3 years ago I left my job as a biomedical design engineer and I haven’t had a salaried job since then. This has been one of the most difficult yet rewarding times of my life. The fact that I have survived has been a combination of hard work, supportive parents, family and friends, living super frugally, luck and generosity from you and all the people I’ve met (and haven’t met) around the world. Here’s how it’s worked out so far…
When I left my job in 2016, it was to study a Master’s degree in product design in Scotland. I was lucky enough to win a scholarship from the Beit Trust which meant that I didn’t need to worry too much about money for an entire year (as long as I lived the cheap student life). This safety net was a big reason I started working on my business idea, Zimbowties, because for the first year I figured that I could try to work out this business stuff without actually having to worry too much about making money. I put a bit of money that I had saved into buying stuff to get us started and my mother who is the other half of Zimbowties also chipped in from her salary.
When my year of study ended I was suddenly in a bit of a pickle. I had found that selling stuff wasn’t so easy and bow ties weren’t gonna feed me. I had to start using some of the money I’d saved from my engineering job and some money that my parents lent me. I was also lucky enough to score an internship with a marketing company in Glasgow where I was able to use my self-taught graphics designs and social media marketing skills to earn a bit of money.
That year, 2017, I had also started entering some pitching competitions and I was a winner in a couple of them which helped bring some money in for Zimbowties too.
We weren’t selling a huge number of bow ties but the odd sale here and there also helped to cover some of my expenses. Finally, that year I was an extra in a Netflix film, The Outlaw King, and featured for three whole frames as a Black Knight Number 52. Every little bit of money helps!
At the end of 2017, I returned to Zimbabwe and spent a few months at home at the beginning of 2018, living with my parents. This was cheap, great for spending time with the folks and really, having this basecamp has made going out and climbing the mountain of trying to start a business possible.
My mother continued to chip into the business from her salary but I was pretty broke so during this time at home I ended up coaching swimming at my old junior school to earn some cash.
Then I discovered the Watson Institute in Boulder and decided it would be a great experience for me to go there. I applied and was accepted but I was going to need a lot of money to get there. So it was time to use my hard-earned engineering degrees again. I was lucky to get some contract work designing a jaw bone prosthesis for the company I used to work for.
This work and the half-scholarship I got from Watson helped a lot but it still wasn’t enough to cover my living expenses and tuition. If I really wanted to make this happen I had no option but to ask all my family, friends and acquaintances around the world if they’d chip into a crowdfunding campaign to help me cover the rest of my costs. This was a terrifying thing for me to do and when the campaign successfully hit its target I have never felt so grateful and so loved.
I left for America but when I started my program at Watson my funds were still pretty tight. However, some of my fellow scholars and I were able to save money by accessing the local food pantry. Sales of our Zimbowties also went really well leading up to Christmas of 2018 while I was in Boulder. Things were picking up for us.
2019 has been a great year for Zimbowties. We haven’t had to put any of our own money into the business this year and we recently fulfilled an order of 30 bow ties for a safari lodge in Zambia which is really exciting for us.
I returned to the States in April to see if I can get our product into some art gallery gift shops and boutique stores and promote it at markets. Friends generously covered most of my flight cost back to the States and at the airport when the border control asked how I planned to fund my trip I confidently told them I would have money sent to me… Like, I’ll make money duh! What kind of question is that?!
But honestly, I don’t always know where this money will come from as we’re still a fair way off from getting to a stage where I can pay myself a salary (And please don’t let the US government know that as they might deport me!).
So I’m in a weird space where half my time I’m working on Zimbowties, because if we can make this work this could be my job, and half the time I’m looking out for freelance design or marketing work to bring in some more money to cover my expenses. Another half of my time is probably spent stressing unnecessarily, overthinking, over-writing and self-doubting about all of this but I won’t own up to that. (Besides it doesn’t make sense mathematically!)
But I trust that in the end, something will work out. Either, I’ll continue to squeeze by on small amounts of money from Zimbowties that help cover my expenses OR we’ll get someone like Pharrel Williams wearing one of our bow ties and business will explode OR maybe I will get a job, keep Zimbowties as a side-hustle and continue to steadily grow it as we have already been doing.
In the last three years I’ve come to sort of trust that things will work out and despite some downs (like waking up at 2 am and not being able to get back to sleep as you freak out about what you’re doing with your life), they are always followed by ups (like getting a single order of U$800 worth of bow ties). The journey is still rewarding and I’m glad I’ve taken it. Thanks to all of you who’ve joined me and who continue to support us on it.