There’s no formula for building a successful product-based business.
But if you were to force me to create a one, there’s no doubt somewhere in that formula would be a business owner that takes action and gives a lot of attention to developing her brand.
And that’s what I saw when I stumbled upon Emilee Palomino’s Instagram feed a few months ago.
Unable to find clothing for her one-year-old daughter that would stimulate interest in science and engineering, Emilee set out to fill the void.
In just six months she launched her company and sold her first pair of, “Smarty Girl” leggings–girly leggings with traditionally boyish prints like dinosaurs, chemistry, insects and airplanes.
While Smarty Girl is in the infant stage and has yet to create a fully developed brand, Emilee has been laying the foundation to create a brand and not just a line of products.
New businesses don’t actually have a “brand” at launch. Brands develop over time and are shaped by how customers perceive the company.
With a clear mission and message, a well-defined niche and perfect visual elements, she’s making sure that brand is shaped into the brand she wants.
Read on to learn how Emilee developed her product, the challenges she faced and a few tips.
And see my nieces take their Smarty Girl leggings for a spin (literally) at the park.
JR: What’s your story pre-Smarty Girl? Did you have any experience in design, product development, business ownership, etc.?
EP: I started working in marketing about ten years ago while getting my business degree at Wichita State University.
Prior to starting Smarty Girl, I didn’t have real-world experience with apparel manufacturing but I do come from a family of women who are makers.
My grandma was a seamstress, my mom quilts, my aunt crochets, my sister repurposes furniture. Creativity is a common thread of my upbringing.
I was exposed to business ownership early, as my mom is an entrepreneur.
Her cash registers and office supplies were my favorite toys so I’ve been pretending to be a businesswoman for as long as I can remember.
JR: How did you get the idea for Smarty Girl?
EP: The idea for Smarty Girl came to me in December 2016 when my one-year-old daughter, Sofie, decided her new favorite thing was airplanes.
My hometown of Wichita, Kansas has a rich aviation history. My dad and grandpa are pilots so I grew up at air shows idolizing female pilots.
“You can be a pilot some day,” I tell Sofie. Yet I couldn’t find clothing to foster that belief.
I saw so many great options in the boys’ section. It didn’t make sense for dinosaurs, sharks and science to only be for boys.
I wanted those designs except in the girly colors that I’ve always loved.
One night while lying in bed, I floated the idea to my husband of shirts with pink dinosaurs. Half-asleep, I said, “Or maybe I could only make pants and call them Smarty Pants.”
The next day, I got to work on a vision of boyish designs for girly girls and haven’t slowed down since.
After six months of some wins and plenty of failures, my first pair of Smarty Girl dinosaur leggings sold in June 2017.
JR: Launching in only 6 months, you really hit the ground running. What were the very first steps you took in launching the business?
EP: Right away, I jumped into the research phase.
I was doing freelance marketing from home through a website called Upwork.
One of my clients was a baby brand in Australia called Margaux & May.
The company’s owner had mentioned her newborn baby so I was encouraged knowing that she was running a successful company while a new mother.
My first step was to reach out to her about how to find a manufacturer. She directed me to an online supplier network called Alibaba.
Next, I conducted a (fairly crude) feasibility study, which involved researching the toddler leggings market, the Smarty Pants brand name*, doing a breakeven analysis and creating a budget.
That same week, I posted job openings on Upwork looking for a print illustrator and logo designer.
Around that time, I started my social media channels and began to share my ideas to see if they resonated with anyone.
*Editor’s Note: “Smarty Pants” was changed to “Smarty Girl” after this interview was originally published to avoid potential trademark infringement.
JR: What was your biggest challenge?
EP: That crude budget I mentioned? I way underestimated my expenses.
I assumed that I’d find the perfect illustrator right away. A great logo designer the first go-round. A perfect factory the first time.
None of those things happened. I wasted a lot of money failing to find what I was looking for. Many times, I came close to calling it quits.
My lack of apparel manufacturing knowledge was also taken advantage of by suppliers.
This is where I specifically failed–paying for samples from suppliers who didn’t share my commitment to quality or understand the importance of fair labor practices.
Interestingly, the very first manufacturer who I contacted is currently making Smarty Girl leggings.
JR: When things got tough or you started to doubt yourself, what kept you going?
EP: My husband has been so important. It’s incredibly helpful that if I feel panicky, he remains logical and calm.
For the six years we’ve been together, he’s pushed me to challenge myself career-wise and encouraged me to hone my passions into something greater.
Our families have been really positive and uplifting, too.
It sounds silly, but I also rely on the social media community for encouragement.
Feeling supported has been key for me.
JR: Any tips or secrets you can share about manufacturing?
EP: I originally wanted to manufacture the leggings in the United States.
After spending weeks finding American factories and sending dozens of inquiries, only three responded.
Their quotes were more than double what China charges but I was still interested.
Then one said I’d have to use polyester rather than organic cotton, another ghosted me for a month and a third dropped the ball one too many times.
It was disappointing but I still hope to move manufacturing to the USA some day if I can find a good fit.
Two pieces of advice if sourcing from China: understand the difference between trade companies versus manufacturers.
And learn about guanxi (pronounced gwan shee). It’s the Chinese way of doing business and places great importance on developing relationships and mutual trust.
JR: How are you balancing being a mom and a business owner?
EP: Naptime is hustle time.
Balance is a lovely idea but also seems unattainable so I don’t beat myself up too much about it.
We recently enrolled Sofie part-time in “school” which she loves. It’s been really nice having those two dedicated days for work.
Prior to her being in school, I had sporadic childcare so most things were done while chasing her.
I also work part-time from home doing marketing for a start-up company.
It’s a lot. However, our families live nearby and are a tremendous support system and sounding board.
JR: What have you learned in your first 6 months that you think could help other business owners?
EP: Every day, I try to learn something that will be helpful to the business.
Since this brand is my passion, it’s easy to be immersed in how-to material: entrepreneurship videos, success stories, blog posts, podcasts.
Never stop learning, I guess. Is that cheesy?
JR: What advice do you have for the person reading this who has a business idea but doesn’t know where to start?
EP: Just get started. My mantra in the early weeks was: “If not now, when? If not me, who?”
Research is free. The answer to any business question can be found in a blog, video or article.
Ask family and friends for input and advice. Put numbers together to see if it makes sense financially.
My business degree and marketing experience have been crucial.
But most days, entrepreneurship feels like drinking from a fire hose. If this succeeds, I get all the glory. If this fails, I get all the shame. It’s a thrilling/terrifying journey.
JR: You began growing your following before you had a product to sell. What recommendations do you have for business owners in the pre-launch stage for growing a following?
EP: I started an Instagram almost immediately to gauge interest in my idea.
I also knew how difficult building a following is, so I wanted to get started right away.
If you have a pretty feed, they will come.
JR: You’ve done a great job of starting to build your brand by having a well-defined vision and clear niche. Can you share with us a bit more about your vision and what the next steps are for Smarty Girl?
EP: Thank you!
Although I’ve stayed true to “boyish designs for girly girls,” I’m refining my vision daily. Smarty Girl will forever be under construction.
Next week, I’ll be placing an order for prints that will arrive in the fall: sharks, airplanes, insects and chemistry.
In the future, I’d like my manufacturer to use a different printing technique but it requires me to place a larger order.
I’d like to be in more retail stores and I’m also analyzing the finances of selling on Amazon.
I’m not sure where Smarty Girl will take me but it’s been a rewarding and exciting experience so far.