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By Alex Vorobiev

This is a guest post by Alex Vorobiev, the founder of fabbys, who’s living a double-life between technology and non-technology entrepreneurship. 

Last year I found myself to be one of the few entrepreneurs in Seattle working on a non-software product.  For a while I felt like an exotic animal in the zoo – people were curious, but couldn’t relate.  True, there are many things about making and selling a physical good that make it different as well as uniquely challenging – like manufacturing, logistics, and distribution.  The lessons learned and best practices are, however, rather universal.  This one is about keeping it simple.

How I got into making shoes for women is a story for another time, but I left Microsoft to make rollable ballet flats – those tiny emergency shoes that get ladies to and from the party, giving them a break from their heels.  I had never worked in apparel or manufacturing before nor had I ever had an interest in it, so I didn’t know the first thing about making or selling this product.  But I believed it was a compelling opportunity and an interesting challenge.  So far, it’s been a bumpy road but also an incredible learning experience.  Would I ever otherwise learn about the statistical distribution of shoe sizes?  Or how to micromanage a manufacturer in China not terribly burdened with quality assurance?  Or how to get into the retail channel?

You often hear about the things that startups did that worked.  I want to tell you about the things we decided not to do, which I would argue are even more revealing. 

No fancy wrappers needed

Presentation is important.  Especially for consumer goods, and especially in apparel.  There was a lot of pressure on us to create fancy looking packaging for our product: pressure from competitors, friends, and even ourselves.  Here is the deal: packaging is expensive.  It’s expensive to design, to manufacture, and even to ship.  It makes sense for $100 pair of shoes.  For an inexpensive product like ours you’d think twice about it.

Having said that…  we did end up designing our fancy packaging.  Due to a hiccup with our manufacturer – one of many – it wasn’t ready in time for launch.  Which, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise.  We improvised, crossed our fingers and shipped what we had…  only to find out that our customers didn’t miss the fancy stuff.  They liked that the product was simple and practical in all regards.  Today we keep samples of our fancy packaging around to remind us of what really matters.

Going easy on variety

As we were planning our product, we really wanted to create an array of fun, unique designs to go with our fun and approachable brand.  Some of the designs we considered were leopard, graffiti, and plaid.  Here is the deal: variety is expensive to manufacture.  Every additional color or design costs extra.  How many people would actually buy a leopard pair?  We had no idea.  Investing a considerable amount of money in experiments was really a luxury we couldn’t afford.

What did we do?  We went and talked to our prospective customers.  Surveys are your friend.  We found, to our surprise, that even younger women preferred the more traditional colors and designs.  And that sealed our decision – we went to market with three basic colors: gold, silver, and black.

To PR or not to PR?

I heard a story of one startup apparel company whose $100k investment in PR was key to their success.  Our friends in the industry told us repeatedly that PR is critical in the fashion and apparel business.  Some of our competitors hired PR firms.  Here is the deal: PR is very expensive.  You can easily spend thousands of dollars a month on even a modest contract.  What do you get in return?  Well, more often than not, the answer is not clear.  We quickly found that PR is a craft still very much shrouded in mystery – full of fluff, vague promises, and very much lacking in measurable goals.

Being who we were – a practical and very data driven team – we decided not to spend money on PR.  We didn’t have $100K to throw at it, and at our modest level of investment we just didn’t believe it would deliver any tangible benefit.  Instead, we put our efforts into a very successful (and virtually free) social media campaign targeting bloggers and influencers.

 

As much as I hate to pander to the online discourse, today’s favorite Web 2.0 buzzwords – minimum viable product, lean methodology – embody certain truths and do apply well both in and out of the tech startup community.  Or, putting it in other words, keep it simple and stay focused.  It’s often all about the many things you chose not to do.

 
 

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