Interview with Jen Plants from Maudetown

Trying vintage clothing has always seemed risky, but I may have changed my mind after interviewing Jen from Maudetown. She is a busy mommy and wife who holds down multiple careers. Reading through her interview answers gave me ideas, and I wanted to pick her brain even more. I hope you enjoy the interview just as much.

Tell us a little about you and your small business.
I’m Jen. I own Maudetown Vintage.

Telling you more is complicated! I’m one of those people who has multiple parallel careers, so when people ask me what I do, for example, my response is: Do you want the long answer or the short answer? I live with my family in Madison, Wisconsin, but we’ve only been here a little over a year. Before that, we were living abroad in London for almost two years, and before that, the NYC metro area, and before that, Baltimore, and before that, Sarasota, Florida. See, even “Where are you from?” is complicated!

My husband and I are both university professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I teach playwriting and performance studies in the English Department, and I’m an actor and director as well! (I have an MFA in acting from the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory.) I am currently part of an exciting performance project working to fight discrimination, but this project is based in London (so yes, I have an exorbitant amount of frequent flyer miles!) Our daughter is seven, and in the second grade. She is Harry Potter obsessed, a voracious reader, and queen of a gigantic Playmobil kingdom.

How does vintage fit into all of this? I’ve always been a vintage collector and wearer, but I’ve learned a lot since hemming vintage dresses from the thrift store with duct tape. (Oh, the regrets I have from college!) I think of my job in this world as a storyteller, and storytelling encompasses all of my work: as a writer, as a performer, as a teacher, and as a seller of vintage!

Wearing vintage or using vintage decor or sewing from a vintage pattern is a way to be part of a story. You take something from the past, give it a present life, and preserve it for the future. (You give it a beginning, a middle and an end.) My shop Maudetown Vintage, is full of things I love that seem to want to be part of a new chapter. Maudtown focuses on vintage clothing and accessories, vintage sewing and embroidery patterns and supplies, vintage linens and some vintage home and kitchen decor. My main selling platform is Etsy, but as I always have way more inventory than I could ever list there. I sell at vintage fairs and festivals in the Midwest as well. Many things I have that are too impossibly large or fragile to ship end up being for sale exclusively at vintage fairs.

Why did you decide to start a business?
As I said, I’ve always been a vintage collector and wearer myself. I care about design and one-of-a-kind expressions of personal style. I’ve had an Etsy shop as a hobby since 2010 where I’ve sold off bits of my own collection. This past summer, I decided to make the leap to create a real business!

With the help of the Law & Entrepreneurship Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I finally moved Maudetown from a hobby to a business! The L & E Clinic’s services are free, and without them, I would never be the small business owner that I am today, so in a way, getting their support was the key to me deciding to start a business! Additionally, Madison, Wisconsin, is home to an amazing number of resources for small business owners--from the American Family Insurance Dreambank (loads of free workshops for small business owners and how to follow your dreams) to the monthly Social Media Breakfast (workshops and chats about how to utilize Social Media to strengthen and promote your brand and business!)

SIDENOTE: If you want to start a business--from home-based craft sales to a tech startup, move to Madison, Wisconsin!

What is the best and worst thing about owning a business?

The best thing is being your own boss. Though any failure is your own, each and every success belongs to you alone as well. You essentially become the leader of a community of one (at least at the beginning,) and it allows you to create the kind of business you’d like to see in the world.

The worst thing is trying to stay on top of the details and not privileging the “fun stuff” in your day-to-day. It’s like sewing--people think it’s all “Project Runway” and sketching on fancy tablet computers and shopping for fabric at Mood. It’s actually hunching over a sewing machine until your fingers are numb and geometry--SO MUCH GEOMETRY! Owning a business is like that too. In my case, to outsiders, it seems as if all I do is wander through estate sales and sort through magnificent old trunks of antique treasures. The truth is it’s mostly math and research! As a small business owner, you can drown in the details if you don’t schedule some big picture thinking on a regular basis.

How can we work vintage pieces into our everyday style?

I do this everyday! There are people who make vintage a lifestyle, and do I envy them. For me, it’s not entirely practical. I think my mission is help people enhance their everyday style with one-of-a-kind items from the past. My motto is: Be bold. Skip the mall. Wear vintage.

I wear vintage almost everyday, but sometimes, it’s just a necklace! Vintage accessories are a great way to start exploring the possibilities with vintage. Belts, scarves, jewelry, handbags or even a jacket can take a basic outfit and make it feel special. I also love combining new and old. In spring and fall, I often wear a vintage dress over contemporary leggings and flats. Sometimes, my vintage is hidden. If you’ve never worn a nylon slip under a dress, try it! It’s easy to care for, smooths out the lines of any dress, and doesn’t suffer from static cling!

Additionally, vintage often means 1950s or “New Look” styles to most people, but vintage doesn’t have to look dated or costume-y. You’d be surprised how many of my 1970s dresses and skirts look stunningly modern, and there’s a whole 1980s does 50s world where retro designs were made with a more contemporary fit. Remember that vintage just means 20 years old or more!

Special occasions are ideal for vintage. Who wants to arrive at a fancy party wearing the same dress as someone else? I just sold a 1970s vintage maxi dress to a local client who wore it to a tropical themed benefit cocktail party. She looked fresh and on theme, got a million compliments, and the dress was just $29!

At the end of the day, I’m not a rule follower when it comes to fashion, and buying vintage means that you aren’t either.

As a small business owner, what is one thing you cannot live without?

This is a good question! My iPhone is certainly my business partner, and it’s full of apps that help keep me on track. There’s the Etsy app, of course, and when I’m out and about trying to determine resale value, there’s Google and EBay (I sell there sometimes too!) I use Evernote for saving research and long-form thinking and AnyList for making to-do lists. I use Wave for accounting and Hours for time tracking. I even use my iPhone to take pictures for my shop.

Connected technology is the main reason Maudetown is possible! My business wouldn’t have been feasible 20 years ago!

That said, I’ve just started adding a paper planner to the mix. You’ll never take my iPhone, but I’ve become a bit of an evangelist for The Spark Notebook.

Any advice for someone wanting start a vintage based business?

Do your research! Vintage is tough, and there’s a great deal of competition, and just because something is old doesn’t mean that it’s worth something! Know that most of your job will be math and researching the history of objects. You’ve got to be interested in fashion history, retail and branding history, and textile manufacturing. You’ve got to be interested in becoming a master of obscure areas of knowledge.

Selling to collectors is easier (as, for example, collectors just want that specific item that they don’t have, and the seller matters less.) However, collectibles are harder to find! Selling more broadly to vintage wearers and casual consumers of vintage is harder, as it requires a brand that buyers can trust (so that they know they’re getting good quality, authentic vintage items) and a brand identity that attracts them in the first place.

When you aren't working what do you do for fun?

I’m in the luxurious position that most of the work I do is fun, which sounds terribly precious, but it’s often the truth. I get great pleasure from managing Maudetown, pursuing my creative writing work, and being in the rehearsal studio.

That said, I do have hobbies! I’m a serious baker (with serious opinions about vanilla, brands of sugar, and The Great British Bake Off!) I’m a sewer as well, and I’ve been (very slowly!) learning to embroider. I love to travel, and planning trips is one of my most favorite things to do. Last summer, our family vacation was in the Western Highlands of Scotland. This summer, we’re planning a gigantic East Coast road trip. Summer 2017, we’re off to Hawaii! I’m a voracious reader like my daughter, and the two of us often spend hours together in the library. I’m also a yoga practitioner, and though that might fall under the category of “hobby,” for me, it falls under “requirement for mental health!”

I think the key to a rich, happy life is diversity, rather than that buzzword “balance.” Variety fuels me, and I have some of my best ideas for my theatre work while driving to yard sales for Maudetown. Life is short, and the world is big. I want my experiences to be diverse, and when my story is over, I want others to feel stronger in telling their own stories. That’s really all we can hope to leave behind--for our families, our communities, and our world.

Thank you, Jen for sharing your story and business with us. You are an inspiration. We don't have to settle on one career. My favorite tidbit was that our lives need diversity and not balance.

Check out Jen's shop, Maudetown today.


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