They say being a mom and running a business is not the easiest feat but Nicole W. Brown, the founder of Izzy & Liv, makes it appear so seamless. The current mother of four children founded her lifestyle brand in 2015 with no employees or office space but managed to go from $55,000 in sales during her first year of business to over $5.8 million in sales in 2018. She created her t-shirt and apparel company to inspire confidence in black women and credits her success to what she learned and witnessed as an online marketing manager for a corporate consumer products goods brand. In this interview with BAUCE, Nicole shares her tips on how to grow a successful internet business as a mom and entrepreneur.
Nicole, many people don’t know you had a website before Izzy & Liv! You started your first site Mahogany Butterfly in 2002 way before the blogger and Instagram influencer revolution. What inspired you to start this site and what led to its demise?
Nicole: I launched it while I was working a 9-to-5. So really when I started [the site] it was more of a passion project. I didn’t look at it as a business and I wasn’t trying to monetize it or anything like that. I just had a passion for creating content for women of color. I was always looking for community sites for women of color and I didn’t find any at that time and so I decided to just create one. It was really honestly just a hobby at that time. I taught myself how to build things and do design. In terms of the content, I just reached out to people to write for me and they didn’t charge me anything. I think that the appeal of it was that I created something that didn’t look like only one person was behind it. It looked professional and it looked like something that had a machine behind it even though it was just me.
The reason why I let it go really was because it became too much for me. I was still working 9-to-5. Again, I hadn’t shifted my mindset into like this is something that can grow into a business. I had my third child and my site got hacked twice and it just became too much for me. And so, I just let it fizzle out really. I just slowly stopped updating it and then I eventually just closed it and I regretted it every single day since then. I still regret it because sometimes I wonder where the site would be right now if I had not given up.
You eventually got back online by launching your apparel company Izzy & Liv. How did you get the funding for this business? Did you still have a day job at that point?
Nicole: So now I don’t have a day job anymore. This is my day job! But when I started [the site] I was working a 9-to-5 and I put in my own money. And it wasn’t even like OK I need to have five thousand dollars to invest or ten thousand to invest. I was very resourceful in figuring out how to do things and build things myself. Luckily Shopify existed so I was able to use Shopify to figure out how to update my theme and tweak designs. I have a marketing background so that also helped in terms of me being able to figure out the right way to put my messaging forth.
To save money on my products, I used print-on-demand. So, with that you don’t have to buy inventory up front, you only pay for what you sell. All of my costs were just from the website; I wasn’t paying myself for my time so I didn’t have to hire anybody. When I put T-shirt designs up they weren’t even real pictures. They were just mock-ups that just looked like they were real pictures of shirts — the shirts didn’t even exist. And it was only when somebody purchased something that the shirt was made. As I continued to sell things, I had more money and I reinvested it into the business.
That sounds like a smart and lean way to get started. So, at what point did you make the switch from dropshipping to fully manufacturing your own shirts?
Nicole: Okay so now I don’t do print-on-demand. What I do is I use that as a proof of concept. So, you know if I’m doing print-on-demand and then I see over the course of the year what shirts are selling the most and what are not then I switch over to doing an inventory model on the items that perform well. The thing with the inventory model is that you know it’s a big risk because you put all this money in and you don’t know what’s going to sell and what’s not. Because I had the history of my drop shipping I had a better idea of what shirt would sell via my own inventory because I had a history of selling them through print-on-demand.
Two years into the business I launched my subscription box, which is the Brown Sugar Box, and because I have so many subscribers I was able to use that subscriber base to get to economies of scale.
You highlighted how being a marketer helped you to drive the messaging for your business. What other lessons from your corporate career empowered you as an entrepreneur?
Nicole: It helped me with my mindset and it also inspired me to start an online business.
I worked on several e-commerce and digital marketing projects during my corporate career and that would allow me to be in a room with a lot of agencies when we would work on concepts for campaigns. I would always notice that their target consumer never looked like me. That inspired me to create a brand where the customer we want to target first and serve first looks like me. Working there helped me with my mindset because you know you look at these big brands and you think they have it all together, they’ve got all this money and they have all this knowledge to make their marketing hit right, but they actually budget for failure. They budget money to put campaigns in front of a focus group and if a focus group doesn’t like it then they will start all over again.
As entrepreneurs, we think we have to be perfect and what we put out there has got to be “goals” right away. And that’s where I find a lot of entrepreneurs kind of give up. But my mindset is to go into thinking there’s a big chance it’s not going to work the way that I want it to work, but I’m going to learn from it and I’m going to continue to push forward. I’ve learned to budget for failure.
We noticed that you were able to scale pretty quickly in revenue over the course of three years. How did you grow so fast?
Nicole: In 2017, I launched my subscription box because I had built an audience with the “non-box” side of my business for two years prior to that. When I launched the box, I launched it to a “ready and willing to purchase” the audience. I didn’t have to do so much to try to find those people because I’d already been nurturing them. I already knew they were in the fold.
And then those people who were getting the box basically created a community; they call themselves the Brown Sugar Babes. They are my biggest advocates. They’re my biggest marketers and they continue to share my products. They meet up in their local areas and unbox together. They have done paint and sips and gone on cruises. It basically came down to building a community. My first big focus wasn’t “I’m going to make X amount of money”. My goal is OK, what things can I launch or what products can I create that’s going to serve my customer and delight them and meet my mission. And then from there honestly the sales flow because if you focus on giving value then people who are given that value they’re going to come back and they’re going to share it with other people.
Would you say the subscription box business is an easy space to launch in or would you caution against it?
Nicole: From a financial standpoint, a subscription business is great because it’s recurring payments every month. So, it’s more predictable. But you know I made a lot of mistakes. So, I definitely would say do it but do your research. Subscribe to other boxes and see how they grow.
I’ll be honest — I almost did not launch this box because I felt like there’s so many boxes out there and the market is so saturated. I launched it almost a year later than when I originally had the idea to do it because I had been talking myself out of the idea. At the end of the day [when it comes to boxes] nobody is really inventing anything new. But I realized that the fact that it’s saturated means that if you do your homework and you pay attention to what’s out there and the different way people are achieving their own success you’re able to learn from that and go further faster.
What is your advice to someone who is starting an internet business today?
Nicole: I would say the first thing to not do is don’t try to be something else or something that you’re not. I think what I see a lot is people kind of lose their way when things don’t work out the way that they want them to. And then they start looking at other businesses and trying to change their vision into somebody else’s vision and then that doesn’t work. I think that you need to be prepared for the long haul. Very few of us are going to launch a brand it hits right away. It’s a process. I look at running and growing a business like a baby or a relationship.
You know people say my business is my baby but they don’t sit and think about how much work it is having a baby. And you know we focus on the gestational part of running our business where we’re coming up with our ideas and we’re putting together a site and our product. And then we’re ready to give birth, we just expect that baby to go out and earn a living. And it doesn’t work that way. You have to be mentally prepared to learn your business, learn the personality of your business and you know adapt and optimize as you go along.
My biggest advice is just be prepared if things don’t work out. I know that if it doesn’t work there are things that I will learn from the process that will help me in the future.