Starting a Kids Clothing Brand and Growing to $12k/mo

The Story of Sawyer

Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hi there, I’m Cameron Olthuis, owner and operator of Sawyer. Sawyer is a high-quality kids clothing brand that makes soft, durable products with timeless designs that inspire them to get outside and explore the natural world.

We discovered a striking statistic:

Kids today spend less time outside than maximum security prisoners.

The average child spends 8-10 hours a day in front of a screen and less than one hour per day outside. Spending time outside is important for kids as it’s a healthy way to develop, learn, and grow through experience. We are a mission driven brand encouraging a balance of technology and nature in kids lives. Go outside and play!

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We operate a direct-to-consumer business model that’s completely bootstrapped and our fulfillment is done entirely in house. This allows our brand to be in control of all customer touch points, something we feel is extremely important when building a brand.

Our products to date have largely consisted of graphic tees, hats & beanies, and hoodies. We’re now moving into custom cut & sew apparel products. Our long-term vision includes technical outerwear and other functional outdoor products exclusively for kids.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My online entrepreneurial journey started when I was 21 and my then girlfriend was pregnant with our first child. That was almost 17 years ago. I was working a minimum wage customer service job, had no post high school education, and knew that I needed to make big changes in order to provide a better life for my family. It’s been a long journey that’s seen its share of ups & downs, with times where I literally wasn’t sure how I would be able to feed my family the next day. Somehow, it worked out, and I always knew the sacrifices would pay off if I stuck with it.

Most recently, my role was VP, Audience Development at CBS Interactive. During my 6 1/2 years at CBS, we grew from the #13 Comscore property to #6. That’s an elite group: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Amazon, Microsoft and then CBSi. Prior to my role at CBSi, I ran audience growth at a startup called Clicker, which was acquired by CBS for a nine-figure sum. That was quite a learning experience.

The entrepreneurial spirit in me was calling the entire time I was at CBS Interactive. I never expected to be there for as long as I was, but incentives in the form of stock options that hadn’t vested and a big paycheck helped keep me around. That and I also enjoyed the learning experience, challenges of working on the biggest internet properties, and working for the CEO, who’s been a great mentor to me. But, my time had come. CBSi was running like a well-oiled machine and the excitement was no longer there for me. I needed to work on something that was meaningful to me again. I was also a partner in a content arbitrage business at that time with yearly revenues of around $7.5 million at its peak. That helped make the decision to leave easier. This was, of course, non-conflicting to my work at CBS.

The idea for Sawyer roots back to when my kids were much younger . My wife and I had a hard time finding quality made products for our own kids that would stand up to the rugged outdoor lifestyle we were so fond of. Our favorite brands had a very limited kids’ selection and most everything else was poor quality with over-the-top designs. We’d always talked about doing something in this space but never acted on it until recently. I had started staffing up an office anticipating my departure from CBS and wanted to run that as a sort of skunkworks type lab. Together with my team and the idea from many years ago, Sawyer was born.

Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.

We go through a tedious process of testing fabric materials and cuts for quality, softness, fit, and durability before finally settling on products we’re comfortable putting our name on. As consumers, we believe in buying well, which to us means spending more on quality products that will last a really long time. Buying poor-quality products usually ends up costing the consumer more in the long run. Every product we sell needs to live up to this standard. This takes more time and additional costs, but we’re able to charge a premium because of it. Additionally, we can be proud of everything we make.

Our customer feedback tells us we’re doing a pretty good job. We get a lot of reviews that praise the quality and softness of our products. Kids appreciate it as well. We’ve been told many times that our stuff is a kids favorite and they want to wear it everyday, or even sleep in it. We’ve also had many repeat purchases, some customers have now ordered 7-8 times from us in less than a year.

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The other test all of our products must pass is; would we wear it ourselves? This again goes back to the over-the-top designs that plague the kids’ apparel industry and our mission to create timeless designs. We’ve worked with local artists to transfer their watercolor paintings to clothing, hired graphic designers from freelance sites, and created designs in-house, even though none of us had any previous background in design.

We have several boxes of manufactured products in our office that we refuse to sell. Maybe that’s because of a blemish in the design or a mis-labeled tag. Whatever the reasons, we believe that absorbing that cost now is better than losing a customer or tarnishing our brand name. We’ve donated some of those products to various causes like the recent Houston floods or Sub-for-Santa, and we’ll continue doing more of that in the future.

Describe the process of launching the online store/business.

Building out the actual store was pretty simple for me, thanks to Shopify which makes that part really easy.

From there we had prototype products made and we hosted a BBQ in the mountains where we invited all our friends to bring their kids to do a photoshoot. This gave us a bunch of high-quality photos that we could use on the website and in our advertising at launch.

We didn’t want to launch to crickets, so we started building our social accounts a few months prior to launch. We used Facebook Ads at launch as well, so right from the start we were selling some product.

Sawyer is self funded, which is challenging at times. Because we do our own fulfillment, we have to always be stocked with inventory. So every time we sell a t-shirt, we have to turn around and buy another one for inventory. This makes cash flow management difficult. Don’t underestimate this aspect if you plan to carry your own inventory.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

A lot of tactics and strategies from the "playbook" I’ve developed over the years haven’t worked out as well as I’d planned.

While we’ve had some success with Facebook & Instagram Ads, I haven’t been able to achieve the massive scale that we did in our arbitrage business. Maybe that’s because of my refusal to become a discount brand. However, I will say it’s hard to always properly attribute what channels are driving the results. I’ve heard that a customer has to see your brand at least seven times before buying and I think this runs true for us. For us, we try to be visible across all platforms that our customers use.

The area on Instagram that we’ve had success with is working with influencers. We’ve been able to attract some popular ambassadors by providing them with free product for their kids. Again, it really helps that we make a quality product and they truly love our brand ethos. Not only has this been an effective way to get our name out there, but we’ve got so many great photos that we can turn around and use for our own marketing & advertising.

The biggest surprise to me has been how well email marketing has worked. Email wasn’t one of my strong suits, but I’ve been schooled over the last year and now I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it. Our revenue per email far exceeds any other traffic channel up to this point, so now we’re doubling and tripling down on it. Viral email giveaways have been a successful way for us to acquire emails. We also focus a lot on email segments and flows and we put a lot of time into our newsletters and other promotional emails. I recently heard a quote that says, "People don’t hate getting emails, they hate getting bad emails." I always think about the value we’re providing prior to any emails or communications we send out.

How is everything going nowadays, and what are your plans for the future?

I’m proud of the loyal customer base and raving fans we’ve developed a relationship with in the short 10-months we’ve been in business. Our sales numbers aren’t as high as I had projected when starting out, but we have a healthy growth trajectory that we continue to build on. I’ve been focusing on making the right decisions for the long-term instead of short-term sales numbers. I’m looking at this business in terms of decades, not years, as I feel like I may have found my calling in life.

We’ve recently scaled back our number of full-time employees, but this in no way reflects the state of the business. I made mistakes early on in hiring for growth instead of hiring because we really needed the help. I also made the decision to shutter some of our other projects so that we can focus on this business.

In terms of what’s in the near future for Sawyer, we’re close to releasing a line of basics, starting with blank tees made in the USA from 100% organic cotton. We may try and offer that as a subscription service as well. We’ve also started working on producing a functional sweatshirt and sweatpant set. Aside from that we’re finalizing our fall line of new designs, hats & beanies, and sweatshirts so we’re ready to roll that out in time for back-to-school.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have started a kids’ clothing business to be honest. But there’s a saying that sometimes it’s better knowing what you don’t know. The kid’s apparel industry is brutally competitive and consumers today are trained to wait for promotions to buy. That makes being a premium brand hard. Convincing a mom to part with her family’s hard earned money for a $25 t-shirt isn’t easy, especially when she can shop at Target or Walmart for $5 t-shirts. Again, this goes back to selling a quality product and having a brand that stands for something meaningful. The products we make are ethically produced from premium materials and magnitudes better than what you’ll find at a discount department store, but convincing people who can’t see or touch that product first takes work.

I’m learning a lot about product development as it relates to apparel. It’s exciting and gratifying to work on a physical product you can touch and feel, which is so different from my previous experience working exclusively with digital properties and products.

Something that’s helpful for those starting out or trying to optimize their e-commerce business, is making sure you spend enough time and effort on conversion rates. You can dramatically increase revenue without increasing traffic. We spend a couple hours every week going over our copy, website, and checkout process to continually make improvements in this area. We’ve been able to double our conversion rates since starting.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Shopify, which makes running an online storefront dead simple. It reminds me a lot of Wordpress, which I have a lot of previous experience with. Shopify is super easy to customize and there’s a huge community of third-party developers creating all sorts of useful plugins and tools that seamlessly integrate with it.

We use Klaviyo for email and we love it. It has great reporting and segmenting, and it’s easy to create different email flows.

A few other apps and tools we use:

  • Yotpo for customer reviews, which are super important for a new product and/or brand
  • Shipstation for shipping & printing labels
  • Kickoff Labs for hosting viral email giveaways
  • Back-in-stock for customers to be notified when sold out products are available

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Let My People Go Surfing: Written by Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia.

I’ve recommended this book to a lot of people. It’s the story of how the brand Patagonia was started and the journey of the business over the last 50 years from the founder’s perspective. Patagonia is a brand I respect, both for the quality of products they make and their dedication to social responsibility. This book covers everything from running a meaningful business, to product development, to creating a company culture that inspires people to love coming to work.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Written by Mark Twain.

This classic American novel may sound a bit silly to include here, but the name of our brand, Sawyer, came from Tom Sawyer, whom we all know as the quintessential youth explorer. I hadn’t read this book since my own youth, but doing so recently has really inspired and helped shape the direction of our company. It’s an entertaining book as well, with all his antics and clever mischief and whatnot.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Just start. The biggest mistake I see people make is never acting on their ambitions to do something.

Whether that’s fear, laziness, or whatever reason that’s holding them back, it’s the only way to move forward. Once you start you can see what works and what doesn’t and you can always improve from there. Whether you’re successful in your ventures or you fail, and believe me, I’ve failed a lot, you always learn something and feel better for trying.

Hanging out in relevant online forums or Facebook groups is a great way to learn. There’s usually a general wealth of knowledge already in there with so much to learn. And it makes asking questions and getting help really easy when you get stuck or need advice. And then there’s Google, we literally have all the information in the history of mankind at our fingertips, so there’s no excuse. Aside from that, listen to podcasts and read books, but again, you will learn more from doing than you will listening to other people’s stories.

Where can we go to learn more?

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