Bootstrapping: Building Fashion the Lean Startup Way

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By Heidi Isern (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0) Lindsay Welsh McConnon believes in building from idea to execution. She is the co-founder of Velvet Brigade, a community driven women’s fashion brand. The company showcases aspiring designers from all over the world and makes their products available to the fashion-loving public.

Lindsay didn’t initiate Velvet Brigade with an idea, but rather a person, her former colleague Jena Wang. “We had complimentary strengths and knew we could build a competitive advantage,” she said. Previously a merchant at Macy’s, Lindsay knew how to select apparel. As a previous product developer, Jena knew how to make it. The only thing missing was that "aha" moment to build a company off of their combined strengths.

“It came to me while uploading photos of my son for an online contest. I knew I wouldn’t win but still wanted everyone to see him!” Then it hit her. She wanted to market her cute son on photo contests just like others marketed their favorite bar in Facebook status updates. “It wasn’t about winning or the revenue opportunity!”

Lindsay knew there were other ways reward people for sharing their experiences.

“How do you get folks to share something that they are proud of? I wanted to find a way for them to market a company by marketing themselves... with web 2.0.”

She quickly called Jena and the two fashionistas decided that they could encourage people to market their fashion inspiration online. Instead of entering her son in a photo contest, Lindsay started a company.

How Velvet Brigade works is simple. Designers promote their product (and themselves) online, users vote, and Velvet Brigade makes the winners under a co-branded label with the designer. To maintain control of the company, Lindsay and Jena are postponing funding until they find the perfect partnership that will help them with sourcing. Operating without funding means incorporating lean start-up methods.

Can you bootstrap high fashion? Lindsay thinks so. Benefits of operating without funding and VC advice is difficult but it also has benefits, “Many funded companies burn through money really quickly as they pivot and try out different strategies. We are very careful with how we proceed.”

Lindsay's tips on how to bootstrap without looking unfashionable:

  • Low or no founder salaries. “We don’t pay ourselves. It forces us to hit milestones and work toward getting revenue!”
  • Use an attorney sparingly. “You can spend thousands on contract creation and negotiation. Or you can see what standard forms are online, modify, and then use an attorney for the final.”
  • Minimize hiring and use contractors for things like marketing and web design. “When using contractors be sure to use project based fees as opposed to hourly fees that creep up. And you want to find people passionate about what you are doing so they work hard.”
  • Work from home or coffee shops for as long as possible. “Buying five lattes a day is cheap rent.”
  • Remember who your friends are, especially those who work in a big companies and will do you favors for free. Lindsay also makes sure she puts goodwill in the karma bank. “I take 90% of meetings from people that want advice even if I’m really busy. It all comes back around.”

However bootstrapping hasn’t been the hardest part of the Velvet Brigade journey. According to Lindsay coming up with the right name was. “It’s harder than naming your child because in addition to a good name you have to find a matching URL.”

Now with a catchy name and first product line under her belt, Lindsay is finally on the road to revenue. And for an entrepreneur, that is the most fashionable part. Velvet Brigade’s first season of designs is online. You can vote on their first product line now.

About the guest blogger: Heidi Isern is a writer, strategist and entrepreneur who is based in San Francisco, California. She is the founder of Chameleon Endeavors, a boutique consulting firm that helps both start-ups and Fortune 500 companies grow their brands. In addition to working with Women 2.0, she also sits on the advisory board of the Fearless Women’s Entrepreneur Network and is a regular contributor to blogs and online publications that serve women’s audiences. Follow her on Twitter at @hisern.