4 lessons you can take from my failed startup

Today is the International Day For Failure. No better time to reflect on my first startup, and my foray into the startup world.

It was 2006/7 that I was living in Singapore, and saw the introduction and rise of “blogshops”. This involved older teenage girls/young adults either:

A) selling used clothing and accessories on platforms like LiveJournal, for more money to y’know, shop some more

B) figuring out that a lot of boutiques got their stock from Bangkok, and going to Bangkok themselves to buy stock to sell online at a lower price point

I did A), and thought B) was really smart. Passing the savings from not having a storefront and staff onto the customer. And Bangkok does have great fashion. B) was always on my mind, and when I lived in Tokyo in 2009/10 I thought of starting it there, but the language and other factors deterred me.

While finishing up my Bachelor’s in 2012, I had no idea what I wanted to do after… I was studying Mathematics and Statistics, and unlike my classmates, I wasn’t keen on going on to be an academic, an actuary, or to work in a bank. That’s when Jolietta was born. Armed with B) nagging at the back of my mind for 6 years now, experience working in the fashion industry, and the firm belief that there’s a market for a stylish and affordable fashion alternative, I went fuck it, let’s go.

June 18, 2012: Attended convocation

September 5, 2012: Flew to Bangkok alone, spoke to 50-100 suppliers everyday with the help of an English-Thai app.

.

-Worked on the logo and branding with an graphic designer I went to elementary school with

-Enlisted the help of a website designer friend of a friend, to set up and customize an e-commerce site via BigCartel

.

November 10, 2012: Launch day. Activated a street marketing team aka friends.

Catch us on St Catherine & McGill nowww!

A post shared by Jolietta (@shopjolietta) on

Oh yeah it blew up and was an overnight success, which is what brings us here. Not.

Besides my Bangkok trip, I had a startup capital of $10K, most of which I blew on inventory. I asked friends of friends to be my models, and paid them in clothing. I looked to fine arts schools and Craigslist to find photographers on the cheap. That’s when I stumbled upon an ad by a photography studio who also called themselves a “startup”. We had an initial meeting and it was mind-blowing. They introduced me to this new, shiny “startup world”. They dropped so many names, I quickly took out a pen and was jotting furiously.

  • MTL NewTech, a meetup they were involved in + said I should check out that was the same night or day after.
  • Notman House, Montreal’s startup hub
  • etc

I was all alone, figuring things out on my own, and now, I had a community.

Finance, accounting, operations… that was all me. For a fresh grad who didn’t know what she wanted to do, that was the prefect first job. Having to wear so many hats let me dip my toes in all these areas, which is how I found my aptitude for marketing. And jumping into the deep end forced me to learn on the job, and learn by doing.

A big problem I faced was one I knew from the very beginning: Thai clothes are mostly “one size fits all”, a concept which doesn’t make sense in Canada. Because y’know, ladies here come in all shapes and sizes. I sort of knew this before going to Bangkok, and while there I struggled to find shops which offered multiples sizes. But since I was already there, I was adamant to keep going. Learning #1: trust your gut.

Another problem I faced was cashflow. I had no money left for marketing, etc. Learning #2: don’t hold inventory. Beyond the Rack, one of the original flash sale sites (Canadian too) is a perfect example of this. They get the orders (i.e. cash) first, before placing the orders with their suppliers. This was a big lesson for me, and now that I’m venturing into eCommerce again, 4 years later, I’m doing so via dropshipping and affiliate marketing, where I do not hold inventory.

Learning #3: validate first. Test if there’s a need for your product/service, before building. Read The Lean Startup. I found it hard to find stylish and affordable fashion in Canada, and thought there was a need, assumed others felt the same.

Finally, learning #4: start side projects, not startups. Keep your day job, start passion projects, and see where they go. Having an idea and then wanting/needing to raise money in order for someone to pay you to build it is tough and unlikely.

I’m so grateful for this experience. I “just did it”, instead of always thinking “what would have happened if”. I pushed myself further than I thought I could have ever gone; the days and weeks pre-launch saw me working 20 hour days. This also led to me working for eCommerce startup Brandicted, and I’ve been happily inundated with the startup world ever since. ❤

Nicole Fu at International Startup Festival 2013

P.s. I wrote this in a hurry and didn’t get into Jolietta 2.0 aka Jolietta Stylist. You can read a bit about it via this old Techvibes article if you’re keen.

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