Striped Mistakes: 6 Lessons in My Success as a Failure

Striped Shirt Company FamiliesLaura Beck is chief shirt schlepper of www.stripedshirt.com, a failed start-up. Based in Austin, Texas, five years ago Laura launched a tee-shirt company on the premise customers would want to show their support for teams and organizations by wearing their colors in stripes. Nearly a month ago, she went public with her breakup with stripedshirt, and launched a Kickstopper. In 4 weeks, she’s been floored by the response (138,000+ Facebook and 7,000+  YouTube views of the video). She (along with her unpaid interns – her 70-year-old mom and 10- and 6–year-old daughters) packaged up and shipped over 400 orders: that’s 1,000 shirts sold! So, after all this Kickstopper buzz and love, Laura felt it was a good time to think through what missteps she took with stripedshirt and perhaps spare other entrepreneurial types some of her pain.

To paraphrase Frank Sinatra – MISTAKES, I’ve made a few!

1. It Was All About ME

That was by design, I had done 18 years of PR agency life, 10 running an agency and leading an amazing team of 16 people. But I was burnt out, fried from managing others, especially aggressive young guns new in their careers and eager to advance. I wanted to do stripedshirt entirely on my own. NO WAY I was taking any outside funding. First of all, I didn’t need it (again, I worked 18 years, I had savings), and second, I’ve seen the good and bad of VC-funded startups doing PR for them for years. This was also MY dream, and no one else would be as passionate about it. I didn’t bring in any partners, I wasn’t beholden to anyone! I could do it my way (Sinatra again! J). Well, turns out, a partner or two, they’ll hold your feet to the fire.

2. Over-Architecting the Website

I did some homework, but while I do tech PR, I’m not that technical, and I went with Magenta, an open-source shoppingCahoon Girls cart for ecommerce sites, and I had that thing built big from the start. I wanted to be able to expand like crazy, assuming (hoping), I’d grow, add products like long-sleeved stripes, tanks, striped beach towels, waterbottles, flash drives, and bikinis (I’m not kidding, these were on my roadmap). If I knew then … I’d have done a simple Word Press template. I would have worked with Volusion, BigCommerce, WP Engine (in my defense, none of these guys had the amazing SMB website offerings they have now back in 2010). Any of these providers likely would have saved me money as well as pain, as I put $10,000 into that cludgy website. I also went with Paypal for payment processing so I wouldn’t have to do my own SSL, my own security. And wow, Paypal + Magenta is just wonky. If I totaled up all my abandoned shopping carts, there’d be a lot fewer shirts in my garage!

3. Inventory

BLERG!  Again, with absolutely no background in fashion or apparel, I did some homework, but really just went for it. Through an amazing guy here in Austin, I was connected to some factories in India, and they took me on. But to do so, and to really show my concept, I committed to 14 different color combinations and 15 sizes. For each, to do the manufacturing, I committed to about 50 of each size of each color, with a few exceptions. You do the math. We are talking over 10,000 shirts!

And I had some colors move and needed reorders (hello, what is up with the popularity of red and white stripedshirts?  I should have started RED stripedshirt, it would have been a lot more successful!) Then there were other colors that absolutely sit there. I thought my Ohio State connections from growing up in Columbus OH would make my red and gray stripes fly off the shelves. But it is my absolute slowest mover! In the end, of the 10,000 shirts, I sold (or gifted – more on that below) about 4,000 in 5 years. I’ve written off some, but about 6,000 are still in my garage today!

Now, again, if I knew then …. I should have done market testing, started with small sets of shirts, only ordered colors that were actually moving. But, there are Striped Shirt Company Logonot a lot of manufacturing options for apparel startups. It’s a pretty brutal industry all around. Margins absolutely stink. I was lucky to find someone to take on what I thought was a mammoth order, but for them, it was teeny. I couldn’t find a way to do small, test-run inventory orders.

And when I did get my inventory, 10,000 shirts arrived in a semi on pallets – that’s pretty overwhelming for one 40-year-old mom to figure out, organize, track, and manage. I quickly had no idea what I had, what I didn’t. It was too much, too overwhelming.

I could go on and on here about the problems with fast food fashion in America, all the bad stuff I hope our apparel industry sorts out soon. That cotton is still grown in the US but shipped overseas for “cut and sew” and then shipped back is absolute insanity. That factory conditions in Bangladesh, but also East LA, are so dismal should not be happening today. And that the size and scale of orders from Forever 21 and H&M give us shoppers $5 t-shirts, but other apparel hopefuls no prayer of competing, is depressing but very, very real.

striped Shirt14. The Premise Didn’t Work

The idea of stripedshirt – to show your colors, support your favorite team or school –absolutely did not fly. The sales I’ve gotten are mostly women ordering stripes they like. I hardly believe all the navy and white orders I’ve had are really Yankees fans ( as a Red Sox fanatic, I guess I hope not). And, when I had the idea, 20 years ago, fan-wear options just for women were really limited. Now there are tons of options – Alyssa Milano, Victoria Secret, college Ts at Old Navy. I also bet on women wanting to do “Mommy and Me” combos with their children, what I call the Lilly Pulitzer effect. Didn’t happen, those sales didn’t come.

Funny enough, my biggest sales weeks on the calendar were mid-September to mid-October. Yes, Halloween. Turns out there are a lot of costumes that incorporate stripes – Where’s Waldo surely, but also Olivia the Pig, Doc McStuffins, Pirates, French, even Freddy Krueger. While these were real sales and money in, it was kind of depressing to think someone bought a stripedshirt for a one-day-a-year costume.

5. Marketing Alone Does Not a Company Make

This one was the hardest pill to swallow because remember, before stripedshirt, I was an 18-year PR veteran. I KNOW MARKETING. I’m good at it. I thought I had this part in the bag! I thought I could build stripedshirt entirely on marketing, on PR, on word of mouth and buzz. I knew better. Way better. For 18 years, I told clients “PR is AIRCOVER for sales.” You need integrated marketing and a sales strategy. But in 5 years, I was the sales team, and I’m not a very good salesperson. I never brought on any agents or distributors, I never figured out deals with stores, or even built a network in retail. I also never did any paid search or Google ad words. I relied fully on organic search, which was very strong, but not strong enough to carry a business. I never even put in place a CRM system to continue to communicate with customers who had already bought – and hopefully loved – a stripedshirt.

Finally, I put all my trust and hope in influencers and bloggers. I gave away more shirts than I care to count to fashion bloggers to do a review with a great write up and high quality photo spread, and then do a giveaway. Lots of raffle copters out there with thousands of people putting in their chance for a free stripedshirt. I wrongly figured many of those, not getting the free shirt, would come to buy. They did not. I appreciate all the support and buzz my fashion bloggers gave stripedshirt, but make no mistake, they did not produce sales. Way too much inventory went out with very little return. I knew better. I know what integrated marketing is required to create and grow a business, I’ve counseled people on this for 20 years. But I didn’t put most of it into action for my own business.

6. Distracted by my Comfort Zone

When I started stripedshirt, the idea was to leave an 18-year PR career and do something completely new and different. That lasted one month. Thirty days into it all and I had already taken on a client on the side. Generally, for the past 5 years, I’ve been doing PR consulting for upwards of 6 clients at any one time. I hold it to about 20 hours a week. But we all know a startup is a 110% commitment. Between time with my girls, and PR consulting, stripedshirt kept taking a back seat. It was far too easy to fall back into my comfort zone, to do what I was good at, versus trying to figure out this new stripedshirt world that was hard, and complicated, and not showing any signs of success. Doing PR consulting may have kept my ego secure and my confidence up, and my wallet not completely empty of spending money, but helping others with their businesses majorly distracted me from focusing on my own.

And so, now, 5 years later, I’ve broken up with stripedshirt publicly and I’m turning back to the PR consulting I know well, including, it turns out, PR for the stripedshirt failure. Perhaps the best PR I’ve ever done – for a failure, for the closing of a business. Not exactly something you want to do a case study on to share with future clients, unless they too want to shut down their businesses!

Again, these past 2 weeks have been so amazing, very liberating and freeing to admit defeat – a relief to come clean about my failed business.  Most everyone has been very supportive, and amused. Seems there are a lot of kindred spirits out there who also gave entrepreneurship a go and didn’t have smashing success. I appreciate the people who have reached out to cheer me on, even to thank me for sharing my story.

There have been some hecklers, and negative comments, make no mistake. People who said I had no business starting a business, and of course it failed, what a bad idea, and bad execution. There certainly is a lot of truth in what they say as you can see from the six mistakes I’ve detailed above. I remain proud to be public in my failure and again, hope my sharing can support others who’ve gone through this, or will go through this. Or, maybe, my stripedshirt Kickstopper, and the lessons learned, will give some guidance and tips for others of how to give their own business a better fighting chance!

Watch the Kickstopper video, when you enter “kickstopper” at checkout, you’ll get to 50% off your order.

Julia Westfall: Building a Community of Women

Julia_westfallJulia Westfall could easily have coasted to retirement. She was 59 years old and had a good job as director of finance and human resources for a marketing and communications company in Bethesda, Maryland. Her twin daughters had started college. She absolutely could have coasted.

But then Westfall read an article about something called Hera Hub and was intrigued. It sounded like the sort of thing she wanted to be involved in. “I wasn’t really interested in retiring; it wasn’t something my husband and I ever talked about, other than planning for it financially. I always saw retirement as something far off in the future, regardless of my age.”

So Westfall began doing some research early last year on Hera Hub – a work and meeting space where women could connect and collaborate – and then reached out to its owner, Felena Hanson, who is based in San Diego County. Many Hera Hub members are professionals who had previously worked from home but found it isolating, or wanted to continue working at home part-time but also needed a space to hold meetings or meet with clients one-on-one. Westfall learned Hera Hub has three established locations in California, but more importantly, Hanson was offering franchise opportunities.

Westfall continued to do her due diligence. She scrutinized her own finances, had a franchise attorney look at the contract, and even went to San Diego to meet Hanson and tour the Hera Hub locations. Impressed with what she found, she signed the franchise agreement after three short months.

“This struck me as an amazing opportunity to do something to help women in small business. I’ve worked with a lot of small businesses over the years and gotten a great education along the way. At this point in my career, Hera Hub seemed like a really exciting way to use that experience.”

Westfall admits there have been some who questioned her decision to buy a franchise rather than starting her own IMG_2811business. She responds, “I didn’t want to do all that branding work; reinventing the wheel. I found an existing opportunity that really suits me and my vision. I’m all about taking advantage of what someone else has done and using what they’ve learned. The franchise option was very attractive to me.”

But Westfall is still a trailblazer, as the Washington DC space is the first franchise for Hera Hub. “That intrigued me, too. I kind of like being first at things. It’s a challenge and I feel like I can make a difference for the people coming up behind me.”

Signing the franchise agreement was only the first step, after which the real work began. Westfall needed to find a location for the business and also to build brand awareness and educate people on the concept of shared workspace. When it became obvious that finding the right space wasn’t going to be easy, Westfall decided to open a temporary location so she could get started as soon as possible.

Westfall recently signed a lease for her permanent location in the Friendship Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC. Hera Hub refers to its décor as “spa-inspired,” but don’t show up expecting a pedicure. The space is serene, quiet, and conducive to working, and private offices and meeting rooms can be reserved as needed.

IMG_2858Hera Hub also hosts evening workshops, programs, and events, where members come together as a community to learn from and support each other to the extent that they choose to.

“It’s a great group of women,” Westfall says of her founding members. “One is an artist. Another woman has a proofreading and editing company. There’s a website designer, an art curator, a business coach, a woman starting her own private equity firm. That’s what’s so great about Hera Hub – it’s real mix. This gives us the opportunity to make connections, support each other, and pass along some individual perspective.”

Eventually, Westfall would like to have about 120-150 members of different membership levels. At that point, she

Julia with member and artist Diana Ludet
Julia with member and artist Diana Ludet

would consider opening other Hera Hub offices in the DC metro area.

Westfall reflects on her age and why she isn’t ready to retire. “The advantage of me being 60 is that I’ve already done so many things, and your experiences make you who you are. I don’t think I would be as successful if I had done this at 40. I would have missed 20 years of experience. This is the right time for me. Also, being older, my husband and I have had the chance to establish ourselves financially.

“I’ve also had people ask if I’m buying this business for my daughters. I’m not. Sure, if they get out of college and are interested and have something to offer I would welcome them, but this business is for me. Although I guess I do want them to know that they can do whatever they want to do, at whatever age they happen to be.”

And for Westfall, Hera Hub can open doors at any age. “You always know that these amazing women are out there – especially in an area like Washington DC – but now I get to actually build relationships with them. That’s where I’m getting the most benefit – getting to know these women who are at all stages in their businesses, all different backgrounds, different education levels. I probably never would have crossed paths with most of them without Hera Hub. I’m very grateful for that.”

Tips from Julia Westfall
  • Whatever your business, find a community of people who care about you and support you.
  • Figure out where your strengths are, and be honest about your weaknesses. Then find support in those areas where you’re not as strong.
  • The pressure to achieve work/life balance can be intense. It can be hard to see the big picture when you’re in the middle of it, but it helps to see work/life balance as something that’s spread over your entire life. Sometimes it’s more about work, and sometimes it’s more about family, and that’s okay.

One-on-One With Alicia Syrett, Angel Investor and Start-Up Advisor

squareAlicia Syrett is the Founder and CEO of Pantegrion Capital, an angel investment vehicle focused on seed and early stage investments. She serves on the Board of NY Angels as the Chairman of the Board of HeTexted and her past and present advisory board roles include Enerknol, iFunding, Cuipo, The Pitch Deck, Beauty Booked, Cissé Trading Co. and Willa. A recurring panelist on CNBC’s PowerPitch, Alicia was voted one of Wharton’s “40 Under 40” young alumni and has been featured on Fox, MSNBC, Inc, Associated Press, Huffington Post, and USA Today, among others. She mentors start-ups and students alike and is a member of Women Corporate Directors. 

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CJ Scarlet: What Doesn’t Kill You Helps You Change the World

CJ color 5At 15 years of age, CJ Scarlet won the title Miss Optimist in a local competition. In the intervening 39 years, that optimism has been sorely tested, but today she is once again the reigning queen of positivity. The 54-year-old is out to change the world by reducing violent crime using technology and she believes – as do many around her – she’s got a pretty good chance of succeeding.

Following a brief but memorable career as a Sonic Drive-In carhop on roller skates, Scarlet joined the US forest service straight out of high school. She returned home to attend college but dropped out after an event that would forever change the course of her life.

“Although there was no a term for it back then, I was date-raped. He was a sheriff’s deputy and it was our second date. He told me no one would be believe me and, 19 years at the time, I believed him. I didn’t tell anyone; I felt so ashamed and blamed myself,” Scarlet recalls.

CJ in cammies with M16
CJ in cammies with M16

Needing to get as far away from Arkansas as possible, she joined the Marines as a photojournalist. “My father, brothers, and brother-in-law were all marines so I wanted to show them how it was done,” Scarlet jokes. She served for five years before moving to Virginia to work for two NGOs consecutively while attending university. A BA in political science was followed by a Masters in humanities with an emphasis on human violence.

“As an undergrad, I was on the board of the Rape Crisis Center of Virginia. I started working through the trauma of what had happened to me and recognized my story was the story of so many women; it was happening to women everywhere. I started to develop a deep passion for protecting people from violence and crime.”

After graduate school, Scarlet moved from Virginia to North Carolina and became Executive Director of Kids First, an agency supporting child abuse victims and their families, before taking a position as Director of Victims’ Issues for the Attorney General’s Office in Raleigh.

It was there that Scarlet made her mark launching the Commission that designed the Statewide Automated Victim Assistance and Notification System, which alerts crime victims before their perpetrators are released from custody. Over the years, she worked with hundreds of assault victims, but her achievements came with a price.

A decade earlier, Scarlet had been diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease, and had been managing it but, compounded by stress, she got so ill she had to stop working.

“After three years, I burned out. I was tired of being there for victims after the violence had occurred. My health went downhill. I had to crawl on my ands and knees to go upstairs and couldn’t even turn a door knob or hold a hairbrush,” she recalls.

CJ with family
Ode to Joy: CJ and her sons

The next years were dark ones for Scarlet. Doctors told her she was going to die, and, not surprisingly, she withdrew into herself and suffered from depression and severe anxiety. A turning point finally emerged when she met a Tibetan Buddhist lama, a last resort for her at that time.

“I told him my tale of woe and that’s when I learned lamas don’t do drama,” Scarlet laughs. “He very kindly but very sternly told me stop feel sorry for myself and think of the happiness of other people. I replied, ‘I can’t even take care of myself, let alone anyone else,’ but he repeated my mission and sent me on my way.”

It started that very day when an ambulance rushed by and she wished that whoever was inside would find help and healing. Scarlet made her goal reasonable and decided to do one small act of kindness each day, such as letting people get in front of her in traffic or in the checkout line at the grocery store.

“They were little things that cost no time or effort but it felt so good. I didn’t realize it at the time, but with every act of kindness, I was a getting a rush of pain-reducing endorphins and mood-boosting serotonin, and healing my body from the inside out. After 18 months, I reached a point where I was so filled with happiness that it didn’t matter if I was sick or dying.”

To her doctor’s amazement, her lupus went into remission.

CJ with pin hi resIn 2009, feeling like a new person, Scarlet returned to work and launched an international coaching business with two partners. Unfortunately, with the downturn in the economy it was not the best time to seek clients and, after four years, they closed shop. Just as she was winding down her business, she read Abundance, the Future is Better Than You Think It Is, which discussed how technology could be used to address poverty, climate change, and other human challenges.

“I was so inspired. I tried to think what I could do to impact people’s lives. Although it kept popping up, I repressed my criminal justice background because I had gotten so burned out. But it dawned on me I could use technology to keep violence and crime from happening rather than applying it after the fact.”

Thinking of her own experience and that of other rape victims, she brainstormed what could have made a difference and developed the idea for the Tiger Eye Security Sensor, TESS for short. TESS is a wearable security device the size and weight of a quarter that looks like a decorative pin. Voice activated, TESS records audio and photographic evidence, sending it to the cloud, while alerting a monitoring security service of the crime and sending a GPS signal of the victim’s location. It’s like a portable home security system.

“What I love about TESS is that it provides actionable evidence. There won’t be any of this ‘he said, she said’ and women will have the courage to comeTESS forward because their word can no longer be doubted. And they won’t have to go through what I went through,” Scarlet explains.

Starting solo, Scarlet quickly built a team around her to implement the tech solution and develop a prototype. She bootstrapped until small angel investors came on board and she was able to hire a CEO. Her innovation was recently recognized when she was invited as one of 15 finalists from around the US to pitch in the Small Business Administration’s InnovateHER business plan challenge. And although she didn’t win, Scarlet is 100% confident she’ll be able to commercialize TESS on the market in 2016.

“I just feel like I am doing what I was put on this earth to do. I still have health issues and lupus but I don’t ‘suffer’ from it anymore. I don’t suffer from the assault either. I don’t see these things as stumbling blocks but rather stepping stones that got me to where I am today and put me in a position to help other people. And now that I’ve finally got the chance to do that, I’m not going to stop until I succeed.”

Tips from CJ Scarlet
  • Surround yourself with the right people. I wish I had recognized earlier that I’m a great visionary but a terrible manager. You can’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you are, or who have skills that you don’t.
  • Financing is a huge challenge. Almost every business starts out by being “bootstrapped” by the founders until you can build the product or company to a point that investors want to get on board. Surviving until you get to that point is probably the toughest and most common challenge faced by companies, but you have to hang in there if you want to succeed.
  • Dream bigger. Only three percent of women-owned businesses achieve $1 million in revenues. If you plan big from the start, you will be more likely to achieve your business and financial goals than if you think small.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the world. Humanity is facing huge challenges and we need people who have the courage and determination to solve them.

Finding the Sweet Spot for Your Next Career

SNeilsen HeadshotHow can you be sure that the new direction you are considering for your career will work out well for you? Read on to learn a clear and simple method you can use to predict career success in your next act. (more…)

Marlo Scott: The Sweetest Revenge is Just Being Happy

Marlo Scott

Everyone’s job stinks from time to time, but if you find absolutely no joy in what you do then it’s time to get out. Some of us are lucky and can do this sooner rather than later but others, like Marlo Scott, bide their time, planning and preparing for the day when they can bust out of the toxic work environment once and for all.

“I spent seven years in a hostile industry. The media business is full of bully bosses, but this was only fuel for me to figure out how to work for myself. When I was passed over for a promotion that I should have gotten, I swore I would get my sweet revenge on my bad boss. It was only a matter of when.” (more…)

Lisa Crites: Helping Mastectomy Patients Feel Better and Heal Faster

Lisa Crites

In her 30s, shortly after getting married, Lisa Crites lost her mother in a car accident. She was devastated and sank into a severe depression. At the time, she wanted to reach out to other women who lost their mothers tragically but it was too difficult. A decade later, she felt the same helplessness when diagnosed with breast cancer, but on that occasion she decided to take control of the situation and user her experience to help others.

“When my mother died, I never found a platform to help others but equally I didn’t have the strength to do it. When I was diagnosed with cancer, although I had no control over the cancer in my body, I did have control over how I could use what I was going through to make life better for other women. By developing the Shower Shirt I was not only helping others, I was helping myself.” (more…)

Sumeera Rasul: For the Love of Handmade

unnamed (4)Sumeera Rasul was raised with an appreciation for all things handmade. In her native Pakistan, her father made his living exporting handmade furniture and clothing, and her grandmother taught sewing, knitting, and embroidery to underprivileged girls.

“We grew up around that; it was part of our culture,” Rasul says. “We were always watching my grandmother and learning from her. We had respect for people who work with their hands, as well as for the quality of the things they made. I remember my grandmother looking at certain textiles and saying ‘No, I don’t want that, it’s machine-made.’ To her that meant it wasn’t of good quality. Something made by hand, even with imperfections, feels so much more valuable.”

Throughout the years, Rasul never lost that appreciation for handmade items or the people who make them. (more…)

Countdown to the Final Pitch: National Business Challenge Aims to Make a Difference in Women’s Lives

shutterstock_122837833

Update 8th May, 2015: the SBA has announced winners of the InnovateHER competition: 1st place went to Lia Diagnostics, 2nd to The Shower Shirt, and 3rd to Trusst Lingerie.  Congratulations!

Most of us are familiar with The Shark Tank, the ABC business pitch reality show that gave entrepreneurship a shot in the arm, fueling the desire in many to quit that staid job, launch their own business, and of course become millionaires. But let’s face it, only a select few will ever get the chance to face The Sharks, and frankly, it’s not for everyone. But clearly there is an appetite for business challenges as they have burgeoned in number, extending far beyond their traditional space on college campuses, with more serious participants competing for bigger prizes. So numerous are these business plan competitions there is even a website dedicated to tracking them. (more…)

Seven Lessons to Becoming Your Own Boss

Ethel BaumbergMy name is Ethel Baumberg and I’m the co-founder of FLYAROO Fitness, the first nationwide customizable preschool certification fitness program created for children ages 18 months to 6 years old. This is the story of how I arrived to where I am today, the lessons I learned along the way, the people who have inspired me, and how you can benefit from reading my story. (more…)

Leslie Fishlock: The Geek on a Mission to Take the Terror out of Technology

Leslie Fishlock Geek Girls

Leslie Fishlock is an unrepentant geek and self-declared rabble-rouser who loves nothing more than to disrupt.

Questioning her tactics for getting more women into tech, a smug woman once criticized her for “teaching old ladies how to open PDFs.” She was far off base in terms of what Fishlock and her organization Geek Girl is actually doing, but the 50-year-old founder admits if that’s what it takes to help them understand technology, then she’s all for it.

“She totally missed the concept that if you don’t start somewhere learning how to do things for yourself, you’re never going to get into more advanced fields like aerospace or engineering. Maybe I’m not training astronauts of the future but I certainly am making technology accessible.” (more…)