Every week as SmallBizLady, I conduct interviews with experts on my Twitter talk show #SmallBizChat. The show takes place every Wednesday on Twitter from 8-9pm ET. This is excerpted from my recent interview with retail and fashion pioneer Liz Lange @lizlange. In 1997, out of a one-room office, she created Liz Lange Maternity, changing forever the face of maternity fashions. A decade later in 2007, after dressing every major pregnant celebrity, forging licensing deals with Nike and Target (today, Liz Lange for Target is the exclusive maternity department at all Target locations), and opening three flagship Liz Lange boutiques, Lange sold her business though she continues on as the face of that brand. In 2010, her first ever non-maternity clothing collection, Completely Me by Liz Lange, debuted exclusively on HSN. She is the co-founder of the popular woman’s shopping site, Shopafrolic.com.
Smallbizlady: How and when did you have the ‘Ah ha’ moment that led you to launch your first business?
Liz Lange: My Ah ha moment came back in 1997. I was newly married and although I hadn’t yet had my children – pregnancy was definitely on my mind (today my son is 13 and my daughter is 11). After having worked at Vogue, I had left to apprentice for a struggling fashion designer. My friends starting getting pregnant and they would come to our offices to buy clothing. I would say to them, why come here, you should shop at maternity clothing stores but they all said that they could find nothing at traditional maternity clothing stores. Instead, I noticed that they were buying “regular” clothing in big sizes and altering it to make it work. And in our offices they were squeezing themselves into anything that had a bit of stretch in it.
This led to my double Ah ha moment: one) pregnant woman looked better, sexier, more stylish and ironically smaller when squeezed into something stretchy and fitted instead of the tent-like maternity dresses that were typical at that time and two) pregnant women were spending and shopping (they needed to – after all nothing in their closet fit them anymore) but they didn’t like the maternity clothing being offered. I didn’t consider myself a fashion designer so I went to the designer I was apprenticing for and told him that he needed to do a maternity line and that it would turn his business around. But he hated the idea. I found that I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I finally realized that if I didn’t create the maternity clothing that I was envisioning and someone else did that I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself. And so I launched Liz Lange Maternity.
Smallbizlady: How did you land your very first big customer?
Liz Lange: My first customers were my pregnant friends. But dressing celebrities really put me on the map. Whenever I heard a celebrity was pregnant I would reach out to them through their assistant, publicist, manager. My first big customers were Cindy Crawford, Terri Hatcher and Bobbie Brown.
Smallbizlady: What kind of money did you need and how did you get it to start your business ventures?
Liz Lange: I started very small. At the beginning I did everything made to order so that I didn’t have to invest in inventory that I may or may not have been able to sell. I borrowed about $10,000 from my parents. I had a phone so that people could make appointments with me to see my designs and a fax machine to fax the factory that was filling orders for me, one at a time.
Smallbizlady: You became a mom while running your business, how did you handle being a pregnant entrepreneur? (other than being a great model for your maternity clothing line LOL)
Liz Lange: Pregnancy did NOT slow me down. I worked until the day before I gave birth to each of my children and was back within a few weeks. After all, my business was my baby too!
Smallbizlady: Pricing is always a challenge for business owners. What’s your advice on getting it right?
Liz Lange: It’s hard to give general advice about pricing. You need to make money and get your margins right. You need to have a feel for what the market place will allow.
Smallbizlady: What’s the biggest struggle you’ve encountered and how did you overcome it?
Liz Lange: Running your own business is filled with highs and lows and to me that is exhilarating. Definitely post 9/11 was challenging. The world was not interested in buying high end maternity clothing anymore! I signed a licensing deal with Target and together we produced Liz Lange for Target which has become the exclusive maternity clothing offered at all Target locations and Target.com. Its success helped bring success back to my high end business too
Smallbizlady: You are a self-made millionaire entrepreneur. How do you stay grounded and humble?
Liz Lange: I think being self-made is what keeps one humble and grounded. I am so lucky to do what I do and I love my customers and my life, my family and friends. They definitely all keep me grounded!
Smallbizlady: How do you measure success?
Liz Lange: Well there are so many ways to measure success. The most obvious in business is financial. I felt successful when I was able to open 3 flagship retail stores (when I sold the business the new owners chose not to keep the stores) but for many years I had boutiques on Madison avenue, Beverly hills and Long island. And signing licensing deals with Nike and Target, dressing tons of A-list celebrities, that all made me feel successful. But maybe what has made me feel most successful is the letters I get from women telling me that I made them feel pretty or sexy or confident during a time that they didn’t think that was possible.
Smallbizlady: What’s your must-read resource for small business owners and Why?
Liz Lange: I love reading books by entrepreneurs whom I admire. Some of my favorites: Phil Knight’s Just Do It, Howard Schultz’ Pour Your Heart Into It, Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness, Mary Wells Lawrence’s A Big Life in Advertising.
Smallbizlady: What’s your biggest business goal over the next 12 months?
Liz Lange: I honestly never set goals, I just do the best I can every day but…I launched a new line, my first ever NON maternity line of women’s clothing a little over a year ago. It is exclusive to HSN and it’s called Completely Me by Liz Lange – I want to see that line really take off. I want to see my fashion/shopping e-newsletter, shopafrolic.com grow and I am working on a book about being an entrepreneur.
Smallbizlady: Complete these sentence: If standing on a rooftop facing crowds of aspiring or struggling small business owners, I would shout:
Liz Lange: “Shut out the naysayers! The truth is until someone does something new NO ONE thinks it’s a good idea. Just do it!!!”
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For more tips on how start or grow your small business subscribe to Melinda Emerson’s blog http://www.succeedasyourownboss.com.
Melinda F. Emerson, known to many as SmallBizLady is one of America’s leading small business experts. As a seasoned entrepreneur, professional speaker, and small business coach, she develops audio, video and written content to fulfill her mission to end small business failure. As CEO of MFE Consulting LLC, Melinda educates entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies on subjects including small business start-up, business development and social media marketing. Forbes Magazine recently named her one of the Top 20 women for entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter. She hosts #SmallBizChat Wednesdays on Twitter 8-9pm ET for emerging entrepreneurs. She also publishes a resource blog www.succeedasyourownboss.com Melinda is also the author of the national bestseller Become Your Own Boss in 12 months; A Month-by-Month Guide to a Business That Works. (Adams Media 2010)