Sharon O'Connor shares 10 lessons I've learnt from 10 years running an upholstery business.

10 lessons I’ve learnt from 10 years running an upholstery business

In some ways, it feels like only yesterday I was launching my business Vintique Upholstery. 10 years on, it feels like a lifetime since I embarked on my very first furniture transformations. Have there been mistakes along the way? You bet! Alongside moments of fear, despair and uncertainty.

But the buzz of seeing the brand I’ve built grow and thrive is well worth every second of stress and lost sleep. I’m a big believer in learning through every experience – good and bad. So today, I’m reflecting on the lessons I’ve learnt and how they have shaped me as an upholstery business owner. I hope they help you too.

1) Don’t compare your start to someone else’s middle

When you start out in business, it can feel like everyone is doing better or has more experience, but there’s only one way to catch up, and that is to crack on and do it! Of course, you’ll make mistakes, but if you treat every failure as an opportunity to learn, you’ll be growing and improving every day. Grow gradually, build up your confidence, tweak the things that aren’t working and improve on the things that are.

Sharon O'Connor working in the workshop on a client's project: reupholstery of a chair.

2) Always do YOU!

Most people that run a small business will have stressed about the magical idea of a USP at some point in their career. In the early days, I would worry about what it was that made me stand out. How am I different? These days, I’m much less concerned about the notion of finding a ‘niche’ and more focused on delivering a great service every day. My mission is simple: I solve problems and offer solutions with a side dose of design and flair rather than the ‘paint by numbers’ approach you’d get from a store.

I approach every project individually and complete it with care. My customers and their happiness with the outcome are my focus. If they know me, like me and trust me through my marketing content, they will choose to do business with me. Worry less about the USP and more about the ‘This is me!!”

3) Done is better than perfect

Overthinking can be paralysing, and the fear of getting things wrong can prevent you from ever achieving anything. I see and hear this a lot with a fear of ‘putting myself out there’ with social media or any kind of marketing or website. Staying the perfect secret is not ideal if you want to grow a business. Rather than focus on perfection, remember the phrase, ‘a job begun is half done.’ More often than not, the task is more straightforward than you think, and the buzz of accomplishment beats the nagging fear of it hanging over you. If you wait till what seems like the ideal moment to start a task or job, it will likely never happen.

A completed upholstery project sits atop a workbench in the Vintique Upholstery workshop.

4) Charge what you’re worth

Naming your price is not about someone’s willingness to pay or what they can afford; it’s about charging what you’re worth. You HAVE to factor in your overheads, materials and – most importantly – your time. If you’re not, you’re doing yourself a disservice, and you’ll never build your business into the success it’s capable of being. Have the courage of your convictions and avoid the pressure to work super-fast to make your price work. If you can’t match a customer’s budget, don’t lower your price or worry about your pricing model.

There will always be another customer around the corner who can pay for your expertise.

5) Size isn’t everything

Forget the flashy trappings of a business like a van with a logo and a fancy shop on the high street. The quality of what you do is the most important way to prove that you mean BUSINESS! My workshop is still tiny, but it’s functional, and I can promise you that size really doesn’t matter. I have enough space to do my work, and in this digital era, you can still build a profile even when you’re tucked away. Websites and branding evolve as you grow, so don’t worry about investing hundreds straight away. Focus on what you DO, and don’t spend too much money from day 1 on flashy tools, all singing and dancing websites and workspaces. Start with functional and work towards building and improving them as you go.

A black antique Frister and Rossmann sewing machine.

6) Do what you love… And you’ll work harder than ever!

Sadly, you don’t really get to go ‘out of office’ when you run your own show. I set my own deadlines and expectations, which are far tougher than any boss would be. I can’t imagine ignoring a re-upholstery enquiry for a week or not following up with a customer about their fabric choices. BUT, 10 years into my second career, I can safely look back and say that I have now found a purpose that ticks all the boxes for me. That doesn’t mean it’s plain sailing all of the time.

However, it does mean upholstery is now very much at the heart of me and how I live my life. Doing what you love is hard work but abso-bloody-lutely worth it!

7) Trust your gut

Red flags are there for a reason. If something isn’t feeling right, then believe in your instincts. Whether it’s a business decision that isn’t resting easy with you or a supplier or customer that is giving you bad vibes, act on your suspicions. When I look back, I probably could have picked out every big mistake before it happened if I had believed more in my intuition.

8) You are not a ‘to-do list’

In the words of Robert Poynton, “Machines are designed to run constantly; people aren’t. To prosper, we need a more sustainable approach – an ability to pause.” I’m a huge advocate for consistency and know that applying consistent habits in my business pays off in the long run.

“However, sometimes you just need to STOP for a while, disconnect, reset and come back to things with a fresh perspective. If it’s not feeling right, taking a pause is far better than simply pushing on.”

Whether it’s upholstery, social media or ploughing through endless admin, I always find that by stepping away and returning to it later, the problem is solved far quicker than getting frustrated. It took me a long time to realise this. Taking a PAUSE can be refreshing, well-deserved and beneficial in so many ways.

9) It’s never too late!

Up until my late 30s, I worked in fashion. But then along came the recession and redundancy, which prompted a massive rethink that forced me to start again. Upholstery came to me later in life, and some people said I was mad to be starting again. Until I discovered it, I didn’t imagine I’d ever be able to create a viable lifestyle business, but here I am, aged 52 and 10 years on, in a total switch around from the buzzy, fast-paced fashion life I had before, loving the life I’ve built. Things that seem like a disaster at the time can be a blessing in disguise. Redundancy, relationship breakdowns, relocations… Embrace the change, and often, you’ll find a more positive outcome than you could have imagined. A dramatic ending to something has proved to me to actually be a brilliant re-direction.

10) Work ON your business, not just IN it

While my upholstery business generally ticks along very nicely, I still have to work ON it and not just IN it. It’s important to get the day-to-day sh*t done but also to set yourself realistic and ambitious business goals. As well as financial targets, there are creative aims but, above all, a desire to never stand still. Building a support network is also one of the best pieces of advice I could give to any small business owner. Investing in help will free up your most valuable asset – your time. And however you choose to spend that – on a beach, reading a book, hanging out with loved ones or bingeing on Netflix –makes it all worthwhile!

Just starting out or feeling stuck?

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I hope you enjoyed reading 10 lessons I’ve Learnt from 10 Years Running an Upholstery Business, and found these insights useful for your own business.

But if you’re just starting out or you feel a bit stuck and want 1:1 support you can book a Spring To Success Session for tailored support.

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