Categorized | Shoestring Startup

Building a Better Brand: It’s all about the People

Building a Better Brand: It’s all about the PeopleName of your company and URL?

School House,

Date started?

I first had the idea for School House in the Spring of 2007 while I was a Senior at Duke University. I developed the concept while living in Sri Lanka as a Fulbright Scholar from 2007-2008. I was a Women’s Studies major researching fashion manufacturing and women’s issues when I first got my feet wet in apparel manufacturing. I’ve always had a love for fashion, but as I progressed through college I began to feel more and more conflicted about the production standards of some of my favorite brands. School House started out of my desire to create a fashionable, yet socially responsible t-shirt. In April of 2009, I landed my first sale at my alma mater’s bookstore, and today we’ve grown from one to 102 North American colleges and universities.
What is your product or service?

School House designs and delivers fashion-driven, ethically focused collegiate apparel to 99 universities and counting across the United States and Canada. Our business is currently 99% wholesale/B2B—our clients are university bookstores across the country, primarily Barnes & Noble College Booksellers, Follett Higher Education Group, Neebo and a number of independently-managed campus bookstores (meaning they are managed by the universities themselves). As of this year, we also 100% Made in America. We pay premium prices to US suppliers, usually in our home state of North Carolina, to ensure that living wages are paid in our apparel facilities. We also source our materials locally and spend time on the factory floor to ensure all products are made with quality and integrity.

The signature of School House products is pairing trend-right garments with school-specific graphics. Our collections feature several boutique touches, and our fall line of men’s and women’s tees, hoodies, dresses, lounge pants bring never before seen customization to the college market.

Why did you start your company?

It all started with a dress that I wore to a party my senior year at Duke. It was made of 17 vintage Duke t-shirts and all of the alumni/current students were going wild over it! It really made me start thinking about the collegiate apparel market and all of the opportunity that was there to start to bring it up to speed with general fashion/retail industry trends. I was writing my senior thesis on the intersection of fashion and feminism – how to make the fashion industry more socially conscious and benefit women who manufacture clothing around the world – and I thought, the college market is the perfect place to target young, socially conscious consumers with fashion-right product that they can feel good about buying and wearing.

Not knowing the first thing about garments (other than the fact that I loved fashion), I applied for a U.S. Fulbright grant to move to Sri Lanka and research socially responsible apparel manufacturing initiatives there. While doing my research, I decided to take the plunge and start School House while I had the opportunity to hop around factories and make samples. Those samples landed us our first order with Duke, and helped support two living-wage factories, building a legacy of social responsibility maintained at facilities today. Our efforts saved women from real threats such as malnourishment and poverty, and the residual effects of our efforts in Sri Lanka remind me that School House is first and foremost about people.

How was it financed?

I started School House with money from a car accident settlement that occurred during college. The $20,000 defrayal was my first down payment on School House. My father gave me my first loan, and through strategic fundraising I was able to garner investments ranging from $5K to $250K from 30+ angel investors over the past two years. It’s been an ongoing effort to find financing, particularly in the RTP because there is such a tech focus in the state. But our current investors understand the value and longevity of our brand. Our ability to raise money despite these circumstances gives me assurance that we’re doing things right.

Date officially launched?

I don’t recall a specific launch date, but our first sale was in April of 2009 from the Duke Bookstore. Receiving my first t-shirt samples is still one of my fondest School House memories.
What free online or offline tools do you use?

We currently use nopCommerce as our e-commerce content management system. It’s free, open-source software, that’s user-friendly and makes adding product, prices and selling content a cinch.

We recently signed up for HootSuite, a social media management tool that will help us create, monitor and track our social media efforts using one tool across multiple channels like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc. A personal account is free, and a pro account (what we use) is $5.99/month.

Google Docs is a constant in our office. We don’t have desktops or shared hard drives, so we rely on Google Docs to share spreadsheets, reports and more.

Do you use Social Media tools? Provide exact URL of each.

Yes, we are very involved in social media. With a college audience, it’s a huge priority for us.

School House Facebook:

School House Twitter: @schoolhouseinc

School House Flickr:


Youtube watch video URL?

School House YouTube:


How many people are currently working, including employees (freelancers or independent contractors for specific projects)?

We have five full time employees: Mark, our CFO and Controller; Susan, our COO and resident fashion expert; Melissa, Director of Marketing and PR; Emily, a fashion and graphic designer, and myself, CEO and founder.

Additionally, we have 1-3 contractors or freelancers at any given time and we employ about 20 apparel workers at our factory partner in Wendell, North Carolina.

What is the best advice you never got?

People are the hardest part. I’ve been taken advantage of more times than I like to admit, but by sharing my mistakes I hope it won’t happen to other entrepreneurs who might be able to learn something from my experiences. As smart as you may be, youth and ignorance can hurt you sometimes and it can be difficult to bounce back. I am very transparent about all of our challenges and know that in the end, they make us stronger.

What almost killed your business in the start?

The wrong people. Talented people, but not people who shared my vision and dreams for the business and wanted to be a part of that longer-term dream. The day-to-day realities of start-up businesses are extremely trying, and you have to build a team that thrives in that kind of atmosphere. We have just started to build a dream team, but it is not happening as quickly as I believe it should in order for us to successfully execute on the opportunities at hand. Five full-time employees will not take us to $100MM in sales. Plotting a hiring strategy and raising capital around a team that will get us there is particularly important for me as a CEO.
What is the one thing that you did right?

We got the product and original idea right. Our customers saw the vision and continue to stay the course with us as we work out all the kinks. That is huge, and I see a lot of companies out there that I think started with a concept that was too narrow or not necessarily timely for the opportunities they are after. Our concept and brand have staying power.
What was the biggest transition you had to make (i.e. new skill set, habits, abilities, focus)?

Building a Better Brand: It’s all about the PeopleI had to become extremely practical, extremely fast. I had just come out of undergraduate as a Women’s Studies major and was in the midst of some heavy academic research in Sri Lanka when I decided to take this plunge. Going from thinking about the socioeconomic implications of women in the Sri Lankan garment sector, to “where I am going to find $50,000 to make my first scheduled payrolls?” was a pretty jarring experience. But it was an amazing one, and so important for socially conscious thinkers, in my view.
Are you currently in the black or red?
In the red. We’re constantly in ramp-up mode to execute on new opportunities, but plan to hit black in 2012.

What type of marketing or advertising do you do?
Historically, very limited – we’ve been fortunate to get some great press in publications like WWD and Teen Vogue. We’ve also executed some local opportunities and speaking engagements with strategic partners in college markets. However, we just made our first Marketing & PR hire and she is changing the name of that game for us. We have a very limited marketing budget, so social media and PR are a huge focus for us, with specific attention on growing our social networks.

What would make your business more “Successful”?
We are preparing to enter a new equity round; greater resources and access to capital facilitate everything I see us wanting to do in order to grow and be more successful. This includes starting our own living-wage factory – a major dream of mine!

Would you want to be acquired by a bigger company, run it yourself or sell in a couple of years?
We are very open-minded about the future of the business and what form that takes ownership-wise. My objective is to see this brand fulfill its highest potential. Whether we can do that alone or with a larger financial partner remains to be seen. I’m just focused on barreling toward profitability while seizing all of the opportunities that come our way.
What do you think your projected annual revenue will be?
$1.2 MM this year – we’ve more than doubled our retail outlets in 2011 and we have yet to formally experiment with e-commerce.
How long do you think it will take you to get to your projected annual revenue?
We make end-of-year deliveries to many of our customers, so we will be cutting it close in the last week of December!

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