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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.

sewing machine, new designer, advice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it came back to bite us.

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

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

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

We had no one to blame but ourselves.

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

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

new designer, advice

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

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

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

Not a mistake in the bunch.

 

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