Tag: startups

Entrepreneur Profiles: Fashion Entrepreneur Sukara Sterling

Note: This post is the second in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts focus on an interesting entrepreneur who I’ve gotten to know and hopefully provide a window into their business that you might not otherwise find in a newspaper or magazine. Sukara Sterling is a young entrepreneur and friend who started her own clothing boutique on State Street.  This post is about her experiences with life after her store.

HI! my name is Sukara Sterling and I am a young entrepreneur. I opened up my very own clothing boutique when I was 21 years old on famous State Street in Madison,Wisconsin.  I named my shop after me, calling it Sukara Sterling.  I owned and operated it for nearly 5 years, closing it in July 2009.  After closing my store, I searched and searched for the right job, and was offered many, but I really realized I really wanted to be my own boss.

People always ask me “how did you go from growing up in the country to owning your own boutique at age 21?”  It all started at a young age.  I was always interested in fashion as a child.  I grew up in the country playing outside with my siblings, exploring abandoned buildings and playing in the Maribel caves. Being the outdoorsy child that I was, I somehow also had an interest in fashion.

I can remember making my first garment, I think in 4th grade. It was made out of a farm print fabric (I’d like to bring that look back….hahaha). Anyway, from there I continued to have an interest in fashion and also started to learn more about business. I remember buying my first business book as a Sophomore in high school and bringing it to class with me.  The book brought a ton of attention and lots of questions from the my teachers and students. I told everyone I wanted to own my very own clothing boutique. I definitely got a mixed response.  Some thought I could never do it and others gave me their full support. (Thanks to those who did ;).

Next, I graduated from high school and went on to college. Let’s just say I picked the wrong school and switched colleges a few times. Never finding my niche at school, I ended up dropping out, even though I loved fashion and had been able to choose to major in fashion marketing.

I had two major problems.  First, I had to pay all my bills through school, leaving me with hardly any time to study. I had two part time jobs and I was also a full time student.  My first job was as a waitress.  I loved that job, the money was good, and I had a blast running around the restaurant with my co-workers.  Some of the girls are now my life long friends, they were also college students at the time, and moved on to other things.

The second problem, and this one was a BIG one was, in class I would sit and think, “gosh why cant I just do this in ‘real life’, and skip the stuff I don’t need?” Well, that is exactly what I decided to do. The second part time job I had was at a clothing boutique called Lupe. The women who owned it wanted to get out of her lease and I saw this as a great opportunity to start my own store by taking over her lease.

That is exactly what I did. After a few weeks of getting everything needed together including taking out a small loan, I inked my name on the lease with a hefty monthly rent. I really wasn’t worried about how I would pay the bills, I just knew that it was what I wanted. For me when there is a will, there is a way.

I changed the name of the store to Sukara Sterling, restocked the store with my own inventory and was on my merry way for a great learning experience. Let’s just say I jumped into this.  I didn’t know much about business and only had read a few books. I went with the flow and learned what I needed to run a successful business and grew with my new company. I learned to do everything including, HR, Accounting, Taxes, Managing, Operations and my favorite the buying. I remember going to my first show for a buying trip in LA and having no idea what I was doing. I just nodded my head and agreed acting the part, they bought it. It worked.

A few weeks later I was ripping open boxes of new inventory, and reaping the benefits of checking out customers and making some cash. As a few years went on, I got bored with being in the same place; I needed more flexibility in my life, not to mention the economy decided to tank and sales were down. I saw this as the perfect time to sell out my inventory and move on with new ventures. Owning and operating the store gave me tons of experience and exposure and enabled me to be qualified for some pretty sick jobs. I closed in July of 2009 and attempted to move to Los Angeles. I made some money, learned a ton, but it was time to move on.

My beautiful sister is also an entrepreneur, running her own jewelry label out in LA.   She was lovely enough to fly home and road trip with me and my dog Benson across the country from Wisconsin to California. In California I was lucky enough to find some great job opportunities even though California’s unemployment rate is very high compared to other places. I was offered an office job and a job as a store manager for a fashion label, but, let’s just say LA is not my bag, so I turned down the job offers.

I found that it was great to visit, but decided it wasn’t right for me to be living there. Among other reasons, oddly enough I needed rain, and there was hardly any rain in California and bunch of other stuff I didn’t love. I packed up everything and came back to where I am from, still in search of my perfect place to live.  I was comforted where there was fresh rain and green cut grass in good old Wisconsin. I drove solo across the states in 36 hours.  If you drive straight through, it takes 30 hours. So if you do the math, you can see I slept little and only stopped when needed for gas. I slept once for 4 hours in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, waking up to a shiny dusting of snow. I loved driving across the country solo, it gave me plenty of personal one on one reflection time and thinking time, which I love.

I applied for jobs in several different states when I got back.  I still didn’t know where I wanted to have my home base. I was lucky enough to get job offers in several different states from several different companies. I was offered a job in Boston, but wasn’t ready for Boston.  Got offered a job in Chicago as Store Manager for a clothing line that I love, but I finally realized that I did not want to live in a big city whether it was LA or Chicago. Finally, I took a job in Milwaukee, working as store manager for a large clothing retailer.  I saw this as a huge opportunity because I would be managing a store that did $7mm  a year in sales, and it was a different path for me coming from my background in boutiques. However, that wasn’t for me either.

I realized that corporate America is really not my friend and I needed more freedom and flexibility in my life. That is when it dawned on me that I need to be doing my own thing again, fully running my own show. I decided I would look for some consulting work and quit when I found that.

Fortunately, my experience has given me a leg up in the harsh world of trying to find a job. The work came to me faster than I thought. I went in for an interview and I was on the payroll 5 minutes after my interview ended and immediately started working that same day. I am now currently working for a company called Madison Avenue Worldwide. This awesome couple who I adore dearly has given me a great opportunity. They were looking for someone to help them start a retail store from scratch. That is where I come in. I was hired to do exactly what I know how to do. Start a retail business. It is the closet thing to working for myself that I can get right now.

My job is to implement all the procedures and operations for a retail store that was just started called Fashion Playground. I am in charge of basically starting the store from scratch and getting it running and profitable. I am doing all the public relations, marketing, HR, writing the store manuals and implementing all the procedures and policy’s etc. for store operations. It is a great concept idea for a store where the kids get to come in and be their own designer for their own garment. I was recently informed that after I finish up with my current project with them, I get to start traveling for their other company and will be doing marketing and PR which I am really excited about. The owners of this business are very lovely and have given me the flexibility that I want and positive feedback that I was hoping for.  This jobs gives me a good mix of entrepreneurship and the steadiness of knowing I’ll have a paycheck.

While moving around and trying to figure out where I should live I also realized that I need to be a citizen of the world, because I love traveling so much. I do however, still want a home base but am not sure yet where that is going to be. I am thinking a mountain town somewhere, perhaps Big Sky, Montana where my brother lives or the northern west coast in Portland to join my friend Mrs. Tedford.

I’ve also learned that its kind of fun not knowing.  I like to go with the flow and see what happens because it keeps life more exciting. The moral of my professional life story thus far is that I would ultimately like to be fully running my own show from a laptop and a cell phone from anywhere in the world. In order to get to this point, I need to work hard and get my own business’s going.

In addition to working fulltime, I am working on a few other companies that I am starting, designing a fall 2010 clothing line, representing a clothing line outside of New Zealand called Federation as the USA and Canada rep, working with global summit (a non-profit that I helped found) and doing other consulting on the side. Hopefully it will all will pay off so I can get the lifestyle that I want and ultimately strive for!

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Introducing Entrustet

It’s finally time.  I’d like to introduce you to my new startup, Entrustet.com.

The Entrustet informational site is live and ready for the world. I’ve been working on Entrustet.com for the past 14 months with my friend and co-founder Jesse Davis and have loved every minute.  Entrustet is a secure, organizational tool that brings together people like you, estate planning lawyers and the companies that provide online accounts and memberships. Entrustet allows users to maintain a secure portfolio of online assets, nominate heirs and manage asset distribution and deletion after their passing. Entrustet’s wide range of services allow you to organize and decide what happens to your digital assets, before your loved ones or your executor are faced with the unknowns and complexities of protecting your online legacy.

For example, you could use Entrustet to create a list of all of your important digital assets like your domain names, digital photos and online accounts and tell your heirs what you would like done with them when you die.  I know I want my digital photos to be preserved so that my heirs can have access to them once I’m gone.

My partner Jesse Davis came up with the idea while he was reading Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat and we partnered up a few months later.  You can read more about how Jesse came up with the idea on our company blog, here. We have been working full time ever since and are excited to share what we have been doing with the world.  It’s been an amazing experience so far and we are excited to continue working to make Entrustet a success.  I’ve learned so much, met some great people and throughly enjoyed myself over the past 14 months.  I’m confident that it will continue!  Jesse and I would like to thank our Merlin Mentor team, our lawyers at Neider and Boucher, family and friends and everyone else who has helped us to get where we are today.

I invite you to check out our informational site and give us your feedback!  You can also find us on Twitter @Entrustet

Entrepreneur Profile: Wisconsin Relic Founder Bryon Shannon

Note: This post is the first in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts will focus on an interesting entrepreneur who I’ve gotten to know and hopefully provide a window into their business that you might not otherwise find in a newspaper or magazine.

Bryon Shannon is the founder of Wisconsin Relic, an apparel company that he started in January 2009.  Bryon graduated with a degree in Management and Real Estate from the University of Wisconsin‘s business school and started Wisconsin Relic while he was still a student.  He describes Wisconsin Relic as:

Wisconsin Relic is an apparel company that I started in January 2009.  It is a creative, colorful brand centered on shirt slogans that resonate with young people in Wisconsin. We sell clothing on our website, www.wisconsinrelic.com, as well as through stores such as the University Bookstore in Madison and Milwaukee.  Wisconsin Relic is a lifestyle brand providing premium quality apparel that celebrates the Midwest and its young pioneers.  We sell vintage, organic and Wisconsin Relic original tees at numerous outlets, as well as on WisconsinRelic.com.

Here are a few of Bryon’s shirts:

Nathan Lustig: How did you come up with the idea for Wisconsin Relic and why did you start the business?

Bryon Shannon: I got sick of walking around campus and seeing red and white Wisconsin t-shirts.  I knew I could design some pretty cool tees for kids in the state that would be more interesting than the traditional red and white Wisconsin shirts.  I’d consider myself a very creative and trend-savvy person and keep up to date on social culture through print media and online blogs, so I thought that I could do something based around Wisconsin.

NL: Did you have any experience before you started Wisconsin Relic?

BS: I didn’t have much experience starting a business, but during school, I had attended case study training at the Harvard Business School and competed in an entrepreneurship competition at the London School of Economics.  I got to travel to London and compete alongside other people interested in entrepreneurship and it was a good learning experience.

I had also worked at Abercrombie & Fitch and was a consultant to Fair Indigo Clothing Company and had done some graphic design and marketing for brands and had done a some modeling as well.  Earlier in college, I was the branch manager for a college focused magazine and newspaper that was just breaking into the UW market and I was a founding member of my frat.  Overall, I had a good foundation before I started Wisconsin Relic.

NL: Many founders of startups have some sort of an “ah-ha moment” either when they first get the idea for their company or after they’ve been in business that makes the business work.  Did yo have one and what was it?

BS: My biggest ah-ha moment was during Mifflin! (NL note: The Mifflin Street Block Party is an alcohol-fueled campus-wide block party that occurs each spring right before finals) Imagine an intelligent revelation coming from Mifflin, suprising!

Tons of people were coming to our website to buy Mifflin Street Block Party tees and that really helped raise awareness for our company and brand.

NL: So you had some initial success, what was the biggest challenge you had to overcome starting Wisconsin Relic?

BS: Managing money. You always assume that when you get a big sale you’ll make alot of money. When the University Bookstore ordered 300+ shirts, we got really excited, and then realized we needed to print and give them 300 shirts, and we weren’t going to get paid for a month, so cash flow all of a sudden became an issue. The hardest thing is having enough free cash on the side for the company and knowing what is a good investment for the company and what isn’t.

NL: Do you have any funny stories or amusing anecdotes about starting or running the company?  Do people ask you “when are you going to get a real job?”

BS: Haha, that question is most frequent question I hear these days. My great uncle owned his own sign company and said people always think being your own boss is easy because you can get away working just half a day. To that he said, “yes and I have to pick out what 12 hours that’s going to be.” Just shows that owning your own company is way more difficult than getting a “real job” which sometimes makes real jobs tempting, but sometimes not as rewarding in the end.

Funniest anectdote is getting called by Pabst Blue Ribbon’s Legal Deptartment with a threat to sue if we do not stop selling our Mifflin tee (It was inspired by the PBR logo). They laid off once they found out we were a student company, but it did make for a fun “limited edition” shirt.

NL: What is the most fun part of running your company?  The least?

BS: Being your own boss and being your own boss. You can do whatever you want, and make your business something you are really proud of and connect with, but also, there is no paycheck and no one above you telling you to get up and do something when it gets rough, so there is alot of responsibility.

NL: What/who has been the biggest help to you and your company?

BS: Financially Allen Dines at the University’s Office of Corporate Relations, and the Student Business Incubator for grants and office space respectively. Also my parents for helping fulfill online orders and supporting my ideas.

NL: What are three websites you check everyday?

BS: nyt.com, concreteloop.com, everyoneisfamous.com, hypem.com

NL: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a startup?

BS: As Richard Branson said, “Screw it, just do it,” and then stick with it. It is so difficult to actually bring yourself to action, and then once you do, you will encounter so much opposition, so many obsticles that you want to toss the business sometimes, so you’ll need alot of determination.

NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  Do you have any other interesting stories, facts, advice to share?

BS: No problem.  I’d tell people to join networks, ie. Capital Entrepreneurs, and share ideas and resources. It makes business easier and more interesting.

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Is Your City Startup Friendly?

I was talking with a few people at the last High Tech Happy Hour and the last Capital Entrepreneurs meeting about what makes a city startup friendly.  We came up with a short list, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  What makes a city startup friendly and how can cities that are not startup friendly make changes to become more startup friendly?

Startup friendly cities need to have a high density of smart people.  Potential founders of startups need other smart people who could be potential partners, contractors or employees.  Most cities that have a high density of smart people happen to be cities with large universities that attract a huge supply of smart people each year.  It helps that these cities have universities because it’s even better to have young smart people, rather than simply smart people.  Young people can afford to take bigger risks and are more willing to work longer hours for little or no pay than older people who may already have families, mortgages or other obligations.

Another helpful characteristic is low cost of living.  If founders can live cheaply and find cheap office space, it makes it much easier for a startup to get off the ground.  Additionally, having a low cost of living allows startups to stretch their investment dollars much further.  Employees, rent and just about everything else is cheaper.  I talked to one Madison-based founder who has successfully sold one company and is on his second startup who believes that Madison’s low cost of living is one of the most important reasons why his company succeeded and his competitors did not.

Access to affordable office space in a business incubator is another key characteristic of startup friendly cities.  Business incubators are an important asset for startups, especially if they are affordable.  Unfortunately, many incubators I’ve seen end up charging close to market rates.  Incubators are an important step for startups because they are usually the first move from working out of the founder’s bedroom.  They also provide camaraderie, connections and bring startups out of isolation because the rest of the people in your office are also running startups.  It’s much better for a startup to move into an affordable business incubator with other startups, rather than move into an affordable office space next to a lawyer, construction contracting company and a non-profit.

It is extremely important for startups to interact in a community of other startups. Having other entrepreneurs around, especially entrepreneurs who have been successful in the past, is important because founders can ask for advice when they have problems.  A mentor program like MERLIN Mentors is very important because it matches up experienced people who have been successful before with inexperienced startup founders.  These mentor programs not only build a community of startups, but they provide specific feedback to startups and help them overcome challenges that they might not if they were left on their own.

Another important aspect of an entrepreneur community is free networking events like the High Tech Happy Hour and Capital Entrepreneurs. Events like the High Tech Happy Hour bring smart people together who are not necessarily focused on entrepreneurship and startups, but are fertile ground for finding employees.  Local, free entrepreneurship groups like Capital Entrepreneurs offer founders of startups a place to meet others who are doing what they are doing.  It also creates a community and gives founders of startups some semblance of co-workers.  Starting a startup can be lonely if you do not get out and interact with others who are facing the same challenges and dilemmas that you are.

These free networking events provide a way for experienced entrepreneurs to mingle with people who are just getting started.  Experienced entrepreneurs set an example and show everyone in the city that starting a company is viable.  They can also provide advice, but simply having experienced, successful entrepreneurs in your city makes your city startup friendly.  Cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle have these networks.  Others like Madison and Boulder are just getting started, but are on the right track.

These experienced entrepreneurs can introduce inexperienced founders to professional service providers like lawyers and accountants who are willing to help entrepreneurs.  It also helps if your city cultivates a network of experienced, flexible professional service providers.  These service providers should be willing to take equity, give discounts or defer payments into the future for startups that they think are going to be successful.  It is extremely helpful if startups can still get top notch professional services, without breaking the bank during the company’s research stage.

These professional service providers can help startups gain access to capital that they need to fund their business.  Ideally, a startup friendly city will have VCs, angels and other rich people who are interested in investing in startups, but not all cities must have all three.  A strong network of professional service providers who work with entrepreneurs can make introductions to rich people who are willing to invest.  Some startup friendly cities can be heavy on angel and rich individuals, but light on VCs.  Another way cities can help entrepreneurs is by advocating for small business loans and other alternative ways of funding.

Startup friendly cities generally have support programs in place for entrepreneurs.  They tend to have low taxes.  It is much easier to start a startup in a city that does not have 10% sales tax, like the city of Chicago.  The state of Wisconsin provides a 25% tax credit to angel investors who invest in certified Wisconsin startups.  Wisconsin also offers low interest loans that are forgiven if the startup fails.  Both of these programs help entrepreneurs succeed.  Other states have implemented programs that fund early stage startups.

Finally, many people who start statups generally like living in cities.  They like walking to work and living in tolerant environments.  They like to be able to meet in coffee shops, go to interesting restaurants and enjoy life with their peers.  It’s best to have good weatherLow crime and good schools are also helpful.  Overall, creating a city with high quality of life keeps the three most important ingredients, experienced entrepreneurs, rich people and smart, young people, in one place.

Cities can begin to implement policies that help foster entrepreneurship.  Cities can start by creating a business incubator for startups that offers offices (with windows) at 50% discounts.  They can start to create mentor programs like MERLIN and create entrepreneur networking groups like Capital Entrepreneurs.  Service providers can start offering discounts or equity for service deals.  Once one service provider has success offering this deal, it quickly becomes the industry standard.  I’m not advocating that government do all of this.  People who want to see their cities become more friendly to startups have to do some of the work themselves.

Government does have a place.  It can offer incentives for startups to move to their cities.  It can lower taxes or offer government programs that provide easier access to capital.  It could create a new business incubator and it could help create a community of entrepreneurs by publicizing entrepreneur success stories or the local startup community.  Government could help make cities more startup friendly simply by being more friendly to startups themselves.

Characteristics of Startup Friendly Cities

Figure out if your city is startup friendly.  Rate your city on a scale of 0-2 for each characteristic and score total the score at the end.  0 means that your city does not do it at all, 2 means your city does is very well.

  1. Access to capital
  2. High concentration of smart people
  3. Low cost of living
  4. High concentration of rich people
  5. Network of experienced entrepreneurs
  6. Mentor programs
  7. Low cost startup incubator
  8. Low taxes
  9. Governemnt support
  10. Flexible professional service providors
  11. Free networking events
  12. High quality of life
  13. Tolerant, vibrant, walkable cities
  14. Large universities
  15. Culture of entrepreneurship
  16. Educated workforce
  17. Good weather
  18. High concentration of science and technology workers
  19. Direct national flights
  20. Entrepreneurship advocacy groups

I would say Madison, WI gets a score of 23/40.  Milwaukee gets a 13/40.  San Francisco gets 36/40.

How startup friendly is your city?  Do you agree with my list?  Do you have any characteristics to add?

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