How do I start a childrenswear brand? We’re asked this question A LOT, so what better way to address it, than right here, five years after we launched the business.
In an era where we’re trying to forge new paths amid flexible working issues, maternity leave and school run demands, self-fulfilment possibilities and the formidable work-life balance (is there such a thing?!), running a business and working for yourself has become the Golden Ticket of our generation’s career choices. Afterall, we were told we could have it all right? And five years ago, we asked ourselves EXACTLY the same question. If you don’t know the story, this was during a post-maternity leave back-to-work/shock redundancy bottle of rosé. We’d disappeared to a nearby pub having both been given the dreaded ‘Your role is at risk of redundancy’ speech on the same day, one after the other. Now, we don’t say this lightly or with any added drama, but we were both the victims of parental discrimination. It was pretty infuriating. And scary. The rosé was very needed! And as the initial ‘WHAT JUST HAPPENED?’ shock subsided, the entire focus of our conversation turned to how we could pop the kernel of an idea we’d had only a couple of days before. Yep the first twinkling of Tobias & the Bear was discussed (over a water cooler, we kid you not) just a couple of days earlier. The timing! So HOW could we get Tobias & the Bear off the ground? In the midst of looming redundancies, it felt very now or never - there’s nothing quite like fear to kickstart a plan. But neither of us come from manufacturing backgrounds. Or kidswear backgrounds for that matter. We had both worked ‘in fashion’ for a number of years, but as for starting a clothing line, nope we’d be starting from the bottom up on that one. And so, we started to sketch and research and that’s where it began. So, whatever your reason to start a kidswear brand, we really do understand the initial spark that makes you want to go it alone.
So, back to the question, how do I build a childrenswear brand? In all honestly, there’s no definitive how-to. We know, that sounds like a total cop-out! But part of building a brand is about working out exactly what it is you want to do. There are no half measures, you have to be committed. It’s also important to learn the processes first hand and even make a few mistakes. We’re still learning as we go along. With every new collection, opportunity, manufacturing decision, logistics issue, app, plug-in, Insta post – you get the picture – there we are, still figuring it all out. And remember, every brand has a different start-up story because the people behind the brands all have different stories themselves. So below, we’ve pulled together what we think are an important series of questions that will help focus your thinking and even help formulate a plan. This isn’t a failsafe guide and we’re not giving all the answers, but there are also some tips and a few links and contacts to help too.
I don’t want to go back to work after maternity leave (or other similar situations), how can I leave my job?
We’re sure you don’t need us to tell you that the financials are (possibly) the most important thing. Do you have money to invest? Does this business need to pay the mortgage and if so, how quickly? We started Tobias & the Bear with £800 each. That’s it. But we only launched with x4 styles of leggings in a more condensed size range than we currently offer. We both worked and/or freelanced for a couple of years before the business could pay us a salary that we could live on. And we’re not talking champagne lifestyle here! You might already know that we don’t share a huge amount of our lives on social media, because in all honesty, we’re often just working away in front of a laptop, looking after babies and running to meet school drop off and collection times, but we know how easy it is to assume everyone is leading a far glitzier life then you. Building a brand is very rarely about sun-drenched holidays and Farrow & Ball paint swatches. And if there’s one, there often isn’t the other. What we’re trying to say is that it’s totally possible to build a brand slowly if you’re willing. It very rarely happens overnight. And there will probably be (some very worthwhile) sacrifices. Even with more funding you’re likely looking at an initial setup period of six months. Set a budget and don’t go handing in your notice until you’re sure. Basically, just be aware of the reality.
Do I need an original idea?
The childrenswear industry is a busy place so you need to work out what you’re going to bring to the rails. It’s the same for any industry - do something new or different. Or do something better. Whether it’s the product, the customer experience or a really cool marketing idea, make sure it’s that little bit special.
Who will my customer be?
Quite literally, which little human do you see wearing your clothes. Are you looking to launch a baby brand. A kids brand. An up to 10 years brand or a teen line? Decide and don’t get side tracked. That’s when designs get muddled. Also, who is your target shopper? This will help determine your price point and where you decide to sell/advertise.
Should I open a website, a social-media based store, a marketplace or a bricks and mortar shop?
- A website – Gone are the days where you have to pay a huge amount of money to have a website built from scratch (although you can of course still do that if you’re looking for something that’s really bespoke). Platforms like Shopify and Big Commerce work on an affordable monthly fees model with the payment platforms that manage card payments taking a small commission. You can tailor the ecommerce platforms to your needs with additional apps too – there’s something for everything from notifying customers when an item is back in stock, to setting up discount pop ups. You won’t have the overheads that come with a physical shop, but as you grow, you will probably have to think about stock storage and fulfilment, unless you have an Aladdin’s Cave of a spare room, or a warehouse at the end of your garden.
- A social media based store - Most brands use social media to interact with their customers, rather than to actually sell, but there are cases where shops do this and in some non-EU territories, it can be viable. On the whole, it’s not the obvious option.
- Marketplaces – Sites like Etsy and Not on the High Street can be a great place to start. Remember, they do take a commission on sales, but they’re also working away behind-the-scenes on various marketing initiatives to optimise searches for their retailers which is one less thing for you to worry about. This can be beneficial especially in the early days. You will of course have to adhere to their terms and conditions like shipping and refund policies so be mindful of the small print.
- Bricks and mortar shop - As they say, it’s all about ‘location, location, location!’ Well, that and all the overheads, staffing issues, the need to be open all the time and the fact that you only get passing footfall – there will be no 2am shoppers from the USA with an actual shop! But, giving customers the touch-and-feel experience is a gift in the online age and for some, a shop wins over a website a million times over. Lots to consider.
Can I really run a business in part-time hours?
Ah, this is the dream and a bit of a unicorn for small businesses. If you’re looking to fit this new venture around your kids nursery or school hours, then this is absolutely a possibility. But be prepared to work evenings, weekends and holidays too at least some of the time. From experience, running a business is never really a part-time venture. It’s a split-into-bite-sized-chunks-which-add-up-to-more-than-full-time venture. Sounds horrifying right! It isn’t. it’s just different from the 9-5. But it does allow for a type of personal freedom that you don’t get when you work for someone else. Swings and roundabouts. Bottom line, be passionate about what you’re doing and the ‘juggle’ is worth it.
Do I need to find a manufacturer or can I create the pieces myself?
Are you looking to create a business based on selling volume (you’ll most likely need a factory if this is your path) or do you have a skill that means you can create something bespoke on your own? There are some great businesses selling handmade pieces to order but this is a very different business to the one that we run. We don’t even own a sewing machine! We trust a skilled workforce to dye, embroider and sew our clothes - we shudder to think what they'd look like, if we did it! Think about the business model that works for you. Time, skill, price point and necessary income all play a part in this decision.
How do I find a factory?
This is perhaps the hardest question of all and one we’re asked all the time! There’s no definitive directory – not one that we’ve found anyway. In fact it’s not easy to find a factory and even harder to find one that you trust, work well with and has experience with the product that you want to make. It took us a lot of blood, sweat and tears to find the factories that we work with and because of this, we choose not to hand over their contact details. This information is part of our IP and is integral to our business. We have considered creating an e-book or something similar that addresses this in more detail, but for now, what we can say is this: Decide if you would you like to manufacturer in the UK, Europe or further afield and why? There’s also the reality that you might not have a choice – for example, some things can’t be made in the UK, or even in Europe. But we advise that you do your homework. Learn the terminology – are you interested in knitted or woven fabrics for example. Organic or Oeko-Tex? Google is your friend (seriously simple – we’re not trying to teach Grandma to suck eggs!!! - but it’s where we’ve initially found all of our contacts before doing further research). Ali-Express rarely is*. Visit everyone in person that you have the ability to visit. You can’t beat a face-to-face meeting. Where this isn’t possible, ask the right questions about your priorities whether that’s eco-friendly manufacturing, price points, timelines etc. Always sample first.
*Can I just buy lots of stuff on Ali express to sell on?
Ali Express offers limitless options of buying very cheap ready-made clothes you can sell on for a decent profit (which obviously isn’t manufacturing your own collection and creating a brand, but it is a path some choose to take). This is not something we ever did, nor is it something we’d recommend if you’re seriously looking at starting an authentic brand. Be aware that by the very nature of it being such a huge and sprawling marketplace, Ali Express is home to some unscrupulous companies selling poor quality counterfeits of independent brands. We all know that fakes and frauds are wrong, so please do your due diligence before choosing to work with their sellers. Aside from this there are of course reputable factories on there and you may well find your ideal manufacturer. Just do your research first.
Please note: we are aware that by no means is every Ali Express seller selling fakes, we are simply highlighting a problem that we know from personal experience exists.
What else do I need to think about - are areas like marketing, storage, shipping and insurance really that important at the start?
We touched on this in an earlier question, but you do need to think about storage. It’s highly unlikely that your spare room will hold the stock of a growing business. Don’t forget about insurance – even the stock in your spare room will need to be covered. And for large deliveries from a factory, you’ll need Goods In Transit insurance. Then there’s the delivery of those orders. And are you going to run to the post-office everyday or move into a office building where the post is managed. There are a vast number of options. All very dependent on the size of the business you first launch. As for marketing - well, you have to get your message out 'there' so it's unavoidable. Even an Instagram page is a form of marketing. Social media has opened up so many channels alongside traditional print media, Google adwords - work out where to start and take it from there.
Will I need staff?
One man band or team? Whatever the decision you need to consider pensions, holiday and sickness cover, decent wages, Christmas parties, remote access jobs, office jobs, shop jobs, freelancers…
I’ve never run a business before, how will I tackle the accounts?
This could be a blog post in itself! Firstly, you can get some great online systems like Quick Books which make everything a lot easier. They take a small monthly fee (everyone seems to be taking a monthly fee, right?!) and we would recommend hiring an accountant to help with the big things like Corporation Tax (which is an amount you pay the government based on all taxable profits), end of year accounts, VAT returns and pensions. Accountants will help with as little or as much as you’d like, and rates do vary. It’s a personal decision only you can make based on confidence and cashflow! But whatever you do, don’t ignore it. When you launch a company, the government knows about it, and they will want to see records and receive any money owed to them. Plus, you have to do your own personal finances too. This is called your Self-Assessment and it’s for payment of your own personal tax. So that’s the company finances and your finances. Oh, and one other thing, make friends with Excel – you’ll be spending a lot of time together!
We hope this has been helpful read. Below you’ll find a few useful links.**
Trade and Industry bodies and other sites of interest:
** These are merely recommendations and possible starting points. They are not #ads and we do not have experience will all of them.