“I went from IT auditing to hat making: here’s what I’ve learnt along the way”

Woman in purple top. Standing beside headwear and hats on a table.

Have you been dreaming of leaving your job and starting your own business? Internal auditor Susan Widlake travelled the world with her career but gave it all up in 2019 to follow her passion for millinery. Here’s her story, and her advice for other would-be female founders…

“Wonderful but stressful”

“I used to work in IT internal audit in the pharma industry. It was wonderful but stressful, and I’d often be away for weeks at a time travelling the world. I always loved hats and I’d use my weekends abroad to dabble in my hobby. I got lost in Shanghai trying to find a fabric shop, and found some incredible vintage material at a Vienna flea market. Millinery was always with me even though I was doing a very different job.

Then in 2009 I did a taster day in hat making at the V&A. I was instantly hooked. After that I started taking courses at weekends and it became a very portable thing I could take with me when I worked. I’ve sat on the Eurostar inserting hat wires and flown on Virgin Atlantic folding ribbon. At the time I was making the hats but I wasn't selling them, just giving them to people as presents. 

It wasn’t until 2019, when I’d saved up enough money, that I left my job to focus on hat making full time. My colleagues were a little surprised and I think some were envious I was having the guts to go for my dream. I always wore hats at work and they knew my passion for millinery.”

“I found my corporate background really helpful”

“Even though I’d been very successful in my career, starting my own business was completely different. I was fine dealing with big corporates, but how could I apply what I knew to myself and my business?

Early on I went to a Start your Creative business Day at the British Library in London. That was really helpful, and if you go up the stairs at the library you’ll find the Business and IP Center (BIPC). I didn’t even know it existed! They run a whole range of courses and workshops and the majority are free or very low cost. It was an excellent introduction to starting your own business.

It was a real bonus when I realised I had the knowledge, I just needed to scale it down. My background really helped me when doing things like drawing up the business plan and targeting customers and messaging. That’s exactly the sort of thing I had been auditing. 

I’ve also learnt that you shouldn’t be scared of making mistakes. That’s been a big mind change for me coming from an audit background where everything has to be perfect.

One thing that was completely different though was networking. I was used to being in a very male orientated, and dominated, field. In hat making, suddenly I was having to network with a totally different set of people. And actually, I felt much more comfortable.”

“Take time to learn”

“In my first year I went to every fair and group going. I’d find myself at events next to stalls selling scented rubbers. I quickly realised it’s important to work out your target market and be in the right places to pitch yourself at them.

I also realised the importance of being nimble. My business was forced to pivot when Covid hit. I went from hat making to sewing scrubs and masks. I made sequin masks and they were even featured on This Morning, which was amazing and kept my business going as the commissions came in.

“Mentoring really helped”

“I then applied, and was accepted for, a mentoring scheme with Mercury Theatre in Colchester. It was an EU development fund programme and they’d never had a millineer before. I was paired with their pantomime dame who has been the most incredible mentor and influence. He was very good at asking questions, but in a nice way, and getting me to explore new ideas. 

Talking with him we came up with the idea of doing fascinator-making workshops and calling them Fascinatees. After lockdown, I just wanted to get out and talk to people, and also make millinery accessible. The workshops really took off. 

Working on your own can be very solitary, so it’s nice to share what you do with other people. I also do local community days, holding workshops for people who’ve never sewed or made hats before.”

“A new challenge”

“Unfortunately my business has been hit by another obstacle as I’ve now been diagnosed with long Covid. I’m having to reevaluate everything, and work out what I can physically do and how to manage my energy. I’ve had to stop doing fairs and instead do workshops and private commissions. I’ve found there is very little support for self employed people with chronic health conditions, and I’m still making my way through that.

It’s also taught me another valuable lesson as a business owner, and that’s don’t compare yourself to other people. I’ve stopped following my contemporaries on social media. It was upsetting me to see how they are progressing while I’m struggling with long Covid. My advice is only compare yourself to you.”

Find out more about Susan's business, Mill House Millinery, here and follow Susan on Instagram @millhousemillinery

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