The Leap Stories #26: Tess Lloyd

 

We often talk about building courage to take leaps of faith the start new things. But this leap is about being brave enough to stop the ‘doing’.

In 2002 Tess Lloyd co-founded accessories brand Polli, and by 2007 she had left her design job to pursue building the business full time. Fast forward to 2014, a raft of local and global stockists and two babies later, Tess knew is was time to re-evaluate. She needed to stop and take a breath.

Selling a business you created also means giving up part of your identity tied to it. It can be disorientating and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. We work so hard to make something successful, walking away from it brings on a reinvention of who we are, what we value, what we want and what we are willing to offer the world. I so admire Tess for all she has created in her business and for the wisdom to know when it’s time to fold your hand and shuffle again for the next deal. But not before taking time out from the game altogether.  Enjoy. x

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Tess Lloyd, co-founder of Polli and small business consultant. Photographed by Milk and Honey Photography.

What did you want to be when you grew up and why?

Funnily enough my five-year old asked me out of the blue recently ‘what do you want to be when you grow up mumma?’ – I love the innocence that we never stop learning and we can still dream of new opportunities and possibilities. When I said ‘I am grown up’ she said ‘grown up like Ro-Ro’. Ro is my mother who took a leap to study sculpture in her late 50s. As a child I presumed I’d be an architect like both my parents who ran a practice from home. I’ve always loved art and design.

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Tess and her gorgeous daughter, Indie, at Polli’s first clothing launch. Photographed by Milk and Honey Photography.

What did/do you study?

Straight from school I studied Industrial Design with a sub major in illustration. I was lucky enough to work at Dinosaur Designs and an Industrial Design firm during my studies, as well as meeting a great group of women through my degree with whom I’ve formed life long friendships. It was at university that I met my future friend and business partner Maja Rose. We entered a Design Institute of Australia competition together towards the end of our degree and discovered how well our skills, attitudes and ambitions complimented each other.

What has been your most scary/courageous leap you’ve ever made (preferably in your business/career/life direction)?

In early 2014 we made the decision to sell Polli, our business and our ‘baby’, which we had started 10 years prior. This decision was the start of a challenging journey both emotionally and logistically but ultimately with a happy ending in finding the right people to take the business into its next chapter. Business partnerships are likened to a marriage and businesses a ‘baby’. It was a big decision to separate all these things that had such strong emotional attachments.

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What were you doing before you made your leap?

Maja and I had run Polli for 10 years before making the leap. From a hobby on our kitchen tables and weekend market stands; to an export business with biannual trips to New York; to a local business bringing our young children to work. Polli had really grown and changed over that time and afforded us such brilliant experiences and adventures. We had used our profits to invest in a studio in Stanmore, we’d built a great team of six other women who we really enjoyed working with and a work environment and culture we enjoyed every day. As a team we were committed to sustainability, we enjoyed healthy communal vegetarian lunches daily and we adopted a four day working week philosophy – never working on Fridays.

Despite all this we’d reached a point where, personally, we needed a change and while I know I struggled to accept it for a while it was clear that the timing was right to make a leap. So we started the process of brainstorming our options and what we both felt was the best outcome for us personally and for the brand we’d built together.

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Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing work?

Growing up my family were all in small business and I think seeing their work ethic, commitment and passion was really formative in my life and career choices.

I’ve been lucky to have the support of my husband, Bill, during this time of transition. He’s been amazing. We’ve been together for 19 years and Bill has been a great compass for me in life. Whenever I’ve had moments of doubt about making the leap – before or after – Bill calmly reassures me and we’ll discuss the pros and cons. Thanks Bill – I love you!

My business partner Maja Rose was a huge part of my life in the transition from school to university, university to full time work and full time work to starting our own business. I think we’ve both influenced each other a lot.

Through export and tradeshows I was really fortunate to meet a lot of other great small business owners who were generous in sharing their stories and experiences. The shared experiences formed a network of support and friendship which was really valuable throughout my career with Polli.

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What did you have in place before you made the leap?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The process of still running Polli while organising the business sale and handover and having a young family was all I could muster. It was an intense few months on so many levels. When we broke the news of the sale the standard responses were ‘what are you going to do next?’, ‘oh wow, you must have something amazing lined up to give this up’, ‘I can’t wait to see what you do next’. Each time I would smile and say my plan was to ‘breathe’ and enjoy some time with my young kids. But each time I had a small internal freak out. ‘Oh crap! What is next? What have I done? Am I making a mistake?’. My leap was triggered by a need for change not the temptation of another venture. At these challenging moments I’d turn to Bill who would often remind me of the daily struggle I was in and that I was making the right decision.

Having worked since my babies were just weeks old, taking a break was a rare opportunity to make myself truly present in such a big time in their lives. It’s been an exciting time to see my daughter start school this year and my son start preschool; and to be there for them during their own transition and time of change. By taking this break I’ve also been able to step back and consider my values and what the next venture needs to be for me at this time in my life.

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What was your defining ‘I can’t do this anymore’ moment that lead you to the leap?

There wasn’t so much one moment or a catalyst. There was just a feeling that life had changed and that we needed to make some changes too. Maja and her family had relocated to the US two years earlier and we were feeling stretched with the long distance. We both have young children and running a busy small business, launching two collections a year, was getting exhausting after such a long time. We weren’t able to put as much time, energy or travel into Polli as we had at the start and we didn’t want our ‘baby’ (the brand) to suffer. I had gone from being the person who was never sick and always wanted to go to work to someone who was carrying a lot of stress and anxiety and it wasn’t good for me.

How did/do you overcome/work with the fear that comes with leaping? How do you decide to choose courage?

Change is scary. Oh boy! It wasn’t easy.

I must say, like so often with small business, you need to know when to engage experts. My sister Anna, who was also our studio manager at Polli, could see that I needed extra professional support during the business sale and asked for a recommendation for a business mentor. We’d set quite a cracking timeline of four months to finalise the sale and handover of the business so that it coincided neatly with the end of financial year. Enter Louise Woodbury who was so quickly able to help me sort through the emotional and practical sides of the transition. Louise had great techniques and advice for focusing on the essential tasks and keeping me on track with the sale of the business and the building. A great analogy she had was that selling a business is like giving a puppy up for adoption. You can’t keep all the puppies, no matter how emotionally attached you feel. Once you pass on the puppies you’ll see them being walked by other people, fed by other people and they might not do it the way you’d do it, but you need to accept that as you simply couldn’t keep them all! (I am a dog lover after all!)

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How did you fund your leap?

Selling the business has allowed me the financial freedom to take my time in working out what’s next.

What other leaps have you made in the past?

Making the leap to leave a stable, full time job in a leading design consultancy was a challenging leap of faith. This was in 2007 and at the time Polli had grown from a hobby into a demanding little business. We were lucky to be supportive business partners so we held hands, closed our eyes and made the leap. We both left our full time roles within a few months of each other. Until this point we hadn’t paid ourselves a wage and had reinvested any profits back into the business so we weren’t even sure if we could support ourselves. It was an exciting and scary leap and within a few months we had a team of friends working for us (all mums or soon to be mums looking to transition in or out of the work force) and we were on a plane on our way to New York for our first international trade fair.

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Tess Lloyd and Maja Rose, co-founders of Polli, with new owners, Brooke Johnston and Sarah Thornton. Photographed by Milk and Honey Photography.

What leaps didn’t work out? What did you do about it?

As in all small business we had plenty of leaps that didn’t bloom – export markets, product lines, wholesale opportunities and sales relationships. Even leaps which weren’t successful financially were beneficial in their own way as we learnt from them. In small business you’re always learning on the fly, there’s no handbook and little time for courses; leaps are really what teach us and you learn so much more from your failures than your successes. My dad was a positive and practical man. He’d often say ‘scrape your boot and move on’ and I feel we really worked with that motto at Polli.

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What are you most fearful of? How do you deal with it?

My biggest fears in selling the business were losing my identity and my connection to a community I really valued. We had worked really hard to build a great company culture at Polli and I really saw our team as family. I didn’t really understand or predict what it would feel like to lose your sense of purpose. This hit me pretty hard after I stopped working, I felt lost not feeling like I was achieving things each day.

I was really fortunate to participate in the Compass – Women in Leadership course just after the Polli handover. It was perfect timing. In the course we did a lot of work on values and I can see that identity, connection and purpose are all things I need. It’s such key information when you’re laying the foundations for something new.

My identity at Polli was so natural and came so easily I never needed to consciously own it. But during this period of transition I really struggled with the question of who I am and what I do now. The way you project this message really impacts the way people receive it and, in turn, the way you feel about it. I raised this insecurity or uncertainty with one of the facilitators of Compass and he simply said ‘you’ve got to own it!’.

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How would you rate your level of happiness about making your leap? 1 being sad, 10 being rad.

Honestly I’d say I’ve been on the rollercoaster that looks a bit like this spanned over a year … 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,10,10,10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1,1,1,1,1,2,3,4,5,6,7.

Despite the ride I have no regrets, the leap was the right thing for me at this point in my life. The sale and handover went smoothly, the new owners have become valued friends, I know the business is in good hands and I’ve got all the opportunities to create a new path for myself.

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What’s the biggest upside to making the leap?

Future freedom. When you’re running a small business that you’re passionate about it’s all consuming – it’s your job, hobby, social circle, dreams. People under the employment of others will leap from job to job in different directions every few years. In a small business you’re committed, you’re married to it and a big change is harder to orchestrate.

What’s the biggest downside to making the leap? And how do you get through it?

The hardest thing is grappling with the fears I mentioned earlier such as the forging of a new identity… As with most things, action is a real confidence booster, be it meeting with a potential new client and in the act of talking through a potential project with them remembering how much experience and knowledge I have gained through Polli.TessLloydQuote9

What might be your next leap?

After a year of recovery (getting sick a lot) and lots of good QT with the kids I’ve finally got the energy to put into new projects. I’m really excited to be able to use my skills to consult to other brands in areas of product development, manufacturing, sales, marketing and media. After working with new clients I can see that I’ve got a whole breadth of experience that I can offer other small businesses. It’s empowering to recognise that – when your interests and skill sets align you feel such a spark of energy.

What are your favourite words to live by?

Done is better than perfect! Sheryl Sandberg
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Who do you admire who also made the leap?

I’m so lucky to have so many inspiring women on my journey.

Kate Williams of Pistol PR, New York. Kate was a lawyer in Sydney, followed her dream to live in New York, took the leap at the unfortunate time of the GFC and was struck by a freeze on legal recruitment. At that time we were fortunate enough to have Kate work representing Polli in the North American market for several years before she took another leap and set up her own successful PR firm. I don’t doubt that Kate has a lot more exciting leaps in her future.

Caroline Prentice of Dandi, a fellow Industrial Designer started her own brand – Dandi – under the finances of a parent company. She’s one of the hardest working and most creative women you’ll ever meet and she took the leap to buy out the investor so she could have full control of her business.

Kim Tran of Mushu, was also a lawyer here in Sydney but she took the leap to follow her creative and entrepreneurial passions. She started Mushu as a line of women’s bags around the same time we started Polli. She then opened two successful stores in Sydney. Only this year did she take the leap to close her flagship store and take a new leap into a restaurant venture – So 9 – with her sister. So 9 is a Vietnamese restaurant and has opened in Dank Street, Redfern.TessLloydQuote10

A piece of advice for someone with an itch to leap?

Life is short. Seriously, you can always fall back on your previous career using your previous experience. But you can never know what’s possible unless you give it a go.

Right now I’m:

Hearing: My busy three-year old chattering and singing while he draws next to me.
Eating: Lots of eggs!
Drinking: Paddington Tea by Ovvio (best.herbal.tea.ever)
Reading: Gut by Giulia Enders
Loving: The sun

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I believe reinvention is necessary for happiness. What worked for you yesterday, may not be what you need to take you forward. Just as the seasons change and ever evolve, so too do we. All we need to do is stay open to possibilities.

Much love, Kylie x

  1. Love this….”You can always fall back on your previous career…but you never know what is possible without giving it a go” Thanks for generously sharing Tess and for bringing us these stories each Sunday night Kylie!

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  2. Such a wonderful article. Well done Tess. It was so great to be a small part of Polli in working with some of the hand screen printing at Publisher Textiles. That seems like such a world ago. Great article. Rosie x http://www.therosedogblog.me

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  3. Tess – you’re amazing! You inspired me at Polli and still do, having read this article. I too am having ‘a break’ to spend some quality time with the kids, and there is nothing better or more rewarding. TT x

    Reply

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