2 Years ago I started up a clothing company that I slowly began to doubt and eventually I abandoned it even though it generated pretty good profits for a time.
Since then I have been planning a new business and have been constantly re-evaluating my ideas and designs. The bottom line is I learned a lot from starting a company even though it wasn’t entirely successful. I also have learned a lot from reading through these forums. I wanted to write to this to give a complete guide to every aspect of starting a company. This is going to be a lengthy guide but if you are new to this I think you have a lot to learn from my mistakes and experiences.
Aspects We Will Discuss (in order)
- What are your aspirations for the company?
- Your Designs
- Defining your target market/value creation
- Reaching your segments
- Branding and Brand Identity
- Sales Channels and Distribution
1. What are you aspirations for the company?
By starting this company what are you looking to gain from it? If you are satisfied with only a few people wearing your shirts and having a design you made on a t-shirt than you can stop reading the guide here. If you are like me and aspire to have a good amount of people wearing what you designed then keep reading. Obviously your 2 motivations should probably be making money and having people wear your clothing. And a possible 3rd might be charity if you have an underlying cause for your t-shirt creation, such as breast cancer awareness. Now that we are all on the same page we can get to the substance!
2. Your Designs
This is probably the most meaningful part of this whole guide because without solid designs you aren’t going to get very far. And what I am about to say may offend some, but I have every right to say it because I am guilty of it. When you first have an idea for a design and you create it, you fall in love with it. It is the most natural thing in the world to be fond of something you have manifested, it is key to leave emotion out of the design process (at least when it comes to your attachment to a design).
And before I go into the things we need to be doing to prevent this from happening, I am going to tell you a story. When I started my company I rushed into it. I had a few designs that were “clever” but they lacked any real value or thought. My friends and family liked them and I liked them so I began selling them. And I sold many shirts mainly because I could sell just about anything, it had nothing to do with my designs. And one day I posted up another design I was working on, and a member of our community by the name of krylonking posted on the topic and basically told me that my designs were very basic and cartoony. After about 6 months of selling t-shirts someone was finally honest enough to give it to me straight. After that day I dropped any hope I had for my first company and began evaluating everything. I was right back at square one but I was happy about it.
So what did you guys learn from that story? First, you guys need to take a step back from your own designs after you design them. Make the design and don’t touch for a week.
And when you come back in a week ask yourself:
- Is the concept solid?
- Is the design aesthetically pleasing?
- Is the concept solid and the design is terrible?
- Is the design good and the concept terrible?
- Are they both terrible?
Now if both are terrible you might be in trouble. If both are actually great than you are ahead of the game. But what I see a lot of the time is one or the other is off. If you have a good concept but aren’t that gifted as an artist, there is an easy fix to that, outsource the designing. Are you a great artist but you concept is weak? For that problem you obviously have to evaluate your reasons for creating the design. The other thing I see is people designing things for that don’t have any focus or reason, but we will talk more about that in the value creation piece of this guide.
Second, take family and friends with a grain of salt, unless they have a valuable opinion in the matter (like if they are part of your target) All of your family and most of your friends are going to tell you they like your design. And the design may be great but even if it isn’t they are going to have about the same reaction. The idea of you creating something and having aspirations to start a company is appealing to any friend or family so most of the time you aren’t going to get the criticisms you deserve. The bottom line is your family and friends with almost always give you positive feedback.
This is why these forums and people you know who are upfront and brutally honest are so important. And what is even more important is that everyone on this forum act brutally honest. You don’t have to tell someone they suck, but if their designs or concepts really aren’t there it is SO IMPORTANT to give suggestions! GIVE HONEST SUGGESTIONS DAMNIT! Stop just saying I like this and good work, unless it really is a perfect design. And most of the time it’s going to be a first draft so something can be fixed! And as far as the person taking the criticisms, you don’t have to use everyone’s advice, but don’t be so attached to your design that you can’t bring yourself to use people’s input.
Lastly I am going to be brutally honest here. If you are designing things in Microsoft Paint chances are they look terrible. I don’t care who lied to you about it. There might be a handful of people that will wear it but we all want more then 3 people to wear our shirts. If you have good concepts, but you can’t grasp Illustrator or Corel hire someone who can. Also please stop commenting on people who do this and giving them the same praise you give the guy who made a ridiculously good design on Illustrator or Corel.
Also if you are just taking different pictures off the Internet and piecing them together with no real alteration or color scheme you are wrong. And don’t get me wrong, most shirt design start with photo manipulation and alteration, but I think you guys know what I am talking about. Like finding a picture of a dinosaur online, putting it on a shirt with a phrase and trying to call it your own.
So ultimately just take 10 steps back from your designs and consider them honestly, don’t be so attached even though I know it is hard. Seek out opinions from those who will be honest with you. And just keep evaluating what you have done to see how you can continue to improve upon it.
3. Defining your target market/value creation
If you have searched through this forum at all, you have definitely seen the word target market floating around. And I think majority of the time it isn’t described in great detail. When we first consider our target market we tend to come up with an age range and maybe a certain group within that age range. Which is certainly the basis of all this but it isn’t everything.
The goal here is target market segmentation. By segmenting your target market it will allow you to create value for your company and for your product. So lets say we have decided we are going to sell to 18 to 24 year old men. That is broad as hell, how are you going to create a product that all 18 to 24 year old men find value in. The answer is you aren’t. So lets create segments. So lets say our segments turn out to be hip-hop trendsetters, skater trendsetters, and just trendsetters. Although these are pretty basic, aim to make your segments as specific as possible. How will we create value for each of these segments? This is the part where your designs influence what your segments will be, but your segments should also influence what your designs are. So for example you may design a shirt hoping to target hip-hop trendsetters, but even if the design is awesome, if they hate it they will not buy it. So that is also important to remember when designing. Also by understanding your segments you can decide what quality and perks you can afford to include and what price point they will be willing to pay.
The main idea I want you to pull from this is that by defining specific segments it will be easier for you to create value for those segments. Also, value creation should be the underlying thing of everything you do with your company because without it you will have no customers. Defining segments also makes it easier to reach them, which we will discuss next.
4.Reaching your segments
So by creating specific segments for yourself you just made your job a whole lot easier as a marketer. You might have the best marketing ideas in the world but if your segments never get to see them than you running in circles, which is why segments are so important! So take a look at your segments now and ask yourself:
- Where do they eat?
- Where do they live?
- What stores do they shop at?
- Are they in school?
- Where do they work?
- What do they do in their free time?
- What websites do they look at?
- What can they afford? (value creation discussed earlier)
- ETC ETC ETC
Basically answering all these questions will tell you how you can reach them and also how you can create as much value for them as possible.
5. Branding and Brand Identity
If you haven’t noticed, the common theme here is value creation. Branding is one way to create added value and even create enough value to justify a higher price point. A great example would be going from using a Gildan shirt to using an American Apparel shirt. Another big one I would say would be using your own labels and hangtags. Labels and hangtags really show the buyer who you are and they also show that you are a more legitimate operation to retailers and sales reps. Obviously you can go more into depth, and say well are the labels going to be physical labels or a screen printed labels.
With my new company, for example, I plan to go with AA shirts, screen printed labels, hangtags, and full shirt belt screen printing. All of these drive my costs up, but ultimately they should create more value for the customer so a higher price point will be justified.
With brand identity you have to ask yourself what your company’s image is. Why is it that you have certain designs, do your designs have any larger meaning or theme? Do they have roots in other ideas like music? Do they have something unique to offer? I obviously can’t answer those questions for you, nor can I write all the questions down.
With my new company, my identity in the most general sense will be bright colored shirts with ties to city life, and the designs will be rather abstract and out there. But the point is, if my segments can connect with my identity in some way, then I can create value for them and they will buy.
6. Sales Channels and Distributions
I’ll keep this one short because it is pretty basic. How are you going to get your product to consumers? Will you sell primarily online or is your goal to sell in retail stores? Both roads have their positives, negatives, and logistical problems, but you must decide what sales channels will yield the best results for your product. A funny t-shirt company may fair better online, but a high-end fashion t-shirt company might do better in smaller boutiques.
In terms of distribution and getting in with retailers and stuff you need to have a great product and you need to get yourself seen. How do you get seen? TRADE SHOWS! I would say these are a must for get exposure to the right people! Obviously get booths at these shows aren’t free so when you write up your business plan figure in trade show expenses for some time in the future. You can also try to contact sales reps and retailers on your own. You can purchase such valuable information on infomat.com. I haven’t purchased on phone lists from them but it may be beneficial to you and I will consider that option when I get things rolling with my company. Also approaching smaller boutiques is always an option, especially for women’s clothing. Sadly I have been hard-pressed to find men’s clothing boutiques in my area.
I don’t care how good or bad your company is doing, it is always important to revisit your strategy, designs, and target market and reevaluate them. The only constant you can count on is change. So if you aren’t responding to changes in your environment and planning for future ones you will most certainly fail. That is why is extremely important to create a business plan before you do anything else. Map out everything you seek to do, set goals, set actions by which you will meet those goals, know the costs of everything you seek to do, no the effect your actions will have on both your company and your customer, and constantly change your business plan.
Even though it is an extremely long read I hope that by reading it you learn at least one thing. Good luck to all of those who are starting your own companies, I really hope that you meet your goals. Just be sure to really consider every aspect of what your doing. It is important to aim high, but if you aren’t realistic with everything you may never be able to reach your goals. Thanks for reading and I hope you liked it and made some sense out of everything! And if you think I should add anything let me know.
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- Says Jeffery Kalmikoff, Former CCO of Threadless.comStart your own clothing company and become the next Mark Ecko, Obey, or Johnny Cupcakes! Learn how to dominate the t-shirt business.