Bootstrapper Q&A: StartUp FASHION Founder Nicole Giordano on the Business of Encouragement

nicole giordano startup fashionNicole Giordano helps fashion designers find their amazing. In 2009, the former textile designer and fashion marketing consultant launched StartUp FASHION to educate, connect, and encourage designers looking to create successful businesses. StartUp FASHION now offers a wide range of online resources, including a collaborative membership community, business guides and ebooks, and a blog covering everything from business operations to guidance on legal topics.

We spent some time with Nicole to hear how she left a traditional career path and created a business out of a unique passion — supporting independent designers in their own journeys to success. Read on for our Bootstrapper interview with Nicole Giordano, and follow StartUp FASHION on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

InCredibly: You grew up thinking you’d be a designer, and began your career in textile design. When did you realize that being a designer wasn’t going to be your life’s path?

Nicole Giordano: I don’t think there was one single moment; it was something that evolved over time. When I was designing, I started getting requests from other designers to help them as they were building their businesses. Ultimately, I realized that I got a lot more enjoyment out of working with others to help them build what they wanted to build, and creating community. Textile design became something that I enjoyed much more as a hobby, or the thing I do when I want to get away from the stress of everything else.

In your StartUp FASHION bio, you write, “The only way to be truly successful in business is to build a business around the life you want, not the other way around.” What did that mean for you, specifically? What was the life that you wanted?

Freedom, location independence, and complete control over how I spent my time and my days. I knew that I wanted to move around a lot because travel is a huge part of my life, so I didn’t want to build any kind of business that kept me in one place. Textile design and weaving was certainly one of those things, because you can’t lug around a giant floor loom everywhere you go.

Related: Style With a Purpose: Joanna Steinberg Discusses the Social Mission of Parcel & Journey

Also, I enjoyed the idea of going against the grain in terms of what your work day is supposed to look like, and that it’s okay to go to the grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon. That kind of freedom is really important to me. Being able to wake up in the morning and read a chapter of a book that I want to read, and not feel this hectic rush to get on a subway and get to an office, even if that office was my own. It meant creating a business model around how I wanted to spend my time, and travel, freedom, and flexibility were a huge part of that.

Was StartUp FASHION the first business that you started, or did you have other experiences with entrepreneurship before that?

It was not. The first experience I had was building an accessories business with my textile designs. It wasn’t my entire focus, because I knew it wasn’t the right fit for me — I was already helping other people at the time — but it was a business. It was making money, I was selling products and making things, and so that was my first taste of being an entrepreneur. StartUp FASHION was the first business that I felt completely and totally excited about, and I focused solely on that and have grown it to be what it is now.

Your community offers designers guidance in how to operate their own fashion businesses, but did you have any sort of mentor who helped guide you early on? Did you have a template for how to pull this off?

No, and that’s a big part of where this idea came from — I saw this lack of access to resources. There’s a lot of traditional advice in the fashion industry on how to build a business in a traditional way. It’s like, if you want to be a certain kind of designer and you’re in New York, and you have a runway show, and you’re trying to get into the pages of Vogue, there are all these steps you should be taking and directions you should go, and for me, that was never my goal.

My interest in fashion was always about the craft of it, and even when I was thinking about building my design business, I wanted to build a business where it was more about what I was making. I didn’t care about a runway show. I wasn’t even living in New York. I didn’t want any of that, and I realized that there was a real lack of community and resources for designers, no matter what their definition of success is. Fashion is such a closed-off industry, and I wanted to build a place where people were sharing with each other.

I wanted to be able to share everything I had learned about this business — all of the practices I had tried that failed, all the practices I had that succeeded — and I needed to be able to do that in way that was financially accessible for a community of startups. And even if they’re a little bit further along, I mean, some of our members have been in business five or 10 years, but they’re still independent businesses. They’re not backed by huge investment or anything like that.

That’s a big part of our branding at StartUp FASHION. This isn’t only for Manhattan-based fashion, apparel and handbag designers who are trying to get into Barneys. If you are in Minneapolis and making really beautiful products, and maybe working with small batch manufacturers, or even hand-making — whatever your route is, you can still be successful in fashion. You just have to decide what that means.

Was StartUp FASHION a relatively easy business to start? How much investment did it take in terms of time and resources to get it up and running?

I mean, I wouldn’t say it was easy, although financially it was really easy because it’s a digital, online community. I also took the lean and ugly approach. When I first created StartUp FASHION, all of our content and all of the tools we were sharing were created in PowerPoint. I did not hire an expensive graphic designer. The information was solid, and the tools and the resources were solid, but it was very much, “put it out there, listen, learn, and improve.”

So, the investment of money was low. It was a couple of thousand dollars to create the online community, but the investment of time was not easy. That was much larger, because I really had to make myself available, and I needed to be there to listen, take that feedback, and make changes quickly.

We had a large blog audience for years, but we weren’t selling anything at first. So there was this learning process for me to figure out how to shift into having this service to sell, and how do I convey how this is different than the blog, and how do I make sure that our audience understands what we’re offering? There was a lot for me to learn, because I’d only had experience in creating a physical product in the past and selling it to stores or selling it at markets.

When did you start hiring, and what does your team look like now?

When we started, it was myself and one other person, and he was handling all of the web development. Like I said, there wasn’t a designer, I just had a developer. Then about a year in, I brought on someone part-time to help develop the content for inside of the community and help manage the community. Around that same time or a little after, I brought on an assistant, who is someone I very much lean on to this day.

We now have someone who specializes in SEO and makes sure to optimize our blog and all that, and we have two ongoing contributing writers. We publish a lot of articles from contributors, like one-offs or small series with different experts in the industry, but we have two regular writers who contribute several articles every month.

At this point, does most of your revenue come from membership fees, buffered by sales of your educational materials? Where does the money come from?

It’s three separate revenue streams. One of them is our membership community. The other one is an e-commerce shop where we have some of the guides, tools, and templates that we offer to our members. And then the third revenue stream is sponsorships. We have such a large, niche audience of independent designers and brands around the world, and there are a lot of companies that want to be connected with them, so sponsorship of StartUp FASHION has become one of our main revenue sources.

One interesting thing about your memberships is that there are enrollment periods; members can’t just join at any time. Why did you set it up that way?

For about two years, the memberships were always open, and we decided to shift that this year and have our community only open twice a year for one week at a time. One reason for that is because it allows me to be in marketing mode during those periods, getting the word out there, and then focus on our members the rest of the year.

The other reason was just to add a sense of urgency, like this isn’t something you can do at any time. We have our times when we’re open and welcoming new members, and then we close off and we focus on existing members. We did that recently for the first time, and we were blown away by the results compared to being open all the time. It was amazing, and we’re excited to continue in that direction.

How big is the StartUp FASHION community? How many members do you have?

We have just over 250 members in our membership community, and our blog community is around 75,000 monthly designers coming to learn and connect. It’s vast in a very niche sector of the industry.

Sometimes when you have a business where you’re not selling a physical product, it can be hard for people to wrap their heads around what you’re doing. How do you see your role in the universe? Are you an online marketer? A community organizer? A content creator?

I do feel like a community organizer, but that sounds a little dry because I feel like our members are friends of mine. I know about their businesses, and I’m an encourager, someone who’s encouraging this group of people to do something that is really, really hard. Being in the fashion industry, you often think, “What the hell am I doing?” I remind these designers of why they’re doing it. I remind them that it’s possible to keep going.

I don’t know if that person has a name, but if there is a title for that, I think that’s my biggest job and the thing I get the most excitement out of — hearing their stories, helping them feel super excited, and helping them find the path to reaching whatever their goals are within this industry.

What are your long-term goals for your business?

That’s a tough one, and it’s something I’ve actually been thinking about more recently. In terms of the business itself, I want it to continue growing, and I want to add more designers, but I don’t want it to be too large. I know that sounds a little weird, but one of the things that I love about our membership community is that I can get to know all of the members.

If I’m talking to someone in the industry and they say, “I have an intern who wants to work with a lingerie brand,” I can say, “Oh, you know what?” Immediately, members come to my mind and I think, “I should connect them with this person and this person.” I have a bit of a fear that if the membership becomes too large, how exactly will I handle that and still feel like I am a part of this community, because my favorite part is connecting with these designers and hearing their stories.

So, I’ve been trying to start wrapping my brain around that. But in terms of the other parts of the business, growing the e-commerce shop is a huge thing for us, because it’s something we’ve put very little time and energy into, and it’s already been profitable and it shows so much potential. And then, building up more partnerships and collaborations is also another big focus for us long term.

So far, what’s been your proudest moment as the owner of Startup FASHION? What sticks out as a major accomplishment?

Every time I see the community coming together to help one another feels like a major accomplishment, because that’s such a big part of what we’ve created. This community goes beyond just me. I’m not an expert in everything, and I’m not trying to be. Ultimately, the thing I’m most proud is that we’ve brought together and continue to bring together all of these designers into one space.

When I go into the community and the private discussion groups, and I see someone posting, “I’m struggling with this,” and then a bunch of fellow members swoop in with responses like, “Try this, try that, try the other thing.” Or somebody posts, “I had my first attempt at the business and it flopped, but I refuse to give up so I’m getting more strategic and more focused, and now it’s version two,” and then all of the members come in like, “You’ve got this. I had the same situation and now things are going great.” That will always be my proudest moment, because that’s most important thing you need when you’re trying to do something out of the ordinary that is not easy. Every time I see that, I’m so proud of what myself and my team were able to build.