Today, Lauren James Enterprises, a Fayetteville, Arkansas-based apparel company that sells preppy dresses and T-shirts with a southern flavor, has more than 100 employees, three retail locations, and $13 million in revenue. In the beginning, it was just Lance and Lauren Stokes, their baby, and the business--and no time to sleep. --As told to Burt Helm
I was on bed rest for 10 weeks before our first child, Lofton, was born. That seems like fun on the first day, but it gets so boring. So I had to get a lot of new hobbies. One I kept coming back to was sketching dresses.
Sundresses are my first true love. I wish I could live my life in sundresses. They are so feminine and southern and fun.
When Lofton was born, he was really tiny--just five and a half pounds. When he was 6 weeks old, I realized I wasn't ready to go back to work at the hospital, where I was a nurse.
Lance suggested I turn sketching dresses into a business. I thought he was losing his mind. I'm not an entrepreneur. My parents weren't entrepreneurs. But he said, "You love this so much. You only live once."
Dresses are really expensive, so we started with T-shirts. We bought 36--the minimum our local screenprinter would do. We had them printed to say "Keep Calm and Stay Southern." I started posting them on Instagram, and working on other designs, while Lofton would sit next to me in his little rocker. We got lucky: He wasn't much of a fusser.
Maybe having a baby was helpful. We just got used to not sleeping that much. We were in Hawaii for a while, and I would wake up at 2 a.m. because one of our biggest retailers was in South Carolina, and they liked to talk when they opened at 8 a.m. Then we'd get up at 8 a.m. our time, answer email, take a few phone calls--and go back to bed.
I would sit Lofton next to me and he would just stare at the palm trees and the ocean. It was like the best baby mobile. I was home doing a lot of social media. I had never really explored this market before. One time, really early on, someone asked me who our competitors were. I was like, "I have no idea!" But it was a cool time for me, to really start learning about the market and the business.
In October 2013, we moved back to Fayetteville, and lived with my parents for six weeks. We moved our inventory into the basement. Poor Lance, having to live with his in-laws. We had one computer and one chair down there, so one of us would be reaching out to new retailers and doing customer service while the other packed orders. Lofton was 6 months old then, so he'd be in his swing or his little Pack 'n Play with his toys. We would just rotate him around the room.
We leased a warehouse in January 2014. We had a Mac desktop with QuickBooks, but it was not cloud-based. Lance and I, every single day, would unplug our computer, bring it to the warehouse, and plug it in. One of us would work and the other would pack orders while Lofton rolled around in his walker. At the end of the day, we'd unplug our computer, bring it home, and work into the night.
One day, we couldn't find our car keys. About a week later, we got a phone call from a retailer in Georgia. "I don't know if you're missing a set of car keys," she said, "but there was one in my box." Lofton played with our car keys all the time--he'd rolled up to a box on the floor and just dropped them in. At that point, we were like, "OK! You need to go to daycare."
Now we have two sons. They're both in school. Lance drops them off at school in the morning, and I pick them up in the afternoon. When we get home from school, the kids run out to the garden with me and we pick some stuff that we cook for dinner. Lance often says we started our company because of our family. We work hard for our family. And we get to hang out with our family, because we work so hard.