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Can a Denim Brand Be Lean?

How technology and Minimum Viable Product tests can (and can’t) help a fashion company succeed.

By Julia Kastner (Founder & CEO, Eva & Paul)

My final year at Harvard Business School, just weeks before graduation, I got into a debate with Eric Reis, author of The Lean Startup, about whether or not I could make a “lean” pair of jeans.

Eric is a main proponent of the growing lean startup movement that believes that companies should experiment with and validate business ideas before seeking large amounts of initial funding. Eric argued that I should be able to fully test my jeans BEFORE making an actual physical pair – that I could get enough customer feedback ahead of time to understand what my customers really want.

While I disagreed and told him so, I do strongly believe that all businesses, thanks to technology innovations, now have the ability to conduct cheaper tests to understand their customers and whether or not to proceed with their business ideas.

When I interviewed for Harvard Business School three years ago, I told the admissions officer that I wanted to start a socially responsible technology company. I had worked as a Kiva Fellow for Kiva.org, a San Francisco nonprofit based that facilitates microlending around the world, using technology to make a difference, and I had fallen in love with the startup scene.

Combining Tech, Fashion and a Mission

Somewhere along my path, however, I decided that as much as I love technology, I actually wanted to start a fashion company to make organic denim jeans. I took a class called Social Entrepreneurship in the Business Sector with Professor Christopher Marquis, where I learned how companies like Burt’s Bees and Patagonia made an impact on society by producing physical products in a way that was better for the planet. Instead of starting a technology company as I had planned, my second year at school I found myself starting an organic women’s denim line and learning how jeans are made and sold.

Yet I still had my background and interest in technology – I had spent the first year at Harvard reading Steve Blank’s book, Four Steps to the Epiphany, traveling to Silicon Valley to visit the Facebook offices, interning at CafeMom, a social network for mothers, and hearing Eric Reis speak about his new book.  So as part of an independent project my second year, I worked with Professor Tom Eisenmann to apply some of the tenets of “the Lean Startup” to my market research for an organic women’s jeans company.

Customer Discovery

First, following Steve Blanks first step, I engaged in customer discovery. I developed hypotheses for the problems I thought I was solving around jeans fit, and I found women in my target market segment to interview about their jeans buying frustrations. I then used cheap survey tools like SurveyMonkey to understand how widespread these problems were and which were the worst pain points. Thanks to the power of the internet and social networks, I received feedback from women across America that helped me validate or disprove some of my hypothesis – without needing to spend a lot of money.

After school, I developed a second set of hypotheses – that part of the problem was not the jeans themselves but instead the process of shopping for jeans. I worked with a couple friends who are former Google employees to build a small website to test this theory. Women could enter their jeans frustrations and size information in exchange for jeans recommendations. We learned that it was surprising cheap to acquire women to take a jeans fit test, and women taking our quiz were surprisingly willing to enter some of their measurements online to find the right pair.

MVP

Finally, right now, I am running my true Minimum Viable Product test – a Kickstarter campaign to accept pre-orders of my organic jeans. As I learned at Kiva, crowdfunding is an extraordinary tool to raise money from a group far more efficiently. But it’s also an extraordinary way to reach people and customers to get feedback on your product. Within a month, I’ll have great insight into how easy or hard it would be to launch this company WITHOUT building the whole company first. I won’t have to invest in inventory and a full ecommerce site – by accepting pre-orders, I get the feedback before taking the leap, which is of course the goal of the lean movement.

I still don’t believe that you can fully test the viability of a physical product. Even as part of the Kickstarter campaign, I will be taking my jeans on the road to allow women to actually try them on — getting feedback on the style, fabric, and fit in real life, not just on a screen. But I believe entrepreneurs and business leaders from across fields, not just high technology, could benefit from a healthy dose of customer research and validation.  I feel so fortunate to be starting a fashion company at a time when technology has gotten consistently cheaper and easier – I have so many tools to reach my customers literally at my fingertips.

Women 2.0 readers: Do you think lean principles can be applied by startups making physical products?

About the guest blogger: Julia Kastner is the founder of Eva & Paul Denim, a startup redefining the premium jean through minimalist designs, an innovative approach to fit, and the use of organic, fair trade materials. Eva & Paul is launching a Kickstarter campaign to accept jeans pre-orders. Julia started her career at the Beginning with Children Foundation, worked at the Economic Development Corporation in New York City, and spent a year as a Kiva Fellow in Mexico City. She is a graduate of Harvard Business School