Why This Founder Took Two Years to Launch
by Felix Thea Podcasts Aug 13, 2019 34 minute read Leave a comment Email Pinterest Facebook Twitter LinkedIn
Mel Wells was inspired by her roommate’s desire for a 1920s styled swimsuit to start Beefcake Swimwear. Initially sewing pieces herself, Mel then took the time to research and find sustainable fabrics and an ethical American manufacturer.
Taking two years before launching, Beefcake Swimwear is a true reflection of Mel’s dedication to thoughtfully produce androgynous vintage-inspired swimwear.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear from Mel Wells of Beefcake Swimwear on why it’s important to grow at your own pace and how to create a brand that authentically reflects who you are.
I think there’s this false narrative of you have to grow, you have to grow fast, you have to grow big.
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How you can still succeed in business when you’re not a risk-takerWhat to do if you’re an entrepreneur that likes starting businesses but tend to jump aroundWhy hiring a PR agency is a worthwhile investment Don’t miss an episode! Subscribe to Shopify Masters.
Store: Beefcake SwimwearSocial Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, InstagramRecommendations: JLD Studios, Rebellious PR
Felix: Today I’m joined by Mel Wells from Beefcake Swimwear. Beefcake Swimwear makes androgynous one-piece 1920s swimsuits in the USA with sustainable manufacturing and inclusive sizing. Was started 2017 and is based out of Missoula, Montana. Welcome, Mel.
Mel: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Felix: Awesome. So all of this started with you on a vintage sewing machine in your basement. And it says here that you attempted to replicate a 1920 swimsuit for your roommate. So what were you doing making 1920s swimsuits?
Mel: Well, she really wanted one, but of course they’re all vintage and they’re all made of wool, which is not great for swimming in. And I grew up like a nerd sewing my own clothes because I was so tall. So I was like, “I know how to do this. I know how to sew clothes. I’ll try making one for you.” Turns out sewing stretchy fabric is terrible. But along the way, a bunch of other folks said that they were also interested in 1920s swimsuits. And so I started to think it might be a viable business idea. I just knew that I didn’t want to do the sewing.
Felix: Right. So first of all, I didn’t know that back then it was made out of wool. I see all those photos, but I have no idea that they must’ve felt so uncomfortable, but I guess they didn’t know any better back then. So that’s interesting. So when you first made this, I guess very, very first edition, this very first prototype. Were you looking to seek feedback to see if there was a viable business out of it or how did people start noticing your creation?
Mel: It was mostly because I was complaining about it. I lived in a house with a bunch of roommates and was just sewing it in the living room. And so folks would come by and see what I was doing. Or I was talking to my friends that I was making one for, and she was talking to other people. So this weird word of mouth started up where it seemed to be that everybody was really interested in a swimsuit that was masculine, that didn’t have a skirt on it but still had some coverage.
Felix: Got it. So you recognize that there might be a viable business model out of it because people were expressing interest in it. And you’d launched us on Kickstarter, which we’ll get to in a bit. Did you ever do any validation before that? Did you try selling in any other ways before you took that leap towards investing your time and resource into a Kickstarter campaign?
Mel: I really didn’t. I figured a Kickstarter was a low-risk way to see if it would actually work. I did spend about two years and about, I’d say about $5,000 of my own money just researching and prototyping. So I lucked out.
Mel: I found this place in Portland, Oregon that was a manufacturer of activewear that had zero minimums, which in retail is like insane. So I contacted them and asked them about prototyping just to see, cause I knew that this was a good idea. I just didn’t know how to do it. And so they were super helpful. It’s JLD-Studios in Portland, Oregon and they only do leggings now, but I snuck in and got them to do my swimsuits.
Mel: And we tested on, I think I mailed suits and had probably about 10 or 12 people across the country. Just friends and friends of friends. Try them on, give me feedback on how they fit. Just so I could get as close to, well not perfect, but as close to what I wanted as possible when we did finally launched the Kickstarter.
Felix: Okay. So two years, $5,000 of your own money. This is a pretty big investment for time and money wise for someone that’s just … first of all, was this your first attempt at starting a business?
Mel: I’ve always been entrepreneurial. In fifth grade, the first time I got called to the principal’s office was for selling candy on the playground.
Felix: Rite of passage for an entrepreneur.
Mel: I have a long history.
Felix: Yeah. But even then, two years and 5,000. I mean, I think the two years part is even more of an investment where I would see a lot of, I think that’s an accomplishment because I think a lot of people will spend two years or would try to spend two years or something and give up along the way. So you had a plan, obviously, you had this vision in mind for what you wanted, at least perfect to your vision. What were you looking for? What was it that you wanted to see before you felt comfortable moving forward and eventually go on Kickstarter?
Mel: For me, it was so slow because I’m really into research and I’m very much, I like to know what I’m jumping into before I actually take a leap. So part of that was just personal style. I wasn’t like struggling for two years. It was researching and doing all this in my spare time. I worked at a nonprofit where my day job was more than full time. And I’m also a little bit of a writer so I had other hobbies going on. So it was just was where I could put time into on the side was part of the reason it took so long.
Mel: For me, I just wanted to make sure that I did it right. I really cared about the people that I would be making these swimsuits for, and I wanted to do it sustainably. And to just kind of grow slow. It really wasn’t about making money, it was about doing this thing and doing it right.
Felix: Right. Yeah. I think this is concept what you talk about in the pre-interview, which I definitely want to touch on about going slow, going at a pace that makes sense for you is an important one because a lot of people get burnt out if they think that there’s this timeline. They’re watching the clock and trying to get somewhere sooner than what’s maybe comfortable for them. So how do you keep the momentum going though? Because I think there’s this also other side which is where you go enough, you start feeling the friction, you start feeling the drag more of this thing slowing down. [inaudible] basically burning out. Right. And then in any other way. So how did you keep the momentum going to make sure that you were at least stay on track even though you were going at a slower pace?
Mel: I think it was just the excitement whenever I talk to other people about this project. Everyone that I talked to from the initial fitters, the fit testers were just so excited about the swimsuit. It helped me be really excited. And then once we launched the Kickstarter, that blew up and the feedback was incredible, and we had an original goal of raising $10,000. I knew that was my minimum viable make this thing work and not lose my shirt amount. And we raised 35,000. And so that was thrilling.
Mel: And then along the way, we’ve had people email us saying, “This is the first time I’ve been in a swimsuit in 10 years,” or, “I cried when I put this on because it felt so good.” The feedback that we get from folks wearing the swimsuits is what really keeps me excited and motivated even when this is still a part-time job for me. It’s still in addition to my day job evenings and weekends, just whenever I can sneak it in.
Felix: Right. I think that’s an important thing to look for. Where the journey can be very lonely, especially if you’re doing this by yourself, which you are in your case where you’re the sole employee, solo founder of this thing. So what you look for is that you look towards the community, right? You look towards the people’s lives that you’re improving and then using that as fuel. You’re saying, sometimes you just need one person, that you’re improving their life. It makes it worthwhile for you to spend the time on this. So two years again that you spent on this, how many iterations did it take before you got to that point where you felt comfortable moving forward from this research and development phase?
Mel: Well there was my initial terrible one and then there was the, I think we had two or three that JLD made first that I tried on. I had my friend try on, I had my girlfriend at the time try on. And then we had some feedback and we did one more iteration, and sent those all over the country and had those folks try them on. And then we went for it.
Mel: So we did all the seats with the Kickstarter. We did about, I think it was 350 suits. And then we started selling online. But then I started getting feedback from folks who had supported the Kickstarter that they wanted improvements. And I always viewed the Kickstarter as help us start this thing, give us feedback, help us make it the best product possible.
Mel: So I did a survey of all our Kickstarter backers and tried to really listen to them and see what was working for folks and what wasn’t. And one big thing that we did that we stopped doing was a shelf bra. It just didn’t work well enough for enough people. So we stopped doing that and we started lining the entire front of the suit. It added probably a couple of dollars worth of material and labor to each suit, but to me, it was worth it.
Mel: We also switched fabrics to something more sustainable. The fabric we use now is imported from Italy. It’s some of the most sustainable polyester fabric that you can find. It’s 100% recycled polyester. And then the Lycra spandex content is chlorine resistant. So it’s some of the best fabric you can find in the world. And so we started making our suits with that fabric, lining the front. Then I felt like okay, now we’ve really got it right and I feel confident about it.
Felix: Yeah. And so even to this day, are you still getting feedback on ways to improve the product and are planning on implementing those today?
Mel: The bust support is one thing that we have not figured out that a lot of people ask for. It’s kind of an engineering problem where you have to find something that will bind up top but will also fit over a person’s hips. And we have not figured that out yet in this specific type of swimsuits. So that’s something that is always on my mind. But that’s probably a few years down the road, to be honest. It’s a lot of money to prototype, and right now we’re pouring all of our money into just keeping our inventory in stock.
Felix: Got it. Yeah. I think that the important point where there is no, this finalized stage of your product or finalized stage of your business. You’re always constantly trying to make improvements or take feedback and implement it, or spending time trying to solve things. I think it’s an important point where a lot of times people, “I’m going to launch on Kickstarter, I get the money and I sell the products and that’s it.” It’s usually not the case, right? If you don’t like solving problems, you’re in the wrong field. This a constant game. I’m sure we’ll get into that in a little bit.
Felix: But yeah. Let’s talk about Kickstarter. So you mentioned earlier $10,000 was the goal and you ended up raising over 35,000 from 422 backers. So how did it happen? What were you doing pre-Kickstarter now you look back on it, that helped you get this campaign successfully funded?
Mel: I think a lot of my research probably helps. Part of that two years before launching was looking at other Kickstarters, seeing what was successful, seeing who failed, backing some, seeing what rewards I have got, how soon they set their awards. And just making sure that I knew what a really good campaign entailed. Because it seems, I think at the surface level it can seem really easy. But a Kickstarter campaign is a difficult thing to execute and execute well. I get people asking me all the time, “How did you do it?” And I’m like, “Two years of work.” And then they don’t email me back.
Felix: No. They want to know how you did it overnight is the idea that they want to find out from you. So what were some of the things that you found in about what made a campaign successful? If you were to launch another campaign, what are some things that you’d want to definitely include to at least I guess, shift the odds into your favor?
Mel: Yeah, I think for me having a prototype that was done and like in the video so you could see it in action is really important. I saw a lot of folks who just didn’t have anything as a consumer. Reading these Kickstarters campaigns, it didn’t seem viable to me or it just didn’t seem quite real. So any question whether or not you can pull this off. You have to be able to say, “Yes, we’ve done it. Here it is.”
Mel: The other one was the human connection. For me, my video was not slick. I did it in my office, in my apartment. But it was for me it was very authentic and from my heart. “This is why I’m doing this. This is the person you are giving the money to.” And I try really hard to continue that very personal human connection where it’s not like I’m the boss and you are my consumers. It’s like I’m a person doing this thing that I hope you will like. I’m looking for fans more than customers.
Felix: That’s a good perspective. So are there things in your research that you definitely want to avoid including or during your campaign that is likely to cause failure?
Mel: I’d say communicate as often as you possibly can. It’s a lot of work, but just a little note to people so they’re not hanging really helps. And then sometimes I’d answer something and then we’d see a bump in backers. So I think that people really look to what you’re saying even during the campaign to see whether or not they want to support you.
Felix: Got it. And you mentioned that one of the factors that you looked at was the time I guess, the timeline between backing it and getting the, I guess the end of the campaign and getting the reward. Was there an optimal timeline that you saw?
Mel: It was within six months, I’d say. You got to turn things around pretty quickly. And I understand some folks would sell crazy amounts, and I didn’t want … confession, I didn’t want to succeed too much because I didn’t want to outstrip my ability to deliver. And so I did a shorter campaign. My motto is always under-promise and then over-deliver. So I knew how many suits my manufacturer could make per month and I tried to time the delivery of those rewards accordingly so that everybody wasn’t backing and thinking they were all going to get their rewards in the first three months if that makes sense.
Felix: That does. Got it. So once the campaign ended, you successfully broke through, tripled your goal and raised $35,000. What was next? What happened after the campaign ended?
Mel: We started making suits.
Felix: You mentioned that you already had a manufactured lined up at a time, right?
Mel: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I had their timeline lined up. And I knew that the very end of the campaign, some folks’ suits, it was going to be pushing up into October, which is kind of a crappy time to be getting a swimsuit in the United States. But again, I just tried to be as super communicative with folks and let them know, “Hey, I have this manufacturer. They’re small, they’re woman-owned, they’re in the United States. I really believe them and trust them, and enjoy partnering with them. So that’s who I’m using. I’m not going to outsource this. You’re just going to have to be patient.”
Felix: Right. Makes sense. Okay, so you went and manufactured that. Your timeline was also, I guess on the reward that had the longest time. And that was six months?
Mel: Yeah, I think our campaign ended, I think it was April 5th, and I think our final suits shipped a week before thanksgiving, something like that. And then we launched our online store in November. Which is again, such a weird time to launch a swimsuit company online. But it was nice because we didn’t have much inventory. We started with about 100 suits because we had spent so much time making all the Kickstarter rewards that it was actually good because then we didn’t sell out immediately.
Felix: Okay. Got it. So you basically went almost dark for a bit and just focused on manufacturing these suits to fulfill the orders from the Kickstarter. And then once you got to that phase, you then launched your website with some inventory about 100 suits, and you went live then. What informed your decision on what kind of inventory to stock?
Mel: Well, I’m a spreadsheet nerd. So I made a spreadsheet of which sizes and styles sold on the Kickstarter and then just used that as my guide when I was ordering more suits to keep in stock.
Felix: You basically extrapolated the percent, the breakdown of percentages of people of different sizes over 100 pieces. Okay, got it. Did that match up? The reality between what you sold on Kickstarter matched up with the reality of what you sold on your website?
Mel: Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah. That was a really good indicator of what was going to sell. And even now as I launch new suits, I can align the sizes that I think will sell with what sold previously. Sometimes we get that wrong. Often, we’ve been marketing more towards plus-sized consumers. So I’ve been sold out of the larger sizes a lot this summer, unfortunately. But it’s been pretty predictive.
Felix: Got it. So when you are selling on your own site, I guess that very first month or so that you were launching your own site, were you doing anything at that time to promote it? How are people finding out about it now that the buzz from Kickstarter might’ve started to fizzle out?
Mel: It was still just word of mouth. We have an Instagram that has been pretty successful I think. And it was cute because we started getting photos from folks wearing their swimsuits, which was awesome and so fun to see. So I just started re-posting those.
Mel: I think I maybe spent $500 the first year on advertising because we had no budget. Every penny we made went right back into making more inventory.
Felix: Got it. Makes Sense. So you mentioned that your process for launching new suits, I want to learn more about this. How do you decide what to design? How do you know what you should be focused on producing next?
Mel: I try to listen to folks. In one of those Kickstarter surveys, I asked everybody what colors they would most like to see. And those were green and purple. So the next suits that we launched were a green one and a purple one. And honestly, the green one I launched because it was the suit that I wanted. The stone fox, it’s very seventies. I was a little worried. I was curious to see how it would go. And that’s become our second bestseller after the original in black. So that was pretty exciting to see.
Felix: Makes sense. So you mentioned that you do something interesting, which is that whenever you do sell a product and you ship it out, you insert a card with every purchase asking folks to tag you on social. How has this worked out so far?
Mel: It’s been awesome. We do have folks who are really enthusiastic about our suits. It’s so funny, we just did a photoshoot the other day and we had a very diverse lineup of people, very different body types and styles, and genders. And they all put on their swimsuits, and people literally walk out of the dressing room dancing. And it’s like when was the last time you put on a swimsuit and were excited about it? Swimsuit shopping is horrible. I was worried. I was like maybe you folks won’t want to tag us cause posting a picture of yourself in a swimsuit feels kind of vulnerable. But so far people love them and feel comfortable, and strong, and confident in them. And that has been fantastic to see.
Felix: That’s amazing. Yeah. The photos on your site are awesome, the product photos and the lifestyle shots are awesome. How was that done? Was that done all in-house? You hire help with creating a photoshoot like this?
Mel: Well with our shoestring budget, our first photoshoot was all friends. Actually, our last one was pretty much all friends too. And then we hire a local photographer and we try to be really cognizant of having a very diverse lineup. And that’s really representative of a wide spectrum of folks. And that’s all, just we hire a photographer. My wife actually pretty much handles the photoshoots. She herds the cats, and then we just go have a fun party on the beach and take photos.
Felix: That’s amazing. So I want to get back to this idea of how you are going at your own pace. And you mentioned that you guys have grown thoughtfully and sustainably, and you’re more interested in disrupting the exploitative, harmful business of fast fashion and creating a quality product than you are in terms of making loads of quick cash or being on Shark Tank or trying to get all this buzz on TV. And that’s the approach that you want to take. And I think there’s again an important counterpoint to the more often seen and heard advice of entrepreneurship, which is to just live on ramen and just spent all your money and stress out every night about your business. Otherwise, you’re not an entrepreneur. You’re talking about taking a much more mindful and I think saying an approach to running a business. Tell us about, was that difficult for you when you’re hearing so much, I guess advise counter to that?
Mel: Yeah. It’s been an interesting journey because imposter syndrome is real. I just want to put that out there. And I am cautious because I didn’t want to put all my eggs in this basket. I’ve always known with swimsuits H&M could do a suit like this tomorrow and charge so much less and just kill us. I mean, that would be it. Except for I hope folks would understand the way that we make things and the quality of our product. But let’s be honest, retail is cutthroat and it’s to me, not somewhere I wanted to invest my whole life. And so it’s always kind of been like let’s do this thing. Let’s do it extremely well, and let’s see where it goes.
Mel: And I also, I think there’s this false narrative of you have to grow, you have to grow fast, you have to grow big. And I watch companies grow and then die, and then grow and then die because they have so much debt that just one thing makes them really unstable. So for me, it’s always been about being really sustainable, not just in an environmentally friendly way, but in an energy way. In a money way for me.
Mel: We’ve never been in debt. We took out a very, very tiny loan our first year for a little cash flow so we could get some inventory. But other than that, we’ve been in the black since we started, and that is extremely important to me. I’m not really a risk-taker when it comes to businesses and I think that you’re right, there’s this narrative of you have to otherwise it’s not real. But this is real, and it feels good.
Felix: Yeah. I think I really want to hear more of your story about this, not a risk-taker because again, this is very counter to mainstream entrepreneurship storylines where you have to take a lot of risks. So you’re not a risk-taker. Tell us more about your experience because of your comment with that personality, right, where you are risk-averse. Because I think a lot of people hesitate to go into entrepreneurship or start their own business because they think they don’t have the guts to take big risks. But you are demonstrating that you can start a business, go at your own pace, and not take crazy risks. Just tell us about maybe the pros and cons of that. What have you been able to do that you think that you would not be able to do? If you weren’t so I guess careful with your approach to starting a business.
Mel: Yeah, I think my work-life balance has been a lot better. I’m not eating ramen and living with 14 roommates. I was in my thirties when I started this. I was done with that lifestyle. And I’d been able to have a social life. I would not recommend doing a Kickstarter while you’re also planning a wedding, but I did that.
Felix: Which one was harder?
Mel: Oh my God. Probably the wedding, honestly. But I don’t know. For me, it’s just been a matter of that’s my life. I like having a lot of different projects happening. I think I would get bored and burnt out if this was my whole life. And again, I feel like an imposter because I’m not constantly on Instagram talking about entrepreneur life and talking up my business. Because it’s not the whole thing about who I am. I’m not saving the world. I know that. I’m just making swimsuits that hopefully make a good, positive difference in people’s lives.
Mel: Would it be cool to make $1 million? Yeah. I don’t hate money. But I also just don’t want to … I think it’s because I got married honestly and I wanted to be a responsible partner. I didn’t want to risk all of my money because it would affect my partner doing this thing. So I think she probably helped me be a little more reasonable about what I could and couldn’t take on. And that has been really nice. I think I would probably hate this business if it was taking over my life and causing me to lose sleep, and stressing me out all the time. I love that it’s really enjoyable, and I think the pace is part of the reason I enjoy it.
Felix: Right. I think it’s kind of a balancing act, right? It’s not just that you can just start working for a month because you feel like taking a break. There’s still a balance of at least maintaining it. Right? There’s at least maintenance mode. So what are some things I maybe you said no to? I guess this is more in the concept. What are some opportunities that maybe you said no to or some opportunities that you saw that you decided not to pursue because you wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t hate your business at the end of the day?
Mel: I mean, marketing. I just haven’t done that much. We finally hired a PR firm this summer and that’s been phenomenal because it’s something I don’t enjoy, but it’s something I didn’t have money for until this year. And they are really helping us grow, and it’s so fun to have people to talk to besides my wife, who are excited about the business, and understand what we’re doing, and are trying to help us grow. I wish I could have afforded that the first year because it’s been a game-changer for my energy levels and my enjoyment of what I’m doing. So yeah, I said no to that the first year because we just couldn’t afford it. And that has made a huge positive difference in what we’re doing.
Felix: Right. I’m sure it varies from industry to industry, maybe from city to city, but what are some budgets that you’d need to at least have before you can even think about hiring a PR firm or PR agency?
Mel: Well budgeting wise, I just wanted to do my taxes the first year and see what we even had leftover. Our suits are $42 to make, and that’s just fabric and labor. And so a $99 price point is kind of insane in the retail world. And I try to be really transparent about that so that whenever someone objects to our price point because I understand it’s way more expensive than Target or Walmart or something. I try to explain no, this is what manufacturing that isn’t exploiting people looks like. This is how everything should be priced so that the folks who are making it are receiving fair wages. We’re not exploiting the earth, we’re not exploiting resources. We’re doing this.
Mel: So that first year, we barely were a six-figure company, which all my family was like, “Oh my gosh, you’re going to quit your job.” And I was like no because our costs are so high, the actual take-home was much lower. And I wasn’t sure how taxes were going to work out that first year. So I just kind of didn’t know what we even had to work out or to work with. So after we got our tax returns back this year and I was like, “Oh cool, we made a profit last year. I can hire advertising this year.”
Felix: That’s cool. So basically you definitely need to have, you can’t really invest in this rough to bat in the PR agency. It makes sense for you to look at this as a way to celebrate your growth once you have some kind of sustainable business at first. So tell us about what it’s like to work with someone that works, I guess with a PR agency. What’s their job? What do they do for you?
Mel: Yeah. So we work with a company called Rebellious PR and they are in Portland, Oregon. And they are super queer-friendly, woman-owned, amazing company. And I was also really, really picky about who I wanted to work with, and these guys were my dream team because I feel like they understand what we’re doing.
Mel: And they have been accessing reporters that I don’t have time or interest in trying to send out a million press releases to everybody. But they have those contacts, they know their writing styles. They can spend time doing that. So that was my number one awesome please do this for me request.
Mel: A fun thing they have been doing is finding some influencers to wear swimsuits. So, Jess who was on Queer Eye, she wore our new suit, the charmer, the rainbow pride suit. And that was the first post anywhere, it was on Instagram. That’s how we launched our suit. And that was so fun because I love Jess and the response was so positive. And that would have never happened without these guys.
Felix: That’s awesome. Okay. So they found these influencers for you? They found people that work with publications that might want to write about you. What’s your involvement? When you hire a PR agency, I’m sure it’s not just the wipe your hands clean and they do all your marketing for you. What do you have to do to contribute to the success?
Mel: We have a weekly phone call where we chat about things. We email a couple of times a week. I enjoy writing. I consider myself a writer, so I’ve been putting together some pitches or just some ideas for pitches for them to send out. And mostly, I’d say just talking through how we want to brand things. And they have little homework assignments for me sometimes. They were actually the ones who connected me with this podcast. So they’ve been helping me figure out how to position the brand and talk about it and get it out in the world.
Felix: Got it. So I want to talk about the spreadsheets that you seem to love looking at. And I think important that especially because you’re looking at this early on because I think a lot of times businesses start off and they don’t know their numbers for a long time. And I’m surprised sometimes they can last long enough to have the luxury of not looking at the numbers. But you seem to know your numbers from the very beginning. What are the numbers that people should be paying attention to, especially when you’re just starting out? What are the key things to keep a laser focus on to make sure that you’re not going to go bankrupt?
Mel: Yeah, I think it’s really important to figure out how much it is actually costing you to make a product, and how much you are paying yourself. And having a sort of honest conversation with yourself of am I paying myself enough to not burn out?
Mel: We knew really early exactly how much it would cost to produce a swimsuit, exactly how much the packaging was. And I made a spreadsheet and broke it down into a per swimsuit price, partly for myself and partly so that I could talk to people about it. That $99 price point. Again, if anybody had any pushback, I could go through and explain exactly what is involved in deciding that price point. If we were a luxury, we could probably do a $300 swimsuit, but that’s not what I want to do.
Mel: Anyway yeah, just paying attention to how much it’s actually costing you to run your business. Hard materials and labor wise, and being honest with yourself about that is really important.
Felix: Are there surprises that you think maybe are not as seasoned at looking at the numbers might run into or might maybe gloss over when they are trying to calculate the cost? Surprises that are like, “Hey surprise you owe more money than you’d think,” kind of surprises?
Mel: Well, hiring an accountant is more expensive than you think. That was a surprise. I think just my personality is also pretty optimistic. So I myself will gloss over how much things are really costing because I want them to be otherwise. So for me, I’m not intimidated by numbers. It’s pretty simple math. Anyone can do it. If you can add and subtract and if you have a calculator, you shouldn’t be intimidated by the numbers. And it’s interesting because it’s real numbers. This is your life, this is your business. So it’s not scary hard math.
Mel: But also, I just had to remember to really take a hard look at what everything was costing. And not just being like, “I can use this roll of packing tape that was leftover from my day job.” And it’s like no, you need to go buy your own tape and factor it in. It’s so silly. It was probably $6. But just little things like that really add up.
Felix: Right. You have to set up your almost financial models for scale where you can’t just be like, “I can skimp here because I can find recycled this or recycled that.” You actually have to think about if you’re running this as a business that was maybe 10 times this size, are these numbers that you would actually care about. So I think that’s an important point about how you have to take it seriously. Even if you’re just starting out and you bring in nothing. You take it seriously from the start, I think you can make much wiser decisions.
Felix: So I want to talk about the other point which you brought up, which is about how you have to pay yourself enough to not burn out. I love the way you say it. I never heard anyone say before, but I think it’s a reality, which is if you are just busting your butt for five years and not make any money at all, you’re crazy or you’re going to burn out somewhere before that.
Felix: So tell us about how you recognize. I think a lot of the other, I guess advice or storyline of a counter to, or narrative counter to what you’re telling us here is that don’t pay yourself anything. Pay yourself last and don’t make any money from the business. But you’re saying to keep this sustainable, to make sure you enjoy this, make sure that you actually are paying yourselves. Did you know that from the beginning or did you discover that along the way?
Mel: I think I knew that from the beginning. I’ve gotten burnt out at work before at other jobs. We all made bad decisions and burned ourselves. And I think at this point, I recognize that I love starting projects. That’s so fun and so interesting, and it’s challenging. But then I knew I was going to need something to keep me doing it. And part of that was just straight-up money. I’ll buy myself a new pair of shoes and just be like, “You know what, you made money last year. You’re in the black, you can buy yourself a freaking pair of shoes and that’s okay.” You know? And just little things like that where it feels like yes, I’m in this business to make awesome suits and I don’t want to exploit people price-wise, but I don’t want to exploit myself. So I have to recognize I’m going to need some little carrots along the way to keep myself doing this. And sometimes that’s just going to be money.
Felix: Yeah. I think it’s important to note that when you burn yourself out, you are doing a disservice to your customers because you’re not going to produce a good product but maybe you’ll go out of business and you no longer are serving anybody. So I think that’s important that you do that.
Felix: So I’m not sure, did you have a methodical approach to arriving at his number? I think people are going to also take this advice and think, what’s the bay bare minimum that I could pay myself? And then end up choosing something too small and then burning out because of that. So how do you make sure that you’re happy with the number that you choose to pay yourself?
Mel: For me it was like I’m going to start with minimum wage, and just try to see if I can do that. With the idea of if for some reason something happened to me, and this business still needed to run and we had to hire someone. I don’t know, I break my arm and I can’t package swimsuits or something. Just a hypothetical what would I pay someone else to do this? And if I couldn’t get minimum wage in there, then something needed to change our original price by, it was $95 a suit. I worked it out to ideally we’d be about 108 or 115. We’re not, we’re still at 99. And I am trying my damnedest to keep it under a hundred, but I think we’re probably going to have to raise our prices at some point.
Felix: Just because of the cost that it requires for you to run the business?
Mel: Yeah. I barely paid myself minimum wage last year and I’m probably still lying to myself about that number, to be honest. Speaking of don’t lie to yourself.
Felix: Yeah. Well, you at least know that you’re lying to yourself. So you mentioned also to us that you realize that after the last couple of years, is that starting a business was more complicated and time-consuming than you had imagined. And then you compared to planning a wedding as well. So looking back on it, what were some things that you may be overlooked that surprised you? Because I think complications or things that take more time are usually surprised. Right? So what are some surprises along the way that made this a little more complicated, time-consuming than you had originally thought?
Mel: Yeah, I think customer service emails take a lot more time and energy than I originally thought. I hadn’t had a whole lot of experience in retail, to be honest. I’ve always been on nonprofit, publishing tracks in my career. So that was a surprise. Just budgeting enough time for that. And then again speaking to my I love starting projects thing. We did the Kickstarter and then I was like, “Oh wait, I own a business. I have to keep going. I have to figure out how to design a website.” And thank God for the templates on Shopify cause I am not a web designer. So shout out to those. It’s been really nice to have a sort of plug and play option that I can just tinker with and do on my own without having to hire someone. Especially in that early part where we just had zero budget for anything.
Felix: Yeah. You said this a couple of times I want to touch on it, which is around the idea that you like starting projects. I think anyone out there that is an entrepreneur that is constantly thinking of ideas has the same issue where starting and then sustaining and then finishing a project are totally different skill sets that ideally one person has or ideally your team has, or you just suffer through it all. So when you are starting a project and you start reaching this point where it’s like okay, well the honeymoon phase is starting to wane out. What do you look for? I guess you talk about money a little bit, but what else do you look for to keep, what kind of commitments do you made yourself or what do you do to make sure that you aren’t just jumping from project to project?
Mel: Yeah. I think the project like this, it’s turned out to be bigger and longer than I had initially thought, which is just blindness on my part. Of course, it was going to keep going. For me. hiring the PR firm and just having other folks be excited about it was so huge. And I look forward to the day that I can actually hire other people. That will probably require, that sounds like a lot of research and time. But it’s just nice to have other people who are involved in a project and working on it. And I get energy from having coworkers, I guess is, I get energy from other people working on a project with me. So I knew I had to keep a day job and this couldn’t be my full-time job until I can afford to have a team. And so until this company makes enough money to support a team, I just keep a day job, and that is my working with other people outlet. And then I can just hammer this out on my own, a couple of hours a day and that’s fine. I don’t think I could work by myself 40 to 60 hours a week without other people around who are also excited about it.
Felix: That’s interesting. So let’s say there’s a scenario where you are making enough money where you could replace your day job with the income that you’re paying yourself from the business. But you’d have to work on it yourself. You would rather hire people to take your place, and hire people to help continue building and maintain the business while you keep your day job?
Mel: Yeah. Hands down. That’s why I hired PR.
Felix: Oh, that makes sense. I guess you’ve done that already. Okay, that makes sense. So when you are hiring help, I’m assuming you’re hiring people to help you with things that you don’t enjoy doing.
Mel: Yeah. Which is silly because probably the easiest hire to make would be someone to package and ship the swimsuits. But that is one of the most gratifying parts of this is putting a physical product in an envelope and sending it to someone. Because so much of my work is not tangible and never has been. So I love that part and I should probably just hire someone to do it, but it’s so enjoyable for me.
Felix: I feel like it’s fueling you. It’s fueling you to give you the juice you need to continue running this thing. Even though again, conventional advice would run counter to that and say, “Just spend your time on ‘more value-producing activities.'” If you are doing that and then you’re burning yourself out, then the whole thing collapses anyway. So I think that’s important to not give up the things that fulfill you, and fuel you, and keep you in the game. I think the reason why most people fail on this is because they give up too early, not because something catastrophic happened that’s not recoverable from. You’re usually giving up first, you know?
Felix: So I think it’s important that you hold onto that. And I think that you recognize that and I think it’s important advice that you’re giving here, which is to hold onto the things that fulfill you and keep you in the game. So I think that you’re totally doing the right thing for your situation.
Felix: So you also mentioned that certain skills like emotional intelligence and empathy are just as useful as knowing how to market and how to write good copy, how to organize inventory. So say more about this because this is something new that I haven’t heard yet on this podcast, about intelligence and empathy. I feel like I’m a robot asking you, but what is to your emotional intelligence and empathy?
Mel: For me, it was what allowed me to answer customer service emails and do marketing in a way that I don’t sound like a robot or I don’t just sound like a copy of generic ad copy that’s everywhere. So I think first startups where you’re going to be doing a lot of stuff on your own in the beginning, you have to have a little heart and you have to be a little vulnerable.
Mel: I’m a huge fan of Brene Brown, the Daring Greatly book about vulnerability and shame. And so, especially being in a business like swimsuits where it is a vulnerable thing to be in a swimsuit. And there’s a lot of body shame around it in the world. So I just knew from the get go I was going to have to be very comfortable with this touchy section of the market. And especially trying to be oriented towards an LGBTQ audience and a plus size audience. Again, talk about vulnerability and shame. And I’ve been in both of those audiences myself. I have to be comfortable talking to other people about these sometimes uncomfortable parts of ourselves and be able to do it authentically and recognize their humanity. Otherwise, what am I doing?
Felix: Yeah. Is it learnable? Vulnerability, emotional intelligence, empathy. Can you learn these skills?
Mel: I think so. Absolutely. I’ve also been in years of therapy, and I think that that helped me develop more emotional intelligence and develop more ability to be real and authentic with other people because I wasn’t scared and hiding.
Mel: The hardest part about being an entrepreneur is just putting myself out there and not taking rejection personally because it’s my job to keep an eye on the content, or the comments section. And to read all the customer service emails. And I couldn’t be defensive, which is my absolutely natural go-to.
Felix: Most people.
Mel: Yeah, and I’m especially so. If I get embarrassed, I get angry. It’s not a good look as my wife has helped me learn. So I knew that I needed to have those skills to run this particular business. There might be businesses that you can run where you don’t have to have those things. But for me, they’re absolutely necessary for the people I’m interacting with on a daily basis.
Felix: Yeah. I think authenticity and being able to be vulnerable is valuable in this day and age where it’s so easy to be behind a mask. And I think it’s so easy to slip back into your defenses and put on some mask that’s not your true self. So when you are thinking about what you’re doing when you’re building your brand, when you’re communicating with customers, are there certain things that you try to look for? I guess when you’re looking at yourself, maybe introspectively to make sure that you are truly being yourself or truly being authentic and truly being vulnerable. And are there things that you look at like, “I’m proud of myself because I’ve done X, Y, Z today”?
Mel: Yeah. I think if I’m understanding it correctly, it’s like how do I check myself to make sure that I’m not being-
Felix: Yeah, exactly.
Mel: Just time. Again, going slow. I’m giving myself room and space to figure it out. Customer service emails, I’m not real timely. I usually see them right when they come in, but I don’t answer them right away. Good or bad because I know I need a day or two to digest. And just giving myself that space and time, not just frantically responding to everything in the minute. Our Facebook page will never have that badge of responds in 30 seconds. Because I need time. I’m a slow digester of emotions, both other people’s in my owns and that’s just who I am. Again, if you have time, go to years of therapy, that was really helpful.
Mel: But in the short term, for me when I write copy or I think about putting something out in the world. I think how would my best friend take this? How would my wife take this? How would someone I care about read this and take this? Because that’s my audience is people I care about. So even if a customer, I’ve never met them before. If I’m thinking about my best friend or something when I’m writing copy or writing a social media post, I hope that it would mean something to them because I’m being my real ‘self.’
Felix: Got it. That makes sense. So thank you so much for your time Mel. So Beefcake Swimwear, which is at beefcakeswimwear.com is the website. I’ll leave you with this final question. What was the biggest lesson that you learned last year that you want to definitely make sure you apply in this year?
Mel: I’d say trust your gut. Whether it’s how to answer someone in an email or what style of swimsuit I wanted to do next, or if I had a bad gut feeling about something that I didn’t do. And thank God in hindsight. Just trust your gut and give yourself, again that time and space to listen to yourself. I just don’t think that there’s anything wrong with, in a world that is super frenetic and super anxious, and super fast, with carving out time to go slow and be thoughtful about things, and to listen to people, and to learn, and then trust your gut.
Felix: I love it. I think that’s something that I’ve been learning too, which is that answers are not always available. The answers that you’re asking, questions that you’re asking yourself, you don’t have the answers always available, right when you ask it, right? It takes time to almost like let it bubble up. It’s kind of weird to say, but it’s like sometimes we look at ourselves, we feel like we can ask ourselves any question. We know ourselves, why don’t we know the answer right away? But I think it’s important that like you say, you pause. And I think that’s the biggest benefit that I’m hearing from your experience, which is that by taking the time to pause, by going in a slower pace, you let the answers come out. You maybe make less decisions, but they seem to be more decisions that are aligned with the lifestyle that you want to create. And I think that I appreciate you coming on and sharing that because I think it’s a different path that is not typically talked about.
Felix: So again, really appreciate you coming on Mel. Good luck with everything. And again, beefcakeswimwear.com is the website. Thank you so much for your time.
Mel: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure.
About the author
Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. Got something to share with Shopify Masters listeners? You can submit your story for consideration.