Fashion Brand-Building: There’s a New Model in Town

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StyleSaint recently announced funding news, so we followed up with co-founder Allison Beal to ask about her unorthodox road to Fashion Tech success.  By Lorraine Sander (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

As it’s grown from a fledgling fashion community into an apparel brand with an 18-piece collection and $5.8 million in funding under its belt, Silicon Beach startup StyleSaint has broken with tradition in more ways than one.

"We’re trying to build a fashion brand completely differently," co-founder and nine-year fashion industry vet Allison Beal says.

Unlike most emerging fashion brands, StyleSaint didn’t begin with product. Instead, it created a community by offering stylebooks that its users could customize with fashion images and share across their blogs and networks. Next, the company used data accumulated from that audience to decide what kinds of clothes to design and produce. Then Beal and her co-founder Brian Garrett, a VC, leveraged connections from the Los Angeles fashion landscape to have apparel produced in small runs on the same machines used by designer labels such as Vince and The Row instead of making samples or adhering to standard production schedules and manufacturing minimum requirements. Last but not least, the just-launched online shop sells directly to customers at price points ($30-$200) that undercut what one could expect to pay for similar garments by designer labels.

In building her brand using a new, as-yet-unproven business model, Beal has no shortage of wise words for those in similar shoes. Read on for her thoughts on sticking to your vision, choosing the right co-founder, shouldering rejection and learning to say no.

What are three things every early stage startup founder should keep in mind?

You will have a ton of people constantly sharing their feedback and opinions of your business with you. It's easy to get wrapped up in it and want to tweak things immediately. Keep in mind that people will give you feedback based off of their market knowledge and domain experience. It is your job to apply that knowledge to your company without losing sight of your vision.

Product quality is everything. Many young startups cut corners on delivering a high-quality product in an attempt to be lean and speed up time-to-market. This is a mistake. Online consumers are too smart. You have to deliver great product at a great price to build a brand that will last.

It's very easy to get caught up in the fundraising process and spend all your time on it. It's important to remember that raising VC money isn't a measure of success. It's just an incredible opportunity to build your dream and see if you can make it work. The only thing that matters is building a viable, growing and profitable business.

StyleSaint secured additional funding last December, but only just announced it in conjunction with the launch of the debut collection. Was there a strategy in holding the news versus pushing it out right as it happened?

Yes, there was a strategy surrounding the announcement. We raised the money for the purpose of launching the line, so we wanted to announce both pieces of news simultaneously. Since fundraising generates a lot of press, it was important for us to showcase our entire vision for the business at once. We wanted to present our company for what we are, as opposed to a promise of what we hope to be in the future.

What are two things you know now you wished you’d known at the start of your entrepreneurial journey?

Hindsight is definitely 20/20, but there's a lot to be said about making mistakes and learning quickly. I have struggled a lot this past year with saying no to a lot of opportunities--potential hires and partnerships--and now I know how important it was for our business to stay focused and on our own path. I'm still learning this process, but I wish I would have known that you will say no a lot more than you expected, and that that's okay.

Starting your own business is a practice in dedication and passion. You will be passed-up, over-looked, and outright rejected. It's all part of the process and happens to everyone from first-timers to the biggest, most successful entrepreneurs. It will happen to you, so don't be scared of it. Let it roll right off your back and start again.

Fashion ecommerce has never been tougher than it is today, especially when you hold inventory. What makes StyleSaint uniquely positioned for success in a landscape that’s notoriously challenging to break into?

One key difference, especially in terms of inventory, is that our partnership with local manufacturing veteran Brian Whiteman enables us to produce as many or as few items of any given SKU as we want. In other words, we produce quantities based on the demand info gleaned from our community.

Our value proposition to the consumer is also stronger in that we’re able to offer wholesale pricing on locally and ethically-made, high-quality designer goods (as opposed to selling disposable fashion at high markups). We believe this will help us break through the noise.

You’ve built the StyleSaint community almost entirely through word of mouth. How important have press mentions been to community growth?

Yes, to date we've grown entirely organically with $0 spent on marketing. Press mentions have been hugely important to our company growth, industry interest and outreach, but so far it hasn't been hugely helpful to our community growth. Since we didn't have a publicist in the past, StyleSaint press was mostly confined to the tech industry, which was great for us as a company in so many ways, but not relevant to the growth of our platform. We’re just now beginning to focus a bit more on consumer publications, and we can’t wait to see what that buzz does for the brand.

You’ve built a company in a series of steps: first content (Stylebooks), then community and now commerce. Why was this approach the right one for StyleSaint?

The fashion industry has always been "top-down," where brands create apparel 8-14 months ahead of retail delivery, stock large amount of inventory to sell-through the season and then spend tons of money on content and marketing. I really wanted to see if we could do it completely different, if we could do it from the "bottom-up." By creating a self-publishing tool that adds value to the lives of fashion bloggers and fashion lovers, we were able to acquire a niche and hyper-focused group of creative girls that are our perfect demo -- fashion loving, familiar with online experiences, and who are actively creating and sharing incredible content. I thought that if we could build content and community right, we would be able to bypass some of the most expensive part of brand-building, allowing us to give incredible value to our customer by selling artisanally-produced luxury apparel at Zara prices.

Were there ever moments that you wished you could do it differently or roll out all the features in one fell swoop?

It definitely took patience and dedication to stay true to our vision and not rush the process. I can say that it feels amazing to finally be what we always wanted to grow up to be and looking back, I wouldn't have changed it. It's so hard to acquire customers and I was terrified of launching an expensive and extremely difficult process like commerce without an interested audience.

You and your co-founder, Brian Garrett, come from very different backgrounds. He’s a VC, you’re the fashion insider. What makes you a good team?

Our differences in experience and skill sets have allowed us to divide and conquer roles and responsibility without stepping on each others’ toes. We've been able to attack and execute different facets of the business with a clear focus on our roles and complete trust in the other's ability to execute what they are best at. Although we have very different backgrounds, our general beliefs on how to launch and scale a business were the same. These similarities are an absolute necessity when choosing a co-founder.

Any other advice for entrepreneurs seeking a good co-founder match?

My advice would be to make sure you have similar ideals and beliefs around life in general in addition to complimentary skill-sets. When Brian and I first met and started talking about the business, I immediately met his wife, children, mother and even his best friends and work colleagues. We both connected with each others’ loved ones and friends in an effort to really get to know the other and make sure we were compatible. You will spend all your time with this person. You have to make sure it's someone you respect and believe in through and through.

Are there other ecommerce niches where a "bottom up" approach could work?

lorraine headshotAbout the blogger: Lorraine Sanders is a journalist, blogger and media consultant. She is the author of the San Francisco Chronicle Style Bytes column and writes regularly for FastCompany.com and others. She is founder of the blog Digital Style Digest and an inhabitant of the San Francisco Writers Grotto. Connect with her on Twitter @digitalstyledig or @lorrainesanders.