Ashley Smith is a great example of what following your heart, along with some determination and a lot of hard work, can do. Starting your own business is the hardest thing in the world but it can also be the most rewarding. Ashley shares with us her thoughts about healthy detachment, time for yourself and thinking outside the box.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
Sort of, it was in May two years ago. The only reason I came to New York was because my friend said she had a spare room in this great apartment and it was all furnished. I thought how easy is that? It’s never going to be this easy to move to a new city.
I showed up to this apartment in Williamsburg and expected it to be all set up and turns out it was just this empty apartment. Her old roommate had taken all the furniture out.
Where were you before?
I was in Melbourne, Australia. I came home to San Diego for two weeks to get my shit together and then move to New York.
So coming back to the States you knew you were moving to New York?
Yes. When I left Australia that’s when my friend told me about her apartment and I didn’t know where I was going to be living in the States.
I had been in Australia a little over a year and a half. I started in Sydney working at an agency as a Producer. Then I transferred to the Melbourne office and in between that time I spent a month in Bali doing a yoga teacher training. That’s kind of when the idea of Otherworld started to sprout.
That feeling when you travel… feeling free, beautiful, exotic… I wanted to capture it and bring it to people in a brand.
Then I went to Melbourne and had this great set up where I would work for three months and then take a month off to travel and then come back to work. So during that time I went to Thailand and India.
I would say that when I was in India I decided that I really wanted to do Otherworld. I would spend all day in these silk shops trying on Indian wedding veils and saris and I became obsessed with them. I loved the feeling of putting these beautiful textiles on.
I started thinking about creating a company that was all about these feelings you have when you’re on vacation and bringing in this sort of travel photography angle. That’s how I came up with printing photographs on these fabrics.
So you had no background in this?
No background in fashion. My background is in branding and marketing. In fashion I think you either come in on the business/brand side or you come in on the product side.
When I got to New York and I was looking for a job I had some time so I started writing a brand deck for Otherworld. I really started with the brand, like what does this brand mean to people beyond the product, beyond the clothes, because I wasn’t totally sure what the products looked like at the time because I hadn’t made anything.
I know branding so I thought I’d start with that. So I did this big branding exercise and had all these cards on the walls with words, phrases and taglines. Then I condensed it down to a five page branding deck. I shared it with some people who thought it was really cool and that’s when I got into the business planning side of it.
Then I met the right people to make the products. That was the kicker because, obviously, I don’t have a background in that. I met these two gals who basically do just that, they help designers go from an idea to an actual sample or garment.
How did you get funding for it?
Friends and family, which I’m still running on. In terms of growth I definitely have to get funding for years two and three. I will not sugar coat it, that is a super stressful part of all of this. You really have to believe in your idea and your track record in your sales thus far and find people to believe in you also, monetarily.
That’s a side of business that people don’t really talk about. They don’t talk about the ‘how’.
There are times when I’m like yeah, this is a great month but I don’t know what will happen next month and it freaks me out. That’s why I’m not afraid to say, as a young, entrepreneur; yes I have to supplement myself with side gigs and freelance jobs. There are plenty of entrepreneurs that have full time jobs for the first few years of their business.
So now I am really figuring out how to get that funding.
How are you approaching that?
A couple of different ways. I work out of the WeWork space on Verrick, which is a shared working space. They have a ton of great resources for funding and networking and they have a bunch of different pitch nights where you can pitch to panels of people that are looking to invest. So that’s one way.
I’m looking into factors that finance your receivables. Like if I got a really big order from a department store the factor might pay for that production because they know that they will be paid by the department store, it’s just going to take some time.
You can also get lines of credit and small business loans so that’s another thing I’m looking into.
You just need to find the right fit. Fashion is not a fast growth business like maybe a tech company might be. In fashion people are buying seasonally. Now buyers are buying for resort season, which is in January. So if they place an order now I won’t see that money until February. It’s just a slower burn.
Your product is in a lot of stores though!
Yes. So when I started I wasn’t sure if it was going to be better for me to go direct-to-consumer. Right now, direct-to-consumer is really trending like Everlane, Warby Parker... You can basically pass on a cost savings to your customers because you’re cutting out that wholesale margin, which is great! Everyone wants to pay less and I think that only works when you have a huge marketing budget to drive people to your site because that’s your channel to sell. Whereas when you’re a small company like me that’s not backed by a huge marketing budget you can’t do that.
So now, I’m so glad I started with both and included that wholesale margin for myself because now wholesale is way more successful and is about 80% of my business. We have about 50 retailers that carry Otherworld.
That’s a lot for being around only a year.
I agree. You’ve got to just keep at it though. The key is that those accounts re-order.
How do you make sure they do that?
New collections, new look books. I also have sales people that work for me and their sole job is to reach out to these people, different buyers, go to tradeshows, do road appointments. I certainly could not do that all by myself.
How do you balance your personal life with having your own business?
That’s probably the hardest thing for me in year one. My personality is the kind where I want to do it all, I want it to be super successful super quickly.
I realized a couple of things, one; there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Ever. On top of that realizing that prioritizing work things is just as important as prioritizing time for myself.
I have a pencils down rule at 7pm. You need to have a life outside of work. Obviously some days can go longer than others. It helps me keep a little bit of separation.
The other thing is I’ll carve out time during the week to just be creative. It’s an hour where I get to just read a travel magazine, sketch, go to a gallery, go shopping because that’s where you get inspiration and see what everyone’s doing. Don’t think that you have to have something at the end of that hour, just use that hour to do whatever you want. That keeps me alive and excited.
Also make sure you’re putting your self-care high up on that list. You have to rest. You have to exercise. I meditate in the mornings, not for anybody but me.
It’s that separation from Ashley and the business because it can so easily become one. I was falling into this place where I would start to feel bad about myself if the business wasn’t doing well or feel great about myself if the business was doing great. Your self worth is suddenly tied to the monetary success of the business, which is not a healthy thing.
It’s still something I’m working on. At least now I’m recognizing it. A little bit of detachment is healthy.
From a business and financial standpoint, is being in New York good in terms of exposure but bad in terms of cost?
That’s a good question and something I think about a lot. Eventually I want to be west coast because my family is there, I feel better there and the brand is more of a west coast brand. But I do think that the only reason Otherworld got up and running is because I am in New York.
In the sense of product development and creation New York is a great place for it, but yes, cost of living is way more expensive. On the other hand all your major editors are here, there are a ridiculous amount of network opportunities here. Also when I start to fundraise and look for investment it’s here and San Francisco.
So all these things come back to New York. In that sense I want to keep it going here in New York for maybe another year or two and then I can shift to the west coast.
Did your life go down a totally different path than you imagined when you were twenty?
I’ve always had a small problem with authority. I want to do things my way. I’ve always been like that. So when I was working in ad agencies I always enjoyed it, I learned a lot but I was never so passionate about the projects because they weren’t mine. There was no ownership.
So I kind of always knew deep down that I would have to do something on my own and be my own boss. When I was twenty I would never have thought it would be this but now, seeing how it unfolded, it makes complete sense.
In my twenties I probably thought that I would end up in music. I always loved music and I would write music reviews. I still love it.
Do you play?
No. I just have a real passion for soul, funk and Motown. But then looking back to being a kid I was really into style and dress ups. So yeah it does make sense.
This is a weird and fun exercise; think back to your favorite childhood stories, whether it was a book or movie, what were your favorite things? Typically they will have a common theme; maybe it’s about the underdog or something. For me, all the movies and stories I loved were makeover stories. So looking at that and looking at what I do now, I do love helping women feel their best.
I think I like teaching yoga because I really like helping people transform how they feel.
Do you still teach now?
Yes. I teach in a studio in Williamsburg and I do corporate work. It’s so good that I still do that because it makes me realize after a tough day of Otherworld there’s other stuff that’s important and Otherworld isn’t everything.
So you’re living in the West Village, what do you think of it?
I love it. It’s so convenient.
Do you have any neighborhood favorites?
The Cornelia Street Café is great. They have jazz and music in the basement 7 nights a week. They have a great brunch.
What is the best piece of advice you could give?
I’ll do a piece of advice for anyone who has a passion project or has an idea for a business. My brother-in-law gave me this advice and it has stuck. It’s basically; spend the majority of your time outside the box. Think of your business/project as a box. Everything in the box is like internal operations, product development, emails, basically running the business. Everything outside the box is promotion, outreach, new business, press, pushing the idea out. Spend the majority of your time outside the box.
You could have a really great idea but if you’re not getting it out into the world on a daily basis nobody will know about it.
Where is your favorite place to take out-of-towners?
This is so hard because there are so many places! I love Arthur’s Tavern in the West Village. It’s this soul/funk bar with live music pretty much every night. It’s pretty much a raucous in there. It’s so fun! That’s where I’d take my party friends.
Also bike riding along the west side highway or Central Park.
What’s your favorite New York moment?
It was in Williamsburg. I was going out for a night in the Lower East Side. It was about 10pm and I was standing on the subway platform. It was one of those platforms where you can see people standing on the opposite side; it was the JZ line at the Marcy stop.
I remember thinking that week that there are so many weirdos in New York. Everyone here is so weird. And so I was listening to this song and I really had the urge to dance. I really wanted to get down but people would think I’m so weird but then I was like “fuck it! I’m gonna dance!” So I started dancing and I look across to the other platform and I see this guy who’s looking at me and he puts on his headphones and just starts dancing.
In that moment I just realized we’re all weird and crazy and who cares! This is the city to be like that. Nobody gives a shit. I could wear a prom dress and no one would say anything. There’s this cool level of anonymity here.
What does New York mean to you?
I always come back to this idea that New York just makes you better at everything. It makes you a harder worker but on the other end it’s made me value my time and relaxing. It’s made me better at my advertising job, better at entrepreneurship, a better friend.
The stakes are higher because there’s so much competition. You just have to get better at everything you do.
Visit Otherworld to see the beautiful apparel Ashley has created.