Not a dude with a tech company? Me neither.
"Why don't you just get Rihanna to wear one of your dresses?" I heard this suggestion more times than you'd ever imagine in Silicon Valley meetings. Yeah, it was incredibly frustrating, although it's good to know that guys in tech really have a thing for Rihanna.
"Sure. I'll have my people call her people and we'll figure out a million dollar endorsement deal. I don't know why I didn't think of that myself."
I would have loved for Rihanna to endorse a slip from Jewel Toned, my body positive line of fun, sexy shapewear, but I was still running the business pretty much on my own, out of my apartment. I didn't have a thousand dollars in my bank account, much less a million.
The last year has truly brought the highest highs and the lowest lows. Now, in the early days of our second year, I'm happy to report that Jewel Toned has a world class team and a small showroom. Plus we just closed a seed round of funding and, most importantly, we're send orders to our amazing customers all over the world. Giving women a colorful, comfortable and body positive option to traditional nude shapewear has been my mission all along.
Looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. Not even the sleepless nights spent worrying how we'd make it to the next phase. Here are seven lessons I've learned on my journey.
1. Take the Right First Steps
If you have a consumer product (rather than B-to-B technology) get proof of concept on your own, even if it's scrappy. It's more respected than saying you have an idea and need money to make it real. Anyone can do that.
I had years of experience designing and marketing lingerie. My mission was bigger than monetizing an idea. It was to create a new kind of shapewear that comfortably supported curves and didn't try to squeeze women into a smaller size.
I wanted women to feel good. My proof of concept: show like-minded women there's another way to smooth and support your curves. I recruited my girlfriends and we told anyone who would listen about our shapers. We grew one purchase at a time, mostly from word of mouth and social media.
2. Keep Believing in Your Why
I read everything I could about raising money and knew it would be extremely hard. What I didn't know is that it would be a spiritual journey. I was told I would fail pretty frequently.
My 16 years of experience was often not appreciated. My career was built on the Junior Intimates market and I almost always pitched to men with no fashion industry experience at all. It's a hard sell. There were times I thought I was going crazy and questioned the American dream, but I never once considered quitting.
3. Remember: You're Investing in Them, Too
All money is not created equal. There are many types of investors. Research and talk to other funded founders to decide what will work best for you. Ask yourself a variety of questions and then ask them. Do you prefer someone silent or someone you talk to everyday? Is it better if they have similar companies to yours in their portfolios or for you to be the only one?
There's no right answer and it's a case-by-case scenario. Ask them to share their working style with you. I always ask them what their favorite investment is and why. It's always interesting and you learn what really drives them and if your goals are aligned.
4. Absorb All the Free Advice You Can
People who don't invest in your business tend to offer advice that falls in the "chicken or egg" category. While you'll run across a few real jerks in fancy offices, most are interesting, educated, well-informed VCs who really want you to succeed, even if they choose not to invest in your business.
Value these meetings as part of your education. Don't be defensive and truly consider their advice. I have limitless gratitude for those who authentically gave Jewel Toned their priceless time.
5. Prepare for a Wild Ride
Some might say "buckle your seatbelt." But it's more like have the airsickness bag ready.
We went from renting out a room on Airbnb to pay bills to turning down money and being wanted in four cities at once by either a VC, a buyer or a press outlet.
As soon as someone important wants to give you money, everyone else does, too. While it's a better position than being broke, it can be frustrating because you're still the same lean team with the same business to take care of. The only difference is that people are suddenly rushing to be a part of it.
Remember: You're the same person who got rejected. If we aren't internalizing the negative feedback, we aren't taking on the positive either.
6. Don't Expect Money to Solve All Problems
We used to share VegaOne bars while running from one meeting to another. Now we can actually have a real lunch (at the desk of course).
While we're definitely happy and grateful to finally have some money, it's not the end of the struggle. Once you get funded, you have to make decisions that seem unreal. Is it better to spend $25,000 doing one thing or the other?
People and companies will come flooding out of the woodwork to ask for jobs. At Jewel Toned we decided to stick with a small, strong, core team of experts instead of hiring tons of people right out of college.
7. Get Out What You Put In
Big rewards require big risks. If you really believe in your idea, go all in. Be prepared to put your entire life on hold and sacrifice a lot to make your business a success, including financial stability.
In the first year, I missed weddings, Christmas, birthdays and anything that resembled a "weekend." TGIF? A baffling concept.
Would the sacrifices be worth the success for you? I'd do it again in a second. There's no better feeling in the world than having an idea, making it through a struggle, making your dream happen and experiencing the fruits of your labor.
So there you have it. I'm still learning, but I honestly believe Jewel Toned can grow into a success story. And Rihanna, if you're reading this, let's talk. I don't have that million in advertising dollars yet, but I do have some mini dress shapers I think you might love.
Which key lessons did you learn in your first year of business?