Top Mistakes Made In A Design Start Up

Top Mistakes Made In A Design Start Up

Design consultant extraordinaire, James Hillman, takes us through the mistakes he’s seen design business owners make time and time again.

When it comes to starting up your fashion label – James Hillman is the man.  If you can afford a consultant to help you out, James is one of those guys who just knows EVERYONE. He’s a whizz with branding, can pattern cut a mean suit, sews up a storm and if there’s one thing I dislike about consultants who’ve never “been there”, he’s had plenty of experience producing his OWN label, seeing it on the catwalk at London Fashion Week AND dressing hot celebs like Nero… Seriously. He’s your guy.  So I asked him to tell us all about the mistakes that he’s seen design start ups make – so that we can try and avoid them ourselves!  How many can you tick off the list?

James Hillman:

My name is James Hillman and I am a successful fashion design, branding and production consultant specialising in start up to medium sized businesses. I studied Menswear Design at Central Saint Martins, and in 2009 won the coveted Levi’s MittelModa Award for sustainable fashion.  I have since worked at design houses such as Balmain, BCBG and Moon Young Hee. I have helped rebrand large fashion companies, as well as focused on my own name brand and showcased at number of catwalk shows during London Fashion Week. With coverage including Vogue Italia and BA Highlife Magazine, I have also had the opportunity to dress celebrities, such as Nero. Now, I thrive on helping design start ups and medium-sized businesses on their journeys.  This includes designing the products, tailoring them towards certain markets, pattern cutting and production. James Hillman Fashion Design Offset Warehouse Over the years I have seen design businesses make the same mistakes over and over. How many of these can you say you have avoided? :

1. No real research.

This is a real pet peeve of mine! I have seen companies fail countless times because their initial research is slim to none or has no substance. Let’s not beat about the bush – the design industry is HUGE!  How will you ever know if your brand has a chance, or where your brand stands if you don’t know where in the market it will sit, who your competitors are, what your competitor advantage is, who will buy your products?  Only when you have gone through every single avenue of your brand, product and trend research and scrutinised every detail of your idea and still believe you’ve got something really special … then you should go for it!

2. Not giving enough time.

I tell every design start up I work with the same thing, “Until you’ve launched, you have all the time in the world”. If you haven’t started selling, you have no product; only a thought, idea or sketch. Once you start selling then every second is vital. But until then, take your time!  Have a 100% clear mind. Think every detail and expense through and get everything set up so that it works from the get go.

3. Not testing and re-testing your samples & prototypes

If there is an issue, fix it before it goes to market. You can only do this by testing the prototype over and over again! Get a group of your potential market together and invite them for a coffee (or even better a beer).  Ask them to use the product and try it on – get them to give you their honest opinions on the design.  If you don’t have access to your market (which is a HUGE downside), then put together an online image and test it on social media – how many likes, comments and interactions does it get? N.b, Make sure you have a copyright logo on anything you put out – and NEVER put out anything you might put a patent on later, or it will be rendered invalid. Whatever you do, get the prototype right before you spend all your money making hundreds – you will fail straight off the bat!

4. Not getting the best you can afford…

If you pay peanuts expect a monkey (or a freelancer to not care about the job!)  Seriously, your return on investment can be tenfold when you hire the right person!  So be money smart.

5. Not writing lists!

I have a white board with everything I need to do daily.  Number the three most important things to do that day. Once those are done, write a new top three and start again. This will make you far more productive and you’ll feel positive about what you’ve achieved (plus it feels great crossing them off!)

6. Underestimating costs.

Always keep about 25%-35% of your initial capital in a side pot for emergencies. Do not haemorrhage money like there is no tomorrow!  If you can afford it (up to £50/month), get a book keeper to keep track on your expenses versus incomings – you’ll be able to see instantly if you’re making a profit or loss.  There are also lots of great online tools to help you keep track of your spending.

7. Not focusing.

It’s great to dream, but don’t get lost in your thoughts about being a global force not to be messed with.  Always act the size that you are.  Don’t start spending big bucks on a huge trade show space, when you can only really afford a rail.  If you get it right at the start, you’ll be setting yourself up to create that platform to rule the world!

8. Working with people just because you ‘like’ them.

Work with people who will do the job properly.  Friends and family won’t get you very far if they don’t pull their weight or can’t do the job.  It’s much easier to ask a freelancer not to come back or tell someone they are doing it wrong, if you have a business relationship and not a friendship. Sounds brutal, but it’s true!

9. Wasting!

Every scrap of fabric, paper, whatever, has value. Use it or recycle it in some way!  Keep it in a box and store it somewhere out of the way – you don’t need your work space filling with calico pieces!

10. Starting too big.

Say you want to create a collection of clothes but have no experience and not much money or you have all the experience in the world and lots of money: Always start small.  Create a capsule collection or a limited number of pieces. Or focus on one type of garment or product and make it the best. This limits your risk, lowers your costs and allows you to have a good, solid platform to grow from.  Remember to create an income from your baseline, or core business before you expand. This will also help you to not spread yourself too thinly.

11. Underestimating yourself.

One thing companies always forget – this is the most frustrating of them all!  Say you work really hard and you do better than you ever imagined … but you can’t meet the demand! Most companies have a Plan B in their business forecasts to accommodate underachievement, but what if the company does so well that it can’t match the demand and new hopeful customers can’t buy your product? I’ve seen a number of companies who have not prepared for this, have lost a huge chunk of new customers (“lost sales” as it’s called), devalued their company’s reputation for not keeping up with demand, and struggled to bounce back 🙁 sad times….

12. Not thinking about your social and environmental impact.

Sustainability, fair trade, eco-friendly, organic, GOTS certified etc, these words can seem elitist and a bit … well, naff!  For me, it’s an unsaid norm and should be expected from every company. If you are not considering these things… then why not?  How much damage do you think it would do to your brand, if a customer discovered that you’d contributed to a social or environmental disaster?  And that’s besides the point – who wants to create a beautiful product that’s harmed the people who have made it, or the environment where it’s produced?!  Hopefully not you.

13. Not paying on time.

It’s not a crime to not have money!  But if you don’t have the money, then do it yourself and don’t expect someone to do it for you. If you do have the money, then pay them on time once the work is done. If you are good to your suppliers and contractors, they will be good to you.

14. Not being nice to EVERYONE.

You catch more bears with honey.  That is 100% true here.  Nothing good will ever come of burning a bridge or bad mouthing anyone.  Even if someone is a million years late with a delivery, or destroys your product, or gives you a nasty review, you never know what the future holds and that person could be the one to forward you a great deal or put you in touch with the perfect contact.  Similarly, when you need help, you’d be surprised which Facebook friends are the ones to share your links and help you out when you really need it.  So be nice!


If you want to bag James up for your own gigs (you may have to get on a waiting list!), you can email him here: [email protected] …or you could just stalk his Facebook page and “bump into him”, like me:

And if you’d like to stalk me, I’d welcome you to sign up to my monthly newsletter, where I’ll give you the rundown of all our latest posts!


Huge thank you to Pandora’s Thoughts for the header image.

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