BA University: Tips On Starting a Business From People Who Did It (And Did It Well)

PHOTOS AND WORDS BY CARA BEST

No one in the history of the world has claimed that starting a business is easy. Going into business for yourself can be incredibly rewarding, but also a massive undertaking with setbacks and surprises. Here at BA we're all about assisting in launching and sustaining emerging brands, so we got the low down on starting and maintaining a business from some of the Brand Assembly family who have done just that.

Leslie O'Kelley, Founder and Creative Director of Bow & Arrow; Louisa Rechter and Alessandra , Co-founders of Mestiza; and Lien Vets, Founder of Noella Showroom have all launched successful start-ups and faced their fair share of struggles. We asked them about the tough parts of building a business and got some tips on how to navigate them just for you. Check out their answers below and let us know in the comments what other aspects of running a brand you need guidance on. We'll hook you up, don't worry.


What’s one thing you didn’t realize you’d be doing as a business owner before you started your company?

-Leslie O'Kelley: A lot. I wear a lot of hats in my company, so sometimes it proves difficult to do everything all the time. When you're a young business you have to be prepared to do everything, even the stuff you hate (mine was accounting!).

-Lien Vets: I don’t think I realized a lot of things! I pretty much take things as they come. There are always new and exciting opportunities that come through. For instance, I love that I now work with a few fair trade brands such as Proud Mary and Osei Duro. They provide work for artisans in Morocco and Ghana and all the products are beautifully handmade.

-Louisa + Alessandra: We didn’t think we’d be so heavily involved in fundraising. Neither of us are very experienced when it comes to numbers and making financial projections and writing a business plan that’s really in depth. On a much broader scale we’re both very creative people in different ways and having to shift focus to figure out on a technical basis how we’re going to make this business work was not something I had anticipated.

How do you make new connections and maintain them as people in this industry are spread out all over the world?

-LO: I am drawn to people's energy so if I connect with a store owner or a stylist we basically become friends. It's like any relationship, you get what you put out there. 

-LV: Making new connections is not the hard part. We come in contact with a lot of people through this industry. Maintaining them is a bit harder, of course. My family has lived on different continents since I was 18 (Belgium, USA, China) and we are super close so I’d say I’m a pro at keeping in touch with people despite distances. WhatsApp, WeChat, FaceTime, social media, email, phone, and lots of travel are crucial. And I believe that in both your work and personal life you stay in touch with the people who matter (and who you matter to).

-L+A: When we first started out we worked with the people that we knew through mutual contacts. If we knew a designer we would meet with her and get a sense of what her experience was and sometimes she would connect us to someone else. Now we’re lucky that we’re getting to a point where our friends or someone we know in the industry will refer us to someone. For buyers, Brand Assembly was great. Our first season we didn’t have any connections whatsoever and because we were in Brand Assembly we picked up BHLDN which was our very first major account.

Pieces from Mestiza's F/W '17 collection

Best advice you’ve ever given or received about going into business for yourself?

-LO: This will be the hardest thing you ever do. If it's not hard, you're doing something wrong. Success doesn't always happen overnight, it takes time. 

-LV: My husband always tells me this when I get in my head about things; don’t compare yourself to others because it will only get you off track. And it’s true. I still catch myself doing it and think it’s inevitable, but I try and keep his advice in mind and just concentrate on my business and goals. Best advice that I’ve given? It’s kind of a boring one. Do your own bookkeeping as long as you can (with QuickBooks). I did all my own bookkeeping up until a year ago. I think it is VERY important for every business owner to get a full understanding of their finances.

-L+A: A lot of people in the beginning were discouraging. You can’t take it too personally. Best advice? Maybe make everyone sign a contract before going into business with them so things are set in stone. I know that’s boring advice, but we’ve gotten screwed a couple times because we didn’t do that. I think something that helped us early on was “First figure out who your customer is and design for that person.” Make sure you’re designing something that fills a white space, make sure what you’re putting out there has a purpose. If you don’t know what your purpose is you can’t sell your collection to anyone.  Anna Dooley and Carol Bramson, our advisors, told us that in our first meeting. Also, be careful who you hire.

Pictured: Bow & Arrow Concho Cuff, Sleeping Beauty Ear Cuff, and Sterling Triangle Wire Earrings in Geo

Fashion goes beyond a full time job much of the time, how do you maintain a work/life balance?

-LO:  I am big on planning adventures (that's the whole purpose of working right?). It's good to have things to look forward to and work towards. I also try to mix up where I work, mix up the routine. This city is full of inspiration so sometimes just spending a couple hours at a coffee shop has its benefits. 

-LV: Since it’s my own company, the work never really stops. But I don’t really mind it. Since everything is so accessible now it’s easy to stay on top of things while on the go or traveling.  I’d say I’m pretty good at balancing my work/life for the most part.

-L+A: Lou and I actually just had that conversation the other day. We vowed to not text each other after hours – at least not work related texts. It’s really hard! We’ve told our parents too that if they want to talk about the business we can talk between 10AM and 5PM. We’ll also work from home for a few hours if we have to (Alessandra has a two-year-old). It’s a 24/7 job, but face time is 10 to 5.

Photo by Bridget Badore for The Assemblist

At what point did you realize that you needed to bring more people on and build your team?

-LV: I think I realized this about a year and half in. I primarily started needing help with sales support and admin. But note that it took me another year at least to find the right people (Hi Claire!). When you run a small business, like myself, and you work side by side (day in, day out) it has to be a good fit.

-L+A: Our decision to bring Christina, our sales consultant, on was very mathematical actually. Up until then we had garnered all of our accounts ourselves and we set a goal for ourselves. We made an estimate of how much revenue we could bring in based on our current accounts and we realized in order to get to our goal we really needed to hire extra help. We were also in fundraising mode during market so we had to go off and take calls and run out to meetings and run our business, so she really helped us take some things off our plate.

Pieces from Swildens, repped by Noella Showroom