When Angela Newman was getting an MBA at Harvard in 1994, creating a line of undergarments couldn't have been further from her mind. "Never in a million years," she laughs now. But after graduating with her MBA in 1996, she landed a consulting position at McKinsey where she became an expert in textiles. It was something that was already in her blood. She grew up North Carolina, the heart of the U.S. textiles industry, and for many years watched her father hard at work as an executive at Milliken, a high-tech textile company that was big on R&D.
In 2009, Newman started developing what would eventually become Knock out!, a line of specialized undergarments made from odor- and moisture-absorbing fabric. In April, Newman beat out some 130 global entries to become the first woman-owned business to win Harvard Business School's Alumni New Venture Contest. Below, Newman shares some of the lessons she's learned from spending 11 years in the textiles industry and five years at the helm of her own company.
1. Play the Field
Every founder has "positions" they love to play, but this is a hazard in a start-up! With my passion to make undergarments, I spent nearly all of my early time on R&D and production. I eventually had to force myself--sometimes over strong objections--to get involved in EVERY area--including IT, legal, distribution and customer service. My goal was to gain an understanding, not necessarily do everything. Knowing enough about each area to ask the right questions and establish the right measures should be a part of every CEO's tool kit. Plus, it keeps life interesting!
2. Stay close to the customer
With all the breadth of work and pace of change that occurs in start-ups, it is easy to lose contact with the most important aspect for success of any business--the customer. We don't have a big market research budget, but I get valuable information by going direct to our wholesale and retail customers on everything from marketing messaging to prototype testing. These unfiltered customer opinions help us avoid mistakes and actually enhance the overall relationship between our company and our customers--which is invaluable in our over-marketed world.
3. Enter business competitions
Start-ups are often operating on a tight budget and everyone is going 200 miles per hour, so the idea of adding some non-critical item to the TO DO list is not popular. But the benefits business competitions offer cannot be overlooked--feedback on the concept, new contacts, and publicity to name just a few. I entered Knock out in three business plan competitions within our first two years--investing over a full month of my time toward these contests. Was it worth it? Absolutely! Knock out won the Harvard competition and was chosen one of the Top 15 Global Startups by Kauffman Foundation. The payoff was enormous. Experienced feedback, money, many contacts with venture investors and faculty, and lots of publicity.
4. Don't forget to live
No person can keep up the start-up pace indefinitely. It is easy to become engrossed in the business and forget friends, family, fitness, and hobbies. Every founder must learn to step back and enjoy life--not only will it improve health and happiness, but it will provide the much underappreciated time to take a step back and reflect on the business. I never miss my gals trips.
5. Be willing to let go
Every entrepreneur will tell you the "new venture" is more like a new baby. Full of energy, endless needs, joyous and frustrating all at the same time and all consuming in the early days. But just as babies grow up and become more independent, so should the startup. Building infrastructure, hiring great people and making yourself "expendable" should be the goal of every startup that wants to grow up.