THE CREATIVE PROCESS STARTS WITH PROCESS
Entrepreneur|April - May 2021
My business barely survived its first few years, and I nearly crumbled under the stress.Then I learned the greatest lesson of my career, which transformed our company into the go-to apron brand for restaurants everywhere: Without process, we are nothing.
ELLEN BENNETT

“HOW ARE THOSE APRONS COMING ALONG?” I ASKED.

“WE GETTING CLOSE?”

“OH, I’M SORRY, ELLEN,” MY SEWER SAID.

“I WILL FINISH THIS WEEK. I PROMISE.”

He’d said that yesterday, too. Time was running out.

The year was 2013, and I’d just launched my workwear and apron startup, Hedley & Bennett. Today our aprons are standard in kitchens; we’re used in more than 6,000 restaurants across the U.S., and we make a new sale every four minutes. But back then, we were clueless upstarts. We were trying to convince chefs—any chefs!—to try our aprons. And then, miraculously, we got one of our biggest orders ever: Chef Bryan Voltaggio, who was the first-ever person to compete on Bravo’s Top Chef and Top Chef Masters, wanted 100 aprons for his D.C.-area restaurant, Volt. And he wanted them in just a few weeks.

Exciting! And also: Yikes! We didn’t know how to make 100 aprons at once. But aren’t these the stories you hear about—the fakeit-till-you-make-it tales, where entrepreneurs summon their grit and it all works out? There was no way I was going to say no to a massive order for a major player in the food world. So instead of checking my inventory, consulting with my sewers, scheduling check-ins with my team to ensure a smooth production, or even really asking myself if this was possible, I just said yes. And I put a big X on the calendar on the day the order needed to go out.

And then…I just expected it to happen.

What happened next would be the beginning of a slow revelation, and perhaps the greatest entrepreneurship lesson I’ve ever learned. It is this: Processes are good. I originally thought they’d stifle my creativity, but they do the exact opposite. They support creativity. Eventually, you have to step out of survival mode in order to thrive. It’s the brutal truth of being a founder. Yes, leap. Yes, run. Yes, get up when you get knocked down and try again. This is how you build a business. But once that business is built, and moving, and growing, you’re going to have to stop, reassess, and edit your methods. You have to find new ways to communicate, to tell your team what you need, and to hear what they need. You have to learn how to ask for (and give) help.

Building a business will always be a work in progress, and new processes will always be required as you grow. There’s no one system that saves the day forever.

But back then, I didn’t know any of this. Which is how I ended up throwing my team into madness.

THE MORNING OF our shipping deadline—the drop-dead date that I needed to send 100 aprons to Chef Voltaggio—I ran down the flight of stairs in our factory to where our sewers were. The order still wasn’t ready.

My already palpable panic spiked as I entered their workspace. A tsunami of fabric exploded from literally every available space in the tiny room. A bag of half-eaten Cheetos slumped on top of an in- progress apron, the orange cheese dust millimeters away from spilling out and adding its own surreal accent. Takeout containers and half-drunk cans of soda were scattered everywhere.

I implored, and pushed, and said with audible fear: “We can’t be late!” I beamed every ounce of energy and need for these aprons to be done squarely at our sewers. I yelled. It wasn’t fun, for me or for them, but it had worked before.

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