Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Eliza LucasEliza Lucas is Owner and Operator of Top Dog, an all-American, hot dog and fried clam shop based in Rockport, Massachusetts. She shared with Career 2.0 the story of how this small business got its start.

Very few people would think of opening a hot dog stand as a “get-rich-quick” scheme. And indeed it isn’t. But looking back, it was the best decision my husband, Scott, and I ever made.

It was 2001 and we were living in the metro Boston area. Scott, who had just been laid off at his tech startup, was working as a disc jockey on Boston radio and I was video producer, but we both knew we wanted to do something else. We had always hoped to move to the North Shore (coast of Massachusetts) because it seemed like the ideal place to raise a family, and I wanted to offer my children something like what I had when I spent my summers there as a child.

We settled on Rockport, MA  – an idyllic place with a great school system. My grandmother had owned a shop there while I was growing up and Scott and I had often kicked around the idea of doing something similar. But opening a shop on Bearskin Neck was a dream that, frankly, we never thought would come true.

Top DogThen we had a major stroke of luck … the Portside Chowder House restaurant, at the time a Rockport staple, changed locations and their old spot on Bearskin Neck became available. If we had known back then just how hard it would be to get our little hot dog shop off the ground, we likely never would have taken such a gigantic gamble. The building needed to be totally gutted, we weren’t married yet we were taking this huge life-step together. We had no plan and no money.

Minor details – we dove in!

What we did have was a belief – one that has served us well ever since. We were sure we didn’t need to come up with some sort of spectacular breakthrough product in order to have a successful business. We believed in the idea of glorifying something basic. That is to say, you can take something simple and if you do it really well, customers will appreciate it and they will come back for more. Bearskin Neck didn’t have a hot dog stand at the time, there was a building available, and Top Dog was born thanks to a loan from the local small-business-friendly bank, Rockport National Bank (now part of Institution for Savings).

Everyone has heard that tired old phrase “if I’d known then what I know now,” but I’m being completely serious when I say that the only reason we did this was because we were young and naive. Top Dog has grown every year that we’ve been in business. However I think every new business owner underestimates just how long it will take before you start seeing actual results. We couldn’t afford any additional help, so either Scott or I had to work the restaurant at all times.

Looking back, that may have actually been the secret to our success. Because we did everything ourselves, we kept total quality control over our product. We Scott Lucasknow now that a hot dog stand on Bearskin Neck was a pretty good idea. But it would never have worked out if our food had been mediocre. We don’t just sell hot dogs – we sell really good hot dogs! With effort, and no other options, we somehow succeeded in making the ordinary extraordinary.

However, the second Top Dog actually started to grow, we faced a new challenge. We are a seasonal business and, once we could actually afford help, we had a hard time finding it. As soon as we got staff trained it was time to close shop for the winter. It was a vicious cycle that really frustrated us early on.

It was then that we found even more reasons to be thankful that we’re based in Rockport. People have a real attachment to this town, and they quickly grew to love Top Dog. We were shocked by how much everyone genuinely wanted us to succeed. A lot of people in the Rockport business community had laughed at the idea of a hot dog stand, but they also were always willing to lend us anything we were running out of and were legitimately interested in our success. I vividly recall talking to Kenny Porter of Roy Moore Lobster Co. in our first year in business and, when I mentioned that we would be competitors, he simply said he didn’t look at it that way and was more concerned with having as many high quality establishments in town as possible (though he later told me he thought we’d be gone in a year!).

We struggled at first, but we were eventually able to build a part-time employee network, comprised of people who even today are always willing to drop everything and help us when we need them. We still have a cook who comes in at any time. And one of our girls has been coming back every summer for ten years (this will be her last, as she’s graduating from college).

Top Dog TeamAs we’ve established ourselves, we’ve been able to slowly branch out, and now we constantly tweak our offerings to suit our changing customer base. We began selling clams in 2008 – we couldn’t afford to be one dimensional, plus we had to add a more expensive price point because, if every sale were a hot dog, we’d have had to up the foot traffic through the restaurant to a level that wasn’t feasible. We do well off the tourist market, but we also do our best to cater to the locals (99 cent hot dog night is still something we do mostly for the local crowd, as it’s very much an “in the know” event).

I don’t know if there ever was, or ever will be, an “aha” moment where we’ll suddenly decide we made it. But we were named Best Fried Clams on the Northshore by Northshore Magazine in 2014 (and again in 2015!), which put our clams on the map. But more importantly every week of the summer someone stands up and says “that was the best ___ I’ve ever had.” That’s really what keeps us going. If it weren’t for accolades like that, we’d have both quit a long time ago.

After nearly 15 years in business, Top Dog is still growing. We’ve brought it to a point now where Scott runs the restaurant and I run the business. We’re even Top Dog Fried Clamsconsidering opening a second location. But we would only do it if we could run it ourselves, because the quality of our food is really what’s made us successful. Even now that we’ve grown, we make our own tartar sauce and source the highest quality local clams and lobsters.

We started out with the idea of glorifying something basic, and that remains the foundation of Top Dog today.

Mary Lou Bradley: Painting the Picture-Perfect Life

Mary Lou Bradley

Mary Lou Bradley worked for the man who created Three’s Company, a TV show those of us of a certain age will remember. She also worked for Bill DeBlasio before he was the mayor of New York City. She went to culinary school and learned to make pastries. And then, at age 55, she became an entrepreneur.
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The Highs and Lows of Launching a Business

bitzy_baby.jpg-large

Former teacher Whitney Reeves is the co-founder of Bitzy Baby,  a juvenile safety product company with a mission to instill confidence in parents that when their babies are put to bed they’ll sleep safely. Bitzy Baby’s signature product offers a solution for parents seeking a safe alternative to the traditional crib bumper. Reeves reflects on her experiences of starting a new business. 

You’re Never Ready

“You’re never ready” is something I heard a lot before my husband, Seabren, and I had children of our own. It’s a phrase I also said as a former Bitzy Baby Cribelementary teacher to parents as their children went off to the next grade. And it’s what I say to anyone with an idea that they are passionate enough to explore further. And yet, that phrase is a reminder of how “never being ready” means be brave anyway! Have the courage to jump in because you learn more from experience than anything else and because no one else has the exact same experiences as you. You’re the only perfect fit for that next adventure!

The Birth of Bitzy

I have a rare genetic gene that made my pregnancies high risk and, facing our infant’s potential fragility, we wanted the safest environment possible. It was during this time that the idea of Bitzy began. Safe sleeping shouldn’t be complicated. As a problem solver and believer in figuring out what you don’t understand, I felt compelled to do what I taught my students every day: be brave and try. After analyzing all the critical features needed for a safe sleeping environment, I designed the crib bumper solution. A product that provides not only modern, collapsible and preventative features but also creates a cushioned, breathable environment essential for infants sleeping up to 16 hrs/day.  What began for Seabren and I as a product has transformed into a mission advocating for the safe sleeping of all infants.

When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up.

Recognizing a NEED

Bitzy Baby Nursery RoomAs consumers and producers, we don’t make a purchase without an emotional connection. It may be the specific scent of a shampoo, the texture of a shirt, or the desire to be part of a group of consumers. And that is often the exact reason why entrepreneurs create something. Because they ARE the consumer wanting what isn’t available yet. As parents of a newborn, with busy careers and a new home, we were expected to do the traditional thing and settle down. But Seabren and I aren’t the conventional type so we took on the birth of an additional “baby” and launched a company.

A Supportive Cofounder Does Matter

My husband and I are opposites but our differences make for a perfect fit in our business relationship. Unlike most start-ups, we’re able to pause to focus on our family time and then dive into projects after our boys’ bedtime until the wee hours of the morning. Our “meetings” consist of nachos, dreaming big, finalizing priorities, and winding down with a favorite rerun to cap off the night.

Because we’re opposites, Seabren knows not to speak only in numbers and I don’t need to explain why I chose a specific color or graphic. We respect our different areas of expertise and challenge ourselves rather than each other and, because of that, we are the perfect cofounders. And although we’re opposites, we’re both dreamers and doers, so it’s key that we support each other in our strengths but, more importantly, our weaknesses.

Start-up Goals Outweigh Challenges

There is no manual! You’re signing up to start something that will require some creativity to make it a reality. You’ve got to have a passion that’s rooted in something so much more. When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up. It’s in those moments that you have to feel passion for what you are doing rather than simply wanting to produce something or make money.

Whitney Reeves Bitzy Baby with a Crib on the Beach

Three Invaluable Words: Focus, Framework & Finance

As someone with a newborn infant diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, in the throes of renovating an old home and starting a new company, there are three important words I have always kept in mind: finance, focus, and framework.

No matter what you are balancing at home, launching a startup takes guts and it’s tough to find the financial resources to make it a reality. You have to make sacrifices. Every day, you must focus on your business and carve time out, trading sleep for extra coffee. But developing the right framework for converting your idea into a business will make things easier and that requires planning. You must become an expert in your field.

Overall, you have to recognize your success is based on your strengths and weaknesses. Establishing a support network that helps you succeed, finding creative financial resources, and having the drive to continue when things become challenging are ingredients for creating your perfect career 2.0.

Tina Ambrogi: Setting Up Shop Her Way

Tina AmbrogiThere are two things that Tina Ambrogi dreamed about as a child growing up in Massachusetts: living in the San Francisco area, and building a tunnel between her home and the house where family members lived next door. She envisioned this tunnel as a place where artists could hang out, where people would barter and trade goods. “That never happened,” she says wryly.

But it’s a funny thing about childhood dreams; maybe they don’t ever really go away. (more…)

Lynne Goldberg: OMG! I Can Reinvent Myself

Lynne Goldberg MeditatingIn a short period of time, Lynne Goldberg lost all the personas with which she had come to identify herself.  They fell away, one after the other. No longer expectant mother, daughter, wife, sister or businesswoman, she was left with only one face to look at in the mirror and she didn’t like what she saw.

Goldberg grew up in Montreal, Canada, and joined the family retail chain business where she spent more than two decades in charge of merchandising management. She was a typical type-A executive, stressed out and overworked, which wasn’t exactly helpful when she and her husband decided to start a family.

“We had a lot of trouble getting pregnant and went through numerous failed fertility treatments. I was overjoyed when I finally discovered I was pregnant with twins after four years of effort.”

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

Her joy turned to sorrow, however, when Goldberg’s mother was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. The stress, combined with her full-on work Lynne Goldbergschedule, forced Goldberg to take bed rest on her doctor’s orders to save her pregnancy. It was all in vain as she miscarried and had to deliver the fetuses. Within the year, Goldberg’s mother died and her world fell apart as her brothers pushed her out of the family business.

“My mind was just not there anymore. I couldn’t perform at work and wasn’t able to do what they needed done. It was a business after all, so they asked me to leave. And despite having adopted two children, my marriage unraveled. I lost everything in a few short months,” she recalls.

She threw herself into a new line of work, using money from her buy-out to launch a home décor importing business to support herself and her children. Nevertheless, it was hard, as she was constantly travelling to China and Europe. On a personal level, Goldberg was angry, disconnected, and generally unhappy. She carried around the feeling that there had to be more to life.

Seeing her struggle, a friend turned her on to meditation.

“It really helped me. We wear so many masks all the time and when you finally get down to it, who you are at your core really doesn’t change. Knowing that helped me shift from meeting external identities to finding myself.”

She continued running the business but was really drawn to meditation and signed up for more and more courses, trying to figure out how she could develop that aspect of her life further. She began teaching meditation at hospitals and schools, until she finally came to the realization that teaching was what gave her the most satisfaction. Although her importing business was doing well, with clients like Costco and Walmart on board, Goldberg decided to sell and focus full time on teaching meditation.

“It was an easy decision.  There wasn’t any meaning in what I was doing; it didn’t make me feel good. Teaching did. When you get out of your own personal drama and look at the world from a bigger perspective, what good you can do, your mentality shifts. It’s empowering.”

And her perspective did change. Goldberg reconnected with her brothers, with whom she is very close today. She remarried and – most importantly – she’s happy and fulfilled.

“I went from being consumed with anger to having family that I love. It’s like that expression says, ‘Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal withOMG I can Meditate! Poster the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.’ One of my biggest life lessons has been forgiveness. Now I choose to find the things that give me joy. Instead of feeling something was taken away from me, I shifted to what I have.”

But the Type-A exec still lurked beneath the surface, and Goldberg wondered how what she was doing could be bigger – how she could reach more people and give them the same joy she was experiencing. As it happened, Goldberg’s husband, a fellow meditation convert who had been in tech, was feeling the same way. His last business produced ringtones and mobile content, and his number-one selling app was the fart ringtone. So it’s hardly surprising, he too was having the sense there’s got to be more and wanted to help his wife in her mission. The couple teamed up with another husband and wife duo who also meditated and had experience building apps.

After one year in development, the result was OMG I Can Mediate, a mobile app targeted at people who have never meditated before. The app launched in March 2015 with 12 weeks of content (the first of which is free) and over 100 specialty meditations from helping you wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night to dealing with your kids. There’s even the wonderfully named “My Boss is a Jerk” which teaches compassion.

OMG I Can Meditate! Logo“If you live in NY or LA, then meditation is widely accessible. But in most other places, it’s still primarily just the early adopters. We wanted to give everyone the opportunity to meditate and make it less daunting and a little fun,” the 52-year-old explains. “The irony is that the very devices that have made us more frenetic can also be the means to finding peace and happiness.”

They are constantly updating and adding new content to the app. After the launch, they were the number-one app in India – an unexpected but pleasant surprise. And AppPicker.com called OMG I Can Mediate “best meditation app available in the app store.”

Looking back at how her life has changed, Goldberg is effusive “I feel blessed, truly grateful. I cannot believe how lucky I am. We wonder why tragedy happens. Sometimes the explanation takes 20 years to figure out. If I knew back then how everything would turn out, I would have been a lot happier. But at least now I have this sense of trust that when stuff happens, it’s meant to happen and it’s going to be OK. It takes the drama out of the day-to-day stuff.”

Test drive the meditation app.

Tips from Lynne Goldberg

  • Building a business process requires a great deal of perspective.
  • Do what you are passionate about. You’ll find success, if you truly love what you’re doing. But remember, you can define success in many ways. Happiness should be the baseline.
  • If you’re thinking of launching an app, keep these things in mind: Keep it simple; Be patient. It takes time to build a brand; Believe in it and let go of expectations; Breathe!

 

 

Nichole Montoya: “Nacho” Ordinary Payment System

Nichole Montoya and Molly DiCarlo at National PTA EventAccording to the Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the definition of all terms hip and cool (or in our case, slang we hear our kids using) to “Cheddar Up” is “to gain money through legal or illegal means.” As in “Man, I gotta get my hustle on and cheddar-up.” No small irony then that two moms in Colorado, by way of the Iowa and Nebraska plains, should settle on Cheddar Up for the name of their venture, the latest and most innovative arrival to the stage of group payments.

“Every time she hears me explain that ‘cheddar’ is slang for money, my co-founder Molly can’t keep a straight face. There is just something about two moms, handing out cheese cubes and company flyers at a school carnival that doesn’t scream Jay-Z,” laughs Nichole Montoya. (more…)

DeAnne Wingate: The Successful Internet Advertiser Who Found Her Purpose

DeAnne WingateDeAnne Wingate hasn’t had a paycheck since 2010. Instead, she’s been living off the savings she put away from her days in internet advertising. It’s difficult and she knows the money won’t last forever, or even much longer, but at this moment she believes she is doing exactly what she was put on this earth to do.

Her career began in the late nineties, when much about the internet, and internet advertising in particular, was still new. Her early career was exciting, and it’s not without some fondness that Wingate looks back. “It was like the New Frontier; we were setting the rules as we went along. It was a great challenge, and great fun.” She worked first in Boston, then Chicago, and finally in New York City. “Having a corporate position in New York City was kind of the apex, the ultimate dream,” she says.

But at the same time, something didn’t feel quite right. “I knew that there was a bigger purpose for my life. I knew there was something beyond doing what I was doing. I felt heart palpitations every time I got on a plane, and I think my heart was telling me that this was not the path I was supposed to be on. This was not the way that I was supposed to be living my life.” (more…)

Nicole Morgenthau: Once a Teacher Always a Teacher?

Nicole MorgenthauAs a young girl in Washington State, Nicole Morgenthau dreamed of being a doctor – a dream she held onto almost all the way through her college career at Virginia Wesleyan. But, in her senior year, it dawned on her that it was still going to be a really long time until she actually got to work in the field. Twelve more years of training seemed daunting, and, simultaneously, her English professor approached her and suggested she consider a career in literature, an area that seemed to be a natural fit for her. So Nicole pursued a focus in creative writing and ironically, instead of diving into a career right away, went on to get a masters in literature at Old Dominion University. (more…)

Calee Blanchard: Leaving Teaching to Test Her Talents

Calee Blanchard at the DeskCalee Blanchard thought she had finally worked her way up to her dream job of teaching literacy in elementary school. She had taught abroad, taught students with special needs, acted as a resource teacher, and was now teaching reading to small groups of first graders in Nova Scotia, Canada. She had thought, at one point, that it was just where she wanted to be.

The problem was that as much as Blanchard enjoyed teaching, there were aspects of it that she just couldn’t embrace. After ten years she found that while she loved working with the kids she didn’t like the strictures of teaching. She didn’t like the fact that no matter how hard she worked and honed her skills, the job itself didn’t change much, and there was little to distinguish the hardest working teachers from their less motivated peers.

“I worked my butt off and thought I was a good teacher, but you might be standing next to someone who hated what they were doing and you’re both regarded in the same way,” she recalls.

Calee Blanchard iMac-27All that changed in 2014, when Blanchard decided she needed to make a change. Blanchard’s friend, Katelyn Bourgoin, was in the early development stages of an innovative new idea and suggested that Blanchard would make a great partner. Blanchard had done some volunteer work with Bourgoin and clearly saw the possibilities for herself and the new company. So Blanchard quit her teaching job and together they launched Vendeve, an online marketplace that allows women to buy, sell, or swap services based on their own skills. It is, as far as they know, the world’s only skills marketplace for women.

Blanchard knew when she left teaching that she was stepping into a completely different world, but it was these differences that intrigued her. “The coolest thing is that as a teacher your pay is based on a set number of hours, and no matter how hard you work or how many extra hours you put in, the pay stays the same. In my new world, it’s all about results; it’s all based on talent and hustle. If you work really hard and are good at what you do, it pays off. The energy that I’m surrounded by now is amazing.”

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.”

There is a simple vetting system required to become a member of Vendeve, after which a member is able to set up a profile offering their skills, and if Calee Blanchard Offersthey wish, requesting the skills or services they are hoping to find. The services offered are richly varied – logo design, nutritional counseling, interior decorating, legal services, and proofreading are but a few of the offerings. Some services, like hair cuts or personal massage, require that both parties live in the same area, while many can be exchanged virtually anywhere in the world. Members can choose whether they wish to sell or swap their service.

Blanchard, listed as Vendeve’s COO and co-founder, refers to herself as the yin to Bourgoin’s yang. “Katelyn is definitely our spokesperson; she excels at sharing our ideas and vision, and I love the behind the scenes execution. It’s a great balance —  she’s the maker and I’m the doer.”

Coming from a teaching background there were definitely some adjustments that Blanchard needed to make. “In teaching you often have to work solo. But now, collaboration is huge and at times I have to push myself to get out of my comfort zone. I am an introvert by nature. But I’ve learned that putting your ideas out there, making yourself a bit vulnerable, is what takes you places.”

Calee Blanchard Black and White
Vendeve co-founder, Katelyn Bourgin

And Vendeve is going places. They have four employees currently on their team and are looking to add a fifth. They have secured funds from angel investors and are in final negotiations with a venture capitalist firm. And, in just a few short months, they’ve enrolled close to 2000 members in over 18 countries.

“Sometimes fundraising and financing can be frustrating because it takes us away from other things we’d like to prioritize, but it’s a necessary part of the process,” Blanchard says. In the interest of raising capital they’ve hosted investor nights, participated in Launch 36, an accelerator program, and perfected their pitch.

“As founders, we have to be super organized and wear all the hats to get all the jobs done. As we grow, we may be able to specialize more. But you have to get your hands dirty. Luckily, we’re realizing that as women we’re pretty good at everything.

“Sometimes it feels like things are going slowly but then we look back and we’re like ‘Holy crap, we have really come far.’ We can actually just log onto our page and see the results right in front of us, the things we were just thinking about that are now reality.  We are right on target or even ahead, so we’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s only been a few months and we have come a long, long way.”

Think Vendeve sounds intriguing?  Interested in learning more? Calee and Katelyn would like to offer Career 2.0 readers full and instant access to Vendeve so you can check it out for yourself. Just go to Vendeve and enter Invite Code C2.0Passion.

Tips from Calee Blanchard
  • You have to have the right mindset for a start-up. You need to be stubborn and competitive and keep pushing forward.
  • Stop thinking about it, dreaming about it, reading about it. Take the plunge.
  • Share your ideas and get feedback. Ask for things. It’s amazing what can come from being direct. And offer help in return; it has to flow both ways.
  • The best advice we got from an adviser was this: When you pitch, share the big-picture vision of where you want to go. Don’t frame your pitch based on where you are now; it should be about your dream and where you hope to be – your vision. That made all the difference for us.

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.