Today’s episode is with Aliya Jiwa, owner of the children’s clothing company called Spunky Stork.
Alyia’s post-graduate overseas job “never materialized” and she had to return to the States and live with her Mom. During the next few years she did a lot of freelance writing to get by and she took the opportunity to start her own clothing company, without even knowing what the term screen print meant.
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More About My Interview with Aliya
The Job That Never Materialized
Aliya received her master’s degree in 2008 and walked right into a hotel development job in Dubai.
Unfortunately, she spent six months in Dubai waiting for the job to come to fruition, but it never materialized. Though her housing was taken care of, six months in Dubai with no income was devastating both emotionally and financially.
She eventually moved back to the United States and moved in with her mother. For six months she carefully saved the money she made freelancing through Elance and other opportunities. Eventually, she had enough set aside for a move to New York City. Once she got there, she continued freelancing, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence.
A Happy Accident Led to Spunky Stork
While living in New York, Aliya went with some friends to a festival in Little Italy. Though the festival seemed completely dead, there was one vendor with a long line–a storefront selling screen printed baby tees. Aliya bought a couple of the tee shirts and asked a few questions of the vendor.
“Once he realized I was asking questions related to business, he kind of shooed me away,” Aliya remembers.
But looking at the simple, screen-printed tees, she found herself thinking “I could do this better!” She knew that there was already a demand for these clothes, considering the long line at the festival. She loved the idea of producing something that could bring value to customers and give her more control over her income.
Don’t Underestimate the Value of Research
Rather than jumping right into this new venture, Aliya started by doing a lot of research.
She started with the wealth of information online, learning about price points for both independent clothing companies and large companies like the Babies R Us of the world. She also pounded the pavement by visiting local boutiques and stores to see their offerings and learn more about their clientele, including “literally counting the number of people who come in an out in an hour.”
Aliya’s research also helped her to pinpoint a small but thriving market that she could fill: the need for green products. Offering organic cotton clothing gave her another way to shine on top of her excellent designs and superior customer service.
Spending some time learning about the market helped her save money on her launch. Since she knew exactly what she wanted to offer, she did not waste money trying to throw things at the wall to see what stuck.
The Benefits of DIY Entrepreneurship
Aliya started her business thinking she would only handle the design side. She bought a bootleg version of Photoshop, taught herself how to use it with a Dummies book, and made some initial designs.
Even though those early designs felt a little amateurish to Aliya, they still sell to this day.
She had saved up $200 to outsource the screen printing, but the first batch she received back from the screen printer was so horrible she asked for her money back. Lamenting to her mother about how to get the business off the ground without a reliable screen printer, Aliya’s mother responded, “Why not just print them yourself?”
Aliya found a local screen printing class that cost exactly $200–the amount of money she’d gotten back from the dissatisfying screen printer.
She learned how to handle the screen printing herself, then her mom helped again by giving Aliya a $5,000 loan to buy and set up a screen printer in her kitchen. Aliya was now committed to her business and had full control of her product.
Though online retail is a huge business, Aliya did not find selling online an easy prospect. She set up a basic site using Dream Weaver, but found that no one was ordering anything through the site.
“I had 2,200 page views on my site before I made my first sale,” she says. But Etsy saved her because it got her some traction.
Sneaking into a trade show was how Aliya got her first big sale. At one such trade show in New York, she met a gift store owner from Philadelphia who put in a $1,500 order on the spot. Landing this wholesale order prompted Aliya to start getting wholesale accounts with various stores and boutiques so that she could start fielding bulk orders.
This experience helped her teach herself how to call and visit boutiques to make sales.
She would print out her catalog, bring along samples, and simply walk into stores to drop them off for the store’s buyer. This low-pressure approach has worked great for Aliya, who calls it playing the “modesty” card, rather than going into the store bragging about her product.
Getting National Accounts
Even though Aliya does cold visits boutiques to get new wholesale accounts, that does not mean she goes in unprepared.
She researches before setting foot in a new potential store. She starts with Yelp to help her find baby boutiques and checks out the online component to any stores she finds. The price point for Spunky Stork’s products are high enough that they will only be a good fit in certain stores.
And she does not limit herself to local stores, but recently flew to 14 different cities within three weeks to land some new boutique clients. She now has four or five dozen wholesale accounts all over the country, just through her ability to pinpoint the right boutiques, make savvy sales calls, take names of buyers, and follow up again and again.
Drop Shipping Was the Turning Point
Spunky Stork really took off about one year into the business. Aliya identifies drop shipping as one of the things that really helped her turn the corner.
With drop shipping, an independent manufacturer fulfills orders for a boutique or retailer directly. This meant that Aliya was packaging her tees in boxes with shipping labels that made it look like the box came directly from the retailer.
Her shipments were always on time and correct and she quickly garnered a reputation as a good drop shipper.
Her sales went up as the word of mouth about her excellent service spread among boutiques. Specialty boutiques want to work with a reliable drop shipper, so Aliya’s great service and attention to detail ensured that her clients spread the word and came back for more.
Aliya has also been willing to make changes to how she does business. A huge company that she has a big distribution deal with has asked her to revamp almost everything about her offerings. This includes things like redesigning some of her pictures, changing tag placement on the clothing, and adding sizes.
While the number of changes can be a bit of logistical nightmare, Aliya is on board to make changes for this deal because she knows it will boost her sales.
She also trusts that the big company is ultimately asking her for changes that will help her sales in general. Since such a large company has marketing and PR arms, they are in the business to know what sells. Aliya trusts that the big push to meet their needs will be a net positive for Spunky Stork as a whole.
Spunky Stork Sales Success
Aliya can’t place her own literature in drop-ship packages. The parcels need to appear as if they were fulfilled by the retailer. But she still does what she can to facilitate repeat sales when she fulfills orders.
Each item of clothing comes with a hang tag, and on the back of each Spunky Stork hang tag are the Facebook and Twitter accounts to interact with the brand. Customers are also invited to take a photo of their child wearing their Spunk Stork clothing and email the picture for a chance to win a onesie. This kind of email communication is a great way to keep customer interactions going.
Aliya earns more per purchase through direct sales, but her sales as a whole grow with every new wholesale client. Her sales per month can vary. But her slowest months bring in $4,000, while good months are more like $16,000 to $17,000.
It Can Be Done!
Other than technical mistakes and designs that bombed, Aliya’s biggest mistake was believing something couldn’t be done. She thought it was presumptuous to think she could walk into a boutique cold, but she was wrong. That kind of belief can be very limiting for an entrepreneur.
“You just have to jump into the water and do it,” she says. “If you can think it, you can do it!”
01:25 – Tell us about your unemployment.
03:50 – Aliya explains the time frame of her graduation and unemployment period.
04:35 – The emotions of the let down of a career.
05:30 – Aliya explains how she saved money during her unemployed period.
06:30 – The idea behind starting Spunky Stork.
09:30 – Aliya talks about the research behind her business idea.
11:40 – What came first: website or screen printing machine?
14:45 – How she learned to screen print for free.
15:15 – The loan from her mom to buy her first screen printing machine.
16:40 – Aliya talks about the website creation and getting traction on Etsy.com.
18:00 – How sneaking in a trade show led to a $1,500 order.
18:45 – How she got wholesale accounts. Her cold sales approach and the national sales tour.
21:25 – How did you decide which stores to approach? Using Yelp.com to pinpoint stores.
23:05 – When did you start making good money? How drop-shipping increased revenue.
25:40 – How she manages the work?
27:10 – Have the buyers changed your business?
30:15 – How do you drive repeat customers?
31:25 – What kind of sales are you making a month?
34:50 – What mistakes did you make along the way?
37:00 – Getting invited to the Golden Globes and a celebrity order.
39:00 – Last bit of advice.
The Spunky Stork specializes in organic, “green” onesies and tees for babies and toddlers.