Starting a clothing line can be especially overwhelming if you try to just accomplish everything at once without a plan or strategic approach. I personally spend a lot of time consulting with people on the things they need to have in place before they can successfully launch their new clothing line. Most people know these things intuitively, but they get them confused conceptually and this makes the whole prospect of launching with the confidence you have everything in place seem out of reach. The goal in this chapter is to break down the apparel line project into an assignment of manageable roles that makes the execution and implementation of your strategy seem less intimidating and doable.
The previous chapters were very abstract and focused on things like branding and originality; this chapter, on the other hand, will be a discussion about how to go about actually implementing your vision – it will be more about what things you need in place in order to successfully run the day-to-day business. To put it another way, the previous chapters were more about the intangible things you need to start a clothing line, whereas this section will deal with the very concrete and tangible reality of establishing a system that will operate smoothly and provide all the things necessary to give yourself the best possible opportunity for success.
Keep in mind while reading this chapter that no two clothing lines are exactly the same. What this means is that the functional roles we are going to discuss don’t’ always break down the same way, and in some cases the categories I’m going to use don’t even apply! This brings me back to the spirit in which we began this book: with an open mind and with the understanding that there is no single method or system you can implement which is going to guarantee you success. Your success or failure is going to depend, to a large extent, on your ability to take the lessons learned here and apply them in a way that is appropriate to your particular circumstances at this particular time.
Covering the Bases
There are basically five roles you need covered in order to be a properly functioning clothing line: artwork, production, distribution, sales, and finance. This is an over-simplification of what is actually needed, but it is a very useful simplification that will help us better understand what necessary conditions need to be met in order to launch with confidence.
Think of this as if you are playing the field in a baseball game. The very first thing you do is make sure that everyone has taken their proper position and all the bases are covered. But just because all the bases are covered doesn’t mean you will win the game, it simply means that you have successfully understood what the critical positions are and how to fill them. This analogy is useful because it demonstrates the importance of making sure that key roles are filled; but it also indicates that simply filling the roles is not enough. There is the indispensable aspect of teamwork that needs to be added before a game can actually be won.
Most of the people that come to me with hopes of starting a clothing line approach me as a group or team that has collaborated to embark on this endeavor collectively. The group usually consists of one to two leaders and their entourage. I like to see collective efforts a lot more than solo ventures because it shows that you have been able to convince someone beside yourself that it’s a good idea. Furthermore, group efforts, if executed properly, have a much better chance of success because many hardships are more easily overcome with the support and expertise of partners.
One valuable lesson I’ve learned is about the importance of having a healthy team dynamic. There are too many ventures I’ve seen start off full of energy and enthusiasm, and then end in disappointment because the partners either couldn’t get along or weren’t able to successfully cover the necessary functions to properly operate the business.
Achieving a healthy team dynamic starts by having a leader. When a group comes into my office to start an apparel line, I like to see that one or two people have taken the lead and have taken the responsibility on themselves to have the final say in the decision-making process. Without a motivated leader, I’ve found that ventures flounder, because everyone expects the others to take responsibility and nothing gets done in the end. There needs to be a certain hierarchy of command, whether formal or informal, so that functions get delegated in a rational way and there is a unified purpose to your diverse activities. This is not to say that all members can have equal say in the big decisions, it’s just to say that there are a lot of routine functions and there needs to be someone who can take the lead to make sure they get done.
In particular, I’ve found that teams without leaders often fail to do all the little things that seem unimportant but that must get accomplished for things to move forward. You would be surprised at how difficult it is for a leaderless group to even schedule a meeting with a vendor to approve a contract. If there are five people in the group, and each one has an equal say in the setting of an appointment, it may take a month or two just to agree on a date and time! By that point there are usually members getting upset about the delays and the team is already starting to fall apart before they have even had a chance to sell any apparel. Having a leader with the authority to make these simple decisions can keep the process moving forward and prevent unnecessary conflicts from erupting from within the group. I want to emphasize this point because I’ve seen so many group efforts self-destruct due to a lack of motivated leadership – and this usually happens early on in their development, before they have even had a chance to sell anything.
If you are the leader, which is usually always the one fulfilling the artistic function, then you are also tasked with the responsibility of wisely choosing your partners. It is your skill as an effective team builder which is going to determine whether or not you can achieve the healthy team dynamic we have been discussing.
The biggest threat to a group endeavor is resentment. Resentment threatens the solidarity of the group and can entirely preclude your chances at success if not properly dealt with. Resentment between group members most often builds because a particular member is perceived to be a free-rider and not contributing his/her fair share of effort or expertise. This type of situation only gets worse over time as decisions have to be made as to the division of profits. However, if you made good decisions about who should be a member of the team from the beginning, problems like this can be avoided, for the most part.
When making those decisions, I see way too many people make the mistake of having a member of the group added simply because they are a friend. This is almost guaranteed to cause problems in the future as other members start dedicating their time and expertise to the effort and figure out that the friend has very little to offer in terms of fulfilling a meaningful function. Allowing the friend to be a member of the team in the beginning seems innocuous, but I’ve seen otherwise successful apparel start-ups end in disaster because a bitter rivalry developed from within the group that pitted the friend and his supporters against those that resented the fact that the friend was sharing in profits without contributing equally to the effort.
The lesson to be learned here is to choose partners that are able to fulfill a specific function, and avoid having to include partners for other reasons that are superfluous to the actual operation of your organization. This is why I think it is important to conceptually break down the four roles or bases that need to be covered before you can smoothly operate. Breaking it down into these roles will help you in making decisions about how to build a team with a healthy and positive dynamic. Using the categories of art, production, distribution, sales, and finance you should be able to clearly articulate which of the function(s) each individual team member is responsible for executing. If you have someone who wants to be on the team but is not able to specifically identify his/her role according to these categories, a red flag should go up and you should reconsider allowing them membership, or at least have a discussion with them to establish their role in concrete terms.
This is especially difficult when the prospective partner is a good friend; but just remember you need to make a sharp distinction between business decisions and personal decisions. If your friend is offended, just remind them it is a business decision and you don’t want to risk permanently damaging your friendship because you unscrupulously mixed personal considerations with what should have been a cold and calculated business decision.
I’m not trying to imply that friends always make bad business partners. In fact it has been my experience that friends make the best business partners because you already get along, and there is a level of cooperation between friends that can take strangers months or even years to build. However you need to be careful when it comes to partnering with friends. There needs to be an explicit agreement between you that outlines who is responsible for which functions. Don’t partner with a friend unless he or she is capable and willing to take on one or more of the responsibilities we’ve been discussing. If your friend is only agreeing to provide financing, then make sure you are clear about that limited role in the beginning so they don’t start making demands later on that you didn’t expect.
If you have an agreement of equal profit sharing, then make sure you share equally in the responsibilities and workload. You may be the proactive type that gets things done even when people don’t do their fair share. If that is the case, make sure to discuss it with your partners right away and don’t let it go. It is the kind of resentment that only builds over time, and if it goes unresolved because you have decided to pick up the burden without confronting the issue, it could build so much that the partnership can no longer continue, and an otherwise successful business venture is jeopardized.
One of the most common mistakes I see made involves not having each of the five roles properly. Sometimes I get someone with a lot of money, but no artistic vision. The most common configuration of partners is when there are a few artists who have collaborated to fully develop the art, but they have no idea of everything else that’s involved in running a clothing line – so a lot of apparel gets designed, but none actually makes it to production.
Since I’ve overused the sports metaphor, I’ll break it down in geek parlance by using a gaming analogy. If we wanted to build a competitive team for some fantasy video game, we would want to make sure the team members are diversified according to the critical roles that need to be played for a team to work properly. In order to win, you know your team will need fighters, wizards, healers, thieves etc. You can’t get past the first level if everyone on your team is a fighter or wizard.
There are two key points to take away from this discussion: be careful about who you partner with, and make sure that the people you do partner with have diversified responsibilities that cover the five primary roles (artwork, production, distribution, sales, and finance). Keep in mind that it doesn’t really matter how you cover the roles, whether it’s with one person or multiple people, the important thing is that you are aware of what needs to be done in order to have a fighting chance at success. Using this approach, you should be able to get an idea of what functions, if any, you are currently unable to perform with your team. If there is a gap, make sure to fill it by either outsourcing or with existing partners.
We will talk about this in more detail later, but for now it is important to realize that outsourcing is a very powerful option when it comes to finding ways to fill the roles we are discussing. With a little bit of online research, you can find services that provide the product you are seeking for only a fraction of the cost you thought it would be. People are often astounded by how little money it costs to have their apparel printed or embroidered. The point here is to always carefully consider your options and go with the one that makes the most sense from a business perspective. For instance, maybe a friend of a friend prints shirts from their garage and is offering to provide that service in exchange for a percentage of profit. This is going to cost you a lot of money down the road, and there are a lot of custom printing shops out there that can provide a professional job for a fraction the cost of that guy printing from his garage, and it would most likely be better quality with faster turnaround times.
Again, this will be discussed in greater detail later. The important thing right now is to recognize how outsourcing some key roles can save you money and enhance the quality of the product you are selling.