying not to keep your foot off the gas. To overcome this, we made a pact early on that we would rest on certain days and work after hours on others. We never deviate from this, and it has helped our company continue to hit goals and stay afloat. Being a small business owner is truly all about sacrifice. If you are willing to do these things now, (the things that other people get burnt out from or are not willing to do after so long), you have the propensity to change the world. We revel in this possibility and we do not quit!
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The amount of hats! You ALWAYS hear small business owners telling you that you have to wear a lot of hats and WOW, they aren’t kidding! I find myself doing machine and equipment maintenance and lifting a heck of a lot of boxes every week for inventory (imagine Leg Day but four days a week!), and accounting, which is not something I have ever been passionate about or good at, quite frankly. But you just sort of buckle down and do it. It’s your business, so you just put the hat on and get your hands dirty, and when you accomplish something out of your comfort zone, it is the most amazing feeling. It motivates you to tackle the next thing down the road that comes your way because you know you will just figure it out somehow.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Not yet, thankfully. But I did write myself a letter the night before we launched our business. Its contents are meant to be read on a bad day, whether that be after facing rejection or feeling like I want to quit. It’s sort of a “snap out of it” or “slap yourself” memo to keep my emotions in check. I haven’t been at a point where I needed to read that letter yet, but there have been some close calls. I know it will be there for me when that day comes. It’s OK to be upset and cry or get angry….just don’t unpack and live there.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early weeks of our business, we accidentally swapped two of our scented candles and sent the wrong scent to the wrong customers. One customer ordered “The Dog Farted” candle (which smells like warm cinnamon buns fresh out of the oven) and the other customer ordered the “Jesus Take the Wheel” candle (chamomile and lavender scent, for a stressed mama who needs a break for once). You can imagine the messages we got from both of these customers when they opened their boxes! I was distraught, but they were both so kind and played along so well. Ironically, the customer who received “The Dog Farted” candle had just gifted her sons with a puppy, so she was very complimentary of our “sixth sense.” We ended up sending them both their original orders along with a few other candles to try. One of these customers is still purchasing from us today. The lesson learned here was that sometimes moving faster doesn’t mean you’re being more efficient. It pays to slow down sometimes. We also use every challenge as an opportunity to love on our customers and give them amazing customer service.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Hands down, my husband, Sean. He is so modest and so humble! It drives me crazy sometimes, and I have to do all the bragging for him. He has accomplished SO much in his short time on Earth. He was a Captain in the Army, survived several deployments, operates our business flawlessly, and is the Head of Military Programs at Penske. He is a builder and a thinker, and I just admire his experience and tenacity greatly. He’s also one of those people who reads CONSTANTLY! He has an entire library based on Leadership and Military Leadership and I learn something new from him every day. One of my favorite sayings that he always preaches is leaders eat last. This is unequivocally 100% how we run our business today — put everyone before yourself and give.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
To date, we have happily funded a handful of pet adoptions for struggling vets that we could not be more pleased about. We credit our Great Dane Rome with saving my husband’s life and helping him find his fire again after he had been beaten down so badly from the transition. Dogs just know — can you imagine the impact the pups we’ve funded have had on their vet’s lives? Goosebumps! And this is only the beginning…we’re just getting started! #22toNone
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Stop Comparing: A very good friend of mine started a business several years before ours was born. We used to work together at the same design post, and we have very similar backgrounds. Her business is thriving, and I made the ridiculous mistake of comparing my business to her business in the first six months of our launch. Not only is her demographic different, her product different, her go-to market different, and her entire approach to her small business different — she’s been in business for years! My best advice is to get a grip and stay laser focused on YOUR lifeblood, not someone else’s. If you want it bad enough, you will work for it, and your day will come.
- You Are Not Always Fabulous: There is no such thing as a perfect business (ever). You will make mistakes, so learn from them. And sometimes it won’t actually be your fault — we got a bad review one time from someone who was mad at the delivery service but ended up taking it out on us. We weren’t to blame and we did our part to remediate the review the best we could, but it just happens. You have to let go of these mishaps and control what you can control. Use the opportunity to improve anything and everything you can, if possible, and move on.
- Be Unapologetically You: Any brand isn’t worth engaging with unless it’s truly authentic. People can sense in-authenticity, and they can also sense deviation from a brand’s usual messaging too. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, and never water down your mission or brand. We are an openly Christian and Military-friendly brand, with contemporary apparel and products that do not fit your average apparel mold. We launched a few lines that were too watered-down and they fell flat with our customer base. That’s when we realized the beauty of our identity, and decided to embrace it more, despite a challenging political climate in the states. (We do not just sell stateside and have currently hit nine outside countries). If there are people like us craving this kind of messaging and imagery, surely there are other people out there too. Be unapologetically you.
- You Are Green: No matter how many jobs you’ve had doing this for another company and no matter how much experience you think you have, you’ve never been doing exactly what you are doing right now in this very moment for your small business. Your small business is like a growing organism, and it will continue to grow if you take care of it properly. Like all organisms, the DNA is unique, meaning the opportunities and challenges are unique from any other company or job you’ve ever done, no matter how similar they are. It may be your baby, but you do NOT know it all. Be open to other entrepreneurs’ ideas and advice, and don’t take unsolicited advice personally either. Realize that when people see something they like or they want to help, 9 times out of 10 it’s coming from a place of love.
- Maximize Your Profit Margin As Soon As You Can: This can be really tough for small businesses, especially in the first year of business. It’s difficult to prove your worth to get a bulk discount from larger vendors you may be sourcing for your products, and some states make obtaining a tax-free license as challenging as a boot camp military obstacle course. Unless you have a tax-free license, you’ll end up paying both 1) taxes like regular consumers and 2) consumer shelf prices. It can feel like a Catch-22 because it’s also important to drive some sales early to gain momentum and build your. This is why we recommend charging a lower price upfront for your products and taking a hit on your profit margin in the first six months to a year. Once you have built a reputation in the marketplace and have some sales under your belt, you can then go back to suppliers and negotiate your prices as much as possible. Never accept the ticket price on their website (even when it says a bulk discount is already being given). Be bold and friendly and get in touch with a sales representative to work through some pricing opportunities. On many occasions if you can build a solid foundation with a sales rep and even set some goals together for future discounts (hit x-amount of dollars spent, get an additional discount next Spring up to x) and always get everything in writing. Before you know it, you’ll be able to widen your profit margin both by negotiating a better price from your supplier and raising your prices later down the road (people will be willing to spend more when they can visually see that you are a reputable brand)!
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I absolutely love this question. If I could spark a movement, it would be to eliminate the middle-man for bringing together unwanted animals and struggling veterans. It would be incredible if something happened on the local level, and perhaps entailed local rescue shelters and the VA. The majority of veterans get plugged in to their local VA when they transition from the service, especially those who have disabilities and need care or struggle with PTSD. Wouldn’t it be amazing if local animal shelters had an active or living/breathing list of veterans on “stand-by” for a therapy animal that the shelter could just adopt directly to the vet instead of euthanizing? Incredible!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain.” — Dolly Parton
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.