Emily Cavness is the CEO and Co-Founder of Sword & Plough, a quadruple bottom line fashion company that repurposes military surplus into bags and accessories. She is also an active duty U.S. Army officer at 10th Special Forces Group. She has been a Dell Social Innovation Fellow and a White House Champion of Change.
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Time Stamped Show Notes
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
- [01:46] – Created Sword and Plough 3 years ago with her sister
- [02:56] – Sword and Plough generates revenue through direct-to-consumer sales
- [03:13] – Expanding to wholesale next year
- [04:21] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: Running up against a supply chain problem for their Kickstarter – days after she was deployed to Afghanistan
- [05:59] – Learn about long-term sourcing if you’re making products
- [08:51] – Elbow grease, luck, and hard work will get you to the finish line
- [09:15] – “You need to have a dedicated team who won’t give up when it gets hard”
- [09:37] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: Coming up with the idea for Sword and Plough after a social entrepreneurship talk
- [11:55] – “Thinking: what in my life is wasted on a daily basis?”
- [14:38] – Biggest weakness? – “I have very little time to work on my business”
- [15:58] – Biggest strength? – “My determination. I drive our team forward”
- [17:13] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – “Thinking I didn’t have enough time”
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – “Dream big and don’t get bogged down by obstacles”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – “I’ve surrounded myself with a fantastic, passionate team”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – Google Docs
- If you could recommend just one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – Lean In
- [19:16] – Parting guidance: “Start now. That’s the most important step”
- [19:29] – Contact with Emily through her website and on Facebook
Emily: Yes, definitely!
John: Yes! Emily is the CEO and Co-Founder of Sword and Plough. A socially conscious fashion brand that incorporates military surplus into their product design. The company empowers veteran employment and donates 10 percent of their profits back to veteran organizations and Emily is an active duty US officer, 1st lieutenant promotable, Forbes 30 under 30 Fellow and White House Champion of Change. Emily, take a minute, fill in some gaps into that intro and give us a little glimpse of your personal life.
Emily: Well, thank you so much for having me on your show. I’m thrilled to be here and I’m coming to you here from Denver, Colorado. And I grew up in a military family which was part of the reason why I was inspired to serve and a lot of factors in my life contributed to the idea of Sword and Plough which I am I just so thrilled and excited to lead with my sister, Betsy who just got back from an awesome female veterans conference in New Orleans and we are just about are to celebrate our 3 year anniversary of Sword and Plough. So, we have been on this amazing journey and are thrilled to share a little bit of our story with you.
John: Well, it always fires me up to talk to Army veterans because that’s usually who the entrepreneurs but in this case, I’m actually talking to an active duty US Army Officer. So, somehow Fire Nation she manages to run a business, be an Officer, be a rockstar, all of the above. So, whatever complaints Fire Nation, or excuses that you are using to hold you back like, get over yourself. There’s plenty of time in everyday for everyone to do something if they want it bad enough.
Now Emily, let’s talk about revenue for a second. Obviously you’re getting paid some decent flow from being an active duty Officer. What are the was you generate revenue in your entrepreneurial ventures?
Emily: Sure, so right now Sword and Plough is primarily direct to consumer, and we do that through our E-commerce website swordandplough.com. But, we’re really excited to expand this year through wholesale business and one reason we’re really excited about that is because I think, so many people have heard about our story,but it’ll be really exciting for people to see our products and to really hear the Sword and Plough story in person and to be able to feel the fabrics and to really see our quadruple bottom line business in person. And I think, that’ll be a really exciting new step for Sword and Plough.
John: I’m excited to be able to share your story, your journey that you’ve been on with Fire Nation Today and we’re going to get into that. But the reality is this, I am adamant about starting with a failure. But not just any failure Emily, what you consider your worst entrepreneurial moment to date. So, you’ve had some tough moments as an Officer in the US Army, I mean we all have been through trying times, I mean it’s not, not the easiest time in the world to be a soldier. But take us to the entrepreneurial side of this. What was your worst entrepreneurial moment to date and Emily, really take us to that moment in time and tell us that story.
Emily: It happened almost 3 years ago and our team had spent just over 6 months building all of the momentum up for our kick-starter launch and we had this goal of raising $20,000 over the course of 30 days so that we could produce our first large production order. And at the time of kick-starter we only had 3 prototypes and kick-starter was the most amazing and exciting journey because we hit our goal of $20,000 in the course of just 2 hours and at the end of 30 days we had over 1,500 supporters and we had raised over $312,000. We were just blown away by this opportunity where we could finally share Sword and Plough with so many people and to receive all of this excitement was incredible.
And so 3 weeks later, I deployed to Afghanistan for the 1st time and my sister and co-founder, Betsy was left kind of at the helm at Sword and Plough back in the States to fulfill all of these pre-orders. And we had that timeline to uphold and so leather was, we learned a lot about leather and supply chains, while I was deployed in Afghanistan and Betsy really learned a lot about that.
But, I remember my first day in Afghanistan I received an e-mail from my sister Betsy and I thought it might say something like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Can’t wait to hear more.’ and it did. And then she asked me, ‘By the way, where did you find the leather piping for our rucksack prototype?’ and I said, ‘Oh man, you know I think, I found that on eBay.’ and unfortunately eBay wasn’t going to be a long-term supply chain source. So, we quickly realized that we were going to need to learn a lot about leather and supply chain and long-term sourcing.
So, we also learned a lot about communication and learning how to communicate over 6 different time zones and so, that was an extremely challenging time. But, when I came back from that deployment we had fulfilled all 1,500 of those orders and it was just surreal to know that this brand had grown at such rapid rate. And while it was kind of a scary moment to know at the time of kick-starter we only had 3 prototypes it was extremely exciting to return and know that we had grown with so much support behind us too.
John: Now Fire Nation, having just successfully run the 6th most publishing campaign on a kick-starter we had $450,000 in revenue, over 7,000 orders. I can tell you straight up the logistical nightmare that, that can turn into because for the Freedom journal, a physical product. So, the fact that Emily successfully had this kick-starter campaign and then went to Afghanistan, and I never went to Afghanistan, but I did deploy to Iraq.
So, I know what it means to be deployed in a war-time environment. You have an absolute necessity to uphold and that is to your soldiers, to your platoon, to your unit, to your company that is first and foremost. And so, she had to go from where she had the eyes on the business to now she’s like, ‘wow, what am I going to do? My sister’s kind of left holding the bag.’ You know, no pun intended.
Looking back and comparing, like I was sitting in front of my computer every day. I had 5 virtual assistants. I had Kate, a whole team to work on this stuff, 12, 16, 18 hours a day if needed and we still struggled. So, listen things are never going to be easy, things are never going to be perfect. You just have to put yourself out there, take the action then just know it’s going to be a little bit of elbow grease, a little bit of luck, and a lot of hard work that’s going to get you to the finish line.
And they got to the finish line, they learned a lot getting there, now they’re growing and building. And that’s my big take away Emily, from what you went through but, what do you want to make sure Fire Nation gets? What’s the one take away, in just one sentence that you really want to make sure our listeners absorb from your worst moment?
Emily: You need to have an extremely dedicated team that isn’t going to give up when it gets hard is very important.
John: So let’s shift Emily, because you’ve had a lot of ah-ha moments. And I want you to choose one your greatest, one that you rank up there. One that you think Fire Nation will really find value and find interest and find interesting at the same time. What’s an ah-ha moment that you’ve had? Take us there, tell us that story.
Emily: The biggest ah-ha moment for Sword and Plough was the moment when I thought of the idea for Sword and Plough. And that was when I was a senior at Middlebury College and I was also an ROTC cadet, it was in my last semester. And the center for Social Entrepreneurship had just launched and there was this amazing speaker, Jaclyn Novagrant had come in to be the keynote speaker.
And I attended her talk, kind of on a whim with other friends and she was speaking about how another business had incorporated recycling into its business model. And all of a sudden all of these moments from my childhood and experience in college kind of collided. So, I grew up in a military family, I was born at West Point. My dad served for 30 years in the Army, and my Uncle was in the Marines and became an astronaut pilot.
And I remember growing up on military posts and seeing piles of military surplus and wondering what happened to that, and later learning that it’s often times thrown away and wasted. And then learning later at Airborne school, learning about challenges that are sometimes faced with employment and transitioning. And at Middlebury college, I was the only ROTC cadet on campus for 2 years and that was and extremely interesting experience. And I learned about the civil-military divide and what that is and how the US might be able to help close that divide.
And so, my sister and I have always had a real interest in fashion and creative interest. And so all of these life experiences collided at that one moment sitting and listening to Jaclyn Novagrant’s talk, and I thought,’what in my life is wasted on a daily basis that could be harnessed and turned into something really beautiful with a powerful mission?’ And I thought about military surplus material. Then I thought, ‘Well, what could this be turned into?’
And then I looked around the chapel where the talk was, and I noticed that every student had a bag of some kind next to them. And I thought, ‘Well, of course, why don’t we make bags because everyone uses these.’ And then I thought, ‘Well, who would make these?’ And I thought, ‘Why don’t we try to incorporate veterans into our business model as sewers or quality assurance, and managers, and even designers.’ And so, the idea has evolved since and that moment was definitely the ah-ha moment. When I told my sister Betsy about the idea and saw her overwhelming enthusiasm, I knew it was absolutely an idea we had to pursue.
John: Now Fire Nation, what I love that Emily did is she walked you through her ideation process. This is something that we can all do. I mean, what did Emily do? She was sitting there, she was listening, she was absorbing but then she asked the question, ‘what’s wasted in my life?’ and then she thought about that and it lead her to that pile of military surplus gear.
And I’ll never forget actually, when I got out of the military and I was living back in Maine. I actually got an e-mail from somebody and they said, ’Hey John, like you know, we have this military surplus place in Sanford, Maine if you want to swing by. Like, we’re just going to throw all this stuff away. If you want to come pick out boots, maybe whatever maybe rucksacks.’ And I was like, ‘Okay. I’ll swing by.’ And I grabbed some stuff, I used for hunting. It was pretty cool, I was like ‘wow, this is cool.” But you know, I never went to that place like, ‘wow they’re throwing all this stuff away.’ I never like thought about it in the business sense of the entrepreneurial way.
So, just that little mice at shift Fire Nation, ‘what is being wasted in my life?’ And then looking around and ‘what do people need’ and ‘everybody has a bag here, so everybody needs bags.’ Then just one thing leads to the other but it all starts with you taking a step back and actually thinking what kind of entrepreneurial result can I serve forward. And now for you Emily, we’ve heard about a lot of strengths, like the fact that you can logistically put things together, you’re a hard worker, xyz. But what would you consider your biggest weakness as an entrepreneur?
Emily: Determination is definitely a double edged sword for me because I get extremely fired up about a lot of things and sometimes it’s hard to turn it off as an entrepreneur, which can be difficult sometimes. And it can be an incredible strength for a lot reasons. Because it’s great for driving our team forward and for going after a lot of exciting ideas but sometimes it can be hard to relax and calm down as an entrepreneur too with being a determined person.
John: Emily, I’m sorry. I’m not going to let you get away with a backhanded compliment to yourself like that. You’re going to have to step up there a little bit and really dig deep, girl. What is something that’s a weakness that you have that you know you need to improve upon?
Emily: I think a very obvious weakness I have right now as an entrepreneur is that I’m extremely limited on time. I have to really work on my time management skills to make sure that I’m doing the best job that I can for Sword and Plough as our CEO and Co-Founder. And so, I need to make sure I’m always working on those time management skills.
John: What’s your biggest strength?
Emily: I think my biggest strength as an entrepreneur is that I’m determined and confident.
John: Emily, I don’t want you to go anywhere right now. Fire Nation, you’re definitely not going anywhere. Because we’re about to hit the lightening round. But we’re going to take a quick minute to thank our sponsors.
Emily, are you prepared for the lightening rounds?
Emily: I am prepared. I’m ready.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Emily: When I thought of the idea of Sword and Plough I was a senior in college, I was a cadet about to become an Officer and I wondered if I had enough time to turn this idea into a reality. So I wondered about that.
John: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Emily: My parents always encouraged me to dream really big and not to get bogged down by the obstacles in the way.
John: What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?
Emily: I’ve surrounded myself with an amazingly talented and passionate team.
John: What internet resource link or ever note with Fire Nation?
Emily: Google docs has been extremely helpful to my team.
John: If you could recommend just one book Emily, for our listeners what would it be and why?
Emily: I would recommend Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg because I read that book when I was in Afghanistan, just weeks after we launched on kick-starter. I was so inspired by her words; she really inspired me to lean in the leadership opportunities in a more deliberate way and to encourage other women in business and in the military to do so as well.
And I was so honored and inspired to meet her at the Pentagon in the Fall of 2015 for the first ever Military Lean In Circle where she and the Secretary of Defense met with female service members to discuss and listen to us and to see how the DOD could enhance leadership opportunities for women in the military. And it was awesome to interact with her and to see her book really come to life.
John: Well Emily, I want to end today on fire with a parting piece of guidance from you, best way we connect with you, and then we’ll say goodbye.
Emily: My advice to listeners with ideas who may not be entrepreneurs yet, would be start because that is the most important step. And the best way to keep in touch with me and Sword and Plough is through our website www.swordandplough.com and through our Facebook page, Sword and Plough on Facebook. And I have just enjoyed this so much, thank you so much for having me.
John: Well, Fire Nation knows this Emily, that they are the average 5 people they spend the most time with. And Fire Nation, you’ve been hanging out with E.N. and G.L.D. today so keep up the heat. And head over to eofire.com and type Emily in the search bar, her show notes page will pop up with everything we’ve been talking about today, all the links, all the latest, and of course go to swordandplough.com. Great website, great company and of course great entrepreneur Emily, right here with us. Now Emily, I do want to thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation Today, and for that we salute you and we’ll catch you on the flip side.
Emily: Thank you.
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