The fashion start-up market is hot, hot, hot. Hundreds of companies have received billions in venture and angel investments. It's not surprising considering that trillions of dollars are spent on clothing every year; a trend that shows no signs of slowing down. In such a crowded and highly established market, it's refreshing to see that there is still ample room for newcomers and innovators with a taste for disrupting this nearly 300-year-old industry.
One of the emerging trends in fashion start-ups is the use of technology to provide old-fashioned personal care and to cultivate the kind of loyalty all brands crave. While technology may provide scale, a focus on the buyer persona and an intimate understanding of who she is, what she wants to wear, and most important - how she wants to feel in her fashion purchases, provides the needed insights to personalize the entire customer experience.
"We want to create a relationship with our buyer. We want to be her friend," say Julia Ford-Carther and Rosario Chozas, co-founders of Bammies. Bammies, a line of contemporary women's clothing, aims to provide chic clothing that is as comfortable as yoga attire. The startup is currently part of the Babson College Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership program in Miami.
"The clothing industry can be expensive to break into...there is not a lot of room for error if you want to stay lean," says Rebecca Fishman Lipsey, founder of a social entrepreneurship boot camp in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami areas of Florida. Bammies was founded one year ago. Ford-Carther and Chozas have spent the last twelve months testing everything about their business: from their buyer persona, to clothing prototypes, to go-to-market strategies. On a self-funded shoestring budget, like every entrepreneur out there, they have to be creative and flexible with their money and time investments; there is always a shortage of both.
The Lean-Start-Up - Twelve Months and Counting
Made famous by Eric Reis in 2011, The Lean Start-Up introduced the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) to the masses of entrepreneurs who, like the Bammies co-founders, don't have the time or money for expensive and time-consuming product and business model development cycles. In short, the MVP experience takes product iteration from the ivory tower to the market, where feedback on anything from the customer experience to the product itself is sought and incorporated into the business.
As they look back on the first year of their business, I asked Ford-Carther and Chozas to share what it's like to apply MVP, a start-up concept that is more conducive to technology-based businesses than any other market, to that of a fashion company. The founders had five lessons learned related to the how, when, and why of early-stage business and product iteration:
1. Use early buyer data to get super clear and specific about your buyer persona. When they first started the business, the founders wanted to be everything to every woman. "We were our first inspirations and thought that all buyers would be just like us. We thought we could boil the ocean and target women ages twenty-five to seventy-five." says Carther-Ford.
Looking at customer data, it became clear that Bammies customers were 45 - 54 year old women in suburban America. "Now when we consider new product features, we always think 'what would SHE wear'. For example, because we understood our buyer, we knew that we to be size inclusive early on," says Chozas.
As you build your business in a new market, be super clear on who your primary target customer is - and if it helps, give he or she a name. The producers of the Oprah show used the name "Sally". They employed that persona to help identify topics, guests, and a format that a suburban middle-aged Mom named Sally would find helpful and interesting and to create loyalty. Every investment decision you make about your business must have the start and end with your target buyer persona. EVERYTHING.
2. Become financially fluent about your market, supply chain, and business. When the Bammies founders realized they needed to offer a wide range of sizes, their costs increased more than they had anticipated. "The costs are expediential with an unforeseen ripple effect across the organization," says Carther-Ford. The founders wanted every woman in their target demographic to feel great in their clothing regardless of their size. But serving the market for women who are not in the single digit clothing size represented major cost shifts for Bammies.
Through experience, the founders learned what numbers to include and analyze for each decision including which sizes to offer. Insights into the numbers have enabled the founders to focus on what matters when it matters. "They have had to make tough choices quickly to run with the winning ideas, and address missteps instantly," says Fishman Lipsey.
3. Remember the lessons from Of Mice and Men and know when to loosen your grip. During the first twelve months in business, you are not just iterating your products; you are iterating your business. "We figured out pretty quickly that augmenting our buyer persona wasn't just about adding in new sizes, we had to take a holistic view and be open to where our changes in strategy might take the business," says Ford-Carther. This includes iterating your business model, identifying the markets in which you do business and who the influencers are, navigating the best vendor agreements, and targeting who and what will get you closer to your customer.
Taken from the storyline, the founders remind each other about this important lesson: "Let's not squeeze the gerbil and kill it," says Ford-Carther. It can be easy to work in your business instead of on your business. In the early days, you have to do both. After twelve months of iterating, Ford-Carther and Chozas understand the importance of looking at their business holistically, understanding points of divergence and convergence; something they can only do if they stay open to new ways of thinking, working, and being.
4. Embrace your limitations instead of making them blind spots. When you are a start-up founder, you have to be all-in. You have to be willing to do things that make you uncomfortable for long periods of time. "We both know fashion and know certain parts of the industry. But this is our first time building a fashion business. It would be great if we were trained in some of the more technical components of our business, but we weren't," says Ford-Carther.
As an investor, when I am looking at potential investments, I consider the market and the founding team's ability to create the right strategy and execute on that strategy. This requires an analysis of both the will-and-the-skill of the team. Founders who have a learner's mindset are always the best investments. "You have to have a tremendous learner's spirit to launch a company. The question isn't "will you screw up"; it is how quickly will you rebound when you do," says Fishman Lipsey.
Being an entrepreneur means that your days are filled with firsts. The founders have a healthy sense of humor about themselves. That's important. They also are intentionally building the emotional intelligence muscles. Also important. "Julia and Rosario seek input and feedback but they also view learning as fun. They seem to have a blast learning and growing," says Fishman Lipsey.
5. Discern between urgent and non-urgent decisions and actions. Not every decision is an inflection point requiring equal time, effort, and focus. Ford-Carther and Chozas have made customer intimacy a core value of their business. They have built in a feedback loop as part of their lean approach to iterate on their current products and their portfolio strategy. While this level of interaction provides incredible insights into what is working and what is not, the challenges come when there are too many good ideas.
Founders running a lean start-up learn how to conserve money, time, and energy for only those tasks that are critical to the MVP process. As they grow into leaders, they acquire a practice of separating the noise from the wisdom. And trust me, there is always plenty of advice given. Over the past year, the founders have grown comfortable with taking input instead of prescriptive direction from customers, experts, and mentors.
The key ingredient to each of the five lessons
Time and money are rarely on the side of founding teams. When running a lean-start up, time and money investment choices carry more weight. Connecting with people who have 'been there and done that' can be the best way to circumvent unnecessary missteps. "Julia and Rosario have amassed an army of advisors to help them make smart decisions," says Fishman Lipsey. At each of the key decision points that the Bammies team has faced, they have not faced it alone. This may just be the most important lesson of all.