Jan Erickson was hounded by vivid dreams about a jacket — so she started an outerwear company. It was a prescient move. Today, Janska sells $3 million worth of made-in-the-USA apparel a year.
JAN ERICKSON (JE): One of the things I’m known for is persistence (chuckles). Some people call that Swedish stubbornness but I call it persistence.
NARRATOR: (as music plays lightly in background) Welcome to The Story Exchange, featuring the stories and strategies of entrepreneurial women around the world. I’m Colleen DeBaise, host of The Story Exchange podcast, and we’ll be joined later by our co-founder, Victoria Wang.
Have you ever had a dream that is so vivid, and so real, that when you wake up, you can’t shake it off? That’s exactly what happened to Jan Erickson of Colorado Springs...who we are featuring today because she not only had a crazy dream one night -- she decided to take a leap of faith and turn that nocturnal inspiration into her new career.
JE: I had a dream about a jacket and I got up in the middle of the night and sketched it. Then in the morning, I looked at those sketches and thought, “What in the world? I, I don’t, I don’t design. I don’t have an apparel background. What am I thinking dreaming up jackets, right?” But the dream was so strong.
NARRATOR: The dream wasn’t just strong -- it was relentless. And so was Jan. In 2003, in her early 50s, she launched Janska, an apparel company. Here’s how she describes it....
JE: Mostly women’s outwear, it’s lightweight, easy on, easy off, and it’s just universal designed clothes that help people feel good and look good.
NARRATOR: We were fascinated by this concept of turning a dream -- literally, a dream -- into a business. So we headed to Colorado to speak with Jan, who is one busy lady. When not attending fashion trade shows, she is figuring out even better ways to run her $3-million-dollar business AND keep sewing in the U.S. To watch her full story, check out the video we produced at TheStoryExchange.org. Today, we’re going to share snippets of that conversation. If you’re ever woken up with the kernel of an idea in your mind, this is a story for you.
NARRATOR: So let’s listen to what Jan was doing for the first 30 years of her career.
JE: I loved restaurants. I was a waitress. I could make good money. I could pay for my school and an education. I ended up going into the restaurant management field and that was a whole career then that lasted for many, many years.
NARRATOR: Restaurants -- nothing to do with apparel. But, Jan met her husband and current business partner, Jon Thomas, while working at a fine-dining establishment in downtown Colorado Springs…
JE: My husband’s law office was upstairs. And he would come down for lunch and we just got to know each other.
NARRATOR: It wasn’t long before they married and started a family. Jan returned to work, but not to the restaurant industry. Her degree is in social work...
JE: What was calling me back was that caregiving and the spirituality.
NARRATOR: She took a part-time job with her church, and volunteered at local hospitals.
JE: That was fantastic for me because I got to go and visit, got to spend a lot of time with senior citizens.
NARRATOR: One of them -- and this is important to our story -- was an elderly woman named Jean, who had suffered several strokes.
JE: She was a very educated woman, and now she was pretty much relegated to this hospital gown because that was what was so easy for her to get in and out of or somebody to dress her in. And I noticed how people treated her differently.
NARRATOR: Jan thought about that constantly…
JE: Everything was fine with her mind. It was just her body was so frail. And it bothered me how people sort of objectified her.
NARRATOR: And that was when Jan’s middle-of-the-night burst of inspiration struck.
JE: I had a dream about a jacket that would be very easy for her to get on and off... had a deep raglan sleeve so her arm could just drop in.
NARRATOR: Jan couldn’t forget about the dream. She finally asked a contract sewer to make the jacket.
JE: And I brought it to Jean and I remember just putting it on her and she just went, “Oh, this feels so good.” Well, physically it felt good because it was so soft but also because now she was warm. And it was really colorful and so people treated her differently.
NARRATOR: After that, Jan kept coming up with more and more ideas…
JE: And so it just kind of went like that (snaps fingers).
NARRATOR: And before long, Janska was born.
NARRATOR: We’ve been sharing the story of Jan Erickson, who started her clothing company with NO background in apparel, no serious marketing skills and no experience running a small business. I’m being joined now by Victoria Wang, who spent a day with Jan in Colorado to help produce our video profile. If you’ve never checked out our site, please do so -- it’s TheStoryExchange.org. We’re a nonprofit media company and we produce articles and videos about women business owners. Welcome back, Victoria.
VICTORIA WANG: It’s great to be back.
NARRATOR: So, Victoria, you have a background in finance. Now, am I wrong in thinking that it’s not the wisest idea to start a company based on a dream and not much else?
VICTORIA: (laughing) Um, well, Jan’s story isn’t exactly typical. But she did follow her passion -- and you have to have passion if you want to make it as an entrepreneur.
NARRATOR: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. So let’s talk about how she turned this dream into reality.
VICTORIA: A lot of it has to do with timing. Jan’s husband was just about to retire when she came up with the idea for Janska, in 2003. Here’s a clip from our interview.
JE: And he had just sold his law practice and thought, “Oh, I’m going to be a fly fisherman now.” But that wasn’t what was happening ’cause we both felt like we needed to look into this because it seemed big.
NARRATOR: I’ve been joking that she started this company just based on a dream -- but they really did their research.
VICTORIA: Oh yes. First they looked into whether anybody else was making clothing for people in hospitals -- and they couldn’t find anybody who was. So they made a few pieces and spoke to caregivers, as a focus group.
JE: Pikes Peak Hospice here… their nursing crew and their caregivers looked at our things and they tried a few of them on people and got green lights there. I remember this one woman who had ALS and how she’d write back to me and just tell me how comforting these things were and maybe a little tweak for this. But most of it was, “And can you make something else? And can you solve this?”
VICTORIA: And after that -- Jan and her husband went to their local Small Business Development Center and learned how to write a business plan.
NARRATOR: Hm, smart. And they took a lot of risk, too….I know they used retirement savings and borrowed against their home.
VICTORIA: Yes. It was many years -- not until 2011 -- that they were able to pay themselves a salary. But the biggest surprise was in 2005….let’s listen.
JE: Jon had the idea of, “Why don’t we go to Denver to the Merchandise Mart and, and see if there’s a wholesale market here?” And we were still thinking we’re designing for Jean and for people with limited mobility.
VICTORIA: But most of their orders came from high-end fashion boutiques.
JE: Then we realized “Oh, anybody could wear it.” The trajectory that Janska took at that point was fashion boutique market.
VICTORIA: And today they’re in about 900 boutiques, and some hospital gift stores but not many. It wasn’t the original plan, but Jan has turned her dream into a thriving “fashion” business.
NARRATOR: And I have to admit, I myself bought a Janska wrap after working on this story and I absolutely love it.
VICTORIA: As Jan says, it’s universally designed clothes that help people feel good and look good. Jackets and vests; hats and scarves. It’s all very colorful -- the materials have a great feel to them. I was really impressed with the time they spend on the design of each piece. But she does want to return to her original vision…
JE: We have a lot of growth ideas. One is to go international. The other is to go back again and to really get a handle on that wellness wear community that the dream started me on.
VICTORIA: She really wants to bring dignity and comfort to those people who can no longer dress themselves.
SOT: Our number one selling collection which is fleece, that’s where we started...
VICTORIA: My lasting impression of Jan was of a really caring, gentle, kind of spiritual woman who projects a very calm authority.
NARRATOR: That’s great. Thanks Victoria.
VICTORIA: My pleasure.
JE: One of the tragedies that I think happened when so much apparel went overseas in the Eighties a lot of our sewers are gone.
NARRATOR: We’ve been sharing the story of how Jan Erickson was inspired to start her apparel company Janska. But we haven’t discussed some of the hurdles….
JE: There are so many challenges to being a small business owner and to be an entrepreneur . . .
NARRATOR: ….starting with manufacturing. Back when Jan first started, she hired a contract sewer to make her first few garments. But when she started getting orders -- lots of orders -- she needed more help.
JE: Now all of a sudden our US manufacturing, which we were committed to staying in the US to manufacture, was limited.
NARRATOR: Most apparel companies outsource to China or to India, where workers are often badly treated and paid a fraction of American wages. Jan didn’t want to go that route.
JE: It’s really important to have a company of integrity. We have core values.
NARRATOR: But finding sewers in the United States is difficult. The domestic sewing industry was decimated in the 1980s and ’90s, when garment making went overseas.
JE: There used to be sewing manufacturing plants, different kinds. And those sewers then lost their jobs. There was nobody there to train and retrain to bring it down through the next generation. So now US apparel is a big deal and a lot of our sewers are gone.
NARRATOR: Jan mostly hires sewers who are immigrants from Central and South America -- when we spoke, she said she’d hire at least ten more qualified sewers if she could find them. She merged with a small sewing factory in Colorado Springs a few years ago.
SOT: ...Finish a little bit earlier.
-- Nice job, nice job...
JE: There are still cultures around the world that have experienced sewers and so we’re trying to find ways of bringing some of those people into our country to help us.
NARRATOR: For now, Jan and Jon are trying lean manufacturing principles to get as much sewing done as possible. They hired an efficiency expert to improve their life.
JE: It’s much smarter to do something called one-piece flow. You sew one part, you send that one part to the next person to do their one part and in the end, in this little cell, you end up with a garment. And so you catch mistakes right away. That really saves having to redo. Lean management is basically reducing waste.
NARRATOR: Now that she’s been in business for over 12 years, Jan has some advice for other entrepreneurs out there: Be persistent.
JE: There would be times I think in every entrepreneur’s life where you wonder, “Should I keep going? It’s so hard.”
NARRATOR: And if you happen to have a dream about a business idea, she recommends going for it.
JE: It was saying finally yes to that dream that just unleashed all this other energy in the universe, and it also brought all the people in to help us make it happen. It’s really magic. It is.
NARRATOR: Join us next time to hear more stories about innovative and inspirational women doing the things you’d never dream of. Or….maybe you would. This has been The Story Exchange. If you liked this podcast, please post a review on iTunes. It helps other people find the show. And visit our website at TheStoryExchange.org, where you’ll find news, videos and tips for women entrepreneurs. I’m Colleen DeBaise. Sound editing help provided by Nusha Balyan. Production coordinator is Michelle Ciotta. Interview recorded by Sam Shinn. Executive producers are Sue Williams and Victoria Wang.