Joe Button is an online business combining new technology with the age-old tradition of shirt-making, allowing customers to design their own shirts and have them custom-made.
The Sydney-based business was launched in July by former colleagues Modi Song and Melissa Lee, who handle the entire operation with just one other staff member.
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Song talks to StartupSmart about clothing, cotton prices and creating an online community.
What inspired the idea for Joe Button?
The idea first came about when Melissa and I were still working in corporate finance.
We noticed that our colleagues would only ever shop from the same few stores in the CBD and paid a small fortune for their shirts, but every time they went overseas they’d come back with 10 shirts from the local tailor that would actually fit them.
Over lunch one day, we discussed how expensive an off-the-rack shirt was because of the high overheads borne by traditional retail businesses – things like rent, shop fittings and staff.
We quickly realised that people don’t only go overseas to buy their shirts because it’s cheap but also because they’re buying something that is fitted to their own bodies.
By asking the consumer to get a little more involved and measure themselves, we realised we could create a business where the customer can design their own shirt, have it fitted to their exact measurements and have it custom-made from premium European cottons at a reasonable price.
Where did the name come from?
We chose the name Joe Button as our aim is to give more and more people (ie. the average Joe) access to high quality, custom-made European shirts at a reasonable price.
The word “button” also pays homage to our trademark red button at the bottom of every shirt.
How long did you work on the business before you launched it?
We’ve been working on the business since October 2010, so it took a good 10 months to launch Joe Button.
We dedicated a lot of time and energy to finding the right supplier as we wanted to find someone who not only had the reputation in shirt-making but also one who had the capacity and expertise to help us source premium fabrics from Europe and was willing to partner with us for the long-term.
What made it easier was that both Melissa and I had spent six months in 2010 doing an intensive Chinese course at two of the best universities in Taiwan and Beijing respectively, so we had the language skills necessary to deal with the suppliers.
How did you fund the business?
We took a decision in the early stages of the business to grow organically while finding out how we could serve our customers best.
We realised the most optimal way to do this was to do most of the work ourselves while getting advice from some really smart and talented people that we’d met through university, friends and our previous corporate lives.
Our main start-up costs were for the website build, travelling around Asia to negotiate supply agreements and brand marketing.
We funded the business originally with our own savings and were then noticed by Peter O’Connell, an experienced entrepreneur and chairman of Chic Management, one of Australia’s largest modeling agencies.
Peter provided us with additional external funding but, more importantly, gave us advice on how to build a fashion business from the ground up.
He’s been instrumental in guiding us down the right path and plays a vital role in helping us get in touch with the right people, and making all of our fashion photography and modelling costs more manageable.
How do you plan to promote the business?
At this early stage of the business, our main aim is to create awareness and give people an incentive to make their first purchase.
As most entrepreneurs know, the most important element of the marketing mix is the product and we’re really confident that when customers receive their first Joe Button shirt, they are going to talk about it on blogs, online review sites and in fashion circles.
It’s this word-of-mouth advertising that we think will be the most influential and important for our business.
As such, product and customer service are our main focus but to gain that initial awareness we’re using some traditional marketing like Google and combining that with the power of social media through our blog, Facebook and Twitter.
In terms of social media, we’re getting people talking about Joe Button and shirts by tapping into interesting topics – on our Button Up blog – that people really want to know about.
We’re already discussing how your shirt should fit, what shirts celebrities are wearing, and asking our customers to send in photographs to show the world how they wear their Joe Button shirt.
How many staff do you have?
Since Joe Button is a brand-new start-up, the founders make up the entire staff.
We’ve been taken out of our comfort zone on a number of occasions by taking on roles that we have never before encountered like basic coding, photography, and professional ironing and folding of shirts.
We’ve also had a lot of assistance and support from some very talented friends who helped us with things like our video, animation, photography and graphic designing.
What’s the biggest risk you face?
At this early stage of our business, getting people to try the first shirt is the biggest challenge and risk.
To help overcome this, we’re offering would-be customers incentives to purchase their first shirt and we also have a very lenient alterations policy to make sure people are 100% satisfied with their purchase.
How have the cotton prices affected your business?
Our exposure to cotton prices is well managed because of our unique business model. We don’t ever hold large amounts of inventory the way a traditional retail fashion business does so we don’t have to buy large quantities of materials that we might not ever use.
In terms of our supply contracts, we’ve got an agreement which lets us – to some degree – remove ourselves from the risk of commodities fluctuations.
However, the main aim of our business is to ensure that all of our partners are motivated and happy working with us so if there are major changes in the price of cotton, we would certainly review this with our partners to make sure that we can keep offering high quality products at a reasonable price so they can keep the lights on too.
There are countless fashion sites nowadays. What are your points of difference?
Involvement, involvement, involvement – letting people be their own designer. In today’s social age, creativity in its individual form plays a very key role.
The custom industry is growing exponentially because people want to express their individuality; they take pride in things they’ve designed themselves as they get to set their own benchmark for what’s “cool”.
Asking customers to measure themselves, and eliminating the labour costs and rent traditionally borne by storefront businesses, lets us offer lower prices for what was traditionally a luxury service.
Creating a social media platform to engage customers and allowing them to talk to us directly about the fashion they love through our blog, Facebook and Twitter shows that we’re not afraid to let other people see what our customers are saying to and about us.
In the near future, we’re going to oversee designer competitions to give customers a better chance of active involvement in the whole design process.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
In the beginning, it took us awhile to find our feet – we realise now that all you have to do to get what you want is just to ask.
The worst that can really happen is that you get turned down, but even then you’re no worse off than when you started.
Having only worked in large corporate companies previously, it definitely took us awhile to gain the confidence to negotiate on the opposite side.
We now know that every encounter, even if it’s a bad one, is actually positive for us because we learn and get better at what we do.