Editor’s note: People of UW is a weekly series produced by Digital Features Associates. The series — published online and on our social media accounts — aims to highlight a student at UW making an impact on the campus community. These Q&As are lightly edited for clarity and style.

ANNA COTTRILL

From a young age, Anna Cottrill knew she had a creative mind and the drive to turn her unique ideas into a material reality. What she didn’t know was how attainable and exciting transforming her passion into a career would be.

Why did you decide to major in the studies you chose?

My interest in studying international business came from the fact that I really enjoy culture and different languages. I dislike the idea of staying in one place and doing the same specific career for the rest of my life. International business provides me an opportunity to either work for an American company abroad, a multinational corporation somewhere else in the world or even run my own company somewhere else.

As for entrepreneurship, when I was ten or eleven years old, my mom read an article to me and my brother about a kid who designed stickers for Legos. I remember telling my mom, “Wait, we can do that!” So the next day, I was an eleven year-old on the phone with the owners of local businesses asking them to review our product and potentially sell it. I ended up working for two companies, which lasted a few years. The experience was really cool. We were in the newspaper, and it honestly wasn’t that hard. That day, I figured out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life — start little companies.

 

Could you tell me about your small business?

My company is called Orchid Blossom Gifts LLC. We have been selling jewelry and knit washcloths for the past year and a half, in a gas station and convenience store near my house. When the pandemic started, I decided that I was home and I wanted to focus on my business by applying for an LLC because Wisconsin has a student entrepreneurship program that waives the fee to start a corporation.

My main reason for applying was because I wanted to own the rights to the name. My grandma’s nickname is Blossom and my cousin’s Korean name means beautiful orchid, and that is how the company was named Orchid Blossom Gifts. My grandma and my cousin are two people who inspire me and are supporting my passion for entrepreneurship but also taught me to make jewelry.

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How has owning a company changed your perspective on the business world?

I mentioned that I know I don’t want to do the same thing for my entire life. Entrepreneurship gives me the ability to start several companies and work with them but ultimately sell them and start a new one, if I decide. It gives me the freedom to do whatever I want.

One thing I’ve learned during college is, most people want to do one thing, and that’s why they’re in school — to learn how to do that one thing. They want to be a lawyer, doctor, financial analyst, but for me I never fell into that category. Entrepreneurship gives me the freedom to do whatever I want.

As a person, I’m also a problem-solver — it comes very naturally to me. I have this little book of ideas that I use to create solutions to problems I encounter. All these ideas are hypothetical concepts that could turn into a company or product. When I encounter a problem, I write it down, and then I come up with a solution to fix it. And these are all things, hypothetically, that you could turn into a company or a product.

Last year, I was in an international collegiate entrepreneurship program for nine months called the Creative Destruction Lab, and that was the first exposure I had to entrepreneurship classes as well as to people who have a similar mindset as me. From those experiences, my perspective on the business world has changed in the sense that I understand how focusing on one topic may not be as beneficial to achieve my goals, like a majority of careers demand.

 

What is something the experience of owning a business has taught you?

The biggest thing I learned is that creating a company is more attainable than I initially thought. I think a lot of people who debate owning their own company view it as a very foreign idea that requires experience. But you don’t need to be an expert in the field to start.

In one of my entrepreneurship classes, we’ll talk about a random topic and the professor will always remind us how we could start the company and do it better. Being around people who have that mindset has really taught me how attainable my goals are.

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What is one piece of advice you would give to individuals beginning their own business?

Just do it. From my personal experience, I’m always in my head and create roadblocks. If you don’t, you’re going to spend so much time wishing you did. Someone else might do it faster, or better, so jump on it right away. You don’t need to spend everything you own on developing an app or company, but if you can spend $100 online buying new pants, you can spend $100 to own a domain for a website.

Just dive in and go for it. If it doesn’t work out, which a lot of them don’t, you’re still trying. You learn a lot more from failing than you do from waiting and preparing scenarios in your head in lieu of actually going forward.

 

Have you encountered a specific instance in which a struggle or failure taught you a meaningful lesson?

There was a time two years ago when I was attempting to reach out to new potential customers to act as a supplier, rather than solely as a boutique. As I was identifying places to mail my product I began limiting myself. I would doubt myself and assume that the company wouldn’t want to sell my product, even before asking. I ended up sending my product to only two or three places and never heard back from any of them.

The concept of not hearing back is normal in the world of entrepreneurship. You have to send a product to a lot of places to hear back. But the moral of the story is, I was pairing down my potential in my own mind when in reality that shouldn’t be my choice.

I didn’t give many companies the opportunity to say yes or no. Instead, I decided to put up a roadblock and limit myself. From that experience I’ve learned that there is no point in saying no for someone else.

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If you were to do it all over again, what is one aspect of your experience that you would change?

I would dedicate more time to pursuing my business. Last year, I had a bunch of my materials at school, and I still didn’t work on my projects often. I wish I would have dedicated an extra thirty minutes or an hour each night to focus on it, rather than becoming distracted by Netflix or friends.

While those things are important for me, investing in my businesses is investing time in myself because I know that’s what I really want to do. It’s hard when you’re in school to take that moment of time for yourself. Sacrifice that thirty minutes of sleep to workout, bake, make a new product or build a website.

I want to buckle down because in my head, even if I’m distracted, I’m still thinking about ideas because this is what I really want to do. It gets me so excited! I’m almost doing a disservice to myself by not dedicating the time to work on some aspect of my creativity or company.

 

What is your favorite part about running your own business and pursuing your own ideas through entrepreneurship?

I love that the only person setting both expectations and limitations for myself is myself. There’s no direction or benchmark that I have to hit. I can keep building new companies or the same company, meeting new people and developing ideas.

There’s no limit to what you can do with your career. I have to and get to do everything. For some people, this can be intimidating when you’re building smaller businesses, but if I encounter a problem I get to switch it. That is my choice. I love that I can make everyday different from the others. Anything I want to do is at my discretion.