ENTREPRENEUR LESSONS: 10 WAYS TO BUILD A BRAND WITH NO EXPERIENCE
Here’s How Tom took a Lifelong Passion for Fashion & Used It To Build A Brand.
Being your own boss seems like the epitome of freedom. It seems everyone these days wants to be an entrepreneur, and often I run into people who don’t know where to start. I started Ivy Denim in 2009, not knowing much about what actually goes into designing and producing clothing, not to mention building a brand.
There is an old saying, “start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can.” This was my philosophy for Ivy. I knew I had the passion, I just had to take things one obstacle at a time. I started sketching my ideas, making calls to people I felt could help me on the internet, and hoped I would emerge from the murky waters of uncertainty. Along the way I ran into countless obstacles, including a production company shutting down after I had paid to make my jeans.
This taught me some big lessons. I had to regroup and lean out my vision just to stay alive. I ended up selling some t-shirts and decided to drop my production down from 5 jean designs to only 2 designs. In hindsight this was a blessing in disguise.
Here are 10 things that I learned starting my denim brand from scratch….
1. JUST MAKE A CHOICE & AND STICK WITH IT FOR 90 DAYS
If you ask a lot of entrepreneurs where to start when starting a business they’ll often say “start with your passion, pursue something you love.” This of course, presupposes you already know what that passion is, or what you love. If you don’t know what your passion is but you DO know you want to work for yourself then find something you are interested in and make a choice to commit to learning about it. Will it hold your attention? I think making an intentional choice, even if it doesn’t end up being the “right” decision can help you move forward. It can be helpful to put a time limit on this choice.
I chose 90 days, but find a number that works for you. Even though I didn’t know the first part about making clothes- my intention, and single focus to pursue clothing for 90 days helped me gauge whether this was a path worth pursuing.
2. START MAKING PHONE CALLS
There is a lot of emphasis on electronic communication, but if you want to get something done quickly especially when dealing with manufacturers, call them on the phone. Even if you wait on hold for a while your chances of talking to a real human are probably better than sending an email to a person you don’t know even if you to give them money for their business.
It probably won’t hurt to send an email in addition to the phone call (maybe write the email while you wait on hold), but emails tend to end up in some sort of black hole. People forget about them. A phone call demands attention. An email operates on someone else’s time to respond. With a cold phone call you choose when to make that call.
Face to face meetings can be just as valuable if not more valuable than a phone call but they usually require more effort.
3. GET A MENTOR
Find someone with more experience in your field and reach out to them. I had always thought that if I wanted to know how to do something, I should find someone who is already doing that something, reach out, and pick their brain. I found many experienced “mentors” this way. I tapped into the minds of people working with some of the brands I respected. From Levi’s to Nike I talked with technical designers, a wash house owner, and brand developers. I worked to understand how they approached their jobs, so I could test those aspects in my own life and business.
The key to finding a good mentor isn’t asking them to be your mentor. It’s finding someone and approaching them with questions that aren’t going to take up too much of their time, but that ultimately provide value to your goals. Some will stick around to watch you grow and even invite you into their network, and some will give you just enough to get to that next immediate step.
Alternatively, books and podcasts can be great “mentors.” I have an addiction to reading and audiobooks. I love to study history’s determined leaders. Having read biographies on Warren Buffett, Ben Franklin, Albert Einstein and recently a book on Charlie Munger.
4. TAKE A BUSINESS TRIP
Go to where the pinnacle of your industry is. Not necessarily to network just to be aware. Exist in the environment you want to be a part of. For me it was America, specifically Los Angeles. This can also be a wonderful motivation when you are back at home working on your product. It gives you a tangible goal (or destination) to move towards.
5. LEARN ALL OF THE SKILLS YOU NEED TO OPERATE WELL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHO TO HIRE (eventually)
To start a denim brand I needed to learn how to use Adobe Photoshop, and Illustrator to design tech packs, create logos, labels, buttons and ads. I even took sewing classes to understand the science of constructing clothes. I wanted to communicate better with the people who actually did this, despite not having the greatest interest in doing the sewing myself.
I learned how to get a website up and running using the limited skills I had. I started small. I found out how to download a template, then I learned how to adapt that template to my style.
Because I put time in to develop these skills, I knew who was good at their job and who was overvalued or overpriced. However, in the beginning I had to do a lot myself because I didn’t have capital, and I didn’t have resources.
This taught me my first major lesson in capital allocation. I had to decide which skills I absolutely needed to outsource and which I could afford to do myself . It basically came down to digital and physical processes. I could design clothes, and learn how to build a website and promote the business, but I needed to spend my money on patterns, manufacturing and leave a little in the tank for marketing (which always costs more than you think).
6. READ, READ, & READ! ALSO, HAVE INTERESTS OUTSIDE OF YOUR NICHE.
Read industry news, and commentary but don’t read so much that you stop making your own decisions. Study the game so you know what historical precedents have been set in your field. What’s been done before and who did it? This will save you a ton of time in the long run. Drake might overstate himself from time to time but his verse “ Like I didn’t study the game to the letter/And understand that I’m not doin’ it the same, man, I’m doin’ it better” can be learned from. Study the masters. Adapt and create accordingly.
7. FIND DISTRIBUTORS. WHAT IS YOUR CHANNEL?
Before you even get a sample made study the channel or channels you want to sink your teeth into. A channel is any place your product will sell. It could be Amazon.com, it could be Macy’s, it could be Wal-Mart, it could be BitCoins on the Darknet. Know your market before you enter it. A classic example of “look before you leap.” However, AGAIN be wary of paralysis by analysis. It’s impossible to know every risk and benefit of a product or industry, So like #1 says, at some point you have to just make a decision and enter into a market.
If your start-up requires distributors call them before before you even have a product. Let them know what your plans are. Plant seeds.
8. GET A PROTOTYPE OR MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT
This goes without saying but before you focus too much time on social media, or buying advertising, or making websites, and crowdfunding campaigns, get a sample that you are pleased with and test, test, test it. Ask everyone what they think but try not to lose yourself or your vision in the process. Ask your friends, your grandma, reach out to blogs, review sites etc. An effective way to do this can be giving product away, or holding contests.
9. GET BACK ON THE PHONE AND CALL DISTRIBUTORS
If your channel does require other people to sell your product reach out to them. Hopefully they will remember you from when you told them you were interested in starting a business. Maybe if you’re lucky they’ll be impressed by your ability to follow through.
10. SELL YOUR BRAND
This might seem counter intuitive to think about when start to build a brand but in can be a really great goal to have at the beginning. If you are able to sell the brand it means you have created some value for other people, which is no small feat. Depending on your personal attachment to what you have accomplished up until this point you can decide what’s the best course of action. This can be a great way to start a new brand with more capital.