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It goes without saying that the 2020 quarantine made for a seismic shift in consumer behavior. The market has quickly morphed to an online-first mentality. This has created a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs across the globe to create digitally native product brands.
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“The number one question I get asked when helping my clients start their own apparel brand is ‘what kind of clothes should I make?'” said John Brown, head of the ecommerce operations company Be Fulfilled. “This is a complex question that has many potential answers.”
John has helped clients create multi-million dollar apparel brands and actually responded via four additional questions that only YOU can answer…
What problem are you trying to solve and why?
Are you creating sustainable clothing? The most flattering denim? High quality children’s clothing? These queries encompass author and inspirational speaker, Simon Sinek’s maxim, “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”. As the online apparel market gets more crowded you need to easily articulate your why and place.
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What are your brand value points?
Starting your online apparel brand will present many options when it comes to where and how to manufacture your clothing. It is important that the value you create for the consumer is in alignment with the values you hold.
In manufacturing there are four main decision points that will determine the experience of your consumer, your profitability and your growth potential of your brand: quality, speed, price and quality.
You can’t have it all in the start-up stages. You will need to make the hard decisions on what you are willing to compromise during this process. Do you want the best fabric and you are willing to pay for it? If so, then you have just chosen quality as your number one priority. Do you then want to order 1,200 units and invest up front in inventory or are you gun-shy and want to order the minimum to test the market? John usually recommends the latter. Think big, test small. Road map the market first, pay a little more, then refine and go deeper on your next run. The lowest price doesn’t do you any good if you have 80% of it sitting in your basement.
Determine what you value and make your inventory decisions from there.
Where to manufacture?
John claims this question has become more complicated in this new era. Duties, tariffs, ethical manufacturing, renewable, air freight costs, ocean freight reliability, shifting consumer preferences, price points, reliability and quality control have all experienced major upheavals in the last few months. They create extra layers of complexity that can be hard to navigate alone and, if done incorrectly, can cost you all your hard earned profit.
“If you have clearly answered the first two questions?” adds Brown. “You should have a framework by which to better answer the following key questions.”
A) Should I manufacture my clothes in the US or overseas?
B) Do I have the expertise to oversee the production of the clothing to achieve the vision I have for my brand?
This is the point at which a third party manufacturing partner can best help you. You now have a discerning set of values and can answer broadly what you want. A clothing or manufacturing expert can help assist you in the production of the product.
With John’s 20 years of experience in product development he has seen that those most successful in e-commerce have a clearly defined why and values. This leads them to spend their time working on high value sales and marketing tasks that cannot be easily outsourced, while simultaneously creating operational partnerships that outsource the tedious operations and sourcing tasks to manufacturing experts.
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How do I offer first class customer service when I’m a startup?
The more important thing is to recognize where you aren’t an expert and be willing to hire those that are. One of John’s many mentors maintains that entrepreneurship is a practice in letting go. This doesn’t mean you give up the key parts of your business, it does mean, however, that you are self aware enough to know what you are good at and where you, as the founder, can add the most value.
In his experience, most start-ups underestimate their internal costs of their operations and overestimate their ability to do it well. In the age of instant feedback and reviews it is critical that you either hire a team that is experienced or partner with someone that is a professional in this space.
Often you will save in shipping costs and personal time by going with a professional 3PL (third party logistics provider). It will also open up international options for you that can be complicated to do yourself.
Customer service is also critical. In e-commerce, things will always go wrong. Packages get lost, people order the wrong size, put in their old addresses, etc. Handling these issues efficiently is key to keeping your operations costs low and your customers happy.
Always remember that creating a product-based brand is a journey, not a destination. You will evolve and get better over time. Don’t wait until your idea is perfect to launch. John lives by a 90/10 product rule: Get the product to 90% of your vision and launch. Your consumer base, experience and feedback will provide more value to you at this point to improve the product in ways you never considered.