Are You Making One of These Fashion Startup Mistakes?

Over the past two years, I’ve worked with over a hundred fashion startups at various stages of business development.

While there are many, many things I’ve observed and learned in that time, there are four big ‘things’ I want to go over today that have the potential to directly affect the success — or downfall — of your company.

Whether you’re already selling product or only have an idea down on paper, keep these big four tucked somewhere in the back of your brain:

Mistake #1: Focusing on sustainability as a marketing tactic instead of making it an inherent part of your business model.

We all love to think the “do-gooder” angle sells, but studies are showing that’s not the case. The product — meaning the usability, functionality, and design — must always sell first. Not only that, but it must sell at a price point your target market will respond to. Supporting roles like branding, social responsibility, and packaging are important, but they’ll never have the same effect on a potential buyer as a really great product.

Taking that a step further, sustainability and ethics should be embedded into your business model as a non-negotiable, not a strategy for saying: “Aren’t we so great?”

I can’t wait for the day when all companies big and small can say, “Well yeah, of course our company manufacturers ethically and transparently” — but even now, that can’t be your main selling point.

Mistake #2: Giving away a percentage of your revenue to charities and non-profits in the first three years of being in business.

This argument isn’t going to win me any popularity points, but hear me out.

There should absolutely be a social impact component of your business, but when you’re first getting started, you need every penny to keep growing. If low-impact materials, domestic job creation, above-average wages and ethical sourcing practices are embedded into your supply chain, then the best thing you can do is invest every cent back into your business so that it doesn’t fail.

I remember when TOM’s first launched in 2006 and everyone was going bonkers over the one-to-one model. Consumers and the media were heralding its social impact without considering where the shoes were actually being made. Meanwhile, the materials were so cheap that the shoes were falling apart after a few wears. (And that was just one of its many problems.)

You ultimately have to decide on the values of your business, but if you’re bleeding cash and can’t continue to give your sewers work, then that doesn’t benefit anyone. Instate a “give-back” component when your company is stable and there is money in the bank.

Which brings me to…

Mistake #3: Not paying attention to cash flow.

You have to have your financial ducks in a row in order to run a successful business that will continue to grow.

My advice is to price your products as high as your target market will tolerate, so that your margin is wide enough to cover expenses — and more. Similar to saving for your personal bank account, you never know when a crisis is going to come up. It’s smart to start building a buffer of cash as soon as possible.

That’s all to say, one of the best things I ever did for my business was hire an accountant. Find someone who offers tiered pricing that correlates with your annual revenue, so it’s not a huge upfront expense. (Shout out to Jerod.)

Mistake #4: Not listening to your customer.

Your customer is more valuable than any other component of your business.

If you ask and listen, then they will tell you what you need to succeed. Don’t be so in love with your original idea that you’re blinded by ways to improve it. Your customer will tell you what they really want, but you need to be smart enough to ask and listen.

I’ll leave you with an example. As some of you already know, my fiancè Ross runs an e-commerce company called Project Repat.

When he was first getting started in 2011 he was traveling to Kenya and working with the second-hand sellers who sell the old t-shirts we donate to GoodWill (yep, that’s where most of our donations end up).

Ross’ idea was to buy those shirts in bulk, upcycle them into “cooler” shirts and tote bags and “repatriate” them by selling them back to “hipster” customers in the States.

Bear with me here.

As he started selling the t-shirts and gaining some attention, he kept hearing the same thing over and over:

“This is cool and all, but what can you do with my shirts?”

Hearing this enough times, Ross and his business partner started listening. They flipped their business model entirely.

Four years later, they now run a 4 million dollar company that takes people’s memorable t-shirts and turns them into t-shirt quilts.

All of their production happens in the U.S. where their sewers are paid a fair and living wage. If Ross had been so in love with the idea of traveling to Kenya and creating international impact, he wouldn’t have heard the needs of his customers.

He likely wouldn’t have created a successful business.

The best thing you can build with you customer is a two-way conversation.

 

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Photo credit: Damian Zaleski

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Why Competition is a Good Thing (even when it gives you a panic attack)

“That’s, like, pretty much what I’m doing.”

“She’s selling the same thing I am.”

“I just found out X person is also making X product, so what’s the point in me even trying?”

As someone who works with and mentors new entrepreneurs on a regular basis, I’m no stranger to panicked emails popping up in my inbox about the discovery of a competitor.

“And she’s so much farther along!”

“And they already have 3,000 followers on Instagram!”

“They’re using organic cotton and making it in the USA, too!”

As soon as we discover potential competition, our cortisol levels shoot through the roof and we imagine the worst case scenario.

EVERYONE is going to buy from HER instead of ME.

So I might as well quit.

And while yes, quitting is the easiest route to take (in any situation) there are many more reasons to keep going:

  • An idea is just an idea. Everyone has them. What sets you apart is your ability to execute. 99% of ideas never see the light of day, so if you’re able to get your product to market, then you’re already that much farther ahead than everyone else. So much of entrepreneurship is simply a matter of keeping your head down and doing the work. It’s not glamorous, but there’s really no alternative.
  • The “me versus them” mentality is the fastest way to sabotage yourself. As soon as you start thinking the world is against you and the universe is set up for you to fail, then it’s over. I’ve never met a successful entrepreneur who didn’t operate with an “abundance mentality.” Repeat after me: there are enough customers for me and there are enough customers for them.
  • Competition breeds creativity. Having competitors in the market forces you to innovate, think outside the box and pushes you to do better than you would have done if you had a monopoly. While it may give you anxiety at first, you have the ability to reframe how it makes you feel. It can either deflate you or empower you — and you have the power to choose.
  • Competition shows you there is a need in the marketplace. Having other players in the game means there is a big enough pool of people who want what you’re selling. The market share is there and it’s your job to find a way to take a piece of the pie.
  • The great news about being in the clothing business is that, unless you’re selling to nudists, everyone needs it. Fashion is a $1.5 trillion dollar industry. That’s a lot of people buying clothing. And the average American buys 62 pieces of clothing a year. As fast fashion continues to gross more people out, you’re there to provide an alternative ethical option. How cool is that?
  • And this. This is the best reason of all: Despite how many people are selling (or plan to sell) something similar to you, no one is ever going to do it the same way you are. That’s just fact. There is no one else on this planet that is even remotely close to the same person as you and thus, the way you create is going to be different from everyone else. 

No matter how many new kids lines or womenswear lines or outwear lines debut, they’re all going to be unique to their creator. And that’s why it’s so important to know who your target customer is. It relieves you from having to sell to “everyone” so you can focus on selling to the special group of people it’s made for. There is so much freedom in that.

I know I’ve written about competition before, but it’s the topic that continues to come up because it’s so much scarier when you’re just starting out.

Working with mostly women entrepreneurs has taught me how sensitive most of us are. We want perfection, we want everything to go the right way the first time, and we want to show everyone around us that we can do it.

As soon as we hit a bump in the road, we tend to question our intentions.

Who was I to think I could pull this off?

When really, who are you not to?

 

 

 

 


 

Imposter Syndrome & My Conversation with a Multi-Millionaire

Over the weekend, I boarded a ship in Miami with over 2,000 creatives, tech millionaires, celebrities and startup founders for a three-day, invite-only “conference / festival” called Summit at Sea.

In the company of Martha Stewart, John Legend, Harry Belafonte, Blake Mycoskie and the list goes on, I spent the weekend connecting with some of the leading social impact entrepreneurs in the world.

There were a lot of conversations and experiences that I took away from the weekend, but there was one in particular that I want to share today.

On our last night on board, I walked down to one of the bars on the ship by myself. (The great thing about this event was that you couldn’t go more than 30 seconds without someone saying hello and introducing themselves. For better or worse, you never felt alone.)

“I love your dress,” said a blonde-haired woman in her early forties, standing next to me at the bar.

I told her I bought it second-hand and we started chatting about thrift shopping before getting into other topics, ranging from Burning Man to the challenges that minority entrepreneurs face.

It wasn’t until 30 minutes into the conversation that she told me who she was:

A serial entrepreneur who has sold three companies for over 30 million dollars — each.

Upon realizing that I was having a one-on-one conversation with someone as successful as she was, I found myself starting to shrink.

Who was I to be taking up so much of her time?

What could I possibly say that would be interesting to her?

What was I doing here?

I mean, really, who invited me on this damn boat?

My doubts were creeping in, I was feeling like a fraud and I sensed that in any minute, she would excuse herself from the conversation.

“Do you ever get imposter syndrome?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“Oh my gosh, all of the time,” she said.

“Really? Does that feeling ever go away?”

“You know what, you fake it until you make it — and you never actually feel like you make it. I’ve sold three companies and have more money than I’ll ever need, but I still question the validity of my success.”

Instead of the conversation slipping away like I had imagined, we talked for another 30 minutes.

She opened up and told me what it was like to raise venture capital as a woman. We started talking about how we can collectively build each other up as female founders.

The conversation shifted to a place where I no longer felt inferior — I felt empowered. And it was because we were able to relate on a human level.

I realized over the weekend that this was the biggest takeaway.

As people on the “outside,” we can tend to build others up to be…

Larger than life.

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I imagined the founders of companies like Google, Warby Parker, Life is Good and TOM’s to have it all together.

Articulate public speakers. Impeccably dressed. Perfectly-trained socializers.

We see power, money and success and automatically put them on a pedestal that raises them above the rest.

And while, yes, their accomplishments are generally unparalleled, our weekend together humanized everyone around me.

(Except for maybe Martha Stewart.)

The founder of Zappos was humble (and hungover) on stage. The founder of Uber was soft spoken and unassuming. Even John Legend was modest and quiet.

Maybe they weren’t all experiencing imposter syndrome, but I don’t think anyone would deny the experience of feeling uncertainty and unworthiness.

It doesn’t matter how much success you’ve seen, how much money you have, or how great your life appears to be on the outside.

We’re all just a bunch of humans doing the best we can.

Having come off of the mental and emotional high of this weekend, I’m challenging myself to appreciate where I am right now while truly believing that what I’ve done is enough.

Regardless of whether you have started your company, are currently in business or are still waiting for the right time to start, I’d encourage you to join me in this.

You are worthy. You have done enough. And you are exactly where you need to be.

When you start to doubt yourself remember that so much of the success of others was based on one overarching fact:

They didn’t stop moving forward — even when they doubted themselves. Or felt like frauds.

They kept putting one foot in front of the other.

Whether it felt like the foot of an imposter or not.

 

 

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If you’re interested in reading more about Summit at Sea, CNBC and Business Insider covered the event and wrote about it here and here.


The Truth About Why My First Company Ended

“What happened to your first company?”

It’s a question that I’m asked a lot when people read about {r}evolution apparel and what I was working on before Factory45.

Usually the question is posed with slight trepidation — like the person doesn’t want to bring up a sore subject.

The assumption is that the company fizzled out or flopped or just straight-up failed.

But none of those are true, and I think that’s why it’s so hard for people to understand it.

How could we let go of something so good?

Believe me, it wasn’t easy — but if I know anything, it’s that dreams change. (If they didn’t, then I’d be a strung-out lawyer in downtown Manhattan right now.)

So, here it goes — three years later, the truth about why my first company ended.

It was the summer of 2012 and Kristin, my co-founder, and I had just come off the most successful fashion Kickstarter of all time. We had tripled our goal amount to raise over $64K, quadrupling our first production order of our product, the Versalette.

revolution-apparel

With the extra capital we raised, we convinced each other that it would be a great idea to embark on a “sustainable fashion tour” of the Pacific Northwest. It would help us build brand awareness, tell people about the Versalette, and film mini documentaries with the help of a film intern.

We bought a 1993 Chevy conversion van off of Craig’s List for $5K, decked it out with a new paint job and {r}evolution apparel branding and drove from Kristin’s parents’ house in Missouri to Vancouver, Canada.

Over the course of the summer, we hit up Seattle, Portland, Eugene and San Francisco, interviewing some of our industry “idols” like Lynda Grose, Kate Fletcher and Justin Dillon. We debuted mini documentaries of our travels each week, blogged about it, hosted in-person events and pop-up shops, and even secured a media sponsor.

sustainable-fashion-tour

We spent two months couch surfing, sleeping in the van when we couldn’t find a place to stay, shipping Versalettes out of our trunk, and flying back and forth to North Carolina where our production was ongoing. We secured our first paid speaking engagement and were paid $3K for a 15-minute talk.

By the time August hit, we were so burnt out that we decided to cut the tour two weeks short. I flew home to Boston to see my high school friend get married, Kristin flew back to Boulder and we agreed we would meet back up in a few weeks.

For more than 60 days, Kristin and I had been together for every waking moment. Through the stress of managing two college interns, through the stress of quality control issues with our sew shop, through the stress of hosting event after event (and keeping up with usual business obligations), our business relationship and friendship had been put through the ringer.

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And then September rolled around and instead of listening to our intuition — slow down, enjoy the journey, don’t rush the process — we flew back to Portland to redesign the Versalette for a second production run.

We secured $30K in angel investment, finalized the “Versalette 2.0,” found a new production partner that better aligned with our aesthetic and mapped out financial projections into 2017.

“We’re going to be the next Spanx!”

“Are we really going to do this for another five years?”

“We should totally get on The Today Show!”

“Do you think we’re going to be able to sell more of these?”

The emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship was a daily mind-warp between, “We can do this!” and “Do we really want to do this?”

It was crazy even to consider letting go of what we had built (as some of our customers later told us).

We had achieved something that most startups only dream about. In our first legitimate year of business, we had surpassed more than $100,000 in sales, and we were profitable. As Kristin has said, that never happens.

We had sold out (almost immediately) of our entire inventory of Versalettes and we had 1,400 new customers who also happened to be our biggest fans.

It was terrifying to walk away from something that we had sunk so much of ourselves into.

But we craved our own identities (at the time, we were known only together as Kristin and Shannon), we craved new projects, we craved new challenges. We started to envision what life would be like on the other side of {r}evolution apparel.

So we said goodbye — knowing that, for both of us, it was more important to part as friends than to stay together as an obligation.

So there you have it: we didn’t go bankrupt or end up hating each other. The dream changed and we decided to listen to our intuition.

Whatever your dream is, I hope you follow it. Great things can happen — things you may not have been able to dream up holding onto the old.

It did for me.

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true cost

The True Cost of Fast Fashion: Continuing the Conversation

“People aren’t going to care until it hurts them personally.”

That was the last comment in the closing discussion of The True Cost movie screening I co-hosted in Boston this summer.

The documentary has been sweeping film festivals and fashion media across the world with a no-holds-bar narrative of fashion’s effect on people and planet.

As I sat in the audience that night, surrounded by 100+ students, designers, entrepreneurs, mechanical engineers and concerned consumers, I could see and hear the emotions around me.

There’s something about watching a female garment worker being beaten with a club on the streets of Phnom Penh that can really grip you.

As strong as the emotions were, though, some of the most insightful comments in the post-discussion focused on how we will respond now that we’ve seen the footage and the movie is no longer playing in front of our eyes.

“We’re so detached,” one audience member said. “It’s just so hard to care about people on the other side of the world who you don’t know. Especially when there are so many other problems in the world.”

This sentiment resonates with many consumers: When there is so much to fight for in this world, how do you choose your battles?

When you’re the mom in Missouri with four mouths to feed and the cheapest store is a Wal-Mart, how do you say ‘no’ to the five dollar t-shirts that your kids will grow out of in a few months?

When you’re the university student drowning in debt, how do you make ethical fashion a part of your lifestyle?

In an ideal world, the industry execs profiting off of cheap labor would choose to change things on their own. Then consumers wouldn’t have to make a choice — it would either be ethically-made or not made at all.

But that’s not the reality we live in. The reality is that the fashion industry is a 3 trillion dollar a year business and only two percent of apparel companies source from suppliers that pay their workers a fair and living wage.

fast fashion

The reality is that industry giants can claim negligence because they don’t technically “own” their factories and thus don’t have to take responsibility for fair compensation.

The reality is that until consumers start making demands and asking for change, the fashion industry has no reason to clean up its act.

We’ve heard all of this before. It’s a classic chicken and the egg. A vicious cycle of rock bottom prices and consumer expectation that it should be this way. We expect the five dollar t-shirt — I’d even go so far to say, we feel entitled to it.

And that’s where the root of the problem lies. On the surface, the issues are obvious to us: pay the workers a better wage, change the supply chain, improve working conditions.

“…But I still want clothing to be cheap.”

We deflect the responsibility with the same negligence that fast fashion shareholders deflect it.

There’s nothing I can do as one person. The problem is too great to solve. The issues are too complicated. There is someone more qualified to tackle this. There are only so many hours in a day…

Why should the medical student in Boston care about the garment worker in Bangladesh?

Maybe the answer lies in actually remembering, as True Cost director Andrew Morgan says, that there are people behind the clothes we wear.

Maybe if we saw that with a different stroke of luck in the gene pool, it could be us in front of that sewing machine — we wouldn’t be so apathetic.

I don’t have the answer. Or a solution. The best I can do is lead by example and encourage others to do the same.

The best you can do is to start asking questions, educating yourself, sparking non-judgmental conversations with your friends while doing whatever you can to shine light on yet another fundamental flaw in our society —

That when it comes to the bottom line, the underdog never wins.

If you haven’t seen The True Cost documentary yet it’s streaming on Netflix for free right now.

Photo credit: The True Cost

 


Market45

How I Ended Up on Live Television Last Night, Talking about Fast Fashion

What do you do when you’re sent a live interview request for international television?

You say, no, of course. Who would ever subject themselves to that kind of stress?

I was walking home from a morning of co-working when I got an email from a producer at CCTV America.

She had found an article I wrote for the Huffington Post and wanted me to talk about fast fashion for their primetime news show, Global Business America.

The segment would air live at precisely 8:22pm that night. Was I available?

As someone who is perfectly happy to stay in my little home office, taking interviews by phone and email, my first instinct was to ignore it.

She wants me on live TV in less than 7 hours? That’s nuts. That’s not enough time to prepare…. I’d have to be crazy to do that….

And yet, as my stream of conscious is screaming, “Shannon, don’t do it! Too scary, too scary!” I find my fingers typing:

I’d love to come on the show tonight. Let me know about next steps.

(I like thinking about this sequence as a scene from Pixar’s “Inside Out” – if you’ve seen the movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.)

Fast forward, and all of the sudden I’m on the phone with the producer, doing a pre-interview and she is arranging for a car service to pick me up and take me to the satellite studio in downtown Boston later that night.

Of course, the rest of the day fell to shit as I prepared for the segment and tried to talk myself off the ledge from what I had agreed to.

“Sustainable Fashion Advocate Has Massive Meltdown on Live Television, Bringing Shame to a Fledgling Industry” was the headline I was preparing myself for.

By 7:40pm, there was a black car sitting outside my house to take me to the studio. And for reasons unbeknownst to me, I got in it.

Sitting in the green room, I was taking deep breaths, using the pointer to index finger technique used in yoga and meditation, and telling myself that no one would be watching so it didn’t matter if I sucked.

“Just because it streams to 85 million viewers in over 100 countries doesn’t mean that anyone actually watches it…”

Before I know it, I’m in the studio, in front of a fake Boston skyline, hooked up to a microphone and earpiece and staring into a black screen. The audio tech says “good luck,” closes the door and leaves me the in the room by myself.

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Shortly after, a producer in DC comes into my ear and says, “Shannon, you’re on in 90 seconds.”

All the curse words.

“Shannon, you’re on in one minute.”

And that’s when I hear the pre-recorded segment go live. I hear a reporter talking about Bauble Bar and fast fashion and how great the business model is for consumers and companies.

In my ear:  “The fast fashion model is successful because it gets the consumer what they want, at an appropriate price, in the time frame that they want.”

Cut to my brain waves: Uhhhh, do they, like, know I’m against fast fashion?

“Shannon, you’re on in 30 seconds.”

More curse words.

In my ear: “For just under 40 dollars, you can buy a chic bra and underwear set.”

As I hear the anchor segue into introducing me, I give myself one last chance to panic and blackout.

A few seconds later, I’m on live television talking about the topic that I’m most passionate about.

Showtime.

You can watch the first segment here and the interview here:

And just like that it was done. And I didn’t flop, or freeze up, or accidentally say “shit” instead of “shift.” I flipped the script on how the business of fast fashion is typically portrayed and even had some fun doing it.

Moral of story? Sometimes things are scary and they do flop (case in point: my speaking engagement at ECO Fashion Week three years ago…)

But sometimes, they’re awesome. Sometimes, they’re more important than your fears.

Here’s to losing your shit and winning it back,

 

 

 


How to Stand Out from the Competition & Create Customers for Life

Did you know an online shopper decides within 90 seconds whether he or she is going to buy from you?

That’s right, you have a minute and a half to make a first impression and either convert the sale or lose it.

According to Vouchercloud, over 92% of online shoppers say visuals are the most influential factors affecting a purchasing decision.

When we begin to think about those visuals and how they affect the psychology of a potential customer, we often think only of the nuts and bolts of the website:

  • Should I use a homepage slider or a “hero” image?
  • Where should my call-to-action go?
  • Is the “add to cart” button above the fold?

While layout and design details are certainly important to your conversion rate, there’s one big factor that is usually left out of the conversation. And it’s this:

It’s not about the product you’re selling. It’s about the experience they’re buying.

In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about her.

Let’s say you’re a designer of cocktail dresses for the modern Southern belle (I know, super random – it just came to me). When you stop and think about it, what is your customer actually buying?

(It’s not a cocktail dress.)

Your customer is buying the greater experience of how that dress is going to make her feel.

When she’s browsing through your site, can she see herself in Savannah on her honeymoon? Can she envision the confidence and joy she’ll exude as she sits under a patio umbrella, sipping a mint julep, staring into the eyes of her new husband…

In this case, your sales strategy needs to take your potential customer from a drab cubicle where she’s wrapped in a cardigan all day to the sun-kissed brick roads of her honeymoon destination.

The best online stores are able to connect the dots between the shopping experience and how your customer wants to feel — with your product at the forefront of that solution.

Because what you’re actually selling is an aspiration.

A few years ago, I co-founded a sustainable clothing company that broke Kickstarter records, attracted the attention of big press, and sold out almost immediately after launching pre-sales.

We offered one piece, the Versalette, that could be worn over 20 different ways — designed to be the perfect garment for female travelers and minimalists.

The Versalette wasn’t just a multi-functional scarf for any woman. We were clear and deliberate on who our true customer was, so we understood that we were selling so much more than a product.

When a potential customer visited our site and thought about purchasing the Versalette, she was really thinking about all of the places she would go, all of the new sights she would see and what it would feel like to live life as an adventure.

We were selling the experience of throwing a backpack over your shoulder, not worrying about what to pack, hopping on a plane and seeing the world. Free of responsibility, free of worry and free of obligation.

Over time, we began receiving photos from our customers:

Here I am in my grey Versalette in front of the leaning tower of Pisa!”

This is me in front of Angkor Wat in my indigo Versalette!”

I took my cherry Versalette to Kenya with me and it was a life-saver – I even used it as a blanket on the plane!”

As more of these testimonials and photos arrived, we launched a blog series called the “Versa-Letters” to highlight travel experiences of our customers. The series further communicated the idea that when you have a Versalette in your suitcase, you’re bound to encounter adventure.

When you look at your own online store, or imagine the one you’ll create someday, what is the buying experience you’re giving your customer?

How are you incorporating design, photography, video, language, customer testimonials and unique offerings that make you stand out from the competition?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, keep digging deeper. Hone in on who your ideal target customer is and get clear on how she wants to feel when she imagines herself in your designs.

It’s your ability to create this experience that will mean the difference between a genuine connection — and losing her to another store just a few clicks away.

 

 

 

This article was originally published as a guest post on Startup Fashion here.

Photo credit: Kaboom Pics


 

Copycats, Knock-Offs & What to Expect from the Competition

“What if I tell someone about my product and they steal my idea?”

One of the most common questions that comes up with my entrepreneurs in the beginning of Factory45 is the concern about copycats.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Should I have my production partner / patternmaker / samplemaker sign a nondisclosure agreement?”

I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have spent thousands of dollars on patents and trademarks without ever having their first customer.

There is a lot of concern churning around the fashion industry about being ripped off. And with the latest scandals coming out of Etsy, Urban Outfitters and others, I can’t really blame them.

It’s not unheard of for a designer to replicate a design someone else is selling and get away with it just by adding a few buttons or changing the length of the sleeves.

When brought to court the copycat designer would win the case simply by changing a few minor specs.

Unfortunately in fashion, that’s the way the (entrepreneurial) cookie crumbles.

In Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, he says early-stage entrepreneurs spend too much time worrying about their idea being stolen and not enough time telling as many people about it as possible.

As a startup, Ries says you should focus on talking about your idea to anyone and everyone willing to listen. That’s the only way to get early customer feedback, hear what your potential customers actually want and find out if your idea is a viable business.

There is a big difference between someone saying you have a great idea and actually getting out their wallet to pay for it.

Believe me, I get it. I perfectly understand how fragile and vulnerable it feels to be in the early stages of a fledgling idea.

I’ll never forget an email I got from one of my Factory45’ers last year who was stressed out over another company she had come across:

“…They are basically doing what I’m doing, like sourcing fabric in North Carolina, being ethical, unisex, drawing inspiration from travels and all of a sudden I don’t feel so original anymore.”

I talked her off the ledge and we laughed about it afterward, but feelings of panic and self-doubt are normal to every startup.

When early stage entrepreneurs worry too much about protecting their idea, Eric Ries calls this “stealth mode.”

He says: “Part of the special challenge of being a startup is the near impossibility of having your idea company, or product be noticed by anyone, let alone a competitor.”

Makes sense, right? Stealing an idea is a lot different than stealing an idea and actually implementing it — especially an idea that hasn’t proven to be successful yet.

If you do reach a degree of success down the road, then competitors are bound to enter the market. People see something that works, and they want to have a piece of it — this comes with the territory.

I recently went through this with Factory45 when I found out that a friend and close colleague had ripped off, rebranded and launched her own version of a sustainable fashion incubator.

So much so that a mutual colleague asked her, “Isn’t this the same program that Shannon is running?”

Should I feel flattered? Maybe. But that’s definitely not how it feels in reality. And anyone who has gone through it will likely agree.

The thing is, as hard as it may be to take it gracefully in the moment, competition is a good thing — it pushes us to continue innovating and prevents us from getting stagnant.

After all is said and done, here’s what I’ve found to be helpful when dealing with competition, copycats and knock-offs:

1.) Before trying to get all Zen about it, spend 20 minutes screaming into your pillow. It will help you move past the anger and frustration faster.

2.) Seek to understand and assume positive intent. This can be applied to so much in life. As hard as it may be, give the benefit of the doubt and assume the similarities were not intentional.

3.) Believe in abundance. There is enough to go around. The universe offers ample opportunity for all of us to succeed. Talk yourself out of scarcity and into abundance.

4.) On the flip side, no one ever won by being a second-rate version of someone else (thanks, Judy). This is where strong brand identity comes into play.

5.) And then — there’s karma.

 

 

shannon-signature-e1463530563728

 

Photo credit: Notemaker


How to Use Storytelling to Raise Over $64K for Your Fashion Brand

Four years ago I co-created the highest funded fashion project in Kickstarter history at the time.

To fund the first production run of our product, the Versalette, one garment that can be worn over 30 different ways, my co-founder and I looked to Kickstarter to raise $20K in 30 days.

What happened over those 30 days far surpassed our wildest dreams. Not only did we acquire nearly 800 backers, quadruple our first production order and attract the attention of The New York Times, but we finally saw a year and a half of hard work pay off.

When we clicked the launch button we had no idea what to expect. We had an email list of less than 500 people, a Twitter following of about 800 and a Facebook following of less than 1,000.

Kickstarter wasn’t what it is today, so it had far less traffic and didn’t yet have the trust of potential backers who didn’t know what “a Kickstarter” was.

But despite the lack of internet marketing tactics, an advertising budget or a team of employees, my co-founder and I did have one thing on our side.

A compelling story.

K&S-Bio

For a year and a half, we had been leveraging effective storytelling through blogging and social media. Four years later, branding gurus now call that “content marketing.”

Our marketing strategy wasn’t calculated or premeditated — even though it would have been a pretty smart plan. We were just two aspiring entrepreneurs in our mid-twenties who wanted to start a sustainable apparel company. And we wanted to share that journey.

We were transparent, candid, and authentic — not holding back with stories from the “entrepreneurial trenches.” We blogged weekly to share our experiences with our small readership and the more honest we were, the more our audience responded.

By the time we launched our Kickstarter campaign, our “followers” knew about our first big co-founder fight, our samplemaking mistakes, and our expectations for what we were going to create and how we were going to create it.

Do you know what happens when your followers feel like they’re invested in your past, present, and future? They get out their wallets and invest in you.

We raised $10K in 36 hours and with more than half of our campaign left, we blew past our goal of $20K to finish our last day with $64,246.

The lesson? If you have a compelling story that’s authentic and “shareable,” then the idea will spread.

Lookbook 1

Whether you’re prepping for a Kickstarter campaign down the road, planning to bootstrap your business, or are looking to raise VC money, your brand must have an engaging story that resonates with potential customers.

The good news is, creating that story is a lot easier than you think. It’s simply a matter of being authentic, tapping into what is uniquely you, and sharing it.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself if you’re in the branding phase of starting your company and are still trying to figure out how you’re different:

  • Ask a few close friends what they think is most interesting about you and your background. What do people tell you is especially cool about who you are?
  • What problem are you solving for your customer? What is especially interesting about that problem and your solution for it?
  • What is your “one sticky message?” Meaning if you had to come up with one sentence that described your story, how would you make it super memorable and “shareable.”
  • If you were at a networking event and you had to do one of those awkward “ice breakers” what would be the interesting “fun fact” you told everyone about yourself?

These are prompts to get you thinking — the trick is to weave together the best components of your story in a way that engages others to want to know more.

website screenshot

As soon as you have a foundation for your story, you have to start telling it. And that’s the hardest part. It’s scary to put yourself out there, show vulnerability, and not really know what’s going to happen.

But the sooner you do it, the closer you are to creating a brand.

And you know what happens when you have a great brand?

You start to attract customers.

And then, not only do you have a product, a story, and a brand —

You have a business.

 

factory45 owner shannon

 

This article originally appeared as a guest post on Startup Fashion here.


Market45

 

new designer, advice

What’s My One Piece of Advice for New Designers?

Whenever anyone asks me:

What’s your one piece of advice for new designers?

I always have the same answer. I’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years, and I warn all of them of the same mistakes that I made when I was first starting out in the fashion industry.

Let me take you back to the summer of 2012. I’m living out of a 1993 Chevy Conversion van on a three-month “sustainable fashion tour” of the Pacific Northwest.

Van-Roadtrip, new designer, advice

Six months prior, my co-founder and I had launched the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history to fund the production of our first piece, the Versalette by {r}evolution apparel. We were on a mission to shake up the fashion industry, to prove that less is more, and to show everyone that conscious consumerism can change the world.

By working with a sew shop in the U.S., sourcing 100% recycled, U.S.-made fabric, and considering every tiny part of our supply chain, we had attracted the attention of 1,400 first customers, in addition to media outlets such as The New York Times.

But that’s not where we started.

My journey into fashion production began a year and a half earlier when my co-founder and I first came up with the idea to start a “sustainable clothing company.” We had no idea what that really meant, so we blindly began contacting any person we thought had the slightest chance of helping us.

We called organic cotton farmers in Texas, environmental studies professors in Missouri, eco-fashion models in Brooklyn, Merino wool suppliers in New Zealand and the list goes on…

Looking back at the emails I sent to suppliers, I know now that my inquiries surely got a swift click of the delete button. I didn’t know how to talk to industry veterans, I had no idea how to talk “the talk,” and it showed.

Eventually though, after a year and a half of trying, we found fabric and materials that fit our sustainability guidelines, a sew shop who would work with a fledgling startup, and that’s when we successfully funded our Kickstarter campaign.

If we thought sourcing was difficult, we couldn’t have imagined what the production process had in store for us.

sewing machine, new designer, advice

First hurdle, the organic cotton drawstrings we needed were on backorder and the sew shop couldn’t move forward until they had all materials in-house. We got bumped off their production calendar and couldn’t get back on until the drawstrings arrived.

By the time we began production, we were running four months late.

The backordered drawstrings, production delays and an additional shipping fiasco were rookie mistakes we had to live with and learn from.

But the next mistake we made was the biggest one of all — and it’s the only thing from this story that you really need to remember:

We weren’t at the sew shop when production started.

Sure, we signed off on samples and patterns, but the worst decision we made was not being with our production team when Versalettes started coming off the line.

We weren’t there to offer additional quality control, answer questions in person, build relationships with our sewers and get them invested in our project.

And it came back to bite us.

Our first shipment of Versalettes arrived and a third of them had crooked pockets, misplaced button holes, lost drawstrings or unfinished seams. We got a second shipment and it had the same problem. The sew shop was sending us batches of 40 units at a time and instead of being thrilled to open them, I was terrified.

At the time, it would have been easy to blame the sewers for being “unskilled,” but that simply wasn’t the truth.

Being completely new to the industry, we didn’t know how crucially important it was to a build relationships with our sew shop and be there at the beginning of production.

We had no one to blame but ourselves.

When you’re first starting out, trying to do design and marketing and media outreach and customer service and blogging and everything else yourself, it can be easy to take production for granted and assume someone else is handling it.

The thing is, no one is ever going to care about your product as much as you do.

new designer, advice

After we received our second batch of Versalettes, I flew to North Carolina to visit our sew shop and work out the “kinks.” I spoke to each sewer individually, shared the article about us from The New York Times, and showed them photos of our models wearing the Versalette.

Spending a few days with our team, I finally understood that relationship building in the manufacturing industry is no different than in any other industry.

Shortly after I flew back to the west coast, our third shipment arrived.

Not a mistake in the bunch.

 

shannon-signature-e1463530563728

 

This originally appeared as a guest post on Startup FASHION here.

Photo credit: {r}evolution apparel