Photo courtesy Ann McCreath
Starting a business is not easy, nor is it straightforward. As micro entrepreneurs, we make one mistake after another; and before we rise, we fall one too many times. And we always wish that somebody would help us navigate this winding road of entrepreneurship, that somebody would warn us about the potholes before we get stuck in one of them.
At Glitter Trotter, we thought who better to ask for guidance than Ann McCreath – an award-winning designer with over 25 years of experience, a founder of the Afro-centric fashion label KikoRomeo, a pioneer of the East African Fashion Industry, and a mentor to several generations of African designers. So, here is the list of the “troubles” a young East African designer (and probably an aspiring designer in many other parts of the world) can get into if they are not paying enough attention to the proverbial “road to success”:
- Not defining your brand – It is critical for a designer to understand the so-called DNA of their brand – the features and characteristics that make their brand unique, different from all other brands in the market. Too many young designers try to do everything, to be all things to all people, to please everyone; but that does not work for anybody. Successful brands are built for a specific demographic group because they are best aligned with that group’s values, passions, and interests. And that alignment is rooted in the values, culture, and passions of the designer behind the brand. A designer, who can confidently define the uniqueness of their brand and let this uniqueness shine through, be recognized in their products, would never be lost in the crowd.
- Not pricing your products properly – Costing and pricing is one of the biggest challenges for young designers. Many are scared of pricing themselves out of the market; they feel they have to be pricing to favor the consumer while in reality they should be pricing to defend their suppliers, their workers, and their right to grow their business -- all of which cost money. The industry standard for retail price is 5 to 5.5 times the cost of production; Ann’s advice is to have retail price at least 4 times the cost of production. Many young designers price their products at only twice the cost of production, which means their business always has cash-flow challenges and cannot grow effectively. The “imposter syndrome” is a common reason for underpricing among young designers; another reason is the fear of competition. It is important to remember that a clearly defined brand, a brand with a unique DNA, has no direct competitors – no consumer wears the same brand 24/7; consumers are looking for diversity, for brands that fit their values and lifestyle. Hence, no one is an imposter, and no unique brand is in competition with another unique brand. Designers do not need to feel sorry for the consumers -- a brand that confidently projects its uniqueness will always find a consumer willing to pay a fair price for its products.
- Not knowing your consumer – The importance of understanding the consumer, who a brand targets, is well-known. But not everyone does it right. Many young people focus on what their friends like and wear, or what they like to wear. Surely, some of their friends might be their consumers; and sometimes consumers can become friends. But generally, this is not how it works. Moreover, over-reliance on friends’ or own opinion about the product you design might be harmful to a business. For example, friends might be prepared to pay only a relatively low price for your products – because they might know how much it costs to produce them. However, your real target audience might be willing and able to pay more for a product they truly want.
- Not practicing tough love with your consumer – Yes, it is important to love and cherish your consumers, and be grateful for their support. However, it is also important to clearly state your boundaries. Too many young designers allow themselves to be pushed around by their consumers; they start doing things that consumer want to buy rather than what they as designers want to make and lose a sense of direction and their brand DNA. Yes, made-to-measure services are important if they are done well and within the brand esthetics. Doing collections – even if once a year – is one way to maintain and reinforce your brand’s DNA. Keeping boundaries and being able to say “no” is another way – remember, a tailoring business is different from a design business. Both are important, but they are not the same.
- Copying from other designers -- Copying from other designers, especially in your own backyard, is a big problem among young designers. There is a difference between being inspired by another designer and plainly copying their work. You can be inspired by somebody’s work, but you have to change their work, make it yours, make it different. Copying stimulates a race to the bottom in terms of the price war – consumers start looking for a cheaper price, and as a result everyone loses.
- Not keeping receipts – A lot of young designers do not separate their personal expenses from business expenses; they do not keep business receipts, and do not accurately record their costs. It is really important to task one of the workers with recording expenses; it does not need to be a trained accountant – just somebody meticulous, who will enter all receipts in a ledger once or twice a day. Designers, who do not keep records and/or receipts, end up paying out of pocket for their business expenses; they cannot accurately cost their production; they cannot evaluate whether their business is growing. Most designers know that to get a bank loan for their business, they need to have their books in order. However, even before that it is important to get in a habit of keeping records to understand your profit and loss. Getting a professional accountant on board once the business is big enough is also a step in the right direction.
- Not keeping track of your stock – For any designer, stock is money. Many young designers start investing in better fabrics once they start earning a small profit. Yet, what good nice fabrics do if you have no cash to pay for operations? Hence, a designer needs to get the right balance between buying fabrics and maintaining a healthy cash-flow. When the balance is not right, the fabric is just sitting there and eventually gets forgotten, lost in the back of the cardboards. Yet, this fabric is money – it’s clothes that can be made and sold. Every designer, regardless how much stock they can afford, should get into a habit of documenting their stock – by keeping track of their receipts but also by keeping stock cards with information about their fabric, from price to quantity to quality, etc.
- Not costing the time it takes to design products – Young designers are specifically guilty of not costing the time it takes them to actually come up with an idea and then a design. Working long hours and never paying yourself is not going to get you far. Besides, that makes the cost of a garment artificially low. The majority can correctly price the time it takes to make a pattern, cut the fabric and sew the garment – because they know how much they would pay somebody else to do it. Yet, the creative work, coming up with the actual design also costs money – and more money than other jobs in a garment production because not everyone is creative and can do designing. So, the thinking process, coming up with ideas is worth money and should find its way into the cost of production. Thinking time, time alone is important for the creation of original things; and it includes time you take going to a museum or going to a quiet corner in a garden to look at flowers that inspire you. If you do not take time to think about your designs, to look at them from different angles, to rework them – they are not going to be exceptional. A designer should try and quantify this time. If you can keep accurate track of the time it takes to come up with ideas – that’s great, but for young designers even a rough estimate of the costs of the design would be a good start. The important part is to not pretend that this time does not exist or that it’s not valuable.
- Not pursuing professional training – A huge mistake young designers make is that they do not perceive designing as a profession that require not just talent but proper training. Designing is not something you automatically know, or can learn just by doing. Many feel that if they can do a few pieces right, this is it – they are now designers. Yet, the lack of training comes through when you need to put together a collection that has the same inspiration, the same narrative, and feels coherent. That’s where you can see people fail because nobody taught them that a collection goes beyond just using the same fabric to produce 15 garments. A properly-trained designer ensures there is some depth, a certain message that comes through a collection, down to the smallest detail. Those, who are not trained in designing can consider hiring a good designer to make great collections, which will elevate their brand.
- Going into a wrong business -- A lot of people think they want to be fashion designers while in reality they want to be fashion entrepreneurs. Both are businesses in their own right – but they are different businesses. A fashion entrepreneur makes a business out of fashion. They may or may not be trained in fashion, but they usually have a strong sense of what will sell. Sometimes they adopt a process of tweaking existing designs marginally to make the design process faster and also cheaper. This is, in fact, the fast-fashion model effectively employed for decades by a number of mass-market brands. Designing, however, means being inspired by somebody else’s work but using that inspiration to create own, unique works. Both businesses have their own markets, but it is important to know which of them you truly want to pursue.
So, as a young designer, how many of the above mistakes have you already managed to make?