How I built a business. How it failed. The Lessons I learned. Pt1
So this is the story of how I started my very own online fashion retailer from my spare bedroom! It may sound slightly crazy and outlandish, but its all true, and there were a lot of valuable lessons in the process.
I’ve always tended to be an energetic and ambitious dreamer who is enticed and excited by big ideas and lofty ambitions. My early writing career will attest this as I set about becoming a screenwriter / director without one iota of traditional experience or training. And so was the case again back in 2012 when I was fronting a local metal band, maintaining a full time CAD engineering job and, as if that wasn’t enough, intent on launching my own fledgling business. I’ve always wanted to work for myself, I’ve always wanted independent income and I’ve always had a strong creative and entrepreneurial instinct. This all came to a head as we started to explore the local music scene with our noisy band. Everyone other band we met needed merch – every band, when they established a fan base and reached a certain level, would be selling or seeking printed merchandise to flog at these shows. So would we at some point I figured (if we had managed more than 5 shows that is!), so I set about exploring the options. I wasn’t about to pay someone to do something that seemed simple, that I would enjoy doing myself, and that could potentially create a niche little business for myself. How great would it be to be printing up band merchandise for the local music scene, squeezing a little profit out of process at the same time, whilst having the facilities to make merchandise for our own band at some point? Vinyl t-shirt printing seemed pretty straightforward at first glance, I already had some good hardware and proficient technical skills, so I was confidant I could do it.
And so the wheels were put into motion.
Obviously I needed a plan if I was going to do this properly, so to the internet I went. Much research was in order, many lists were due to be compiled. Due to the modern wonders of the world wide web, all this information was fairly easy to obtain (how people carried out such research pre internet is beyond me?), and a few YouTube tutorials and informative websites later – I was in the know. I knew everything I needed in terms of equipment and I knew how the manufacturing process worked – for the curious here is a 2 minute video I made on the subject after I launched.
Now in the process of my research and planning, my plans had expanded dramatically. No longer would I just print local band merchandise – I would launch an original online fashion retailer stocking both men’s and woman’s fashion ranges, complimented with a body jewellery section. I would have handmade, original T-shirts for both sexes along with a few hoodies and jumpers.
I’m an ambitious fellow what can I say?
In hindsight of coarse I was running well before I could even crawl, but ambition is a strong driving force so I set to work feverishly. I’ve always been artistic so I didn’t struggle at all coming up with a range of 10-15 original t-shirt designs that I personally liked and would have no trouble wearing. That was my main aim during the design process – produce stuff that I myself would be proud to wear and hopefully others will agree. I also wear body jewellery myself so I have an experience of flesh tunnels, plugs and scaffolding bars. This grand plan all seemed logical and achievable to me at the time – I wasn’t stepping into nuclear fashion – I was sticking to what I knew. Also if I struggled for online customers, I would always have the original local merchandise ideal to fall back on. I could still print up merchandise for local acts if needs be.
So off I went with a fully budgeted and compiled business plan to a local, government backed, funding scheme – asking for £2000 in capital.
Here is a breakdown of where that money was going:
Item Detail Cost (£)
Website Design, Domain, Hosting 600
Equipment Plotter, Heat Press, Misc Tools 450
Materials Vinyl, Labels, Packaging 210
Stock Plain Garments, Jewellery 290
Marketing Flyers, Posters, Business Cards 150
Advertising Online Ads + Campaigns 200
It is a tiny sum to launch a business with and I was to maintain full time employment throughout, so the repayments were affordable. It seemed a chance worth taking, it seemed an idea to really get behind. I had a vision of building a thriving, original and trendy fashion label based around my own geek infused tastes. One that would established strong local roots early on, one that could expand onto the high street itself if I could interest a few of the local boutiques. One that could ultimately produce enough of an income to support me whilst I pursued my writing career. Like I said – I’m a dreamer.
A month or so after the first application, and after a few meetings where I had to convince more sensible people about the validity of my plan – the loan was granted! I was excited and optimistic.
The money was spent quickly. I worked feverishly from 5-9 sourcing just the right plotter, a knockdown heat press, and suitable materials and stock at the right prices. My spare room quickly became a variable factory as the toys started to arrive.
Then came the testing, the experimenting and the perfecting of the manufacturing process. Heat press temperatures had to be just right, plotting techniques had to be honed, attractive products had to be achievable before I proceeded.
I took my simplest design and ran it through the manufacturing process numerous times before I found the settings that worked to perfection, achieving a professional and impressive product that I could produce on demand when the orders flowed in. See I’m not completely stupid – I wasn’t intending to pre-print and stockpile product – I would print on demand. I would hold blank garments and have the designs and vinyl ready to print upon order. To do this I needed to the process to be efficient and streamlined, a product ready to despatch within a 48 hours of ordering was my aim. It was more than achievable once the requisite experimenting and honing of the craft was complete – It was all going so well. This is where mistakes started to surface.
Whilst budgeting I allowed a miniscule budget for the building for a website. The reasoning was, typically, that I could do the majority of this myself. I’ve dabbled with html coding and have even attended a Website Building coarse. I know the basics. I though I could get it so far and then use a slice of my budget to get some pro’s in, outsource the more complex stuff. They would be charged with payment processing pages, the jazzy home page animations and the various features I wanted to have built into the site. The nuts and bolts of the thing I could build myself though right?
This was foolhardy and incredibly ambitious. It would just take me too much time and skill to build the site I wanted, also I quickly found that I wasn’t really capable of achieving the professional look I wanted. It wasn’t until around this time that I realised it was solely me who had to create every bit of content for this site as well – product was needed for modelling and photographing, jewellery had to be imported from the USA, copy was required for every product and every page (FAQ, Returns Policy etc). I couldn’t create the website and the content for the website at th e same time! It was crazy so I needed help – help I hadn’t budgeted for.
To cut a long story short – an old programming acquaintance (running his own web design company), agreed to build me a bespoke, e-commerce website on a half now- half later basis. Other quotes ran in the region of £1500 – £2500, so for a cut price £770 now and another £730 a year later, I would be up and running. It was a good deal and the only way I could get a functioning, quality, e-commerce store on the budget I had. If I struggled to raise the additional fee in a years time, then the site would be shut we agreed, but it was the only way I could get myself a bespoke, professionally made site quickly and cheaply. I rolled the dice on making enough in that first year to pay the outstanding balance, if not I could dip into my personal savings to compensate.
So that was my budget pretty much burnt through. All I had left was a few hundred left marketing, advertising and contingencies – this would prove to be another fatal blow.