Scaling a Fashion Startup: Zero Dollars in the Bank to Doubling Sales Every Year

A couple months back I wrote an article for Maker’s Row that focused on how to start a successful clothing brand. The primary focus of the article can be distilled down to, “make sure you’re doing something unique”. Against all odds, there were apparently quite a few people who found the article to be helpful. Maker’s Row invited me back to write a follow-up article on how to scale a company once you get past the ever tricky part of just starting the damn thing.

Full disclosure that may save you a few valuable minutes of reading time: I don’t consider the stage my company, Stock Manufacturing Co., is at right now to be truly “scaling” yet, at least in the sense of what a big, funded company would consider scaling. To put that further into perspective, 2015 will be our third year in business, and we probably won’t reach a million in sales this year. So, if you are an entrepreneur looking for advice on scaling from startup to a huge company, this is the wrong article for you. However, we have more than doubled in sales each year, and are on pace to do so again this year, so I plan on discussing how to go from the “holy shit, we sold a shirt!” stage to the “oh man, there is too much work here for just the founders to handle” stage, without submarining your company.

sketching-2

Organization

This is probably the most boring, least glamorous, and sneakily most crucial aspect to taking a hobby or startup to a real business. Without organization, you open yourself up to all sorts of errors, but more importantly, you end up wasting a tremendous amount of precious time re-doing tasks, looking for lost items, or searching hopelessly for a needle in a haystack.

3 Key Organization Hacks:

  1. Keep stock of things: Without properly tracking labor, material and development costs, you’ll have no idea what your true margins are.
  2. Bookkeeping: Without proper bookkeeping, you end up doing what I had to do after our first year in business: Spend four weekends in a row holed up in a windowless accountant’s office, going through every single bank transaction and invoice we had, trying to reconcile our books to get above board for tax time.
  3. Track your inventory: Finally, and I can’t stress this enough – track your inventory, and have a system for checking it out!

Back in our early days we’d pull inventory to send to press, or for ourselves to wear, or any myriad of reasons, and we had no sound system for doing so. Thus, as you can imagine, we had a few instances of a customer buying something on the website that we didn’t actually have in stock.

SummerKickoffIG

Focus and Flexibility

As you grow, and people start taking notice of you, you’ll have a million different ideas and opinions coming at you about what direction you should take with the business, the products, the team, etc. The tricky thing is; some of them are right! It’s extremely important to have a vision and stay the course, but you can’t be rigid. You need to be able to filter through the noise and decide for yourself which aspects of your business are working, and where changes are needed.

Real Life Example: When we launched, we offered a limited amount of women’s designs, and all our collaborations were done with aspiring designers and sold as a pre-sale. Within about a month, we realized we simply were not equipped to split our focus between men’s and women’s, so we doubled down on the masculinity of the brand and focused only on menswear. It was really an easy decision. However, the pre-sale thing was a bit trickier. We got a lot of notice initially for essentially “crowdfunding” and producing the designs of aspiring designers at our factory, but since we had zero dollars for marketing, we just weren’t drawing in enough traffic to push sales to a meaningful place.

Want more free advice from leading industry experts, the latest insights, and inspiring success stories?

After about 6 months, we veered away from aspiring designers and started collaborating with industry professionals with strong followings. We were able to offer them an outlet to co-design and sell products, and we leveraged their followings to increase ours. Sales increased exponentially, both for our collaborations and our core product offering, and we never looked back. Finally, after a year in business, we realized the wait time associated with running pre-sales was impeding sales more than it was alleviating our cash flow burden, and we moved from that model to a small-batch collaboration model. If we had been stubborn and stayed the course, we likely never would have reached the point we’re at now because nobody would have ever heard of us!

Willingness to Work

This one is pretty easy; the 9-5 day does not exist if you’re trying to grow a business. You don’t have an allotment of vacation days, and being sick doesn’t preclude you from answering emails from bed. While this may sound obvious to anyone who reads startup blogs or entrepreneurial books, the reality of it is much more difficult than just paying lip service to the romance of the idea. If you and your founding team are not willing to put this kind of effort in, you should really think about getting a cushy job at a big company, because the small one you’re trying to start is doomed.

weekend-getaway

Obsession with Product

Here’s the thing… throw out everything you just read if this paragraph doesn’t ring true. You can be the most organized, hardworking person in the entire world, but if your product isn’t killer then there’s no reason to be doing what you’re doing. Now, don’t get me wrong, your product doesn’t have to be PERFECT the day you launch. You should strive for perfection, but odds are you’ll have to learn and improve as you go along. You’ll tweak your fits, find a better fabric, improve the label design…the list is never ending. However, the only way you’ll get from point A to point B is a maniacal focus on the product. Use it yourself, have your team use it. Email customers to ask their opinion. Do as many in-person events as possible and gather feedback there. Iterate, sample, survey, research…always, always, always be thinking about your product, because at the end of the day that’s your business.

CIX0ZoTUcAA88Pc

A Fresh Set of Eyes

Finally, you’ll want to find out how you’re perceived by the outside world. This ties in with being obsessed with product and distilling through outside advice, but is even more holistic. It’s not just feedback on the product, or the business model, but on the brand itself. When you’re working day in and day out on something, no matter how many different opinions your team has, you’re all still going to be too close to it. You may think certain things you’re doing are fantastic, while it’s really not resonating with anyone outside of your office. Conversely, you may be obsessing over changing or improving features that your customers actually like, and you end up wasting your time on something insignificant or, even worse, alienating people you’ve already won over.

Last Words

There you have it. These are the points that I have found to be the most crucial as I’ve taken our business from zero dollars in the bank and a handful of ties to a steadily growing men’s lifestyle brand. We’ve got a long road ahead of us, and this certainly isn’t gospel, but as you go from idea on to sellable goods and then to actual sales, these are some of the things I’d keep in mind to make your life a little easier, and make sure your business is prepared for growth.

If You Liked This Post, Check Out These:

  1. Social Entrepreneurship: The Designers Who Are Making it Work
  2. Design School vs the Real World: Things I Learned
  3. The Staple Manifesto for the Designer, Entrepreneur, & Fashion Aficionado
  4. My Crash Course in Apparel Manufacturing
  • Casey Jones

    I really enjoyed reading this article on how this fashion startup has managed to double their sales. I’ve been reading a lot of fashion business startup guides lately and think I am finally ready to commit. Hopefully I can bring something unique to the market as you mentioned as being most important.
    https://www.weconnectfashion.com/

  • Mia Luna

    Great article and insight! I’d like to know more about co-working with established designers. Did they design for you and sell under your brand?

  • suuchi

    Great article Jim! I’m the founder of a womens’ custom clothing startup, Suuchi Inc – we own the entire process here (marketing, design, US manufacture, shipping, all else). Your post resonated with me on so many levels. Great story, congratulations. We’ll be rooting for your team. Good luck, Suuchi