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A Carefully Plotted Road Map — and Persistence — Lead to Success

by Taylor Sisk, Staples® Contributing Writer

“It’s really happening,” Andrea Leiser says of her business, Little Hat Workshop. She started the business making hats because they’re fun and she liked the creative outlet, but Andrea quickly learned that her product served a greater purpose when she met a cancer patient at a holiday crafts fair. Now, in addition to being stylish headgear, the hats provide comfort, support, encouragement and, yes, a healthy dose of good fashion for women who need it. The hats also provide financial support: Andrea works with an organization that uses the hats for fundraising, and she donates a percentage of her sales to cancer-related charities.

For these efforts, and to help her take things to the next level, Andrea was a second-prize winner in Staples’ Make Your Idea Happen contest in May 2014. She says she used her winnings to buy a new computer, new lighting and some “really great cutting tools.”

We checked in with Andrea, who says that starting her own business has been a genuine learning experience.

How did you bring your business idea to life?

I spent two or three months thinking about exactly how to do it. I talked with people in business; I talked with my family. I wrote down a lot of stuff. Then I made a plan and I set up my company.

I decided which pieces of the business I was good at and which pieces I was going to need help with. And I think that was a breakthrough moment. When I started out, I had limited sewing skills, and I recognized that was an area where I needed an expert. So I’ve gotten some help with that. I now have somebody working with me doing social media. And I have Dalton Designs, here in Mystic, CT, who are helping me design how the hats function — because now we’ve moved to hats with a function. I talked with a lot of women who’d had cancer, and you know, going through chemo treatment is such a tough thing to go through, and you need to know that there are people behind you. So I designed a little changeable charm that would fit into a little pocket in a hat. Family and friends can give you a charm to fit in it. So we’re working in that direction: How is a hat not just a hat?

It can be a challenge to build a business on limited means. Can you give an example of how you made decisions on where to invest?

One of the tools I knew I had to replace was my laptop. It was really slow and outdated. I didn't own a tablet, which I knew I would need to make more dynamic presentations, be able to design electronically, edit photographs of my work and so forth. I was about to make a very conservative purchase of an inexpensive laptop and a small tablet when I received an email from Staples about the Microsoft Surface, which marries a laptop and tablet together. The Surface would create efficiency in that I would have just one device and one charger, and could do more than with the other devices combined. I had a big decision to make and I wanted to take more time to decide, but didn't have that luxury. So I decided to spend more than I had originally planned on this one critical piece of technology — and I’m so glad I did.

What’s one other item that you can’t run your business without?

I couldn’t run my business without my smartphone. I use it for absolutely everything! I sketch designs, get directions, Skype clients, make electronic lists, set reminders for meetings — the list goes on and on. It would be great to have a little larger-format smartphone so I could do even more on this versatile device.

How do you define success? How will you know when you’ve achieved it?

When my hats and accessories are available nationally at a mainstream venue, when losing your hair doesn’t mean you have to wear “one of those hats” that call out “cancer patient,” when I have helped someone with cancer feel just a little better for the day, when I can contribute on a regular basis to organizations that will figure out an end to cancer — then I will know I have achieved what I have set out to do.

How do you make more happen?

It takes complete commitment, the confidence that you can make it happen — and constantly learning so you can be as competent as possible. It takes energy and a whole-person commitment of body, mind and spirit to something you believe in.

Any advice you’d give to someone trying to bring an idea to fruition?

Believe in that idea. It will take longer than you think, but don’t give up. I always say, take care of yourself, because you’re at the helm. Some days will be frustrating; don’t turn those experiences or feelings into stop signs. Keep the green light on. I never thought I would be where I am. Never. It was such a dream — but it’s really happening.

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