As of today I can officially say that I have been in the swimwear business for 15 years. It has been a rewarding experience and one that has taught me many things but mostly it has given me the most incredible schooling in persistence. If that was a degree, I’d have a PhD in it by now, one that was earned with lots of sweat and tears. Unlike many apparel companies, mine was started with no investors and I had to bootstrap it every step of the way. It has not been easy and I hope that my experiences can help at least a few of you with your apparel venture. I look forward to telling you my own story on another opportunity since I know that my mistakes and successes will indeed help others in their journey. For now, I will highlight some steps which will help you get started in this exciting business.
Approximately three years ago I was sitting at my desk and something very unexpected happened. I went out for a coffee break and upon my return I realized that I had been flooded with manufacturing inquiries from all over the country. I was in shock. I had always worked very hard at selling our manufacturing services and getting leads was very difficult. Getting twenty leads in a matter of 45 minutes was a completely new thing for me and LA ISLA. I had no idea what had happened since I never spent any money on advertising. That day’s inquiries were not even close to any of the inquiries we had received at the trade shows we participated in and we hadn’t hired anyone for SEO. What was happening? All the emails were coming from the contact form on our website. I opted to call one of the people who had written their phone number below their email signature and after thanking them for their interest in LA ISLA, I asked them how they had found us. She said, “well I searched for private label swimwear on Google and your company was the first one that showed up on my search.” I couldn’t believe it, especially because every search I had done for those keywords in the past 3 years always resulted in us coming in at the 35th or 36th position! As soon as I answered her questions I immediately tried the search and there we were, #1 on Google’s search for private label swimwear. Those are not highly searched words but when people do search them, they are very interested in moving forward with their project. I called friends in every state and in a few countries and for the exception of Canada . . . we ranked #1. It paid off to have started an effective and in-house planned SEO (search engine optimization) program.
So why am I telling this story? Because the calls we have received over the last few years are exactly what prompted me to write this article. Having that fantastic Google rank has been both a blessing and a challenge. Why? Well, I closed my biggest client ever after they contacted us because of a Google search. At the same time, I have received calls from folks who think they want to start a swimwear business but have no background in design, apparel or the retail world for that matter. Many of those calls are from people who just don’t know where to start. The most common story I hear is, “I just couldn’t find a swimsuit that I loved and I thought I would start my own company.” Typically those calls turn into me telling them why they should not start a swimwear company. I try to discourage folks who have no background in the business because that was the first mistake I ever made with my company. Because of that, I ended up paying a very high price to learn the garment and swim business over a span of 4 or 5 years. I could have saved a lot of time and money if I had started a business in my field, finance.
In the spirit of making this article short, sweet and informational, I have come up with the seven steps I believe can help someone start their own swimwear company. These are somewhat in order and of course, different situations will lead some to omit or replace these steps with their own personal needs. However, if I was starting from day one all over again today, these are the steps I would take to start a swimwear company from scratch. These steps also assume that the interested party has some educational background or experience in the garment/design/apparel field. They also are abridged in the interest of providing a brief stepping stone and not the answer to every question.
7 Steps For Starting Your Own Swimwear Company
- Create a business plan. Many business advisors have differing views on this. Some say it’s a must have blueprint and others say it’s a waste of time. I personally think it’s an essential ingredient for the success of someone’s entrepreneurial venture. There are plenty of online resources and software packages available to help one create a successful “b-plan.” The U.S. Small Business Administration has a wonderful resource which you can access at: http://www.sba.gov/writing-business-plan. BPlans.com also has some interesting information and a software package which can be extremely useful. You can access tis website 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. my Private Equity and Entrepreneurship professor at The College of William and Mary (www.wm.edu). For me a business plan is not just some document that is used to pitch investors an idea, but it is really a document for oneself that can be tweaked and modified as your business evolves. My business plan has been a wonderful tool to keep me grounded and has helped me never to lose sight of why and how I run my business. It has also served as a virtual compass for my company and brand.
- Research your target market and the industry. This does not mean go try on a few swimsuits, tell yourself you don’t like them and use that as the basis for starting your business. What this means is research deeply and look for industry numbers (sales figures, industry figures, hard data), speak to store buyers, interview trade show managers and walk as many trade shows as you can. Observe how people sell and take a look at what’s out in the market so you don’t end up building a better mousetrap (although sometimes this is not a bad thing) but instead you end up offering something that is unique and needed in the market. Ask storeowners what they do not have that they would like to have – a different spin on “what problem can you solve” with your product? Take a long hard look at all your research and 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.
- Get your designs professionally sketched in Adobe Illustrator/CAD (http://www.adobe.com/products/illustrator.html). One of the big challenges we have as a manufacturer and swim consulting firm is trying to decipher designer’s sketches, drawings and ideas. In order to get accurate pricing for your designs, once you have designed your swimsuits, you will need a professional artist (hopefully someone with technical garment expertise) to draw the exactly how your garments need to look with every detail labeled. For example, if the suits have underwires or not, removable cups, the length of the straps, the type and shape of hardware on them, etc. When you have professionally drawn sketches you are able to receive more accurate pricing, which is extremely helpful when deciphering your costs and therefore the wholesale and MSRP of your products and your possible margins. There are many great resources to find a technical designer. 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.
- Shop for a manufacturer/sample maker. Obviously I am partial to our manufacturing services – of course! No, but seriously, this is a very important part of the process. Be organized throughout this step. Take great notes and keep a folder with all the information you collect and make sure you have a list of questions to ask each of the likely candidates. These are very good questions to ask:
1. Do you specialize in swimwear? (this one is critical, make sure they say yes)
2. How long have you been in business for and is your company going to be around for the next 5 or 10 years?
3. 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. We do at LA ISLA (http://laislabrand.com/private-label/).
4. Do you offer a full package or do I need to provide any of the materials, hardware, etc?
5. What is your minimum order quantity or MOQ?
6. Can you please tell me what your turnaround time is for first prototypes? Production?
7. What are your payment terms?
8. What does your full package price include?
9. Do you provide prints or do I have to give these to you? Can you use my custom prints in the process?
10. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you think is important and want to share with me?
11. Do your factories operate under an ecologically friendly and socially acceptable environment? (this might not matter to some but to me it does)
You will have to draw your own conclusions as to whether the manufacturer(s) you interview is/are the right fit for you or not. This hopefully will be reflected as you use that variable in your business plan and see how they fit into your needs.
- Plan and start executing your marketing/PR plan. By now you should have a very good idea of your direction and what you want your brand to represent. It is important to make sure you purchase the best URL possible for your website, build an SEO friendly/enhanced site, start your social media endeavors for your swimwear line if you haven’t yet (Instagram, Facebook, Google+, Twitter, blog, etc) and define the mood of your postings so that you can always put out a consistent brand image on every platform. Also, try to get the same name on every platform if possible. Marketing is not just advertising and social media. It also includes analyzing your budget and figuring out how to best spend your funds. Remember, economics is the study of how to best allocate scarce resources amongst competing uses, and that is exactly what you need to do with your company and brand (scarce resources at startups are more common than abundant resources and that is why I mention this). Figure out the economics of the business and how you will spend your assets: marketing online or at trade shows, or wherever you plan to showcase your product.
- After the prototypes. Once you receive the first prototypes from your factory, make sure that you hire a fit model who represents the market you are aiming to sell to (junior, contemporary, cup size, plus size, etc) and spend as much time as possible with him/her analyzing your samples. It is crucial to take videos and pictures and be very detailed when communicating your changes. This will be extremely valuable for your manufacturer and it will save everyone a lot of time. The videos will also be a great way to archive your changes. Learn how to take measurements and have someone assist you while taking your videos or pictures. Convey the changes in both formats. This leaves a lot less room for error. If your manufacturer is local or if you are able to meet with them, make sure that their pattern maker is in the meeting. If not, reviewing all changes together over the phone is a must. Once the prototypes have been approved, you will want to ask your factory to supply you with salesmen samples for you and your sales team. You also will want an extra set of samples for your photo shoot and about three more sets for press pitches and PR. It all depends what your sales strategy is but this should help regardless. You will need these samples for a myriad of reasons. If your sales will be coming from trade shows, you will need to design a catalog or look-book. You can find examples of look-books by searching the web for “look-book examples”. Of course, to get this done will require a photo shoot. Hire a professional photographer, stylist and hair and makeup artist and explain your vision to them in detail. Have fun at the shoot but pay close attention at all times so that you don’t miss shooting any of your pieces. A graphic designer will be able to put your catalog or look book together. I suggest you have print copies (hopefully on FSC approved paper – Forest Stewardship Council www.fsc.org) and also a PDF version you can email buyers and the press.
- The next steps. There are many variables at this stage in your company and beyond, so in my opinion, further advice would have to be very personalized. However, once you have reached this stage you should be ready and willing to give it your all and try to conquer your market. Never lose sight of why you started your venture in the beginning and always be persistent. Never doubt yourself but at the same time, be open to criticism and to new ideas and processes. Remember, big isn’t always better and quality is better than quantity. Believe in yourself and get ready to begin the intriguing adventure that is running your own swimwear or apparel company!
I hope this article has been helpful to at least some. I enjoyed writing it. If you ever have any questions or if you’re looking to get an unbiased opinion on this topic, don’t ever hesitate to contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d be thrilled to hear from you.