Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Heather Peterson never planned to dive into the fabrics business. The veteran business information systems expert turned entrepreneur and fashion designer stumbled into that space after suffering through something so many women struggle with — finding comfortable yet stylish maternity clothes.
“When I was pregnant with my daughter Charlotte, I decided to sew my own maternity stuff,” she told Free Enterprise. “It was a struggle to find anything nice, so I decided I was going to teach myself how to make maternity pants that were comfortable. I was tired of being stuck buying large pajamas or large track pants.”
At first, Peterson says she “flailed,” sewing everything wrong. More than once, she came close to quitting: “I almost threw my machine across the room, no joke,” she said. “Thankfully I didn’t. I persevered with it and switched to making little clothes for kids.”
By stitching together multiple versions of the same children’s outfits from scratch — practicing to make perfect — she slowly but steadily improved. Eventually, she mastered the craft.
“I got pretty professional with it,” Peterson said. In 2004, she took the entrepreneurial leap and become a professional clothing designer and maker, launching Girl Charlee, Inc. fabrics out of her native Long Beach, Calif., as a children’s clothing line. But she would soon pivot again.
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“After discovering how much I loved the fabric side of the business, I decided to try my hand selling vintage fabrics instead,” Peterson said. Today, through an online store, Girl Charlee sells a massive selection of unique, hard-to-find fabrics, many of them vintage or vintage-inspired.
“I know how hard it is to find knit fabrics that are soft, have just the right stretch, and are not prints that you have seen everywhere else,” Peterson said. “We offer only the highest quality cotton lycra and spandex solids and prints, cotton jersey and rayon blends, and other specialty knits. Each is hand selected to ensure we are offering the best fabric possible.”
We caught up with Peterson to find out how she sewed up small business success so quickly and what tips she has for finding — and keeping — great-fit employees. Here’s what we learned:
What was your career like before you became an entrepreneur? How was it different than running your own business?
“I was working as a process engineer for an insurance company and it was extremely dry. After I had my daughter I was looking for more of a creative outlet to marry the two things that I like, which were web design and development, and fabric, at the time.
I came up with the idea of creating a small fabric line with the some of the vintage fabrics that I had been collecting and saw that there was a great need for it. People loved it. The ‘ah-ha’ entrepreneurial moment for me was, ‘I can continue to do my work in web development for myself, but also do something I love, which is creating clothing, and all that fun and creative stuff.’
People started seeing my daughter Charlotte in these cute little creations that I made and asked me where I got them. What I did a little differently was not only sell my own stuff, but I figured out a good way to get people to come to my online store to see my stuff and also to come for other designer brands. I did both, featuring my designs and other small-scale designer brands.”
What problems does your company solve through business and how?
“We’re helping small, stay-at-home-mom-run businesses other work-at-home-business types get the materials that they need at a reasonable price in order to create or recreate the types of fashions that they see. We help them take their creative fashion ideas and bring them to life, and to help them springboard their homegrown businesses.
There’s always this big, black hole — more like a brick wall — in the industry for any type of small-scale business person who doesn’t live in a textile mecca like we do here in the Los Angeles area or in New York City. For many, it’s hard to be able to get their hands on the types of materials we sell. What we really solve for them is the ability to get the fabrics they need, at one yards, 10 yards and 100 yards, to enable them to sustain a smaller business without spending a ton of money on textiles.”
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Did you ever have a physical store, before you launched your fabric business online?
“One thing I would say to everybody is don’t do it! Resource-wise, it’s something that I’ve always dreamed of doing, but when I think of the logistics of it and the retail space and the employees and the business owners, it seems like a lot of expenditure versus being able to keep everything online. Sticking with an online store alone has enabled us to grow a lot faster than having to produce for retail stores.”
Do you operate your online store from home or from another space?
“We started out with a warehouse space that was a 1,000-square-foot space. Then we blew out of that in no time as online sales took off. Then we moved to a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, and we blew out of that again. We had pods outside stuffed with fabric from floor to ceiling. It was crazy.
We moved three years ago to a 25,000-square-foot warehouse now, with 1,800 square feet of offices in the front. We made that move because — well, you know what it’s like when you have to move your closet? Imagine moving thousands of rolls of fabric! I don’t want to have to move again for a while, so we definitely have enough space here to keep us happy for quite some time.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that we’re still in Long Beach, though. That’s been our goal, to have the business where we live and employ locally.”
How did you first fund your business, to get it off the ground?
“We had savings and it was literally like $10,000 and a truck of fabric. That was what I bought into to start with. Luckily, we were able to subsist on what we were making off of the business and also funded it with some of our personal savings until we started to see it kind of turnaround. We’ve had no investors thus far and our goal is to not have any.”
How did you know when you had to go from a one-woman business to making your first hire?
“I knew it was time because I wasn’t able to do fulfillment of all the orders on a daily basis and also, at the same time, grow the business. As an owner, I had to make the decision based on where my time would best be spent. I thought, ‘Well, what’s my best hourly rate spent on?’ Not cutting fabric. It was best spent on growing the business.
At that point, I needed to find somebody part time to come in and fill fabric orders on a daily basis. We started with that one person. Sometimes, in the beginning, we’d send them home after three hours because there wasn’t anything else to do.”
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How did you find that first employee?
“The first person we hired was looking for part-time work and had just finished school, so it worked out perfectly. She was very flexible and we found her through word of mouth, and that’s how I’ve found most of my employees, along with advertising openings on Craigslist.
Organic word of mouth hiring has worked well for me. My marketing manager, who’s amazing, just graduated from California State University, Long Beach. She’d done a specific graphic design program there. I found her through someone else who was working for me who had also graduated from that program a couple of years earlier. It goes to show that word of mouth as a means of sourcing employees really does get you good, quality people who go the distance.”
How many employees do you have now and how do you maintain your company culture across a larger team?
“We are at 12 employees total now. At our peak through the holidays we’ll go up to about 15. The most we ever had was 18. I oversee all of the daily aspects of marketing, customer service and growing the business. I still do all of the online and other programming because I am obsessive like that. I can’t let it go. I also have two people who support me in customer service. We also have a warehouse manager, fabric cutting teams and order picking, packing and fulfillment teams.
In terms of maintaining our company culture and values, when we bring people on, we try to look for people who have the right kind of attitude towards what we’re offering. For such a small company, we have a share option program for our employees. We offer great benefits and we work really hard to make sure we’re giving our employees a good package because we want to maintain them long term, so we don’t lose all of the investment we put into them.
To keep the mood and culture fun, we do silly stuff like birthday celebrations every month and potlucks and holiday parties. We bought everyone Fitbits for Christmas last year, so they can track how many steps they’re getting in walking around this big warehouse.”
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How do you know you’re hiring the right person for the job?
“Doing our homework in the beginning is important. We also make sure that when they come in to interview, they talk to the other team members to ensure that they’re a thumbs-up from everybody…not just a top-down decision. It’s a very collaborative, team-oriented hiring process, which helps.”
What does it mean to you to “be the boss”?
“For me, being the boss is still showing up for work every day, though I get to take more time off than everybody else, but that’s why I do it. Seriously, though, being the boss is being a good support for everybody else and doing what I need to do to, A) to be sure they still have a good job tomorrow and, B) to make sure that they can be successful at their job.
If something’s not going right or they’re having challenges or what have you, some bosses might react by reprimanding and, God forbid yelling, which is not something we do here…so I always look at the reverse side of that and think of what I can do to make my employees more successful. Do we need to change the process? Do we need to tweak this here or that there? I try to look at what we need to fix something instead of saying ‘You have one more strike and you’re out.’
It’s similar to mentoring, being the boss. Many of the people we hire are younger and they want to learn. They’re hungry to understand how a business runs, so I try to embrace that a mentoring role as well as being their boss.”
What does it mean to you to create not only your own job as an entrepreneur, but also to create jobs for others?
“Creating jobs for others is one of the reasons I’m driven to continue. So many people are relying on me for their living, so it helps drive me to be innovative and keep up with the ups and downs in the economy and in our textiles market specifically.
Employing locally here in Long Beach is extremely important for me. To hire here first where I can is a top goal. With that in mind, we made sure our warehouse location is along the city bus routes that are convenient to our city’s downtown and other neighborhoods. Supporting our local economy is incredibly important to me.”
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What’s next for Girl Charlee Inc.?
“As for right now, we’ve had some big news to celebrate over the past year. We now have a sister company in London, England, that we supply with fabric. It’s almost like a franchise situation. They have our same branding and all of that kind of stuff.
It’s run by my lifelong friend Mark, who I met when I was 17 over in the U.K., and by his brother, Ben, and Ben’s wife, Jen. It’s another family-type of business and they supply all of the U.K. and Europe for us now. We don’t ship to Europe and the U.K. anymore, we just ship fabric directly to them and they supply customers in those areas. It just hit its one year in July and we’re really excited about it. It’s doing really well and growing in their market.
Next up, we’re looking at Australia and New Zealand as part of the last markets that I want to get into in the future. Luckily I’ve been taking a couple of trips over there this year to work with potential partners. Nothing yet, but we’re working on it. In the meantime, we’ll focus on continuing to source and supply the prints and fabrics that people want.”