I work with small + startup labels day in, day out + I come across a lot of misconceptions about what to expect + what running a business is really like. Today, I thought I'd share my story, to debunk some of those myths + also tell you about the difficulties - probably not what you want to hear (because who wants difficulties, right?), but it's best to be prepared. The way I ran my business is one of several options + it may not be the right one for you, but whichever business model you choose, some of the realities in this post will be the same.
So what business model did I use?
To be honest, I was pretty clueless in the beginning. Despite having spent the last 6 years in fashion education + getting a degree in it, I found nothing really prepares you for running a business, or being in the real world. The one thing it did mean, was that I new how to pattern cut + sew, so I could make my own samples (this is where you + I may differ - I know most of my readers have no experience in fashion + that's ok). I wouldn't say I set off with a particular business model because in all honesty, like a lot of new entrepreneurs, I didn't put much thought into the whole thing (fatal error, as you'll find out later!). Looking back, initially I fell into the custom-made, part time job space, rather than trying to create a full time job from the start. I played about with some ideas + eventually decided to start on bags, because these were a simpler project to begin with (because of not having to worry about fit + sizes. There's an example below - cringy pictures looking back but that's what the Etsy market was like back in 2010!). So I went to a trade show to find suppliers to work with + made up some samples. I listed them on Etsy (this is back in 2010 + there was't a huge amount of people in the fashion space then, it was more about cards, jewellery + art) as custom made items. Basically, you could select a design + colour option from my colour chart + the customer would get their bag within 2 weeks.
How did it start?
It started off super slow (hardly surprising as I had no target customer, no strategy + hardly any advertising!). In fact in the first year I barely sold anything. Fortunately, it didn't matter too much as I'd developed relationships with suppliers, so I didn't have to hold any stock - I could order fabric and trims as orders came in, the delivery was super fast + reliable. This meant that other than the money I'd spend on samples, I didn't have any expenses. Ideal when you're not making any money!
I realised that something had to change, so I spent a long time analysing my designs + also feedback I'd received. This is when I realised the power of having a target customer. My shop was very random + basically just a collection of things I liked, but it wasn't targeting anyone in particular. People would land on my shop + go to view all of my listings, but as there wasn't any particular theme, or niche, they would just leave as there wasn't anything else of interest to them. I realised I had to focus on something + at the time there was very little in the way of custom made clutch bags for bridesmaids + wedding guests. I had found my niche! + things changed quickly. Because I had found my target audience, I could start networking with them, designing to cater to their needs + things really started to change. The sales soon began to come in + the best part was that most people have several bridesmaids, so a typical order for me would be 4-8 bags per sale. It was great! Until a lot of sales became a crazy amount of sales.
When do sales become too many sales?
As I mentioned earlier, I started without a plan. This seemed to go ok at the start, until I started getting too many sales (yes that really is a thing, in fact, did you know that a lot of businesses fail because they have too many sales + can't cope, causing them to go bankrupt?). I had so many orders + no systems in place, so I was working all through the night more times than I care to admit, trying to get orders ready for the morning post. I needed help, but as I didn't have any organisation, I'd have to first develop the systems, to then teach someone, to then hire them + hope they did a good job - this was all way too much, so a lot of time went by + nothing changed. By this point, even though I had quit my day job + gone full time, I was still working 80-100 hours every week to try + keep up. Worst of all, I wasn't making anywhere near enough profit, because without proper structure my expenses were much higher than they should have been. So I was exhausted, barely earning minimum wage + in desperate need for some systems, but had no time to implement them. But I also wasn't ready to give up.
So I hit reset. I took a risk + dramatically reduced my options + only kept styles that were fairly easy to make + were earning a good profit. I discontinued the other lines to make things simpler. It's much faster to produce 10 of the same thing, rather than 10 different items. This then saved me some time so I could start working on finding sewing help + also to develop my much needed systems.
What systems does a business need?
By systems, I basically mean anything that can make your day to day easier and/or faster. Some examples of the systems I use are;
- Scheduling social media posts - it's always faster to do things in bulk, so I developed a system where I load all of my social media posts for the week in one go. My computer programme then sends the post to go live at the time I've programmed in
- Accounts - I spent a long time building spreadsheet for accounts + finances. Now, all I have to do is enter the amount earned or spent + the formulas do the rest of the work for me - even my year end report automatically updates, so when tax return time comes, all of my figures are already complete. I can even link this up to my website, so any sales are automatically added
- Postage systems - I created a system to automatically print any postage labels, returns forms + invoices, to save me time when packaging orders
- Emails - I used to get emailed the same questions a lot, for instance a member of the press wanting to know about my brand, or a buyer wanting a line sheet. I set up drafts, so with a little editing I had all of the information ready to send, rather than having to write the whole thing from scratch.
Systems allow you to automate your process as much as possible, or bulk tasks together to save time (because, lets face it, as a business owner there's never enough hours in the day).
The scary thing is that it took me years to figure these things out + if I'd known them from the start, I would have saved myself so much time + money. That's one of the reasons why I now help new entrepreneurs with their systems - so they don't get in the same state I was in, when I literally had too many orders! If you want to know more about how I can help, there's more on that at the end of this post.
How did the systems work out?
Like a dream! When I'd got my business organised, things were so much easier. For one, I had claimed so much time back + also, if I needed to hire some outside help it was easy, because I could simply hand over my guidelines (for my way of working + what they needed to do) + away they went. This gave me a lot more time to spend designing new ranges, pitching my range to the press + buyers + invest in new products (I later added jewellery + clothing). I found that when you've put in the hard work to get your range out there, there comes a time when you no longer have to spend all day doing marketing, as people start coming to you. There came a point where the press + buyers approached me. I even woke up one day to find myself featured in the Vogue diaries, after a celebrity bought one of my bags + used it on the red carpet (below) - I had no idea it was happening!
Things to remember when starting a range;
Before starting off all guns blazing, consider the following before making a start;
- Who is your target customer?
- What does your brand stand for?
- What business model do you want to run?
- What systems can you set up, to make production and/or selling smoother?
- Do you have a plan for managing a high volume of sales?
- How much time will you need to invest in this?
- How much money are you willing to spend on persuing this?
In the end I was able to achieve success; I sold to customers + boutiques across the world, got great press features + was able to make a full time living from my brand + most importantly, I loved my job (most days. We can't win them all, right?!). I ultimately gave the brand up so that I could go backpacking around the world (a fashion label doesn't really allow for the care free lifestyle I was looking for at the time!), having achieved what I wanted to + feeling ready to move on. But it wasn't easy at the start + I wish I'd invested more time getting things right in the beginning, so I didn't have that little melt down I told you about. I wish I'd set off on the right foot, with systems in place + clear brand + customer in mind - if I had, I'd have probably been abele to quit my day job a lot faster too!
If you're wanting to start a new business + are serious about making it work, I'm excited to tell you that I've developed an online training course, to help you implement a well-considered business strategy from the start. If you want to start off confidently + learn from my mistakes, this course might be ideal for you - I'll give you all of the training to take you from idea through to production. You can learn more about what's included by clicking here.