While many entrepreneurs go big, there's also an allure to going small--that is, small batch. The bespoke economy is booming, with customer-design businesses like suit maker Knot Standard, a 2015 Inc. 500 company, reporting 1,000 percent growth in the past two years. Technology is enabling these emerging brands to manufacture more nimbly, while social media can help them find new customers miles away from their local Main Street. Still, custom-fit companies have challenges different from the typical product-based startup. We talked with four bespoke entrepreneurs about obstacles they've faced and overcome.
1. How do you convince consumers you're worth the price?
Bespoke products are almost always more expensive than mass-produced ones. Just ask Wagner Custom Skis, started by Pete Wagner in 2006. Today, he has a dozen employees and a manufacturing plant in an old gas station just outside Telluride, Colorado. They produce 1,500 pairs of skis a year at a starting price of $1,750 each, while "a premium set of skis from one of the big factories might be $1,200 or $1,300," Wagner says.
The Solution: Offer a better experience, and a better story.
Wagner is an engineer who previously designed software used to build custom-fit golf clubs. "I worked with aerospace engineers on predictive engineering, doing things that you just don't see in the ski industry," he says. "It gave us a huge head start." So he made the tech a part of his ski company's narrative. Each set of skis takes 10 to 12 hours to produce over a two-week period, leading to "improved balance, comfort, control, power, and efficiency." Wagner also offers refunds or rebuilds if customers aren't completely satisfied, and when the ski season is over, customers can mail their skis back home to Telluride to be tuned. "It's different from just a one-time transaction," says Wagner, who drums up lots of word of mouth business. "You have a relationship."
2. How do you grow without losing focus on what you love?
"I really wanted to stay at home, sewing and being with my kids," says Rebekah Scott, a mother of four who runs an 11-year-old custom-handbag company in Valley Springs, South Dakota. Her 12 seamstresses sew bags, purses, wallets, and baby accessories, with prices of up to $260 for a "baby bundle" bag with accessories. And, like Scott, all of her contract and full-time employees work from home.
The Solution: Hire experienced help to do what you can't, or don't enjoy.
At first, Scott was content to do everything herself. But after two years, she realized she was standing in the way of her own growth. Her business doubled once she hired a marketer, who excels at the jobs she never liked. ("I myself rarely get on Facebook; it gives me anxiety," she says--but her company's strong social-media presence now brings her orders from all over the country.) She still chooses fabrics and makes the first cuts herself: "As long as I can be creative with fabric, I know I won't get bored."
3. How do you manufacture big while staying small?
Knot Standard started in 2010 in Dubai, as two American friends began persuading their countrymen back home to order custom-fit suits. "It's no longer OK for guys to be agnostic about the way they put themselves together," says co-founder John Ballay. Going global with a business that usually relies on in-person fittings meant that scaling up manufacturing would be a key challenge: "If you fail one customer, your reputation is back to where you started," Ballay says.
The Solution: Never stop trying to improve production.
Knot Standard started with a single tailor in Dubai. Headquartered in New York City, it now has a staff of 60, showrooms in six American cities, and tailoring facilities in Portugal, China, Hong Kong, California, and New York. Customers either come into showrooms for fittings or submit their measurements online; tailors check the measurements on 3-D digital files before constructing the suits. The founders are constantly looking for backup facilities and new processes: "You have to make sure that you're never complacent in your production," says Ballay.
4. How do you drum up business without physical wares?
"It should be as easy for women to look professional as it is for men, but without having to look like a man," says Maja Svensson, who started her made-to-measure dress company in 2012. Elsa and Me, named after Svensson's Swedish grandmother, and based in Brooklyn, New York, sells three styles of dress, for $299 each: They can be customized in a dozen ways, including sleeve length, neckline, and fabric. Since Svensson doesn't have a storefront for women to wander into, she needed creative ways to find and attract customers.
The Solution: Be your own billboard--and resort to retro sales tactics. Svensson tried finding customers at New York City artisanal markets, but soon realized her professional network was a stronger resource. "I always wear the dresses to professional settings," says Svensson, who rubbed elbows with female executives when she worked at the Swedish consulate and at the Invest Sweden business incubator. Women would compliment her dress, and then order one. Then they'd tell their friends. Svensson started offering group fittings. "Customers provide the people and the location, I come with dresses and wine," she says. "When women tell me they feel comfortable and confident wearing our dresses, that's the best."
Yes, You Can Bespoke That
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A Better Backhand
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