Where Women Create: Martha Pullen

Today we are going to take an inside look at 
Martha’s Sewing Room!  She was featured in a recent issue of 
(The issue that Martha was in can be purchased here.)

Text from Martha’s article:

From schoolteacher to college professor to entrepreneur, Martha Campbell Pullen, Ph.D.,  absolutely loves the business world! She thrives on hosting Martha’s Sewing Room on PBS, writing books (55 so far), teaching sewing, hosting events worldwide, writing weekly newsletters, leading Christian conferences, and Facebooking, blogging, and tweeting! A devout Christian, she gives total credit for her business to God, who happens to be the CEO. Martha lives in Huntsville, Alabama, with her husband, Joe Pullen, DMD; they have five grown children and 18 grandchildren. Her three passions are God, family, and business.
With the birth of our only daughter Joanna when I was 33 years old, I felt the need to sew once again, and it was overwhelming. I am what is known as a “re-tread” sewer — I loved to sew from childhood (age 5), quit for a number of years, and then plunged in a second time with all the enthusiasm I could muster. Out came my $150 circa-1965 sewing machine, and sewing happiness once again began to fill my heart. My sewing machine has always been the source of my Rembrandt paintings, and I desired to fill a museum. Recollecting my years as an English teacher, I think of two of my favorite authors, John Milton and William Wordsworth, who in their times each addressed the idea of loving to do what one loved as a child. In Paradise Regained, Milton wrote, “The childhood shows the man as morning shows the day.” About 100 years later, Wordsworth wrote in My Heart Leaps Up, “The Child is father of the Man.” Sewing was my first “hobby love” and it still is today.

My inspiration for much of the business, Martha Pullen Company, as well as the books I have written, has come from my love of Victorian clothing. Memories make me smile, and heirloom garments are a source of so many memories. Carefully sewn garments are saved and cherished so they create more than just memories of the moment; they hold those memories in each stitch passing them on to generations to come. My husband Joe says, “Martha, I think you have an unnatural attraction to white antique clothes.” I confess: I love antique Victorian clothing and everything else from this era.
On my first trip to England when Joanna was a toddler, I read in the tour guides about two flea markets: Burmondsey and Portobello Road. The books described Burmondsey in this manner: “Get there before 5 a.m. if you want to get the bargains. Dealers from all over Europe arrive about that time with their torches (flashlights) to get the good deals.” Taking this to heart, we arrived before 5 a.m., and found the dealers had not even unloaded their vans. While Joe shivered in the cold, drinking a cup of coffee and eating a jacket potato with baked beans on it, I began my quest. I fell in love with white baby clothes … and purchased a lot of them. Joe said, “Martha what on earth are you going to do with old baby clothes? These are too little for Joanna.”
I replied, “Enjoy them.” I bought more at Portobello Road. At that point, a sewing business had not entered my mind. These baby clothes had simply spoken to me, and I had to have them.
Sales and business in general were other great childhood interests. The journey from top salesman in the fifth grade magazine drive at Scottsboro Elementary School, to opening a dancing school at age 14, to figuring out how to meet John F. Kennedy when I was cheering for the University of Alabama at the Orange Bowl in 1963 (marketing in truest form), lined my path to sewing entrepreneurship. I had also done most of my research for my Ph.D. dissertation on educational management in the business library. Perhaps just being in that environment gave me courage, as opening a small retailsmocking/heirloom shop was, in the words of Don Quixote, my “impossible dream.”
With God’s help, it happened for us — the shop; imported French, English, and Swiss fabrics and laces for wholesale; books; events worldwide; School of Art Fashion in Huntsville; Sew Beautiful magazine; a large eCommerce store; an email newsletter that reaches more than 40,000 people each week; Martha Pullen Licensed Teachers all over the world; and Martha’s Sewing Room (PBS series I have hosted for 17 years). Martha Pullen Company became a multimillion dollar business, and today we have the pleasure of being a subsidiary of F+W Media.
It looks like I’ve had a pretty easy go of it, doesn’t it? That is so far from the truth that it makes my head swim. I made no money for the first 10 years! Although I had written several bestselling books in the area of French machine sewing, any profit went right back to keep the business afloat. Joe sold retirement property twice to keep my business going. I was traveling all over the country and to Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand conducting workshops. And, Martha’s Sewing Room was airing in all 50 states! Thirteen shows had been translated into Japanese for Japanese Public Television.
What was the main problem? Why was I making no profit? I had no written plan — none in the beginning, none to plan expansion, and none to remedy problems. I was doing so many things that I had not analyzed what was financially sound and what was draining the profit right off the top. Once I identified this as the problem and was able to address it, Martha Pullen Company thrived.
To read more about my story, look for my newly revised book, Business Boots on the Ground: How a Schoolteacher Turned Her Hobby Into a Multi-Million Dollar Company. You, too, can build a hobby-based business.
Here is my now famous 3/30 Plan. Before you open your business:
  • Write your financial goal for one year.
  • Write three pages a day for 30 days about how you are going to achieve that goal. Do not organize; just write. Go to the library. Check out books. Browse the Internet, including IRS and SBA websites. Talk with as many people as possible. Network big time! Write down every dream or possibility you have held in your mind.
  • After writing 90 pages, go back and figure out what will work and what will not. Pull the best parts and forge ahead with your business dream. You are ready.
If you’re thinking, “Martha, I don’t want to write 90 pages. That is too much work,” then my reply will be, “You probably don’t really need to go into business.” In my experience, this amount of planning is the minimum you need to do. You don’t want to be like me and work for basically no profit for an entire decade even if you are able to stay in business that long. A hobby-based business can become a reality, but it takes a lot of planning, hard work, and prayer.
“For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
— Luke 1:37

*A big thank you to Where Women Create who allowed us to use this story and their generosity in donating the year subscription.  Photos by Jennifer & Company.

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