Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! My name is Paul, I’m French but am based in Japan. I run a clothing brand called Ishihara Design that I started in early 2018. My main products are tee shirts and sweaters, and I sell to a very specific niche of customers that are really into music/visuals/aesthetics.
As of today, I moved on to other projects and am not at all working on the brand (might change soon though!), however, it is still making around $1,000/month!
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The story is actually pretty interesting, I had just finished my studies and was on my way to go to Japan with NO plans, money, or job/school. I had literally nothing going on in my life aside from music, which I was working on as a hobby.
In marketing the human element is really what makes it all work. I used to do giveaways monthly, sharing all the UGC on social media.
I had been playing with the idea of launching my own brand in the past, because I’ve always been drawn to fashion and anything creative, but didn’t really know how to go on about doing so.
I guess that the pressure of figuring out what I had to do helped speed up the process, made me look at the situation through the lens of rationality and I just looked at what resources I had (which at that time were the relationships I had built with my musician friends) and tried figuring out a way to make money out of it while solving a problem.
It was after I got prescribed drugs for teeth gum infection that I started to feel like I was in the movie Limitless: this Idea sort of took over me and I couldn’t think about anything else, I started working super hard on the brand (literally only sleeping 2 hours a night for a week) and in only 4 days I came up with the idea, brand name, business plan and the first collection (I designed half of it on the plane to Japan lol).
This felt different because I was so invested in the idea, I just went with it without doubting even for a second, and even though I was completely broke and had no expertise, the focus I had helped me pull through any problem and hang on until I was satisfied with everything.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The products were really easy to design and prototype, as they were just printed shirts so not much was needed aside from spending time on the designs themselves, and working hard to get them just right. Once that was done, I would go through all my designs, make sure they were cohesive, and looked the best they could, and then I went on to manufacturing.
For manufacturing the prototypes, I used a print on demand service and shipped the prototypes to a friend in the US that offered to shoot the first collection for free. I was so broke at the time that I had to borrow $300 from a friend to pay for the prototypes, and did not have enough money to order my own copies of the prototypes so the first person to ever see the products was actually the photographer that offered to help in exchange for the shirts!
Describe the process of launching the business.
The launching strategy was simple: I had split the first batch of products into two collections, one collection of collaborations with artists, and another collection of original pieces from the brand.
I figured that marketing-wise, no one would want to buy a shirt with an unknown brand name no matter how cool the design was, so to up the brand name value, I associated with artists. This was also a very good way to get the word out about the brand, but most importantly it was a way to provide these artists that are my friends with merchandise that could benefit them! For the launch, We had a launching event live stream on Youtube featuring the collaborating artists and that really helped, a matter of fact we made $1,000 in sales the first few hours!
Creating the website was a piece of cake, it was all done using Shopify’s integrated tools, and the website stayed pretty much the same until it was redesigned, which was really hard work because most new features added were coded by me, including the 3D rotating header and scroll gradient buttons (something I had to contact a coding teacher in the UK to teach me how to do! Thanks again Oliver btw!)
As said earlier, financing was very simple: dropship the products, but avoid advertising with mockups at all costs, the whole thing ended up costing about $350, $300 worth of products and $50 for the first month of Shopify subscription, and everything was recouped on the first day of launch. The name of the game here is efficiency and pushing as much as you can on savings, replacing anything that costs money with your own labor, and only paying for stuff when you can’t bargain or exchange services.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launch, I would say what has worked the most to attract new customers was just releasing more products and posting every day on social media. Instagram is really helpful for something as visual as clothing, and it really adds that the platform is just full of people looking for stuff.
I think advertising on other platforms is a little harder because people aren’t in the same mindset as when they browse Instagram. Newsletters work very nice, and engaging directly with your customers is key! I know it sounds obvious but the human element is really what makes it all work. I used to do giveaways monthly, share all the UGC on social media, etc.
What I found out to be the most important thing is to line up your offering with your target audience. I think one of the biggest lessons I learned was that selling to enthusiasts does make some money, but really where you get filthy rich is when you’re selling to posers (lol) since they have a high demand and low market insight if you can manage to be the first thing they associate with the niche, whether it is accurate or not, you’re good!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today I am still profitable although I have moved on to other things long ago. I might start working on the brand again and drop new stuff because I think it is still very much relevant, but I would have to restructure a lot of things (e.g. no more print on demand, switch to a “limited quantity drop” model, among other things).
Margins aren’t very high since I am using a print on demand service (around 30%) there are no ads running and everything is through word of mouth, so no there is no ad budget at all, and therefore the customer acquisition cost is basically free (or however much it costs to post on Instagram).
My distribution is done exclusively through my online store and everything is automated, again this business is carrying itself at that point.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One thing that I have learned through starting this business is that focus and will power goes a long way. You can really do anything you want if you put your heart to it, and find the shortcuts everywhere. Whenever there’s no solution to something you just gotta come up with one. It’s a really fun mindset to be on and is very rewarding, however, it is also very tiring, especially when done alone, and alongside other ventures.
I found myself absorbed in other things and didn’t think about expansion soon enough, so I spend some time wading through issues that I could’ve solved if I had more experience, but again, you don’t know until you learn!
Another very important lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to be real with yourself. Sometimes it can be harsh but that’s the only way to grow, and you have to keep on self-checking all the time to make sure you don’t get out of the way you’re building for yourself. Deep down, you always know! Trust your gut 🙂
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For my business, I’ve been using Shopify. They’re really great, and have everything I needed to start this business.
If I had to list my favorite tools, I’d say a powerful computer and lots of coffee! All jokes aside, social media is great for hunting trends, I design everything in the Adobe suite, code in atom.io, and just google everything I don’t know. Literally everything.
I learned how to make Instagram filters for PR just through a string of Google searches. Simple and obvious stuff, but ultimately you want to have a product that sells itself, so once you’ve established your target audience and market placement I think it goes a long way focusing on the product for a while and just makes sure to get it right. Lots of thinking, comparing, trial and error, self-doubt, etc. until it feels right.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Honestly, just basic business principles that you can find anywhere. I can’t recommend any book in particular because I found most of my answers by reading through the lines and cross comparing lots of different stems of knowledge found here and there. I just look at other successful brands and try to figure it out. Try to figure out if they’re really successful in the first place, then observe, investigate, and draw conclusions.
Once I have that conclusion I can compare it against other deductions I’ve made and get rid of what doesn‘t match. Then I apply this new principle and see if it’s worth anything. Rinse and repeat.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Just go and do it right now!! Whatever it is that you want to do, do it as soon as you wake up and until you fall asleep. You’ll be done in no time, and before you know it you’ll start having to deal with more and more stuff related to your business.
Congratulations, you got a new job! The key to the whole thing is staying alert and taking everything in, that way you can adapt and react as fast as needed. The biggest mistake I see other people making is not believing. Believing in your idea is what pulls you through, you almost have to brainwash yourself into believing in it so hard that nothing can stop you, and that will get rid of all the blocks people usually feel i.e. “I’m not ready/I don’t know how to do this/ I don’t have the money/ I don’t have the time, etc.) at the end of the day, you’re the only one that calls the shots!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
For now, I do not have time to work on this project, I could probably hire someone full time to work on it for me but I’d have to know the person very well and have proof they’re matching what I am looking for.
The tasks are very easy, basically e-mailing, making edits in photoshop/illustrator, content curation, social media posting, strategizing. There are already a few projects for this brand going on, but they’re all shelved since I don’t have time for this right now. If anyone’s interested, shoot a message!
Where can we go to learn more?
Founder of Ishihara Design
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