Taylor Walden of Simple & Sentimental: “I wish someone had told me about operating manuals early on”

I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to do things differently than other businesses, especially early on. It’s easy to compare yourself to other businesses and measure your own success based on how you think you’re doing in comparison to them. It was great to see other businesses on social media and learn […]

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I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to do things differently than other businesses, especially early on. It’s easy to compare yourself to other businesses and measure your own success based on how you think you’re doing in comparison to them. It was great to see other businesses on social media and learn from them. I get unique ideas and inspiration from other entrepreneurs often. But I used to get caught up in whether or not I was doing it “right”, when in reality there really is no right or wrong way to do things in business (in most cases). Most great ideas contradict our expectations and understanding, so sometimes being different can mean you’re really onto something. It’s all about what’s best for your business and what works for you.

The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.

As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Taylor Walden.

Taylor Walden started Simple & Sentimental in her college dorm room with 300. dollars 4 short years later, S&S is a multi-million dollar ecommerce gift business with 15 employees. Taylor’s goal is to build the best online gift company in the world. She lives in Greenville, North Carolina with her husband Nick, where she enjoys volunteering and giving back to the community. Taylor is passionate about helping children, and hopes to inspire others to help vulnerable children in their communities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I grew up in Clemmons, North Carolina, right outside of Winston-Salem. I have always had a love for sentimental gifts. From a young age, I handmade birthday and Christmas gifts for my friends. I can still remember the first truly “sentimental” gift I received as a young child. I had begged for a dachshund puppy for months and when my birthday rolled around, my family grabbed a special present for me to open. I held the gift bag and felt the outside, wondering what could be inside. I immediately started crying when I opened it to find the puppy I had wanted for so long! It made me feel so special and like my family knew me well and what I wanted for my birthday that year. As time went on my craft skills got better, and I enjoyed working with things hands-on. I originally wanted to be an Interior Designer when I got to college, but things quickly changed when I started Simple & Sentimental in my freshman dorm room.

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

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” — C.S. Lewis

I faced a lot of challenges during my childhood. I was emotionally, physically, and sexually abused for years as a young child. As an abuse and trauma survivor, I often felt alone, scared, and anxious during my adolescence. When I got older, repressed memories of the abuse resurfaced. Working through those memories over the past few years has been difficult, but it has increased my faith and showed me how important it is to love and advocate for others.

Many people have complimented my passion and grit as an entrepreneur. The hardships I have endured led me to develop the skills now necessary in my business and in my personal life. So many of my business and leadership decisions, passions, and motivations stem from my life experiences. My past has prepared me to walk in a calling that is far bigger than myself.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

“It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way” by Lysa TerKeurst really resonated with me. The long-lasting effects of childhood trauma have often left me wondering “why me?”. Other people’s actions against me has caused me much pain and hurt that I didn’t deserve. Reading Terkeurst’s book helped me understand why I sometimes feel disappointed with my circumstances, and was encouraging for me during my journey of healing. She writes from her own experiences of disappointment and shares how God can use our disappointments for His glory. It left me with a greater understanding of how God can use my hardships to help other people, and how trials bring me closer in relationship with Him.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?

I graduated from East Carolina University in December of 2019 with a Bachelor of Business Administration. I joined 4 other full-time employees working at Simple & Sentimental upon graduation. I was already a full-time employee, but I finally got to work normal hours and didn’t have to leave work in the middle of the day to attend my college classes.

As a business owner, you often wear many hats throughout the course of your business. Before the pandemic, I fulfilled orders, developed new products, created marketing materials, worked in HR, among many other roles. With only 5 full-time employees, many of us did a variety of tasks to run the business. I dreamed of the day when we would be able to hire more employees so I could step away from fulfilling orders and dedicate more time to really leading the company.

What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?

I pivoted twice during the pandemic. The first time was when COVID-19 started spreading in the United States. Our sales dropped dramatically because we primarily sold wedding and engagement gifts at the time. Many customers were cancelling or postponing their weddings and no longer had a need for our products. We sat tight for a while, hoping things would get back to normal. I soon realized that was not the case, and we needed to pivot.

Simple & Sentimental has a laser engraver that we use to make wedding gifts. After our sales dropped, we happened to come across a social media post by another laser engraver owner. PPE was in short supply, and they had used their engraver to make face shields. We immediately ordered supplies so we could make and donate face shields to our local hospital. I started a GoFundMe with a goal of 800 dollars to fund the donations, and the goal was exceeded within 6 hours. By the end of our campaign, we raised 8,000 dollars+ and donated over 2,500 face shields to hospitals around the country. For those few weeks, our personalized gift company became a PPE manufacturer.

As the need for face shields slowed down at our local hospital, we decided to pivot our personalized gift product line. We had a few birthday gifts on our website, so I decided to add a new birthday gift box with a message reading “Happy Quarantined Birthday!”. Within weeks, sales shot up! With Mother’s Day around the corner, we created “Quarantined Mother’s Day” gift boxes. The sales volume we saw as a result of “quarantine” gifts was unlike anything we had ever seen before at Simple & Sentimental. Our staff increased from 5 people to 25 people in 2 weeks to keep up with the demand.

Now, we are known for a variety of gifts. We still create wedding and engagement gifts, but you can now find birthday, anniversary, baby, graduation, and career-themed gifts and products at Simple & Sentimental.

Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?

One of my best friends had a birthday in early quarantine. We weren’t able to celebrate the way we normally would have. Looking for a gift to give on her birthday gave me the idea to create a quarantined birthday gift box. I thought about how many people were celebrating their birthdays in isolation. We all want to celebrate together, but government mandates forced us to get creative when it came to special occasions. The quarantine gift box was both meaningful and light-hearted. One version read “Happy Quarantined Birthday! Here’s to your first (and only) birthday in quarantine.” Another gift box read “ Happy Birthday! You don’t age if your birthday is in quarantine… right?”. Receiving the gift box at their front door gave the birthday guy or girl a laugh while making them feel loved and appreciated.

How are things going with this new initiative?

Quarantine gifts are still one of our best-sellers! It’s meaningful to know that our products are helping people around the world continue to show their love and appreciation to others safely.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband Nick and I work together at Simple & Sentimental. We complement each other well, and he has been a great support to me both at work and at home.

If you met Nick outside of work, you would never guess he worked at Simple & Sentimental. He is outdoorsy, loves sports and working out, and isn’t really a feelings person. A personalized gift business where there’s glitter everywhere and he is 1 of 2 male employees wouldn’t seem to be his dream job. But he took a pay cut and left his engineering job to work here. Not because he felt a sudden passion for making engagement gift boxes, but because he believed in me and the business we had built in my college dorm room. Marriage is a true picture of what it’s like to die to your own desires daily, and Nick does that well. He inspires me to put others’ needs before my own, and he encourages me to keep persevering when things get tough. I am so grateful for his support and sacrifices that helped me get to where I am today, and I strive to love and serve him as my husband. It is a beautiful thing when you have a relationship where you look up to one another and share a common goal.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?

When I share the story of our pivot during the pandemic, people immediately congratulate me on the growth of the company. Growth is great, but it doesn’t come without growing pains.

From mid-April until late May, Nick and I worked 40 days straight, 14 hours a day. We did not take a single day off. The business had grown so quickly and we couldn’t keep up with it. No matter how many employees we hired, we couldn’t catch up on orders. The orders came in more quickly than we could fulfill them. We would check our order que in the morning at 5am and see 1,000 orders. Then we would go into work with 23 other people, filling 400+ orders, and go to bed with 1,100 orders. It sounds like a great problem to have, but it was still a problem.

Once the Mother’s Day rush came to a close, we re-evaluated our production process. Our operation had worked well up until quarantine. The volume we saw was overwhelming and the processes we had in place weren’t ready for it. A few days later, I got a random sales call from a company I had never heard of before. They asked if we had ever considering purchasing a printer to produce our personalized gifts. We had, but we never seemed to find the right machine to do it. I didn’t realize it yet, but that phone call was the answer to our quarantine production problem. We invested the profits we made into printers and completely changed our production process. Now our order capacity is higher, our operation is more efficient, and we turnaround a higher quality product.

We could have just moved on from our rough experience in May. We could have ignored the problems we faced and taken bonuses from the profits. Instead, we learned from our mistakes and made smart investments into our business.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. I wish someone had told me about operating manuals early on. If I could do it all again, I would have started an Operating Manual for my business on day 1. I read about Operating Manuals in The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber earlier this year. An Operating Manual is a living document where you record all of your business processes and procedures step-by-step. The document will change as your business changes, but it helps you yield consistent results and it’s a great training tool for employees. Each department of Simple & Sentimental has an operating manual, and our business is better for it.
  2. I wish someone had told me about how important it is to have a mission, vision, and core values in an organization before I started S&S. No matter if your organization consists of 1 person or 100 people, you need a mission, vision, and core values to guide your decision making and goals. A company’s mission statement isn’t meant to be written down and never looked at again. It states why you exist, and is the centerpiece of your decision making and goal setting as a leader. Your vision is what drives and inspires the organization. Core values are also essential for decision making. They remind you how to act and react, and are a great tool for hiring. When faced with decisions, you compare your choices against your core mission, vision, and values. If a choice doesn’t line up with your core, you don’t do it. This helps your organization stay on course and reminds you of why you do what you do.
  3. I wish I had known earlier how important mentorship and feedback is when leading an organization. I used to be so scared of someone copying my business and doing it better than I could. The common term for this is “Imposter Syndrome”, where you feel like you’re a fraud and aren’t actually able to perform a job or run an organization. I let my fears of not being good enough get in the way of networking with other business owners, getting feedback from people, and letting people into my business to help me. Once I realized that my business was unique to me, and that I was part of the reason it was successful, I opened up more. I invited other business owners, mentors, and friends into my world. My business is what is today because of that decision. Yes, we have competitors, and I don’t share all of the details about my business publicly. I have chosen specific mentors, employees, and community members who I know have my best interests in mind to serve as advisors to my business.
  4. I started Simple & Sentimental with only an Etsy shop. We didn’t have our own website until a year in, and we didn’t start really focusing on our website until earlier this year. I wish I had been told how important it is to have your own website and to work hard on it from the start. If I had focused on my website earlier in the business, it would be bringing in more revenue right now and we would have a more established online presence. Selling on other platforms like Etsy or Amazon is wonderful and I highly recommend it because you can generate a lot of sales, but at the end of the day they are the ones that own your shop, your sales, and your listings on their platform. You have no control over their corporate policies and ways of doing things. On your own website, you have complete control over almost every aspect. It’s important for ecommerce businesses to have a well-developed website and online presence that they own. You have more freedom, flexibility, and control.
  5. I wish someone had told me that it’s okay to do things differently than other businesses, especially early on. It’s easy to compare yourself to other businesses and measure your own success based on how you think you’re doing in comparison to them. It was great to see other businesses on social media and learn from them. I get unique ideas and inspiration from other entrepreneurs often. But I used to get caught up in whether or not I was doing it “right”, when in reality there really is no right or wrong way to do things in business (in most cases). Most great ideas contradict our expectations and understanding, so sometimes being different can mean you’re really onto something. It’s all about what’s best for your business and what works for you.

So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?

I used to wake up in the morning and check my phone, looking forward to watching fun morning news shows while I ate breakfast. Once the pandemic began, checking social media and watching the news every morning started to give my anxiety. Now, I avoid checking my phone until I am about to head out the door for work. I try to spend time in the morning journaling, in prayer, and reading my Bible. It brings me peace, and I don’t wake up thinking about the stressors of the current state of the world, my job, or anything else going on outside of my home.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I have a passion for vulnerable youth, and feel that many people are uninformed about the many children living in the United States without a home. There are more than 400,000 children in the foster care system in the United States, and over 120,000 of those children are waiting to be adopted (AFCARS Report, 2019). My hardships as a child have made me passionate about helping vulnerable children who at risk for abuse and neglect, and I try to find ways to help vulnerable children in my local community. For example, Simple & Sentimental partners with Building Hope, a local organization that serves youth in our community. I hope to inspire others to find ways to help vulnerable children in their community, and to educate people on signs of abuse and neglect.

Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!

I would love to get lunch with Joanna Gaines! As a female business owner, my top female business role model is Joanna Gaines. I remember when Fixer Upper first came out when I was in high school. At the time, I watched her and dreamed of becoming an interior designer myself. When I got to college and started majoring in Interior Design, I started Simple & Sentimental as a side hustle. I ended up changing my major to business as the company grew, and Joanna Gaines became an inspiration to me regarding her business rather than her decorating style. She consistently shows that it is possible to have a successful home life and a thriving business at the same time. She prioritizes her marriage and children over her business, but that doesn’t mean her business has to suffer. If I could get lunch with her, I would ask her how prioritizing her family before her business has a positive impact on her business.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me at https://simplesentimental.com or on social media @simplesentimental

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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