Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Karen from LEZE the Label. We’re creators of comfortable living through recycled workwear that feel like pajamas. Our line consists of pants, tops, blazers, jumpsuits, and blazers — but our hero products are pants. Our community of women embodies the modern working woman between the ages of 25-50 years old. Whether you’re a freelancer, entrepreneur, mother extraordinaire, or building your corporate dreams, it’s evident today’s career path is taking on new forms, and we exist to meet you there.

Today, we are growing at a steady rate of 30% every month and are projected to revenue 3x more than in 2019. But guess what? 6 months ago, we were in over US$180,000 of production debt with hardly any means to pay it off.

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materialsPhoto by Brian Van Wyk

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

It started with a phone call in 2017.

Tanya called me in utter excitement and declared, “I’ve been inspired by your homeless style.”

“Okay, that’s rude,” I replied. “But go on.”

Truth is, she wasn’t wrong. I was known among my friends to wear pajamas in public; but not the silky, elegant ones. We’re talking about cotton, Superman pajamas. At the time, both Tanya and I were dabbling in start-up projects looking for the idea that spoke to us. So we thought to ourselves, “Why don’t we create a clothing line that’s comfortable, presentable, yet sustainable for our hectic lifestyle?”

After crowdfunding US$250,000, we realized that other people wanted to wear pajamas in public, too.

At first, I was apprehensive about the idea. Neither of us had fashion design or retail experience. I didn’t even see myself as stylish. But after talking it through, it wasn’t about fashion for us, but creating comfortable living through recycled garments as our vehicle.

From there, we spent the next 3 months spending hours talking until we would fall asleep on the phone. It was the first time in our lives that we had an idea that resonated so profoundly, that it made all other projects insignificant.

We had just closed down a business project that we lost money on, but taught us a priceless lesson — never buy inventory that you haven’t figured out how to sell. Slightly scarred from excess inventory that sat in my garage, we decided to launch our first product on Kickstarter to validate the idea. After crowdfunding US$250,000, we realized that other people wanted to wear pajamas in public, too.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

Our first product was a journey that I’ll never forget. To save on costs, we decided to spearhead the design ourselves (reminder: neither of us has design experience). We would buy a ton of pants and note the features that we liked and the problematic areas that needed reworking. Our goal was to create a pair of pants that felt like sweatpants but structured enough to look like dress pants.

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

We were fortunate that Tanya’s family business is in textiles, so we had insider access to incredibly innovative fabrics made from recycled materials. We decided on crafting a recycled coffee and plastic fabric blend for two reasons. Growing up, I would marvel at the way my mom repurposed old filters with used coffee grinds for our bathroom because she had figured out that coffee grounds absorb odor. Plastic was an obvious choice because of the 38 billion water bottles being discarded into the ocean every year.

Time blocking my life has been my secret to avoiding burnout and protecting my rest. It can be tempting to keep working because you have that flexibility. Make restoration a priority. No, you, no business, right?

To be honest, Tanya’s family connection was the only reason why we didn’t get fired from the factory. We went through 11 prototypes because we were so inexperienced with understanding body fit. In fact, we talked about inseams so much that we had nightmares about it.

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how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

Aside from learning about the complex world of fit, we ran into some ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ obstacles. Halfway through production, our fabric factory in Taiwan burnt down. Yes, you heard that right. Luckily, nobody got hurt as it happened in the middle of the night, but we had to start fabric production all over.

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

After making it through the cutting and sewing process, we hit another roadblock. We had started fulfilling our orders out of a 3PL located in Hong Kong, and it so happened that typhoons were ravaging the city when it was time to ship. At this point, Tanya and I joke that we experienced almost every natural disaster except for a tornado (knock on wood).

Describe the process of launching the business.

We chose Kickstarter as our launch platform, to minimize order excess and to fund our first production run. Our start-up cost was $5,000, which covered sampling and shooting for our campaign. Then, we partnered with a crowdfunding agency to run our ads, which took 30% of our revenue.

I know what you’re thinking — the commission sounds absurd! Even if we had to go back in time, we would still do it again. Why? Well, the commission is based on performance. The more they’re able to bring in, the more they will make. Because of their sophisticated Facebook pixel, their ads would reach way more people than we could ever on our novice ad account.

They also taught us how to structure our campaign so that it would be highly converting, cross-promote with other projects, and implement strategies to capture add-on purchases. After building a community of 2,500 women, we managed to recapture them to become repeat customers by offering them an exclusive Kickstarter discount.

We wanted to stay scrappy, so we built our website ourselves using customizable themes and focussed on growing our social presence on Instagram. Today, we still rely heavily on smart Shopify themes. What I’ve learned is that you don’t need to have everything done perfectly to get started. Things like making a logo professionally made or making a founder video is great, but you can shelve those things until you have capital. Instead, focus on allocating your funds to revenue-generating tasks.

First website in 2018:

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

how-we-started-a-45k-month-women-s-workwear-from-recycled-materials

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Understanding your customer’s pain points and the language to convey that is crucial. Before launch, we chatted with over 50 women on their preferences and grievances. It helped us elevate our unique value proposition and narrow down our messaging by leaning onto their keywords. Today, I still schedule monthly calls with customers to gain insight and feedback, and I learn something new every time.

Something that I’ve also learned is just because you put something out there, doesn’t mean it’ll sell. After dropping a new collection, we have to constantly come up with creative ways to put it in front of someone in a fresh way. This could look like bundles, fit series on real women, or styling videos.

Our revenue comes from the following:

Paid Ads — 65%

We advertise on Facebook and Instagram, but do best on Instagram Story. We achieve a 3% ROAS in the US and 6% ROAS in Canada. Because of the pandemic, we film our Instagram ads on my iPhone and enlist our videographer to edit. Our most successful ads usually follow this formula: problem > solution > features.

Email Marketing — 15%

This is where the magic happens for your repeat customers. We set up automated emails for the welcome, abandoned cart series, and cross-sells. Once a month, we send out emails to our ‘unengaged’ segments with catchy subject titles to prompt activity. For the ‘engaged, but not purchased’ segments, we test by offering a discount code with hopes to move them into a purchased segment.

Organic — 20%

This includes social media and influencer marketing, mainly on gifting collaborations. The key is to find people who believe in your mission and feel authentically connected to your brand. Because they are gifted, it doesn’t guarantee a post, but it’s a great way to gain exposure if the partnership mutually aligns.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Remember in the beginning when I said we were US$180,000 in debt?

You’re probably wondering, how on Earth did you pay that off?

Well, I’m proud to say that by the time you read this article, we will be 100% debt-free by paying it off purely from profits.

Whatever you don’t know, somebody out there does. Humble yourself to how little you know, and have the willingness to ask. You will grow exponentially when you are shameless in learning.

Most importantly, we will be walking away with priceless (or expensive, in our case) lessons on being more strategic with our finances. When the money from Kickstarter hit our bank account, we thought we were rich! Due to poor planning and shiny object syndrome, we got distracted along the way and made terribly impulsive decisions. Let’s just say, we never want to go back to that situation again!

Since our inception in 2018, we’ve grown our Instagram following to almost 30,000 and have a growing email subscriber list of 10,000. Today, we’re working on two primary goals.

1) Become a customer-centric comfort brand in the workwear space

This looks like creating a stronger foothold within North America, testing our new markets in Australia and the United Kingdom, and increasing our organic traffic by 15%.

2) Create an online seamless experience

With 42% of consumers’ total time spent online on a mobile device, our goal is to innovate technologies online to create smooth, experiential processes to improve our conversions.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Partners
Tanya and I have known each other for over 10 years, but being in business together was a different ball game. We had to navigate each other’s working styles and dive into honest and humble communication. If there is conflict, put aside your ego and come up with a compromise together. Although there have been challenging moments, we have grown to become better partners, founders, and creators.

You’re Not Late
If you are an Enneagram #3 like me, you’re always striving to get ahead and get shit done. Meanwhile, I can find myself getting caught up with ‘feeling behind’. I wish someone told me this, but wherever you are in your journey — you’re right on time. Instead of viewing things that don’t work out as ‘missed opportunities’, I encourage you to see it as a way to get creative in how you deliver your offerings.

Schedule Your Boundaries
Time blocking my life has been my secret to avoiding burnout and protecting my rest. Simply color code your calendar, and group together tasks in the same category. It can be tempting to keep working because you have that flexibility, so schedule your personal time in RED to make restoration a priority. No, you, no business, right?

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We operate on Shopify, and our 3rd party apps include Inventory Plannerfor forecasting inventory and purchasing orders, GeoLizr for redirecting customers and Stamped.io for reviews.

We use Asana for tasks, Klaviyo for email marketing, Canva for graphics, and Google Calendar for scheduling life.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Ash Maurya’s Running Lean was our holy grail before starting our business in the most cost-effective, efficient, and quickest way possible. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull shared an inspiring look into how Pixar fostered a culture and stayed creative while growing their team.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

Create with purpose
Never create to make money. It’s not sustainable. Get really clear on your unique value proposition and why people should buy into your mission – notice how I didn’t say product? Because people don’t buy your stuff, but they buy into what you believe in.

Don’t wait for perfection
Your first product will not be perfect — and that’s okay. The trajectory of your product’s viability and whether it addresses people’s problems will change with time. The only way you will iterate, learn, and improve comes from the feedback of real people.

Ask for help
Whatever you don’t know, somebody out there does. Humble yourself to how little you know, and have the willingness to ask. You will grow exponentially when you are shameless in learning.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find us making silly try-on videos and sharing behind-the-scenes on Instagram, or browse our collections on our website. We’re also on Facebook if that’s your jam.

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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