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Go For the Light
by Elana Rabiner

How do you start your own business? Well, if you are anything like me, you just wake up one day and say "Enough of this, today is the day I start my own business." So in the words of a very wise sneaker company, "Just do it."

Six years ago I was a fashion designer at a sweater company that was a little demented. I was constantly booking appointments with models and photographers for our publicity shots, then being told to cancel them at the last minute. One day, however, I just didn’t cancel the shoot. I actually went to bed that night knowing that there would be a photographer, a photographer’s assistant, and a very expensive model waiting for me at a very expensive studio in Manhattan. I didn’t admit it that night, but when I woke up in the morning, I called the photographer and said, "Today’s shoot is for me, not the company I was working for. Today I start my own company – uh, do you take credit cards?". He laughed and miraculously said ‘ok’. After I called in sick to work, I dug into my closet full of designs that I loved but that had been cut from previous lines, and went to the shoot with my sweaters tucked under my arm. We photographed them, and that was the first day of Elana Carello Sweaters.

After that, I asked a friend to design a logo, and only then informed my husband of my plans. Being the conservative one, he took the news rather well – he only called me ‘crazy’ once or twice. But he was on board very soon, figuring out how to obtain credit lines, and working with banks and lawyers to set up a corporation. I then took a few more days off from work, and went through the yellow pages looking for Sales Reps. Soon, I was taking every lunch hour in meetings with potential showrooms for my line, finally settling on a Designer’s Representative who had a beautiful showroom off of Seventh Avenue. Two days later I had an order from Neiman Marcus.

One year later, Kathie Lee Gifford wore our sweater on her Christmas show, and we had our biggest season to date. We were suddenly on the map -- we had the most 'knocked-off' sweater in the industry that year - (and we made a lot of money in copyright lawsuits!). Everyone knew me in the industry as 'the mitten sweater girl', since I had popularized a sweater with mitten pockets.

From then on, I was hooked and so was my husband. Getting money to produce the sweaters was our first problem, so we did whatever we had to do to get it– we got loans from credit cards, friends, relatives, third cousins of distant aunts and uncles – whoever was willing to send money, we were willing to oblige.

Things didn't go as smoothly after that, and they never will. We had to change reps after the first month, when the showroom decided to move the office to Atlanta. We also had to contend with production delays, money woes, and a constant struggle to just find the time to get everything done. We spent our next two 'vacations' working in Hong Kong and China in hot factories, putting together the new lines or inspecting production. Also, from then on I had to decide whether to share the information that I had a company with whomever was employing me at the time. I was fired from my next job after they saw my sweaters in Saks, and they gave me an ultimatum. After that, I told my next employer and they actually used it to their advantage, as a sort of PR tool, since many of the buyers owned my sweaters.

The one most important thing I have learned as a business owner is to listen to your instincts and always go for the light. That's what separates the men from the boys, in my experience. No matter how dismal or insurmountable a problem might seem, there is light and if you look for it, you will find it. We've only been in Neiman Marcus two more times in the seven years we've been in business, but we have opened lots of new stores, such as Saks and Macy's, and we've moved on and changed our look, pricing, factories, and sales people, as needed. When I first searched for a showroom, everyone I saw told me this was the worst time to start a business, that the economy was poor, and that millions of start-ups fail every year. If I had listened to those people, instead of arguing with them, I would never have taken the risk. I'm glad I did.

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