An Inspiration Board for Creatives: Meet Tina of Factory45

This is a guest post from Factory45’er, Tina Hofer Medico.

I’m Tina Hofer Medico, an interior designer for highly-creative businesses and the people who run ‘em — and the creator of The Spark Board.

As a designer, I love having the freedom to play, scribble, scrawl and make a total mess — when I’m in creative mode. But I also appreciate having a chic, tidy and sophisticated workspace at the end of the day — especially since I’m usually working from home!

I’ve also learned that I need to SEE my dreams, goals and intentions, right in front of my eyes, every single day. If they’re tucked away in a drawer (or filed away on my hard drive) they’re never going to get the attention they deserve.

One day, a bolt of brilliance hit me — what if there was a functional tool that could serve as a beautiful inspiration board by day, and transform into a modern art piece, by night?

An inspiration board that represents so much more — a life of creative passion and productivity, but also balance & work-life proportion.

I searched high and low, but I couldn’t find what I wanted.

So I decided to invent it, myself.

And with that, The SPARK Board was born.

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The Spark Board is a dedicated space for the projects that make you come alive. In a world filled with mundane tasks and endless to-do lists, it is a respite – a sacred space where you can keep your flame burning bright – a place where you come to renew your sense of possibility and engage in the act of creating your dreams and bringing your vision to life.

Follow along as I document The Spark Board Story at TinaHoferMedico.com. I’m diving into the details of how the idea was born, the process of creating it over the last two years and the serendipity of mentors, suppliers & manufacturers that have helped transform this from an idea in my imagination to an actual piece of furniture going into production just a few months from today!

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.


Market45

Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder of Seamly.co

Truth be told, I know more about Kristin Glenn than any of the other designers I’ve interviewed for this series. And that’s not a huge surprise, considering she was my first (and only) business partner when I meandered my way into this crazy world of entrepreneurship.

Kristin and I ran {r}evolution apparel together from 2010 to 2013, co-created the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history (at the time), spent 2.5 months in a van together (yes, really), and simultaneously went through intense entrepreneurial burnout.

But when we made the decision to part ways at the end of 2012 it made space for more opportunity, more purpose, and the freedom that had enticed us to start a business in the first place. One of those opportunities that came about was Seamly.co, a sustainable clothing brand that Kristin launched solo in 2013. Kristin and I are proof that sometimes you have to crash and burn, even when everything seems like it’s going great, so that you can come out better for it.

Having launched two sustainable apparel brands, Kristin knows a little something about running a successful business in this industry. Today she’s sharing some of her best startup advice for new and aspiring designer entrepreneurs.

Thanks to Kristin for taking the time for us — cheers to friendship and knowing when to let go so you can make room for what’s to come.

F45: What are the values and ethics behind Seamly?

KG: I’m a big believer in sharing the process; honesty, transparency, understanding. That’s first and foremost. I strive to create a brand that celebrates the process, and creates excitement about made-in-the-USA, from fabric to sewn product.

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F45: Tell us about setting up your supply chain. Was it difficult sourcing fabric? How did you find the sew shop you work with? Did you run into any bumps in the process?

KG: Fabric is tough. I started out only using surplus fabric (excess from mills and factories). The problem with this is continuity — I had to test shrinkage on every single fabric for every single style. Sometimes we had to cut the fabric in batches, instead of all at once, because of shrinkage and different fabric widths. Using surplus is great from a social responsibility standpoint, but from an efficiency and financial perspective, it is a TOUGH way to manufacture. I certainly wouldn’t have made it this far if I’d continued to use surplus fabric from so many different (and unpredictable) sources. Plus, it takes a LOT of time to source it.

Now, I’m using fabric that’s made in the USA and Canada only. We use surplus when we can, but I always know how it’s going to react and what quality it is. I’ve found trade shows to be the best place to meet people for fabric sources, and creating relationships with them has been a huge benefit.

As for sewers, it’s all been word of mouth. I’ve been lucky to work with two small factories that are totally, completely on-point. Anytime a mistake happens, it’s because of me or my lack of clarity. They simply crush it.

A big thing that’s helped is setting expectations. I know that sewing will always take a bit longer than expected, and I have a very “that’s OK” attitude about it. I trust the people I work with completely, and know that they’re looking out for me, so it’s better to just be flexible and have a positive attitude about our deadlines than push, get upset, or stress out. I didn’t set firm deadlines for finished products for the first year in business – things just launched when they were ready – and that helped me form relationships with my suppliers without all of that pressure. Now, we can work together to set deadlines, which has been working really well so far.

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F45: What has worked for you in terms of marketing? How do customers find out about you?

KG: Here’s my marketing strategy: e-mail, e-mail, e-mail. E-mail is the best way for me to authentically communicate with my customers (and potential customers!) with their permission — and that’s important. Social media is great, and I’ve seen results from guest posting or asking a blogger to post an outfit with my pieces — but it all comes back to the e-mail list.

I’m working on growing that community by a) optimizing my website to encourage people to sign up and b) create content that drives people to the website. Much harder done than said! It’s tough to find time to create new content and get data and analytics on the Seamly.co website. It’s something I struggle with every single week. But I know that’s the way to organically build community.

Everything else I do – PR, guest posts, etc. – is ideally all a funnel into the e-mail list. Because that’s where real interaction (for me) really happens.

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F45: Tell us about your biggest “cringe” moment – a mistake or glitch that you look back on and say “oops.” How did you navigate through it?

KG: Where do I begin? All of my big mistakes are centered around production. Grading patterns before I test for shrinkage. Ordering the wrong kind of zippers. Luckily, most of these problems can be fixed before the final product is shipped to the customer, but once, I had a major oversight and only realized it AFTER shipping.

This was in the early days. I’d ordered new toggles for the 5-ways Maxi Dress (the toggle goes into the hem so the dress can be shortened or lengthened). I didn’t test them before shipping (DUH, Kristin!) because I had so many things to do, and “assumed” it would be OK. After the dresses launched and shipped, I realized that these toggles were going to be really annoying for customers, hitting the floor when they walked. So, I e-mailed them immediately, offering an exchange for a new toggle or a free return, and a discount code for future use, just to apologize for my mistake.

All of my customers were 100% cool and understanding. Most of them didn’t mind the toggle, and a few of them exchanged theirs. It’s INEVITABLE that mistakes big and small will happen, but being upfront and honest about where you went wrong is one of my biggest values and something I believe customers respect and appreciate.

What I’ve learned, and am constantly re-learning, is that testing every single thing is CRUCIAL, and assumptions are too big of a risk to take.twitter-bird-light-bgs1 For me, these are annoying steps in the process, but oh-so-critical to success.

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 F45: What has been the best thing about running your own company? The thing that gets you up in the morning.

KG: In the beginning, I was really excited about creating something new. And then I started to doubt myself and the financial feasibility, and I started working a lot more. Like, crazy hours that were totally unsustainable. The business became less fun, I was out of touch with my creativity, and wondered if I should continue at all.

I slowly started to realize that I couldn’t possibly have successful business if I didn’t take care of myself first. And I started to relax. On a normal day, I work from 10-4, then I go to yoga, then I put in another hour or so after. I don’t set an alarm and if I feel like going for a walk or calling my mom in the middle of the day, I do it.

The journey of caring for myself is, of course, lifelong, but with this shift in thinking, I’ve been able to actually enjoy building a business. Like, in a real way. Mondays do not suck. I still worry about a lot of things, but I REALLY love being able to set my own schedule and create. And as I delegate more, I get even more time to do the parts that I love – marketing, content, communication. I am creating something totally unique that exists in the world, as a representation of what I believe in and who I am. That’s the best thing. I get to be me, every day.

To shop Seamly or check out what else Kristin has going on as she transitions from a home-base in Denver to NYC, visit her online store here. (Bonus: there’s a moving sale on select styles right now.)

Photos courtesy of Seamly.co.

Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder & Designer of Kallio

I was driving through Williamsburg with my friend Sumeera, founder of Madesmith, when I first met Karina Kallio. From across the street, we saw Karina walking down the sidewalk in a black shift dress that perfectly flattered her midterm baby bump. As I got to know more about Karina over dinner, I learned of her design background, her Australian roots, and her growing children’s company, Kallio.

After recently reaching her Kickstarter goal, Karina will soon be opening a workSHOP space in Brooklyn to act as both a studio and a retail space to accompany her children’s line. As she just delivered a baby boy about two weeks ago, it was especially lucky to be able to feature her story on the blog this week. Enjoy.

Factory45: How did you come up with the idea to turn men’s dress shirts into children’s garments?

Kallio-SS14Kallio: I worked as a menswear and womenswear designer for 10 years, and was inspired to create Kallio because I saw first-hand how much waste we were creating as an industry. In creating Kallio, it was really important to consider the line’s entire lifecycle, without compromising on quality or style. Kallio is 100 percent made from men’s shirts, and is sourced, designed and manufactured in New York to support local industry and reduce our carbon footprint. Once in the hands of our customers, the label on our clothes encourages them to consider how they care for it: “Wash only when stinky. Machine wash cold and line dry. No bleach nor dry clean. Repair holes. Hand it down.”

There are several reasons why men’s shirts work so well for us. First, they’re usually made from high-quality fabrics in great patterns and colors, and those details are really important to our brand. We also only use materials that are 100 percent cotton or denim (so they can be easily recycled too), and you can find that quality more readily in men’s shirts. They are also less fitted than women’s tops, and the loose shape works really well to create our line of unexpected, modern classics that kids can be kids in. Lastly, I thought it would be nice to bring dads into kidswear in an unexpected way; we preserve the shirts’ original detailing to hint at each garment’s story, and encourage conversation about where our clothes come from.

F45: What has been the biggest challenge in your supply chain?

Kallio: The biggest challenge was finding a factory that would sew our garments — as each garment is truly ‘one of a kind’ made from a particular upcycled piece, many of the factories wanted to charge sample prices, which wasn’t sustainable for us.

F45: How did you find the sew shop you currently work with? What has your experience been like?

DSC_0161_grandeKallio: It was a total happy accident. I was supposed to meet with another factory owner and she was late for our meeting. Just down the hall was another factory that I went to ask for a piece of paper to leave a note for the lady I was meant to meet. That factory owner asked me what I did, and I showed her my work. She immediately saw the potential of the brand.  She told me that only the week before, a 300 shirt order had been rejected by a customer as the grading had been incorrect. So she was left with 300 shirts and no place for them, so they went into the trash. She did me a favor by taking on my business, and we’ve been working together ever since.

F45: What has been the best method of marketing for Kallio? What hasn’t worked as well?

playtime2014-kallioKallio: Over the years, through our trade shows and from my experience working as a fashion designer, I’ve been really fortunate to work with and meet wonderful people around fashion and lifestyle, including writers and bloggers. Their support, as well as the support of family and friends via simple word of mouth has been really great for us and gotten our name out there. A host of writers and bloggers have also been generous with their support and featured Kallio in their publications and blogs. But it has definitely taken a lot of time on our end to reach out to each contact directly with interesting updates about Kallio that will appeal to their specific angle and target demographic. If you’re asking for (free) coverage of your brand, it’s really important to demonstrate to the writer that you’ve taken the time to craft a story unique to them. It’s also nice to check in every once and a while just to say hi, or share an article they may find interesting.

F45: What is your best advice for aspiring designer entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

Kallio: Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from people who have “been there and done that.” You may be an expert in your field, but a business has many facets and the more minds you can glean the better. But at the end of the day, you are the boss and so it’s important to follow and listen to your gut and heart.

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Want more from Kallio? Check out the e-commerce store here.

[Photo credit: Brooklyn Makers, Kai D Utility, Kallio, Renegade Craft]

 

Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder & Designer of Gamine

It was at least 60 seconds before Taylor Johnston and I realized we were both in the same coffee shop to meet but had sat down at different tables.

“Are you Shannon?” she asked from the table across from mine. Sipping on our morning caffeine fix (her’s hot, mine iced), we talked shop and connected over the (very limited) sustainable fashion scene in Boston.

Taylor is the designer and founder of Gamine, a line of women’s workwear made entirely in the USA (the word ‘gamine’ means ‘a girl with mischievous or boyish charm’). Launching with the perfect pair of raw denim, durable dungarees, Taylor almost immediately sold out of her first production-run.

We began the conversation with Taylor telling me about the time a photographer from The New York Times came to photograph the Isabella Gardner Museum where Taylor works in the gardens. She said she was wearing a grubby, oversized sweatshirt and felt completely out of sorts while having her photo taken. From that experience, she realized there was a need for functional women’s workwear that was both presentable and flattering while still being able to withstand manual labor.

Throughout the conversation, we bonded over our similar starts in the fashion industry without backgrounds in fashion, our love/hate relationships with social media, and Taylor’s recent purchase of a new house in the small hometown where I grew up.

Today, Taylor is sharing her unique story with the Factory45 community and offering her best entrepreneurial advice.

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1.) Tell us about the inspiration behind Gamine. What sparked you to take the plunge and get over any uncertainty about the idea?

The inspiration for Gamine grew out of my work as a horticulturist. Over the last decade, I’ve tried everything: menswear, big box store clothes, mountaineering gear, high-end knockoffs (looks like workwear, but the quality can’t stand up to the abuse in the field), and of course, anything falling in the brown duck cloth category. I couldn’t find anything that was both functional and polished when you’re digging around in dirt all day. So I decided to fix the problem.

My only feeling of uncertainty was right before I launched — I wanted to make sure my jeans stood up to the “denim snobs” or “workwear nerds” out there. My hope was to create something that was both wearable in the field and totally lived up to the standard set for domestic denim brands. It’s important to do American workwear, especially denim, justice.

2.) What was the initial market response to your launch? Is it what you were expecting?

It’s been unreal. I never thought we would hear from so many women from around the world. We sold out almost immediately and are almost sold out of our pre-orders for our next production run. I am really grateful for the positive response and hope to continue to connect in a positive way with such an inspiring community of hardworking, creative women.

3.) What do you attribute to your early success? How do you think it can be translated to other early-stage companies?

I’m not even sure I would call what’s happening a success yet, but thanks! My hope is that the momentum we are generating is due to solving a real world problem and doing so in a thoughtful way. It’s easy to cut corners or find ways around sustainable/domestic production, but you have to take the long view and think about how your decisions play out over the lifetime of the company. It’s important to think about how you can positively affect micro-economies and hopefully improve the quality of life of someone who either produces or purchases your product.

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I also think it’s really important to connect a product or brand with a story. My good friend Chet of Big Scary Monsters created an unbelievable website for us. It’s the most effective way to show that we are a “for us, by us” type of brand. (And yeah, that was totally a FUBU reference.) But in all seriousness, a clear story and a great website are the best way for people to understand your unique perspective and worldview.

4.) What advice do you have for designers who are trying to set up a supply chain in the U.S.?

Research every aspect of your supply chain and get to know the people making your products. It’s important to form relationships with everyone contributing to your product so that there is a real life and soul to every item. I think we lucked out in working with such great folks, from our patternmaker to manufacturer, and it is the frosting on the cake to know that with each sale we’re supporting someone we care about.

5.) What mistakes did you make that yielded high-value lessons?

Where to begin! I should say I don’t really believe in mistakes — it’s all about learning to do things better. I suppose our biggest “mistake” to date has been being super conservative with getting ourselves out there.

As a gardener I’m a bit quiet and not super used to talking to so many people, so I never anticipated how many like-minded, eager, and amazing women there were out there that felt the same way I did about workwear. Even after the initial response (which was marvelous), we were still a little reluctant to fully engage. Three months in, we are starting to break down the wall and get more comfortable with outreach.

But to be real, I’m pretty sure Twitter will always be super awkward for me — it feels like I’m having a conversation with myself. In public.

I love Taylor’s candid perspective on entrepreneurship and going past her comfort zone — to get in touch with her or to check out her growing inventory of made in the USA and organic apparel, visit Gamine here.

Making It: Startup Advice from the Co-Founder of Noble Denim

My love of Noble Denim began on Instagram. The bright whites, dark blues and clean, inspiring spaces were enough to hook me in as a dedicated follower. As I got to know the story of the co-founders and husband/wife team, Chris and Abby, I was further intrigued by how they got their start and the way they were able to make “small batch” clothing work for their company. 

Makers of quality, American made jeans, clothing and supplies from Cincinnati, Ohio, Noble is a brand that epitomizes what it means to create a premium product with integrity and ethics at the forefront. I spoke to Abby about the unexpected start of an unplanned business, the high cost of doing things well, and what it’s really like to be an entrepreneur.

F45: Did you always want to have a denim line? What sparked that decision?

ND: We never planned on starting a business and had no background in fashion. We were living in Cincinnati, working desk jobs, when Chris decided to try and make a pair of jeans for fun. He had never sewn before and we didn’t think he could really do it, but we were both surprised when he was oddly good at it. That was the start of Chris becoming slightly obsessed with making jeans.

He’d stay up until 3am reading sewing machine manuals and taking jeans apart to see how they worked. With that kind of unexpected intensity, we both recognized we’d stumbled onto something important to him, but we still didn’t see it as a business idea. It wasn’t until our friends started asking for jeans and then our friends’ friends started asking. Once the demand was there, we saw it with new eyes and decided to give it a shot.

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F45: You are clearly committed to ethics and transparency, how has that shaped your brand and decision-making?

ND: Since we weren’t business people who planned on owning a company, we didn’t have any preconceived notions of how it “had to be done.” That has made the learning curve very steep, but it has also allowed us to play by our own rules. Early on, we talked a lot about what was important to us and what we wanted the business to accomplish. I was very committed to eating organic and had learned a lot about the dysfunction behind cheap food. Similarly, we started to realize there was a lot of unseen cost behind cheap fashion and we wanted Noble to be entirely different from that.

We already knew what we didn’t want to be, but it took us some time to develop what we would actually stand for. We decided that we wanted to make clothes with a certain ethic — in a “noble way.” We created a ‘Pyramid’ of 8 values that now helps us make decisions when we source fabrics and develop new products. To hold ourselves to a solid standard, we decided on 4 tenants of what we think it looks like to do business well. For us that looks like North American Manufacturing, a commitment to Sustainability, Small Batches of Products, and Simple Staples.

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F45: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced that you didn’t expect?

ND: How much it costs to do things well. We originally wanted the brand to be accessible to everyone and have a low price point. But as we grew, we realized that every tenant we held was expensive — it costs a lot to pay a fair wage and use quality, sustainable materials. We had to make a decision, and we decided it was better to have a higher price point and offer a truly well-made product. But it was a challenge, and it is difficult to educate others on that choice because the average consumer is so used to paying a low price for clothes.

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F45: Tell us about the process of setting up your supply chain. What obstacles came up? What worked and what didn’t?

ND: The biggest obstacle was finding materials that lived up to our specifications. We had high standards and wanted the fabrics that weren’t always available, especially in regards to organic or environmentally-friendly fabrics. We had to learn to look for the high-quality, sustainable materials that were available and build our products around what we knew we could do well rather than designing a product detached from the supply chain. That is part of why small batches work for us — it allows us to use the best fabric we can find as it becomes available.

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F45: What lessons have you learned in your entrepreneurial journey?

ND: It is tough to own a business. I personally feel irritated when entrepreneurs are so eager to start their own company and be their own boss because the reality of it is actually very hard. I’m glad Noble exists and am grateful to be a co-founder, but if we didn’t love what we do and the people we work with, it just wouldn’t be worth it. You have to have a strong purpose outside of just being an entrepreneur because that in itself isn’t that important.

Secondly, take a vacation! The best thing we did in our second year is take a two-week vacation without checking email or doing any work. It forced us to rely on our team and see how capable they are. It also reminded us that we need rest and inspiration outside of abby-chris-noblethe brand. We came back energized and have been able to work with greater clarity ever since.

Third, don’t do it alone. So many people starting off do everything themselves and it limits their business and their own lives. We’ve been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented team members from the start and to collaborate together to make something great. This makes us less isolated and we have a mix of skill sets to get work done from different perspectives.

Lastly, be generous. When Chris was first learning to make jeans he did an internship with Hiut Denim in the UK. Hiut knew we were about to start Noble but rather than being competitive, David and Clare were role models for Chris to show what it looks like to help another business and to wish them well. Their one condition for all the help they gave us was that we would do the same in the future for others. That countercultural way of beginning business-life has stuck with us. We’ve been contacted by individuals wanting to learn how to make clothes, and Chris will sit with them and help them get what they need. When we started our relationship with our production partners in Tennessee we told their story to the world rather than holding our manufacturing close to the chest. We try to be on the same side with other clothing companies in our market because we believe there is enough for all of us. It is way more fun to work in a culture where we advocate for each other.

You can read more made-in-the-USA startup success stories here.

Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder of Porcelain & Stone

I first met jewelry designer and maker Kimberly Huestis over dinner and drinks in Boston. I, and the two other women we were with, found ourselves keeled over in laughter by Kim’s stories and refreshing outlook on life. Somehow, Kim seems to perfectly straddle the line between “zany creative” and “successful artist” mixed in with a lot of business savvy. 

For these reasons, I thought she would be the perfect entrepreneur to feature in our new “Making It” series. In the interview below, Kim shares her thoughts on starting a business and making it as a maker. 

Tell us about your background. Were you always a jewelry designer? What prompted you to start Porcelain and Stone?

I grew up in Vermont. I used to skip rocks along the lakefront and hammer at stones, trying to find out what they looked like inside. I eventually got into rock sculpting and (strangely) that turned into a more formal education in architecture. I like to know how things work. My professional background is in 3D graphic design and animation, environmental consulting, as well as building design.

There was never a strong intention to become a jewelry designer. I had always made my own jewelry since I could never find anything to wear (due to skin sensitivity issues) or not feeling like the piece was unique enough to want to buy. Who wants to wear what everyone else is wearing? Apparently, even as a tomboy-ish kid, I was interested in fashion and didn’t even know it.

Starting Porcelain and Stone all happened in about a week in the summer of 2012. At first, I didn’t know if I really wanted to do it, or if it was possible to do full-time. I spent a vacation at home while taking time off work, and in that one week, I got interest from two boutiques who wanted to sell my jewelry. I realized it was something I couldn’t see myself not doing. So, I jumped in with both feet… which seems a bit crazy now! But, it was the best decision. I should have had the guts to do sooner!

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What have been some of the biggest challenges in starting your own business?

Confidence and wondering if I’m not wasting my time on the wrong things. Lacking confidence is perhaps the toughest thing to deal with because everything else can be figured out with a little problem solving or work-around. I’ve realized it’s never very productive to place energy in worrying or anxiety. It’s normal to worry and not always fantastically believe in yourself. But it’s better to acknowledge the feeling and move on.

I love setting small, very achievable milestones that eventually lead to greater goals. It’s good to feel like you are making progress when things aren’t exactly laid out in front of you like a predictable road map.

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You’ve been able to get some pretty amazing press (most recently British Vogue) — how did that happen? What tips do you have for getting media attention?

Everyone will probably hate it if I say, oh, by accident! But there I was, minding my own Instagramming and Twittering business…

I believe in sharing your day-to-day via social media. It isn’t even about entertaining others — I think of it as a little “maker” diary of my day. It’s recorded proof for myself that I have done something, anything, with my day while involving my love of porcelain and sculpting. I focus a lot on sharing what happens in my studio or what I’m up to at work in a visual, story-telling way.

That focus, I think, is what prompts potential customers into deciding if they like the content I’m sharing. If they do, then they end up subscribing to get more! I have social media to thank for not only giving me a small sense of community support, but also for connecting me to fantastic writers that will feature my work.

The simplest tip I can give is: show off what you’re doing, and make your content interesting. I believe HubSpot coined the term “remarkable content.” Don’t always post fluff. It’s transparent, and humans are smarter than that. Share the things that you actually care about sharing and consciously consider the intelligence of your viewers. Communicating clearly is great, but so is having a little fun!

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What have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned from this venture?

You don’t need to read books or go to school to be a maker / start a business. It’s more important to talk to others and hear what they have to share. Learning from others is a great way to set up your expectations in a responsible way while protecting your business, and possibly your emotions.

People frequently call my business “my baby,” but I don’t think of it that way. It’s a project that I am infatuated with, but I don’t recommend your business being your life. I like that my life includes my business.

I love the startup culture, most especially on the product/artisanal side of things. The tech scene is great, but there is a greater focus on money that seems to consume most ventures once they take on investors. I’m more in favor of bootstrapping. I prefer creating a self-sustaining business that grows in response to my consumers’ needs.

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If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of designers and makers, what would it be?

Don’t sacrifice quality or integrity. You have something you believe in — find your target niche and help them find you. There is a slippery slope in lowering your prices again and again, and it can be very enticing in the early stages when you’re desperate for sales. It is very easy to price yourself out of business if you fall into that trap.

Set high standards for a quality product, make strategic decisions that allow you to grow, and balance your financial growth along with it. I spent time learning to price my products correctly from the very beginning. I did not want to be confused with plastic or base-metal makers.

Even when your designs get knocked off, focus your energy on being a top product and there will be no confusion as to what your business strives to provide. People can copy, but they will always be one step behind you. Focus on creating a strong brand, because that is what draws people to you. Are you trying to compete with Target or are you aiming to be something special?

 

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Kimberly and the Porcelain & Stone online shop can be found here.

[Photo credit: Porcelain & Stone]