Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Jeremy Roberts and I am a co-founder of Tradlands with my wife Sadie Beaudet. We sell ethically-made women’s clothing with a focus on effortless, refined, quality essentials. We began Tradlands in 2012 after reading the Four Hour Work Week with an idea and question - how can we design, manufacture, and sell high quality and great fitting button-up shirts for women? That initial idea sparked our company and we opened our Shopify store and sold our first shirts on February 5th, 2013.
Our customers are women who are looking for ethically made clothing that is created to last for years - clothing they could hand down to their daughters. Clothing that when you wear it makes you feel like yourself.
Currently, the business is generating around $134k a month in revenue. We’ve grown tremendously in the past year and currently have 7 FT and PT employees and recently achieved our first year where we hit $1million in revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After art school, I was working in the photography industry in San Francisco, and my girlfriend at the time (now wife) Sadie was working for a small clothing company. We were both working to live and afford San Francisco and both not happy with our current work situations. I randomly stumbled across the Four Hour Work Week and devoured it on the bus to and from work in just a few days.
From there we were trying to generate business ideas. Being from a photography background we investigated camera bags but that idea fell flat. We also were thinking about meditation-related products and some pet products, both of which went nowhere. Sadie was a big fan of menswear clothing (tomboy aesthetic) and loved the high-quality craftsmanship, classic fabrics, and timeless style available for menswear. One day she was complaining to me about not being able to buy the same quality button-up shirts from the womenswear departments that she knew were available to men. At that moment I said “That’s it!” and from there we decided we wanted to create a high-quality, great fitting, timeless style button-up shirt for the women’s market.
Sadie was working for a small baby clothing label at the time and knew about production and wholesale. I began to study entrepreneurship and digital marketing by reading blogs and listening to podcasts like Lifestyle Business Podcast (now Tropical MBA), Smart Passive Income, Automate My Small Business, and Ecommerce Fuel. I learned everything I know at the beginning from resources like this.
We also learned all the basics of clothing and garment production from the book The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing and getting assistance from the pattern makers and garment sewers we met and contracted with along the way. We were literally learning as we went along and figuring out by making mistakes and pivoting fast.
We began asking friends and family who we thought might be in the target market of our new business idea and received positive responses. To fund Tradlands we cashed out our existing 401k’s and received a little financial support from family. We started the business and funded the first production run with a total of $15k.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Using The Entrepreneur's Guide to Sewn Product Manufacturing as our main resource and leaning on the experts to fill in the knowledge gaps we began prototyping our first button-up shirt. We would have a sample made, test it for fitting, quality, details, and order another sample with our updated revisions. After getting to our final sample we were ready to go into production.
Being in SF we knew we wanted to manufacture in the USA and do it locally. We began visiting the various manufacturing facilities in the city and finally chose one that met our low MOQ needs. A benefit of producing in the USA was lower MOQs but at a higher cost per unit. Our first production run consisted of 144 units - one style of the shirt across 8 fabrics.
We needed to source our own fabric, buttons, trims, etc and knew that Los Angeles was a major epicenter for fashion. We rented a car - we didn’t own one at the time - and drove to the LA fabric district and bought fabric at wholesale, sourced buttons from vendors, and returned to SF to drop off the inputs to our manufacturer.
Being close to our manufacturer we could visit the facility regularly for updates, revisions, and to take photos for our pre-launch marketing and social media accounts. We started a blog and Instagram account from the very beginning and started collecting email addresses through Mailchimp and began giving our followers updates along the way.
Email marketing has proven year over year to be our silent driver of revenue.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Building up to the launch we built up a small email list and followers on Instagram where we shared images of samples, fabrics, and production in-progress. We hired our good friend to design our first website which was built out on a custom Shopify theme. Early on we started pre-paying a full year ahead for Shopify and still have that special (and highly discounted) plan to this day.
We launched in February 2013 with sales from strangers and family members accompanied by press from local SF press and a couple of nation-wide fashion bloggers. Less than two months later we were in contact with a blogger we admired for years and were featured on her blog. Although small at the time we celebrated this early press win plus a bump in sales.
Within 4 months of launching, we moved across the country to stay with family and bootstrap the business. We lived as cheaply as we could so we could pump all our time and money back into it to make it work. We continued to live with family for 2 years until the business has grown enough to afford us to move back to California. It was a hard sacrifice that not many people would voluntarily do but we knew it was the road we needed to take to live this dream we had created out of thin air just a couple of years earlier.
I don’t regret our decision to bootstrap the business with our own funds but understand now why people access family and friends rounds, seed rounds, angel rounds, etc. Starting with a small sum of startup money makes decision making harder, grow slower, along with other bumps in the road that having available cash easily solves. Not having a lot of funds to utilize made us scrutinize every decision, every purchase, and be very vigilant about our cost of goods, our margin, and available cash balance which all have helped us be smarter and more successful entrepreneurs today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Email marketing has proven year over year to be our silent driver of revenue. Early on we sent a mix of product-focused campaigns and a once-a-week content email that included a link round-up curated by Sadie. This allowed us to stay connected to our audience without needing to constantly talk about ourselves and our products.
We grew the email list with a combination of popup offers on the website and giveaways featuring other brands. Starting from a simple “X% Off” popup has grown to various gift card giveaway offers, exit-intent offers on the cart and other pages, and quiz funnels. Building out a quiz funnel on Typeform as shown by Eric Banholz of Beardbrand (here and here) has proven to be our most successful on-site lead gen strategy.
Although Instagram had just come on the scene, in 2013 blogging was still very big. We strategically worked with fashion bloggers on sponsored content to get in front of their audiences and hopefully convert new fans to customers. We had a lot of success with this strategy but eventually blogging fizzled out and people’s attention went to Instagram. We have worked with many small to medium influencers to grow our audience and TOFU awareness.
As a small brand, we have to make every marketing dollar count and look at Instagram as both a TOFU awareness strategy and a BOFU conversion asset. With a post-purchase survey on the thank-you page of our store (powered by ProveIt) we consistently see that our Instagram and influencer efforts are what is bringing most of our new customers into the funnel.
In Q4 of 2019, we started an SMS program that has shown great success. Using the Postscript platform we can set up a large ecosystem of campaigns and automation (think campaigns and flows in Klaviyo) that deliver a mix of product-focused content, educational and entertainment content, and transactional messaging.
When we have large sales and promotions SMS campaigns accompany our email, social media, and paid social messaging to provide a waterfall of touchpoints. We have begun to experiment with delivering each channel at different times (and days) to be able to better track down attribution for each one.
The average time between purchases for Tradlands is statistically at least two months so we utilize a postcard campaign that goes out immediately after a first-time purchase offering a discount towards their next purchase. This campaign converts at 18% and results in 6% of our monthly revenue. We like to think of direct mail as getting into people’s forgotten inbox. While the world has focused so much on digital marketing there are generations of marketers who mastered direct mail and invented a lot of the strategies and tactics we use today and we think of postcard campaigns as just dipping our toe in the water of what’s possible.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The company has been profitable since day one because of the early decision to bootstrap the business and put everything we’ve made back into it. In the first 4 years in business, we manufactured all in the United States. Eventually, we needed to look at the current and future financial health of the company and from there we chose to move our manufacturing to Asian and South American partners. We feared we would lose a segment of customers who counted on us for our ‘Made in USA’ ethos but from what we can tell this did not affect our sales too much.
Making this decision improved many areas of our operations from production management, product quality, but most of all an improved COGS. Improving our financial position as related to the cost to produce the goods has been one of the biggest improvements we could have made to the business and ensures that we can continue to grow our team, increase our marketing efforts, and put money back in the bank to lean on during rough times (like COVID-19).
Tradlands today has become much more successful than I could have imagined when I was first dreaming about starting a business reading the 4 Hour Work Week. In the beginning, the business lived in my mind as a means to fulfill my dreams. Eventually, the company, the products, the team members, the community engagement, and more all have become a tool for fulfilling people's wants, needs, desires, and dreams. Our products are for customers who want high quality, ethically made essentials. My employees are here to provide a great experience for fans and customers. And I’m here to provide guidance and leadership to my employees and provide them with a positive and fulfilling work environment.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My favorite tools for the business are Shopify, Klaviyo, and Justuno. I can host my site, customize the on-site messaging and capture leads with popups, and engage plus re-engage with those leads through email.
Recently we’ve been growing the team and have relied heavily on the services of Dynamite Jobs - a platform for finding remote and location-independent employees and contractors. They’ve done an outstanding job of finding and curating a large database of highly qualified applicants and we’ve fulfilled recent roles with amazing people.
Other apps we use are Aftership, Facebook Ads, HelpScout, Loyalty Lion, Metafields Editor, PostPilot, Postscript, ProveIt, SEO Manager, Searchanise, Stamped.io, Stocky, Ultimate Special Offers, and Zipify Pages.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Cost Per Wear blog post
- Responsible Manufacturing blog post
- Minimalist Wardrobe blog post
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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