Starting a Small Business

When I first started riding in Seattle, I was pretty intimidated. I assumed that I needed to buy a brand new bike, a bright green jacket, and padded spandex bike shorts. I just wanted to ride my bike to work and the Sunday Market without making a big fuss about it.

In 2009, I spent a month in Europe taking in great bike culture. I pedaled next to women, men and families of all ages riding their bikes in everyday clothes. From there, I decided to take this lifestyle back with me to Seattle.

One evening I got caught riding in the rain. I thought to myself, "This wouldn't be so bad if I could just cover more than my torso. Could I wear a poncho to cover my legs and hands?" That night I did some research online and noted that none of the existing options were going to work for me. From there, I set out to develop my first product, a better Rain Cape -- a sophisticated and stylish jacket that would function on and off a bike.

Once I completed the conceptual design for the Rain Cape, I connected with an apparel designer friend, Katie Walag, to develop a prototype. From there it was very organic - we found a local outdoor fabric specialist (Seattle Fabrics), worked from a few different patterns, test rode the prototypes, and went through several rounds of development. With the final prototype tested and in-hand, I knew that I had to make the Rain Cape available to the public.

My next step was to draft a business plan. While many entrepreneurs cringe at this step, my education, experience and interest in business and marketing meant that it was one of the most rewarding for me. From there, I built an identity and started to blog. This allowed me to build an audience, establish a reputation, and connect with other bloggers and bike enthusiasts before I had a product ready to sell.

Then the hard questions came. Who could digitize my pattern and get it ready for production? Where could I source small quantities of fabric at wholesale prices? Could I have the Rain Cape manufactured in the United States -- or even better -- Seattle?

I searched online. I contacted other independent designers. I reached out to friends and coworkers. It seemed that everything started to fall into place when the head of Seattle Central Community College's Apparel Design Program, Camila Sigelmann introduced me to the amazing ladies at Atelier Verdigris. Kristine and Jenny Mae (Atelier Verdigris) were able to get my pattern ready for production, but most importantly, they were a constant foundation of support and knowledge about sourcing, production and the industry in general.

I found two cut/sew contractors, including our selected contractor, Unique Textile Experts (UTE), online and had each sew samples, provide quotes, and negotiate minimum quantities. I chose UTE based on client references and Atelier Verdigris's working relationship with them. Through online resources, and sample review, I was able to locate wholesale prices for all of the materials needed and was ready to have the Rain Capes made in a larger quantity.

Up until this point, I had funded the research and development of the Rain Cape with personal savings. After working through the cost of producing a boutique run of the Rain Cape as well as miscellaneous costs such as producing a photoshoot and lookbook, I given a modest line of credit from a friend. This allowed me to move forward with the project without depleting savings, taking out a small business loan or giving equity in the brand. For the first round of production, my goal was to simply break even. Still employed full-time as a Marketing Manager for a national interdisciplinary design firm, there was less pressure to be profitable and more to gain a better understanding of my market and what it takes to successfully run a business.

The launch of the Rain Cape also required that I produce my first photoshoot. Never having done this before, I reached out to friend and creative director, Strath Shepard, he walked me through the process. He pointed me to Seattle photographer and bike enthusiast, Kyle Johnson and Kyle, in turn, connected me with our amazing model, make-up artist and Boxer Bicycles. All of the photos were taken around the city and Strath's studio.

During this time (pre-production), I set up our e-commerce and inventory tracking, defined wholesale terms as well as refund policies. It was important that I offer my customers a retail experience that matched the high quality of our product. I also started to contact different retailers that were aligned with my brand, such as Public Bikes and Hub & Bespoke.

I announced the Rain Cape in late May 2011 and pre-sales were made available online. With a ship date of August 2011, I began to make direct sales through our website and Rain Capes were available at stores in Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

Iva Jean was selected as the Fashion Grand Prize Winner in DailyCandy's Start Small, Go Big Contest in September 2011. The Rain Cape received both local and national press, with features in Momentum and Seattle Met Magazines, A Cup of Jo, Lovely Bicycle!; and showing at Model Citizens NYC, San Francisco Bike Expo's Pedal Savvy and Seattle Magazine's The Forecast.

After seeing success with the Rain Cape, I was able to finance a second round of production from sales revenue in January of 2012. Since then, have been working with my team to conceptualize and finalize the expanded line for Iva Jean.

As the brand grows, I have found that some things become easier. I've made sure to track all of my contacts and resources from my initial research and launch. I continue to work with seamstresses, designers, contractors, product reps and suppliers, photographers, and web developers that I had previously worked with.

I've learned that gradually building on past accomplishments can be a successful way to grow a business. This allows you to test your market, get operations working smoothly, and refine and strengthen your products or services.

I recently left my day job to devote my time developing Iva Jean -- seeing great opportunity with the new line. My hope is that the new products will reach a much larger market than the Rain Cape -- reaching sunnier cities, stylish riders and aspiring bikers.

As with most small businesses looking to grow, our biggest challenge right now is financing. We are currently seeking funding through Kickstarter. This will help us to finalize grading and pattern production; sourcing and purchasing of fabric and materials; and final production of the new line.

Starting a small business has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding things I've done. As I continue on the adventure, I'll continue to rely on these things:

  • Find partners. Work with people you trust. Get connected.
  • Start small. Take it one day at a time. Fail fast.
  • Return the favor. Be a resource. Share your story.