Tiffany Williams knew her days as a senior sales consultant at a daily deals website were numbered. She kept hearing rumblings that the company planned to lay off team members in smaller territories, like the one where she worked.
Instead of waiting for the inevitable to happen, the New Orleans resident decided to go full time with a side hustle she’d started—an online, print-on-demand T-shirt business. She launched it through Teespring, a platform that lets entrepreneurs create and sell products online, in 2012, two weeks before the layoffs hit her company.
“I don’t want to go back and work for anybody else,” Williams said to herself. “I have to make this work.”
Determined to leave the 9-to-five behind, Tiffany Williams launched a Yorkie-themed T-shirt business … [+]
Rich Girl Collective
Inspired by her pet—an adorable Yorkie named Prada—Williams hired graphic designers on freelance platforms such as Upwork and Fiverr to design Yorkie-themed T-shirts for her. Then, by popular request, she branched out into totes and aprons.
It wasn’t easy to grow the business but her hard work paid off. Williams, 39, now brings in more than $1 million in annual revenue in a one-woman business selling her products, which have evolved beyond T-shirts to digital products, such as courses that show other women how to create businesses, under the brand Rich Girl Collective.
Williams is part of an exciting trend: the growth of the million-dollar, one-person business. The number of nonemployer firms—those with no paid employees but the owners—bringing in $1 million to $2.49 million a year in revenue hit 36,984 in 2017, a 2% increase from 36,161 in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That tally rose 38%, from 26,744, in 2011. Most non-employer firms are solo businesses, but some are partnerships and family businesses.
How did Williams make it happen? Here are some of her strategies.
Dive right in. Williams had an advantage in starting a business because she’d earned a BA in business management and marketing from Dillard University and an MBA in technology management from University of Phoenix.
Nonetheless, she didn’t have a steady source of income or a big startup kitty available at the moment her career circumstances led her to take a leap of faith and go full time in her business. She made the decision to do her best with the resources she had available, even if circumstances weren’t textbook perfect.
“A lot of people think that they need to borrow money from the bank or write a 100-page business plan to get started,” says Williams. “A lot of times you don’t. You can start where you are. As your business grows, you invest more.”
As Williams considered her options as an entrepreneur, growing her print-on-demand T-shirt business seemed like the smartest path at the time. “There was no money upfront,” she says.
That was because in a print-on-demand model, the entrepreneur does not have to stock inventory. When the entrepreneur uploads a T-shirt design to Teespring or a similar site and selects a selling price, customers pay the site and then the T-shirt is printed. The site takes a cut in each sale, then mails a check to the entrepreneur or direct deposits a payment.
Creating the T-shirts and finding a place to sell them was just the first step to building a successful business, though. Williams also needed to find a way to let dog lovers know the T-shirts were for sale. She had always enjoyed social media, so she started a free Facebook group for fellow Yorkie owners to chat with each other, investing about $150 in Facebook ads to attract people who shared this interest. When she had a new design ready, she would present it to the Yorkie group for sale.
Be patient. Although many of the Yorkie group members did buy her shirts, Williams did not replace her corporate salary right away. Still, she continued to show up at her laptop, day after day, to keep moving the business forward. She knew this was an important part of her education as an entrepreneur. “I was in business, but I was learning,” she recalls.
To bring in additional income, she tapped what she had learned in her past corporate life and through her experiments to start an agency, Buzz Social Media, in 2013. Between her business ventures, she built her revenue to the high five figures over two years.
Then, in 2014, she experienced a major breakthrough. She began experimenting with new revenue streams, such as running an online Kindle store where she sold eBooks, and began purchasing household items on sale at Target and Walmart and selling them at a markup on Amazon. By using this approach, she was able to grow the business to the point that once she subtracted her expenses from her revenue, her profits hit $350,000 that year. “That was my breakout year,” she says.
Take your cues from the market. As her business grew, Williams began hearing from other women who learned about it and were interested in launching a business of their own. First, she heard from a woman who wanted to leave her insurance company job to stay home and raise her children and wanted to know how Williams pulled it off. Two weeks later, Williams got another similar inquiry. Soon, the questions were snowballing.
Williams was excited to help but realized that speaking with each woman one-by-one wasn’t practical as a solopreneur. “It started to take up time when I was running a business to answer everybody’s questions,” she says.
Her solution was to start her free Facebook group, Rich Girl Collective, to support other women who wanted to start their own businesses. That would allow her to give back to the entrepreneurial community while still staying focused on her own business. “I could answer everyone’s questions at a time in a group,” she says.
Williams chose the name of the group carefully to reinforce her view that wealth isn’t about buying material things but rather building a better quality of life.
“For me, the ‘rich’ in Rich Girl Collective stands for more than money,” she says. “It is an acronym: ‘R’ stands for relationships and family. ‘I’ means ‘invest’ in entrepreneurship. ‘C’ is for community and ‘H’ is for health and wellness.”
Bring discipline to your business. Williams kept her group very active by posting three times a day, Monday through Saturday. She also live-streamed Q&A events where members could ask her questions about starting a business. Over several years, the group grew to 15,000 members, as members wrote to her to ask if their friends could join.
To make sure the discussions stayed focused on business and that no one was spamming the group with sales pitches, Williams set ground rules. Potential members had to apply to the group, answering questions that showed whether they were serious about starting a business. She also checked out their Facebook pages, to make sure the profiles looked legit. “If they have no profile picture, they can’t get in,” she says.
Anticipate what your customers need. Over time, Williams began to notice common themes in the conversations taking place on the site and tailored her messaging to her community’s concerns.
One was that perfectionism was holding some women back from starting their businesses. “They try to have the perfect logo, the perfect website,” she says.
She advises followers to let the perfectionism go. “I tell them branding is important,” says Williams. “However, don’t try to be so perfect you’re taking months to get started. Learn as you go.”
With many of the women in the community percolating with business ideas and not sure which one to pursue first, focusing was also a problem for many. Williams encourages them to master one business before moving onto the next.
“We have so many passions, so many businesses we want to start,” she says. “I encourage them to start with one thing. Get that one thing flowing and then, if you want to think about branching out to another business, do that. If you’ve never been a business owner before, you don’t know how much work it is. You are going to spread yourself way too thin if you start out doing too many things.”
Don’t do it all alone. Williams was fortunate in that her mother was available to help her with a wide variety of projects as she grew the business, working as a contractor. “She knows all of the ins and outs of the business,” says Williams. “She is my biggest supporter and helper.”
As the pace of the business picked up, Williams enlisted other contractors, so she could stay focused on strategy and business development. Currently, she relies on five contractors, including a personal assistant, someone who handles customer support and moderators for the Facebook group, who vet each membership application and make sure members have a good experience. “They make sure no one spams the group,” she says.
Williams’ willingness to delegate enabled her to grow the Facebook group to 37,000 women. She is now looking to add a couple more contractors in the next few months and possibly a full-time employee. The additional investment makes sense, she says: “We’re growing.”
Put your health first. Everything seemed to be moving ahead smoothly when Williams went to the doctor one day at age 37 and got a scary diagnosis. She had very early-stage ovarian cancer. “It was a shock,” she recalls. “I don’t have a history in my family. It was a tough time in my life.”
She opted not to share the news with her community at first, as she went through four months of chemotherapy, preferring to keep her focus on the business. “I wanted people to treat me the same way,” she says.
She kept up business operations throughout her treatment, maintaining her regular live streams. She didn’t tell her followers about her diagnosis until the last day of her treatment. “I wanted them to see the entire time that I still pushed through, that I got work done,” she says. “I wanted that to be a lesson: Whatever comes to you, you can push through.”
Six months after completing her chemo treatment, Williams held her first Rich Girl Live conference, a two-day event in Atlanta. “I wanted to test the waters,” she says. “I was determined to do it.” She was able to pull it off and is getting ready for the next one in September. This time it will include 300 attendees.
Meanwhile, Williams says her health is now excellent— “I’m back and better than ever,” she says—but she makes sure her life is balanced. She spends much of her free time outside of the business involved in community activities, at the gym or with her family. “You don’t want to be so focused on your business you’re not spending time with family,” she says.
Productize your knowledge. Williams’ business plateaued in 2016 and 2017 while she coped with her illness. It was during that period she realized it made sense to focus more on digital products, so she could scale back her hours and focus on getting well. “I wanted to work but I didn’t want to do as much work,” she says.
With that in mind, she started introducing online classes in areas of business where she had expertise, such as starting a T-shirt business, launching an online boutique and selling products on Amazon. “I only teach what I’ve done and have gotten results with,” she says. As her digital products took off, she deemphasized the physical products, like her T-shirts.
To host the classes, she uses the platform Podia. She likes the fact that for set price per year, Podia allows her to offer classes, downloads and monthly membership groups.
Podia’s capabilities came in handy when, in response to requests from her followers, Williams introduced a live training class in 2018 called Rich Girl Academy, for which she charges $37 a month through the platform. In addition to providing personalized support to the women business owners who join, such as an analysis of their websites, she invites monthly guest speakers to talk about topics such as business finance, credit, and mental health.
“I realized a lot of people need additional help—accountability,” she says. “They need the push. They need the camaraderie to see that if other people are doing it, they can do it, too.”
With her classes growing, Williams has been moving full steam ahead this year. She registered the trademark Rich Girl Collective this year. She also recently introduced live chapters for members of the Academy that meet quarterly in seven cities, with the goal of turning it into something akin to a sorority.
Ultimately, it is all about building a successful brand.
“I really want this to be a brand that, when someone hears someone say, ‘I want to start a business. I need help with my marketing,” Rich Girl Collective is the first brand that comes to mind,” she says.
That’s a tall order, given all of the competition in the space, but following her illness, she says, she became very clear on how important it was to her to focus her life on helping women. “My mission now is I want to impact as many people as possible,” she says.