Saint Cloud team member Sanaa Sahi recently sat down with the founders of Mirth Caftans, sisters Katie McClure and Erin Breen. Read her conversation below, and get ready to be as inspired as we were.
Sanaa: I'm interested in how you started Mirth Caftans. How did you come up with the idea and what was the impetus behind it?
Katie: The start of MIRTH wasn’t so simple. I came up with the general idea of making caftans with special fabrics when I traveling by myself in Bali. Life had just gotten thrown up in the air and turned upside down, so I was forced to be searching for what to do next. I also never really had a job where I was using all my skills or that I was passionate about, so I was looking for that.
I think traveling by yourself is one of those things that you need to do to get clarity. While traveling, I was looking for caftans but couldn't find one. Then I found this really amazing handmade batik fabric out of a hidden little workshop in Ubud and the idea just came to me. I wanted to make caftans and keep it simple – create a great product with the right structure and fit that was comfortable and made well. But also give back in some way - that was really important to me, too.
I tabled the idea but I kept coming back to it. Years later, I was volunteering in Nepal and at that time, I realized this idea was just not going to go away. My sister was also at a point in her life where she wanted to try something new. She had just closed her business – a clinic for kids with autism - and was looking for something different. After meeting up in India and falling into some serendipitous meetings and experiences, she agreed and things seemed to fall into place. We thought maybe this might not be so unattainable and we might be able to do this. Two years later we launched.
Sanaa: I think a lot of ideas come from those types of moments where you don’t know what you’re doing and are at a crossroads. And you find yourself saying am I actually really going to do this? And then it all just works out.
Erin: Exactly, things fall into place. We weren't forcing it. It all organically happened and it’s been like that since we started. That’s not to say it’s been easy, because it is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but we try to do it all keeping the big picture in mind.
Katie: I think getting out of your comfort zone is crucial. If we had been working our “soulless” jobs day to day, it wouldn't have happened. And I think that's one of the great things about traveling. It let's your mind wander. It’s kind of difficult in our mundane daily life for that kind of thought enter your mind. Sometimes having bad things happen are really key and awesome.
Erin: Those things lead to other better things. You learn and move on to even better things.
Sanaa: I think so too. I had that when I finished my masters and was trying to decide what to do next. I was going to comment on you traveling alone. It’s something I have always wanted to do.
Katie: It’s now my favorite way to travel. It’s scary at first but then it becomes a much more rich experience. You’re really seeing things and finding new things. I did it because I was living in Europe at the time and it was really easy for me to hop onto a train. You don’t worry about eating alone. If you want to eat at a 5 star Michelin restaurant you do it, and learn it isn't so intimidating to do so alone and end up having this amazing dinner with the person next to you.
Sanaa: Having dinner alone is still something I haven’t conquered. Lunch at a fancy place? Yes.
Erin: Baby steps.
Sanaa: Did you know what you wanted to do when you grew up? Did you have something in mind? Is this something different than what you had in mind?
Katie: I wanted to join the circus. I wrote my college essay on joining the circus.
Erin: She's serious.
Katie: I majored in textiles and didn't do anything with it. And now I’m back to it and actually using what I learned.
Erin: I worked with kids my entire life. This is nothing like what I expected to be doing - having a business with my sister. I never thought Katie and I would be working together.
Sanaa: How is that? Working with your sister?
Erin: It’s good. We have very different personalities and that works to our advantage. We will have our moments but we work it out very quickly. And it’s so fun and we are so comfortable with each other. Plus, we get to travel together. I love traveling with Katie because she always has a plan and I like to just go with the flow.
Katie: I agree. We are aware that we have different roles so we keep that in mind. We don't have to communicate. We just look at each other and know what the other is thinking.
Erin: We very rarely disagree on aesthetics.
Sanaa: I think typically it’s difficult to articulate your ideas and vision and it’s nice to have shorthand with your business partner. What has been the most difficult part of starting your own business?
Katie: Not having a boss. You have no idea if what you are doing is right or if you are going down a rabbit hole. If you need to get from point A to point B, you just somehow have to figure it out.
Erin: It’s 24/7 and it never goes away. It’s on your mind constantly.
Sanaa: I think that feeling of not knowing what you are doing never goes away. You just become more confident in making decisions. I’ve been talking to a lot of women entrepreneurs and it seems that once you finally feel safe there’s a new problem to tackle. You are just more confident at handling it. But, it’s nice to know that everyone is in the same boat.
Katie: That’s so true. Personal growth has been crazy in the last year. I feel like I’m almost a different person after doing this. You have to let go of perfectionism. You have to go to sleep at night knowing your life might be "over" the next day. Someone might say “What are you going to do, you have to do that before Friday!” My answer has to be, "I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out.” You always have to figure it out.
Sanaa: You have to live your life.
Katie: You have to be ok with knowing things might not be ok. And that just means you have to adjust and change course, which might not always be a bad thing.
Sanaa: What is your typical day? Or do you not have typical days. What is work/life/balance like?
Erin: I’m a lot more part time. My priority is my family and my child. Going into this we talked about how it was going to work. For me, it’s finding the time to fit things in throughout the day. Right now I’m super flexible and get things done when I can. Nothing is very concrete.
Katie: And that’s where I come in. I do try to be consistent because having your own business is about time management and holding yourself accountable. I do try to wake up fairly early and I have to exercise everyday. I like commuting somewhere to work and be in a dedicated space. In the afternoons, I do more hands on work and have meetings with our pattern or sample maker. In the evenings and mornings we talk to our manufacturers in India due to the time difference.
Sanaa: Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Katie: The hardest part is starting and just doing it. Just start small. You don’t have to quit your day job. I encourage everybody to do creative things and just go for it. We had a lot of success with SCORE – a branch of the SBA (Small Business Association). You can make hour long appointments with retired executives (lawyers, accountants) and ask questions, receive advice. I also think having a sense of community is important. It’s huge to find other people doing the same thing – mentors or someone else starting out. I can’t tell you how much it pulls you up. You could attend Creative Mornings or the White Buffalo Project, for example.
Sanaa: I think that's really valuable advice. What's been the most rewarding part so far?
Erin: Seeing it grow. I’ve said it before but things just fell into place without trying to control everything. That’s been really cool for me. It’s just crazy that it started with Katie having this idea. It’s still not even real to me.
Katie: This is going to be an odd answer but when a stranger buys a caftan – because surely that person is a long lost cousin somewhere. It’s like wow - someone actually wants something we created. When Saint Cloud placed an order, I thought, “are they just being nice?” To have this feedback has been great in terms of gaining confidence and continuing.
Sanaa: Oh, I should tell you that I saw someone wearing one of your caftans. I saw her wearing it and I was like "I know who makes it!"
Katie: Haha. Which one was it?
Sanaa: It was the striped San Sebastian. By the way, what does #caftanlife mean to you?
Katie: Whether you are traveling or at home, it’s just a feeling of slowing down a little and feeling comfortable with yourself. You are mindful and you are enjoying life around you.
Sanaa: Lastly, how do you pronounce lagniappe? It’s something that you use in your line, the little cloth bags each caftan comes with.
Katie: "lan-yap." We always used it growing up. It means a little surprise or a little something extra.
Sanaa: I tried using it in a sentence and while the word was coming out I realized I don’t actually know how to say it!