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“What happened to your first company?”

It’s a question that I'm asked a lot when people read about {r}evolution apparel and what I was working on before Factory45.

Usually the question is posed with slight trepidation — like the person doesn’t want to bring up a sore subject.

The assumption is that the company fizzled out or flopped or just straight-up failed.

But none of those are true, and I think that’s why it’s so hard for people to understand it.

How could we let go of something so good?

Believe me, it wasn’t easy — but if I know anything, it’s that dreams change. (If they didn’t, then I’d be a strung-out lawyer in downtown Manhattan right now.)

So, here it goes — three years later, the truth about why my first company ended.

It was the summer of 2012 and Kristin, my co-founder, and I had just come off the most successful fashion Kickstarter of all time. We had tripled our goal amount to raise over $64K, quadrupling our first production order of our product, the Versalette.

With the extra capital we raised, we convinced each other that it would be a great idea to embark on a “sustainable fashion tour” of the Pacific Northwest. It would help us build brand awareness, tell people about the Versalette, and film mini documentaries with the help of a film intern.

We bought a 1993 Chevy conversion van off of Craig’s List for $5K, decked it out with a new paint job and {r}evolution apparel branding and drove from Kristin’s parents’ house in Missouri to Vancouver, Canada.

Over the course of the summer, we hit up Seattle, Portland, Eugene and San Francisco, interviewing some of our industry “idols” like Lynda Grose, Kate Fletcher and Justin Dillon. We debuted mini documentaries of our travels each week, blogged about it, hosted in-person events and pop-up shops, and even secured a media sponsor.

We spent two months couch surfing, sleeping in the van when we couldn’t find a place to stay, shipping Versalettes out of our trunk, and flying back and forth to North Carolina where our production was ongoing. We secured our first paid speaking engagement and were paid $3K for a 15-minute talk.

By the time August hit, we were so burnt out that we decided to cut the tour two weeks short. I flew home to Boston to see my high school friend get married, Kristin flew back to Boulder and we agreed we would meet back up in a few weeks.

For more than 60 days, Kristin and I had been together for every waking moment. Through the stress of managing two college interns, through the stress of quality control issues with our sew shop, through the stress of hosting event after event (and keeping up with usual business obligations), our business relationship and friendship had been put through the ringer.

And then September rolled around and instead of listening to our intuition — slow down, enjoy the journey, don’t rush the process — we flew back to Portland to redesign the Versalette for a second production run.

We secured $30K in angel investment, finalized the “Versalette 2.0,” found a new production partner that better aligned with our aesthetic and mapped out financial projections into 2017.

“We’re going to be the next Spanx!”

“Are we really going to do this for another five years?”

“We should totally get on The Today Show!”

“Do you think we’re going to be able to sell more of these?”

The emotional rollercoaster of entrepreneurship was a daily mind-warp between, “We can do this!” and “Do we really want to do this?”

It was crazy even to consider letting go of what we had built (as some of our customers later told us).

We had achieved something that most startups only dream about. In our first legitimate year of business, we had surpassed more than $100,000 in sales, and we were profitable. As Kristin has said, that never happens.

We had sold out (almost immediately) of our entire inventory of Versalettes and we had 1,400 new customers who also happened to be our biggest fans.

It was terrifying to walk away from something that we had sunk so much of ourselves into.

But we craved our own identities (at the time, we were known only together as Kristin and Shannon), we craved new projects, we craved new challenges. We started to envision what life would be like on the other side of {r}evolution apparel.

So we said goodbye — knowing that, for both of us, it was more important to part as friends than to stay together as an obligation.

So there you have it: we didn’t go bankrupt or end up hating each other. The dream changed and we decided to listen to our intuition.

Whatever your dream is, I hope you follow it. Great things can happen — things you may not have been able to dream up holding onto the old.

It did for me.

 

 


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create customers

Did you know an online shopper decides within 90 seconds whether he or she is going to buy from you?

That’s right, you have a minute and a half to make a first impression and either convert the sale or lose it.

According to Vouchercloud, over 92% of online shoppers say visuals are the most influential factors affecting a purchasing decision.

When we begin to think about those visuals and how they affect the psychology of a potential customer, we often think only of the nuts and bolts of the website:

  • Should I use a homepage slider or a “hero” image?
  • Where should my call-to-action go?
  • Is the “add to cart” button above the fold?

While layout and design details are certainly important to your conversion rate, there’s one big factor that is usually left out of the conversation. And it’s this:

It's not about the product you're selling. It's about the experience they're buying.

In other words, it’s not about you. It’s about her.

Let’s say you’re a designer of cocktail dresses for the modern Southern belle (I know, super random – it just came to me). When you stop and think about it, what is your customer actually buying?

(It’s not a cocktail dress.)

Your customer is buying the greater experience of how that dress is going to make her feel.

When she’s browsing through your site, can she see herself in Savannah on her honeymoon? Can she envision the confidence and joy she’ll exude as she sits under a patio umbrella, sipping a mint julep, staring into the eyes of her new husband…

In this case, your sales strategy needs to take your potential customer from a drab cubicle where she’s wrapped in a cardigan all day to the sun-kissed brick roads of her honeymoon destination.

The best online stores are able to connect the dots between the shopping experience and how your customer wants to feel — with your product at the forefront of that solution.

Because what you’re actually selling is an aspiration.

A few years ago, I co-founded a sustainable clothing company that broke Kickstarter records, attracted the attention of big press, and sold out almost immediately after launching pre-sales.

We offered one piece, the Versalette, that could be worn over 20 different ways — designed to be the perfect garment for female travelers and minimalists.

The Versalette wasn’t just a multi-functional scarf for any woman. We were clear and deliberate on who our true customer was, so we understood that we were selling so much more than a product.

When a potential customer visited our site and thought about purchasing the Versalette, she was really thinking about all of the places she would go, all of the new sights she would see and what it would feel like to live life as an adventure.

We were selling the experience of throwing a backpack over your shoulder, not worrying about what to pack, hopping on a plane and seeing the world. Free of responsibility, free of worry and free of obligation.

Over time, we began receiving photos from our customers:

Here I am in my grey Versalette in front of the leaning tower of Pisa!”

This is me in front of Angkor Wat in my indigo Versalette!”

I took my cherry Versalette to Kenya with me and it was a life-saver – I even used it as a blanket on the plane!”

As more of these testimonials and photos arrived, we launched a blog series called the “Versa-Letters” to highlight travel experiences of our customers. The series further communicated the idea that when you have a Versalette in your suitcase, you’re bound to encounter adventure.

When you look at your own online store, or imagine the one you’ll create someday, what is the buying experience you’re giving your customer?

How are you incorporating design, photography, video, language, customer testimonials and unique offerings that make you stand out from the competition?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, keep digging deeper. Hone in on who your ideal target customer is and get clear on how she wants to feel when she imagines herself in your designs.

It’s your ability to create this experience that will mean the difference between a genuine connection — and losing her to another store just a few clicks away.

 

 


 
 

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


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“What if I tell someone about my product and they steal my idea?”

One of the most common questions that comes up with my entrepreneurs in the beginning of Factory45 is the concern about copycats.

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked, “Should I have my production partner / patternmaker / samplemaker sign a nondisclosure agreement?”

I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have spent thousands of dollars on patents and trademarks without ever having their first customer.

There is a lot of concern churning around the fashion industry about being ripped off. And with the latest scandals coming out of Etsy, Urban Outfitters and others, I can’t really blame them.

It’s not unheard of for a designer to replicate a design someone else is selling and get away with it just by adding a few buttons or changing the length of the sleeves.

When brought to court the copycat designer would win the case simply by changing a few minor specs.

Unfortunately in fashion, that’s the way the (entrepreneurial) cookie crumbles.

In Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, he says early-stage entrepreneurs spend too much time worrying about their idea being stolen and not enough time telling as many people about it as possible.

As a startup, Ries says you should focus on talking about your idea to anyone and everyone willing to listen. That’s the only way to get early customer feedback, hear what your potential customers actually want and find out if your idea is a viable business.

There is a big difference between someone saying you have a great idea and actually getting out their wallet to pay for it.

Believe me, I get it. I perfectly understand how fragile and vulnerable it feels to be in the early stages of a fledgling idea.

I’ll never forget an email I got from one of my Factory45’ers last year who was stressed out over another company she had come across:

“…They are basically doing what I'm doing, like sourcing fabric in North Carolina, being ethical, unisex, drawing inspiration from travels and all of a sudden I don't feel so original anymore.”

I talked her off the ledge and we laughed about it afterward, but feelings of panic and self-doubt are normal to every startup.

When early stage entrepreneurs worry too much about protecting their idea, Eric Ries calls this “stealth mode.”

He says: “Part of the special challenge of being a startup is the near impossibility of having your idea company, or product be noticed by anyone, let alone a competitor.”

Makes sense, right? Stealing an idea is a lot different than stealing an idea and actually implementing it — especially an idea that hasn’t proven to be successful yet.

If you do reach a degree of success down the road, then competitors are bound to enter the market. People see something that works, and they want to have a piece of it — this comes with the territory.

I recently went through this with Factory45 when I found out that a friend and close colleague had ripped off, rebranded and launched her own version of a sustainable fashion incubator.

So much so that a mutual colleague asked her, “Isn’t this the same program that Shannon is running?”

Should I feel flattered? Maybe. But that’s definitely not how it feels in reality. And anyone who has gone through it will likely agree.

The thing is, as hard as it may be to take it gracefully in the moment, competition is a good thing — it pushes us to continue innovating and prevents us from getting stagnant.

After all is said and done, here’s what I’ve found to be helpful when dealing with competition, copycats and knock-offs:

1.) Before trying to get all Zen about it, spend 20 minutes screaming into your pillow. It will help you move past the anger and frustration faster.

2.) Seek to understand and assume positive intent. This can be applied to so much in life. As hard as it may be, give the benefit of the doubt and assume the similarities were not intentional.

3.) Believe in abundance. There is enough to go around. The universe offers ample opportunity for all of us to succeed. Talk yourself out of scarcity and into abundance.

4.) On the flip side, no one ever won by being a second-rate version of someone else (thanks, Judy). This is where strong brand identity comes into play.

5.) And then — there’s karma.

 

 

 

 


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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.

K&S-Bio

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.

Lookbook 1

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.

website screenshot

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.

 


 
 
 

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


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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.

bali-two copy

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.

bali-three copy

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.


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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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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.

ALDEN BOOT IN NUDE HAND PAINTED CORK-2

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.


 

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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.


 

 


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

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

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

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

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

How did you get started launching your own apparel company?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have you found to be your best marketing strategy?

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Hackwith Design House


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If you’ve ever tried to source fabric you know it can be, how do I put this…

…an arduous process.

Suppliers don’t answer your emails. They definitely don’t call you back. And sometimes there isn’t even a voicemail to leave a message.

Whether you’ve gone through this or you haven’t started sourcing yet, there are a few things you can do to raise your chances of getting a positive response.

And it starts with avoiding these four big mistakes:

1.) Writing a long inquiry email

I can’t tell you how many people make the mistake of writing a multi-paragraph email that is so long-winded your own mother wouldn’t even read it.

A fabric inquiry is not the time to go into an explanation of your company mission or your core values or your plan to single-handedly change the fashion industry.

The supplier doesn’t care about that stuff!

What does the supplier care about?

Sales.

What does he or she need to make a sale from you?

A very specific one-sentence description of the exact fabric you’re looking for.

What should that sentence include?

The fiber, the fabrication, the weight and the color.

The end.

(Yes, you can include a “hello” and “thank you.”)

2.) Immediately asking a sales rep for MOQ’s and pricing

MOQ stands for “minimum order quantity.” In other words, the amount of one type of fabric that you’re expected to order to meet the supplier’s requirements.

Of course you need to know if the MOQ is attainable for you (20,000 yards would be a bit ambitious when you’re first starting out…) And of course you need to know how much a yard of fabric costs so you can factor it into your Cost of Goods Sold.

But don’t ask.

When it comes to sourcing fabric, a significant part of the process is getting swatches in the door so you can feel them, put them in the wash, and compare them to one another.

The sales rep wants you to see the value and quality in the fabric just as a car dealer would want you to test drive the car before talking about price.

Let the rep offer the information or wait to ask until you have received the swatches.

There’s nothing worse than appearing overly price-conscious and frugal when you’re already looking for low minimums.

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3.) Not building a relationship with the sales rep

You can’t even imagine the awesome things a supplier or sales rep will do for you if you take the time to build a relationship.

Most days a sales rep is dealing with huge amounts of pressure. A big client needs a rush order. A new client received a bad roll. Throw in a handful of inquiry calls from newbies who don’t know what “fabric weight” is and the sales rep is tackling a pretty high-maintenance day.

If you respect their time by knowing exactly what you’re looking for, and you make it easy for them to help you then you’ll see a return.

Building a relationship can happen gradually over the course of a few emails here, a few phone calls there, but if you’re explicit about what you need you never know when a sales rep will call you up out of the blue and say, “We’ve got 300 yards of excess that just came in and we’ll sell it to you at a discount.”

4.) Not being persistent

Fabric sourcing is not for the faint of heart — especially when you’re looking for sustainable and low-impact fabrics.

The mainstream supplier will try to talk you out of sourcing organic cotton or wonder why you’re trying to source Tencel when rayon is so much cheaper.

Stay true to your values and the reasons you have for wanting to create a sustainably-sourced garment. Don’t try to convince them of all the reasons why sustainability is important for the future of fashion.

Keep looking, keep persisting and don’t give up until you get what you’re looking for. It may not happen immediately, but at some point, you’re going to find it.


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