Small Business

A Fashion Designer Finds a Way to Live Her Dream Without Living on the Edge

Malacia Anderson yearned to turn her side hustle into a full-time gig. That goal is a work in progress.

When Malacia Anderson started wearing her hand-sewn dresses to church, the Fashion Institute of Technology graduate soon found her neighbors asking her to make dresses for their weddings and proms. She gladly obliged—and found herself with a bustling side business she could run out of her home in Roosevelt, N.Y.

"It was something I loved to do," said Anderson, who inherited her passion from her mother, a talented seamstress in her own right, as well as 4-H Club classes she took as a child. She recalls memories of her mother teaching her to cut out patterns, measure fabric and sew in zippers. Through these lessons, she made her own school clothes and even created her own prom dress.

Over the next three decades, Anderson, now 52, brought in extra money through her side hustle. But she never felt she was in a position to quit the 9-to-5 jobs she held, doing things like customer service, administrative work and bridal consulting to support herself.

Then, in August 2013, Anderson gave herself a long-awaited birthday present: She opened her own shop, Li-Li's Creations, on the crafts marketplace Etsy, and posted pictures of some of her designs. The shop sells fashions she makes to order, which currently include a crew-neck polka-dot blouse made from African wax ($95–$105), a high-waisted leopard print belle skirt ($200–$215) and a slouchy pullover sweatshirt ($60).

But her favorite items to make are dresses. "I love watching people wear them," she said.

Malacia Anderson modeling one of her own African-inspired dresses

Anderson got her first sale about a month after her official launch in August 2013. "Then it went from one sale to 10 to 20 to a high of 70 a month," she said. She kept the business humming by sharing her designs on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Soon her customer base expanded from the U.S. to Holland and Nigeria.

As the business grew, Anderson kept the same basic business model she'd used with the customers she met through her church, selling fashions she customized to each online client's measurements. Eventually, the business took up almost all of her free time outside of her job and commute.

"I would work on my business at night, staying up late and getting up early," she said. "On the weekends, I would go all weekend long to meet the demand."

By 2016, her relentless schedule was getting tiring, and sales were strong enough for her to quit her day job in New York City and leave her commute behind. Because Anderson lives with her parents and doesn't need to rent space for her business, her overhead was low.

Working full-time on the business changed Anderson's routine in unexpected ways. Although she got rid of her stressful commute, she had a new challenge: longer hours spent sewing. On Mondays, she'd print out orders that needed to be produced during the week and sew much of the day from Monday through Friday. She shipped products on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. She loved what she was doing, but the business became all-encompassing.

"I had to make myself take breaks," she said. "You really shouldn't sit for 12 hours." Her solution was scheduling time for the gym in between her projects. That helped keep her stamina and energy up and limit her sewing to a reasonable five to six hours a day, instead of the 10 to 12 she was working at her peak.

Anderson realized it might have been helpful to hire a seamstress to supplement what she could do on her own, but at that point, she had priced her products for volume and didn't have money left over to support hiring someone else. "The pricing wasn't sufficient to pay a proper salary," she said.

She eventually raised her prices to give herself the ability to grow the business and invest in hiring a seamstress when the timing was right. She estimates that a good seamstress would require $20 per hour in her region.

"I've priced it to scale, so I can pay myself and someone else if I have to," said Anderson, who, after getting her associate’s degree at FIT in 1987, moved directly on to Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management, where she earned a bachelor's degree in business administration.

Anderson modeling another one of her original outfits

So far, Anderson has avoided debt in the business. "Everything I make from it supplies my income and pays for the business materials and photo shoots," she said. Anderson, who worked as a model earlier in life, taps into that background to model clothing for her Etsy site. "That cuts down on costs," she said.

Although Anderson did succeed in taking her business full-time and built it to $51,000 in revenue annually, she recently went back to working in a full-time office job when her business started experiencing cash-flow fluctuations. "There are always fluctuations in my business," she said. "I've seen peaks and highs and lows, but this summer those dips were more."

LiLi's Creations, by the numbers

Anderson took her time finding a job that would help her stabilize her income and make sure she had enough coming in to cover her health care premiums and retirement planning—without taking away too much energy from her business.

Her recommendation to other business owners who want to make sure their transition from a side hustle to a full-time business goes smoothly? Build an emergency fund.

With 20/20 hindsight, she says, "I think I would have saved more and not thrown so much money back into the business. Had this particular scenario happened, I would not have had to get a job."

She's now taking her own advice on that front. In the meantime, she is aiming to build the business to $75,000 in revenue and then six figures, which will guarantee the business turns a profit in the future. She hopes to hire a seamstress next year to enable her to take on the additional work that growing the business would entail—and eventually, to have her own studio.

For the moment, though, she's happy working from her parents' home. "If I want to get an opinion, my mother is right there," she said. "She'll listen."

Elaine Pofeldt

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist and author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business, a look at how entrepreneurs are hitting seven-figure revenue in businesses where they are the only employees (Random House, Jan. 2, 2018). Her work has appeared in FORTUNE, Money, CNBC, Inc., Forbes, Crain’s New York Business and many other business publications and she is a contributor to the Economist Intelligence Unit. She is also a ghostwriter.