I met Wendy Mullin, owner of Built by Wendy, back in 2007 when she agreed to design a new uniform for us girls at BabyCakes NYC. I’ll admit that I was 99% intimidated before our first meeting because, well, it was WENDY! She should just go by “Wendy” – like Cher – as far as I was concerned. Well, she turned out to be very charming and made us our favorite uniforms to date. The bakery chicks are always trying to steal them! Over the years we’ve forged a perfect business friendship but the thing I’ve grown to love most about Wendy are the conversations I can have with her about business and all the creative ideas that we end up generating together when I visit her at her store. I pulled Wendy away from her new precious pearl (a baby girl!) to do an IM session with me to talk shop.
Erin: Okay, so I’m going to get right into it. I had a meeting with my lit agent recently to talk about what my next book would be. I told her I’m pulled to write one of those How to Make Your Dream a Business type of books. By the way, I see myself on the cover wearing a Liz Claiborne power suit – maybe red – and sensible pumps while holding a briefcase. Is that wrong?
Wendy: Haha, love it! I mean the outfit – you need shoulder pads. I think writing a business book is a great idea. I always get people saying, “I want to be a clothing designer just like you, how do I do it?” and I tell them to go to business school or at least learn about business because that’s what it is mainly. I think people think that I am just sketching designs all day but more than half my time is doing biz – whether it’s overseeing employees, dealing with factories, accounting, marketing, etc.
Erin: Right?! Anyway, she said something very true: you can’t teach people “crazy”. I mean it took a lot of delusional, self-congratulatory affirmations to give me the confidence to open up a gluten-free, vegan bakery in the lower east side – a neighborhood full of cool kids ready to hate – with just one item on the menu. What do you think is a quality that’s totally necessary to be a success? Besides business school, that is.
Wendy: Fearlessness! I think it’s easier to start something when you are young, before you have too many responsibilities. But then again, later is okay if you have the experience and the financial backing. Still, if you are young and broke with an idea, you don’t have much to lose. It takes a certain type of personality to start your own business.
Erin: Exactly! When I began, I was living hand-to-mouth and I thought, “What am I afraid of, being broke? I know what that feels like!” I can do broke!
Wendy: Haha! Yeah, when I started my business it was so gradual. I made some clothes and then starting selling some on consignment while I had another job. I let it happen slowly so it wasn’t that scary until one day I woke up and thought, “Oh my God, I have 2 stores!”
Erin: You started with making guitar straps sort of, right?
Wendy: No! But I got a lot of press on those so people think that. I started making clothes when I was in college in Kansas and sold them to a few record stores in the Midwes. Then when I moved to New York, I worked at a record store selling my clothes. Then I introduced the guitar straps there and it seemed to really catch on.
Erin: I always imagine that you were like the hot girl who all the musicians had a crush on and your line really emanates that!
Wendy: I was! Ha, no, not really… but maybe? I wish? I think I was too concerned with sewing and making clothes out of my apartment every day.
Erin: That’s why the boys loved you! You’re like the Charlotte Gainsbourg or Jane Birkin of designers!
Wendy: It’s so funny to think that back then, I used to go out and then leave a party to just go home and patternmake. But that’s the kind of vibe you need to have in order to run a business – it’s just all-consuming. Boys on the side! I worked like 24 hours a day.
Erin: Me too, oh my God! I totally ditched my social life and would just hole up in my apartment and bake. I didn’t care about anything else.
Wendy: It was weird to get a studio out of my home where I had a time limit on working from like, 10am to 6pm or whatever. It was an adjustment. Now I still sort of work like that a bit but it’s different. It’s nice separating and just working when I’m at work and chillin’ when I’m at home!
Erin: That leads me to the next question. Thomas Edison is right about success being 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. But I’ve found that over time, if you give up enough responsibility on the things you know you can trust others to do, it frees up some room for more creativity. My ratio now is about 30/70. What would you you say yours is?
Wendy: I totally agree with giving stuff up. I remember I couldn’t imagine having help because I always didn’t have time to train someone and I just thought it was easier to do it myself. I also didn’t have money. But I realize that when you spend money on things that will help you – office space or employees, for example – they end up paying for themselves. I’m not sure what my ratio is now. I feel sort of in transition and still on baby time a bit – meaning spending time with my baby and not being totally work-focused like I was. I’m making plans so I can be like 70/30. I need more help!
Erin: How do u do it all?
Wendy: I don’t! It’s so hard and what they say about being a working mom is true! But I’m trying to manage that and business. I’m exhausted!
Erin: It’s overwhelming. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning and then I look at you and I think, “She does all that AND she’s got a baby?!”
Wendy: Yeah, me too. I think it’s about what I said before – being in the moment. So like, when I’m working I really work and with my baby I focus on her instead of trying to work a little while with her. That seems the best route – mixing it together is no bueno. My dream is to just hang with my baby then tell someone what I want to make and they deal with it all. Then I show up and approve. So I think I need to be more the creative director of my company… but that means I need more help, which means I need more money.
Erin: And most importantly, you need to give up some control. It took me 18 months before I let anyone else frost a cupcake at the bakery, if that says anything about how controlling I can be. I can tell you’re totally psychotic like that too if you let yourself be!
Wendy: It’s more a time issue for me. In fashion, you have to crank out new stuff every 6 months, so if I had someone making patterns and then the fit was totally wrong, I wouldn’t have time to fix it. But I think I just need to hire amazing people to help, which I do.
Erin: You’re good at hiring. It’s a skill… but how are you at firing? I hate it.
Wendy: Getting better at it but it hasn’t been too much of an issue since I’ve improved my hiring skills!
Erin: I cried the first time I fired someone. I absolutely loved him but he sucked so hard!
Wendy: Aww! Yeah, that’s the worst when you like someone a lot but they aren’t right for the job. I think it’s best to be really clear and upfront about the job at the beginning so that there is no issue at the end. But I think being really honest is the best way to deal with everything.
Erin: It’s what can pull you through the painful situation, it’s true. Telling them the truth isn’t as painful as blowing up and saying, “Get out of here, you’re fired.” It gives them some dignity and feedback for the next job.
Wendy: Yeah, I can’t yell at people or blow up, really. But I think saying, “Hey, I love you and think that you’re the best but I’m sorry that it’s just not working out for my business.” That’s how it is. You have a lot more employees than I do, though. Plus having the business in other places is really hard employee-wise. I’m glad that I don’t have my west coast stores. I had great people there but it’s stressful.
Erin: Last question and then I’m going to do a quick lightning round. If you sold Built by Wendy tomorrow, how long would it take before you found yourself with another business? Or would you more likely be passed out in a Roxy bikini in Cancun with a bunch of empty margaritas littered about?
Wendy: Haha, good question! I would actually love to sell Built by Wendy so that I would have support in creating all my ideas. Sometimes I get frustrated just being one person holding it all together, so I would love to be the creative director there. But to be honest I would probably already have started another side thing before the sale – probably a new business where I can do it while sitting in a bikini drinking a margarita!
Erin: Me too! I want to open a hair salon.
Wendy: Maybe a bikini line inspired by ‘Margaritaville’. Like a Jimmy Buffet-licensed clothing line. A hair salon would be amazing, though! We should start a business together one day – we would kick ass!
Erin: Yes! Okay, I have it in writing, there’s no turning back. This is our contract and you are bound to it!
Wendy: By the way, did you see Bridesmaids? What about CakeBaby bakery? Like 5 people mentioned they thought it was inspired by you!
Erin: Oh my God, yeah, I want my money! Shouldn’t I get some royalty check or something? Ha! Okay, time for the Lighting Round. The doctor gives you one week to gain 25 pounds. What’s the first restaurant you go to?
Wendy: Dojo’s, for a soyburger dinner with cheese a la 1993!
Erin: Paper cut or burnt tongue?
Wendy: Burnt tongue – I hate paper cuts!!
Erin: Tardy for the Party or Money Can’t Buy You Class?
Wendy: Money Can’t Buy You Class!
Erin: Camille or Kyle? I know your Real Housewives of Beverly Hills obsession.
Wendy: Ooooh, Kyle! Her hair is so dark and silky! Camille is so gross.
Erin: Kyle or Kim?
Wendy: I love Kim ’cause of her teen acting days and her husky voice but I’m kind of into how straightforward Kyle is. Kim plays the victim too much and I’m not into that.
Erin: Hot stupid guy or smart ugly guy?
Wendy: Can’t I have both?
Erin: No! It doesn’t exist.
Wendy: It really depends… there’s a need in this world for both! Okay, fine, I’ll go for hot! Sometimes smart ugly guys are aggro and bitter – hot guys can be more fun and sweet, not hung up. My boyfriend is hot and smart and so is your husband. So it does exist!
Erin: True! So, final questions. Unmade bed or dirty dishes in the sink?
Wendy: Ugh, I hate this – I can’t have either. I like my house neat. I can’t work on design until all my things are in their place, then I can relax. But I guess I can handle dirty dishes rather than an unmade bed.
me: What?! Me too. I hate hate hate to come home to an unmade bed - all day you are longing for your bed, it should be made! Okay, Wendy – you go ahead and scootch on your way!
Wendy: Thanks so much – fun chatting! Can wait for us to do a donut-flavored bikini line to sell at resorts in Cancun – I assume you’re in?
Erin: Yeah! I am so in. Thank you for taking time to chat!