How to get started in fashion & why wholesale won’t always work w/ Ashley Merrill, Founder of Lunya

Updated: Nov 16

Joining me on the show today is Ashley Merrill. Founder of luxury sleepwear company Lunya.

Lunya is a company that’s reinventing sleepwear for the modern woman through carefully crafted pieces that are transitional and beautiful.

In this episode we’re covering Ashley’s path to getting started, her advice for the early days of building a business in the fashion industry and why a wholesale model didn’t work for her in the beginning.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Sure, well my name is Ashley Merrill. I live in los Angeles in California and I actually have a women's sleepwear company called Lunya and then the male counterpart for that which is log So cool. Let's get started by going back to life before Luna three luna. What were you doing that got you interested in the sleepwear category specifically. Yeah. So what I did pre luna doesn't actually connect at all to sleepwear, which is funny, but I think it was just so what I did pre luna was, I worked in an online media company. Uh you know, we've built web portals and had an advertising based business and really where luna came from was a personal experience.

00:04:28Edit It was me kind of feeling the gap in the market as a consumer going hey, what am I going to wear around the house. I was wearing some, you know, old hand me downs of my husband and sometimes that's what happens right? I think opportunities are almost best found by people that are experiencing the problem. They often are really well suited to solving them. So I didn't know that then of course, I just felt the pain of it and then ultimately didn't start the business for quite some time after I recognized there might be an opportunity for probably all the reasons many people don't start a business, because I wasn't sure that I, you know, why me, why would I be able to do that business? But that is really where it came from and what made you think, yeah, okay, me, I'm going to do it. What was the change? Well, so the change really came from in this kind of a funny story, but I had always felt like kids, even though I feel it's funny things now, but I always felt like, oh, maybe kids are going to be the thing that holds me back from having career success in life. And I think I felt that because for a lot of women around me, that was what I saw, you know, the challenge of balancing kids, family life and professional life.

00:05:32Edit I mean, I just rarely saw that succeed, I can see professional women, they were, you know, it's really hard to make that happen. And so I just, I had always had that feeling and then what happened was I was in business school was in September 2012, um I was in business school, my husband, I had decided to start a family, I figured that at some point I would start a business and it would be in like an online media um bent because that was my background. I knew that there was a lot of engineers that were attending business school and so I figured maybe I'd pick up an engineer, we'd start something or maybe someone else would have a business that I could like jump into. And so, you know, all this was kind of happening. I wasn't sure though, I was kind of plagued by uncertainty as I think a lot of people are and then what happened was we had decided to start having a family and I got pregnant right away actually. So like literally found out I was pregnant end of september and I had this feeling like, you know, I might be right, I might not know anything about clothes and I might fail at this, but it felt worse to have to tell my kids that I didn't even try then, that I tried and I failed.

00:06:40Edit And so in this fascinating way my kids actually became the motivation for me. They became the thing that finally pushed me over the edge because my fear of having to tell them, I never tried definitely started to outweigh my fear of failing. Gosh, isn't that amazing. I love that so special. How great Yeah, I never would have thought that, never would have thought it. So you have this kind of epiphany, you're thinking you're going to get started, what are the actual steps to getting started? How do you go about starting asleep where label you know, in those early moments of making the decision? Yeah. So in my experience and I think this is because how my decision making process works. So I'm gonna like take this in a weird direction for a second when I go to buy a table for my house. Like I know I needed like a console table, I'm on Pinterest for a while researching all of the options. And oftentimes I might come back to the initial when I like, but I need to like really be sure there's not something else there that's better for me. So my process of starting union and I realized now as I'm like, I'm an older person and looking back on this really was no different.

00:07:48Edit Like the hardest part of getting started for me was for me to convince myself that this idea was an awesome idea. Once I could get confident about the thesis that I had, you know, I could move forward, I could move forward in terms of like doing things, making connections, but I could also convince other people of the value of this idea. And so a lot of the early time was me going, trying to think the idea like I tried to sink the ship 100 different ways, you know, like how is it going to make money, Why does the world need this? Like how am I going to convince people, you know, just like a million reasons why I didn't think this idea at work and I just could not after, you know, I would like almost try to sink my own ship and then I would have to like prove myself, so it's like almost like as if I'm two different people having a conversation internal debate and so the process of me saying yes, it was the end to that, it was the, you know, I've spent years and so, so I'm not saying I decided this and then I was like, but I had spent years with that battle in my head and because, and by the way there have been many other ideas I had had and I could sink those ships and this was the chip, I couldn't think, you know, and so once I sort of said, ok, I'm going to stop trying to kill the idea and I'm going to just do it, what it did was I started going to other people and saying I have this idea and here's how I see it playing out and what I found to be amazing and this is honestly it might be a female thing and it might be one of the coolest things about being a woman as an entrepreneur today, but it's like people really wanted to help me, you know, or so that was my experience and especially women, I think there is sort of a shared journey that we are all having right now where we're all kind of like we want to see women accomplishments and men too, by the way, it was, I think that men sort of feel that same way about this journey, like we need to see some women win and so, you know, it was really cool because when I started putting this like, fragile idea out there that I was like, I am starting to believe this is real, you know, and I started like telling people, I know they started connecting you.

00:09:48Edit So it's still an example to get specific was there was this clothing store that I used to go to and I remember going in there and just, I would always chat with the woman who owned the boutique and she was just a little bit older than what she had been running the storm home for a while. And so I said, I told her my fragile idea, I have this idea to go and sleep where nobody's in sleep, where I want to do it differently than a lot of people are doing it and that I want to make something that's like actually got a functional point would be new, not, you know, and it's really high quality and it's got this transitional element where you can wear it in out of bed and so I kind of like gave her my pitch, not intentionally, but I was just excited, so, and she goes, oh I know someone you should chat with, and she's like one of the brands that I work with, I think the girl that runs production, she does some consulting, and so she connected me, it was almost like if you look at it as like the whole experience was a bunch of breadcrumbs and that happened, and so I called that girl and that girl is like, oh I know this designer, maybe you can call her, and so like, this was happening much broader than this one experience, I'm giving an example, right, I go tell other people and they go you should talk to this person and maybe 70% of the leads were bunk, you know, but the 30% were enough to keep me moving forward, and I think like I sort of joke about entrepreneurs, I think they were just like, we're able to just get sort of beat up every day and keep going back, like it sounds kind of crazy, but it really is sort of a determination to exercise, like it's not easy and I had to keep going, like, yeah, you know, you say yes to everything, I make those connections, I go to the next one, I keep pushing forward and ultimately over time, even today, what's happening is you're sort of building momentum and then people are joining you as you start building teams and things, they're joining this giant ball of momentum and then they're helping me push the ball forward and then eventually there's a lot of people pushing the ball forward and you're really like, you're just one of the many and that's kind of like how I would describe it, but in the early stage you're taking this heavy stationary object and you're just inches day by day, so that was really what it looks like.

00:11:43Edit Very unglamorous. I love that. What a great analogy, totally. In the beginning it's like a hairball and in the end it's more like a snowball, it's growing, So was this happening because you launched in 2012, so is this like 2011, it was September, you've started connecting with people, you've found this designer, you've then found a manufacturer, what's the kind of like development process there, did it all come together quite quickly or was it quite long? So I launched in 2014, I started working at Lumia, like incorporated the business in 2012 and started there, got it, it took me two years to get something on a website that I can sell. So that happened like I had two kids in that timeframe to so it also just was slower because I had personal stuff, going on. but it was, and I would say is very slow and also everything was two steps forward, one step back, you know, like you get the designer and it turns out like the designers maybe not the right designer. You know, like you go, so there was like a constant state of that and you go to the manufacturer who was going to make it like nobody wants to work with you and you have a small company like this is the other fascinating thing I think is really manufacturing across the board, whether you're making like a CPG a beauty product or you know, whatever you're making, it's a game of quantity.

00:13:03Edit You know, nobody makes money at small quantities because it's going to take all the time to set up and build the lines and there's no efficiency in the process. So it was like I was, nobody was jumping at the bit to take my business. So, you know, really looked like, you know, I would find a manufacturer, they'd say no, I'd get a name from them. Can you find me? Go somewhere else? So I'd be just driving all around downtown just trying to find somebody who had the quality who would say yes. And then even then what I remember happening, which was crazy as I got this guy downtown to say yes, but he wouldn't commit to time frame and I was the lowest priority. So anytime you get another order, it would just be like my stuff would fall behind that order because again, I was just too small in quantities Vietnam priority and they just really weren't keeping my stuff organized. I was baking cookies, like showing up with cookies at the manufacturer being like, I was begging them and it was begging them, you know, just to complete my stuff. But it's really like I had to get started. Like I've talked to people even about the economics of my business.

00:14:04Edit Early on, my favorite would be when people would like to complain on instagram that my costs were so high. You know, looney was expensive and I'd be like, okay, I basically just so, you know, like I paid you to buy that product, I lost my, you know, my butt so bad on all those things I made because, you know, the cost of manufacturer was through the roof. I was buying very small amounts of yardage, you know, and so you're making all this big investment in terms of time and money and all this. And it really is because you have this vision of where it's going, but early on, it doesn't feel anything like it'll feel as you have success, you know, like where I am now and what I spend my time on the relationship I have with manufacturers. It just doesn't look anything like that. But that's the getting started process for you. Gosh, that's crazy. What do you think? And this is more for advice for anyone who is perhaps wanting to build a fashion label and or you know, whatever the category is, but is also facing those same challenges where, you know, they're small and they've got to find someone to commit to you. What was it that you think? Got that manufacturer to say yes to you.

00:15:07Edit Well I have built a business plan and I showed it to anyone that I wanted to work with because a lot of it and this is where I say first you have to convince yourself and then you need to have that kind of conviction. So you can convince other people. I was having to pitch manufacturers with my business plan in order to get them to believe that there was even a reason to take time on this. So you know that business plan. That was pretty key early days, totally. Yeah. That's great advice getting everything together. Yeah. Even when I on boarded employees, I pitched in my business plan. Like why work for me. I couldn't pay them what other people could pay them. I was going to ask more of them than other who, why would you work for me? And it's like, oh you work because you believe you're part of building something and you kind of got a sense of where we were headed and you're like, you know, mm totally. I always love to ask about the money side of things. How much did it cost to get started and what kind of capital do you need to start a brand in the fashion industry. Yeah. So I think there's different ways to start businesses early on. I think my rule for myself had been like, I was gonna put $20,000 into to get to some kind of a proof of concept.

00:16:15Edit Um, and it was me and I had a girl named Jasmine who was part time with me for a while and then we had to pay for cost of goods and we have to get a website up. And so that was like roughly what we had spent, I think, you know, that was also a few years ago. So I imagine you might need a little more than that today. I also think it's different whether you're making a direct to consumer brand or if you're willing to go wholesale first. I think um originally my brain didn't work so well wholesale first. And I think now because DTC feels all sexy, everybody wants to go DTC first, but I will tell you it's much more cost prohibitive, it's more expensive to get started on a GTC business, then it is, if you're willing to do full sail first wholesale is basically a way where you don't have to build. Like if I were to get specific in order to build something that's going to go online, you have to be a really strong marketing organization, not just building a product because you're going to have to acquire users and you're gonna have to have capital to spend on user acquisition through facebook or, you know, whatever, however you're planning to do it and you have to have models, professional photography in house people to manage your social media account to manage your website.

00:17:26Edit You know, we're going to need a lot of these things. Whereas if you start wholesale, you know, you might be able to do it without a lot of those functions. And that means you could probably be you and maybe one other person working out of your basement, so to speak for a while while you get going and get some capital and you could let that fund the rest of business. I think it depends on what kind of business you have, what your eventual plan is for that business. I think for luna, what happened was, um, I wanted to address sleeper in a really different way. And when at the time, remember this was a while ago, 2000 and 14 dtc was more rare than everybody was like, why aren't you starting in wholesale? And I would have started wholesale. Actually wasn't one of those people that was like a wholesale, So lay, em, I didn't start in wholesale because I just didn't know how I was going to explain why my product was expensive and why it was better than anyone else, but just stick it next to the penguin pajamas in Nordstrom. Like how are they going to understand that I'm spending $22 a yard and you know, this flat seam