One of the most important parts about operating your own company is making sure you stay sane. Between all the plates that are spinning and spinning, sometimes it’s necessary to just walk away and figure out a way to gain perspective. A saving grace for me has been meeting with other entrepreneurs. Whether we’re co-working to keep each other company or brainstorming new ideas or simply just venting to each other and exchanging challenges, it’s so important to me to surround myself with inspiring people.
During one of the polar vortexes (I think it was the first one), I met Julie Sygiel (founder of Dear Kate) for coffee. Originally, we planned on finding ways to work together, but it turned into a great little session where we talked about the difficulties of doing your own thing and some of the hardships we had both faced since graduating college… The road less traveled is not an easy road to take, but knowing that there are others on similar journeys makes it better! I asked Julie to share a bit of her experience because I thought it was really inspiring!
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is probably one of the most common questions we all hear during childhood, but I never quite knew how to answer it. Now that I am (somewhat) grown-up, I realized that there were clues as far back as age eight. Last time I was home visiting my parents, my mother asked me to clean out the attic. I spent hours sorting through Barbies, Barbie furniture, and an endless sea of pink. At the bottom of the pile I found a bunch of papers taped together end-to-end with hand-drawn lines on them. As I looked at the spreadsheet, I remembered this was from one of the many times I played “business” as a child. My Barbies didn’t just get dressed and fix their hair, they also had an imaginary business with imaginary customers.
Fast forward to now, it’s not surprising that I run my own company. Dear Kate makes a line of performance underwear for women, and since launching, we have shipped underwear near and far to customers in all 50 states and 36 countries.
It all started in college when I took an entrepreneurship class. There were three girls (and one guy who was a good sport) on our business plan team and we started brainstorming ideas. We were laughing about finding a way to make our periods less miserable when we came up with the idea to create a special pair of underwear for that time of the month. That was the start of a two year research project in which I partnered with fabric companies to create our ideal fabric. The winning fabric is now in every pair of Dear Kates, and features a built-in breathable lining that is stain-releasing and protects like a pantiliner. Dear Kates keep women prepared for anything, any day of the month (and I kind of feel like wonder woman when I put mine on in the morning).
I could pretend that the process of creating our fabric, designing pairs that fit, and marketing a new type of underwear was quick and easy. In reality, it took years to get where we are now. Since I started the company right out of college, I didn’t go to business school and instead opted to learn things the hard way. The first year we started selling I visited countless boutiques to build a retail presence. It was time consuming and we exhibited at an expensive tradeshow to sign up stores. Not a single store placed an order at the show and I couldn’t figure out what we did wrong. Meanwhile we were selling on our website and had a great relationship with customers online. It turns out that it was easy for customers to order online and the press that wrote about us directed them to our website. We could explain in detail how the fabric works instead of relying on boutiques to convey the message. We decided to focus on online sales and it was totally the right decision. Today we sell mostly online and in about 30 stores as well, however, it was only after we gained visibility among press and loyal customers that the stores started reaching out to us. If I had known it would work that way, I could have saved a TON of time and money spent reaching out to stores.
People often say, “Wow, I wish I would have started a business in college” and while running a business is great, it’s a big responsibility. I was the one staying up late returning customer service emails on Christmas and I’ll be taking my first-ever vacation later this month when I take two days off to travel to California for a long weekend. It does help that we have six people on our team now so most of the time things run smoothly (and when things aren’t going well I make an emergency trip to get cupcakes for everyone). Sometimes I wish that I had a 9-to-5 job. For about two seconds. Then I think about how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown since college. The challenging road is not for the faint of heart, but if you do decide to take it, get ready to come out on the other side stronger, wiser, and more independent. If you love what you do, it’s so much easier to embrace challenges, and if you’re trying to figure out what you love, I recommend thinking back to what you enjoyed doing when you were younger.
So what’s happening in 2014 at Dear Kate? In two weeks we’re moving offices into Refinery29’s beautiful space. This year for us is about partnering with women and companies that we admire (continuing in the same vein as last year’s partnerships with former Olympian Ro McGettigan from Believe I Am and indie musician MaryBeth Doran). The first thing up this year is our spring sport collection launching next month when we’ll be collaborating with our favorite women in fitness.
If you’d like to try out a pair of Dear Kates for yourself, head over to our website at dearkates.com and use the discount “collegeprepster” for 25% off your first order (valid through 2/28)!