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How to find a clothing manufacturer with Princess Awesome Co-Founder Rebecca Melsky

Joining me on the show today is Rebecca Melsky, Co-Founder of Princess Awesome and Boy Wonder.

Princess Awesome makes clothes for girls with themes usually found only in the boys' section. Think: dresses with dinosaurs, dragons, math, and science. Their little brother brand, Boy Wonder, similarly flips the script on boys' clothes.

In this episode you will learn how Rebecca went about finding her manufacturer and where you can start looking for factories too, how she uses email marketing provider Klaviyo as a primary growth driver for her business, and her key advice for women who have a big idea.

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

Sure my name is Rebecca Melsky and I am a co founder and the CEO of Princess Awesome and Boy Wonder And we started with just Princess Awesome.

00:04:09Edit We are an e commerce clothing brand. We make clothes for girls that have themes on them that are usually only found in the boys section. So thank dresses with dinosaurs, Dragons, trains, math and science, things like that. And then we launched a little brother brand of boy wonder a couple of years ago to make clothes for boys. That similarly flip the script. So closer boys with unicorns and hearts and rainbows and pink and sparkles. Oh, I just love it. It's genius. So, so genius. What Got you interested in doing this? What got you interested in starting your own business? Pre 2013 I think I read. So I was a teacher for a long time for 10 years, I have a master's degree in education and no background in business or clothing or anything. But I have a daughter and she's now 10 but at the time she was two and ever since she was two, the only thing she wanted to wear it was dresses The two earlier and skinnier the better. My kind of girl. Yes, she loved dresses and she still does and for her pajamas I would always buy her some from the girls section and some from the boys section because I noticed that with pajamas like the boys got trucks and dinosaurs and hand is playing rock and roll guitars and the girl's got butterflies and bubble gum and you know hearts and she loved both of those things and it always seemed unfair to me that a lot of the subjects were only on boys pajamas.

00:05:30Edit And so one day I was out buying her a brand new set of pajamas, she was potty training her so she needed some that would pull down not just the footy zip up things and I looked back at the twirly dress section and felt like why can't I buy her a dress like that? She likes to wear that also has a rocket ship or a dinosaur on it at the time. There were no dinosaurs in any girl's section in any mainstream us clothing stores and I just got this idea stuck in my head and thought like why don't they make that, can I make that? How would I do that? And I was full of my maternity leave with my second child at the time. And just like, this idea just kept going around in my brain and I asked my friend Eva who I know can so if she wanted to start a company to make clothes for girls with these themes on them, and she was like, yes, let's do it. And we had no experience in anything having to do with business. Like she knows how to sew, but she's never run clothing company nothing. And at first it was like, I don't want to say a joke, but it was like, we're going to have a business meeting, like, you know, just felt like, not, not real, but we just kind of slowly built it just from working through things together.

00:06:44Edit Gosh, that's amazing. I really love when there's those very clear light bulb moments where something just clicks and then it's kind of like an easy oh well, of course I've got to do that now. And also, you know, having that conviction from your friend as well being like, oh yeah, 100% this makes sense. Let's do it. Let's get started. Yes, it is a moment. I mean, I've told this story many times because it is really like the moment that a light bulb went on over my head. I don't know if I've had any other moments like that in my life, but like that moment changed the direction of the rest of my life and certainly without having Eva onboard, I probably would still be walking around just talking about this idea that I had because bringing her on, getting her involved was like what really allowed the business to move forward because she's a, she's a doer and we held each other accountable, not in a in trouble kind of way, but just I said I was going to do this, I told her I was going to do this so I need to do it. Not just something for myself but you know, being held accountable to a friend as well. Mm totally.

00:07:47Edit I love that. And I think it's interesting when you have the two different personality types. You know, I'm someone who is very much like ideas focused and what's next and what's the big vision kind of thing? And I'm less of an execute er on the day to day repetitive things and I know that about myself. So I have to force myself to make sure I do those things and say them that I'm going to do them out loud. Yes. So 2013 you have this idea even sewing from home presumably and that's not so scalable. How did you guys really get started and what was the point where you were like, Okay, what's the next phase here. So we have this idea, we started just making stuff, Our first stop was to value village, which is a big thrift store. They used clothing store and bought a whole bunch of things and sort of cut and pasted to try stuff out to see what these kinds of products might look like. We bought different kinds of fabric tested stuff and once we sort of landed on some designs that we liked, we thought, okay, well now we should figure out how to sell them.

00:08:52Edit And Eva's church has a christmas bazaar every year. And we thought, okay, we'll get a table there, we'll set up our staff and like, well try to sell it there. So that gave us a long lead time. We first started working on it in the end of april. Um and we decided to do the christmas bizarre sometime in early summer. So we had many months to try to make a bunch of clothes and I think we, so like Maybe 100 or 200 dresses I would cut, she would, so our husbands would wash the kids all day on weekends. And then the first step was like, well let's see if people actually buy this. Everyone who we told about the idea was like, that's brilliant, why doesn't that exist? But we thought like, well they really buy it when people put money behind it, let's just test it and see. So we did the handmade products things sold at the christmas bazaar either also has a background in web development. So she built us a little website, We sold stuff online to whatever was left from the bizarre. And within six weeks we had sold out all the product that we had made with no advertising, you know, no other money behind it.

00:09:57Edit And that told us like, okay, people will buy this now, we have to figure out how to produce it because we can't, we're not going to so from home for the rest of our lives, we don't want to have an Etsy shop, we want to produce clothing, how do we do that? So we then spent Like the next 10 months trying to figure out how to produce clothing and figuring out how much that would cost. And the hardest thing was finding a place that would print the designs that we wanted on cotton knit fabrics because we wanted something comfortable, that would be easy for kids to run around in and that wasn't woven and that would produce in small minimums. And it was really hard to find somewhere in the United States that met all of those criteria. But we found various production partners, we figured out, okay, here's how we could do it hears about how much it would cost and that was about $35,000, which was more than what we had in our bank accounts to be able to put into a brand new business idea. So we thought for a while about how are we going to get this money?

00:11:01Edit Should we try to take out alone, should we try to raise capital and at the time a company called Goldieblox had recently done a Kickstarter campaign that's an engineering toy for girls and it felt like there was starting to be a cultural conversation about what products we offered to girls and what the girl versions of products look like and that there was starting to be this like narrative that was going on in society that we could kind of tap into. So we thought okay, I think we can raise this money on Kickstarter if we can't, we'll figure out some other way to do it, but like let's try on Kickstarter. So we spent then five months getting our Kickstarter ready, making the video, getting samples, made, all of things that go into that. And our plan at that point was $3.35,000. We'll get us our first run of products will sell, half of them will be Kickstarter backer rewards. The other half will then sell on our website and try to sell in boutiques and you know, and then we'll slowly grow from there and then once we got our Kickstarter going within about a few days after we launched a girls empowerment facebook page that we have been trying to reach out to posted about us without telling us and like that we funded our whole campaign within five hours from that post and it just snowballed from there and we got tons of press and we ended up raising over $200,000 in the Kickstarter campaign and that was the moment where it was like, okay, how are we going to go from here?

00:12:31Edit Because this is much bigger than what we thought, this isn't just like we're going to make 1000 dresses and sell half of them, but we're making a lot more stuff and what are we going to do from here? And it was at that point that we decided with the help of a investor who kind of came out of nowhere and wanted to help us that I would stop teaching to be able to work on this full time. And that, that was another kind of really defining moment of separating the my previous life from the future life because if the Kickstarter hadn't got as big as it did, we wouldn't have been able to do it full time afterwards, wow, goodness, how exciting, what a key pivotal moment in your life. Yes, absolutely, entrepreneurship is all encompassing. So I can't imagine the feeling of that time. I want to just go back a little bit to the manufacturing piece of the puzzle. Obviously it is a big learning curve and there are lots of stumbles usually and finding a manufacturer and I was actually talking to a woman in my network today who's a listener on the show, her name's Clara shout out to Clara.

00:13:33Edit And we were talking about how it's really hard to understand the specifics on how you actually find a manufacturer. Are you able to share any key learnings or advice about the process that you went through to actually finding that factory that you partnered with? So we started with a website called Maker's Row that think it's international too, but it's at least in the United States and has a lot of different manufacturing. In fact, people who do lots of different steps in the manufacturing process, you can find pattern makers and factories and all the different steps that you're going to need. And it was from reaching out to various people there who then they also knew other people and sort of talking to them. But like the first place that we found that made our first samples, like it was just a tiny shop and they didn't turn out very well. And the first pattern maker that we worked with was great, but like didn't quite work for going forward. There was just like a lot of like starts and stops. But once we the factory that we found for that first run, we still work with today, she's wonderful.

00:14:37Edit I text her like multiple times a day. So I think like once you find someone that you know, you see that they are trustworthy and that you develop a relationship with them, learning from them and finding people that they know is also really great. We found many new manufacturing partners International in the past year or so. And the biggest tip I have around that is to just reach out to lots of people and like look for people who are respond to you, get back to quickly to answer your questions. And that just like putting out inquiries and seeing what you get back. Just that initial response can be very instructive because people who take three weeks to get back to just an inquiry or you know, who write back and like there's clearly a language barrier that you're not gonna be able to get through or who aren't very helpful with getting back pricing. Just that is very instructive. Another thing is that it's definitely been easier to find production partners now that we actually have products that we've made. So we can send a tech pack, we can send a sample and we can say, what's your price for this?

00:15:42Edit And if we had had something like that at the beginning, it would have been easier rather than just like we think we want to make this thing or that thing, which is kind of where we were at the beginning. So just like even if you find something, somebody small to get you started so that you have kind of a hack, I'm using my hands to have a thing, you can send people to say, how much would this be, mm right, is definitely helpful prototype, write a prototype already or some, even if it's just a basic idea. The other thing in my business partner Eva does a lot of the communication with factories and that we've learned in the past years that some factories specialize in different kinds of products. So if you can learn that and you can say, well, what do you specialize in? Can you send me a sample of that? It can be helpful rather than, you know, at the beginning, we were really just looking for someone to do our specific thing. But once we've broadened and we're we have different options of kinds of things. We're looking to make, that's also a way to kind of start a conversation is what do you specialize in? Can you send me a sample of that?

00:16:44Edit And then you can see is that something you can work with? Right? And when you were saying, you know, especially in the last year, when you've been further looking for different manufacturers and kind of broadening the network there, does that mean you're going on google and typing in, you know, blah blah manufacturer and for whatever country you're looking at? Or is it more like finding the Alibaba's of the world and going through suppliers on Alibaba just to get really clear on how you find a manufacturer. So when we we have found international manufacturers in two main ways. The first was a site that collects international manufacturers that have different ethical certifications for their manufacturing because we only want to work with factories that have that? So starting there and you know, looking through that and then reaching out through that database with the august before 2019. Uh Eva went to the magic sourcing show and las Vegas, which there's two different shows at the magic show. One is like for people who are showing their products to wholesale them.

00:17:49Edit But then there's also a sourcing show where manufacturers from around the world come and then they also have a database that you can access and this past year because they couldn't do their show. It was all virtual. So that was even easier to do because then you get the list and then you can search for who has these certain manufacturing medical sort of patients. I mean, and then just reaching out to them through there. Oh wow, that's so interesting. I love that. But just google searching is like does almost does nothing. Yeah, it's hard, so hard. Yeah, that's a great resource. Thank you so much. I'll definitely follow up with you afterwards to get the name of the database and I'll add it in the show notes for anyone listening who is interested in checking that out. I want to move into talking about the launch after you've done the Kickstarter campaign. You've raised over $200,000 at this point, you've obviously left your job and received some investment? It sounds like what are the next steps, how do you start further spreading the word and acquiring new people and getting cracking I guess. Yeah, it was hard.

00:18:53Edit We didn't know, you know every step of the way that we've tried to do things, we have figured out that we don't know something and then we either hire someone to help teach us or we find people who will just kind of coach us through it. So we launched the new site with the manufactured products in august. So our Kickstarter campaign is in february, august, we shipped out our products and launched our new site and then, and then we're sort of like, okay now what? And we had some glitches with our warehouse with shipping the Kickstarter products, which took up a lot of my time in the first couple of months, but then we realized like, okay, we don't really know what to do now, like how do we run an e commerce store? This is very different than Kickstarter where you know, we knew we had learned a lot about how to do Kickstarter and then we didn't know how to become more so after a few months of just sort of sitting there every day being like, I hope we get some sales crossing our fingers, we found a couple who's kind of in the e commerce world and they were willing to take us on as a coaching, consulting client, you know, just as like a one off and they really like, taught us how to do e commerce.

00:20:01Edit Like I had listened to various podcasts and I've been, you know, messing with facebook ads on my own a little bit. But like just to have someone kind of teach us like here's the basic with e commerce. First of all they switched us to a different website, we have been on big commerce, they changed this over to Shopify, they how to set up with clay vo for email marketing and then they basically just for like, here's how you do e commerce, you put money into driving people to your site, you have a way to capture their emails because not everybody's going to buy the first time. Then once you capture the emails, you have a welcome series and you send out emails to the people who are, you know, on your email list, welcome series and through just regular campaigns twice a week. And, and like that's the funnel, like okay to get the traffic, do something with the traffic and they also helped us think through like should we be putting money into new products versus advertising? Like they kind of helped us think that through a little bit too. Um, but it was very helpful to us to just like have that coaching and have people like help us get set up with that and then we worked with them for about six months and then we kind of, once we had that going we got to a certain level of revenue and then we needed some actual business coaching to help us think about how to really grow and like how do we expand and where we put money.

00:21:22Edit And then we joined a different women's business consulting group that's in Washington D. C. That was hugely helpful to us for a few years pounds per corner. But basically like at each step along the way where we haven't known what to do, we just find people who can help us totally. I mean it's very clever find people who know things and have them tell you what to do. It's great totally. And so in talking about that kind of thing. You know you're obviously doing performance marketing, you're paying for ads, you were doing all the things what was really working for you and what was driving that new acquisition facebook ads have been the driver of our business since the beginning which is honestly it's really hard because we're so out of control how well they work and they only get less effective as time goes on. And facebook is problematic institution. So you know we have a lot of feelings about the fact that like our business relies on it and we have to give them money but like it has been the most effective way to reach people in part because we can see we can see how well things are working, we can adjust our budget to scale very easily.

00:22:30Edit We have experiments with a lot of different other kinds of marketing and it just nothing is as easy to adjust budgets and to see results as facebook ads have been, you know, taking out an ad in the magazine a lot of money, right? Like National Geographic Kids is like $120,000 for one ad. Like we can't, that's are like the entire marketing budget for almost the entire year. Like we can't do that. So yeah, honestly, facebook ads have been the most helpful thing to us so far and we're constantly looking for ways to find new people and to diversify that marketing and trying new things. But at this point it's the thing that works the best for us. And does that mean before you mentioned you have a really strong presence with Clay Vo, the email marketing provider. Does that mean you're paying for acquisition of these people to come onto your site through facebook ads, but then you're kind of retaining them through your things like welcome series and through your retention marketing funnel with Clay Vo, which is then your own channel. Can you talk through a little bit about how that works for you guys and you know, your overall kind of email marketing strategy.

00:23:36Edit Sure. Love email marketing and marketing is the best. I wish we could own all of it. Um, so we have a welcome series. You know, we have a higher priced Children's clothing items. So we know that people are always looking for deals on kids, like people are looking for deals all the time, but especially with kids clothes where they grow out of it fairly quickly, where they need more of it than you, you know, might need as an adult. So we haven't signed up to get a discount and then we have a welcome series that both tells people more about our brand and how we started and who we are and offers tiered discounts along the way if you haven't purchased and then we send usually 1-2 emails a week that my bandwidth is significantly reduced since Covid and I have, you know, three kids who have been in remote school for almost an entire year. So it's not, it's not always as many emails as we want and sometimes more if we're running a sale, but we also use flavio specifically to target people to tell people when we have sales and when we have new products because that's really how we end up getting people to come back.

00:24:45Edit Most people, yeah, very high customer retention rate. And usually when people get the products they see, oh, these are, this is worth the money and my kid loves it and it has pockets and it's great. Um, and they'll come back for something new that they like or if they wait for a sale. So kind of using clay vo segmentation to be able to target specific sales to people sometimes to be able to give loyal customers early access to products and things like that is also great. And to just be able to really keep our email list coned into people who are just engaged. We regularly send to just a segment of our entire newsletter list that has opened something within the past exactly what our parameters are. But we have an engaged segment and that's what we send to and we get more opens just on the engaged segment than we do if we send to the whole newsletter list, wow. Yeah. The tool I was inside clay vo the other day and the tool just has so many wonderful functionalities. They make it so easy for you to, you know, it's really email marketing for dummies.

00:25:50Edit I felt, I was like, oh gosh, I wouldn't have a clue how to do any of this, but it's just so easy. Yeah, it's set up very nicely and you know, if you do get really into it, there's a lot of really sophisticated, complicated things you can do. But the very basic stuff is not hard at all. And honestly, like that's the most effective anyway, like all the really super nitty gritty small things. There's less of a return for that because you're just communicating with fewer and fewer people and just the base, like if you can just segment out like here's my newsletter who's opened in the past two months that like you're going to get more bang for your buck, just segmenting out that than trying to do all kinds of tiny little things, which is also fun and great, but if you have time for it, but sometimes like it can feel overwhelming the amount of things that you can do and so just focusing on, okay, here's one thing I can do, I can just like segment out people who have opened an email in the past two months and only sent to them. Right, totally. Gosh, love it. Where is the business today? And what does the future look like? Well, that's a good question.

00:26:53Edit Um So 2020 was a rough year. I mean for a number of reasons, you know, in March 12 last year when everything closed down, we had production that was supposed to happen in multiple factories that all just stopped because everything like everywhere closed and our production plans for the entire year had to be completely redone because we didn't know where would be able to open or what things would look like and you have to plan, you know, our lead time is so long that like we couldn't wait to see, oh well is it going to open in august because if it doesn't open in august then we will have missed the window to produce somewhere else. So we had, You know, 10 months worth of plans that had to be completely redone our production schedule got all mixed up, we had t shirts that were in transit On March 12 that just stopped in an airport in India and stayed there until October, you know, just like crazy. And my business partner has four kids, I have three and all of a sudden everybody's just home.

00:27:57Edit So we also had no time to do anything but we managed to have a reasonably decent year. It wasn't terrible. Business didn't close. So all of that was really good. Um and this year, you know, last year taught us that like we just don't know what the future's going to hold and we should just, we just got to try stuff. My Eva has been really focus on trying to diversify where we produce so that if we are in the situation again we're like lots of things, clothes that we have lots of backup options and then we don't get reliant on just one or two factories, which is for a long time we were just producing in Chicago with our current U. S. Factory and then we expanded that to work with the factory in Hong kong. And then last year we tried a new factory in Pakistan and one in India and we're just like continuing to branch out so that we have more options and we're not like leaving, we still do a fair amount of production in the US but just to give us options to give us peace of mind that if things close places, we will still have other places to go and we won't be doing, it's left with no product to sell totally the backup plan.

00:29:06Edit Exactly. And we're also trying a lot of new products this year. I'm really excited about things we have coming and we're doing a lot of new things this year, which I'm really excited about. We've got adult leggings coming out in a couple of weeks, which is great fun. I love the matching. I love when you introduce the adult sized clothing so people could match with their kids too. So special. Yes. And you know, we love that too. But we've also seen that like we basically have one dress style for adults. We had another one that we started with, but the fabric that we were using was not didn't end up being up to our quality standards. So we didn't want to make it again. And so we basically have one dress style and we know that like for kids one style is probably fine. Most kids can wear the same dress silence fine. But adult women, it's a very different story right? Like if that works for you, great. But if it doesn't work for you, then you're never going to buy it no matter how much you like the pattern. And so we have put a lot of time and energy into coming up with, we will have three new dress styles for adults and leggings this year.

00:30:10Edit Not just prints but the actual like silhouettes so that hopefully more people and people who have different body types or like how things fit them in different ways can wear the stuff because we think that there's more of an opportunity for adults. It's just that we only have one thing for them right now. So if you don't like it it's not about a lot. Mm Got it. Well laying, sound great. Everyone can wear leggings. What advice do you have for women who have a big idea and want to start their own business? My two big pieces of advice are one just try something like just start with some small thing like we started with just went to the third store. We bought some stuff. We literally cut it out and sewed it onto other things like just start small and build from there. If we had set out to try to make a big business right away we would have just stopped because we had no idea how to do it. Just did the little thing we knew how to do. So don't let big dreams scare you just take one step into the one thing that you can do and give that a try and that will lead to the next one and then my other piece of advice is to find a business partner because having someone who can split the load who can, you're both accountable to each other.

00:31:24Edit It really probably the most important thing about this business for me is having a partner and also like someone that you like. Then you also get to hang out with a friend all the time too, which is super fun. Love that for you. We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode. We might have covered some of them, but that's okay. Question number one is, what's your, why? Why do you do what you do? Do what I do because kids deserve to be able to wear the things that they love and girls deserve to see and know that dinosaurs and trains and trucks are just for them and boys deserve to know that unicorns and hearts and sparkles are for them and all kids should see kids wearing all different kinds of things and know that gender does not limit what they're interested in or what they can or should wear totally Such an important message. Question #2 is what do you think has been the number one marketing moment that made your business pop during our Kickstarter. We had a huge amount of press. We had write ups in various online publications, in newspapers.

00:32:34Edit We were on cbs this morning and all of that press early on is really what laid the foundation for us to be able to grow from there. So I think that is probably the, The # one Marketing moment that like pop, there's been a lot of slower smaller pops since then. But that was like the big one totally Question # three is where do you hang out to get smarter? What do you read? What do you listen to? Are you subscribed to any amazing newsletters? Um her corner, which is the women's business group that we were part of has a great newsletter. I love to read that I listened to a variety of e commerce podcast. So I have admittedly had less time for that since Covid I also have other friends in the e commerce clothing space and just talking to them is really helpful just hearing things that are working from them, learning from other women who are doing the same kinds of things that I am. Mm totally. I think network, especially in, in the current climate is so important to be able to chart and hear what other women are doing.

00:33:37Edit I mean obviously female startup club is that in its essence. But yeah, it's so important to be having those conversations with people who get it and who, who get what you're going through. Question number four is how do you win the day? And that's around your AM and PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and successful. Um, I mean I have three kids and we're all at home all the time. So I feel like I don't really have a great answer to that question but I try to get out and take a walk every day even if it's freezing cold because that is very helpful to my mental state but other than that there's no I don't have any got it. Well the walk is good, love that. Love that work for you. Question # five is If you only had $1,000 left in your business bank account, where would you spend it? That was a really good question. Uh I would spend it making a product that I knew would sell to our current customers. Great answer. And last question question # six is how do you deal with failure? What's your mindset and approach the great questions.

00:34:44Edit Um Thank you. I let myself have space to feel sad and disappointed about it. I talked to my business partner and we usually do a very good job of balancing each other so when one of us is feeling disheartened the other one is able to take a we can get through this kind of perspective. So you know I rely on you to to be there for me when I need that and she relies on me to do that for her too and just thinking about remembering that we have options that you know we can run the business how we want to but there you know there's a lot of steps between whatever failure were in at that moment and like the business shutting down. Yeah there's a lot of things we can do between those two points to get us through it totally keeping each other supported. Yeah, love it. Rebecca, thank you so much for taking the time to be on the female startup club podcast today. I have loved chatting with you and learning about your incredible brand, Princess awesome and boy wonder, Thank you so much for having me.



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