Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Tanya Zhang, co-founder of Nimble Made, a D2C e-commerce menswear brand selling “actually slim” fit dress shirts. We created our own unique, actually-slim sizing for dress shirts with a trimmed shirt length, sleeve length, and back/shoulder measurements. Our sizes are based on a function of height and weight for a better slim fit off-the-rack. Our customers are anyone looking to buy a slim-fitting dress shirt online.
We started Nimble Made in late 2018 and have bootstrapped it since day 1 with revenue at $40k in our first year.
As Asian-American founders, we're changing the dynamic clothing landscape to include men of all body types, starting with a slim fit that actually fits. Watch our interview with MONEY Magazine here.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Born and raised in LA, I have STEM education in Interdisciplinary Computing & the Arts from UC San Diego and Minor in Writing. I started my career as an art director working on integrated creative ad campaigns at TBWA\CHIAT\DAY NY. I moved on to be the first brand hire at fintech start-up Better.com. Most recently, I was a Senior UX/UI (user-centric interaction design and user experience) consultant advising for financial services clients at Ernst & Young LLP.
There are so many obstacles to overcome and take on on a daily basis and having the perseverance to get through them is, honestly, most of the battle.
My co-founder Wesley Kang is a slimmer Taiwanese-American who was at the time working in finance and had to wear a dress shirt every day to work. He often had a hard time finding a well-fitting dress shirt off-the-rack that fit his build at 5’5” in height and 140 lbs in weight. I saw the same issue with my father who immigrated to the states from China and always stated that “American dress shirts didn’t fit [him]” because they were either too baggy, long in length, or had excess fabric when tucked at the waist. Traditional dress shirt retailers size through a function of neck size and sleeve length e.g. 14.5” neck / 32 sleeve length (usually the smallest size offered… which was still too large for Wesley) and we knew we could create something better for slimmer guys who’ve felt averaged out by the dress shirt industry.
We came up with the idea in March 2018 to create a high quality “actually slim” dress shirts that fit off-the-rack without a tailor on the greater mission of increasing Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation in fashion. We clocked in at night to get our business idea to MVP before leaving our full-time jobs 6 months later. We conducted an initial market, user, and competitive research to inform our sizes and produced samples with a manufacturer we found online. Once the samples came in, we had different guys try on the shirts and give us feedback on the fit, meanwhile collecting their measurements. With my background in brand/design and Wesley’s in finance/data, we hosted a launch party with our 3 initial dress shirt styles in 5 actually slim sizes in NYC and left our jobs a month later.
Photo of the behind-the-scenes shoot of our initial 3 dress shirts:
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We started with building our actually slim fit off of Wesley’s body. He was 5’5” in height and around 130 lbs at the time we were prototyping and became our, then, smallest size N1. From there, we created a preliminary size chart with various measurements across the body for our N2, N3, N4, and N5 sizes. We created an initial batch of samples of these first 5 sizes and did a bunch of user testing and interviews to adjust. We also just recently added our newest smallest size N0 due to high demand and customer feedback.
Wesley and I didn’t have any fashion experience going into it – I was a graphic designer and Wesley wore dress shirts at his finance job– that was the extent of it. We were eager to get to an MVP stage (meanwhile still working at our full-time jobs) so we put a very scrappy mood board collage of the first three shirts we wanted to make and Wesley put together an excel sheet of all the measurements he wanted them to have. Then we sent this to maybe 5-7 manufacturers we found online–most of whom did not want to work with us because 1. we didn’t meet their MOQ (minimum order quantity) requirement and 2. we didn’t have a tech pack (a standard technical document with patterns in the garment manufacturing industry). Luckily, we found one who was willing to work with what we had. We’re still working with this supplier, however, last year we’ve started to formalize our patterns with a technical designer we contracted to give us more ownership and opportunity to start conversations with other suppliers.
The sourcing process takes a long time. We were looking for suppliers online and at trade shows; they’re either located abroad which makes communication difficult or they’re based in the USA but have higher labor wages. We reach out to the ones we like from our initial conversation and talk to them over email to gather estimates, shipping logistics, etc and if it all goes well, we ask them to make a sample by sending them our scrappy “tech pack”. Getting a sample is very important because we can see how well they follow our measurements, instructions, and more importantly, their craftsmanship. In the beginning, it was very difficult because Wesley and I didn’t know the vernacular in the industry so trying to get across what we were trying to make, especially over email, and without a tech, the pack was all trial and error. We were looking for a supplier that was somewhat vertically integrated so we didn’t have to go source fabric or trims ourselves, had a small MOQ, and could deliver within our bootstrapped budget.
Online, we’re continually tweaking our size calculator on our site that recommends our customers their size. We look at exchanges and returns and get feedback from those who weren’t able to find a good fit with us to see how we can recommend better sizes for future users.
Photo of the anatomy of our fit:
Photos of behind-the-scenes founder designing:
Describe the process of launching the business.
We launched with 3 dress shirt styles in inventory, a live website, and our designed mailer boxes in Oct 2018. We had a launch party in NYC to get the initial word out to friends and family and were able to collect a hundred or so emails as well from Eventbrite.
We financed the business with our personal savings and funded the first batch of inventory of our 3 dress shirt styles and administration costs at $5,000. Our website is always changing in order to improve our conversion rate but we bought the Shopify theme Modular which had a lot of the features we were looking for in UX and UI and tasked developers to fix up things here and there.
The biggest lesson when starting is to listen to feedback. Whenever possible, deploy feedback surveys from your earliest customers. What can be improved? What would they like to see next? How did they hear about us? The answers to these questions really informed which direction we’d take the company in the next 6 months.
Photos of me giving presentations + popping up at events:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, we kicked off the brand with a lot of grassroots marketing which is great when you’re on a budget since it’s mostly sweating equity. We were doing organic outreach via partnerships, influencers, blogs, joint events/pop-ups with communities that aligned with our mission of AAPI advancement. We saw a lot of great word of mouth referrals from these efforts but we realized the scale wasn’t as drastic as we’d like it to be.
From there, we really started to focus on our digital efforts namely SEO, Facebook / Instagram ads, organic social as well. Currently, our number one channel for traffic is through our blog posts on our website – one in particular which we’ve written “18 best dress shirts” and named ourselves as the #1 brand–this, I’ll have to give credit to our contractor who’s been working on our SEO efforts. He looks at what keywords my competitors rank for and researches ones that we can actually compete for. In the menswear space, we find topics like “how to style with jeans”, “best dress shirts for certain events”, “how to match x with y”, “casual wear vs formal wear”, etc very popular (check out the rest of our articles here) so we’re churning out 4-8 new articles every month to see which drive traffic and optimize from there.
We’ve been able to climb the ranks of organic search results through our SEO efforts, writing more blog content, optimizing on-page SEO, and getting backlinks. From there, our Facebook / Instagram ads retarget these readers and our emails help retain and nurture returning customers. Consistency is very important. We have a budget allocated for backlinks, blog content, ads so there’s new content, backlinks, ad creatives being generated and tested every 2 weeks. We also look at the data of these efforts to see how to reiterate and improve on them moving forward.
I’ve listened to a lot of startup podcasts featuring founders in the menswear who all say that press really helped them “make it” so I prioritized securing press as one of our first efforts. With no experience in PR, I learned everything from this blog article by Jaclyn Fu, founder of Pepper Bra.
She lays out in really great tactical steps how to get press when you’ve never done it before. This was the only guide I followed and it helped me secure a number of publications in our first year of business. As she mentions, there’s prep involved: putting together a PR kit, researching publications that have featured competitors, and then setting up the right cadence for pitching and keeping track of pitches so you can follow up. I secured a number of placements whose audiences were of the Asian American demographic, namely Cold Tea Collective, Mochi Magazine, etc, which helped spread the word of our brand and got the attention of larger outlets like Huffington Post. Local outlets were very receptive to my pitch–I secured a Times of San Diego feature since I went to university in San Diego. I also got an article on the front page of my local high school city newspaper.
I’m also in a number of Facebook groups created for entrepreneurs, Asian creatives, female founders, and more where reporters or journalists will post and look for stories. I landed MONEY Magazine by replying to a video editor who was looking for more AAPI narratives to feature. Press has worked very well since it’s free (most of the time) but it does take sweat equity, organization, and persistence.
Email marketing is the newest effort that we’re working on now so we’re testing various efforts to figure out the best strategy e.g. segmenting our users based on what we know of the customer –– like creating an email list of customers vs non-customers so we can create more targeted emails specific to that type of use –– and sending out campaigns one time a week and a/b test the subject line to see which performs better. We have an automated email flow that emails a customer who’s purchased a few months ago and gives them a hefty discount if they come back and purchase another shirt that has generated win back sales.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re a year old at around $40k in sales with most of our traffic coming in organically via SEO. As an e-commerce brand, our sales are all through our online store with the exception of some pop-up events we’ll vendor at. Still a 2-person team, we’re strapped for resources but are excited to grow our product selection to go beyond dress shirts. Our customers are primarily in the USA with California and New York making up half of our sales.
Our long term goals for the business are to expand the product selection to pants, accessories, and more and become a one-stop-shop for guys looking for a better fit. We have a bold Asian American narrative that’s based on the personal struggle of the co-founders and look to continue to build an authentic brand that strives for more Asian American Pacific Islander representation and size inclusion in fashion.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Being self-funded, we’re incredibly scrappy with everything we’ve done which has its pros and cons. Pros: we’ve learned everything ourselves e.g. how to run our own ads, better optimize our website with SEO, how to take product photos which gave us a solid knowledge foundation for when we started to contract out the work to freelancers and agencies. We were able to call out agencies when they were lazy or trying to pull the wool over our eyes because we knew the intricacies of the systems or processes, having done them ourselves in our first year of running the business.
Cons: we were too penny-pinching with our expenses, trying to save a dollar here and there for supplies that we needed more of. For example, we ordered the bare minimum in inventory and ended up not having enough shirts to prepare us for our first Q4, leaving us empty-handed during the holiday season. We ran out of our mailer boxes and had to ship our $80 dress shirts in USPS boxes and apologized to our customers for the lackluster packaging during the holidays. We were constantly running out to the store to get more tape, tissue paper, extra clips, etc. I learned to not underestimate myself, the business, and to take bigger risks when it comes to putting down money to grow the business.
Photo of holiday packaging:
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify is a must for e-commerce driven businesses. We use HeyCarson for any website fixes and Shipstation for easy day-to-day fulfillment. Setting up the back end of our site was very important as well, namely Google Analytics and Facebook Pixel to collect data on everyday traffic and users. We also use Klaviyo for our email marketing which is great for automated email flow.
Separately, we contract diverse freelancers for SEO, Facebook ads, blog writing, photography, & more.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I enjoyed reading Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Nike Founder, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance and Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull, Pixar Founder –– all stories of founders and entrepreneurs who’ve gone through hardships and obstacles in their journey and written about them in a very honest and personal way. Such inspiring stories that teach aspiring entrepreneurs the lesson of resilience.
The End of Average by Todd Rose argues for design paradigms that accommodate individual differences rather than a statistical average human which gave me a larger perspective on why focusing on a niche is important and how the average-size-fits-all model ignores unique differences and fails at recognizing talent.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Often times, I find aspiring entrepreneurs are stuck at the very first step: picking an idea. Wesley and I had lists of potential business ideas we jotted down on a daily basis. But ideas are just words on paper until action is taken. Get feedback from your peers. Do some initial research. And go on to the next step. It’s rare to find a completely unique product or idea unless you’re on the verge of cutting, innovative technology –– and that's okay. We’re one of the millions of shirt brands out there. What matters is how you’re able to market to your niche.
Find a product or mission that drives you. If it’s one thing you need in entrepreneurship, it’s resilience. There are so many obstacles to overcome and take on on a daily basis and having the perseverance to get through them is, honestly, most of the battle. It really helps to have a product and mission you’re very passionate about to remind you and keep you grounded in what you’re doing.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re always looking to be connected to creatives e.g. photographers, writers, models, videographers, bloggers, etc who are inspired by our mission of striving for more size inclusion and Asian American representation in the clothing industry. Shoot us a DM on Instagram to connect!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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