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Ever since I graduated in 2008, I have been some sort of entrepreneur. Ironically, my worst grade in four years of college was in my “Entrepreneurship 101” class (heyo, Professor Rossi).

What I realized later on — that they don’t teach you in an academic setting — is that entrepreneurship has very little to do with getting good grades and is so much more about being able to take a risk.

My first experience with big risk-taking was during my senior year of college when I bailed on the law school entrance exam and booked a one-way ticket to Australia instead.

That one decision completely changed the trajectory of my life, and I spent two post-grad years bartending and traveling around the world, from Australia to Southeast Asia to South Africa.

When my parents thought I was coming home to get a “real job,” I would only stay for a few months, bartend every night, save up more money, and leave to travel again.

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When I eventually returned to the States in 2010 I brought my wanderlust and relentless craving for adventure with me.

I had once been the girl who envisioned herself in the corner office — but after two years abroad, I knew that I would never get a “real job.”

I wanted to create something bigger than myself. I wanted to start a business that would allow me to wake up every morning and go after my dreams. Maybe you can’t relate… I didn’t want to help build someone else’s dream.

It was a divine twist of fate when I got a Facebook message from a friend shortly after I got home. She said she was going through a “quarter-life crisis,” dreading the possibility of sitting in a cubicle all day, and suggested we start something together.

That “something” turned out to be a sustainable clothing company.

Of course, it didn’t happen immediately. Little did we know, we were about to embark on a three-year journey into self-discovery, entrepreneurial freedom and the pursuit of living life on our own terms.

Our plan was to create a company that would be 100% made in the USA, using fabrics and materials that did the least amount of harm to the environment as possible.

It was called {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company for female travelers and minimalists, and it prompted my early exploration of conscious consumerism and the practice of living with less.

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I learned about the downsides of fast fashion: the environmental damage, the humanitarian violations, and the psychological effects of modern-day consumer culture.

These realizations completely changed me, and I decided to dedicate my career to creating a more conscious world where people see the power of voting with their dollars.

That’s all to say, we quickly found out that having a “vision” wasn’t enough. We were naive, unversed in industry lingo, and had zero connections in the fashion industry. It became obvious very early on that what we were trying to accomplish wouldn’t be easy.

We spent money on the wrong things, made every mistake possible, wasted time pursuing leads that ended in dead ends and continuously took two steps back with every one step forward.

Looking back at the emails I sent to fabric suppliers, I now know 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 walk “the walk,” and it showed.

But after a year and a half, having nearly depleted both of our savings accounts, the stars aligned.

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We received a response about a private label inquiry we had sent on a whim to a general contact form. After a few meetings, we made the decision to source and manufacture our first production run under the guidance of a company who had done it before.

The company was a startup itself but was farther along and had the production infrastructure that we lacked. They also had the knowledge, connections and reputation that we needed on our side.

After pushing forward solo for so long, we had found someone to take us by the hand and walk us through the process.

We had finally found the mentorship we needed.

More doors opened at the end of 2011 when we launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first production run of our signature piece, the Versalette, one garment that can be worn over 30 different ways.

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What happened over our 30-day campaign far surpassed our wildest dreams. Not only did we acquire nearly 800 new customers, 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.

Having gone through a unique entrepreneurial journey, I had developed a set of skills that were totally unexpected. I knew from my experience with the Versalette that breaking into the fashion industry was very difficult, and I wanted to make it easier for other aspiring entrepreneurs to do the same.

It’s my hope that I can continue to foster a space for creativity and collaboration while helping others start down their own path towards creating a business.

In the last few years, I’ve helped entrepreneurs all over the country set up supply chains in the U.S., source sustainable materials and bring their products to market.

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Factory45 is the program I created for entrepreneurs, like me, who have a vision and a plan but need the mentorship, framework and resources to get started.

If you have your own plans to launch an apparel brand, I hope you’ll consider joining me through your journey. Mentorship is the very thing that pushed my first company forward and I would love to do the same for you.

 

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Factory45 Success Story

Over the past two months, a certain Factory45 entrepreneur has taken our community by storm.

“How did they move so fast?!”

“Their campaign was incredible!”

“I can’t believe how gorgeous their photography was!”

This community has blown me away with their support and kind words for the latest success story to come out of Factory45.

Yes, I’m talking about VETTA, the five-piece capsule collection that can make up a month’s worth of outfits. All sustainably sourced and ethically made in New York City.

So… how did they do it?

That’s what I want to share today with the hope that you’ll see inspiration and motivation in what VETTA created and take away some wisdom to apply to your own startup.

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I first met Cara Bartlett, one of VETTA’s co-founders, at a coffee shop in South Boston over a year ago.

At the time, I was in the middle of my second Factory45 cohort and Cara had recently left RueLaLa to go full time with her ethical fashion blog, Bien Faire.

We chatted about the fashion scene in Boston, she gave me some recommendations for ethically-made wedding dresses, and we parted ways with plans to host some sort of future event together.

Several months later, when I opened applications for the Factory45 Fall program, I was so surprised to see that Cara had applied for her company, “TBD.”

While she and her co-founder, Vanessa, had been brewing up dreams of starting their own line together, they needed help finding sustainable fabrics, choosing a manufacturer and coming up with creative ways to market the brand for a Kickstarter launch.

I guess you can say the rest is history. I accepted Cara into Factory45 and from day one, she hit the ground running at full speed ahead.

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Here’s what I’ve observed, after working with Cara for the past six months, that can be attributed to VETTA’s success:

>> Cara was working on VETTA full time. My philosophy and the mantra that my Factory45’ers hear over and over is: You have to take the entrepreneurial journey that’s right for you. Is it possible to launch a brand in six months? Yes. Is it possible for everyone? No.

Many of us have obligations, work, children, partner’s and other life “requirements” that take priority over our businesses. If you’re serious about launching a brand on the timeline you’ve laid out, though, then something has to give.

You either have to accept the fact that your brand will take 1-2 years to launch or you have to commit to dedicating everything you’ve got to the 6-8 month timeline you’ve laid out for yourself.

In the past, Cara has driven from Boston to New York City five weekends in a row. She’s flown to South Africa to meet with her co-founder in person. She’s traveled to Los Angeles for a whirlwind few days to shoot her lookbook and video.

When planning your launch timeline you have to figure out what’s right for you. Cara and Vanessa knew they wanted to launch a March 1st Kickstarter from the day they submitted their Factory45 application on September 21st. They kept their eye on the prize and didn’t miss their mark.

>> They built an audience before they launched. VETTA is unapologetically not for everyone. Cara and Vanessa identified a niche and an ideal target customer and invested six months into building a very specific and dedicated audience.

They grew their email list, Instagram following and Facebook page and with the help of beautiful photography, they strategically “teased” out their upcoming launch. They were able to get their target market excited about what they had to offer so that “early adopters” were ready and excited to purchase the VETTA collection as soon as it was available for pre-sale.

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>> They leveraged their network. During and after their campaign, VETTA caught the attention of some impressive press. While some of that was organic, for example The Boston Globe, Cara has told me they unabashedly called upon friends of friends of friends for help.

They networked their way into a meeting with VOGUE to start developing a relationship with the magazine. They tapped into the Factory45 network of suppliers and manufacturers to set up their supply chain. And as a result, they’re working with the same factory in NYC who creates many of Rag & Bone’s garments.

If you are creating something beautiful, intentional and good for the world, people will want to be apart of it. Don’t let fear get in the way of making the “ask.”

>> They had a “share-worthy” story. VETTA could have gone one of two ways. 1.) A collection of sustainably-and-ethically-made womenswear, 2.) 5 versatile pieces that mix + match to create a month’s worth of outfits.

Which version is more compelling? The difference in those two soundbites drastically affects your chance of becoming a “share-worthy” story. When it’s interesting, different and easy to communicate you’re much more likely to tell a friend about it.

I’ve written before about launching a Kickstarter campaign for my first company, {r}evolution apparel, and I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to leverage a concise message and story to represent your brand.

VETTA did just that and gained the attention of WHO WHAT WEAR, Brit + Co., Darling Magazine, BostInno, VentureFizz, The Wall Street Journal and other well-known press.

More than that, though, they gained the attention of 527 new customers.

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This is all to say that VETTA reached its $30,000 goal in five days and was featured by the Kickstarter Staff as a “Project We Love.”

By the end of their 30-day campaign, they had nearly tripled their goal to raise $88,954. Shortly after, Cara and Vanessa competed in the Sak’s Emerging Designer Showcase and won. Their second capsule collection will be available in Sak’s Fifth Avenue stores in the near future.

It goes without saying that I’m so proud of what VETTA has been able to accomplish and I want to emphasize that this kind of success is not out of reach for the aspiring entrepreneurs who may be reading.

It’s not going to be easy — but as Cara and Vanessa can attest, it will be worth it.

 

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Photos courtesy of VETTA and Sak’s Fifth Avenue


Market45

fashion brands

One of the reasons people become “serial entrepreneurs” is because of how much you learn through the process of starting your first, or second, or even third company.

It’s easier to say what you should have known or what you wish you had known when you’re looking back.

I started Factory45 with this in mind — after going through the process of starting a sustainable clothing company with my co-founder, I realized afterwards that there were so many things I wish I had known sooner. I wanted to impart those lessons learned on other aspiring entrepreneurs so they wouldn’t have to make the same mistakes I did.

On that note, I’ve asked six designers running established fashion brands to share what they wish they had known as a young fashion startup:

 

katie-rock“I wish I’d known that, no matter how much you love the product, you absolutely have to ensure that: (a) you can get it produced fairly simply/easily (to avoid loss of time/sleep and potential burnout); and (b) the margins are healthy enough that you can not just sustain, but actually grow, the business (or you at least see a clear path to get the margins to that place).  

I also wish I had understood that startups often take time! We thought we’d be an overnight hit, and we took it hard at times when we realized it would take longer than expected. Definitely be hopeful and excited and all of that good stuff, but also be realistic.”

— Katie Rock, co-founder of Activyst

 

tara-st-james“I wish I had known that fashion is about breaking the rules, not following them. That theory is applied to design all the time, but the business of fashion should also be about challenging the status quo, not following the calendar, not following what everyone else does and not doing as we’re told. That’s the only way change will happen in this industry and I wish I had known that sooner.”

— Tara St. James, founder of Study NY

 

colette-chretien“I wish I had known which parts of the sampling and manufacturing process would be good for me to figure out on my own and which steps are vital to have carried out by an experienced professional. There were some things I realized I should have done myself, and a few things that would have saved me time and money in the long run had I outsourced.

I also wish I knew that everything takes so much longer than you think it will. Both in terms of developing a product, and establishing a brand. Patience is important, but complacency is dangerous.”

— Colette Chretien, founder of La Fille Colette

 

taylor-gamine“I wish I had known how much clarity I had starting off—that I felt content and confident knowing what I was setting out to do and who I was trying to speak to. Had I taken stock of this intuition at that early stage, it would have been much easier as my audience grew to know when I’m being true to myself and the narrative I am trying to tell. Even now, as I slowly start to roll out new work, I realize that the hardest thing I have to do in this (post) post modern, socially nomadic world we live in is to just fiercely be myself.”

— Taylor Johnston, founder of Gamine

 

BrassClothing_©HOGGER&Co._web_013“I wish I had known just how important it is to have an audience to launch to. If you want a product-based business, first start by generating a following. This could be through a blog, via Instagram or Twitter. Build up a community of people that is in-line with your future product. When you’re ready to launch you’ll have an invested group of people you can turn into customers.”

— Jay Adams, co-founder of Brass

 

Delta+Leather+Tote+Bag“I wish I had known that finding great US manufacturing is kind of like speed dating. If it doesn’t seem like it’s going to work out, make a polite exit, but move on. Their existing operations shouldn’t have to adjust much at all to achieve the product to be produced. It should be a very close fit from the very beginning.

I’ve realized over the years that in spite of a manufacturer’s best effort and enthusiasm, sometimes it wasn’t enough to get a good product at the right price point in the end. Their capabilities sometimes just didn’t match what I was trying to achieve. And as a designer I had to learn how to recognize the pitfalls early in the game to avoid a lot of wasted money time and effort.”

— Matt Mahler, founder of Skye Bags

Know someone who would benefit from reading these six lessons? Use the social buttons on the left of your screen to share on the platform of your choice.

 

 

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When I tell people about Factory45 their first curiosity is about the companies I work with:

“What products are you most excited about?”

“Which company is your favorite?”

“What startups have been the most successful?”

Outsiders will assume there’s a unicorn in the group that I love above the rest, so sometimes they’re surprised by my answer:

“The entrepreneurs I love working with are the ones who… ‘get it.’”

It’s not that they know the most about starting a business, or have the best product idea, or have the most money in the bank.

Instead, they “get” that the most important quality of being an entrepreneur is the ability to take action.

That’s it.

They understand that when it comes to success, aspiration holds very little clout next to perspiration.

They don’t hold back from calling fabric suppliers, they dive into the scary-technical-internet stuff, they don’t worry about their social media marketing being perfect the first time.

They live with this mantra in mind:

Entrepreneurship is so much more about following a series of daily habits, than it is about creating big goals.

If you know the end vision but you’re not able to take the small steps to get there, then a big goal really doesn’t matter.

It’s like wanting to have clear, glowing skin but instead of drinking your green smoothie every morning, you continue eating chocolate donuts.

Whether you’re a startup or a serial entrepreneur, you’re going to have times when it will be so much easier to do nothing than to do something.

I know this firsthand.

Over the past few months, I’ve been wanting to learn more about Facebook advertising so I signed up for an online course that would teach me how to do it effectively.

I completed the program at the beginning of January, and I gave myself a week to start implementing it.

It’s now January 27th and that task is still sitting on my to-do list waiting to get checked off.

Procrastination is a beast, and it’s mostly because it stems from fear.

I fear wasting money on the wrong ads. I fear appearing too “sales-y.” I fear not accomplishing the goal I’ve set for the strategy.

The thing is, if I don’t try, then I’ll never know what good could have come out of it.

I’ll never know all of the awesome people I could have introduced to Factory45. I’ll never know the potential new companies I could have helped get started.

I know enough about entrepreneurship to say, it’s just one big experiment. You have to be willing to be both an artist and a scientist.

Which means you have to be willing to scrap the Kickstarter video, reshoot and strive for better.

You have to be willing to spend days writing a guest post without knowing if it will get published.

You have to be willing to sit on the phone for hours with GoDaddy tech support to get your website up and running.

It’s not glamorous and there are no guarantees. But your chances of success are increased if you’re methodical about the daily and weekly habits you follow.

“The biggest danger to success isn’t failure, it’s doubt.” (I saw that on the door of a coffee shop the other day.)

Don’t let fear and doubt leave you paralyzed from the thought of trying. Because there really is only one certainty in entrepreneurship —

Without action, an idea is nothing.

 

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Sustainable Fashion Advice

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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new designer, advice

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.

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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.

 

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