Question: I’m a small retailer that makes products for parents and kids. My biggest challenge is brand awareness, especially since there are many big competitors in the field. As a startup entrepreneur with limited resources, how do I get the word out about my product?
Answer: First of all, there will always be competition. Even the largest of brands still have to work to maintain market share and previous sales numbers, so it’s no excuse to say there are bigger brands, with bigger budgets. As a handbag designer, I can say truthfully that I scored the most press when I was doing it myself. I secured more sales when I was doing it myself. I just recently spoke to a designer who was lamenting that she was a “one-woman show” and therefore didn’t have time to apply to my Independent Handbag Designer Awards, but would “try to get around to doing it when she could.” I say: If you decide to start a business, throw everything into it; your heart, soul and money. Everything else is just an excuse to do something you don’t feel like doing.
The one thing that you have on your side as a new brand is that you are nimble and actually have fewer things stopping you than a more established brand. When I had my handbag line, I would book appointments with boutiques for my lunch hour and after work. I would spend my weekends doing trunk shows and going to neighboring cities doing shopping parties and booking appointments with stores. What was there to get in my way? I had a little bag brand that needed retailers and press. Who else was going to do it?
There are a few questions to address here to break down this issue. The first is, how badly do you want it? To be an entrepreneur, you have to eat, breathe and sleep your business. Are you taking every free minute to push and promote your brand? What does that really mean, you ask? Well, within a 20-mile radius of your home, how many retailers are in that vicinity? How many stores? How many parents? How many children are in your neighborhood? What I mean is: Have you identified how many potential customers are within your range, your reach? If there aren’t quite a few, then this takes me to my next question.
Did you start a business to validate yourself? Do you plan to maintain this as an expensive hobby in your free time, or do you really, really want to turn this into a viable brand? This is a golden question. I have dealt with hundreds (I mean hundreds) of designers who moan that they can’t get anywhere, but when you dig deeper, it turns out they were looking for an outlet beyond their home life of being parents, or their unsatisfying day job. To be a handbag designer has the least barriers to entry in fashion because you technically don’t need to be trained in design to create a handbag (which is why I wrote a book about it). The reality is that starting a business is expensive, it’s exhausting and it feels like a never-ending battle.
One thing you always have to keep in mind is that every major brand started the same way you did. But if you are serious about starting a real business, then that requires work. On those lunch hours, I went to every boutique I could see. I created press kits — and mind you, with no press that was difficult. I cold-called magazines, befriended editors’ assistants. I found out which events would be attended by costume designers and then I found a way to be there (which is how I got my bag on “Sex and the City”). Please keep in mind that now, with the million social media outlets in existence, there is a way to find out what buyers like through their tweets or Instagram posts, and you can even track your competitors through their Facebook pages. This takes me to my next point.
Are you doing your homework? The first thing I do for my clients as well as my students (I teach entrepreneurship at the Fashion Institute of Technology) is to assign homework. Before you even put pen to paper — have you done your 5 Ps? Five, you say … isn’t it four? Well, after you have substantially researched Price (I say overprice yourself, since most new brands can’t afford to underprice because they lack economies of scale), Place (where is your competition sold, so you have a realistic idea as to where your product could be sold?), Product (you have figured out what you are selling and that there is actually a need for it in the marketplace AND you have done sufficient research about similar startups in the past and why they haven’t worked), and Promotion (you have made a six-month chart of what your competition is doing to promote themselves in a spreadsheet, including social-media campaigns, events and press coverage) — WHEW! Can you handle all of this? Well, if you have made it this far, then the final “P” hiding in plain sight is “Person.” Who is the person that needs your product? Next point following.
Do you know who your real demographic is? Here is how a merchandiser at a major department store might analyze potential customers who stop into the store. What car did they drive? What coffee did they drink? What did they do the night before? What watch are they wearing? Were they shopping alone? How much will they spend on a shopping trip? All of these key factors come into the major equation of catching the micro-short attention span of today’s on-the-go customer who is always on the hunt for a deal or sale. How can you, as an entrepreneur, create a product that fulfills a need and/or want of this customer? I’ve dealt with too many designers who think they are creating the messiah of handbags when they haven’t done enough substantial research to find out if people will even buy it.
Lastly, don’t use lack of resources — including inability to hire sales reps — as an excuse. To say, “I’m just not much of a salesperson,” is my biggest pet peeve. If you can’t sell and promote your product, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Fact: In the beginning, the only person who thinks the product is the panacea for everything is you. Do you really think someone else can be as excited? And don’t forget: when you’re out there selling, you’ll learn valuable market information. Befriend storeowners, and ask if you can hang out on a busy Saturday and talk to shoppers. Your product may need to go through several iterations, so check your ego at the door. For the record, most overnight success stories I know had about five years of pushing before they had their moment.
Starting a business isn’t for the faint of heart. Set realistic milestones for yourself so you can see that even small progress is still progress. Remember, we all have mountains to climb — the paths that get to the top are all up to you.