By Benjamin Plotkin
I am writing this article with two goals. The first, to describe my experience starting my clothing brand, “Evolve Shorts”, while still in school. If you’re reading this and thinking of starting your own, I hope you find this article both motivating and insightful. The second, to encourage more students to apply/participate in this year’s fashion scholarship fund competition. I was blessed to be a winner last year and I am confident that many more Yeshiva University students can as well. Towards the end of the article, I’ll explain the incredible value I received from the experience and some suggestions for what helped me win. (There is no connection between starting a company and applying for the competition).
Background & Founding
During my first year in Syms, I came across a clothing brand by the name of “JustDon”; a brand known for their retro-themed basketball shorts. A pair of polyester mesh shorts with a rib knit waistband, and most importantly, designs embroidered across the front. A very uncommon style perhaps, but one that is becoming more and more popular within streetwear. The only problem is that they retailed for $400. I personally couldn’t justify the purchase and decided to look for cheaper alternatives, and to my surprise, there were none. This is what inspired the inception of Evolve Shorts. But I still had a question to answer: How could I start a company that made high quality shorts for a fraction of the cost?
Roughly 10 months ago (July 2020), I officially launched the first collection of “Evolve Shorts”; a brand I had pondered starting for over a year. In the beginning, I hit roadblocks figuring out how I was actually going to produce the shorts. Minimum order quantities were too high in America and I didn’t want to buy pre-made (wholesale) shorts from other brands. After searching for manufacturers overseas (through AliBaba) I established a connection in Pakistan and was able to place my first order for around a couple hundred dollars.
When reflecting on why it took me over a year to start the brand, I would say it took so long for a couple reasons. First, I would look for validation from friends with hopes that they would want to come on board and start it with me. This was a way for me to find comfort in not founding alone. Second, I would spend so much time going back and forth in my head about what type of brand I wanted to build.
Don’t wait — in reality the first step is the most important. As much as you want everything to be perfect from the start, by just starting you are expediting the learning process and broadening your perspective of what the brand can actually be. Once you start, the vision in your head is only going to get bigger and better. You’ll be filled with more ideas, energy, and excitement towards continuing to build upon what you’ve created.
In order to both mitigate risk and minimize costs, I decided to build an On-Demand modular model. Meaning, I would order blank shorts from Pakistan in the sizing and style I wanted, but the actual designs would only be placed on the shorts once an order was made. This enabled me to hold inventory across multiple different product variants. In order to do this I purchased a vinyl cutter and heat press, and would apply the designs on my own. The pros, If one design didn’t sell, there was no risk and I could try again with another design. The cons, it took time to actually fulfill all the orders because I have to do most of the work after the orders are placed.
The modular model was definitely something that I reflect upon and believe to be a smart way to mitigate risk, but as the business grows it’s definitely not a scalable cost effective strategy for processing orders.
Quality is everything — when trying to build a brand it is so incredibly important that the customers are not only happy with their purchase, but that they return again for multiple orders and encourage their friends to buy as well. If the quality from packaging to product to delivery, and customer service isn’t at its best, it is not only difficult to build a brand that can grow but also one that you can be proud of.
The Past 10 Months
Over the past school year I have been able to place a total of 4 orders, starting from 20 units to my recent order in the hundreds. I would say that the key takeaways for how I generated sales are as follows: In the beginning I focused my efforts on marketing through facebook ads, but quickly realized that my budget was too low and ineffective for properly targeting my niche demographic (17 – 24 year old males interested in basketball and streetwear). The strategy I employed and received the most success from was targeted marketing through Instagram pages. I would find pages that were in line with my brand and run “swipe up” story ads on their accounts. This would drive traffic to my website where I would generate sales and build my Facebook Pixel (Facebook’s machine learning model that collects data to more effectively target your ideal customers). Another important variable that helped me drive sales was optimizing for the search engine. By linking my products with keywords, I would generate organic traffic that cost me zero marketing dollars and helped maintain high profit margins.
If you have a small budget, I have found it to be more effective to target customers through instagram pages that fit your demographic. This is a more cost effective strategy for putting your product in front of your ideal customer, but it is not a scalable solution for building your brand. Ultimately you’re gonna want to target a much larger group of people through Facebook marketing, Google ads, etc…
The Fashion Scholarship Fund:
Every year the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF) hosts a case study competition, allowing students from eligible schools to apply and participate. The case study is split into four disciplines: design, merchandising analytics, retail, and supply chain, each with a unique challenge needed to be solved.
There are multiple reasons as to why you should apply. First, FSF gives out one million dollars a year to the selected applicants who are declared winners. If you have student loans, this could prove to be an incredible opportunity to alleviate some of that burden. The second is the unique learning experience. Prior to the competition, I was not familiar with the supply chain discipline, so I took it as an opportunity to challenge myself and learn from it. I found this to be the most rewarding as this experience has helped me expand my perspective and better prepare me for challenges I will face in the future. This can be said across all the disciplines; if you are looking for ways to expedite learning and broaden your perspective across any of the mentioned disciplines, this competition is for you. It provides you with a chance to not only showcase your skills to the judges, but most importantly to yourself. Last but not least, the competition will connect you with the vast FSF networks, a network filled with industry leaders, mentors, and various opportunities for internships.
The first year I applied, I didn’t win. The key differentiating factor between winning and losing was how much more work I decided to put into the project after I said it was good enough. Obviously everyone has different measures of their work, but if you are committed to the consistent refinement and candid observation of your work then your project can only get better. I used previous winning cases as references and I was committed to working until I was certain my case was of a high enough pedigree to compete. The internet will be your greatest ally and you can always ask a teacher to be an advisor as well. Please reach out to Melanie Zuckerman for more information and how to apply. I hope you give it a shot and I’m confident, with the right dedication, you can be a winner as well!