How a woman got her roller Derby business off the ground

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Rachel Navarez is the owner of Iron Doll Clothing, which is a mother, a wife, and those around her. We chatted via email to discuss how she got her roller skates in the women’s sportswear door.

How One Woman Got Her Roller Derby Business off the Ground | Onefctv
How One Woman Got Her Roller Derby Business off the Ground | Onefctv

Onefctv: So how did you get started with the Iron Doll? I know you’ve been in the Roller Derby, but how did you turn that into a career in uniform sewing for the team?

Rachel: Iron Doll Clothing started in 2009 with a $600 deposit check for a separate order from my first customer, Angel City Derby Girls.

I’m working as a production manager for a clothing company that was hit hard by the 2008 recession. My working hours are cut to 4 days a week and I am looking for part-time jobs to get more income. I have been in the Roller Derby since I first moved to California, in 2004. I moved to LA to attend fashion school and I was often asked to design uniforms. I don’t know anything about running a business and I don’t have the money to start a business, so I never thought too, too serious about it. After some team-mate persuasion, I agreed to try. At the time, there really wasn’t any cute choice for us and it was frustrating.

Onefctv: It’s amazing how a little convincing it can be! The necessity is the mother of invention, isn’t it? If you see a need, there will probably be businesses that meet it.

Rachel: Well, I just came back from Drew Barrymore’s Whip It about Derby and was very confident; I’m ready and ready to try something adventurous. When I met with Angel City to discuss uniform design, they told me they were about to enter the first regional league and wanted to wear something professional rather than torn T-shirts. We agreed on the style and color and they are ready to move on. I don’t have any extra money, so I asked them for a 50% deposit. I think this will include the cost of materials and production.

I brought that $600 check straight to the bank and opened a business account, which is obviously all you need to do to “start a business.” As soon as they launched uniforms in regional tournaments, I started receiving emails and requests from other derby teams – and not just across the United States but from all over the world.

Onefctv: Do you still do your day job? How did you do that?

Rachel: It was tough to do two things at first. But then in March 2009, I was full-time with the Iron Doll, but by chance. I was recovering from minor knee surgery when I found out that my ACL was torn and needed surgery. And just like ‘it’s raining,’ I was also put out of work. I’m just starting to respond to new customers, take orders and explain my situation. Since all my clients are Derby people, they understand the limitations of my injury and agree to postpone the product shortly.

Onefctv: How do you scale your business so quickly?

Rachel: Since the derby is still relatively new and there are very few businesses that actually cater specifically to the sport, I’ve got a product that’s been asked of a lot of people. Teams wear my uniform and go sliding other teams, then they ask “where did you get those?” Through oral administration, my business grew very quickly. I worked all day long, regularly training for the full 12 hours before training for Derby. I needed help quickly and started contacting unemployed friends. By 2012, I had seven employees and more than 500 clients in 8 countries.

Onefctv: Does all this come naturally to you? You learn fashion and design, not an international business, right?

Rachel: Because of my manufacturing background, I am a very cost-savvy and material source, but I have not yet received formal training in business. Most of my decisions are made by trial and error, in the common good, or what I learned is NOT to do in my last job.

Onefctv: So how do you know you’re going to make money without an official business plan?

Rachel: My business model is set for profit. All my products are manufactured on orders, which means I never sit on inventory. I just do what’s necessary and always ship fully. My goods are valued at a margin of 50%, deposits are used to cover costs, and the final payment (in theory) is profitable. Until general costs, errors, material averages, payroll taxes, other taxes, marketing, advertising and all other business expenses account for their share.

Onefctv: What kind of marketing do you make for sports uniforms? You can’t really advertise those things to the public.

Rachel: Derby matches and tournaments are usually the best way to bet on my ads because my clients are the players themselves. I will set up a booth at these events 4-6 times a year. The first 4 years, I didn’t even sell anything, I just displayed the uniforms that I had sewn for other tournaments. I will explain my process to skateboarders, submit samples for accessories and quality reviews, the band gives them my contact information. Most of the teams were very happy with my work so they got in touch right away and we started the design process.

Onefctv: I can’t believe you don’t have a big eCommerce site for visiting teams! That seems very natural.

Rachel: Since all my work meets the needs of the team: colors, names, numbers, etc., I can’t figure out how to set up an online store or receive orders at trade fairs. I just show up and hope people like what they see. The risk when considering booths is $500-$800 plus airfare, car rentals, hotels and food. It can cost me up to $2500 just to go to an event. I budgeted carefully for my first performances, staying at friends’ houses, using local transportation or splitting rooms. Although this brings financial benefits, it is a royal pain in the buttocks and extremely inconvenient. Have you ever tried to pull two full suitcases up the subway steps in NYC during peak hours? Or book the cheapest room in the city just to know it’s actually a retirement home for rent?

Onefctv: It’s life when you’re just starting out, you do what’s necessary. When did you decide to redirect your business model?

Rachel: Finally, I started thinking further about my market and what would happen next for the Iron Doll. In 2012, I started working on this new product line. 2012 was also the year I gave birth to my first child, so I was forced to narrow my working time. Despite the challenges, I still find myself working on the Iron Doll every second I can. In July 2013, I introduced my new sportswear. Designed and inspired by the strong, personality women of Roller Derby, the outfits are designed to take you from power training to grocery shopping. You could say that roller derby was ahead of the “healthy is skinny” movement a few light-years. Players need costumes suitable for many sizes, high quality, keep in place and not be insole.

Onefctv: I mean, you are a customer, so you know the market.

Rachel: I had a perfect formula: my design skills, my knowledge of sports, my fashion background, and my access to manufacturing. I knew it was going to be brilliantly successful, and mostly… Skaters LOVE compression caps for both uniforms and workouts. But sports shirts are just a kind of meh. Derby doesn’t really “eat should make” fashion sports clothes, players can keep buying cheap shirts at big canned goods stores and invest only where they need to be. Uniform business plan is easy: Order, deliver and receive money. There is no money sitting on the shelves in inventory. With the sports line, I had to spend all the money to get hundreds made and there was no guarantee that anyone would buy it.

Onefctv: It’s a big investment, are you worried that it won’t succeed?

Rachel: Of course! Although I sold a lot in the first year, it wasn’t enough to cover all the costs and it took a very long time to notice the return on my investment. Selling products at events helps offset travel costs, but I usually only make an even-even. It does not leave any extra funds to invest back into the company or replenish inventory. It’s a constant and tense cash flow war.

I continued my uniform and apparel for another 3 years. The market slowed down, more competition appeared, and eventually, I had to run the company on my own. I’m smarter in time management and just doing well alone and making a small profit. Usually, in the slower months, I can’t afford it. Now with two kids at home, things are not going well.

Onefctv: There is a lot of competition; you are not a big fish in a small pond anymore.

Rachel: Exactly. And I don’t want to be a big fish anymore.

Eventually I decided that my priorities had changed and I was more interested in my children than roller derby games. While I haven’t decided whether to sell the Iron Doll, I’ve decided to close it.

Onefctv: So what’s next for you? I know you won’t just sit back and do nothing.

I got a part-time job as the lead designer for Steady Clothing, the classic style-inspired clothing line for men and women. And I started shopping for girls’ clothes and planned to open my first Etsy store called Duchess and Goose. It will be a line of clothes for girls specializing in isolation and unique stitching. It was my family business involved, my husband specializing in the sewing trade, and two daughters who were very interested in the classification of daisies and choosing fabrics. What can I say, I am obsessed with business and making money.

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