5 THINGS I WISH I KNEW BEFORE I STARTED A SUSTAINABLE BUSINESS
Natalie Oldroyd’s is the founder of Yoga Democracy, which was founded on the belief that yoga wear could be made based on a corporate philosophy that matched the values of the practice itself. The concept of Ahimsa, meaning do no harm, is at the core of everything YD stands for, including the fabrics they choose, the way they assemble our garments and the decision to recycle all inputs used in the dyeing process. YD has made a commitment to make 95% of its garments from recycled fibers and to make giving back part of its DNA from day one.
I started my company, Yoga Democracy, in the spring of 2014. I launched this spring. My why is simple. I felt there was a disconnect between the principles of yoga (my passion) and the apparel that was being marketed to the growing yoga community. I also believed you could apply ethical principles while still producing something as good as any other brand. Be ethical, but don’t stand solely on ethical principles. That was my mission.
My how is more complicated, but may give others some insight into the challenges they may face as they pursue their own sustainable business start-up. Alden asked me to talk about what I wish I had known before I began Yoga Democracy. I’ll admit, I took a little leeway here — some of these things I did know. Others came as a surprise to me. But these are my top five pieces of advice for the budding sustainable entrepreneur:
1. Sustainable also means profitable.
Not all profitable businesses are sustainable, but all sustainable businesses must be profitable. Otherwise, by definition, they are not sustainable. Sales. Costs. Inputs. Outputs. Get it in writing. You can be fair trade, eco, body positive, donate a portion of your profits to charity. You can do all of those things, but a sustainable business is one which eventually gets into the black and stays there. I know this may be Captain Obvious, but it’s worth making it number one because it cannot be said enough.
2. Sell your product before you have a product.
Manufacturing is tough. No wonder everyone has outsourced it to China. Retail is tough. No wonder everyone has outsourced it to Amazon. Don’t let a little thing like not having things made or things to sell stop you from marketing your product. Pinterest is great if you want to be a retailer. Conjure your ideal shop at no cost; pinners become shoppers. Instagram is great if you can use Photoshop or Illustrator. Draw your designs before you make them. Share them on Instagram and Tumblr. Likes and followers can turn into sales down the road. [Editors note: YD has almost 6,000 Instagram followers already! Listen to the woman.] Do what you can to ensure when you go live, open the front doors or receive your first finished pieces you’re launching to a ready audience.
3. Don’t be a snob.
There is nothing wrong with eBay or Etsy or Amazon. They’re low-cost, relatively low-risk and user-friendly and a fabulous way to get to know your customer. And knowing your customer is the single most important weapon you can have as a small business. You may already have a very firm idea of who will buy your product but only time and experience will tell you for sure. The more you know about who wants to buy your product the easier it will be to figure out how to reach them.
4. You will have to compete for suppliers as well as customers.
It’s not true that there is a large amount of un-used capacity in US manufacturing. If you want to make things in this country — at least in my industry, apparel — there is in fact a definite labor shortage. There is a lost generation of sewing contractors, pattern makers, fabric cutters, graders and marker makers. Many in the industry who actually do the heavy lifting are ready to retire and have not been replaced by younger people to take up the torch. You are not doing them any favors by giving them work. Be prepared to be turned down sometimes. But never beg them to take your work, just move on and find someone else.
5. Be better than just sustainable. Be good.
Your job is to make a product so great and/or sell your products so well that even people who could care less about eco, ethical, sustainable, vegan, body positive or Kenyan elephants will want to buy it from you. If you opt to make ethics part of your corporate DNA, assume that the person who cares most about those values is you. Be proud however, of the choices you’ve made and don’t hesitate to wear those values on your sleeve. You’ll face competition from brands that throw a thin veil of ‘niceness’ over what they do, even if what they do is not very nice at all and customers confused by disinformation. Keep your sustainable values close to your heart, but don’t rely solely on them to reach your customers.