Hi! I’m Elle, founder and CEO of Emilia George®, a lifestyle brand that celebrates all of the mother figures in our lives.
Three and half years in, my maternity business has grown from a pile of inventory in the corner of my midtown Manhattan apartment during Covid to a well-resonated motherhood lifestyle brand that’s about to expand beyond the U.S. and enter the Asia markets. I have yet to fundraise outside capital and only have one full-time employee.
In a sea of well-networked and well-funded entrepreneurs, there were many moments of loneliness and feeling out of place to start that bootstrapped business without any VC-backing. I owned up to those moments and eventually found my right-hand man, who has genuinely wowed me with his work ethic and devotion to the brand’s mission.
Building a team with your finances is a much stricter process than hiring with a comfortable budget allocated to overhead. There’s a lot at stake and more emotional investment because it is personal (with personal funding). Those founding team members are so crucial in building the foundation for the company that the intentions and values must be aligned.
Outside of my different approach to a “traditional maternity brand,” my entrepreneurial journey has been different. First, I never imagined leaving my career to begin entrepreneurship. I started a fashion brand with no fashion background and zero connections to the industry. This approach has been beneficial in how it has contributed to my journey thus far.
When you are new to entrepreneurship, you have no choice but to learn from the ground up. I learned (and am still learning) every aspect of the fashion business as I experience it. I’ve found it’s important to leave my ego at the door and surround myself with people who are willing to teach and help me learn.
Not raising outside funding has been a deliberate choice, even when it means the trade-off is a minor operation and slower growth at first. A saying that has been guiding me since the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey is “Festina Lente,” or “make haste slowly.” The foundation of a company is so crucial that you will never go far if you don’t ensure your execution of a sustainably profitable business model.
That said, it’s never wrong for a founder to be obsessed with business models and unit economy. With the withering glam of DTC brands and ongoing news about how investor groups had overpaid for certain consumer brands, founders should genuinely be loyal to the bottom line instead of allowing innovation and growth at all costs. It is easy to lose sight of whose game you are genuinely playing—your game or other people’s—when you cannot sustain your business.
Finding Your Stride
The urge to do more and get into more product categories can be natural. When I first started my company, we emphasized balancing thoughtful design with flattering styles engineered to accommodate the changing needs and body shapes throughout pregnancy. Once we gained footing in the maternity category, buyers and customers started encouraging us to launch kids’ lines, women’s ready-to-wear, maternity intimates, etc.
As much as I wanted to build an empire, just like the next entrepreneur, I know I would’ve set myself up for failure if I bit off more than I could chew. We didn’t have the capacity to manufacture all the products, but we could achieve the goal of servicing our community with more profound product offerings through brand partnerships and distributions. That’s how our mission evolved from a single maternity brand to a motherhood lifestyle brand.
Advice For First-Time Founders
As we are on track to reach our revenue milestone, we are about to accept our very first investment to enter the Asia markets. As I look back at our small but mighty startup, I have the following three pieces of advice to share with first-time founders:
1. Think about whether you can genuinely handle loneliness.
It is a lonely journey. There will be plenty of moments you will be turned against by strangers and the people you love the most—sometimes because they claim they love you too much to see you continue down your path. Sometimes, people you spent your life savings to hire could end up betraying and disappointing you.
Are you sure you will continue in this journey, knowing nobody seems to be on your side in those moments? If you can say yes with conviction, you have already won half the battle. You need this mental stamina and grit to play the startup game.
2. Pay more attention to validating your business model through profit-market fit and profitability.
It is time for all founders to put down any vanity matrix to measure their startup performance. Every founder should be on top of their financials at any given time. Know your numbers, be eloquent with your business model, and know your unit economy.
I took the CORE program offered by Harvard Business School Online, which provides a foundational overview of business analytics, economics for managers, and financial accounting, and I strongly recommend it. You can find alternatives that are cheaper on sites like Coursera, including the course on business strategy by the Wharton School.
Investopedia is another great resource for first-time founders. I never took any formal business courses in school, so Investopedia was where I learned all the business terminology and concepts at the beginning.
3. Adopt an ‘All roads lead to Rome’ approach.
When you want to work toward expanding or even pivoting, it can be helpful to adopt an “All roads lead to Rome” mindset. If you want to grow your product offering, start with brand collaboration to test the market and mitigate your upfront investment risks.
All founders feel a race against time, but it’s good to remember festina lente—make haste slowly.
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