Growing up skiing in the northwest, I began to notice how many different pieces of outerwear us snowbirds go through on a season-to-season basis. It’s human nature to want the newest and trendiest gear, even if last year’s outfit works just fine. We want to be different. We want to stand out.
So as a freshman in college at Western Washington University, I learned to operate a sewing machine and began designing custom jackets out of my basement. Word spread quickly around Mt. Baker about these custom jackets, but as a poor college student I didn’t have the money to start a business, so I choose to bootstrap it.
Here are 10 business tips our CTO, Ryan Downing, and I have learned while building our bootstrapped company: NWT3K Custom Ski & Snowboard Outerwear.
1. Validate your concept. Nick says:
Validation is the single most important aspect of any business. You should ask questions like:
– What about this product motivates the consumer?
– Are they willing to pay for it? If so, how much?
Once you’ve got a solid list of questions, get a bunch of people’s responses. But responses aren’t validation; put your money where your mouth is: make some products and get people to actually pay you. It took selling 23 custom jackets out of my basement before I was confident in the appeal of custom outerwear.
2. Reinvest everything back into the business. Nick says:
Let’s be real, we start businesses to solve problems and make money. But if you choose to bootstrap a business, the tables turn. Don’t expect to pay yourself quickly. In fact, you shouldn’t even be thinking about it. Every penny needs to be reinvested back into the business in order to obtain year over year growth.
3. Recognize your strengths and team up for weaknesses. Nick says:
Don’t lie to yourself. Quickly recognize what you’re good at, and more importantly, what you’re not. I envisioned a website where consumers could customize their ideal outerwear, but I knew I couldn’t build this website. I needed a web developer who was not only passionate about the ski industry, but had an itch for building things from the ground up. So I reached out to a friend, Ryan Downing, to help build the website. Teaming up freed me to focus on my strengths and secured the company a CTO. Score.
4. Put a face on your brand. Nick says:
Think of your brand as your personality. You’re competing with the big dogs, but who are the big dogs really? Having a small and passionate team is endearing, so let people know who you are. Don’t hide behind your company name, use your own. Be in a video on your website, reach out via email & social media, be you.
5. Start small, think big. Ryan says:
You can’t do everything all at once, so make big plans and then pick a few horses each year. Narrowing your focus and stacking up wins will build the foundation for future success. Last year, we focused on building an awesome customizer & website, but offloaded payment processing to PayPal. This year, we brought the entire checkout experience on site and added pants. Next year… wait and see!
6. Treat your customers like gold. Ryan says:
Happy customers mean increased momentum and return business. This is especially important when you’re bootstrapping because your margin for error is much thinner. We use online tools such as live chat (olark.com, purechat.com) & satisfaction surveys (delightedapp.com, surveymonkey.com) to facilitate positive interactions. It’s also extremely important to inspire customer trust, so offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee, and lastly, don’t forget the human touch: include a hand written thank you note in your orders to let customers know how much you value them.
7. Test, Listen, Improve, Repeat. Ryan says:
Use the tools mentioned above to listen to your customers and potential customers. Nick and I never ride up a chairlift without asking people what they like and don’t like about their outerwear. People are full of great ideas; it’s why this company was started and why we’re inspired to make better products every year.
8. Be extremely available, but selective. Ryan says:
Remember the old adage time is money. As a bootstrapped company, one of your most important resources is time. Make sure anyone can contact you for partnerships, conversations, etc… BUT be selective about who you move forward with because there’s nothing worse than wasting your time or watching your company move in a direction you don’t want.
9. Use warm leads to inform strategy. Ryan says:
A byproduct of being extremely available is you’ll get lots of people reaching out to you for all different reasons. Use these “warm leads” to help inform your future strategy. We started the NWT3K Army rider program this year in response to the large amount of sponsorship requests we received. It’s a win-win, we give up-and-coming riders a deal and they share their stoke with friends and generate media content for us. Other warm leads have us looking into bulk orders and embroidery/screen printing.
10. Make contingency plans. Ryan says:
When you ski a line in the backcountry, you study it first. You think about where a pocket might rip out, where you’re most vulnerable and where you’re gonna go if things go south. We’ve learned that you should treat your company the same way. Anticipating problems and having a contingency plan is much better than the alternative when the stuff hits the fan. It also means you stay agile, which is paramount to a bootstrapped operation like yours. 😉