As a CPA, Rita Lowes, 51, has spent her career climbing the corporate ladder, most recently to a position as a financial systems program manager at a large company in the energy industry.
But she had an entrepreneurial spark inside that she’d never acted on. “Turning 50 made me realize the runway was getting shorter, so it was now or never to take the leap,” says Lowes, who lives in San Diego.
Sometimes starting a business mid-career is a pivot, as you take skills you honed in the corporate world to a solo enterprise. Sometimes it’s what Lowes has done: a plunge into the great unknown.
Learning a business on the fly
Lowes found her opportunity in a side business she had started with her boyfriend, Isaac Bobadilla, a 31-year-old stylist. Three years ago, the pair started devoting their free time to launching Loyal Fiel, a streetwear line he dreamed up.
Inspired by the success of other streetwear brands like Supreme and Stussy, they decided to run with it. Neither had experience in fashion manufacturing, but, says Lowes, “I had confidence in myself because of my 30 years in business.”
Lowes formed an LLC for the business in 2016 (yet kept her day job). Then the couple set to work figuring out how to actually make the clothes.
The price of inexperience
Doing online research, they settled on a garment factory in Los Angeles to manufacture their products (since then they’ve branched out to some plants in China, as well).
“We found folks who would produce the work in small batches,” she says. “Unless you’re a big player, it’s harder to find someone who will contract with you.”
Lowes concedes that they overspent on some start-up costs because of inexperience. One example was finding a pattern maker for Loyal Fiel’s designs. After researching firms on the internet, she says, “We picked the first person that responded to us.”
In retrospect, she concludes, they should have shopped around more. “We spent a lot more money than we needed to,” she says.
Nonetheless, the couple kept going. They took the Loyal Fiel website live in January, selling items such as a velvet tank top for $34.99, “Loyal” T-shirts for $24.99, and caps for $24.99.
Hoping to build buzz
Lowes estimates that she’s put in $50,000 to $70,000 to fund the enterprise. “Any disposable income went into the business,” she says. About 50% of the money was for manufacturing and related costs; the other half was spent on legal fees, website development, and branding, says Lowes.
Lowes and Bobadilla are now focusing heavily on marketing and getting sales to percolate. “Being naïve, I assumed we’d open and people would come rushing in,” says Lowes. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Noticing how important endorsements by “influencers” helped comparable brands, they have been researching Instagram celebrities who might help them spread the word.
Bobadilla has persuaded several musicians in the Latin American rap industry to post photos of themselves wearing his designs. “They’ve put it on their Instagram for no charge,” Lowes says.
The couple is also looking into working with local retailers, putting up a “pop up” brick-and-mortar shop that’s open for a finite period of time, and reaching out to showrooms that might be interested in representing the line to retailers.
“We’ve identified some targets and are working on the pitch,” says Lowes.
Relishing the risk
Juggling the launch hasn’t been easy with a full-time job, says Lowes, who puts in evenings and weekends and sometimes takes time off from work, where her managers know about her side hustle.
“It’s tough to get something off the ground on a part-time basis,” she says. “It’s very fast-paced, especially with the demographic we’re looking at: 18-24 is a sweet spot.”
Then again, she didn’t quit her day job and loves the opportunity to explore an interest that’s very different from her corporate ones. “There’s never been an outlet that has allowed me to tap into this passion,” she says.
Lowes’ advice to others who want to start a business when they’re past the age they can move back in with mom and dad?
“As you get a little older, people are uncomfortable with failure and risk,” she says. “You have to not be afraid. That’s the advantage of youth.”
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