Your business may be at the intersection of multiple, contradictory indicators, pulling you in very different directions. For example, one indicator may make it clear that the middle of a pandemic is not the time to open a storefront given social distancing and periodic lockdowns. Yet, the other indicator—growth in the modest fashion sector—says that opening a store is worth the risk. When you have to decide, how do you determine when to “say yes to one and let the other one ride,” as The Lovin’ Spoonful put it?
If you are starting a business, you’re not alone in making this decision. According to the Census Bureau, the number of businesses formed in the 3rd quarter of 2020 has risen dramatically (77.4%) compared to the previous quarter. This increase is far higher than at any time during the financial crisis of 2007-2009 or the last 10 years. The increase is more significant for high-propensity businesses that create jobs (79%). It is a decision that has implications not just for entrepreneurs who want to succeed but also for the ecosystem players who support them, including local, state, and federal governments.
Knowing when to adapt, stay the course, or call it quits is essential. In 2016, when I was facilitating Kauffman FastTac GrowthVenture for New York City Small Businesses, I met Kim Shamsiddin. She had launched her modest fashion e-commerce business, Al Shams, the previous year. We reconnected this year. Here are eight lessons that are appropriate for startups and companies looking to reinvent themselves.
1. Target a growth market: Shamsiddin targeted the modest fashion industry, which includes Islamic fashion. As a Muslim woman, she wanted to assert her identity and show her fashion sense, but there weren’t many choices. In 2018, the global modest fashion industry was $283 billion, according to DinarStandard and Thomson Reuters. It was projected to grow to $402 billion by 2024.
The future is bright for modest fashion because of the growth in the size of the market. According to Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, in 2015, there were 4.4 million Muslims in the United States (1.4% of the US population). That is projected to more than double to 10 million by 2050 (2.6% of the US population).
2. Focus: Don’t be all things to all people. The original idea was to start an Islamic superstore for the entire family. “I realized that was not sustainable or practical,” sighed Shamsiddin. So she focused on women because they are the biggest shoppers in the segment.
3. Don’t quit your day job: Having a day job may not be an option for everyone, but it’s how Shamsiddin supports herself as she grows her business. She is not alone in choosing this approach. Between 2014 and 2019, growth in sidepreneurship was higher for women (39%) than for all adult sidepreneurs (32%), according to American Express 2019 State of Women-Owned Businesses*. Growth in sidepreneurs was three times as high for Black women-owned businesses (99%) than all sidepreneur enterprises (32%).
4. Keep costs down: “Before opening the retail store and warehouse, everything was done out of my home,” said Shamsiddin. “I stored all the inventory in my basement and my upstairs bedrooms. When extra hands were needed, such as around the holidays, I enlisted my husband, mother, and neighbor.”
5. Pivot when necessary: The original intention was to produce the clothing in New York City’s garment district. However, the costs of goods were expensive, so the price-point was high. Her fashion designs weren’t selling. However, when she sold her abayasa at a convention and slashed the prices, they sold out. Her designs were a hit! It was the price that wasn’t. Shamsiddin took a bath on her first production run, but an important lesson was learned. She moved sourcing materials, trims, and production to the United Arab Emirates.
6. Become a life learner: When Shamsiddin launched her business, she sought training and continued doing so. Over the past five years, I would see her at entrepreneurial learning experiences, such as UBS Project Entrepreneur. Recently, she took the WorkSmart Program with Morgan Debaun, the founder and CEO at Blavity. WorkSmart is a mastermind group that provides peer brainstorming, accountability, and support, guided by an experienced facilitator. It was Debaun who encouraged Shamsiddin to pursue her dream of opening a storefront.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be a lonely journey. There’s plenty of support if you know where to look, including accelerator programs, SBA Women’s Business Centers, Small Business Development Centers, and local training programs. Shamsiddin is also part of an accelerator program.
7. Embrace digital marketing: In 2019, Shamsiddin started to do more social media engagement, social media and search engine marketing, search engine optimization, and email marketing. She also added video content. “Seeing how the clothing moved made a difference, too,” she said. The outreach generated a significant uptick in sales. “I thought to myself; it would be amazing if we could open a retail store.” She wanted to build a community where women—mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends—could sip ‘n shop. In October 2019, she signed a lease in Maplewood, New Jersey.
Before the store opened, online sales had increased 20% year over year. “They’re now 150% year over year,” said Shamsiddin. Women are ordering clothing from all over the United States and even internationally. Retail sales are not living up to projections but, overall, the business is doing better than planned.
8. Roll with the punches: By the time Al Shams—Retail was built out and Shamsiddin took occupancy, New Jersey was in lockdown. “Fortunately, we had built into our lease a few months of runway before we had to start paying rent,” she said. By the time rent was due, New Jersey had opened up. Women are traveling from New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Virginia to shop for modest clothes. For shoppers who are concerned about being around other shoppers, Shamsiddin will arrange for private shopping on days when the business is closed.
The pandemic also disrupted Al Shams’ supply chain. “We thought we had escaped because our supply chain was not in China, but then the UAE was shut down where our factory is located,” said Shamsiddi. “We also experienced domestic delivery problems.” Some customers waited months to receive their merchandise. Keeping customers informed became a top priority.
How are you meeting the challenges of Covid-19?
* The author of the article’s company, Ventureneer, is a co-author of the report.