How To Start Your Own Swimwear Company
By: Enrique Sánchez-Rivera, CEO LA ISLA
Today marks my 20th year in the swimwear business. Over the past two decades, I have had my fair share of successes and failures, but the most important takeaway has been a crash course in persistence. Unlike many apparel companies, I started LA ISLA with no investors and bootstrapped it every step of the way. It has not been easy, and I hope to aggregate my learnings in this post.
About three years ago, I left my office for a brief coffee break and returned to a flood of manufacturing inquiries from all over the country. I was truly shocked – up to that point, I had struggled to market our manufacturing services and retain leads. After the adrenaline subsided, I began to explore where the leads had come from. Digging in, I noticed that the emails originated from the contact form on our website. I called up one of the leads and after thanking them for their interest in LA ISLA, I asked them how they had found us. She responded: “Well, I searched for private label swimwear on Google and your company was the first one that showed up.”
I couldn’t believe it – LA ISLA had experienced a meteoric rise to the top of the “private label swimwear” keyword where we had previously held a third page position. While not a heavily trafficked phrase, those that search it are highly motivated in moving forward with their project. I had friends across the world verify our SEO placement from their own localities and we ranked #1 across the board.
Below, I will share my seven steps to follow as you start your own swimwear company. I created this list by imagining what I would do (and would avoid) if I was starting from scratch today.
7 Steps for Starting Your Own Swimwear Company
1. Create a business plan
A strong business plan is an essential ingredient in the success of an entrepreneurial venture. It is not just a document used to pitch investors an idea, but a living, breathing blueprint for your business as it evolves. My business plan has been a wonderful tool to keep me grounded and never lose sight of how and why I run my business. It has also served as a virtual compass for my company and brand.
The U.S. Small Business Administration has a wonderful resource that I recommend you start with at: http://www.sba.gov/writing-business-plan. BPlans.com offers a software package which can be extremely useful. You can access the software at: http://www.liveplan.com/?pasc=liveplan-B-lg. A printed resource I like is the book “The Entrepreneurial Venture,” by Sahlman, Stevenson, Roberts, and Bhidé (Harvard Business School Press). Section A of the book #9 and #10 are great reads. This book was introduced to me by Richard J. Ash, Esq., who was my Private Equity and Entrepreneurship professor at The College of William and Mary (www.wm.edu).
2. Research your target market and the industry
Market research does not mean you should head to a store and try on some swimsuits. Instead, you must take a deep dive into competitors in the industry. Look for hard numbers — sales figures, industry growth trends, profitability. Do some qualitative research by reaching out to store buyers on LinkedIn, attending a trade show, and reading industry reports. Observe how other companies approach sales and marketing from a consumer lens. Find a problem in the industry and try to come up with a unique solution to offer the market. After completing your research, take a step back and reflect: if you, and others, truly believe your product is a home-run, take the next steps. One of them should be to create a “launch”/project calendar which should coincide with the retail spring/summer or with the wholesale buying season which for swimwear begins in August for the following year’s market. If your plan is to sell direct to clients online, then you have to decide when to launch, depending on what part of the world you’re in. For example, if you’re in the US, your summer is opposite to Argentina’s.
3. Get your designs professionally sketched in Adobe Illustrator/CAD
One of the big challenges we face at LA ISLA lies in deciphering designer’s sketches, drawings and ideas. In order to get accurate pricing for your designs, you will need a professional artist (specifically one with technical garment expertise) to make a render of the garment details. Granular features such as suits underwires, removable cups, strap length, the type and shape of hardware, etc. must be accounted for. Professionally drawn sketches help manufacturers give you more accurate pricing, which can be sink or swim when starting your business with minimal funding.
There are a myriad of groups on LinkedIn which are dedicated to fashion where you can join for free and post your needs. Fashion schools like Parsons in NY (http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/), FIDM (http://fidm.edu) and Otis (http://www.otis.edu) in Los Angeles have career services offices which can help you find excellent candidates.
4. Shop for a manufacturer/sample maker
I am biased to our own private label manufacturing services at LA ISLA but I also recommend that you search for the right manufacturing partner for your business needs. Organization is crucial throughout this step. Take rigorous notes during meetings and keep a folder with all the information you collect. Prepare question lists to ask each of the likely candidates. Some questions to start with:
- Do you specialize in swimwear? (this one is critical, make sure they say yes)
- How long have you been in business for and what is your company roadmap for the next 5 or 10 years?
- If you are able to, can you disclose some of your current clients? (I like this one because a serious company should have NDA agreements with most of their clients.)
- Do you offer a full package process or do I need to provide any of the materials, hardware, etc.?
- What is your minimum order quantity (MOQ)?
- What is your turnaround time is for first prototypes? Production timeline?
- What are your payment terms?
- What does your full package price include?
- Do you provide prints or do I provide them? Can you use my custom prints in the process?
- Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important to share with me?
- Do your factories operate under an ecologically friendly and socially acceptable environment? (an environmentally conscious manufacturer is an important selling point for many customers)
You will have to draw your own conclusions as to which manufacturer is the best partner for your business. Remember to consult your business plan throughout this process and stay core to your initial values.
5. Create and execute your marketing/PR plan
By now, you should have a solid idea of your brand’s direction and what you want your business to represent. It is important to purchase the best domain possible, construct an SEO-friendly website, register matching social media handles for your swimwear line, and define your online brand image. After completing these steps, you should work through a simple marketing budget. As a new company, your resources will likely be scarce. Figure out which marketing approaches fit your budget and your brand: online marketing or trade show attendance (pre-COVID-19), influencer partnerships or local events – the sky is the limit. Be dynamic and make sure every advertising dollar is well spent. For branding support, we strongly suggest the team at: Fibra USA www.heyfibra.com
Once you receive the first prototypes from your factory, it is time to hire a fit model who represents the customer type you would like to market your products to (junior, contemporary, cup size, plus size, etc). Have the model spend plenty of time with your samples before shooting so that they feel confident in the pieces. It is crucial to document the experience with videos and pictures, and clearly communicating your changes to the manufacturer both visually and quantitatively through specific measurements.
If your manufacturer is local or if you can travel to meet with them onsite, request that their pattern maker is in the meeting. If remote, it is important to schedule a meeting to run through changes instead of communicating solely via email. Once the prototypes have been approved, you will want to ask your factory to supply sales samples for you and your sales team, if hired. You will also want an a few extra sample sets for a photo shoot and for press pitches/PR.
If you plan to attend trade shows, you will need to design a catalog, or “look-book.” Professional photos are industry standard, so hire a photographer, stylist and hair and makeup artist and be sure to explain your vision to them in detail. Have fun at the shoot, but pay close attention so that you ensure the output is to your standard. A graphic designer will be able to put your catalog or look book together for a nominal fee, which you can provide physically or digitally depending on the context. Again, for this we also suggest the folks at Fibra USA (www.heyfibra.com).
7. The next steps
There are many forks in the road at this stage in your company’s development, so I cannot provide turnkey advice after this point. However, once you have reached this stage, you should be prepared to take risks and work harder than you ever had before to conquer your market. Never lose sight of why you started your venture and always be persistent. Be open to criticism and learn from your failures. Quality is important and often must be guaranteed before quantity.
If you have reached the end, I hope this article has been insightful. If you have further questions or are looking for a manufacturing partner, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org (www.laislabrand.com). We look forward to hearing from you.