new entrepreneurs

5 Ways to Get Ahead When You’re a New Entrepreneur

How do you ensure success? Who stands out from the crowd? What separates the pros from the amateurs?

There aren’t any definitive answers. And I’m not even going to begin to try and analyze them. What I will say, is that over the years, I’ve been observing. Working with startups and new entrepreneurs on a regular basis has provided rare insight into what makes one person get ahead of the rest.

Here are five way to set yourself up for success that go beyond conventional wisdom:

1.) Make it easy to help you.

Most people are excited and willing to help out new entrepreneurs. But the likelihood of connecting with someone who is more seasoned in the industry is largely dependent on how you make the “ask.”

The first and most obvious way to sabotage yourself is by writing an inquiry email that scrolls on for block paragraph after endless block paragraph. In most cases if you’re looking for advice, the person you’re seeking out is busy.

I implore you, keep your email to no more than two to three short paragraphs. Your chances of getting a response are incrementally higher and I promise you’ll come across as more professional — and more effective.

Bonus tip: ask a specific question. Avoid using phrases like, “Can I pick your brain?” Instead, ask the exact questions you want to know the answers to. Once you have your foot in the door and get a response, you can follow up from there.

2.) Write thank you notes.

They don’t have to be handwritten and shipped via snail mail, but if someone takes the time to jump on a call on your behalf, follow up with them. I’m always surprised when I block out a free 30 minute call to answer someone’s questions and I never hear from them again.

Regardless if the advice was good or not, it’s common courtesy to express gratitude to someone who gave their time to you.

This is especially applicable when a contact goes out on a limb to introduce you to someone. It makes that person and yourself look bad if you don’t take the time to follow up afterwards.

Good things come from gratitude. And the most successful entrepreneurs show how much they value the people who helped them along the way.

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3.) Start before you’re ready.

Should I launch now? Should I get more real world experience first? Should I go back to school? Only you know the answer that’s right for you, but my recommendation to most aspiring entrepreneurs is to start before you’re ready.

Building a business requires a long runway. It’s not only about the amount of hours in the day that you spend on your business, but the months and years that you take building up to it. As I tell my entrepreneurs (on repeat), launching a successful company is a marathon not a sprint.

The sooner you can start fleshing out your ideas, seeking out mentorship, connecting with industry peers and educating yourself, the better off you are in the long run. The old cliche usually holds true: Tomorrow you’ll wish you had started today.

>> Tess, that one was for you : )

4.) Be consistent.

The entrepreneurs who get ahead are calm and collected. They’re methodical, they’re strategic and they don’t get easily frazzled.

Can’t figure out how to link up your domain to your server? “No problem, I’m sure tech support can help me.”

First sample came in two sizes too big? “No worries, I’ll speak with my factory and have them fix it.”

Kickstarter video is low quality? “No big deal, we’ll reshoot.”

When you’re first starting out, your attitude and the way you handle challenges are going to dictate how you respond in the months or years of your business to come. The entrepreneurs that get ahead know there is a solution for everything. And sometimes the solution falls under the guise of a better option.

Building a business is not an overnight endeavor. It requires consistency of action, which means not giving up if something doesn’t work the first time.

5.) Ask for help.

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Nobody builds a successful business by doing it on their own. That’s right, nobody.

The entrepreneurs and mentors you see online or in fashion magazines are all getting help, seeking out mentors of their own, building advisory boards and seeking out further education.

In the past six months, I’ve taken three online courses, countless webinars, hired a consultant and sought out a mentor myself. This is in addition to the five part-time employees that help me build my business.

Solopreneurship is a farce. If you want to get ahead, then you have to seek out help from others and continue to invest in yourself.

That’s what separates the amateurs from the pros.

 

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dictate your success

Do You Let Others Dictate Your Success?

I have a friend in the sustainable fashion industry who is amazing.

Out of college, she interned for an international eco-fashion brand, she’s worked for big designers in NYC, she’s helped to run a fashion-tech startup on the west coast, and she’s constantly debuting her own creative projects.

One of her most recent endeavors is a podcast with people in the sustainable fashion industry and to announce it, she sent out an email to her network.

When a big-name womenswear designer replied back my friend was awestruck.

“I can’t believe she is interested!” she said to me.

To which I replied, “Um, of course she’s interested. You’re, like, amazing. And everything you do is amazing.”

“Do you think I should ask if I can interview her?” Insert grimace of trepidation.

Me: “Uh, YES! I’m sure she would be honored! Do it!”

It took less than a week for my friend to hear back from the designer and get an interview on the books.

As an outsider looking in on the situation, it was so clear to me why this person would immediately say “yes” to my friend’s request.

My best guess is that the designer was equally thrilled and honored to be asked.

But to my friend, making the ask was scary and nerve-racking. She was the one having to make herself vulnerable to rejection and in doing so, the stakes were automatically heightened.

We all put people on pedestals (I’ve written about imposter syndrome before here). Most of us can think of at least one person we feel inadequate to. We get it in our heads that because of our [age / experience / station in life / upbringing / background / etc.] we’re not worthy of the people around us.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this from one of my entrepreneurs in Factory45:

“I reached out to this patternmaker… she wrote me back once and then I never heard from her again. It really knocked my confidence.”

Fact: As entrepreneurs, we cannot let our perception of others dictate the decisions we make and how we navigate forward.

As soon as we do, we’re letting other people determine our success.

For all we know, we’re letting an unanswered email that could’ve ended up in a spam folder, hinder us from moving forward.

And yes, we all do it. Sure, there is the occasional ego-less robot whose confidence doesn’t waver, but for the rest of us mortals we can’t help but question our place among others.

Where do I belong? Am I understood? These are questions humans have been asking themselves since the beginning of time — back when we were using rocks as dishware.

But I’d argue that as entrepreneurs, those questions take on an even deeper meaning. Do my ideas matter? Am I making the world a better place?

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We tend to look for outside opinions to validate those answers.

Recently, I was connected with an entrepreneur in the venture capital and development space, who has been a coach to entrepreneurs for several decades.

Originally, we were supposed to jump on call to talk through a pre-interview so I could be on his podcast, but after our call, he told me he wanted to do more.

“Shannon,” he said. “How can I support you beyond a 30-minute podcast? I really believe in what you’re doing and you’re one of the only people out there doing it. How can I help you?”

When we got back on the phone he expressed interest in mentoring me and immediately my thoughts jumped to:

“Why would he be interested in me?”

“How can I fairly compensate him?”

“I don’t want to waste his time…”

When we got on our third call it was clear how much he believed in Factory45. No strings attached. He wanted to do what he could to help me succeed.

So, why did I question my worth? Because of his LinkedIn profile? Or his bio? Or his successful company and connections to other entrepreneurs I admire?

Why do those external factors dictate our internal dialogue?

Because they shouldn’t.

If we’re all going to succeed as entrepreneurs (and yes, there is enough success for all of us), then we can’t hold back, waiting to see how others will respond.

We have to take the favor from the exec we met at a networking event. We have to click “send” on the cold pitch to Vogue. We have to accept the meeting with the intimidating industry veteran. We have to believe we’re worthy of the help we are offered.

It’s safe to say there isn’t anyone giving us gold stars or A+’s anymore. It’s our job as highly-capable, driven entrepreneurs to give them to ourselves.

The future of our businesses depend on it.

 

 

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*This post was published with permission from Kestrel.

Photo credit: Jeshu John


 

The Reason New Designers Get a Bad Rep

I’m in the business of working with startups and new designers. A lot of the people I work with don’t have a fashion design background. They’re entrepreneurs with a cool idea, but other than that, they don’t have much knowledge on how to get started.

One of the reasons I started Factory45 was because I know there aren’t many industry veterans who want to “deal with” new designers. I’ve had three people in the past week say, “Oh yeah, so-and-so doesn’t even attempt to work with college grads / newbies / design students / etc.”

The fact is, new designers have a bad reputation. If you’re starting to squirm a little, just hear me out.

I’m not saying that you are necessarily to blame for the bad rep, but there are other people who have “spoiled it” for others.

For the most part, suppliers would rather not work with you, sew shops would rather not work with you, factories would rather not work with you. And this is why fashion startups have such a hard time getting started.

Manufacturers in the States have been doing this long enough to know that 9 times out of 10 it just isn’t worth their time to take on the additional baggage of someone new to the industry. They have a responsibility to the construction and production of a product, but they don’t have a responsibility to educate you.

Let me give you an example of an all-too-common email that the vast majority of project managers have probably received:

“Hello – I have a patent for an innovative new apparel product. I’m looking for a production partner to work with – do you do apparel? Are you willing to sign an NDA? What next steps do I need to take? Thanks, [name]”

If you don’t see anything wrong with this example please keep reading.

I want to break this down because there are few different pieces that we should look at:

“PATENT”: If you are trying to patent an apparel product, you are wasting your money. The only person who will tell you otherwise is a lawyer (for obvious reasons). There are .01% of apparel products in the world that are unusual enough to legally protect. Even then, someone else could come in, rip off the design, change one button and your product is no longer protected.

I know the warm and fuzzy feeling you may get from “legitimizing” your company, but trust me, you’re wasting valuable time and money that could be spent on finding out if your customers even want your product.

“INNOVATIVE NEW APPAREL PRODUCT”: This says nothing. There is no sew shop, factory, manufacturer or supplier that is going to take you seriously (or even know how to respond to you) if you don’t give a description of the product you’re trying to make. Ideally, you will be able to tell them the type of garment, the type of fabric you’re using, how many units you’re looking to produce and what your timeline is.

“SIGN AN NDA”: Asking a manufacturer to sign an NDA is akin to writing “amateur hour” on your business card. If your product is good enough to be ripped off or stolen, it won’t be your production partner who does it. Many of the manufacturers in the U.S. have been in this industry for decades. If they were in the business of screwing over designers, then they wouldn’t have lasted this long. I don’t know anyone who would sign an NDA, so please, don’t shoot yourself in the foot by asking.

“WHAT STEPS DO I NEED TO TAKE”: Oh lordy. This has to be the biggest pet peeve of all. And it’s probably the most common question asked. I’m just going to go ahead and put out a PSA for every manufacturer out there: Again, it is not your production partner’s job to educate you. If you don’t know what the next steps are, then you need to go back to the drawing board, do some research, read some blogs, books or hire someone to help you. (I have 30 people coming through Factory45 this spring, because they were smart enough to do that.)

If this all sounds a little harsh, I know you would never do this — I just want to make sure you know why ; )

The thing is, I really want you to succeed. We need entrepreneurs creating products that solve a problem for people. We need new designers working with manufacturers in the U.S. and keeping the momentum up.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to make that happen. I want to make sure you’re doing it the right way.

Here are the things you need in place to approach a potential production partner:

  • A sample
  • A pattern
  • A spec sheet
  • (A good head on your shoulders)
  • (Good communication skills)

Some will require more than that, but at the most basic level, that’s what you need before you should even send out an inquiry email.

If a production partner agrees to take your project on, then you’ll also need:

  • Fabric (don’t wait to source it, but wait to purchase it)
  • Materials
  • Capital

Production will not start until you have all of those items and can pay 50% upfront.

 

I remember reading Kathleen Fasanella’s book several years ago, and she went so far to say: Because designers have a bad rep, don’t call yourself a designer — call yourself a manufacturer.

So now you know — it’s not just me saying it.

 

 

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Are you an aspiring entrepreneur or designer who’s new to the apparel industry? Get the free “Manufacturing Checklist” from Factory45 here.

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Francis 


Making It: Startup Advice from Hackwith Design House

Lisa Hackwith is the designer, founder and creator behind Hackwith Design House, a women’s apparel company that offers limited-run garments. In HDH’s own words:

“Instead of designing for mass production, we immerse ourselves wholeheartedly in the process and create every piece with the intention of it becoming that special highlight of your closet. We create less than 25 of each piece, which makes all of them uniquely rare and special.”

Starting out as a one-woman show who now has a team of sewers and a partner to run operations, Lisa is proving that independent design and conscious business is possible — as well as profitable.

With an Instagram following of 85K, a recent feature in Design*Sponge and a loyal fan base of customers, Hackwith Design House is well on its way to leading the independent design movement.

I spoke with Lisa about how she got started, her best marketing strategy and her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

How did you get started launching your own apparel company?

I taught myself to sew after I graduated from college with an studio art degree. I took a year off to research MFA programs when I discovered my medium – designing and making clothes. Over the next five years, I sewed daily. I had some success with my Etsy shop and getting wholesale orders, but in order to make the business sustainable, something had to change.

In February 2013, I took a few months off to re-work my business model; I re-launched Hackwith Design House in September 2013. The new model centered on my priorities: staying in Minneapolis, manufacturing all the clothing in the U.S., and making sure I love everything with my name on it. Thus the limited-edition model was born: 2-4 designs are released every Monday, no more than 25 pieces of each.

Since September 2013, I’ve hired 3 seamstresses and have partnered with Erin Husted to run operations. In August 2014, we added the HDH Basics line, and in January 2015, we added HDH Swim.  It’s been so fun (and so much hard work!) to see the company grow the way it has.

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What does a “typical” day look like for you?

As any small business owner knows, a typical day is anything but. Each day presents new challenges, new opportunities, and constant work.

I usually come into the studio around 8:30 each morning and spend the day designing, making patterns, making sample pieces, instructing my lead seamstress on new pieces, and going over wholesale orders, marketing or business strategies with Erin.

I leave anywhere from 6-7pm and sometimes do some work at home. I appreciate that each day is a little different yet all still within working at what I love.

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How did you set up your supply chain at first? How has it changed since you started out?

The fabrics I work with are all sourced from a local, family-owned fabric store that specializes in purchasing run-off fabrics. I love going to the fabric store and feeling each new fabric until I find the right ones. I also love the idea of using fabrics that may not get used otherwise. We are in the middle of sourcing fabrics for Basics so that it can be a consistent fabric option. Our goal is to find a sustainable source for fabric, which is still harder than it should be.

What have you found to be your best marketing strategy?

I really enjoy partnering with bloggers by gifting them items that they can take photos of and use for styling.  It’s great to see how different women wear HDH pieces.

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What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to start their own ethical apparel companies?

When we are trying to make a decision, we do our best to think about more than the bottom line. We like to call ourselves a company with a conscience. But in doing so, one has to remember to weigh a variety of factors, from where fabrics are made, to how much we pay our employees, to creating garments that are quality.

We have found it to be helpful to think about solutions as being placed on a spectrum: on one end you have “the evil corporation” that cares about nothing other than increasing profit, on the other end you have the idyllic company that hurts no one and makes only good decisions. Most companies are somewhere in the middle. We try our best to make decisions that get us closer and closer to the good.

To learn more about Lisa, Erin and the team at Hackwith Design House, check out the HDH website here

Photo credit: Hackwith Design House

Making It: Start-up Advice from the Co-Founder of Sword & Plough

I was first introduced to the founders of Sword & Plough during their Kickstarter campaign in the spring of 2013. Sisters Betsy and Emily Nunez launched a campaign (that blew their goal out of water) to produce a quadruple bottom line company that works with veterans to repurpose military surplus fabric into stylish bags.

A year later, I met Betsy in Boston to hear more about the behind the scenes of growing Sword & Plough. Since our coffee chat, S&P has seen some amazing traction with its debut on The Today Show, as well as features in Business Insider, Inc. Magazine, Refinery29 and many more.

Having started from ground zero and building the company into what it is today, Betsy is sharing her best start-up advice for early-stage companies that are ready to embark on their journey.

1.) What inspired the creation of Sword & Plough? What are the ethics and values behind your company?

My sister, Emily, and I grew up in a military family. After hearing so many meaningful stories from our father, uncle, and cousin about their time in the service, Emily was inspired to serve herself. She was particularly inspired by the humanitarian missions that our dad was deployed on and the counterinsurgency research he conducted that was put into action. She knew she wanted to serve in the military, and we both knew at a young age that we wanted to make a positive impact in the world, just as our family members had.

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As a result of Emily’s time in Army ROTC during college and growing up in a military family, she was keenly aware of the incredible amount of military surplus waste, as well as the state of veteran unemployment. This inspired her to take something that is often wasted and upcycle it into a beautiful product with a powerful mission.

The result is our company Sword & Plough.

Today, our team re-purposes military surplus materials into stylish bags that are made by American manufacturers that are veteran owned or operated. We also donate 10 percent of the profits to veteran organizations that align with our mission to strengthen civil-military understanding, empower veteran employment, and reduce waste.

We are a quadruple bottom line fashion and accessories business focused on people, our purpose, care for the planet, and profitability (a key component that allows us to further our impact). Our team has built our business model to reflect a life cycle and we’ve worked hard to shape the brand’s ethos with impact at every stage. To date, Sword & Plough has up-cycled over 15,000+ pounds of military surplus, supported 38 veteran jobs, and sold over 5,000 products. twitter-bird-light-bgs1

2.) What was the most difficult part of setting up your supply chain? What hurdles did you have to get over in the process?sword-plough

The most challenging part of setting up our supply chain was learning everything from scratch, setting it up, and ‘putting out fires’ or problem solving as issues arose. We knew from the beginning we wanted to do our manufacturing in the U.S. and work with U.S. partners and suppliers, but no one on our team had specific knowledge or experience with manufacturing or creating a supply chain. Building our long term supply chain for large scale S&P production happened after launching on Kickstarter, all while the majority of our team was located in different time zones — Emily, our CEO, was deployed and serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan at that time.

First hand experience taught us that relying on so many different pieces (manufacturing, shipping, expenses, other people and even the environment) can create surprises or ‘speed bumps.’ What you thought was going to take one month to implement can quickly extend to two or even three months!

These ‘speed bumps’ were the sort of setbacks that if not corrected the second time around, can quickly crush an early stage business, or best (of the worst) case scenario, lead to unhappy customers.

We worked hard to absorb as much information as possible and then make adjustments and implement new strategies as we moved forward.

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Here are a few key things we learned:

  • Find sources that are a match for large scale production regardless of the stage you are at.
  • Find sources or partners that carry items that are consistently re-stocked or are regularly available in large quantities.
  • Ensure that the companies you are working with are in good financial standing and will be a long term partner.
  • Ask the supplier or partner to fill out a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility survey) or ask them questions to ensure their processes meet your values.
  • Do test runs for time, cost, etc.
  • Get quotes, samples, shipping timelines, lead times, and cost in writing prior to purchasing.
  • Find an effective and diligent way of communicating with your manufacturer (Whether it be planned calls, weekly/daily visits, having them regularly update a master spreadsheet with production progress).
  • Find mentors specifically skilled and experienced in retail distribution, operations, logistics, and supply chain.

Manufacturing within the U.S., communicating with all parties in the same language, as well as being located in the same country has helped us do all of the above, act or react in a very timely manner, and has allowed us to feel a lot more comfortable with our processes once we were set up.

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3.) What mistakes or challenges have you learned from while setting up and running Sword & Plough?

We knew there would be a lot of challenges and new roles, facets, and foundations that were going to be essential to fulfilling our dream of turning S&P into a well functioning business.

When building a startup, you haven’t learned how to do everything yet and you’re likely going to be very limited with resources and working capital. A lot of the advice and help we received early on is still priceless today.

We’ve never been afraid to ask for help or to ask the questions that will help us problem solve or plan our vision further. It wasn’t easy (early on) to be focused on an idea that hadn’t gained momentum yet, or something that people weren’t aware of or didn’t understand. We’ve learned through early challenges that nothing worth doing comes easy and there’s a lot to learn when you’re building something from scratch. It’s your ability to work when work isn’t easy that makes the difference.

The best part about our business life is the uniqueness and pride that comes with seeing our idea through and gaining momentum. Each and every day, regardless of the challenges that present themselves, we feel like we’ve won the lottery because our team gets to build something that is our owntwitter-bird-light-bgs1, through our vision and share it with the world.

Sword-and-Plough-Repurposed-Bags4.) What is your main marketing strategy? You’ve also gotten some great press – how did those opportunities come about?

Our main marketing strategy is to build engaged groups through word of mouth, social media, press, and email marketing. A lot of the opportunities and features that we have received to date have come from a very strong launch when we entered the market on Kickstarter in April 2013.

Here are  three things that we found helpful to think about when launching our brand and getting the word out:

1. Define your goal and create your pre-launch, launch and post-launch plan. Define your vision for your audience, brand, community, and story. Be as detailed as you can and think about what you need in terms of funding and your goals for marketing, branding, production and customer experience.

2. Activate and engage your network. Make an early, large, public and online announcement to your commitment to build your product or launch. From that point on, commit to building as much awareness as possible around your product, campaign, or launch.

3. Ensure a wide audience for your campaign (to expand even beyond your network):

  • Share your product or idea with as many friends, family and acquaintances as possible.
  • Organize feedback sessions and ask for their advice, opinion and real time feedback. Collect as much information as possible and listen.
  • After you’ve connected with someone in your target market, ask if there’s anyone they think you should meet or speak with who could provide additional support, and don’t be shy about asking for a direct introduction.
  • As you’re having the conversations, give people the opportunity to sign up for launch alerts or updates.
  • Create engaging content and tell every aspect of your story.
  • Develop brand evangelists who will talk about your product and story.
  • Create and build your brand’s resources (social media platforms, media packet, press release, business cards, pitch postcards, text lists, email lists, photography and campaign videos).
  • Build a media list of bloggers and publications that have synergy with your idea, mission and product. Keep in mind that many of the bloggers you reach out to are getting hundreds of emails each day. You need to make your story stand out, and the easiest way to do that is often with a direct introduction.
  • Create new contacts outside of your own network by attending meet-ups, events, presentations, pitch competitions, events in the industry you’re looking to enter, and be an active member of communities that have synergy with your mission
  • We highly encourage you to reach out to your already existing network — your friends and family. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your network and ask for support, in the form of help or pledges, but perhaps more importantly, contacts.

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5.) What advice do you have for designer entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

If we could pass along advice, our top ten would be…

1. Take your ideas seriously from the start. Every idea is worth serious consideration (at least a five minute brainstorm), no matter how absurd or impossible it may seem at first. Believe in the power of an idea. Test your idea continuously and ask questions. Push yourself to drive the idea from concept into reality.

2. Ask for feedback every step of the way.

3. Dream up the biggest vision possible, start wherever you are and start small. twitter-bird-light-bgs1

4. Nothing is impossible or out of reach for people that continuously try and go after what they want.

5. Push through the challenges and overcome any sized obstacles by gathering information, seeking help and broadening your perspective.

6. Find mentors that are successful and experienced within your industry.

7. Constantly developing relationships is essential for business growth.

8. Build your own community or seek out the ones that will either be very supportive and the most critical of your idea. Both will make you better.

9. Seek out opportunities. They are fuel for gaining momentum, and opening the door for communication between your business and audience is key.

10. Always thank people and express gratitude.

Photos courtesy of Sword & Plough, So Freaking Cool, Druammons, Made Close, Go Verb & Super Compressor.


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