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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A compelling story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You start to attract customers.

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

You have a business.

 

factory45 owner shannon

 

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


Market45

 

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

Whenever anyone asks me:

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

Photo credit: {r}evolution apparel


A Lesson From the Book I Never Published

A few years ago, I went to Bali and wrote two versions of a book.

I know, how obnoxiously “Eat, Pray, Love” of me.

My former co-founder and I had decided to close our doors at {r}evolution apparel (after completely burning out our relationship) and it was an impulse purchase I made with my portion of our leftover funds.

I left Boulder, CO, moved in with my parents in Boston, and a month later hopped a flight halfway around the world.

After the success of our Kickstarter campaign, people were constantly saying, “You guys need to write a book.”

“Write about your journey,” they said.

“Write about the success of your Kickstarter.”

“Write about the changes needed in the fashion industry.” The suggestions were endless.

So, with the mixed emotions of heartbreak and relief that happen when you walk away from a business that seems to have such a bright future, I went to Bali to write the book that everyone said we should write.

I booked a private room for $500/month on Airbnb and found myself two miles from the nearest town surrounded by rice paddies and oxen.

For 30 days I followed the same rigid schedule. Wake up with the sun, follow the dirt road into town for yoga, eat lunch at a local cafe, walk 30 minutes home, stop for a fresh coconut, sit out on my front porch — write 2,000 words.

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I reasoned that if I could average 2,000 words a day, then I would have 60,000 words by the time I left. And you only need 60,000 words for a full-length book.

The process was both grueling and therapeutic as I sifted through three years of memories.

Why we decided to start a clothing company.

How we got interested in sustainability.

An account of our first fight.

What we learned from botching our first prototype.

What it’s like to spend two months driving a conversion van around the country.

By day 15, I was ready to delete the whole file. Just burn it. Not a trace of evidence.

Instead, I opened a new document and started over.

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By the time I flew back to the States, I had written two 30,000 word drafts with no intention of either seeing the light of day.

Three years later, they’re still sitting on my old, mostly-broken laptop — without a backup file.

Now I’m not going to tie this all back into the importance of creating a routine to reach goals. Or a lesson on how goals change. Or how everything happens for a reason. I’m not a personal development coach.

But I do have something to say about the “journey.”

I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to expectations and outcomes. Most of us start businesses with the intention of making a living off of it.

Yes, passion and joy can be the driving motivators in getting started, but the desired outcome is to be able to support yourself off of that passion and joy.

The danger — the thing to look out for — is when you realize you’re only focused on the outcome.

Because that’s when you miss the journey.

About a year into starting {r}evolution apparel, I remember writing a post for our first blog – it was a letter to myself, and I’ll never forget the last sentence:

“You’re not going to be a 25-year-old bartender trying to start a clothing company forever.”

That sentence has been embedded in my brain for the past five years and as time passes, I find myself adjusting the words to fit my current age and situation.

You’re not going to be here, right now, doing this… forever.

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It may seem painfully obvious, but I think it’s something that a lot of us entrepreneurs tend to forget.

Starting a business is one of the most challenging endeavours a person can take on — it’s a complete mind game, a lonely road, and can be uncomfortably risky. Are you going to enjoy every single moment of it? No.

But if you aren’t stopping every so often to appreciate what you’ve built, what you’ve created and what you’re going through — that 99% of the world never will — then what’s it all for?

When I look back at the month of my life spent writing a book, I can easily see it as time and money wasted.

Did I have big plans to pitch to publishers? Yes.

Did I have more realistic plans to self publish and sell it on Amazon? For sure.

Instead, I showed myself that I was capable of committing to a routine, to seeing a project through and being okay with a different outcome.

Entrepreneurs have to be courageous, committed and adaptable. But more than anything, they need to be able to see a vision for the future —

with an even greater appreciation for the present.


Market45

Launching a Fashion Kickstarter? Consider this.

Raise your hand if you’ve seen more fashion Kickstarter campaigns than you can count and you’re feeling kind of “over it”…

Considering that I dedicate an entire module of Factory45 to teaching entrepreneurs how to launch successful crowdfunding campaigns, I’m sure it sounds weird for me to say that.

But I’m going somewhere with this.

I regularly get emails from people who want me to share the news about their upcoming Kickstarters. Oxford button downs, dresses for the working woman, lingerie, kids clothes, you name it.

The problem isn’t in launching a Kickstarter.

I think crowdfunding is awesome – it reduces the risk of production, alleviates startup costs and provides free marketing and customer feedback.

The problem lies in the way the story is being told.

For the most part, the sustainable fashion projects going through Kickstarter aren’t saying anything different from the last one. The majority are riding the same wave:

  • We manufacture in the USA.
  • We use only the most sustainable fabrics.
  • We say ‘no’ to fast fashion.
  • We believe in a better planet.

Sound familiar?

As the same thing is being said over and over again, do you know what’s happening?

Consumers are shutting off and becoming numb to the same “our fashion saves the planet” mantra.

 

We’re now in a time when being asked to support a Kickstarter is becoming more common than contributing to the neighborhood kid’s bake sale (yum, do those still exist?)

If you’re going to ask people to support, share and back your campaign, then your story has to be unlike anyone else’s.

Yes, consumers are now more willing to pay a small premium for ethically-made products, but saying so shouldn’t be your marketing tactic. It should be an afterthought.

Kind of like, “Well yeah, of course our company manufacturers ethically and transparently.”

Or:

“Well yeah, of course we’re always pushing to use the most sustainable materials possible.”

The ethics and sustainability of a company should be embedded into the business model as a non-negotiable, not a strategy for saying: “Aren’t we so great? You should pledge to our Kickstarter.”

As the fashion industry becomes more and more accessible to new designers who want to launch their own collections, there is going to be more competition in the market.

As I tell my Factory45’ers, the best way to stand out from the competition is to say something new — something memorable.

Here are a few examples of Kickstarter campaigns that are telling a different story about ethical and sustainable fashion and are doing it well:

VICTOR ATHLETICS

Organic, vintage-inspired athletic wear for men & women, made by small-town American factories and delivered directly to you.

What they do well:

  • The organic materials of their new athletic line is mentioned briefly in the description, but the story focuses on the small-town American factory as the victor.
  • They created a hero or protagonist to pull for.
  • They’ve made organic cotton and made-in-the-USA “sexy” with appealing visuals and a brand aesthetic that isn’t crunchy, hippie or rustic.

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FLINT & TINDER

A premium sweatshirt built for life, designed for a decade.

What they do well:

  • Jake Bronstein has done multiple Kickstarter campaigns for his company, Flint & Tinder, but this was the most successful. This is Kickstarter’s only fashion project that raised over a million dollars.
  • The story is focused on a hooded sweatshirt that will last 10 years. If it doesn’t, you can send it in to be mended.
  • Fast fashion thrives on the idea of planned obsolescence which is exactly what this campaign is combatting. What Jake did really well was put the focus on the consumer’s desire instead of the same old fast fashion story. Who wouldn’t want a sweatshirt that will last 10 years?

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SWORD & PLOUGH

A quadruple bottom line bag company that works with veterans to repurpose military surplus fabric into stylish bags.

What they did well:

  • The labor story is focused on military veterans who are employed to make the bags.
  • The materials story is focused on surplus military materials that would otherwise be wasted.
  • Most compelling of all is the story of two sisters, one who is in the army, starting a business together.

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If you’re getting ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign or are thinking about it for the future, this is the best advice I can give you: say something new.

If you do that, I’m certain you’ll get a better response from potential customers, from the press pitches you send out, and from the industry at large.

 

 

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Coming Out as an Entrepreneur & How to Deal with Critics

A while back, I wrote a post about entrepreneurship and the real downfall of failure.

I argued that it isn’t the act of failing itself that’s the most terrifying, it’s the external connections we make to it.

If we fail, we’ll lose our dignity.

If we fail, we’ll lose our life savings.

If we fail, we’ll lose our home.

While these are extreme examples, I know our thinking can often go to “worst-case-scenario.”

I remember a conversation was brought up by one of the entrepreneurs in this year’s Factory45 program. She wrote:

I’m looking for advice: Having just finished my master’s degree, it may come as a surprise to some family and friends who don’t know about my project yet that I’m going the entrepreneurship route. Anyone have tips on how to introduce a significant career change to family, friends, and/or even an employer (I plan to keep my full-time job for a while)?

This got me thinking about the “pre-failure phase.”

Before the fear of failure is even an option, first there is the fear of getting started.

It’s the fear of taking the plunge. Of not knowing what’s going to happen. Of worrying what your family and friends are going to think.

The greatest inhibitor to becoming an entrepreneur or pursuing a great idea or moving forward with your true life’s work is — never getting started in the first place.

When we make it public and declare our idea to the world, we simultaneously have to face the feeling of being seen.

Being seen means you open yourself to critics, you open yourself to the doubters, and you open yourself to vulnerability in a way you probably haven’t before.

Throw in the visibility of the modern-day Internet to the mix and the stakes get a whole lot higher.

I’m no stranger to critics. While the supporters in my life far outweigh the cynics, it doesn’t make the occasional negativity sting any less.

I’ve been called an asshole, a “self-aggrandizing bitch,” a piece of shit and other equally flattering names (I don’t read the comments section of The Huffington Post anymore).

I’ve had outsiders call Factory45 just another “expensive online course” (I won’t even dignify that with a rebuttal).

And year after year, I’ve faced family and friends at Christmas parties, dinner parties and happy hours, wondering when I’m going to get a “real job.”

Over the past five years as an entrepreneur, I’ve had practice dealing with the “gremlins” (yep, you cross me, I dub you a gremlin).

While an off-putting email or comment can still throw off my day at times, I can tell you it does get easier.

If you’re one of those people, who is tinkering with a great idea, a new business or an alternative career path, remember this:

The critics, the doubters, the cynics only have power if you give them the power.

As hard as it may be, you can consciously accept that there will always be some degree of negativity coming at you, but you can also consciously choose how you react to it.

Power is energy. And you get to decide where to put that energy. It can either be your demise or… your strength.

Like I said, I loved some of the other responses from this year’s Factory45 crew, so I want to close by sharing a few pieces of their advice in opening yourself up to getting started:

  • Stay close to those who support your dreams and let you blab on and on, even though they don’t understand what you’re talking about.
  • Speak from a place of vulnerability. Don’t predict the reaction you’re going to get, because it will come out in your tone.
  • At the end of the day, our opinion is the only one that matters. It really is. At the end of the day, you are responsible for your life.
  • I feel that when I do get the occasional negative reaction, it’s usually from people that have never tried to make their own dreams a reality.
  • Walk into the conversation with the knowledge that approval is not the goal – information is. You want those around you to be part of the vision, to be in inquiry with you… and I would recommend making it a two-way and engaging conversation.
  • “The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking, don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

If you’ve been a Factory45 reader for a while you know I’m a big fan of Dr. Brene Brown, who is a researcher on vulnerability and shame.

You may know her from her two viral TED talks. She did another talk that’s not as well known called, “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count.” It’s a must watch — even if you’re the most confident guy/gal on the planet.

 

 

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Photo courtesy of Craig Garne


Market45

The Reason New Designers Get a Bad Rep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Francis 


Mistakes & Breaking Points in Trying to Start a Clothing Company

The winter of 2011 was a tough one. I had been trying to set up a supply chain for my clothing company for five months and by February, my co-founder and I had hit a mental and logistical standstill.

Looking back, five months seems like nothing. But for two driven, go-getter types, every ignored email and unanswered phone call was a mini blow to our motivation.

We simply couldn’t figure out what we were doing wrong. How was it possible that not one fabric supplier, factory or sew shop would give us the time of day?

We were at our wits end when we got a reply from a designer who said he could make our first samples. We didn’t have fabric or materials yet, but at least samples would feel like progress.

When we got on our first phone call with him he was adamant that we should fly to North Carolina to meet him. We could go over everything, work face to face and make a plan of attack for moving forward.

Resting our hopes on the chance that this person could also introduce us to a fabric supplier or a manufacturer, we booked flights for the following weekend.

All things considered, our weekend in North Carolina was weird.

We checked into a hostel in downtown Asheville and immediately went to a nearby bar where the designer had told us to meet him.

What ensued was a three hour “happy hour” in which he continued to slug beer after beer while not once mentioning our business, our design ideas or why we were there.

Promising that he would get to “it” eventually, we arranged to meet the following day at his home.

If this sounds sketchy, remember that a lot of designers / samplemakers / patternmakers work out of their homes. Also, remember that we had flown 1,000 miles, spent our savings on flights, and felt like we had no other option.

Desperation puts you in interesting situations.

We spent several hours the next day in his basement going over our sketches, spec sheets and designs and we decided that we would start with just one sample to test the waters.

He said he would create a prototype for our “maxi dress” design and ship it to us in two weeks. We left North Carolina feeling hopeful and cautiously optimistic.

Turns out, we didn’t receive our sample in two weeks.

It showed up in four weeks and when I pulled it out of the box, it looked nothing like our original design.

Instead of being full length, it was knee-length.

Instead of a sweetheart neckline, it had a scoop neck.

Instead of spaghetti straps that tied around the neck, it had thick straps that went straight back.

To top it off, he had included a “sash” to be tied around the waist in a bow!

My co-founder and I got on Skype (we didn’t live in the same city) and I showed her a dress that couldn’t have looked more different than the one we designed.

We had just spent hundreds of dollars on flights, hotels, a rental car and other travel expenses and we still owed money to pay for a sample we couldn’t use.

It was a critical moment and I had reached a breaking point.

I was mad at myself for not listening to my gut, I was mad at the designer for making us fly across the country, and I was mad that we listened to him.

All signs pointed to: You’re crazy for thinking you could do this.

Quit now.

And that would have been a much easier option — except that’s not how dreams work.

I was either going to do this, despite how freaking hard it would continue to be, or I was going to walk away.

Thank goodness, I decided to keep going.

To be fair, it didn’t get any easier in the following eight months. But we did make some big decisions and changes to simplify our business idea from a line of 10 pieces to just one piece that could be worn multiples ways.

We launched our Kickstarter, becoming the highest-funded fashion project, and found the mentorship from someone who had done it before. That partnership single-handedly helped us push forward and go into production with 4x the capital we had planned on.

When I was wandering through this industry uncertain about what to do next, I found someone to help me.

I hope I can be that someone for you.

Everything you need to launch the business of your dreams is within your reach.

 

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Making It: Startup Advice from the Founder of Bhava

Francisca Pineda is the founder and designer of Bhava, a conscious footwear company. We first met in NYC last year for lunch, and I learned that not only is she a designer, but she also organizes sustainable fashion retreats in Costa Rica and teaches ethical design classes at FIT.

Today, Francisca is digging deep into her advice for new designers and giving us an insider’s perspective into what it’s like to be a business owner in the fashion industry. From sourcing to sketching to marketing, Francisca is a pro at what she does and it shows. Enjoy!

How did you get started launching Bhava?

I think like most other designers, it started because I couldn’t find what I wanted in the market place. After graduating from Parsons, I started working for a high-end apparel brand and was in charge of all of their accessories. By the time I launched Bhava I had experience in every category of accessory design.

Launching Bhava was something I had actually started planning back in 2009. We had the name and logo ready but the timing wasn’t right and I had gotten a job offer I couldn’t refuse. At that time, I knew I wanted to make an ethical collection but didn’t truly understand “ethical fashion” or the importance of using environmentally-conscious materials.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I started learning about the devastation caused by the leather industry, as well as fast fashion manufacturing. This “awakening” happened after I personally witnessed the disabling effects of the toxic chemicals used in the majority of leather production. Soon after, I became obsessed with learning about all aspects of the chemicals being used, the workers who were exposed, and the “dead zones” that this industry creates.

I started taking all the  Ethical Fashion classes offered at FIT, and attending any sustainability or ethical fashion events that I heard of to continue to learn and connect with others. Once you learn the importance of our decisions as designers and consumers, it’s pretty difficult to go back. I made a personal promise to myself to make a change, because the thought of profiting from such a destructive system was no longer an option for me. And this is ultimately what gives me the drive to keep going with Bhava.

I believe we are all drawn to our unique causes and experiences. I chose to embrace the challenge and proceed full steam ahead. When the time was right we started slowly testing only a few styles at a time. You have no idea what you don’t know until you start! Sizing, fit, pricing, and what colors or materials people respond to are what I feel are really important to test in the beginning. Although it sounds so risky to start a fashion brand these days, it is possible to be cautious and thoughtful in planning a collection so there is as little risk as possible involved.

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

Every day is different, but in general I am not a morning person. I prefer to start work later in the day and into the night and spend the beginning of my day on self-care. This includes a short focus meditation, oil pulling, some light core yoga, and fresh turmeric tea with lemon.

Usually, I try to get through the urgent e-mails with production, delivery, sales, and customer service first.  I work with manufacturers in different time zones so it’s important for me to reply to them right away. All of this usually takes half of my day.  When it’s time to sketch and look at materials (my favorite part) it’s usually in the afternoon when I am more relaxed.

Lately, I am most excited about bringing beautiful new materials to the market. I spend about a third of my year traveling to find new and exciting materials. Last season, I was in Europe and next week I will be away for a month in India, and the UAE.  I never know what I will find, it is always an adventure and that excitement and spontaneity translates into each collection.

Tell us about your supply chain. How did you go about sourcing materials and finding a production partner?

Finding a production partner in footwear and accessories is probably the most time consuming and costly part of launching.  Since I had many years of working in the industry, I had contacts that trusted me and my aesthetic and knew that I understood the business. I started there.

Now that the brand is a little more established, it’s easier to get in the door with a new supplier but it still takes time and trial and error to find the right manufacturing partner. If you start out too demanding they will be turned off, but if you are too soft, production may be delayed or poorly executed. It is a fine balance.

I also recommend working within the strengths of each manufacturer, and not pushing them too quickly into new production techniques without enough time to test. Every material reacts differently in each design — this is the trial and error part that can get costly and time consuming — but is extremely important for a brand seeking longevity in the market.

Because our mission is to work with responsibly-sourced and environmentally-conscious materials, I feel I need to source myself as I know my manufacturers will not ask the same questions that I will. We invest a lot in our materials because that is what differentiates our brand from the others in the market. I’ve had to take very expensive trips into little, tiny towns with no transport just to meet with a supplier. Often those with the most beautiful and exciting materials are the most difficult to find. Sometimes it’s not worth it, but the more effort you put in the more it will show. Materials are the first thing a customer sees and feels about your product. That first touch will connect them with your brand in a real way that words or images cannot.

ALDEN BOOT IN NUDE HAND PAINTED CORK-4

What have you found to be your best marketing strategy?

Marketing is important, but it can be a waste of time and resources if there is no demand for your product.  I recommend designers make a first sample of their product and try to sell that (to a stranger) before spending a year on a business plan. Once you know that you have a market that is in tune with your aesthetic and price point, then go all out with your marketing strategy.

When marketing it’s important to start testing because I found that I accidentally stumbled upon some of my most effective communication strategies. We recently collaborated on a small capsule collection for the holidays with NYC-based Vaute Couture. It was our first collaboration with another brand and it came about very naturally from having met Leanne (the founder) at an event that we were both speaking at.

It was something that was exciting for both brands because it was new and our products complimented each other.  This natural excitement and anticipation was evident in our social media and e-mail marketing communication, it wasn’t forced. Customers are more savvy than ever. I think they can tell when a brand has been over-strategic and a message is over-explained.  I think it’s important to embark upon projects and events that truly excite you.

For me, marketing is exciting and an area for entrepreneurs to truly show their creativity and ingenuity. If this is not your strength, you need to find someone who does love telling your story and partner with them. Someone has to hear about you somehow. Overall, you need to trust your gut, and if you see too many people trying the same approach like the same website style, or e-mail pop-up, then it’s important to think of a new way to do it, you never know what you’ll create!

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

This may seem a bit harsh, but it’s something that has stuck with me through my career as a designer.  While attending Parsons, I had one the most notoriously critical professors. He felt he was doing his students a favor by showing them how tough the industry was, often making them cry and drop out.  I actually don’t think this technique would probably be too welcomed these days, but back then it was one of the aspects that gave Parsons their reputation of graduating the best.

Anyway, when we would present our designs for a critique, his term for bad design was “markdown.” Meaning, you may think you have just created the coolest design ever, but if you truly think about it, is it possible that what you love most about your design could cause it to end up on the “markdown” rack at Century21?

Try to visualize your customer walking into a store, trying on your design, and loving the way it feels. If you can’t see this happening, or have too many design details that would create what is referred to in marketing as “friction” or too many doubts from making the purchase, you may have a “markdown” on your hands.

To run a company, you need a balance of “best sellers”  and some “editorial” pieces. This balance is something we are still figuring out, but it gets easier as you go along. I can think of a design or two that I was personally so in love with when I should have been more critical. But you learn as you go. It’s one thing to design something we would love to see someone wear, but it’s quite another to get someone to spend a good amount of their hard earned money on your vision of how to dress.

To check out the Bhava online store and upcoming spring collection click here.

The Story of How I Got Started

Six years ago, I was 24 and had just gotten back to the States after spending two years “bartending my way around the world.”

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. In typical GenY fashion, 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 apparel company.

Of course, it didn’t happen immediately.

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.

But we quickly found out that having a plan 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.

We received a response about a private label inquiry we had sent to a 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. 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.

A month later, we broke records launching the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history.

We quadrupled our first production order, were featured in The New York Times, and started our business with 1,400 customers.

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Fast forward to today and I’ve been able to acquire the knowledge, skills, connections and reputation that I didn’t have when I was first starting out.

In the last few years, I’ve helped over 70 entrepreneurs set up supply chains in the U.S., source sustainable materials and bring their products to market.

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

I’ll be looking for a crew of committed designers, makers and entrepreneurs who want to join me in creating a more ethical and transparent fashion industry. If that sounds like you, mark your calendar.

 

 


 

Sew Shop Talk: Introducing Good Clothing Company

Kathryn Hilderbrand has an infectious enthusiasm. Follow her on Facebook and you’ll see what I mean. She is three parts designer, tailor and entrepreneur, simultaneously selling her own clothing line, GreenLinebyK, and running a tailor shop on Cape Cod called Stitched. This year, she’s going for the trifecta and launching an apparel manufacturing facility in Mashpee, MA.

Kathryn emailed me shortly after she found out about a certified “green” facility that had become available for rent. It was the perfect space to open a sew shop for small batch apparel production. She would have to go through a lot of red tape and get approval from the city, but she was ready to take it on.

Just a couple of months after that first conversation, Kathryn has a two-year lease on the building and is starting production for her first client, a country music singer. I interviewed Kathryn about the nuts and bolts of Good Clothing Company and how it can help small designers.

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Tell us about your latest venture, Good Clothing Company.

Good Clothing Company is a sustainable and ethical apparel production facility on Cape Cod. Our focus is small runs and quality craftsmanship.

What inspired you to open your own production facility?

I had reached a point where I needed to go into production for my own label, GreenLinebyK, but I couldn’t find any apparel production facilities offering minimums that were in line with my principles and worked with my budget. A US based facility was very important to me because I believe in supporting our local economy, and I wanted to be able to be hands-on when needed.

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Why is a venture like this important to the fashion industry at large?

By making apparel production available on a local level, we create jobs for displaced sewing industry workers and give many emerging fashion designers the opportunity to grow their businesses.

What type of products / designers are a good fit for Good Clothing Company?

We can deliver on most apparel and soft home goods products. Although we can aid designers with pattern making and sourcing, it’s best for a designer to be well prepared with each piece of the puzzle they need to go into production.  A designer with a solid plan, sourced textiles and a commitment to sustainable production is our ideal client.

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Why is this venture personally important?

As an industry professional for 30 years, I have seen and weathered the storm that fast fashion so furiously wrought upon the apparel industry in the US. I am committed to engaging in positive change, bringing back industry jobs and producing quality products in a way that is true to my set of principles: ethical and sustainable goods made by well paid people.

If you’re a designer or consumer who believes in similar ideals about fair employment opportunities, ethical manufacturing and sustainable business practices, Kathryn is launching an Indiegogo campaign to buy additional machines for Good Clothing Company. Additional machines means more employed sewers and that means added capacity to work with more designers. 

To support and share Kathryn’s campaign, check it out here.

UPDATE: Kathryn’s Indiegogo campaign was successfully funded!


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