Building a DTC Brand through COVID: Wk 3

Week 3: Building an MVP through COVID

“Building a DTC Brand During COVID” is a series written by Farah Azmi to serve as a discussion for starting a company amid a pandemic. The stories are meant to share personal experiences and is not in any way meant to promote a “correct” methodology. We hope readers find this informative and amusing and we welcome informed advice and active discussion.

Minimal Viable Product (MVP) is defined as a product with the bare minimum features to satisfy the early customers and provide feedback. For entrepreneurs, an MVP is important to be able to test demand quickly with your consumer and, most importantly, save money by not investing everything for your product to fail. For a chronic Type-A perfectionist this is my worst enemy. You’re telling me that I can’t make my product absolutely perfect before I go-to-market? How am I supposed to pick what features are most important when I think all are important? In any case, this week I’m laying out my continuous battle with perfecting my MVP.

My first mission for IXORA was to create fashionable trend-driven clothes that women will want to wear to work, on a date and more. It was to prove that jackets aren’t just a work item but an item to throw over jeans and still look chic AF. Therefore, it was clear that my MVP will be jackets at the very least. However, would I include bottom options? Would I do made-to-measure from the get-go? Should I utilize sustainable fabrics from the beginning? Would I create all 6 blazer styles or narrow it down to a smaller collection? These were only the beginning of my MVP questions.

My first major quandary was with producing made-to-measure apparel. This is the practice in which you get clothing perfectly made for you based on your measurements. When I sought to do this, my thought was, if Men’s Wearhouse and Indochino can create suits that are made-to-measure and deliver quickly, why can’t I? Well, as I learned over the course of several interviews, men’s suiting is simpler. Men’s suiting hasn’t changed in years. They tend to be boxier with simpler patterns. On top of that, these brands have in-house tailors that can refine any made-to-measure errors – something I can’t quite afford yet. When I found a women’s made-to-measure factory, I thought we hit the jackpot. To check for quality, we requested photo samples of products, but we were moderately enthused by the returns. Did they make good blazers? Yes. Did we think they make great blazers? Questionable. With that, my designer Nora utilized her contacts to find other manufacturers for more options. However, one big problem: they don’t do made-to-measure.

The factory that did not do made-to-measure had worked with better brands and thus can be more trusted. However, they would take 4-6 weeks to be ready. Do we set-up a precedence where they take 4-6 weeks for a better product and we adjust fit ourselves? Or do we go with a factory that does made-to-measure in 10 days with average quality? This implies a trade-off for my MVP, is the quality more important or is the speed more important?

Soon, I started thinking about which styles we would manufacture for my MVP; do we produce all 10 jackets, pants and skirts, or a select few? Before you manufacture a product, whether made-to-measure or not, you need to produce a sample. Samples are the pieces brands would use to understand the fit, to make product adjustments, and to use for marketing materials. However, producing samples are costly since you need to make a pattern from scratch. As a bootstrapped company, I knew I had to be decisive and efficient with the styles I produced. For a quick sanity test, I made a survey with all 10 styles of jackets, pants, and skirts for my classmates to quickly understand what styles they were leaning towards. If I could only produce a smaller line, I wanted to pick what my core consumers actually wanted.  

As I looked at the results, to my dismay, my more fashion forward styles received the lowest votes. I can continually hypothesize why my classmates produced these results, but the results were clear; if my peers were to be my first customers, I needed to appeal to them. As I looked at the simpler version of my collection, while I still love it and think it’s beautiful, I was a little sad to let go of some of my favorite products. My first product promise was to offer trend-driven styles, that was my dream, and yet, my first consumers wanted something simpler. Do I deviate from my promise? Do I offer simpler styles instead of the fashion styles?

This week there wasn’t a stark difference between the COVID and non-COVID world. In both worlds, every entrepreneur is faced with a harsh reality of building an MVP, with an emphasis on the word “minimal.” If you’re working on a tech start-up creating an app, you sometimes test the concept before even creating the app. If you’re working on a services platform, you choose your key service first. As entrepreneurs, we have to decide what is the most bare-boned way to deliver a product. In school, when we read case studies, the right decision always seems clear after-the-fact. However, when you’re in the driver seat, the decision seems fuzzier and vague.

  • Do I raise money to get the full vision?

  • Do I sink more of my own money in to make it absolutely perfect?

  • Do I sell a very basic MVP noting that it doesn’t have all the features?

This week I leave with no lessons as I’m honestly still facing these questions today. I’m constantly choosing between styles, quality, fabric, and more. While I want everything to be perfect, bootstrapping your own company doesn’t give you that luxury. These tough decisions I face now are only the start of the tough decisions I will face down the road. While I don’t know if I’m making the right ones, COVID did give me one thing: time.

In the non-COVID world, entrepreneurs rush to get product to market in fear of competitors and to hit the market at the right time. For the past few weeks, I’ve felt this rush and kept aiming for an illustrative timeline. But let’s face it, we’re amidst a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic where the world is constantly changing; shopping behaviors are at a standstill; and we’re still living in sweats. As much as I want to feel and see my product, the worst thing I can do is rush out a product that I’m not proud of amidst this pandemic. In the COVID-world, I’m going to take my time doing what’s best for IXORA, and just hopefully the MVP will be an MVP I’m proud of.

If you were me, what would you do?

 

IXORA Apparel is an early stage start-up fashion brand founded by a Harvard Business School student. Our mission is to support women in their lives through the way she dresses while providing resources to support her in the workplace.  We aim to provide made-to-measure trend-driven apparel for women, where everything is made-for-her and not made-to-stock.

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