Princess Awesome co-founders Rebecca Melsky (left) and Eva St. Clair with their daughters wearing the company’s fashions. (Katie Wells at Red Turtle Photography)

This week, a thriving two-person start-up asks for advice on how to begin hiring employees. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneurs

The thought first struck Rebecca Melsky while shopping for new pajamas for her then-3-year-old daughter: Why don’t they make clothes for girls with trucks or trains or robots on them? Girls like those things, too. She ended buying her toddler a set of pjs from the boy’s section. But for her little girl who would only wear dresses by day, she was out of luck.

The thought turned into a business idea that Melsky, a teacher at the time, pitched to her friend, Eva St. Clair, a fellow mom and a web developer. St. Clair immediately jumped on board. The pair stitched together their first designs with St. Clair’s sewing machine and Princess Awesome was born.

The pitch

Melsky, co-founder of Princess Awesome

“We create clothes for girls with themes on them that are usually only on boys clothes — dresses with dinosaurs, trucks, trains, maps, science. We know that girls love a lot of things and many girls love dresses. Those things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

“We never had the intention to just want to make this an Etsy shop where we sold things made by hand – we knew we wanted to scale up to manufacture our dresses. Once we realized that people would actually buy our product, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to fuel our first manufacturing run. We had an aggressive but doable goal of $35,000 to manufacture our first 1,000 items. But Kickstarter took off in a way we weren’t expecting – we raised over six times our original goal in February 2015. We dove into the manufacturing process, e-commerce and inventory management, all while learning along the way. We’ve seen more growth than we expected.

“We now bring in enough revenue that we can produce new items about every four to six weeks. Our fabrics are printed in Los Angeles and our products are manufactured in Chicago. We work with a graphic designer to create the prints on the dresses and we create the designs of the garments.

“We are only selling online right now. We made the decision earlier this year not to aggressively pursue wholesale accounts. The time and money to really make a push for those accounts at tradeshows and in sales calls is more than what we could do right now. And we are really committed to manufacturing ethically. We’re a girls empowerment clothing company. We can’t have our clothing manufactured in a way that is hurting women or girls anywhere in the world. If we stay direct-to-consumer we can keep our prices and margins at a point that works for us, our customers, and our manufacturers.

St. Clair

“We are in the happy situation that we are growing quickly. There is now more work than the two of us can handle. We both work on this full-time and we now need help. The time has come to start hiring people and we don’t know how to do that or even which aspects of the business to start hiring for. Our primary source of driving traffic and increasing brand awareness comes through Facebook advertising. We see a consistent great return on that. For any dollar we spend adding services or support staff, we have to weigh whether that would be better spent in more advertising. So we really need to think about who to hire first, whether we should just consider contract or part-time employees, and what services we should start bringing on in what order.”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You can always hire part-time or contract workers to help with some of the more administrative tasks, but assuming you need to hire for more specialized knowledge in this industry misses out on the fact that so many people want to help entrepreneurs. You need to connect with the right people who really understand the process of manufacturing clothes. This might be more of a case where you need to better understand the how-to of the industry, but don’t necessarily need someone to do it for you. With clothing, you are often using sales of inventory to fund ordering your next shipment. If you really want to scale the business, you need to talk with people who understand how this works.

“Work to build an advisory board. This is a way to pull people in with expertise in consumer products – the expertise doesn’t even necessarily have to be clothing. They can help you grow this beyond a business you run out of your home to something larger.

“Use your network to find potential advisors – you’ll probably be shocked at how strong your network is. Use LinkedIn as a tool. Look at other brands that you admire and try to reach out to people there. Or try networking with owners of specialty children’s shops. They could have good connections for you. Also look to organizations like Her Corner, a group for women entrepreneurs, for networking opportunities. When you find advisors, you can give them some equity in Princess Awesome in exchange for their help in really understanding the industry to help you make decisions.

“Set a goal of finding three to five people for an advisory board, but start out by building some casual relationships with potential advisors. You might be surprised how much help a few coffee meetings with the right people can help.”

The reaction

St. Clair

“It’s a great idea to add a fashion industry manufacturing expert to our advisory board – that is something we will definitely pursue. We’ll also reach out to brands we like; there is no shortage there! We’re working with Her Corner in their accelerator program right now and absolutely loving it.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.