Jennifer Hinton and Thayer Sylvester: “Use Personality Tests when hiring!”

Find Advisors who have experience in your industry. Even if you have a disruptive business idea, it helps to have people with expertise on your side. They might just prevent you from making a big mistake. We didn’t have a group of advisors, and I always thought we would have gotten through some of the […]

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Find Advisors who have experience in your industry. Even if you have a disruptive business idea, it helps to have people with expertise on your side. They might just prevent you from making a big mistake. We didn’t have a group of advisors, and I always thought we would have gotten through some of the growing pains faster with some experienced people on our team.

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 Jennifer Hinton and Thayer Sylvester. Jennifer co-founded Carve Designs in 2003 with her lifelong friend Thayer Sylvester. As Creative Director of the Mill Valley, California company, she manages the brand’s design team and drives the vision and direction of the product line as well as the company’s catalogs and website. Inspired by travel and trends, the ocean and coastal living, Ms. Hinton has helped guide the evolution of the company as demand has steadily increased for versatile active-wear.

Thayer Sylvester is CEO of the Mill Valley, California company, she oversees business strategy and operations while ensuring unity of vision for the brand, which is currently sold at such national retailers as REI and Title Nine, regional outlets such as Paragon Sports, Half Moon Outfitters, Jax Mercantile and The Trailhead, and e-tailers including Amazon, Zappos, Backcountry and SwimOutlet.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

JH — I grew up on the east coast, in the Boston Area. Spent most of my summers at the beach with my entire family: grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends. We sailed, swam, fished and explored. Summers on the east coast spent at the water remain my favorite to this date. I attended private day schools and high schools where I had to work extra hard due to dyslexia. This led to a good amount of summer spent tutoring and summer schools. I played competitive tennis all over the east coast, so the other part of my time was spent practicing every day, dreaming of becoming a professional.

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?

JH — I was unhappy working at a design firm in San Francisco and simultaneously going to Art School. I had just started surfing at Ocean Beach, which isn’t the friendliest beach to learn at, but I was having so much fun. I was planning a trip to Mexico in connection to Habitat for Humanity work and I asked Thayer, my now business partner, to meet me in Sayulita (17 years ago). We literally couldn’t find anything to wear for what we were doing and so it hit us on that trip. Why don’t we take our love of this new sport and our shared love of all things water and make some board shorts, rashies, and swimsuits?

There is 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?

JH — By surrounding ourselves with people who were smarter or knew more than us. As well as by being willing to take a risk and lose, which happened many times throughout the journey. Also trusting in my gut and believing in our idea, knowing that it was a great one and at the time, thinking outside the box. It has always been important to remember not to do what the others are doing just because that’s status quo.

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?

JH — Have a plan and a business partner. It helps to have another person to lean on when times get tough. There is always one strong person when the other is feeling down.

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?

JH — Let the business idea evolve and it will inevitably turn into something else, which is exciting. Bringing people on that are passionate about what you’re doing can reinvigorate the work and also help you, as they will always have a new perspective on what you’re doing.

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?

JH — The best part of running our own business is tackling new obstacles almost every week. It keeps your brain working and lets you meet new people from all walks of life. Most often, they’ll have a new perspective and its always interesting. Downsides are that your personal life and work-life can become so intertwined that it’s really hard to separate them. At the end of the day, it’s hard to just shut off and move to something else unrelated. Thayer and I use to force each other to take vacations and breaks to separate ourselves, we forced each other to not rely on each other for social interaction. Taking ourselves away from each other and the job was and is super important.

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

JH — Honestly, the expectation is the worst thing for anyone. Since I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, I never had set expectations about it. The only thing I could and can rely on is that change is constant.

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?

JH — Absolutely! But at the end of the day, I knew that working for someone else would slowly kill my soul and I started this company for a reason and that’s always prevailed.

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?

JH — One of our very first products was a pair of board-shorts. We had no idea that we needed a tech designer to help us build the shorts ie: create measurements. We had found a factory in downtown San Francisco and we gave them the fabric and a sketch of what we wanted with some numbers associated with them. When the short came back to us it had one wide leg and one teeny tiny leg opening. It wasn’t funny at the time. We had spent SO MUCH money on fabric, shipping of fabric, sewing, etc. that we almost shut the doors. Thayer and I couldn’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. It almost ruined us but now that I think about it, it’s quite funny and we both wish we had kept those shorts as a memory of how far we have come.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why? A few people.

JH — My parents were both entrepreneurs so watching them as I grew up definitely left a mark. My business partner is a huge inspiration, I lucked out because she’s probably the smartest human I know and is certainly the hardest working person I know.

TS — Oprah always comes to mind because she inspired a movement of women and inclusivity. Her enthusiasm to create a community is contagious, and it reminds me that people are happier in environments that foster community. Phil Knight is incredible. He was able to transform the shoe industry entirely and was never afraid to question the direction of the business, prompting Nike to become the global brand it is today.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

JH — Well, this is an ongoing effort. Thayer and I are two female business women and one can imagine how hard it is to survive in this man driven world… we employ all humans and mostly women. Many of the women working for us have families or are divorced but they all need a job. By allowing them to have flexible schedules they can not only contribute to their household but also support their family and be there when they are needed. Moms are an untapped resource and many companies demand they work a typical 9–5. We think it’s so important to lean in and support them in all they do. They work just as hard, are just as smart and feel good about working out of the house while still staying in tune with family needs. Too many women leave the workforce after kids, but we need these women. They make the world a better place. As an outdoor business, the environment is very important to us. We do everything we can to not be wasteful and protect mother earth. Efforts include creating clothing in sustainable fabrics and next year we will be using compostable packaging. We use soy inks on our hangtags and recycled paper for all collateral. We support organizations that work hard to save our oceans and planet and work with nonprofits that help support young disadvantaged girls get outside and play.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

JH –

  1. I wish someone had let me know how powerful the internet would be. We started as a wholesale business. As we all know retail is a sketchy market. The internet is taking over. We have spent so much time trying to catch up to the digital age. Three years ago, we barely had a working online store. We scrambled and gathered enough money to get a working website up and a direct to consumer catalog out the door.
  2. I wish someone would have told me that there are people out there in the world that want to see you fail for no reason at all. There will always be someone who will try to sabotage your work, be it a disgruntled employee, a neighbor, a competitive company, etc. We have had a few and it is important to try to address the issue as best one can and move past it.

TS –

  1. Invest in & protect your IP & Trademark! In today’s litigious society, it’s completely worth it. I hired someone relatively cheap to do our TM search early on. Because I focused on saving money (we were a start-up after all), I didn’t hire them for sufficient counsel, and we found ourselves in a very expensive law-suit (which we won) later on. It was hugely taxing on our organization and could have been avoided with some early legwork.
  2. Find Advisors who have experience in your industry. Even if you have a disruptive business idea, it helps to have people with expertise on your side. They might just prevent you from making a big mistake. We didn’t have a group of advisors, and I always thought we would have gotten through some of the growing pains faster with some experienced people on our team.
  3. Use Personality Tests when hiring! You don’t have to make hiring decisions based on the results, but typically, the tests shed light on personality traits that affect peoples’ contributions to the organization. If you know how to motivate a person to perform their best, you’ll build a great team. We had a key member of our team who I knew was brilliant but could get easily distracted. I managed him differently than our other directors and was able to maximize his performance quickly

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.

TS — Please can we get rid of single-use plastics? Both my co-founder and I are ocean lovers, and we can’t help but notice the destruction and pollution of the place we hold dear, the source and inspiration behind our surf apparel company. We talk a lot about single-use plastic because so much of it ends up in our oceans, causing damage to the wildlife and nature in and around our favorite places. And, we see plastic in our everyday purchases, from take-out containers to mechanisms that make it impossible to take kids’ toys out of their packaging. At Carve Designs, we’re trying to limit our damage to the environment by exploring compostable packaging, sourcing organically, and sustainably. It’s a process, and while many have started making an effort, still our habits will have to change dramatically before a real impact will show. Every business needs to think about this.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

JH & TS — This is a quote on the wall in our office, a steady reminder of our dedication and the hard work we’ve done and continue to do: “Good things come to those who wait. Good things come to those who work hard and never give up.”

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

TS — This person isn’t a business person, but I’d love to sit down with Gavin Newsom (current California Governor) and other leading politicians to have a serious conversation about job creation within the apparel industry. American apparel and footwear consumption are a significant component of the GDP, but our labor costs can be noncompetitive and prevent businesses from being able to create a domestic supply chain. I grew up in Ohio in the ’80s and saw jobs shipped off because of lower labor costs. When we started Carve, all of our manufacturing was domestic. But, we as a nation haven’t been investing in sewing technology, and there isn’t sufficient capacity for a business like ours to manufacture domestically. I want to figure out how to make apparel in the States again, but we need the help of our politicians.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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