“Where’s the rest of your line?” The woman asked as she pulled my shirts out of a Trader Joe’s paper sack.
“My line?” I had no idea what a line was and at that point I didn’t know enough to pretend that I did. That woman was interviewing me to see if she wanted to take me on and rep my line of t-shirts. When I walked into her showroom in the California market building in downtown Los Angeles, I was intimidated by how fancy everything was. Previously, I’d been selling my designs at a booth at the Hollywood flea market. I’d never had a rep and not only didn’t know what a line was but literally had no idea what I was doing.
“What about your branding? What’s the message you’re conveying through your designs? Do you have hang tags? You’ll need size labels. Are these machine washable?”
I said nothing as she and her three assistants inspected the applique tops I’d stayed up all night the night before sewing.
“Well… What season is this collection for?” she said pawing the flower applique on one of the shirts. “Spring…is…over. No one is ordering for spring. It’s all resort now. Is this your resort collection? If it is, you’re going to have to come up with something else besides flowers. Flowers are soooo spring,” she said as her assistants stood behind her nodding.
“okay. ummm… I think I may be in the wrong place.” My heart was pounding. I was way out of my comfort zone. I had two choices: be honest and tell her I had no idea what I was doing or pull my shirt from her hand and run. I chose the former.
I embarked on a monologue about how I was just starting out. I told her about selling at the flea market and how I’d dropped out of graduate school to become an artist and how I started making purses and then t-shirts and how I had no idea what a line, line sheet or branding were. Then, I whipped out my sketchbook, which was filled with sketches and notes and drawings of things I wanted to make: potential t-shirt designs and skirts and accessories.
“You’re so Petro Zillia,” she said. I quickly jotted this name down since I had no idea who Petro Zillia was.
“You’re…an…artist. And… I’m going to take you on. Our next trade show is in Vegas and it’s in two weeks. I want to bring your line to the show. You have a lot of work to do. Are you ready?”
I told her I was ready and spent the next two weeks working around the clock designing and making samples, business cards and hang tags as well as updating my website. The show went better than I’d hoped which led to a new set of problems I wasn’t prepared for, as you’ll read below. Hiring that rep ended up being one of the best things I did for business. During our years together she helped me get my line into nearly 300 stores all over the world as well as advised me on how to solidify my vision for my brand and create six lines a year that not only stayed true to my artistic vision but also fit with the trends of the season. I also made tons of mistakes along the way. Hopefully what I learned will help you not make the same errors as I did.
BONUS: If you’re ready to navigate the world of selling your products wholesale – you should check out Megan Auman’s FREE class Sell Your Products to Retailers on June 19th-21st on Creativelive. I’m a longtime fan of Megan’s website/blog, Designing an MBA – one of my favorite resources for creative business advice!
Here are a few terms you need to know:
Road reps travel within a specific territory showing your line to potential buyers.
The home base of reps who have a permanent space in a market building where buyers come to them.
Reps buy booths at trade shows where buyers travel from all over to see lines from across the country (and sometimes world) displayed in one place.
The percentage of your sales that the rep takes in return for connecting you with buyers and writing orders for your product. Usually 10%-20%
AND… some tips:
Capital to produce:
-Do you have the money to buy supplies and pay staff to produce orders that your rep may get for you?
When my rep took my line to a wholesale trade show for the first time I was extremely excited but also super nervous. What if no one placed any orders? What if buyers hated my designs and my rep dropped my line? What if I couldn’t finish my samples in time? none of these what-ifs came true. Not only did I finish all my samples before the show but, buyers had a great response to my line! A few days after the show I watched order after order flutter out of my fax machine (this was eight years ago and fax machines were a must if you had a rep). I sat down on my patio and opened a beer to celebrate my stack of orders. Then, I started doing the math. I’d need $10,000+ just to cover the costs of producing those orders. I had less than $500 in my bank account and no credit cards. A huge amount of stress overwhelmed me and I felt my right eyelid begin to nervously flutter. Luckily, I was able to borrow money from someone to buy the materials and hire the help to produce these orders. If I hadn’t had that financial help, I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. From that moment on, I started putting a little bit of money in a special savings account to be used only in situations like that.
-Your wholesale price should be competitive as well as cover your costs including your wage.
Before I hired my rep, I was selling all my products myself at craft shows, flea markets, farmers markets and online. My price point covered all of my production costs as well as allowed me to pay myself. When I got a rep and started selling wholesale I found out that my retail price point was too high for wholesale. I’d either have to lower my price point and pay myself less or rethink my production process and try to cut costs. I did a little bit of both. In retrospect I wish I wouldn’t have cut myself short and would have spent more time figuring out a way to produce my products for less. It’s important to have your retail and wholesale pricing set before you hire a rep.
-You need to have line sheets, online presence (including a website and social media) and business cards.
When my rep asked me for a line sheet, I had no idea what line sheet was. Thankfully, my rep was willing to walk me through what a line sheet was and show me examples of line sheets from other designers she carried. This was immensely helpful. I paid close attention to how these other designers laid out their line sheets and the quality of the photography of their products. Several of them also had catalogs. Their catalogs were not only filled with well-lit product photos but also featured style shots (photos of your product being worn or used – think about how products are represented in a catalog). Aside from line sheets and catalogs, I needed marketing materials like postcards and business cards. On top of all that, you should make sure your website is current and represents your brand and vision. In the past few years, it’s become important to have an online presence as well. Take a few minutes to set up your social media accounts, or if you already have them, spend a bit of time sprucing them up and keeping them up to date.
-Do you feel good about producing large quantities of your products as well as coming up with new products that fit both your artistic vision as well as the trends of the seasons?
Perhaps this is the first question to ask yourself before your consider you getting a rep. Think about why you started your business and what you enjoy about it. Are you ready to create multiples of the same thing or does thinking about that bum you out? Are you willing to alter some of your products to get the price point where it needs to be as you transition from retail to wholesale? Do you feel excited about the idea of creating 4+ new lines a year, so that you have new products to show buyers each season? Are you open to criticism from buyers and your rep about your product line? I loved creating new lines every few months in the beginning but after a few years the pressure of the deadlines for my creative output started to get to me. I had a hard time balancing my creative vision with what I thought shops would buy. I had to work hard to stay true to my instincts and artistic ideas while taking into account the colors and trends of the seasons.
Assess your strong points:
-If selling your products is one of your favorite parts of your business and you’re great at it, perhaps consider being your own rep and outsource another aspect of your business.
I had done a good job at getting my line into stores before my rep. Yet, walking into a store and introducing myself to the buyer wasn’t my favorite thing to do. I loved that my rep made that initial connection with the buyer for me. You know that old saying, that you’re your own best sales person. No one knows the branding and design better than the person who created the brand. Yet, if your rep has a good understanding of your line, they will be able to sell it just as well and hopefully better than you can. As your business expands, you’ll realize you can’t do everything. You’ll need to outsource to grow your business. If selling is your strong point and you love it, consider being your own rep and outsourcing another part of your business. You can hit the road with your samples, develop relationships with buyers and get your own booth at a trade show.
-Be sure you’re getting your supplies at the best price possible and that they’re available. Also consider your manufacturing process and if it’s streamlined and ready to produce large quantities.
After that first trade show that my rep took my line to, where I got a ton of orders, coming up with the money to produce the goods wasn’t my only problem. Some of the stores wanted their orders to ship in a month. Previously, I had been doing everything myself and realized that in order to fill those orders in time I needed to hire help. This also meant training people, which took time that I didn’t have. Some of my supplies were on back-order, which meant I had to find another supplier or use an alternate supply that was similar. I wish I’d thought about this stuff before the trade show instead of after. Making sure your supplies are available and your manufacturing is streamlined is essential.
Commitment to your business:
-Are you willing to be committed to your business for a year at the very least?
Reps spend a lot of time not only getting you orders but helping you develop your line and building your reputation with buyers. It’s important to respect you’re their time working with you by being committed to your business. Reps don’t want to spend time working with a designer who may decide they don’t want their business anymore or don’t make it a priority. Also, sometimes stores will place an order with a shipment date that’s four or more months away from the time they placed the order. Be sure you’re dedicated to your business for at least a year if you’re thinking of hiring a rep.
Finances and policies:
-Is the business side of your business in order? This means you’re able to keep track of your finances and your policies (like minimum orders and returns) are clear.
The structure of your business should be strong before your hire a rep and grow your business. You could potentially get a ton of orders and you need to be able to fulfill them. This doesn’t just include making the orders but includes keeping track of money coming in and out as well as commissions, show room and show fees as well as assessing your profit and loss monthly or at least quarterly. You need to be financially organized to keep track of all of this. Consider getting an accounting program like Quickbooks or even creating custom spread sheets to make this easier. If this sounds like a big bummer, hiring a financial consultant like Lauren Venell may be a good option for you. Your policies need to be clear and written out. Figure out your minimums (how much of one item or a total price per order), return policy, and payment policies. You must be able to accept credit cards. Are you willing to do net30 (this means the store has 30 days to pay your after they receive the shipment)? What if a check bounces or a store is late paying? You need to be comfortable talking about money and asking for it.
is your product ready:
-Have you tested your product? Will it stand up to washing, years of use and wear and tear?
After I shipped my first large orders from that tradeshow, I got a call from a store who said someone had returned a shirt they’d bought because the ink from my label ran when they washed it. Before that, I’d screen printed my labels myself. When I got the big orders, I outsourced my labels to a guy who convinced me that heat pressing them was a better route. I was already so stressed trying to get the orders produced that I completely overlooked the need to test the labels before I sewed them on thousands of shirts and sent them off into the world. I spent the next few weeks in an anxious paranoid state sure that I’d receive dozens of similar calls/emails from other stores. If they all returned their orders, I’d be out of business, plus my reputation would be sullied. Luckily, that was the only call I got like that. Make sure your product is ready. Wash it, wear it, use it and test it yourself!