Fashion Business: What I wish I had Known Before

If only starting a clothing line (or really ANY fashion business) was as easy as Marie Claire describes it to be: Just come up with a must-have item (what is that anyways?!), draw it to the best of your abilities (lol), prototype it (like, yourself?!), order your raw materials (from where?!), find a factory (I can help you with that), ask your mom for money (I didn’t make this up, they actually said that), and then sell the heck out of it. Spoiler alert: it’s not easy.

Don't start a fashion business without reading this post. It talks about what you don't even know that you don't know, from finding garment factories to selling, and the secrets to becoming profitable.

Starting any business is really crazy hard but starting a clothing line or a fashion business is beyond words difficult. No matter what fashion business you’re doing there’s going to be a TON of competition out there. The market is ultra price-sensitive and it’s super tough to differentiate yourself. Thus I’m going to tell you in this post about the things I wish I had known before getting started with my own fashion business.

To me, the worst offenders are the people that try to tell you that starting a fashion business is easy. They create wrong expectations that will cause (huge) disappointment.

As I had to find out the hard way: The advices for starting your own fashion business are mostly crap.

I know this because I’ve been there, I’ve almost gone bankrupt, and I had to learn from other industries how to start and run a business. That’s why I decided to fill you in on the secrets to starting a successful and profitable fashion business yourself.

But before we dive in I want to take a moment and lay out what I mean when I say “fashion business”. I’m focusing on three types of fashion businesses that I’ve seen my fashion school classmates and friends start over time:

1) STARTING A FASHION BLOG

Fashion blogs are fairly cheap and easy to start. Maintaining and growing your blog, however, takes a lot of hard work, endurance, and most importantly, skill. Blogs usually die a slow death because the owner lost interest or was discouraged by a lack of growth. Half-dead (Zombie) blogs consist of pages of never-found and never-read content sitting somewhere online without an owner and without readers.

2) STARTING A CLOTHING LINE

Young clothing lines have one of the highest failure rates with many of them folding within the first two years. The market is extremely saturated and you have limited possibilities to differentiate yourself from your competitors. Fashion brands usually die because of financial reasons. They run out of money before they even start selling their products or they fail to bring in enough money through sales to keep their fashion business growing.

3) FREELANCING IN FASHION

The last type of fashion business is the freelance business. A freelancer sells their services to other people or businesses. Typical freelance businesses are design, illustration, pattern making, (production) management, hair- and make up artists, photography, graphic design, or print making. Working freelance gives you a lot of freedom but every business mistake will reflect in your paycheck.

In this post I’m going over the main strategies that will help you found really ANY business. I’m sharing lessons I’ve learnt ranging from entrepreneurship to digital marketing and most importantly I’ll provide you with actionable advice that you can go implement asap.

1) SELLING ONLINE IS REALLY HARD

The biggest lesson I learnt when starting my own fashion business is: selling online is a skill that must be learnt. I think there is this misconception that if you “have a website” (or an etsy store for that matter) “you will just sell”. I’ve never heard anything less true and less helpful for young fashion entrepreneurs.

Regardless of what type of fashion business you have, just creating your own website isn’t going to do anything for you. Period.

If you are running your own fashion blog you’re providing information or inspiration in exchange for attention. Your income might not come from your readers but their time and eyes pays your salary when brands gift or pay you to promote their products. Your influence can only grow if your page is laid out

When you offer your skills and knowhow for sale as a freelancer then your website needs to convert visitors into customers or at least into inbound leads. An inbound lead is someone who reaches out to you and thus qualifies himself as a potential customer.

Knowing how to sell online is crucial for fashion businesses

Being at pro at selling online might be most important to you if you created your own clothing line. Let me make this clear: selling clothing is really, really hard. Especially if you’re new on the market. And even more so if your customers can’t even try it on. It took me over a year to learn what differentiates a good website from a bad one. I didn’t really have any consistent online orders in the first 6 months and it almost cost me my business.

Why did I not make sales?
Because my website wasn’t optimized for that. It had many features that never fully worked and were in the end completely redundant. What we don’t realize is that our experiences online feel organic and intuitive because these big tech companies are geniuses when it comes to designing experiences for us.

Every feature, every page was created with a clear purpose in mind and perfected times and times again to reach a specific goal. Don’t be fooled thinking all you need is a website to make sales. You MUST understand how to optimize your page. How to drive traffic, and how to track where people fall off your page.

Having a website isn't enough. You must master the art of selling online to become profitable. Click To Tweet

Selling for the fashion blog
Have you ever seen those blogs that seem small but still get crazy awesome deals? From free products to paid trips to fashion week? Guess what. They do sales.

They inquire through email or Instagram direct messenger (to ask for the right email address) and send out a respectful inquiry about a brand collaboration or sponsorship.

Surprisingly you don’t have to be a big fashion blogger to do so. Even if you have just two to three thousand Instagram followers you can start reaching out to smaller brands and ask whether they’d be interested in working with you. If your photos are beautiful then it might well be that a smaller brand is happy to gift you product.

Obviously the more followers you have and the more engaged they are the more you can ask for.

Selling for the freelancer
The only freelancers I have ever hired were the ones who approached me. They sent me a well-phrased email and offered their services and asked for a time to schedule a phone call.

It is a lot easier to sell via phone than via email so I highly recommend suggesting that. Once you’re on the phone be ready to explain all the benefits of your service and why they absolutely need them. A big point is freeing up time to work on more important or profitable things.

freelancer email sales outreach
Important point for selling:

You must answer in a timely manner. When someone is replying to your cold email they’re a “warm lead”. They’re genuinely interested and most likely to buy your service. Don’t wait until the lead “cooled down” again and  looses interest in your services.

I had freelancers who emailed me with great portfolios and suggestions that I was very interested in. I took time out of my busy day to answer right away and then… silence… For 20 days she did not reply to my email. Needless to say by the time she did answer me I had not only hired someone else, I was also quite disgruntled and thought to myself: “if it takes you this long to answer a simple email, how long would it take you to actually finish the job?!”. I never replied again and will probably never work with her.

2) THE 80/20 RULE – HOW TO NOT GET BURNT OUT

As you analyze your situation you will see that 80% of your time is spent on activities that don’t actually create major impact. They’re either part of the business processes, crucial for survival but not bringing your business ahead. Or worse, they’re busy work. Busy work are tasks of perceived importance that you do to keep yourself busy and feeling productive while they have very little effect on your business. Those tasks should be eliminated all-together.

Focus your energy on the things that actually bring your business ahead. Those tasks that deliver real results. One example from my experience: I used to do pop up shops all day every day for a month. Every day I was tracking to another gym (I owned an active wear line) and sat there for hours. Sometimes I’d sell A LOT. Sometimes I wouldn’t sell anything.

Then I looked at my sales records and realized: If I just do trunk shows (or pop up stores) on Saturday and Sunday morning between 9AM-1PM I will sell enough to not worry about my online orders. That gave me Monday through Friday to work on my website, generating traffic, and optimizing it for sales. Boom. I sold 2.5k in the following week with only 8h of doing a trunk show vs. $2.9k and sitting in a gym for 29h. Break that down to an hourly rate then I earned roughly $100/h in the beginning and a whopping $312.5/h after my analysis. Talk about an efficiency increase here!

80/20 Rule for Freelancers and Bloggers

There are a million and one things you can and should do when you’re self-employed, but only very few of these things will yield the results you want. Do you really need all of those social media accounts? Or do all of your customers come from LinkedIn and Instagram?  If that’s the case, stop going crazy about only having 32 Twitter followers or only little success with your YouTube channel.

Focus your energy on the things that actually create value for you and your business. Click To Tweet

3) BUSINESS PROCESSES ARE THE BANE OF YOUR EXISTENCE

Oh. My. Gosh. BUSINESS PROCESSES. I can’t even tell you how annoying, frustrating, and time consuming some tasks can be. Business processes are necessary to keep your company going. They’re those nitty gritty little tasks that are crucial but they can drive you crazy because you don’t actually feel like you’re working or “pushing forward”.

Like doing your taxes for example. It’s necessary but not really helping your fashion business grow.

Or entering your banking information (personal favorite – NOT) into an accounting software called QuickBooks.

Posting on social media is another one of those tasks that are terribly time consuming and often inefficient.

Business processes almost made my company go bankrupt because they required so much of my time and kept me from building my business. Fashion businesses require a million and one things to be done. They’re much more time consuming than other businesses, ESPECIALLY if you own a clothing line. To make sure you’re not falling into the same trap, I’m going to share one of the biggest lessons I have learnt: business processes should either be AUTOMATED or OUTSOURCED.

Say what?! Yes you heard me right, spend the money and get rid of those tasks.

It will free up your time and headspace to focus on more important things (such as bringing in money). You can thank Silicon Valley and a range of smart online entrepreneurs for these pearls of wisdom, first and foremost Tim Ferris and his book “The Four Hour Workweek”.

4) YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO IT ALL YOURSELF

The first thing you should do once you’ve run your business for a few months is sit down and analyze what actually works and what doesn’t. How have you earned your money so far? Can you do more of that? Can you do it more effectively? Should you invest time in other tasks in order to grow your fashion business?

What was the biggest waste of time and what simply didn’t work? Can you eliminate those tasks or are they necessary to keep the business going? Is it necessary that YOU have to do them? Could another person do them? Could a software or a bot do them?

When it comes to outsourcing and automating you should focus on repetitive, time-consuming tasks that must be done but aren’t crucial to your business’ growth. Hereby you should always differentiate between tasks that require “thinking” such as online research, collecting photos according to a specific aesthetic (Instagram!), etc or that are repetitive actions (such as posting, sharing, liking, commenting, and so on).

Automating technical tasks

I was surprised to hear how many tools are out there to help you make room on your busy schedule. You should absolutely automate your social media (if you don’t want to outsource it all together).

You can use Riotly Social to take care of growing your Instagram. Tailwind and Boardbooster will help build your Pinterest following and generate traffic to your website. Zapier is a service that frequently shares your blog posts, emails, and tweets across platforms keeping your accounts “busy” and engaged while you’re out doing more important things. Buffer is also a great app to help you post frequently across different social media.

Using all of these automation apps and services allows you to plan all of your social media at the beginning of the week and handing off the posting responsibility to software that is more reliable than you anyways.

Outsourcing time-consuming tasks

Two services you can use to outsource jobs that require a specific skill (such as graphic design or website creation) are Fiverr and Upwork. Fiverr is a website where people offer their skills and services for $5. You’ll find a colorful mixture of professionals from all around the globe and you’ll definitely need to do some research before outsourcing anything but then again, it will only cost you $5 (USD). I suggest you give it a shot and see how you like it!

Upwork, on the other hand, is a more serious portal where you can hire freelancers. The individuals on this platforms are often highly qualified and their portfolios and resumes impressive. You can find freelancers for every budget and from every continent.

Last but not least, virtual assistants (VAs) can help clear your schedule from “busy work”. VAs are often located abroad and they offer a low cost alternative to hiring someone locally. Payment options come per job, in buckets (10 hours, 20 hours etc), or per task. Personally, I’m using TaskBullet which is located in the Philippines and I’ve made really great experiences with them (love you, Angelica!). It takes some experience in hiring them, one day I’ll write a post about it.

5) WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WRITE A FASHION BUSINESS PLAN

One of the most common questions I get asked is: “how did you write your business plan” (or any variation of this question). Lucky me, when I started my business I had already written five traditional business plans. Why? Because that’s what you do when you get a Bachelor and a Master’s Degree in business and take entrepreneurship at fashion school.

Traditionally a business plan contains the following points:

  1. Executive Summary: One page that roughly outlines everything
  2. Company Description: what do you do exactly, what’s your name, industry, goals, and so on
  3. Industry Description: who else is on the playing field and how can they be beat?
  4. Product Overview: What do you actually make and sell?
  5. Operational Plan: How are you going to make the products, what’s your timeline, and who do you depend on?
  6. Marketing Plan: How are you going to spread the word?
  7. Financial Plan: How much money will you need and how much money will you earn (and when)?

While it’s good to think things through thoroughly in the beginning, there are few decisions I regret more than spending eight weeks writing a business plan. It took me forever to write and most of it was based on assumptions that were completely wrong. Even worse, once I wrote it I never looked again, relying on other, more practical means to run my business.

Truth bomb: Unless you're looking for investors, writing a formal business plan is a waste of time because it doesn't actually help you run your business.

So what should you do instead? Write an action plan.

An action plan covers all areas of your business but doesn’t consist of beautiful eloquent sentences. It does talk about the same parts of your business but it consists of bullet points (think “to do list”), due dates, and measurable goals. It’s a working tool that helps you stick to your plan and actually accomplish your goals.

HOW TO WRITE AN ACTION PLAN:

Being a couple years older and getting real start-up experience under my belt I would never write a fashion business plan again. Instead, I would write action plans for different “areas” of my business and summarize all the milestones in my calendar (with reminders!). Personally I really like to use Excel because it’s easy to read, format, and edit later on. This is what you should include:

  • Departments: Plan for different parts of your business marketing/sales/production, etc
  • Timelines: My action plans map out tasks/goals for this week, month, and year
  • Goals: They must be precise, actionable, and measurable
  • Actions: A prioritized “to do” list of actions to achieve each goal
  • Critical factors: Who/what do you need to achieve your goals
  • Duration: How long do you think it will take you to accomplish these tasks
  • The One Thing: “What is the ONE thing you could do that makes everything easier” (This book was a game changer for me in terms of productivity!!!)

The difference between an action plan and a business plan is that the first one is a working tool for you to plan your company and hold yourself accountable; while the latter is a representative plan written for outsiders to present your idea and business in a certain way.

6) IF YOU KNOW THE TRICKS, GATHERING 50k FOLLOWERS IS EASY

If you start building a following before you actually launch, you’ll have a bunch of loyal fans waiting for your product cash in hand. This means, of course, that you must know the secrets on how to build a following the right way.

I wish someone had shared the secrets to building a social media following with me before I launched.

Mistake No 1: We only launched our account after we opened our online store. That meant we couldn’t gather a tribe and didn’t make any sales until 2 weeks into our business.

Mistake No. 2: We didn’t know how to grow our account and reach more people. In the first six months (after launching), our Instagram grew a total of 1000 followers and I was so freaking proud of it. In the next year it grew about the same. 1200 followers in 18 months. That’s not as great anymore.

Looking at other accounts who looked so beautiful and grew so quickly I decided to take action and learn about how to grow an Instagram account and use it professionally (meaning: how do you convert followers into paying customers!). Less than 12 months after implementing the strategies I learned, my business’s account, Akrovita, reached 22k followers (it has gone down since I stopped posting to it in May 2017).

So how do you actually grow your account?

  1. Growth is the result of: the number of users you’re retaining plus the number of users who discover your account and choose to follow you.
  2. You need high quality content. Great content is key to retaining users and to when it comes to convincing new users to follow you. Pixelated photos, bad layouts, and an inconsistent feed will kill your brand before it got started.
  3. You must use tags, that’s the ecosystem on which Instagram is built. Geotags, Hashtags, User tags (marking someone on a photo) will all help Instagram’s user base to potentially discover your account.
  4. Engage with other users and join groups to trade shout outs or like and comment on each other’s posts. Note: this does not mean that you should spam people’s accounts asking “S4S?” (shoutout for shoutout), it means building actual relationships and being authentic.

Learn how to create a beautiful, fashionable Instagram feed.

TO PUT IT IN A NUTSHELL

  1. Use your time to focus on THE MOST IMPORTANT TASKS that are crucial for your company’s survival and growth.
  2. Selling is really hard. Learn as much as you can about how to sell online (and in person) or get professional help
  3. You don’t have to do everything (it’s impossible!).
    • Find software that will automate your digital work
    • Find freelancers or virtual assistants that can take care of more complex time-consuming tasks
  4.  Time is scarce. Don’t write a business plan, write an ACTION PLAN
  5. Grow your following upfront so you have customers and generate an income on day one.

I hope this blog post helped you see some of the unexpected challenges of starting a fashion business. Were these new to you? Do you feel like you got these down? If you’re already running your business, have you made similar experiences? Let me know in the comment

Virginia Ribeiro de Assis
[email protected]
5 Comments
  • M. Guzman
    Posted at 18:42h, 19 January Reply

    Virginia, it’s all well and done, but nothing can more forward unless you have money to pay your bills today, food on the table, mortgage paid, money to hire ppl to do the busy work, money to make your items, money to do awesome photo shoots, amazing website, marketing material, etc. I think a huge miss is finding investors to move forward. Too many blogs, workshops, articles don’t talk about actually getting money. It’s unfortunate.

    • Virginia Fabricius
      Posted at 14:47h, 21 January Reply

      Hi there! Thanks for the comment your thoughts!
      Of course you’re right that every business requires some starting capital, however, I firmly believe that you’re mistaken when you say you MUST find investors to move forward. You could also just save up for some time while while working and developing your product and launch strategy.
      The internet offers an incredible number of opportunities to overcome that vicious cash flow cycle that characterizes the fashion industry. You can raise funds on crowd funding platforms or do pre-sales to finance your next production run. I’ve seen many of my friends grow their businesses to multiple 6-figures without ever taking money from an investor. And I’ve run my business for years without an investor. The secret is that you need to come up with smart strategies and know how to take advantage of the tools that are at your disposal today!

  • Rizmina Dubai
    Posted at 13:01h, 17 October Reply

    This is just great. I really love the whole Elimination part of the book “The 4-hour work week”.I will never forget “Interrupt the interruptions”. I will try to apply it, which is not that easy 😉

    • Virginia Fabricius
      Posted at 21:26h, 18 October Reply

      It’s great advice! Managing your time more effectively is one of the keys to success! Glad you found my post helpful Rizmina!

  • SannyOrale
    Posted at 14:31h, 10 December Reply

    Make a more new posts please 🙂
    ___
    Sanny

Post A Comment