Published: December 12, 2021Updated: September 24, 202217 min read2 Comments
Starting a brand is a lot like traveling. It all starts on social where you see a friend's photos of a cool new destination or, maybe their successful clothing line startup. Then, your journey moves to Google. Where you learn all about the destination - what are the locals like, what type of food is there, how do I get around? Or, in the case of a fashion startup how do I get started and, where can I find a manufacturer? And then, you move into the last phase. The game-time decision. Do you take a risk? And, book the ticket or, register your new brand’s domain name? Or, do you just keep on dreaming of your could-be clothing brand?
I swear all people that enjoy travel or want to be entrepreneurs are secret romantics. You enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing what is to come, and fantasizing about the adventure that awaits (yes, starting a brand is an adventure - maybe even the best one of your life).
But, that fantasy of starting your own clothing line can sometimes get a little scary and ends up holding you back. What if everything goes wrong? What if the airport loses my luggage, or I can't get my designs made? (ps, everything will go wrong, but I promise you, it will be ok because you will work through it).
And, that's where the wisdom of others who have a successful clothing line startup comes in handy.
Think of this week’s blog post like TripAdvisor, except for a fashion business. Today I am talking about the 6 things that I see every successful clothing line startup founder do. And, if you can do them too - success can be yours.
So, if you are ready for your biggest adventure yet. And, are ready to become the founder of your own clothing line startup, keep reading.
While yes, every tip on here is something I see in all of the successful brands I work with, I’ve also lived it too. This isn’t just some generic business advice. Today I am telling you all the stories of my greatest failures when I launched my own clothing line startup, and how I got through them.
Is some of this stuff embarrassing?
But, that’s what I am here for - to make all the clothing line business mistakes, so you can learn from them, and avoid them yourself.
TIP ONE - SHOW UP
It really is that simple.
Showing up is what keeps the momentum going. Sometimes life gets in the way and our dreams need to take a back seat to reality. And that's ok. But, that doesn't mean we should stop everything.
Here's what tends to happen. We start out excited, motivated, and making serious progress. But, then something happens - a new job, a move, a sick family member. All of a sudden we don't have as much free time as we once did. For some reason when that happens, our reaction is to put everything off until a later date.
If I can't get all this stuff done now, I'll get it all done next week, or month, or some other future date.
And, then, things start to pile up. We get so behind in our work it feels like getting back on track is impossible.
The best way to avoid this productivity trap is to not fall into it all.
The 15 Minute Challenge
This holiday season I started a 15-minute daily challenge for my Summer Sourcing Intensive students. Because during this time of year I see a lot of founders lose motivation. And, they always have the same thought process - I'll just pick this all back up in the new year. But, just like failed new years resolutions - it never gets done. And, that's not entirely their fault, it’s just human nature.
When you want to make a huge change all at once (like, from not working on your brand at all to dedicating your life to it, or never working out and then trying to spend 3 hours a day at the gym) you end up burning out quickly. And, ultimately you set yourself up for failure.
15 minutes is doable for everyone - no matter what life throws at you.
The hack is to do just a little bit, every day. Whatever it is that you can. And those 15 minutes will all add up to launching your clothing line startup.
So, for my students, the goal is just 15 minutes of work every single day. I know that doesn't sound like a lot - but it does two things. One it keeps the momentum going. While not everything is getting done, some things are getting done, and they are still making progress. Because, some things are always better than nothing. And two, it is setting healthy habits. By creating an achievable goal (we will talk more about goal setting a little later). Hey, everyone has 15 minutes to spare in a day. So, it becomes something that is easy to work into your routine. And the more you do something, the more it becomes a habit.
I really do believe in the 15 minutes a day challenge for when life get’s crazy. You can accomplish so much in 15 minutes.
Seriously, if you clear out all distractions and really focus, you can get shiz done. I'm proof. I have an app to learn Hindi. And, I set it to 15 minutes a day. Now my memory is terrible, and I am also terrible at languages - but I can tell you this, doing it every day for 15 minutes, I am seeing huge progress. Yea, the first few weeks I was kind of feeling like what's the point I am getting nowhere. But, as the weeks turned to months - I started seeing real progress.
And, that's why founders that show up, no matter what, are the ones that are successful. All of those times (while they might not seem important in the moment) add up and create success.
If you only do one thing on this list. Show up.
I swear, it is the number one predictor of brands that will be successful. The students that show up to office hours week after week, even if it's just to listen to others because they could not work on their own brand - those are the ones that make it in the end.
TIP TWO - TAKE RESPONSIBILITY
I need you to do me a favor, and change your mindset right this second. Whatever happens, no matter who's fault it is, it is your responsibility to solve the problem.
I mentioned earlier that things will go wrong. And, that really is the one thing I can promise you with absolute certainty on your clothing line startup journey.
Nothing will go as planned.
And you know what? That's ok.
The key is to get through it. And, the secret to getting through it is to stop being a victim.
Clothing line startups that fail, blame the world for what goes wrong. They believe that success is outside of their control because of outside factors. That's not true. While, yea, you can't control a lot of stuff. You absolutely can control how you react to it. Remember that old cliche about making lemonade out of lemons, that's exactly what successful brands do.
The past few years is a great example of this. Some brands threw up their hands and said, what can I do? This is all out of my control. And then, shortly after, went out of business. While others got creative and didn't just stay in business, but actually had their most profitable year ever.
The brands that made it weren't lucky. They were ingenuitive.
One of the best ideas I saw was that while in-person stores were taking a hit, a brand created curated boxes of goods for loyal customers to give them at-home shopping experiences. This lets customers be able to try on everything and then keep what they wanted then return what they didn't.
Instead of boo-hoo-ing and saying we aren't allowed to be open because of the pandemic. They said, if my customers can’t come to me, let me take the shopping experience to them.
Taking Responsibility Was A Huge Part Of How I Became Inspired To Start virtue + vice.
When I left my job in fast fashion I was a shell of the person I was when I first started. I'll save some of my craziest stories for another day, and today just share with you my breaking point - which was an argument over a ketchup packet.
Yea, you read that right. Ketchup.
One of my coworkers had a habit of treating everyone poorly. If you think the Devil Wears Prada was bad, well, some of the women I worked with made Myerl Streep's character look like Oprah.
So, this coworker asked an assistant that we both shared to order her lunch. Which by the way was so antiquated. She would yell across the room in this big production what she wanted. And our assistant would just order it off Seamless. Would it have been easier, and less annoying for everyone in the office if she just ordered it off of seamless herself? Yes. But, to understand what was happening here you need to understand that to women like this, it wasn't about the actual work, it was about showing off their power, by bossing others around.
So, her lunch comes. And inside there are a few packets of Huntz Ketchup. She has a meltdown. And demands that our assistant go out in a total downpour to search the city and find her Heinz.
First off, this poor girl was already in over her head doing real work. For the past month, me and her had been the last ones to leave the office, hours after everyone else had gone home. And, no we were not paid any sort of overtime. We had samples that needed to go out for a huge meeting and that was priority numero ono. So, we stayed every night and got it done. And second. Who sends someone out into rain so bad that 1/2 of 7th avenue is flooding for freaking ketchup?
I know the story might sound a little silly now.
But, hey, everyone has been here - when everything builds up and one little thing pushes you over the edge. As I said, it was symbolic. Symbolic of the misuse of power within the fashion industry. And, how people are abused, often for no reason.
This woman was leaving work at 5pm, while we stayed till 6 or 7 every night and she wanted to waste this poor girl's time searching for ketchup in tsunami weather instead of letter her do her never-ending workload? In the words of Michelle Tanner, how rude.
At that moment it all just kind of clicked and that's the first time I really felt the industry would never change.
I was in a hopeless situation. I thought to myself, while people in the media spend so much time talking about factory worker treatment (strangers no one ever sees), my co-workers couldn't even get it together enough to not be cruel to one another. What chance did our factory workers have at getting a little compassion?
I felt totally out of control. Like there was nothing I could do to change any of the terrible things I was seeing around me. So, I started Googling. How to become a vet. And, how to learn how to code. The only solution I saw at the time was leaving the industry and walking away. Just being done with it all.
And, I could have. But then I remembered a quote someone said in high school.
"Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."
So, I vowed I would change the industry. And, I have been.
Now, have I solved the entire industry’s issues? No, not even close. But, I have made a huge difference in my small corner of this space. And, at the end of the day, that is all I can do.
Has it been easy? F*ck no. From an influencer trying to cancel me, to having a production run held at ransom in a factory (those are stories for another day). It has been an uphill battle.
But, here is my secret. Every time "things happen to me" and I feel like I can’t control them, I ask myself what I can do about them. And then, I do something about them - and I always make it out the other side stronger.
Yea, giving up and walking away (or in the case of my story throwing a ketchup packet at my coworkers head and then peacing out from the fashion industry forever) would be the easy thing to do, but if I did the easy thing I wouldn't be where I am today.
Remember. When your business or even life feels out of control or like everything is going wrong - there is always something you can do. Never walk away from what you started.
TIP 3 - THEY TRUST THEMSELVES
Love it or hate it Amazon is the biggest retailer in the world. But, that wasn't always the case. Back in 1997 (back when Amazon was only an online book store and not selling literally everything), Bezos presented his online shop to a group of Harvard Business Grad students, and. hereis what htye had to say.
Harvard grads are supposed to be some of the smartest individuals in the country bound to be the business leaders of tomorrow - and they said Amazon was a terrible idea. Again, love or hate the online retailer - there is no denying it is a business success.
And, Bezos could have given up. But, he believed in his business and his vision for the future and he kept ongoing. Now, Bezos is worth over 200 billion dollars.
That Harvard grad must feel pretty embarrassed now.
But, learning how to trust yourself is more than just tuning out the neigh sayers. Trusting yourself is about listening to your gut.
And, that was something I was terrible at when I first started my business.
Sometimes you want to believe everything will turn out ok so badly you ignore all the red flags.
Let me tell you the story about my first, very embarrassing collection.
I remember sitting at a beach shack in Goa when I got the invoice for my production fabrics. I would need to pay 50% now, and 50% when they were ready. It was a lot of money.
A lot of money I didn’t have at the time. Both me, and my boyfriend weren’t working, were living off of savings. And, we were going to need to start making some money soon.
I definitely did not want to go back to fast fashion, and for some reason, I thought my only option was to start a clothing line, which in retrospect was kind of weird. Why didn’t I start with supply chain consulting? I wasn’t a designer, and supply chain is what I was really good at. After all, supply chain and textiles are what I fell in love with at FIT, and changed my major to. Why was I walking away from something I enjoyed so much to become a designer.
I’ll tell you why - I think subconsciously I wanted to make all the dumb fashion startup mistakes myself, this way I could teach others from them.
Anyway. When I saw that invoice I thought to myself. I hated the prints I designed. I hated the fit of the garments. And, I thought, I would never wear this. Never not in a million years.
And then I thought. But, I hated everything I ever churned out for fast fashion clients - yet they still sold millions of them. So, who was I to be the judge and jury on fashion?
Then my mind went back to the money. I didn’t have time to start redeveloping everything I needed to get these designs made and start selling them to bring in some revenue (huge, huge mistake).
So I made a bank transfer, and they got started.
I have an emergency inhaler, and I never use it. My doctor just likes me to keep it handy when I travel because I have such terrible allergies and go to remote places (better safe than sorry, right?). That night I had such a bad panic attack I couldn’t breathe and thought I was having some sort of asthma attack.
My body was physically telling me, don’t do this. But, I didn’t want to listen.
At the end of the first season, I found myself 30k in debt. My clothing line startup was a complete failure. And, when I saw my credit card bills I kept thinking back to that internal monologue on the beach where was basically telling myself don’t do this.
But, I did it anyway. I didn’t listen to myself, and I let anxiety and fear of needing to “get a real job” take over and drive my decision-making.
(Story continued in tip four…)
TIP FOUR - THEY PUSH PAST FEAR (AFTER LISTENING TO THEIR GUT)
Don’t worry there is a happy ending to my story. But it does bring me to tip four.
No one is ever really ready to start a business. The key is to just do it. Really, there will never be a perfect time to start your brand. If you are waiting for the perfect time - after my kids go to school, when my personal life gets a little less chaotic, etc - you will never start. Because there will always be a new reason not to.
To be a successful startup founder you need to be able to do things - even if the future is unknown and scary, or there is a risk of losing money. Or, in my case of losing even more money.
And here is another secret. The more you push past fear, the easier it becomes.
After that slap in the face that was my bank account after my first season. I needed to decide what to do next. Now, most people would have given up and gone back to an office gig. But, I didn’t.
At this point, I was starting to realize I didn’t love doing all the design work, and was starting to pick up a few consulting clients, and was loving doing the sourcing and product development work for them.
But, I am a stubborn and prideful person. And, I needed to know that my fashion line was not a failure. So, I went for season 2.
This time I did it right. I went slow. And, I researched. I researched some more. I listened to and trusted my gut. And I came up with some designs I was really proud of.
This time when I placed my production order it was different. Yes, I guess for season one I pushed past fear, but that first time I was ignoring all the red flags and warning signs.
This time when I was pushing past fear I was pushing past the fear of failing again, after working so freaking hard.
But, I did it. And I made the bank transfer and got my production started.
The second season I sold out. Almost immediately. I was able to use the profits I made from the second season to pay off my 1st season debts, and I even made some extra money too!
I even discovered a best seller, which I made time and time again and continued to sell out of.
So this is the lesson here. Yes, you should push past fear. But, when you do, really listen to your gut. Are you nervous because you are scared of failure after doing the work, (like with me with season 2) or are you nervous because somewhere deep down you know what you are about to do is a bad decision (like my first collection)?
TIP 5 - THEY SET GOALS
First, let’s talk about how to set goals. Yes, there is a right and wrong way.
Personally, I like to use the SMART method. Smart stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound.
I used to hate goal setting. For me, I feel like I am wasting time if I am spending time setting goals. I should just be getting stuff done. But, what I have slowly learned along the way is that goals are good.
Now, some people like to set micro-goals for the month, week, or even day. And, that’s cool. But, for me personally, I like to set realistic long-term goals. I find they keep me motivated. Because when I set my mind to do something, I do it.
You need to decide what works for you though. There is no right answer for goal setting.
So, the first goal I ever really set was to have a successful second season. I wanted to sell out. Everything I did for the 6 months leading up to my season 2 launch was leading me to that goal. I didn’t allow any other distractions into my life. If it wasn’t going to help me sell out season 2, I wasn’t interested.
Every morning I would wake up. And I would remind myself why I was going to work that day.
Then the answer always was a successful season 2.
And, it worked. Because, goal setting always works. It makes you focus on what you want, and helps you to block out all the distractions that are preventing you from getting it.
What I learned through my goal setting was that I love achieving my goals, but I like rewards even more.
Meaning for me, that successful season two was great. But what I really enjoyed was the reward of the bragging rights. I went from disaster first season to a successful second season. I did it. And, yea the cash was cool, but shouting it from the rooftops was even better (I guess that’s the Leo in me).
So, now I continue to set goals for myself. But, I always include a reward.
Here is something I haven’t publicly shared with anyone. I really want a finger tattoo. But, I am scared that I might lose out on business opportunities because of it (the world is judgmental, what can I say).
So, I made a goal. The amount of money I would need to make to feel safe and secure. A number where I could turn away business, and not have to worry. The amount seems almost impossible to reach, but right on the cusp of attainable. And, when I get to that monetary goal. I get to get my coveted finger tattoo.
And that’s what keeps me motivated. When times get tough, or everyone is in Ibiza partying and I am in a factory. I remember my goal, financial security, and I remember my reward, dope finger tattoo. And, I get my butt back to work.
TIP SIX - THEY ARE FLEXIBLE
Here is the secret to fashion…
Nothing in fashion will ever be exactly the way you want it, but it doesn't matter as long as the customer likes the final outcome.
Don’t believe me. Check out a sample sale. Like a real sample sale, where you can get actual samples Sometimes something that you buy on the rack has like 20 different versions that no one ever sees.
Maybe the designer choose way too expensive fabric, or maybe the pattern had too big of a fabric consumption and needed to be changed. Or, maybe something else happened.
So much design and re-design go into a garment before it shows up in your local mall. And, that’s ok.
What is not ok is thinking if something doesn’t turn out exactly as you envisioned it you should give up. Or, you should be totally unwavering until you get exactly what you want.
Darling, this is fashion.
You will never get exactly what you want. As a startup fashion brand, your life is going to be a series of negotiations and compromises. But, that’s ok.
This example doesn’t have anything to do with fashion. But, I bet it’s relatable.
I feel like every wedding I go to, the bride has to let me know what went wrong. For example, they brought the wrong vegetarian appetizers. Or, the mother-son song was supposed to be different music. Or, the flower arrangements had the wrong flowers in them.
And to that bride, these small, little inconveniences are the end of the world after the months of careful and meticulous planning.
But, you know what? I ate those veggie apps, and thought they were delish. I watched as the mother-son dance made relatives shed a tear. And, I promise you no one at that wedding party thought twice about the flower arrangement except to say how lovely they were.
What is a huge deal to you, your customer might not care about at all. Keep it all in perspective. Yea, if you want to make leggings, and your factory sends you a winter jacket - that’s a crisis. But, if your black leggings came out ½” shorter than you wanted. You’re probably going to be ok, and your customer will never know the difference.
SO THERE YOU GO
My top 6 tips for startup success. And, some pretty embarrassing stories. I told you these tales for a reason. If you ever feel like you are in over your head, you’re not the only one. And, I am living proof you will make it out the other end.
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