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Fledgling Firm Kicks Its Efforts Up a Notch to Get to Important Event

Menswear company had run out of money, but founders invested more to make a splash at crucial trade show. It paid off.

October 18, 2000|CYNDIA ZWAHLEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The office was in tears that Friday afternoon when the five friends realized a year of scrimping and painstaking preparation to launch their line of men's clothing had probably been wasted.

With barely a week to go before a make-or-break trade show, the struggling start-up had simply run out of money.

"It was a nightmare. We needed about $50,000," said Corretta Johnson, president of the San Bernardino firm.

It looked like the end of the dream for the partners who had known each other since high school. Without the exposure and orders a major trade show launch could spur, it seemed doubtful the small business would survive.

But the group, made up of Johnson, her sister, Kelly Cooksie, and their friends Angela Jones, Tim Davis and Kuownna Thompson had spent a lot of time fighting the odds.

The one-time welfare recipients, all now single parents ranging in age from 24 to 31, were working full-time jobs while trying to get their Everything But Ordinary menswear line off the ground. No one had experience in the apparel industry. They'd decided to start a menswear company after they had considered and rejected opening a nightclub. Johnson, as owner of Inland Auto Consulting, an auto broker service, was the only one with business experience.

The fledgling operation could afford only guerrilla-style marketing: creative and low cost, but labor intensive. The partners wore T-shirts emblazoned with the EBO logo to NBA basketball games and to Black Entertainment Television's "Live from L.A." once a week in hopes of earning camera time and an on-air mention. They called hip-hop radio stations every day to give what they call "shout outs" to EBO. And they mailed press kits to every talk show on television, pitched local media and hawked EBO T-shirts and caps at community festivals on the weekends.

Their passion for the product, their upbeat philosophy and their persistence paid off in local press coverage and an audience last fall with a local J.C. Penney Co. executive. His interest in testing the line--which had yet to be manufactured--set the EBO partners' heads spinning. In the end, though, the corporate office rejected the idea as incompatible with its move toward storewide product standardization.

EBO's experience is common among start-ups, said marketing consultant Sharon Berman. The focus often is more on action than strategy, the vision broad rather than niche-oriented, Berman said.

EBO's founders might have saved valuable time if they had started with a strategic plan that outlined more specifically who they were targeting and exactly how they were going to reach them, she said.

"It's not about paralysis by analysis," said Berman, founder of Berbay Co. of Tarzana. "But you want to get the biggest impact for your time, energy and money."

A well-thought-out plan might have included a focus on the smaller specialty retailers more likely to serve EBO's customers. It also might have shown that as a start-up, the company was not prepared to service a national account.

Johnson said these are things her company--which has added Chief Operating Officer Suresh Bhatia, the former owner of an apparel manufacturer, and graphic designer Michael Kirk, former owner of a T-shirt screen printing company--is glad to have learned before it incurred the expense of trying to produce its clothes for J.C. Penney.

The focus now is on boutiques and smaller specialty retail chains, she said.

Johnson, in particular, has a stake in getting the company's product to market in the most effective and efficient manner possible. Her small auto business was sharing space with the clothing company and providing much of its funding. All the partners and their family and friends had contributed, but Johnson had gone the extra step of taking out a second mortgage on her house.

"It feels like I have a noose around my neck sometimes," Johnson said. "But I breathe deep and pray every morning."

That Friday afternoon in the office, when it looked like their dream was over, Johnson wondered, "Where is God?" "I felt so sad," she said.

Then Kirk handed her his cell phone. His girlfriend was on the line offering $10,000 on her credit card to help meet the $50,000 tab for the trade show, the hotel rooms and the full-scale advertising the group had decided on.

Soon the whole office was on the phone to family and friends. Johnson's accountant chipped in $15,000 on 30-day terms. The company wrangled payment terms for its booth. Requests for higher limits on personal credit cards were phoned in, adding an extra $1,000 here, $500 there.

In the end, they raised the money they needed and headed for Las Vegas to try their luck at Magic, the international menswear show held Aug. 28-31.

It was worth the effort, according to one industry observer.

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