September 30, 2014 - Comments Off on From Idea to Business Plan: How DENYC Helped Nicole Lenzen Define Her Business
There are all kinds of ways to get your business off the ground—whether that's pulling together a business plan by yourself or working with a support group of sorts. Both methods can work, it just depends what you're taking on. Our lady, Nicole Lenzen, decided to work through the base of her endeavor with a strong group of people learning alongside her. Design Entrepreneurs New York City (DENYC) is a small business incubator that's in its third year, which takes a curated group through the ins and outs of putting together a business plan and presenting pitches to industry veterans—including esteemed executives from investment companies, fashion brands, and retailers like LVMH/Christian Dior Couture, Lela Rose, Macy's, and more.
Nicole was one of the entrepreneurs who participated in this year's incubator after hearing about it from a friend who had participated in the past. From giving marketing outreach a more human approach with character profiles to working alongside a temporary mentor, she shared more about the program and what she took away from the experience.
What is DENYC?
DENYC was sponsored by FIT and the NYC Economic Development Corporation, with prize money awarded by GIII—a huge apparel company. Effectively, it's sort of an incubator/mini-MBA program. Getting in this year was quite competitive. I applied in April, and it's really been my life the last few months. The program's goal is to develop a business plan, and a selection of participants are asked to present at the end for a cash prize. In terms of where I stood, I was actually selected as one of the finalists who was asked to present. I didn't win, but still loved and valued the experience.
The workshop part of the class was structured to span four weekends (all day Saturday and Sunday) for four solid weeks in a row in June. You're locked up in a basement in FIT with class from 9am until 6pm—you even have lecturers over lunch. It's just you, the 34 other participants/designers, and the speakers. The attendees were all in the fashion industry, but we all have our own businesses. To be in the class, you have been a business for at least a year. This years participants ranged from apparel to accessories to jewelry to menswear—some years there's childrenswear, but I don't think there were any this year. So it's a nice mix.
The instructors taught us everything from financials like cash flow statements and P&Ls to branding, sourcing, costing, and production—a lot of things that were really relevant, some things that were aspirational, like exit strategies for "when you're ready to sell your business." Those were the bigger picture things that none of us were fully ready for yet. I took copious notes. Even if it was stuff I had already learned, it was a nice reminder of best practices. There was a teacher who had been in the garment district his entire career and just being able to check in with him was wonderful. I could ask questions like, "Am I paying the right amount for dresses in the city?" I could always expect an honest answer. He had great information on manufacturers.
All of the instructors were very generous with their time. Melissa Hall of the Emerging Designer and Yolanda Wardowski of the Avalon Group were two I chatted up the most! If we wanted to follow up with anyone, they had open doors. That was really great in terms of establishing your name within this echelon of people in the industry with experience and just in knowing that you aren't alone. Christine Helm of FIT did a fantastic job running the program. I feel bad because I don't think she had much of a summer vacation!
We didn't know this until really late, but we ended up having to submit a business plan beforehand so that they could evaluate where everybody in the class was. So I did a ton of work creating this plan before the class even started. In the end, I think it was really valuable for me to have a base to work off of. They had deadlines throughout the summer, in an effort to force us to submit smaller parts of the plan by certain dates. To help us out, we were assigned a mentor throughout the program so I was paired with a women who runs a dancewear company called Trienawear—her name is Mary Beth. She was very helpful and supportive. My check-ins with her were typically to review sections of the business plan. She really helped me in evaluating my brand messaging—she gave a great outsider's perspective on my work. In terms of having a mentor, I'm definitely seeking a mentor for the long-term because it's so valuable. If you can find someone with relevant experience, it's super key.
We submitted our business plans in the middle of August. They were judged by at least three, maybe up to six different people, based on a number of criteria. We did have to follow a specific format that they requested so that they'd be able to compare our work, apples to apples. We found out two weeks later who was selected as finalists—there were 12 of us who were selected based on our business plans and the scores they received. We then were tasked with creating an eight-minute business pitch presentation, which is no time at all to really tell our story with compelling words and visuals. In short, the presentation needs to show why you're going to kick ass—in eight minutes. I had a business plan that was over 50 pages—one-and-a-half lined space—which is a lot of content. Honing that into eight minutes was the most challenging exercise of it all for me.
We did have one workshop before we pitched for everyone in the program—before they announced the finalists. They thought it would be valuable for everyone. The feedback I got back from my coach, and other people, was that you're the most convincing when you're not trying to remember the content and you're just saying it how it is. Just pretend your sister is asking you, "Well, why shouldn't I buy something from H&M?" Pretend you're talking to her and explain it that way. Touch on all of the important points, but if you really believe what you're saying—which I do—that's how you get people to join your team.
With the conclusion of the finalist presentation, the course came to an end (Side note: huge congratulations to ITA and BEX NYC, the winners!). But in so many ways, it's just the beginning.
Throughout the summer, I became friends with some of the other designers in the program. We would meet and force ourselves to work on parts of the plan together and throw out ideas—which was also helpful from a marketing perspective. I was really working on defining my branding and testing out a lot of the strategies that were being put into action—social media, etc. It was so nice to be able to collaborate and critique.
All of this year's designers are on an email list now. The other day, I was looking for strings for my hangtags. You post something out and it's guaranteed that someone will write back. Everyone's been really forthcoming. The industry itself can be super catty. People are not historically willing to share resources, like which factory they use for production. All for fear that you might come in and get prioritized by the factory, pushing their timeline out. But all in all, it's not like you're winning by not sharing information. So it's been great to be in this environment where people were completely open and shared their good and bad experiences and their references. NYC is huge and the garment district is still a significant part of the economy, but it's still also very small and if you have a bad reputation, it's going to precede you. You're not going to win in the long run.
The weekend workshops were pretty intense. They did feed us, although I can't say it was the best part of the program. They didn't have coffee until lunch time, so in early morning financials, we're all, "where's our coffee?!" I biked every single day—there wasn't a single day that I didn't bike—so that was really great to have that energy release.
As a solo entrepreneur you live in a bubble and are often afraid to ask questions. That's something that I think is continuously the first advice women entrepreneurs offer each other. Don't hesitate to ask questions or ask for help. I think men are, for some reason, more inclined or apt to ask questions or ask for help. As women, we always think we can do it ourselves. We can a lot of the time, but why? Why go about it the hard way when someone else has already done it? That's something that I've been really integrating more into my day-to-day. I don't want to do it alone and I want to build a team. I want to start leveraging other people's knowledge and make the process more collaborative, as well as sharing and giving back to the community.
There are so many free organizations through universities and colleges that are totally worth taking an advantage of, aside from accelerators and incubators (yay, buzzwords). I thought DENYC actually did a really nice job selecting non-competitive designers. I have to stop and think about where I was before the program and where I am now and I am in such a different place with my business. I feel like all of these doors have opened and I'm on my way to growing because I know what I want and I know what my brand is.
For more information on the program and to find information on future sessions, check out the DENYC website.
Published by: Nicole Lenzen in Behind the Seams