Do you have a great big business idea, but feel too busy or stressed to get started on it? Maybe you're afraid of how much it might cost to get started, and your bank account isn't exactly overflowing! I have a feeling you're about to get that extra boost of encouragement you need to get moving on your big dream! Lakesha Cole is a military spouse who started her business with $500, and grew it through 3 deployments and a move across the world. No – success didn't happen overnight, but with determination, listening and connecting to her customers, and making wise financial decisions, Lakesha now has a successful children's boutique at SheSwank.com. Learn how to build a boutique as a military spouse, and use that knowledge to build your business no matter what challenges you face!
On the Podcast
02:04 – The Start of a Beautiful Boutique
04:14 – Connecting with Customers
05:18 – Why You Should Sell at Live Events
06:28 – Tips for Attending Trade Shows
08:34 – Start-Up Funds for a Boutique Business
10:40 – Product Photography
11:10 – Subscription Boxes for Girls
12:45 – The Ins and Outs of Selling at a Military Exchange
17:54 – An International Shipping Solution
19:54 – Lessons Learned from Doing Business Overseas
21:23 – The Milspousepreneur Community
23:33 – How She Does It
25:00 – Lakesha's Favorite Business Tool
25:41 – A Feature on the Today Show
26:18 – Winning Military Spouse of the Year
27:11 – Lakesha's Most Important Role
27:59 – 3 Ways to Interact with Customers to Grow Your Business
30:24 – Lakesha's Adorable Mom Moment
Press Play on the Podcast Player below to hear her story. Then, get to work on making your dream a reality!
The Start of a Beautiful Boutique
Years ago, Lakesha pursued a career in journalism. She worked for both local governments and the Federal government as a military spouse whose duty station changed regularly. As a military spouse, it's difficult to keep moving forward with your career. It's not always portable, and Lakesha finally decided that she wanted something that was her own.
She came up with the idea of starting an online boutique about 6 years ago. In 2009, she began her business selling women's apparel. In 2011, with her five year-old daughter as her inspiration, she branched out into children's apparel. She wanted to introduce her daughter to entrepreneurship from an early age, and Kayley is very involved in their business. She helps them choose products, colors, and patterns for the boutique. After Lakesha created her website in 2009, she started selling to friends and family, and initially her business grew by word of mouth.
Connecting with Customers
With so many online stores to choose from, how did Lakesha set herself apart with SheSwank?
Early on, she says that connecting with her customers was so key. Lakesha used her knowledge of what was trending or popular to connect her customers with something stylish, but also got to know her customers enough to point them to an item that was really just for them. Whether it was a dress for a first birthday party or a special necklace for a military homecoming, that personal touch was so key to growing her business.
Why You Should Sell at Live Events
It might sound counterintuitive to sell at live events if your main business model involves an online boutique, but Lakesha has used craft shows, trade shows, and vendor fairs to continue to connect with customers and conduct market research.
There are 3 great reasons to attend live events, no matter what your revenue source is:
- Connect with local customers.
- Market Research. Determine what customers want and what's popular. It's so valuable to watch a potential customer look at your entire collection of products and notice what they gravitate towards.
- Pricing Research. At live events you have the luxury of finding out why someone didn't buy. Was the price too high? What can the market bear? You may not know whether the style or price is the barrier unless you interact with your customers in person.
Tips for Attending Trade Shows
For anyone who has a business in fashion, apparel, or shoes, Lakesha recommends that you attend the Magic Trade Show in Las Vegas.
It's the “who's who” of fashion, with everything from the fabric you need to produce product to finished products that you can buy for your shop. All the best designers are there. Even if you're not in a position to buy, it's a great opportunity to network and to see what's trending in your industry. Staying on top of trends is so important for anyone in retail. Did you know that Magic is free to attend if you're a qualified buyer? How cool is that?!
Is it possible to buy in small quantities at such a big trade show?
Lakesha says that purchase requirements really vary from designer to designer. You just have to find the ones who will work with you. She didn't start buying in large quantities until just 2 years ago. She sought indie designers who didn't mind selling smaller quantities to her so she could see if her customer base liked it. Then she would develop a personal agreement of how she would buy in larger quantities from the designer.
Lakesha encourages other new entrepreneurs: “Don't discount yourself as the little man.” Take a year to explore and see how these transactions happen and then next year come back with a plan for how you can participate in the buying process.
Start-Up Funds for a Boutique Business
Starting a boutique business from scratch sounds like it could be expensive. Did it take a lot of funds for Lakesha to acquire her first round of inventory?
Lakesha started her business with a $500 investment from her husband's E-6 paycheck. She started small so she could test out her plan before she really invested a ton of money into the idea.
Lakesha purchased her domain name and website template, and hired someone to design the logo. Then she hopped in her car in Oceanside, CA and drove north to the garment district in L.A. She walked the garment district for hours trying to figure out which shop she would buy from and who would allow her to purchase the largest amount of merchandise for the least amount of money.
She went to different show rooms and picked out the merchandise she wanted to start with. She started with just 10 different items and 60 total pieces of merchandise to sell. Once she sold that merchandise she went back for more. Then she gradually built up her inventory.
That initial investment of $500 has paid off in a big way!
Lakesha has some beautiful product photos on her site. She got them in 2 ways:
- She takes her own photos and learns as much as she can about product photography
- She has great vendors who take great product photos and often share their images with her so she can use them on her site. (What a cool idea! It's a win-win since they know their products will sell so much better if they are represented with excellent photos.)
Subscription Boxes for Girls
How did Lakesha come up with the idea to do a fashion accessory subscription box for girls?
Once again, connecting with her customers was key to growing her business in this way. Lakesha came up with the idea after doing market research with their in-store customers. (SheSwank is a vendor at the Exchange in Okinawa Japan.)
SheSwank customers wanted to buy more accessories at a discounted rate. They wanted more bundle deals. A subscription box allows SheSwank to provide this service while also being a ton of fun and allowing them to reach out to new customers who may only want to shop via mail or who simply can't resist the subscription box model.
Lakesha's 9 year-old daughter came up with the name, and the OMG box was born. It's a curated accessory box for girls, and customers can purchase the box just once or have it delivered to their home monthly. It's fun, catchy, and 2 months in, the subscription box model is doing really well.
Lakesha's daughter says, “It's like it's your birthday every month!”
The Ins and Outs of Selling at a Military Exchange
Lakesha admits that getting approved to sell at a military exchange was quite a lengthy process. SheSwank is a vendor at the Army and Air Force Exchange in Okinawa, Japan.
Before we dig in, here's a little vocab for all of the non-military readers and listeners:
Exchange – A military exchange, whether it's Marine Corps, Air Force, or any branch of service is essentially a department store on the base. Only those individuals with a valid military ID can get into base and shop at the exchange. Some exchanges are huge whereas others are quite small. Lakesha says that the exchange in Okinawa has one main section for all of their regular products (i.e. electronics, home and bath, clothing, and more.) and the vendor area is in a nearby annex.
PCS – Permanent Change of Station. This is when your military man or woman gets orders to report to a different duty station. So it involves moving – sometimes across the country and sometimes across the world.
So how was Lakesha able to sell in the exchange on base?
She got in touch with the exchange about 6 months before PCSing (moving) to Okinawa. The response from the exchange was a little slow. There are a lot of rules and regulations that come along with a military dependent doing business at the exchange. Currently there are just 3 vendors at the Okinawa exchange who are milspouses.
They each have a short term vendor contract and compete for their space monthly. Lakesha has been selling with the exchange almost 2 years. It's been great for her business, and she's able bring in products that the customers in Okinawa can't get anywhere else. Staffing for a brick and mortar location can be tricky, because as soon as Lakesha gets the perfect employee they get orders to move somewhere else. She has a high rotation rate for this reason.
Does every exchange allow outside vendors to sell there?
No. There tend to be less vendor opportunities on Marine Corps bases and more with either Army or Air Force Exchanges.
Despite the lengthy process and hurdles to sell at the exchange, Lakesha says that is has been crucial to her business growth. When you move overseas there are many restrictions on conducting business such as receiving your good and shipping your goods. Lakesha was faced with the question: Do I completely shut down my business altogether or is there a way I can make this work? Partnering with the exchange was her way of making it work!
An International Shipping Solution
In terms of fulfilling orders within Japan, Lakesha can use FedEx and Japan Post. They are relatively efficient for shipping.
For stateside orders, Lakesha uses an e-fulfillment service to pack and ship orders in the U.S. Did you know that there are companies all over the country whose role is to store your products and ship them for you? It's like a mini distribution center.
How to Find an E-fulfillment Company
Lakesha connected with her business mentor. She reached a point in her business where she had to decide if she'd flatline or if she was going to keep growing. He suggested that she use an e-fulfillment center to streamline her business. He gave her a few leads, and she did some Google searches. She interviewed 3-4 centers and picked out the one that was going to work best for her business.
Lessons Learned from Doing Business Overseas
Lakesha advises other entrepreneurs who are planning a move overseas to stock up on inventory ahead of time. She didn't realize how restrictive it would be to operate a business in Japan, when in fact, it changed everything. Looking back, Lakesha can see the positives to her situation because she's gained experience in dealing with customs, importing taxes, and negotiating in different currencies.
The Milspousepreneur Community
When Lakesha moved to Okinawa, she found a lack of community that encouraged entrepreneurs. She missed going to her local chamber events and entrepreneur meet-up groups. She decided that if it didn't exist, she would create that space for herself. The Milspousepreneur Community was born.
Lakesha quickly realized that she wasn't the only entrepreneur who needed a network and help. In their milspousepreneur Facebook group everyone can ask their questions and get feedback and advice from each other. Community is so key when it comes to growing a business!
How She Does It
Lakesha says that she's learned not to beat herself up over not being able to get everything done all the time. “So when people ask me, “How do I balance it all?” Short Answer is: I don't.”
She likes to create a schedule that breaks her responsibilities down into different days. In this way, she does what she can when she can. For example, on Monday she may choose to be fully Mom, on Tuesday she may work on her website, and on Wednesday she'll attend networking events.
Lakesha confesses that she used to try to figure out how to get every single thing done every minute of every single day. It's just not possible. She always tells moms, “Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself a break when needed. If you don't finish it today, it will be right there waiting for you tomorrow.”
Great advice, Lakesha! None of us can do it all!
Lakesha's Favorite Business Tool
Lakesha loves Evernote. She can type up her notes if she has a blog post in mind. If she's out and about and sees something that inspires her, she takes a picture, writes her notes, and keeps everything in her electronic notebook.
A Feature on the Today Show
Lakesha was invited on the today show with Kathy Lee and Hoda as a result of winning the Milspouse of the year award Sponsored by Armed Forces Insurance. On the show, she was able to share about life as a military family and also showcase some of the products in her store.
Winning Military Spouse of the Year
Lakesha was nominated for the award by her husband. The nominees go through a selection process that includes a peer-to-peer voting round. Then some of the senior leadership spouses and victory media staff review each nominee. Finally, a board selects the winner.
Lakesha says her husband is super supportive. She would not have been able to accomplish any of this without having him in her corner. He's her biggest cheerleader.
Lakesha's Most Important Role
When we asked Lakesha what accomplishment she's most proud of, she said hands down it's being a mom. She has 2 daughters. Kayley is 9 years old and baby Kirby is 8 months old. She loves being a mom, and being able to fulfill that role the best way she knows how and still be able to pursue her business and dreams. Somehow, it all works together!
3 Ways to Interact with Customers to Grow Your Business
Social media is important for business growth, but what you do when you're on social media can make all the difference. But for Lakesha social media is all about engaging, equipping, and empowering her customers. Forbes magazine recently discussed the importance of engaging with your fans. You need to give your fans the gift of you. Listen to what they're telling you.
- Engage. By talking with your fans, and listening to what they have to say.
- Equip. Give them an amazing product, incredible service, or be an expert in your field so you equip them with a reason to talk about you!
- Empower. Give your customers and fans easy ways to give feedback on your products and services. Also give them easy ways to talk about you and share you with others.
Lakesha loves to connect with her customers on Facebook and Instagram. (Many retail businesses are finding that Instagram is the key to customer growth these days.)
Lakesha's Adorable Mom Moment
Tune in to hear about a great family moment Lakesha had recently.