Podcast Episode 24 TranscriptInterview with Isabel Muller (Swtch)
Isabel Muller (Swtch)
Isabel is a 28 year-old designer and entrepreneur in Los Angeles. Originally from New England, she drove cross-country to California in 2011 for a change of pace.
After building a career in interior design, she is now getting ready to launch her new underwear brand Swtch. She lives in Highland Park with her partner and two cats.
Why Patience Is The Key To Entrepreneurial Success with Isabel Muller (Swtch)
Katerina: Hi, Isabel… Great to have you in the studio.
Isabel: Thanks for having me.
Katerina: Cool. Um, I guess the first question I’m dying to ask you is that you’ve been involved in entrepreneurial activity since 2016, is that correct?
Isabel: Yes, that’s correct.
Katerina: What, what was your career path before you began your entrepreneurial journey?
Isabel: Sure. So, I have an interior design background, I studied interiors and for years, I was working for an interior design firm in Los Angeles that I actually transferred to from Santa Barbara when I was living more north. So I really built my career in the design field. Before that, I was doing other design related jobs. But that was really the starting point and kind of the shift. After working for a firm for a while, I realised that I wanted to expand in the field and explore different types of design. And I felt like I had the most flexibility to do that on my own. So I left the firm and started to do more independent contractor jobs, freelance, and then soon after, started my own interior design business.
Katerina: Okay. So how did you make this switch, the name of your company, from being an interior designer to being a fashion designer?
Isabel: Well, I know, that’s the best question. I, like along with my passion for design and the creative world, I am also an avid camper. And I’m active. I exercise, I go on a lot of travels, and then just in general, have been a really busy, active person my whole life and the underwear we designed, which is a switchable underwear. You can unfasten it at the chip so that you can change out your underwear without having to undress. So if you’re on the go or travelling, it’s super helpful if you really need that fresh feel. But I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I have this kind of product. And it’s not in my wheelhouse. Like I didn’t study fashion. I don’t know anything about, I didn’t, at the time, know anything about underwear.
But I am, last year when I was on a camping trip and I had a few years under my belt in the entrepreneur world and I had that, like confidence that you get from having your own business and leading your own career. I finally decided to do something about it, pursue it in some way. So I went on this camping trip and I had this experience where I like I just needed to change my underwear. I didn’t want to have to take off my whole outfit. And, you know, you’re in a tent, and it’s like you have no space and so anyway I, I got back from the trip and I was like, “I’m gonna explore this.” Like, “I can do this.” I know how to make connections. I know that in Los Angeles, you can get anything done. So I started it as very much a side project. I thought I was just going to talk to someone and explore the idea of the project and then maybe, you know, put it on hold. But it snowballed so quickly and easily that it really felt like, in my gut, the next move. So, I was able to kind of transition that.
Katerina: Yeah. Because fashion underwear industry is quite competitive and…
Katerina: It’s just competitive, right? So how do you find your way around? I mean, obviously, when did you just start? What challenges did you have as a startup?
Isabel: Sure. Well, the first challenge was that I didn’t know anybody in the fashion world. I knew every vendor and all the designers in the interiors world but I am, I think, I think luckily the two industries are similar enough in the way that you have a designer and you have the product and there are people that make the product. So I applied the same knowledge and history of that type of process to how I navigated the fashion world. Like I knew that I needed a specialist. So I looked into and talked to people I knew that might know a product designer or a fashion designer that could help me. And then I found that person and then from there, I got so much great feedback and tips and advice from people in the industry on who to talk to next.
So, but I found, and I was really surprised to find that the industry is actually very small. Like, they’re, it’s much smaller than the interiors business. And I think that’s just L.A. I’m sure in New York, it’s very different. But I was pleased to find that during every step of the way, people were really encouraged to help me and wanted to see me succeed and wanted to find me the best next person or the next material that I needed. But in terms of competition, I feel that we really have an edge because there isn’t a type of underwear on the market right now that’s exactly like this. So we’re navigating new waters, which makes it more difficult to figure out where to go next. But we have that, we have that competitive edge because of our design.
Katerina: Yeah. So, just thinking back about your career as an interior designer and your new, sort of, you know, entrepreneurial venture as a fashion designer, what are the benefits of actually running your own business?
Isabel: What are the benefits now or what were the benefits that got me here?
Katerina: Okay, you can start off.
Isabel: Well, I guess I can, I can kind of back that question up but with more details of how my life has gone. I feel like my whole life, I really had to take the initiative or be the one in charge. Or, you know, growing up, like when it came to paperwork or or signing up for things or like things that parents would usually do for their kids, like I was always the one doing them. And I would just be like, “Mom, can you sign here? Dad, can you sign here?” Like, I was kind of the secretary of my life in that way, because I just figured out how to do it and I, and I just got used to doing things myself. I got used to, you know, getting a ‘no’, or ‘I can’t help you with that’ and then figuring out myself. So when it came to my career, it was almost second nature to know what I wanted, and then just figure out a way to get it. So that is so beneficial to my life as an entrepreneur and a business owner because I, one, always know that there is a solution. And that someone can help me. And two, that I, I have this history of confidence that, and kind of this intuition, that it’s gonna work out. So it makes me more brave in the industry, I would say.
Katerina: Yeah. Because I mean, I’ve looked at your website and you are going brave. I mean, you use quite brave statements on your website. And I guess it’s sometimes, it’s hard to be so brave and open, I guess. A lot of female entrepreneurs, they fail, sometimes, you know, scared to be out there and reveal them and and share everything they want to share. So how did you feel about, I mean, have you always been so confident?
Isabel: Um, yeah. And I think the other word we’re looking for there is vulnerability, right? Brave, vulnerable. I’d say that I’ve always been brave, I don’t, I wouldn’t say that I’ve always been confident. I think once I got to my earlier 20s and started discovering my ambition, and that I was smarter than I thought I was and I can do more things than I thought I could. That’s when I developed more confidence. But I’ve always felt this pull to be vulnerable and I feel like I’ve always needed to be because there’s been so much to work through in my life like from an emotional standpoint.
So, I didn’t really know how much vulnerability is not only a skill, but a huge benefit to developing a brand until I started my interiors business. Because that’s when I started learning that the people that you’re selling your service to or the people that you’re working with, they want to know you, they want to, they want to invest in you. And what differentiates your business from another person’s business is your personality and your values. So, I found that, but that kind of really got kicked up when I started SWTCH because there’s, you’re right, there’s millions of underwear brands out there, right? And so much competition but SWTCH and I have a very particular voice and particular needs that we’re trying to solve.
And it’s really hard, like in the beginning I was like, I don’t want to be this vulnerable. This sucks, like I’m going to get rejected and people aren’t going to like me but I’ve noticed that the more vulnerable I am, and the more I share about myself and why this product and brand means so much to me, the more people want to support it and the more people want to buy it and the more people are fascinated about the story.
Katerina: Yeah. And thanks for sharing this with us. But thinking about your, sort of, juniors in entrepreneur, when you, have you had any, you know, thoughts, like, I can’t go on. Things just don’t work out for me. Maybe I should just go back to my old life. Maybe I should quit.
Isabel: Oh, yeah. All the time. Once a week, at least. I had a meltdown two days ago. I was like, I was feeling very stressed and that’s one thing I was trying to do wasn’t working out and I was like, “Why am I even doing this?” Like, “Why do I have to make my life so hard?” Like, I could just be working like a stable, salary job right now but I’m so keen on making things complicated and always trying to do something better than the thing I was doing before. Yeah, I have those feelings all the time. They’re fleeting. Like it’s usually a day of disappointment or fear.
But then I, but then I’m reminded of why I’m doing this and how much happier I am right now compared to how I felt when I was working for a company and was constantly feeling I had to ask permission to have a life, you know? Taking time off, it’s different in the U.S. than it is in the UK. But feeling like feeling, so much stress around I’m trying to have a life outside of my job because we work such long hours, and we’re always trying to please this one person. And so, I’m so grateful for being my own boss, and I would take this fear in these weekly meltdowns any day over how I worked before.
Katerina: Yeah. So when you have bad days, what do you normally do? How do you, you know, what’s your strategy if you have a really bad day? Do you have any support system, you know, maybe your friends or a mentor.
Isabel: Definitely. Yeah, I have friends. I have, I have entrepreneur friends that it’s great to talk to when I’m having these days because they, 99% of the time, relate and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I just want to throw it all in the trash.” So it’s nice to have that representation and that comfort. My partner, who I live with, is super supportive. And I also am part of this women’s group. It’s a, like a women’s entrepreneur group that meets twice a week and the person who runs it is a business coach. And the members of this group are always available and totally get what I’m going through and if I need help or I’m stuck and that’s what’s making me feel so upset, like there’s always solutions they can offer. So yeah, I feel like I have a good support system. But sometimes it’s almost too late before I realise that I have that support system like I’m too upset or, and during those times I’ll just need to kind of shut my computer, leave it, go exercise or meditate or something and then come back.
Katerina: Yeah. I mean, this is exactly why we are doing this podcast. Because it’s for, you know, entrepreneurs or for aspiring entrepreneurs to kind of listen to stories and realise well, actually building a business is not very easy and you just think, oh, you know. But I mean yes, we’ll have a couple of success stories and like, okay, and so on. It just was, yeah, they just succeed, is right. But for a lot of people, you have to go through a lot of failing ventures, a lot of, quite a few failed businesses before they can actually find the right business. And the right niche and the right market to be successful. But again, it’s not easy. It’s not the same. We all have to deal with our own demons, they say. So when you have a really bad day, what’s your sort of strategy? What do you do to relax?
Isabel: Well, going for a walk like getting outside or, you know, going for a hike or doing some yoga or something like moving my body really helps me. I feel like when I’m not relaxed, it’s all in my head, and exercising, or just getting outside or seeing something different, like almost disperses all that stress and just lets you burn it off and get different perspectives. Or sometimes I’ll do something in the form of self care, like, what do I need right now? Do I need like, a nice cup of tea? Or do I need to take a shower? Or do I need to just nap? Like, that’s okay.
Um, it really depends on the struggle, or I’ll do something, you know if I’m comfortable at my computer or whatever, I’ll just kind of pause on work and, you know, online shop for a second or just like do something that changes the brainwaves. Other things that help me relax just more in general is just exercise is so important for me, and I’m in therapy, which is so helpful like, I really need that solo safe space to kind of unpack and then just keeping community, especially during this time of quarantine where it’s so isolating, it’s so important for me to keep in touch with my friends because I’m connected with all this love, and that kind of drowns out the fear and the anxieties.
Katerina: Yeah. I actually gonna have a very interesting guest in the next couple of weeks. His name is Michael Freeman. I don’t know if you’ve heard about his studies. He’s actually, I guess, he’s an expert in mental health.
Isabel: Wow. Cool.
Katerina: He was actually, he said to me, “When BBC needs an expert, they come to me.” I think he lives in LA, in California.
Isabel: Wow, what an exciting guest to have.
Katerina: He’s published a study in 2019 but he found that a lot of, you know, entrepreneurs statistically they’re more likely to have depression, you know, higher level of depression and generally, you know, many different mental health conditions. So being an entrepreneur is not very easy but still it’s not, we still don’t really understand where that, when you become an entrepreneur, you’re more likely to develop those conditions. Or it’s the people with those conditions are likely to actually become entrepreneurs.
Katerina: It’s important to kind of pay attention to your mental health because if not, you know, it’s not that easy and actually being an entrepreneur means you put more stress on yourself and make yourself more…
Isabel: That’s really interesting, yeah.
Katerina: … depressed.
Katerina: Yeah. Thinking about, you know, the skills required to be an entrepreneur, when you just started your underwear brand, did you feel like you were lacking on some skills? Or did it just kind of glued together and you knew what to do? Or how did it go for you?
Isabel: I feel like the biggest, oh sorry. What?
Katerina: Yeah, yeah.
Isabel: The biggest skill I felt like I was missing was from a design standpoint, like, just understanding fashion, construction, you know? I wear clothes. I’ve always been into fashion, I understand the basics. But what I felt like I was truly missing was that eye and that intellect and that, you know, the years of experience and knowing how certain materials work. But that was really quickly remedied by just putting myself out there and asking a friend if they knew anybody and then I was connected almost within a day with a total expert, amazing woman who’s hugely inspired by the brand and that it’s worked out so well. But I think, more generally, I didn’t have the skill set to start a corporation, you know? My interior business was as a sole proprietorship so it’s very easy to just manage it because it’s so connected to your own financials and taxes and all that. Like the business filing is so much less intense. But with a company like this, there’s so much more.
There’s so many more filings and legalities involved and that was a lot to wrap my head around and that’s probably my least favourite part of business, is the paperwork and the forms and the legal documents and so I really needed help with that. But like I said, with every component that I was insecure about, I knew to just find someone or ask someone and then put my trust in them to tell me how to do it. Because I knew that you can’t do everything as the founder, you can’t do everything as the CEO.
This business is so different from my interiors business because I was really doing one thing, I was designing and I knew the whole job. But with a company like this, you know, you need someone to know about the product, you need someone to know about the brand mission, you need someone to lead everyone. And so in the beginning, I had to do all those things. I’m still doing all those things. But there’s just so much more to learn.
Katerina: Yeah. ’Cause you haven’t been running this for long, have you.. the Swtch… how long have you been…
Isabel: Just a year.
Katerina: Just a year?
Katerina: Because if you look at the statistics for small business, you know, small business statistics, I mean, 18 months is a very, very tricky sort of age, isn’t it? When you’re on the brink of… If you push through this deep…
Katerina: You become successful eventually but a lot of people just kind of, oh, there is no demand, not making sense and they kind of give up. Although…
Isabel: It’s hard. Like so many, most startups don’t succeed. While startups don’t get funded, especially female startups, female founded startups, there’s so much telling you to not start a business. But it’s, I really feel like the passion I have around the product and the brand is going to get us through somehow. That feels good to have that confidence.
Katerina: Yeah. Do you have a supportive family to help you through difficult times when you have a difficult time in your business? Do you have a lot of family or friends who are helpful?
Isabel: Oh yeah, yeah. I live with my partner of three and a half years and he is so supportive and involved and my family is really supportive. I was, but they are all on the East Coast. I’m on the west coast so I don’t see them very often but my mother and my step dad and my brother and his wife, they, I was so nervous to tell them about my new business idea, you know? Because I really care about what they think and I was nervous to tell them because I thought they’d be like, what? Like, you’re starting another business? Like, I felt like I would be looked at as fickle or crazy. But it was a complete opposite. They were like, “Wow, this is an incredible idea.” Like, “Are you sure?” Like we’re scared for you but we’re so supportive and, you know, my brother was like, “Wow, that’s amazing. I would love that for men.”
Like, I just got so much love and pride from them that really fuels me. And they ask me constantly how it’s going. They’re always checking in. I don’t know what I’d do without that. Just to have someone be proud of you regardless, like, you can really only get that from family and my friends. And my friends are another story. I wouldn’t, this wouldn’t be happening without the support of my friends either. Like, they not only believe in the product but they believe in me. And they’re so amazing and sharing with everyone and spreading the news about it and, you know, contributing to my crowdfunding campaign that was earlier this summer. And you can’t, it’s not, it’s not a solo project like it takes a village. At least emotionally, like you can’t, as an entrepreneur, carry it all on your own. You need to open your mouth and get it out there so that your village can carry it with you.
Katerina: Yeah. Why are you saying that your relatives or your brother would think you are crazy to start another business? Wasn’t your interior design business successful?
Isabel: It was. I mean, yeah. It is. I don’t know. That’s my fear. That’s just like my, you know, you just tip, you know. My interiors business isn’t that old, like, I only started a few years ago. So, and I have no, at the time, I had no experience in the fashion industry so I was worried I would be looked at as not credible or not equipped. But it wasn’t fair for me to assume that of my family because they know how much I’ve accomplished and they know what I can do and they saw that I really did my homework and that was incredible to them and they’re supportive no matter what.
Katerina: Yeah. I mean your website looks so professional.
Isabel: Thank you.
Katerina: I mean it’s like a big brand behind that website.
Isabel: Thank you. I had help with that. I had an incredible branding woman help me with that.
Katerina: Yeah. She’s done a really great job.
Isabel: Thank you.
Katerina: When you see a very successful brand, it’s what you normally see. And the concept, this is great because mostly you use some kind of recycling material.
Isabel: Yeah. So, the product itself is sustainable because you are eliminating the need for using disposable pads or liners or things like that. But it’s also, the fabric is made from recycled water bottles. So it’s a, like a high performance poly spandex blend that is used from recycled water bottles and then the liner of the underwear is made from stem cells which is made from Eucalyptus fibre so super sustainable material and very breathable. And we’re trying to make any new material we introduce to the brand, whether it be like a tag or printing, we want it to be the most sustainable it can be. Whether it’s water based ink or recycled paper. And even if we can’t do that right now, it’s always a goal for us to have this like, the smallest footprint which I’m really excited about and proud of us for.
Katerina: Good. Because the underwear can be washed? Or is it disposable?
Isabel: Yeah, no. It can be washed like regular underwear. It’s like, it has the same lifespan as your typical underwear. You just take it off and put it on differently.
Katerina: It’s definitely a great innovative product.
Katerina: Yeah. I don’t think we have products like this. I don’t know, I need to check. I guess the next step is to do something with baby nappies because this is just, is…
Isabel: Yep. We definitely…
Katerina: The amount of baby nappies that go into the landfill is, it’s just horrendous, isn’t it?
Isabel: It’s really bad. That’s really bad. Well the industry is, you know, making changes by streamlining reusable diapers like cloth diapers. Yeah. And we definitely have an interest in tapping into that industry with our technology to make it a little bit more streamlined and easier for sure.
Katerina: That’s great. You’re pioneering this and I just hope that your brand becomes really, really successful because…
Isabel: Thank you. That’s really nice of you to say.
Katerina: Because the amount of waste we produce it’s just, it’s shocking. So if we can make new innovative products like this, we can solve the problem of all of the waste. Okay, so if you are to teach one lesson to starting entrepreneurs, what would be that lesson?
Isabel: Starting entrepreneur? I would say to trust yourself. And really go with your gut. I, when you’re just starting out a new business or a new idea, you’re gonna get pulled in so many different directions, you know? That what you see on Google, what this one person is saying, what this one person is saying. But I feel like the best skill set for an entrepreneur to have is to see and gather all that information, and really make your best educated decision on how to move forward. But what really, what really matters is what feels right. Like, don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right. But that doesn’t mean that the right thing might be scary. So you really have to listen. And just follow your intuition, how you want the product or your business to go. I think that’s, that’s my best rule of thumb for sure.
Katerina: Yeah. And what would be the sort of, the must have business skill to have when you’re starting a business?
Isabel: Patience. But also, like we talked about earlier, vulnerability. Definitely. People are going to want to invest in you and your passion and your story. And as long as you stick with that, and roll with that, you’ll be okay.
Katerina: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing this. I just want to, I haven’t asked this question, actually. With the current situation, do you think today’s the good time to start a business?
Isabel: That’s a really good question. That’s a question I’ve been asking myself all year.
Katerina: Because we haven’t watched TV for a month now and we turned on the TV a couple of days ago and it’s the same news. And you just think, oh my god, nothing is, it’s just the same COVID, COVID, death, death. And unemployment, economy is in shambles. So what are the options for people who, I guess, I don’t know what the situation is in the U.S., but…
Isabel: It’s just as bad.
Katerina: People that’ve been furloughed and the government paid for their wages. I guess they’re gonna go back to the companies and that if there is no demand, companies don’t have to keep those people so they’ll be, my projection, there’ll be many people unemployed at the end of September. So, you know, what is the advice for people who lost their jobs?
Isabel: Well, that’s a really big question. I don’t feel fully qualified to answer it but I will give my opinion. Yeah, my view. I think that for people who want to start their own business this year, I think it really depends on the kind of business. We kind of started rolling earlier, too early to kind of stop and we just had momentum so it felt right to just move forward. But it really depends on what you’re selling. For instance, interior designers, they’re doing really well right now. Because the people who can afford interior designers are home, looking at their house wanting it to be designed, you know? But you know everyone in the service industry is pretty much out of a job. And I think that this year is really, if you haven’t started anything yet, I think right now is a really great time to plan and to invest energy in developing like a really clear view on what you want. I don’t, I don’t know if this time is the best time to invest your, your funds and your top like your, the time that you could be using to make money because of how volatile that industry is right now. I think it’s really hard for startups to get funded, you know, because of the recession.
But I would say this is a great time to plan and a great time to really observe. Because I’ve noticed that a lot is changing this year. I feel really grateful to have a brand emerging from this year because there has been such a huge shift from a social action point of view within brands. Brands are realising that their voice has to be bigger and has to be better and has to have a view.
I feel like businesses, up until now, and in most ways, have felt they needed to be more neutral in terms of political views, social views. But that’s not what’s getting people’s support. Like, if you have a business idea, make sure that you’re clear on how you feel about what’s going on. Make sure you’re clear about who your product is helping and just take note of what’s going on right now. I think that if I had been starting to Swtch now, I would be doing a lot more research. But, but in terms of people that have lost their jobs, I think that right now it’s like, what’s most important is to not put too much pressure on yourself and just make sure your, your basic needs are being met. And, and do what you can.
Katerina: Thank you so much, Isabel, for sharing your story and I hope everything works out for you.
Isabel: Thank you.
Katerina: Pleasing company and amazing innovative product. And an amazing founder as well.
Isabel: Thanks so much, Katerina. I love your, I love your questions. This has been a really great, great podcast.
Katerina: Thank you so much and. Yeah. All the best.