How many entrepreneurs would hand a big say in the direction of their new business to their customers? Probably not many, yet if startups are to succeed they invariably require their owners to have an appetite for risk.
It’s an approach that has paid off for Jeetly. Labelled Best FashTech startup in London, this pioneering brand for petite (under 5’3”) women has disrupted traditional retail business models by putting consumers in control of fashion design and production instead of retail buyers.
Its eponymous founder is 33-year old Jess Jeetly, an optometrist-turned-entrepreneur who has created a successful online fashion business without any previous business or fashion experience.
What she did have was years of poor customer experience, and that was the catalyst that brought her business idea to life.
She says: “I was working as a consultant locum optometrist in hospital and private practice. I never planned to launch a startup, it was just that I needed a solution to a problem that I constantly faced as a customer.
“As a short woman myself I found the lack of clothing in petite proportions frustrating, especially as I was having to alter every garment I bought. I felt things needed to change.”
Her own market research confirmed her belief that she wasn’t alone; the vast majority of similarly petite women felt that existing retailers were not addressing their needs.
Fashion will increasingly be influenced by consumers/Photo credit: vintage bridesmaid dresses
Shrewdly, she integrated customer input into her business model by creating an ‘In-or-Out’ voting platform showcasing Jeetly’s design samples online. Customers have 30 days to decide which go into production for the collection.
At the end of the voting period garments that secure more than 65% of the ‘In’ votes are produced with a lead time of four weeks before they are retailed.
As a business and fashion novice one of the biggest challenges Jeetly faced was finding a garment manufacturer that would produce small runs per style, work to the highest quality at affordable prices, and be prepared to work on non-standard pattern blocks.
Her lack of technical expertise and contacts in the fashion industry also created problems.
She said: “I had to search, search, search for answers and advice on everything about running a fashion business, reaching out and meeting people with the knowledge I needed.
“It took me six months of working every hour in the day possible to do the groundwork necessary to overcome these challenges prior to launch of the website. And I used my own savings and earned revenue rather than external finance to sustain the business till today.”
Jeetly also had to educate customers about petite clothing.
“Reaching our target customers via social media is a challenge as many women still associate the hashtag #petite with skinny,” she explains. “We have a huge task of re-educating women around the world that petite means ‘being shorter than 5’3”.
Since its launch Jeetly has amassed several industry accolades and was a finalist in the prestigious RetailWeek/Drapers Awards 2014 for Best Innovation as the only startup in the category.
International business plans quickly followed with Jeetly securing deals with retailers in China and Russia on board.
She says: “We secured a Russian retailer purely by luck as we happened to be in the right place at the right time and weren’t actively looking to enter Russia’s market. I was approached by a womenswear buyer who had stumbled upon our site on a Russian blog in his search for a contemporary British petite retailer and liked what he saw.”
Her negotiations with two retailers in China took nine months before contracts were signed and IP was protected.
“The fact that our production is already in China gave us a huge competitive advantage as our wholesale prices and transport costs were favourable. However, the challenge of a transparent business relationship with the Chinese retailer still remains, as corruption is known to exist where factory owners can arrange their own supply direct to retailers,” she adds.
Jeetly is now looking to expand into the US. The challenge there is a large existing presence of petite retailers and a more mature market. Barriers to entry are the stringent garment labelling requirements, complex tax system for exporters and a high cost of business insurance as litigation is common.
Competition was fierce when Jeetly launched and is even more so today.
The large retailers have always offered a small petite collection but have doubled the size of their petite offerings this year as they see demand increase.
She says: “I come across new petite clothing sites every week which imitate Jeetly’s web content, brand image and designs, but that doesn’t worry me because our business model is unique and the market size for petite clothing is huge and will take years to reach ‘overcrowded’ status.
“It can only be good news for petite consumers to have more choice in fashion and we’re glad to have initiated that Petite Revolution.
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