What does selling zesters have to do with a fashion line? Almost everything.
Like many others, I had no idea how to start my own business. My hours were cut short at my job as a Product Manager (PM) in a tech startup during the pandemic and I knew this was the best opportunity for me to start. However, taking that first step was the most difficult – with all the uncertainties during the pandemic, I had to mitigate the risks even more.
Besides, I didn’t have a clear business idea. I felt drawn to an e-commerce business due to the rise of e-commerce in the past few years and, especially, during the pandemic. I also always had an obsession with colours and art – my mother is an incredible artist who introduced me to painting at a very young age – but I was not sure how to monetize that in a way that would address a need.
Subsequently, I tried to use my learnings and experiences as a PM to first learn about e-commerce and how to start a business before committing to it financially and emotionally. I learned 3 important lessons during my experience that I’d like to share with you.
Lesson 1: Test the Waters
During my experience as a PM in multiple tech startups, I learned all about Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). The best approach to launch a new idea is to quickly create a low-cost prototype to first test the idea with customers. Even though I didn’t have a solid idea to test, I needed to know if I could learn to sell anything online before investing more of my time to create something unique that people would want. Zesters were my version of MVP.
First step was to take online courses about e-commerce and starting a business. Originally, to practice my new learnings, I was looking for a product that was well-known, popular, and easy to sell. During the first few months of the lockdowns, cooking and baking became very popular. Through my research, I learned that there was a rise in the number of zester searches. Hence, I ordered 100 zesters and built a website around it. Meanwhile, I also learned about establishing a business in my province, digital advertising, social media, and email marketing.
Once I started running ads and receiving some orders, I learned some important lessons:
- Because of the high shipping cost, selling one zester online and shipping it to customers did not leave me with any profit.
- I learned about upselling and cross selling, however since I only had one product, I had to upsell another zester. Buying two zesters in one household rarely made sense. Unless it was such a good deal that they would buy one as a gift.
- Zesters were available in every store for cheap and since mine was similar to any other zester, it was difficult to differentiate it. At the same time, I could not charge enough for the zesters to cover my costs and stay competitive at the same time.
So although I was not generating any profit, I viewed it as a learning opportunity and kept selling zesters. Once I sold 40, I was ready to move on and find something to sell that I could put my name on.
Lesson 2: Put Yourself Out There
Sometimes the fear of failing, getting rejected or criticized could be paralyzing. It’s hard to imagine all the positive things that could happen once we share our ideas with the public. But in my experience it opened so many new opportunities for me.
While selling zesters I kept thinking about my main business idea. In parallel, it was about five months into the pandemic and I was experiencing the most depressing times. As a social person, it was very difficult for me to be isolated. Additionally, I had an immediate senior family member in a country with an outrageous covid death rate that made me feel even more helpless. During that time the only comfort I found was through art and colours. I soon realized that wearing colourful outfits and being surrounded by colours uplifted my mood and helped me feel better. That’s when I came up with the idea of wearable art. A way to spread joy via carrying and wearing vibrant artworks while supporting the artists.
Over the next few months, I developed my idea further. I started a fashion line where I worked with artists to transform their colourful art into matching clothes and accessory sets. Applying what I learned from the zester experience, I designed my first collection: a unique matching set that included a skirt, wallet and a square scarf.
After launching my store I had to take the first steps to put myself out there. I decided to reach out to everyone I knew to let them know about my new venture. The fear of failing and getting rejected was constantly on my mind. But I pulled all my strength and used my strong social network to keep myself motivated. I went through my emails, Linkedin, Facebook and Instagram contacts to create a list and emailed everyone individually. To my surprise not only was everyone supportive, but many of my contacts reached out to me and offered to help in their field of expertise such as marketing, advertising, and social media.
In another instance, I was in contact with a customer to do a size exchange. One thing led to another and she invited me over for coffee to talk about my business and how she could help. Since I am always looking for feedback and advice, I accepted her invitation. Over the next few months, she introduced me to many insightful and helpful people that I couldn’t have met otherwise.
Lesson 3: Change is the only constant
During the next nine months, I designed and launched 2 other collections. However, I still did not see the traction that I needed. I worked with a number of marketing agencies and advertisers but we all failed to create the momentum that I expected. I was looking for answers when I was connected to an amazing mentor with years of experience at a high-end fashion store. During a one hour call, I received a number of constructive feedback from her. Although very difficult to hear, I realized that I had to do more research to potentially change my business direction completely to try a different approach.
My collections were dear to my heart and it was heartbreaking to even think of abandoning everything that I had worked on so hard. But changing and evolving was the only way forward. I had to start from the beginning to build my fashion line with a stronger story and mission. After months of research, market analysis and data analysis I eliminated most of my items and decided to focus on one fashion accessory with multiple patterns. I chose a chiffon scarf since it is easy to ship and comes in one size. I then worked with a number of artists with different styles to cover a range of tastes. I also realized the importance of focusing on sustainability in my brand from the beginning. Hence, I found a local company that was able to provide me with a chiffon fabric made from recycled water bottles. Lastly, I found a local print shop and a sewing contractor to produce my collection locally to further support the community. None of which was possible if I was not open to changing the direction of my business.
If I can encourage you to keep three things in mind, they are as follows:
- Test your assumptions early on to prevent spending too much time and resources on the wrong idea.
- Always put yourself out there, share your ideas and ask for feedback. You never know what opportunities may come your way.
- Be open to change and constantly think about improving your approach to the problem.
Hope this helps.