How To Avoid A Startup Clothing Brand Horror Story – virtue + vice21 min read
If you are a fashion startup clothing brand or have been thinking about starting your own clothing line business, here is my advice to you. Don’t hire out when you’re first getting started. Instead, spend time learning the ropes and doing things yourself, at the beginning of your startup clothing brand journey.
Here’s why: When you are clueless, people rip you off
Mechanics always get a bad rap. And they say finding a good mechanic is one of the hardest things to do in life.
Why is that? Well, it’s because for most of us, when our car breaks, we have no idea what is wrong with it or how to fix it. So we must blindly believe whatever the mechanic tells us is wrong with our car, what they need to do to fix it, and how much it will cost. Our lack of knowledge puts us in a vulnerable position. And that is really why people hate mechanics so much. It’s because they are being forced to trust someone with something very important that they don’t really understand at all.
Now I want you to look at your fashion business.
If you think you could just go out and hire a marketing team and publicist and someone to run your Facebook ads. And then someone else to get your product made, well, it’s basically the same as hiring a mechanic. Because you don’t know exactly what deliverables you need or what returns you should be getting for the amount you’re paying. You are in a vulnerable position and at risk of being taken advantage of.
When you hire for services like these, often companies reel you in with big promises like ten x returns. And then when they don’t perform, they tell you it’s your fault.
You didn’t spend enough on the ads. Your creative wasn’t right. You didn’t give them enough details about your ideal potential customers avatar.
Excuses go on and on and on. And the thing is, you can’t fight with them because you don’t know what you did right or wrong.
You could have done everything right, and they could’ve just done a crappy job, but you don’t know.
Today I am going to show you how you don’t know what you don’t know. And, how that lack of knowledge can put you out of business before you ever even launch.
What You Will Learn
- How DIY makes you a better business person
- Don’t get taken advantage of by freelancers
- Spotting bad hires
- Protecting your business + finances
- Learning to be a better manager
- Tips on hiring
- Additional resources
CAUTIONARY TALE #1: BOOTSTRAPPING VS. BEING NAIVE
I am in a private mastermind group with small business owners that profit well over one million dollars. There are some small time people in the group too, but most of the members are serious e-comm players.
One woman in the group started a children’s brand. She had no experience in making products, selling products, manufacturing, or anything like that. But the idea for her brand was good and her product was original compared to everything else on the market. And it made money, fast. And, the second this woman started making money? She started hiring people to do all the work she didn’t want to do.
Which sounds like the dream right?
But then came the pleas for help and advice to the group.
- “I just hired someone to create a banner at the top of my website. They said it would take three hours, and they want to charge me well over $500. I kind of feel like I’m being ripped off. What should I do?”
- “I want to hire someone to do the artwork for one of my new products. They want to charge me over $1,000 plus royalty fees for each piece I produce. I feel like this is an unfair price. What does everyone think?”
- “My manufacturing partner told me that the specific mold for my product would cost $10,000. Is that even possible?”
- “Help! All my goods are stuck in Customs. The holiday season is starting in one month and they’re saying it will take up to three months for my goods to clear. I’m being told I’m missing important documentation that should have been done when the container was shipped. And now it’s too late for me to submit them. I need these items for my online store by Christmas, help!”
Do you notice a pattern here?
Clearly, the founder of the company had no idea how things should get done, how long things should take, and how much they should cost. She had simply thought that if she hired a professional in a factory, used the shipping agent that someone’s friend recommended, and hired people to do the work, it would get done.
All the online gurus told her the secret to success was, delegation.
But, they were wrong. And, This is lazy management, IMO.
Before she thought about hiring people, she should have done better research. She should have had a solid idea about what things cost. And, when she hired someone, she should have been monitoring what was going on at every step of every process to ensure nothing went wrong.
Managing a team is not the same as set it and forget it
I see this all the time. New startup clothing brands think a factory partner will solve their problems and fill in their knowledge gaps. They won’t.
I think in every blog post I write, I give the same advice. But no one ever wants to listen, so I keep saying it.
The factory will not solve your lack of manufacturing and supply chain education. In some cases, they will only amplify it. If you tell a factory to do something, they will do it. And if you tell them to do it wrong, you better believe they will do it wrong. Because the factory’s job is to do what you tell them to do. Not correct your mistakes.
And that is why hiring other people who are professionals and hoping they fill in the gaps where you lack education is a recipe for disaster.
Especially if you hire the wrong people who are hoping to take advantage of you.
Success isn’t luck
Now, let’s talk about the people in the mastermind group who are making tons of money.
They’re the ones who started out doing every job in their clothing business themselves. So, they know the ins and outs of everything. They might not be total experts, but they know enough to get by. And this knowledge is what allows them to be good managers. And make crucial brand decisions that grow and scale their businesses effectivly.
This is why I tell every new startup clothing brand to bootstrap.
Even if you have unlimited cash, the things you learn during this time will make your startup clothing brand a one-million-dollar business in the future.
In case you’re curious about that woman and all the questions she asked because you’re new to this industry and don’t know the answers either, here you go.
- The banner is something you can do yourself on Shopify. It takes about 15 seconds to set up, and you can change it anytime you want. So three hours and $500 later, she could’ve done it for free.
- The price of the artwork is a tricky one. I would never allow an artist to have royalties to work that I was paying for. I always negotiate so that when all is said and done, I own the artwork forever and can use it in commerce or however I want. Is $1,000 too high? That’s up to you and how much you value the artist’s work. I’ve commissioned artwork for $10, and I have commissioned artwork for $300. In general, unless the project is extra special, I don’t go above $300. So yeah, I’d say she was being taken advantage of.
- Molds can be really expensive depending on what you’re making. A mold is just what it sounds like: the physical mold that will be used to mass-produce your product. Again, the price is going to range depending on if you’re white labeling, making customizations to a white label product, or if you’re making something totally new. But here’s the thing. Her specific product didn’t require a mold. It required a digital print. And digital prints are super easy. You could print one yard of fabric for about $15-$20. So the fact that the factory was able to convince her that her product needed a mold and then convince her that the mold was $10,000 shows just how naive she was about the production process.
- Freight forwarders can be your best friends or your worst nightmares. Meaning they can make your life a lot easier or make things impossible and put you out of business. The mistake this person made was hiring someone that was a friend of a friend and not doing her own research. I have an amazing freight forwarder that I use. They can clear my goods before they even land in the United States. If there is an issue, I know it while my goods are still on the boat so I never get caught in customs. This is a great example of how hiring the wrong person on your team can be a disaster.
CAUTIONARY TALE #2: SALES AGENTS ARE SOME TIMES BETTER AT SELLING THEMSELVES THEN YOUR PRODUCT
I have a friend with a startup clothing brand. She was a self-proclaimed “terrible salesperson” and really wanted someone to handle all the sales for her wholesale business. So she hired a showroom. The showroom had a few pretty good clients and some pretty impressive numbers, so she felt like she was in good hands. But here’s what happened.
The first season, she was making big, bold conversational prints. And that first season, the showroom did a terrible job at selling her product. So they told her it was a problem with the prints; it wasn’t what their customers wanted. She needed to scrap all the prints and do a more basic line of solids and neutrals, keeping it at the same price point; it’s around the $100-$2,000 range.
The second season, sales orders came in, and again, the showroom did a terrible job. And again, they blamed my friend. They told her that no one wanted cheap polyester clothing at the hundred-dollar price point—they wanted real luxury silk for around $300.
At this point, my friend realized these people were giving her the runaround. It wasn’t her product because she was making exactly what they were telling her to make. It was them.
And now every showroom owner will absolutely hate my guts, but I’m going to tell you the truth about most of them.
They have one or two “bread and butter” clients, meaning they are the big names everyone knows about and wants to buy. They then bring on smaller new clothing lines and charge them a monthly retainer. The showroom gets that money whether they sell zero pieces or one million. I am sure you can see how that can be problematic . . .
Fashion sales are interesting. Everyone always wants the next new thing, but at the end of the day, most buyers are buying off of historical data. This means most buyers who come to the showrooms want to buy the bread and butter clients. The showroom owners then sprinkle in a few pieces of these other small startup clothing brands who, by the way, are paying the same fees as the bread and butter clients. But for the small brands, instead of getting orders by the thousands, they are selling test orders of like 10 pieces.
The best advice a random stranger gave me in LA when I was first starting out was, don’t get a showroom before you’re ready. They were a showroom owner themselves, and they literally said, “I could take you on as a client, but I would be wasting your money.” I really appreciated their honesty and advice, but finding someone like that is rare. Most people will take you on as a client, burn through your money, and blame you when things don’t work out.
Protect yourself my having your own data
If my friend had tried to do the sales job herself instead of working with a showroom from day one, she would have been having conversations with potential buyers and getting real feedback from them. Maybe they were looking for tops, beacuse no one had good tops that season, or maybe what they really wanted were rainbow prints. Who knows?
The point is, she didn’t either, and she was relying on someone else to give her that information who didn’t care about her best interest. That is why it’s important to do things yourself first and then hire other people later.
If she had been getting orders herself and was doing okay on her own, when that showroom came back to her with no sales after the first season, she would’ve known that something was wrong with them. Not her. And, she wouldn’t have had to take their word for it when they told her that if she just made some changes, her startup clothing brand would take off.
CAUTIONARY TALE #3: EVERYONE IS HALF ASSING THEIR JOB BECAUSE THEY GET PAID REGARDLESS
(read, how to stop the blame game)
Help, my samples came out all wrong! My supplier did a terrible job, and I want my money back!
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten emails like this from people looking for any help they can get. And here’s the thing. When I dive in and look at what’s happening, almost 100% of the time, it’s the brand’s fault.
Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of bad suppliers out there. The suppliers that take advantage, steal your money and run, and ship super-crappy product that you thought would be much nicer than they end up being. But thanks to the Internet and cancel culture, there are fewer and fewer of those types of players around. And yet, it seems like there are more and more unhappy customers in the industry, or at least in the startup clothing brand industry.
So, things aren’t adding up.
Now, when you hire someone like an agent or a consultant to do all of your sourcing, you are relying on their expertise. As my clients know, I treat their products like my own product. I’m anal as fuck, and I think five steps ahead, which is annoying to most people, but totally necessary in this industry.
The problem is that there are tons of bad actors, meaning fashion consultants with no business in this industry. I’ll tell you what they are, though—they’re good marketers.
The internet makes it easy for consultants to sell their sericies to startup clothing brands, but is it too easy?
These fake it till you make it consultants have stolen just the right bits of copy to convince people that they know what they’re doing even though they’ve never worked a day in the industry until they started their own consulting agency.
If you don’t know any better, you might hire one of these people to make your product, which will end up in disaster. Guarenteed.
Here is an example of that.
This person’s samples kept coming out wrong, and they didn’t know why. The consultant that they were working with kept saying it was a problem with the factory (meaning they were doing everything right). And of course, the brand did’t know if that was true or not because they had no idea what was going on, and they had to trust what the consultant was saying.
A little detective work
I did some digging, and some more digging, and asked some questions that people didn’t really like me asking. But here’s what I figured out.
It was a pattern problem. The pattern was created incorrectly, so the factory made the garment incorrectly. It wasn’t a problem with the factory, it was a problem with the pattern maker, who just so happened to also be the consultant.
I ended up getting involved and asked her why she would send in a pattern that was this wildly wrong. And I am talking like obvious problems that anyone that had been in the industry for more than six months would recognize – even people with no formal pattern training (like me).
Her response was, “well, this is just the sampling process, so the samples never come out correctly.” And I was like, “Yea, but it also shouldn’t come out this wrong.”
And that’s basically when I figured out she didn’t really care what was happening with her client’s stuff because every time she made a pattern, she got paid.
She was making money, while the clients bank account was being drained.
Every time she remade the pattern, she again, got paid.
So it didn’t matter to her that her client was bleeding money because, at the end of the day, it didn’t affect her bottom line. It actually kind of helped her by creating more work for her to do and get paid for.
Now, the reason I was able to figure all of this out is because I went back to the communication log and I looked at what everyone said, when they said it, and where the errors were popping up. That’s how I isolated the problem. The only reason I could do this is because I spent 10 years of my life learning how clothing gets made and understanding every step in the supply chain.
Again, that is one of the benefits of learning to do it on your own. You are able to quickly understand who is not doing their job correctly so suppliers can’t play the blame game.
That’s the problem with hiring people for jobs you don’t understand yourself.
They just don’t care about the overall health of your business. You hire them, they do their job, if they need to do it again, they make sure that you pay them again, and they do it again. Meanwhile, you see your bank account dropping lower and lower.
I’ve seen this happen to so many new brands.
Now to come full circle. To be fair, sometimes the brand has terrible communication, and that’s why there are so many issues. But some times times, it’s that the people they are hiring simply do not care about the customer or the success of the brand.
And, as you can imagine, it’s an even bigger diaster when the brand has not clue what they are doing and neither does the consultant.
CAUTIONARY TALE #4: SPEAKING OF THE BLAME GAME…
Here’s another example of the blame game.
In the supply chain, fabric goes from the fabric supplier to the printer, then to the factory.
The fabric supplier knits or weaves the fabric. Then the print house prints on the fabric and sends it to your factory to cut and sew into garments. It’s usually three separate companies.
Now, when you get your garments in the mail, they are full of stains.
Who’s to blame?
Well, the answer to that could be easy or almost impossible to figure out. The fabric suppliers are going to blame the printer. The printer is going to blame the factory. And the factory is going to blame everyone else below them.
So how do you figure out who stained the fabric?
You need a system of checks and balances.
- Before the fabric leaves the fabric supplier, it should be checked.
- As soon as the fabric arrives at the print house, it should be checked.
- When the fabric leaves the print house, it should be checked.
- And the last check should happen when the fabric arrives at the factory.
If this is done, any stains will be brought to your attention immediately. And you’ll be able to isolate who is to blame. Let’s pretend that as soon as the print house gets the fabric, they send you an email that says all the fabric is stained, then you can bet that the stains came from the fabric supplier.
Without any of this chain of communication or checks and balances, there is no one that you can blame.
Meaning there is no one that will be willing to refund your money.
Meaning you will be out some serious cash.
Protect your business by knowing who to ask for refunds
While everyone else is getting paid and making money—the fabric supplier, the printer, and the factory—you’ve got a product you can’t sell.
The important lesson here is that, at some point, everyone in that supply chain saw stained fabric and said nothing. And this is why it’s important to communicate clearly and set up your own communication checks and balances so that you can quickly isolate issues when they arise. In my course, Launch My Conscience Line, I teach people how to do this, and I also offer private consulting for people who need more 1-on-1 help.
You can also learn by starting small and making your own mistakes along the way. The key here is to start small. This way you can recover from the mistakes. If you start large, and make a large mistake – well, that could easily put you out of business.
CAUTIONARY TALE #5: THE ONLY PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THINGS GOING WRONG IS YOU
Here is one of my favorite examples to use for this post because it’s so sneaky on the supplier’s part. It’s about a person who was working on their product remotely because of the pandemic. To save time and make a deadline, she decided to do her approvals by photograph.
Before I continue the story, I want to tell you this: I do not suggest anyone ever do an approval based off of a photo. All approvals should always be done in person. But sometimes, for whatever reason, you need to break the rules. And for the approvals that we were doing, we felt pretty confident we would be able to see any flaws or issues from pictures.
Boy, were we wrong, Photos can easily hide product issues
One of the components in the product was plastic pieces that were being bought in the market. Meaning, they were nothing custom, nothing special, and readily available. It should’ve been a total no-brainer, right? There was tons of custom work being done, and we were way more focused on the custom work than on the stuff that was already made and available.
So the supplier went out into the market, took a bunch of pictures of what they were buying, and asked, “Are you cool with this? And my startup clothing brand founder said, yeah. Because it basically looked exactly like what they wanted.
Fast forward a few weeks later to getting their production order in the mail, opening the package and being incredibly disappointed.
All those plastic pieces we bought from the market were scratched, dinged, and chipped. Immediately, we went back to the factory and said, “What the heck is this? Why did you think it was okay to ship such an inferior product?”
And they went back to the photographs they sent. If you zoomed in and looked really close, you could see the scratches and the chips.
My founder approved that.
And that’s exactly why I say the factory will not solve your manufacturing problems.
It is your job to cross your t’s, dot your i’s, and make sure everything is exactly as you want it to be.
The lessons, is that no matter how good or how well recommended someone is, you always have to be on top of your game, checking and double-checking everything. She learned her lesson on a very small order; she’s never going to let that happen to her again, and it’s going to help her protect herself as her orders get bigger and bigger.
ONE LAST TIP FOR STARTUP CLOTHING BRAND FOUNDERS – HIRE ONLY FOR WHAT YOU NEED
Now, I get it, you might not have all the skills you need to run your business effectively. Sometimes we need to hire people. Most of my students don’t know how to sew, make samples, design artwork, or do some of the more technical skills of running a startup clothing brand. And that’s okay. You can and should hire people to do these things.
The jobs you want to avoid hiring for in the beginning are retainer jobs like a project manager, a consultant, or a larger firm.
Instead of hiring someone on a monthly basis, hire people on a small project basis.
For example, instead of hiring a designer to design your entire collection, you would hire a print artist to design one print that would be going in the collection.
When you do it this way, you create much more solid goals that the freelancer needs to meet in order to get paid. When you hire for broader projects, you end up relying on the honesty of the person you are hiring. Which can become a problem if you yourself don’t know what should be going on.
And before you hire anyone, please make sure you have your basics in order. Know your startup clothing brand identity, target market, and all the basics for your new clothing line.
IF YOU HIRE SOMEONE, HERE IS WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Here are a few tips if you plan to hire someone for a project.
NO FACEBOOK GROUPS
The title of this section says it all. No Facebook groups, period.
Facebook groups are crawling with unprofessional people looking to make quick cash.
If they had a legitimate business they would not be sliding into your DMs. And, that’s the harsh honest truth.
It goes something like this: you post something about a brand you’re starting in a group board, and all of a sudden, your DM’s are crawling with people who want to give you a free website audit or tell you more about how you can 10x your returns without running ads or whatever new scam is going on. These people sound too good to be true, and that’s because they are. Anyone showing up in your DM’s or your inbox unsolicited and offering you business advice might as well be waving a red flag in your face. And, definitely someone you do not want to work with.
Here’s an example of a secret scammer conversation I was preevy to.
One of the scariest Facebook groups I am in is a private Facebook social media marketing group. I have no idea how they let me in, but they did. Here are some of the posts that I see in it . . .
“I just convinced a client to pay me a three-month retainer for $10,000. I don’t know much about the niche they are in, or how to target the type of customers that they want. Can someone help me create a business plan to effectively advertise their product?”
What the what?
And this group is full of people like this. Borderline con artists who convince people they have all the answers, take their money, and have no idea how to execute, so they go to these groups and beg for help from real experts.
They don’t care if they fail or succeed with your money because they’re already contacting their next 10 clients, sliding into their DMs, and telling them about all the amazing things they can promise the. Complete with fake reviews from their friends and family.
LOOK AT THEIR PORTFOLIO
If you’re getting ready to hire someone, whether it be a factory or an artist, always look at their portfolio.
Here’s a great example of something that’s going to be a disaster.
Literally, everyone wants to work with Antrhoplogies suppliers. And sometimes a startup clothing brand brand will find one of their factory partners. But then, working with them is horrible. Here is why.
I think there’s a lot of new startup clothing brands that are like, “Oh my God, I found the factory that my competitor works with, so it’s a perfect fit.” Well, not always. The thing is, most companies work with multiple suppliers that are highly specialized. So, they might have a woven dress supplier and a swimsuit supplier and a T-shirt supplier and a headband supplier.
Very rarely does one factory make everything for an established brand. And a lot of times, new startup clothing brands get the factory wrong. So, they end up going to their competitor’s woven supplier with their swimsuits, thinking the supplier can help them. What happens is, sometimes, the supplier will decide to take a stab at their project anyway. And this is where things tend to go very wrong because they don’t specialize in making what you make. They specialize in making something totally different.
Bottom line. Even if your competitor has been working with them for 20 years, if you see everything in their portfolio is T-shirts, don’t go giving them a couture gown.
ASK FOR REFERENCES
If someone tells you that all their client’s sign NDA’s and they can’t disclose any of that information, I want you to run, not walk the other way.
Because anyone who is reputable in their business will have at least one friend or client willing to stand up and say, this person is amazing and you should work with them too. If they don’t have a single person that will do that, they’re probably lying to you about who they work with and the results they can get.
One more time for the people in the back, just because this scam is so so so popular with clothing manufacturers . . . if they tell you they cannot give you at least one person they currently work with or have worked with in the past, you should not work with them.
DID I SCARE YOU?
I hope not.
The truth is, what is even scarier is not knowing about this stuff. The good news is now you know what to look out for, and can protect yourself and your startup clothing brand.
Remember, knowledge is power. I whole heartily believe that sometimes what people need is not a step by step guide (although that can be helpful too) but instead, an understanding of everything that can go wrong and how to avoid rookie mistakes.