Selfmade Stories: Key Business Lessons Learned from Entrepreneurs

Welcome to Selfmade Stories, a content series brought to you by Office Depot & Brit + Co highlighting emerging entrepreneurs & business owners who have completed Selfmade – a highly-interactive virtual community & membership program for women, designed to enable each student to start or grow their own business.

Each week we will spotlight a Selfmade alum, to share their business and what unique lessons they've learned through their Selfmade journey. Bookmark this page & check in weekly for new lessons and if you're interested in applying for an upcoming course check out our Scholarship page for more information.

Lesson #79: How To Get More Media Placements

Getting journalists and influencers to notice your brand can be a valuable way to gain credibility and get the word out about your business. But how do you shine through a sea of Public Relations pitches? 

“I believe that the most important approach when it comes to PR is to own your experience and expertise,” says Elayna Fernandez, a single mom of four and founder of The Positive MOM.  

Elayna was selected by SUCCESS Magazine as one of the 125 Most Impactful Leaders. Her work has been featured on Forbes, CNN, WSJ, The Huffington Post, Good Morning America, and a slew of local news stations. She’s also a contributing writer to Entrepreneur Magazine. 

“Many of us have been conditioned to hide our skills and gifts, and have learned to feel shame around bragging. I always say, ‘it’s not bragging if it’s true.’ It’s important to shift this paradigm and give ourselves permission to be seen. I am grateful to have been featured in so many TV and radio shows, podcasts and publications, because visibility breeds credibility,” says Elayna. 

Lesson #78: How To Bring Sustainability Into Your Small Business

Bringing sustainability into your business is not only good for the planet, it can help save on business costs and make your brand more appealing to customers. 

“After selling and producing products for the past year, I have had the opportunity to learn more about how I can incorporate more sustainability into my future products, which includes my latest game Go Big or Go Broke, that uses zero plastics,” says Chrissy Fagerholt of EAP Toys & Games

Through Selfmade and Office Depot OfficeMax, Chrissy was able to connect with other emerging founders, hear from established entrepreneurs who have paved the way, and get personalized coaching sessions to help her grow her business. 

Lesson #77: Balancing Creative With Business

Entrepreneurship can be demanding, challenging, unpredictable, and deeply satisfying. The wins, big and small, help you rise above the challenges and there are so many perks to being your own boss. But sometimes you can find yourself stuck on a problem – with nowhere to turn.  

Lucia turned to Selfmade, receiving an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to the program, to help her connect with business mentors and other female founders. “Being the first one in my family to build a business of this magnitude, it's really comforting to have mentors, especially of color or who come from first-generation immigrant families,” says Lucia.

Lucia Diaz is a first-generation Colombian-American and the founder of LUCIA DIAZ, a Latina-owned business dedicated to empowering and honoring Latinas through illustration.

Lesson #76: How To Optimize Your Cash Flow As A Small Business Owner

Creativity drives our passion but optimizing cash flow is what makes a small business succeed. When Imani Schectman decided to leave her career in arts and education to become a full-time artist in New York City, she found it difficult to access startup resources and secure capital. “There was no centralized location, physically and virtually, where businesses could sell their products and services, access resources, and be a part of a supportive community,” she says. 

Imani decided to build one herself. After a successful pop-up event connecting BIPOC artists and entrepreneurs, she found that she was on to something and launched Open Market in 2020. Open Market is a socially responsible marketplace that supports BIPOC creative founders, “making it easy for customers to find brands that align with the initiatives they care about, like social justice, equity, sustainability, and renewable wages,” says Imani.

Imani received an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade to help her expand her community and grow Open Market. “I think it’s great to have one-on-one time with the Selfmade coaches and ask targeted questions to someone who has business knowledge,” she says. “I appreciate the vulnerability and transparency within the Selfmade community.” 

Lesson #75: Setting Boundaries as a Small Business Owner

Inspired by her Indian childhood tradition of eating on naturally fallen palm leaves, Pallavi Pande launched Dtocs, a sustainable alternative to single-use tableware. “Dtocs was born out of my nostalgia and desire to share my heritage with my daughters, while also caring for the planet.”

Setting boundaries as a business owner is so important for your well-being, productivity, and overall success.

Every morning, Pallavi takes a walk with her husband in their Portland, Oregon neighborhood to reflect on the brand’s mission and goals for the business, exploring how to infuse Indian traditions into their product offerings and improve functionality without compromising on sustainability. Nature walks, massages, cooking, and Zumba help Pallavi disconnect from the hustle of being an entrepreneur and recharge.  

“As a business owner and a mompreneur, setting boundaries involves a unique blend of delegation and self-care. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of effective delegation, understanding that I can't do everything myself,” she says. 

Lesson #74: How To Successfully Pitch Your Business To New Partners + Investors

When Kara Kaufmann, an elementary school teacher and mom of four, wanted to find a way to make it in the music industry and build her YouTube channel, she looked to Selfmade.  

Kara got her start when her kids were searching for dinosaur songs but didn’t quite find what they were looking for. She pulled up to her piano and started her first couple of songs. “Each song is brimming with dinosaur facts and weaving in a storyline about childhood wonder, resilience, and growth. But the songs are also written with parents in mind.”

Kara received an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade, where she entered the pitch competition. “The Office Depot scholarship is such an important program because finance is usually the biggest hurdle,” she says. 

What did she learn from pitching her music channel to potential investors? “Keep it clear and concise! Wishy-washy isn’t going to cut it,” she says. “I have someone’s attention for a quick second – and I need to grab it as soon as I can. And, I need to get right to the point with what makes me different, what makes me stand out. What am I doing that the world needs?”

Lesson #73: How To Create A Hype Machine & Get People Buzzing About Your Brand

“I’m a solopreneur with a limited budget, “says Allison Ullo of Leaves of Leisure Tea, a luxury herbal tea and botanicals brand focused on nostalgic memories like Road Trip and Picnic in the Park. Allison started mixing her own teas as a response to cutting back on caffeine from coffee. Soon enough friends were asking for her unique blends, which led her to launch her business.

When Allison was ready to take the next step in her business, she applied for an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade. “When I got the Selfmade scholarship, it came at a time when I was financially strapped because I just spent all this money to launch the business,” she says. “It was such a relief to finally be among women who understood the struggles of being an entrepreneur. They’re the ones who like every single Instagram post. They’re the ones who I go to with questions about manufacturing or freelancers, and they always respond. I learned so much [in Selfmade]. The pitch competition was really interesting – I got a lot of value out of seeing what other people did.”

Lesson #72: Common Branding Mistakes Small Businesses Make

When Selfmade member Amber Bogen was pregnant with her daughter, she found the selection of books for Black children limiting. That set her on the path to write her first story, an affirmation poem that her daughter started to sing along with her. “She would light up when I would say the little poem to her. And it was just a cute little moment between us.”

When Amber decided to officially trademark her business, she decided to rebrand the name to Little Bogen Books. “As a new entrepreneur, I understand now that I really want to make sure that I create my own lane in terms of my branding. This was more of a passion project before, and when I began the process of trademarking my publishing house, I ran into an issue.” Still, she says, her customer base connected with her brand aesthetic and the emotion she was trying to convey in her branding. “I'm going to stay true to a lot of that but just with a different name.”

Amber recently received an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade, where she earned the top prize in the pitch competition and was able to hone in on her branding and reach new customers. 

Lesson #71: How A Daily Mindfulness Practice Can Help Your Biz Grow

Constant juggling of creative tasks, business decisions, and operational responsibilities can lead to stress, burnout, and a hit to your productivity. That’s why a daily mindfulness practice for entrepreneurs can not only be good for your well-being, it can also impact your business growth.

“To recharge and relax, I find solace in simple activities like walking to my office. I also have a weekly meditation session via Zoom with a friend who recently adopted a baby. It helps me find balance and unwind,” says Maria Londono, founder of Disrupt3rs, a multilingual app that provides legal tech for the creator economy. “I also have a weekly ballroom salsa date with my husband, Francisco. These moments make a significant difference.”

“Receiving the Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade has been a game changer for my business,” says Maria, who is a lawyer by trade. “The most rewarding aspect of the program was feeling supported and connecting with like-minded women entrepreneurs. Having conversations with people who understand my struggles and joys as a builder makes a tremendous difference.”

Lesson #70: How To Know, Listen, and Reach More Customers

As a kid, Sopi Mitil had a dream of being a fashion designer. Sopi went on to college, then law school and built her own law firm before that childhood dream resurfaced in 2021. “Fashion has always been a passion of mine and one day after a challenging visit to a department store, I decided to pursue my passion,” she says. That challenging day she was trying to find an interview outfit that made her feel confident. “I'm 4' 11. I’ve got these short arms, these little legs. And so I was like, ‘Well, I'll just create something,’” she recalls. That’s when Sopi Mitil Co., an eco-friendly fashion brand for curvy petite women, was born.

But learning how to transition from a service-based business to a product-based business was no easy feat. Sopi decided to apply for an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade. “The scholarship to Selfmade gave me a new sounding board of professionals to bounce ideas off of and expanded my community of like-minded business owners,” she says. “I was able to take advantage of the mentoring early on in the program and was provided with some tools and ideas to help build my business.”

“I learned that my customer wants to learn more about Sopi Mitil so they can embody the Sopi Mitil Woman,” says Sopi. “As a result, we have added Sopi’s Corner to the website and we are now distributing a newsletter to our email list so our customers will be able to learn more about me, entrepreneurship and how to embody being the Sopi Mitil Woman.”

Lesson #69: When to Outsource

Most new business owners struggle with letting go. You start out wearing all of the hats, and probably get pretty good at a lot of things. But as you grow, how do you know when it’s time to delegate, especially when resources are tight? 

“I had to learn to just let go of being in control and trusting my team to do what it was they were hired to do with the same level of accuracy, efficiency, and care that I’d do,” says Priscilla Fields, founder of Focus Virtual Business Solutions. “Once I released that, delegating was easy.” 

Once you decide what to delegate, you want to make sure you’re ready to hand off any task and communicate your needs clearly. This will help you avoid mistakes, wasted time, and higher costs. “When I started as an entrepreneur, I wish someone told me to build my business as if it’s not just me,” says Fields.

Lesson #68: How Tell a Brand Story

Building a brand story that resonates with your audience takes patience, creativity, and authenticity. For Tashelle Darby, founder of IrieVeda, creator of organic and allergen-free spice blends, her brand story was personal. “My journey began nine years ago on Thanksgiving when my son had an allergic reaction,” she recalls.

At the launch of IrieVeda last year, Darby applied for an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship to Selfmade. “The Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship has allowed us to grow through finding an amazingly supportive community. The insight I have gained in this short time from pitch competitions and connecting with other entrepreneurs has been priceless.”

“What has worked for me is sharing content that is relevant to my core target audience and sharing behind the scenes content helps to show the love and care that goes into producing our blends from whole spices,” says Darby.

Lesson #67: How to Market Your Brand

Marketing can be intimidating for a lot of small business owners. The idea of selling through word of mouth would make life as an entrepreneur easier, but it doesn’t always work that way, especially if you want to grow your business. 

Teresa LeeAnn Baker, founder of Brown Boy Brown Girl, joined Selfmade by receiving an Office Depot OfficeMax scholarship just as her business was starting to grow. “I wanted to learn more about how I could dive deeper into the business,” she says. 

How do you find a voice that reflects your brand? During Selfmade, Baker was able to create a brand house that helped her create the messaging she needed for her business. “The brand house helped me put the pieces together. I was able to find our voice, our tone, our personality,” she says. “Building that brand house was something that will continue to be helpful as I move on into my entrepreneurial journey.” 

Lesson #66: How to Drive Sales Online

Do you invest in building an e-commerce website or do you sell directly from an online marketplace? How do you use data to drive sales? How do you convert more people in your checkout flow?

Mari Luangrath-Ullrick, founder of peckopecko, was inspired to launch an online business when she read her son’s college essay, which presented technological solutions to regular everyday problems. “He was thinking about AI-generated solutions for basic home repairs,” she says. Eager to build a business around something she felt passionate about, Luangrath-Ullrick decided to take an AI approach to solving the food waste problem in America. When she heard about the Selfmade pitch competition, Luangrath-Ullrick knew she needed to join the program.

“We survey a handful of customers who we find are more engaging and ask for their feedback on a regular basis,” says Luangrath-Ullrick. “I also follow the sprint method.” For peckopecko, that means building a new feature every five days and then launching it so people can share their experiences in an hour-long conversation. “It's more UI/UX stuff, but we've been making sure that what we're building is yielding the behavior that we want from the customer,” she says.