Launching a new online business is a risky venture in any sector. But what if you’re not only starting online, but you’re also selling a brand new line of clothing, clothing people can’t try on first?
That’s exactly what Brass Clothing, the Boston-based online clothing retailer, did. This is how founders Katie Doyle and Jay Adams built that online following into a successful business that’s changing the industry as we know it.
The Idea: Build a Brand for Women Looking to Level-Up Their Careers
Katie and Jay, friends for more than 15 years, had always enjoyed talking about business during their lunches and coffee dates. So when Jay discovered a high quality factory in China that was making clothing for Theory and Diane Von Furstenberg, she immediately told Katie about the craftsmanship she encountered. “There’s a misconception about all Chinese factories,” says Katie. “They’re not all sweatshops and some of them are producing incredible products.”
And incredible these products were. Jay, a weaver and designer herself, could see that these were pieces that would remain in a woman’s wardrobe forever. But when they were produced for big brands, the markup was crazy. “Clothing that was produced for $30 was being sold at a retail of $400 or $500,” Katie says.
Katie, a marketing manager at an e-commerce footwear and accessories company, was intrigued by the thought that there could be an opportunity to find affordable, well-made clothing. At the time, she was looking to take her career to the next level, and she wanted her clothing to match her ambition—without breaking the bank.
“I told Jay, ‘Make me a Theory I can afford,'” says Katie. And Jay took it as a challenge. She said she couldn’t stop thinking about the idea of working together, pairing her knowledge of design and sourcing with Katie’s experience in e-commerce.
That conversation led to what Katie describes as a “walk, crawl, run” to a new business idea: making classic, timeless, capsule-wardrobe-style apparel for women that was at a price point a 27-year-old could afford. “We wanted to help that 20-something level up in her career,” Katie says. “Clothes that express sophistication, polish and trustworthiness, and help women feel confident to take things to the next stage.”
Start-Up Mode: Investors and Finding a Mission
Luckily, Jay’s job working for an apparel sourcing company outside of Boston had led her straight to the factory that would become Brass’ clothing producer. “That’s what gave us an edge,” says Katie. “We had the factory before we even had the concept.”
Before they nailed down specifics, they surveyed their friends to see what type of styles might be viable for a first run. They landed on five, and approached Jay’s boss at the sourcing company to see what he thought of their idea. Not only was he supportive, but he also became Brass Clothing’s sole investor. “He loaned us $20,000 for the start-up, and is one-third owner of the business,” says Katie. “The other 2/3 are owned by Jay and I. We started with less that $30,000 total.”
The duo began putting together both their designs and their mission. Katie says that the most important part of launching Brass as an online business was realizing that they had to be “very clear on what we were doing. We wanted to be the answer to the overcrowded fast-fashion closet that makes you feel crappy when you’re pulling together a look.”
And, she says, their number one priority is making clothing that people can afford. “My e-commerce experience taught me that we’re living in an experience economy now,” Katie says. “People want to spend $100 on a dress and $300 on a weekend getaway.”
That knowledge has proved to be both true and invaluable as Brass continues to expand. “We are trying to elevate women’s fashion and cultivate a community of like-minded women, without the markup you get at a traditional retailer,” says Katie.
The Next Phase: Profitability and Understanding Their Customers
Brass Clothing officially launched in September of 2014, and it took about a year before both Jay and Katie could work on it full time. “We worked nights and weekends for 9 months before it launched and then after we went live in order to be cautious about our spending,” Katie says.
Because they had no outside investment and are still not venture-funded, they had to think about breaking even really early on. And their decision to keep the team bare bones (read: just Jay and Katie at the beginning and only five employees now) supported the desire for profitability. Katie says that they committed to slow and steady growth, and to being in it for the long haul. “When you think of other start-ups, trying to blow up right away, we’re not even on the same scale,” she says. “But we’re growing, we’re strong and healthy.”
Part of that growth is the niche in the market Katie and Jay have carved out for themselves. They’ve filled a need in a way that capitalizes on the online social nature of Millenial women, while also being incredibly supportive of their community.
When they first launched, the co-founders posted images of themselves on Instagram to showcase each clothing style. They got so much positive feedback from customers, and so many questions about how to style each piece, that they’ve made that a cornerstone of their business. “Women would say, ‘I saw Jay in a medium, so I ordered a medium,'” says Katie. “And that helps with our return rate too!”
The company’s team is dedicated to showing women of all sizes modeling Brass Clothing (they’ve created a series of events where they have real women in different cities join them for a Sunday to model their clothing), as well as being incredibly responsive to online questions about size recommendations and styling ideas. To this day, if you email Brass with your measurements and ask which size is best for you, Katie or Jay themselves may respond with their recommendation. “We’re still involved in every aspect of the business, and we love talking to customers,” says Katie.
They’ve placed an emphasis on their online community since the beginning, which has led to a very organic increase in Facebook and Instagram followers. “We’re always about telling the story,” says Katie, “and about helping women feel good about their clothing.”
Part of that story is that, being women themselves, Katie and Jay get other women. They understand the desire of the new mom who needs a dress that’s friendly to pumping twice a day in a conference room at work. Or a 25-year-old getting ready for a big presentation. “Our customers are looking for a solution to a problem with their wardrobe,” Katie says. “They’ve realized they’ve spent too much time and money on fast fashion and they want to step up their game with high-quality, staple pieces.”
“Being women-owned is integral to our ethos,” Katie says. “Men can design great clothing but they can’t cater to women in the same empathetic way. That makes us leaders in the space.”
Katie says that her advice to entrepreneurs is to just get in there and do it. “Just try it out. Don’t overthink it and work hard if it’s what you want.” She also says that you have to know how much you really want it. “If you’re not willing to work nights and weekends and miss friends’ barbecues, this isn’t for you. You have to be willing to deeply sacrifice. It’s a commitment of your life and your family’s life.”
But, she also says it’s a great feeling to build something for yourself. “It’s inspired me to want to work with other female entrepreneurs, to encourage them in their businesses,” she says.
Katie also recommends a business coach. She says having one for Brass has helped them stick to their goals, and work for their priorities. “Not every business has to be created to take over the world,” she says. “That’s the pressure of a start-up, but not everything will be a multi-million-dollar business. It can just be a side business that you start. A coach can help you determine all of that.”
What stands out most to Katie, in Brass’ launch, growth and success, is that they have been clear on their purpose and values since the beginning. “Starting out with a set of core competencies that we’re sticking to has helped us succeed,” she says. “We want to be helpful to women, and they’ve shown their gratitude by shopping with us.”
Want to read about how other businesses have succeeded? Check out our full coverage of The Business of Wellness.