Having spent her Saturday morning redesigning window displays, folding inventory, and following up with a supplier who seemed disinclined to take back an entire shipment she felt was unacceptable, Alison Barnard, 27, was finally settled at her desk in the corner—fully intending to make some progress on her growing management task list. Chief among those neglected missions was getting up to speed on her software system for monitoring sales and inventory.
In-jean-ius, her upscale “jeans and t-shirt” boutique in Boston’s North End, was attracting professional and wealthy women from Maine to Rhode Island. As one of many satisfied customers wrote, “Alison has an uncanny ability to match up the right person with the perfect pair of jeans. If you have ever gone ‘jean shopping’ you know that that is not an easy thing to do! Experience In-jean-ius for yourself. You won’t shop for jeans anywhere else again.”
March 2006. Alison looked up from her work with a weary smile.
Open just over six months, and actuals are tracking nearly twice my projections….
As it had from the very beginning, running her hit venture continued to consume nearly every waking hour. The creative, high-energy founder was far less concerned with burning out than with having the day-to-day concerns usurp her ability to plan and manage for growth. And with only one full-time employee—not yet fully trained—Alison couldn’t expect much relief anytime soon.
Her attention was suddenly drawn to an exchange between her salesperson and a well-dressed, middle-aged woman who was favoring a sleek pair of low rises. From where she sat, Alison could see that the woman was built for something a bit less daring. When the associate began fishing for the correct size in that style, Alison left her desk (and her task list) to steer the sale toward a more conservative brand that would ultimately prove to offer the best fit. Another satisfied customer….
Alison Barnard: Shopper
Like many rural-suburban American teens, young Alison Barnard had been an avid shopper. But there was something more. The daughter of a serial entrepreneur and an enterprising mother, she had developed an eye for opportunity and value-add that she ceaselessly trained on the business of creating a unique upscale shopping experience: trends, service, selection, presentation, decor. Despite her keen interest in retailing, she headed off for college with a more conservative career track in mind:
I really thought I wanted to be in brand management, marketing, or retail consulting. I figured that someday I would have a store but thought it might be something I’d do when I retired, like you kind of hung out in your store.
But I had all of these ideas. I like clothing, I like the shopping experience, and I like dealing with people. One idea was to have an all-black store because black apparel is such a staple for any woman’s wardrobe.
In May 2002, Alison received her undergraduate degree in business from the University of Richmond. Back in the Boston area, her first job was with a dot-com startup. She left there for an interesting opportunity with another high-potential venture. While the work environment there was most definitely not for her, that “mistake” would have a major impact on her career trajectory.
Hired as part of the seminar development team at a medical device company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Alison quickly discovered that her talents weren’t exactly appreciated:
They were part of this old boy network that really looked down on females. They told me, for example, that I needed to cover on Thursdays for the receptionist when she went to lunch. Swell. I hated that place, and I immediately began interviewing for something better.
At one point, I went on a job interview, and since my boss approved of higher education, I told her I had gone to Babson College to investigate their MBA program. When I checked into it in order to support my little lie, I found out that Babson had a one-year program that looked really interesting; you’re there, you’re focused and doing it, and then you’re out.
Alison began the One-Year MBA at Babson in the spring of 2003. Since she was still brainstorming retail store concepts with anyone who would engage, her mom’s hairdresser suggested that as a next step she ought to get some floor time in the real world. That summer Alison started work as a part-timer at an upscale boutique near Boston. Although she still had no immediate plans to develop a new venture, her MBA studies melded well with her exposure to retailing:
I quickly realized that my first concept about an all-black store was a bad idea. Women buy black, but they don’t shop for it. They’ll even go into a store and say they want anything but black—because they have too much black in their wardrobe. But then in the end, they’ll buy something black.
At the time, I was really getting into jeans myself. At Babson, I wore jeans and a t-shirt every day. My first pair was Sevens, one of the early entrants into what I would call the premium denim revolution. Jeans are no longer just weekend wear; they are worn in the workplace and for going out. Premium denim has become a fashion staple, and women now have an average of about eight pairs of jeans in their wardrobe.
So an all-jeans store became sort of my fun idea—something I thought would be just another idea that would be passed by. Still, my concept was interesting enough to attract a team in class to do the business plan.
Nothing Alison and her team members discovered in their research surprised her in the least (see Exhibit 1.1). When asked what pain point she expected her store to relieve, she didn’t hesitate a moment:
Women’s point of pain is themselves. The reality is that every female hates herself in some sort of way. And if she doesn’t like something about her body, jeans can bring out the worst qualities. But they can also make you look great if they fit right.
There are some decent stores in the area that sell premium jeans (see Exhibit 1.2), but they all forget to mention the fact that fit is by far a woman’s number one concern when searching for jeans. Women are not brand loyal; they are fit loyal.
When she graduated in the spring of 2004, Alison was offered an opportunity to learn even more:
The woman who was managing the boutique was going on maternity leave starting in the fall. The partners knew I wanted to open a store someday and they said that they would train me and help me out until she returned in the spring of 2005.
EXHIBIT 1.1 Research Findings
EXHIBIT 1.2 Premium Jean Stores in Eastern Massachusetts
Alison accepted their offer. She soon discovered, however, that they would be delivering far less than they promised:
I never got anything we had agreed to, including health insurance or training of any kind. I did learn how to handle receivables, pricing, dating, and ordering, but I figured out that stuff on my own by examining the invoices and checking in the orders.
It wasn’t long before Alison was certain that she could run a shop of her own. She was still drawn to the $6.3 billion women’s denim market, a highly fragmented space with hundreds of manufacturers and inconsistent retail offerings, from boutiques, chain stores, and department stores. Still, she felt that she “would have to jump on it right away before anyone else did”—it was now or never:
I had been keeping my idea secret from the store owners because I didn’t trust them at all. Sure, they liked me, but they also had money and resources. That summer, I was attending a fashion show with one of the owners. He said that he had always wanted to open a jeans and t-shirt store but that his business partner—a woman—wasn’t interested in the concept. At that point, I told him about my idea, and before you know it, we were talking about going into business together.
He called a few times after the trip to talk it over. We never touched on details like money or ownership breakdown, but we did go to look at a spot in Wellesley [Massachusetts]. But then he just dropped it; never talked about it again. It was as if we had never had a conversation about it! That’s the sort of thing you get from a lot of people in this industry.
But how was I going to do it alone? Where was I going to get the money?
Based on her projections (see Exhibit 1.3), Alison expected her retail store would have first-year sales of just over $375,000. She had also calculated that startup costs, including build-out and inventory, would be in the range of $125,000. She was confident that she could attract investors, but first she wanted to secure a location that would be acceptable to what she was sure would be her toughest constituency:
EXHIBIT 1.3 Five-Year Projections, Income Statement
Fashion denim manufacturers are represented by showrooms in New York City and in LA [Los Angeles]. They are very committed to their brands—and very particular about whom they will sell to. To avoid saturation, they won’t sell to a store that is too close to another client, and they will even shut off an established shop that locates a new store too close to another buyer. Territory protection is a great asset for existing stores, but it makes it very hard to find locations that have the right customer traffic and are not in conflict with existing vendors.
Alison’s boyfriend, Bryan, was active in the Boston real estate market. On weekends, Alison often accompanied him as he made the rounds to various properties he was managing. One icy morning in early 2005, Alison fell for a corner location in the North End:
This place was a bit removed from the busiest section of Hanover Street, but the outside was SO nice; all dark wood, newly redone. I had Bryan call the number because as a real estate agent, I knew they would take him seriously. He set up a meeting with the landlord—a top neurosurgeon who owned the building as an investment….