Friday Entrepreneurs: Tracy Tseng, littleMAN Style

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Last week, I asked for different types of Friday Entrepreneurs, and today I’m thrilled to interview a different type of entrepreneur. Tracy Tseng just created a company called littleMAN Style, a retail clothing company. This is different than the web businesses we usually hear about, so I learned a lot. Check out the interview below, and as you read, note a few things:

  • Why did she get in touch with me, a blogger on personal finance and entrepreneurship? I don’t have many connections in the retail business. But I love her answer below. She says, who knows what will happen? It’s one of my favorite principles of sending just one email–often with surprisingly positive results.
  • LittleMAN Style is a lifestyle business, which means she started it to support a lifestyle she wanted. While lots of businesspeople scoff at this idea, it’s perfectly respectable. I admire anyone who has a goal of some kind of lifestyle and can be entrepreneurial enough to find a way to make it happen. What I find interesting is that she was dissatisfied with her job and wanted a different lifestyle–and she did something about it. A year later, here she is. I think a good question to ask is, if you want something different, what are you doing to be there in a year? Or a month?
  • She talks about being a woman in business. I’ll be exploring this a little more in the future, so I’m interested in your comments.
  • More than anything, just notice the amount of brute-force work that starting a company like this takes: Visits to retailers, finding/managing vendors, making sure the details are right, marketing, designing, and more. We often just look at the results. But what I hope to show through these interviews is that the process is even more important–and that while we can’t predict results, we can absolutely give ourselves an edge by improving our process.

You described your company as an “old-economy business.” What is Little Man Style?
littleMAN style is a line of upscale clothes for boys designed with fashion-conscious mothers (and fathers) in mind. Unlike other boys clothing lines, littleMAN shies away from “cute” and looks more like something you’d see grown men wearing in a bar or lounge in San Francisco, Hollywood or New York. Personally, I don’t understand why all boys clothing has either a baseball mitt or a dinosaur on it!

Hmm…I’ve seen kids wearing Air Jordans and it made me want to simultaneously vomit and steal them. I’ve always said that if it comes down to buying $75 for my kids’ Jordans, they can wear paper towels for shoes. My friends weren’t sure if I was kidding. Do you think you and I would get along?
Would it help our relationship any if we came out with a set of designer pens for kids?

Why’d you start Little Man?
The reason I started littleMAN is because I needed more flexibility with my schedule. When I first started, I was getting ready to be married and was facing the same challenge as many other career women: how to juggle a career, marriage, and family at the same time. My husband had just taken a job doing turnaround work for Carl Icahn that has him on the road 6 days a week! If we were ever going to see each other, I needed to have much more flexibility with my work schedule. It was also at this time that many of my friends started having kids.

The most common complaint I heard across board was that there were so many cute girls’ clothes out there but nothing fun for boys. My husband and I decided to take our MBAs (his from Stanford, mine from UCLA) and address this situation. A few months of market research, hard work, and those handy interest-free promotional checks you get from your credit cards and viola! littleMAN was born.

The business is actually spurts of intense running around our manufacturing base in Los Angeles followed by periods of relative calm and back office functions which can be done anywhere in the world with a broadband connection and VOIP. As such, I’m able to travel and visit my husband wherever he happens to be for work. Currently, that’s either New York or Shanghai.

What about the fashion part of it?
I’ve also always had an interest in the fashion industry. I notice fine details in clothing and actually spend a lot of time pouring over each and every detail in the littleMAN collection. In fact, I must have looked at 300 different buttons before I found the perfect one for our Luxe Camel Coat. You really have to love fashion to endure that! In addition, I feel that I already had a true understanding of my target market. I’m a very discriminating shopper. I’d rather have one really expensive item I love than many items I merely like. In fact, you might say that I design for shoppers like myself – well-educated women with discriminating taste who are not afraid to pay premium prices.

You could have done anything fashion-related, so how come you decided to start a company?
I was working for a major clothing manufacturer in Los Angeles and just completely bored with my job. I hated my boss and dreaded going to work in the morning. My husband (fiancé at the time) was thinking of taking a new job that would dramatically increase the amount of time he spent traveling out-of-town. He’s actually the one who suggested I try to do something entrepreneurial. He noticed that I was happiest when I was working autonomously and the increased flexibility would enable him to take the new job and have a family life as well. It was really going to be a win-win for both of us.

However, I just kept delaying. I came up with every excuse under the sun. I’ve got a big project at work I’m on. I’ve got a wedding to plan. It’s Tuesday. Finally, during my honeymoon, I ran out of excuses. After I got back from the honeymoon, I decided to start littleMAN the next day.

Starting a retail seems insanely complicated. How did you get started?
The first few months I did a lot of first-hand market research. My husband jokes that “first-hand market research” is just a euphemism for shopping! But, it’s partially true. I spent weeks on end going to specialty boutiques in and around Los Angeles looking at what was successful and what wasn’t. Walk into any specialty children’s clothing boutique and only 25% of the merchandise is devoted to boys even though boys account for 51% of all births. And what little boys clothing there is all looks the same: baseball mitts and dinosaurs. The prevailing sentiment in the marketplace is that moms are willing spend money on clothing for girls but not boys. Maybe that’s because there’s nothing out there worth buying!

After getting comfortable that there was a niche to be filled, I just started talking to anyone and everyone involved with the production process. I drove down to the garment district in Downtown LA and just started wandering around talking to various businesses such as fabric houses and sewing supply stores (buttons, zippers, etc.). I soon learned that suppliers are more than willing to educate a potential customer. Slowly but surely, I figured out how to produce a line of clothing.

Supervising the manufacturing is actually a lot harder than it sounds. I learned the hard way that you don’t just drop off some fabric and some patterns and tell them to sew. You really have to be on top of the vendors every step of the way. littleMAN is selling a premium product and small quality problems such as a label sewn in crooked just aren’t acceptable. Also, when you’re just starting out, almost all vendors are reluctant to deal with the small volumes. It’s the chicken-and-egg problem you preach about all the time.

It’s the same with the retailers. Store buyers are reluctant to take a chance on an unknown brand. I’d love to buy full-page ads in parenting magazines but without a large advertising budget and national distribution, it just doesn’t make sense to do so. We’ve gotten this far by being passionate and persistent. I’ve found that one way to overcome the chicken-and-egg problem is by working with people one-on-one to believe in your vision and take a leap of faith.

Can you give us a timeline of how launching this looks?
Well, I started thinking about the company a year and a half ago. I had to learn almost everything from scratch. I spent about 2 months researching the industry by visiting various retailers in Southern California. After that, I started talking to anyone I could who was involved in the manufacturing and supply process such as designers, patternmakers, sample makers, sewers, fabric houses and so on which took another 2 months. It was like playing detective where one person would refer me to someone else in the industry and on and on. All in all, I spent about 4 months doing research.

I spent a week or two filing all of the paperwork required to start a company such as getting a resellers license and opening bank accounts. At this point, we officially launched littleMAN.

It took another 10 weeks to go from design boards to an actual set of samples. With samples in tow, I went down to the garment district showrooms of Los Angeles and New York and interviewed sales reps. From conceptualizing the line to getting into the showroom was about a 7 month process. The selling season followed for another 2 months during which all of the marketing and back-office systems were put into place. I then had 4 months to supervise the manufacturing and shipment of the goods. By the time the products hit the stores, I have been working on them for close to a year. Right now I am busy designing clothes for the Fall/Winter 2007 season.

How do you get your clothes in stores?
We have two well-established sales representatives (one in New York and one in Los Angeles) carrying our line in their showrooms and they do provide a fair share of credibility with the retailers. The sales reps also provide insights into retailers and helpful hints. For example, our Los Angeles sales rep warned me that one of the boutique stores I had sold directly into had a terrible reputation of not paying their invoices, particularly with new accounts. Sure enough, when I decided not to extend them credit, they cancelled their order.

In addition to the sales reps, we call on a lot of accounts directly. I identified target stores in tonier shopping districts in Los Angeles, walked in, and asked to speak to the owner. The best time to call on retail shops is early in the week, just before or just after lunchtime as those are the generally the slowest times for retail. For some reason, owners don’t want to talk to a vendor when there are customers in the store! Most of the time, I just introduce myself and leave them with a catalog. I then have the sales rep follow up or just call them myself a few days later. While time consuming, calling on accounts in person definitely yields the best results. Also, properly identifying potential customers saves a lot of time. I can’t afford to spend time selling an account that doesn’t primarily cater to my target demographic of wealthy, fashion-conscious mothers.

We’re also about to launch an online store.

How about marketing? What’s the strategy and the challenges?
The biggest challenge with marketing is how to do it with a limited budget. We have a website and are experimenting with a Google Adwords campaign on right now. However, being an “old economy” company, we actually rely heavily on two other forms of marketing: printing and direct mail. When you call on retail accounts, it’s nice to have something to leave behind for the potential customer.

For the first season, we took photos of the samples, laid out a few pages on Photoshop, printed them out a color printer, and got a bunch of bounded color copies from Kinkos. The whole thing cost a few hundred dollars to do and was almost completely variable cost. We’ve since gone to a professionally printed catalog which both looks better and is cheaper for the larger volumes we are now producing.

We also did a very cost effective direct mail postcard to 500 boutique children’s clothing stores in the US. It was really easy to do with online print shops. We just designed the postcard, uploaded the images, gave them a mailing list and they did everything else. The whole thing cost less than $300. Just one new account would more than pay for the campaign!

We’re currently looking into doing more in terms of PR. We really haven’t had time to focus on PR at all. We got really lucky and have had a few great write-ups in some magazines including Parents Magazine.

I’m curious: Why are you getting in touch with me? I write an online blog on personal finance and entrepreneurship, which is far from retail. What made you think to get in touch with me?
You never know what sort of interesting opportunities come up by taking the initiative and talking to people. Maybe one of your readers owns a boutique children’s clothing store or has a connection with Oprah to get littleMAN featured on her show. Maybe Oprah herself is one of your readers!

I checked out your site and the kids look like little players. I’m intimidated by them. Do they get little girls running all up on them?
Absolutely! In fact, our original littleMAN was actually picked up by a modeling agency and has recently auditioned for the GAP, Armani Kids and Tommy Hilfiger. Lesson here: buy your kid littleMAN clothes if you want him to be a playa.

I see. Do you make clothes for Bigger Little Men, like 24-year-olds?
It’s funny you say that. We’ve actually been approached about expanding into men’s fashion. However, it’s a completely different market and I’ve got my hands full as it is! If we do eventually expand into bigger sizes, I’ll be sure to let you know.

What role does your husband take?
My husband really helps out on two fronts: emotional support and graphic design. Being an entrepreneur is extremely demanding emotionally from one day to the next. One minute you’re fighting with a vendor over quality issues and the next a retail account calls out of the blue to place a large order. My husband really helps bring everything into perspective both good and bad. Being so close to the company, it’s often hard not to exaggerate events.

Additionally, my husband had toyed around with Photoshop in the past and turns out he’s pretty good at it! In fact, he got all excited when he read about Before and After Magazine on your blog and bought a subscription. For the next few days, he read a bunch of issues and completely redesigned the website. If you look at the home page on my website, the layout came straight out of issue 625. He does most of the work on a laptop sitting aboard an airplane.

You noticed how I had to ask specifically for women to get in touch with me to be featured in Friday Entrepreneurs. What do you think about that? How is it being a woman in business? Is this even a concern you think about?
I imagine being a woman in business is very similar to being a man in business: your boss is a moron, you’re underpaid, and you can’t wait until the weekend! But seriously, on a day-in and day-out basis, I don’t think being a woman in business is that different with the exception of the ticking clock. For a woman, sacrificing your personal life for work in your 20s can be a life-long regret as you may lose your chance at having biological children of your own. Ultimately, I was unwilling to make that sacrifice which is the primary reason I started littleMAN in the first place.

What advice do you have for people considering doing something like this?
I have 3 main recommendations.

First, if you decide to start something with a partner, be VERY careful about whom you choose. I actually started littleMAN with a close friend as a partner. While we had the same desire to become entrepreneurs, we had vastly different perceptions about what that meant. Starting a company involves a lot of hard work. More often than not, the hard work is a lot of thankless tasks such as cold calling customers or sorting through inventory. Be sure any partner you have is just as committed to the venture as you are. I wasted a lot of valuable time dissolving the partnership.

Second, don’t over-analyze the situation. Being an entrepreneur involves a fair bit of blind faith. Looking back, had I known all the mistakes I would make and analyzed every last detail, I’m not sure I would have taken the plunge. There have been many situations where I’ve been in over my head but you just learn to deal with each one individually. I don’t regret becoming an entrepreneur at all. Sure some days are harder than others, but all in all, starting my own business has been the best professional experience I’ve ever had. Having worked in management consulting, in Japan as an ex-pat, and for a major Hollywood studio, I’d say that’s saying something.

Finally, know exactly why you want to be an entrepreneur. It’s just like your blog about the importance of knowing WHY you want to be rich. For me, it was about the flexibility of running my own business. I’m not going to be the next Bill Gates running littleMAN but then again, that’s not my primary goal.

Tracy Tseng, littleMAN style

Check out littleMAN Style. Still looking for more? Read other Friday Entrepreneurs, sign up for my newsletter, and submit yourself as a Friday Entrepreneur.

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5 Comments

 
  1. Starting a business to have time with your family and obey your biological clock! Awesome! That’s my plan too, though my husband and I are not as far along in the process.

  2. thanks for interviewing tracy. it’s great to read about all the little details & background work that it takes to get something going. for some reason, it gives me hope.

  3. I just wanted to say thankyou for doing this interview! As a 20-something female, I am in the planning stages of my own business and recently it has been hard to be motivated, but after reading this interview, I have been inspired to get back to work and make it happen. Thanks again.

  4. Starting a business is scarey enough. Thank you for some questions that I needed answered. I visited the Littleman site. I myself love designer boys clothes. I love sandboxcouture.com. They have some really high quality clothing for children!

  5. I really enjoyed reading this article (I’ve actually read it a few times and shared it with my husband). I’m starting a clothing line for women, but have no experience with sewing or fashion designing. I know the specific market I’m targeting and where to obtain the fabrics I need. I also know I have a unique eye for quality clothes and can relate to your comment about looking through 300 buttons to find the perfect one!
    Is there anyway to contact you directly?