Entrepreneur Designs Her Own Future

Entrepreneur Designs Her Own Future

Joan Ford’s home is more than where her heart is---it’s also the location of her quilt design company, Hummingbird Highway, LLC. Ford’s business is one example of a growing small business sector: more than one out of 10 households in the U.S. has a full or part-time home-based business, according to a recent study by SBA’s Office of Advocacy.

An accounting degree from Syracuse University was the foundation for Joan Ford’s corporate career, with positions at GE, GE Capital, boutique executive recruiting firms, and not-for-profit agencies. Ford was able to explore creative outlets outside the office through scrapbooking and knitting Norwegian sweaters. Little did she know that learning to use a sewing machine to finish the sweaters she knitted would lead to her own business!

A beginning quilting class in February 2003 was an eye-opening experience for Ford. Instead of the drab, dreary fabrics she imagined, Ford was impressed with the vibrancy and variety of fabrics in the local Syracuse quilt shop that offered the class. Ford quickly grew into an accomplished quilter and the same shop where she took the class took notice, enlisting her to finish sample quilts for other classes.

“I was producing lots of quilts and I would go to work with the project that was waiting for me at home stuck in the back of my mind. It got to the point where I would start quilting in the morning before I went to work, just sewing a few pieces to add a little spark to my day. As I started teaching classes and designing basic quilts, I felt it was time to switch gears completely. I realized that it wasn’t fair to split my time when my energy and excitement for quilting were growing and the excitement for my job wasn’t. I had to find a way to make a career out of it,” explained Ford.

In 2006, Ford left her job to take her passion for quilting to the next level. After filing her DBA, Ford took her idea for turning fabric scraps left over from previous projects into quilts to a national quilting tradeshow. Ford successfully pitched her scrap quilting process to a quilt industry wholesale distributor. Working through a distributor helped her learn to navigate the quilting industry with a mutually beneficial quarterly shipment: for the next three years, Ford developed original quilt patterns which were paired with rulers, notions, and instructions that were exclusively packaged by the distributer and marketed to independent quilt shops nationwide. It was a profitable concept for each element of the supply chain.

Like many home-based entrepreneurs, Ford developed a patchwork of roles in her company. Keeping a hand in each area of the business, even the least favorite, allows her to minimize costs and keep clients satisfied. Ford’s financial background helps with writing proposals and negotiating contracts, whereas her passion for quilt patterns and projects keeps her motivated to work well beyond the traditional 9 to 5 schedule. The support from her family and friends has also been critical for Hummingbird Highway to take flight, including the transition from two salaries to one and renovation of the basement into a state-of-the-art quilt studio.

The road to success has had its challenges. Ford’s distributor commitment ended, leaving her without steady income. The recession started impacting independent quilt shops, her main customer base. With trial and error, Ford worked on the daunting process of trade marking her quilt pattern program name, ScrapTherapy, through the U.S. Patent and Trademarks Office. A similar trademark application had been filed overseas, creating a lengthy legal obstacle for Ford. She met each challenge with perseverance, by creating new products and ultimately getting the trademark.

Today, Ford earns her living as an author, accomplished quilt designer and national instructor. Published in March 2011, Ford’s first book ScrapTherapy, Cut the Scraps! explains her trademark process for turning fabric scraps into beautiful quilt projects. The book is another tool to help Ford market her ScrapTherapy program s to independent quilt shops and larger outlets. When not designing at home or lecturing on the road, you can often find Ford participating in regular roundtables for women entrepreneurs at the WISE Women’s Business Center in Syracuse.

“For me, it’s good to be able to get out of the home office environment and talk with others who are in similar situations and see how they are getting along. Going to WISE Center meetings helps me interact with other creative entrepreneurs and explore other options of how to do things,” Ford said.