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Failing Up

Failing Up: Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

I remember the day my daughter informed me that she knew what the “F” word was. I braced myself for what was about to come from a little voice in the backseat and then she said “Failure” right? And I just nodded my head with relief and said, “Uh huh”. When I started my business I was afraid of that “F” word. But I have come to learn that failures are how we learn, how we grow, how we find our way. We don’t need to know with certainty if we are moving in the right direction or doing the right thing. If we wait for clarity, we may never get going. We just need to make a decision and then take action. If we are doing that, then we are not stuck. We are not procrastinating. We are moving forward.

First booth at Bust a Move, March 2016

First marketplace booth: Bust a Move for Breast Health

I started out selling my clothing online and at specific events that aligned with my target market and values. I have had positive feedback and some sales here and there. Then about 5 months ago, I started to approach retailers to sell my clothing. And I don’t mean on consignment where I only get paid if they make a sale. I mean where retailers actually purchase my clothing at wholesale prices and then re-sell to their customers. To be honest, I did not plan to do this, at least not right away.

My initial foray started out in Carleton Place with the help of a wonderful lady, Christine, who came to this year’s “Forget for a Moment” makeover and is now a friend. She said to me, “There are a few boutiques in Carleton Place where I think your clothing might work. I could introduce you.” And that started the ball rolling.

Christine at the Forget for a Moment Makeover, March 2017

Christine at the "Forget for a Moment" Makeover

So my first cold call was a boutique owner and friend of Christine’s. It allowed me to ease into the process. The owner was great. It didn’t result in a sale but she gave me terrific advice and suggestions on other locations and stores to try. It allowed me to dip my toe into the cold calling pool and not be scared off by the frigid waters. Let me tell you, cold calls could not be more out of my comfort zone.

She also suggested I lead with my cause, breast cancer. You see all my designs are created with the breast cancer patient in mind. They are soft, comfortable, easy to slip on and off without lifting your arms up over your head and look good on. But, anyone can wear them. I gratefully took her advice and headed off to Perth.

I went to the first store on my list and asked to see the owner who happily agreed to take a look at my samples. I led with breast cancer and was immediately stopped in my tracks. Funny thing, she herself is a breast cancer survivor but for whatever reason, which I totally respect, she did not want to go there. She was very nice about it and suggested I try a lingerie boutique across the street. So I trotted over there. They liked my clothing but as soon as they heard breast cancer, they immediately thought mastectomy wear. I understand why people automatically think mastectomy wear but my clothing does not have a built-in bra to accommodate prostheses. I really design with the breast cancer patient in mind, someone who is currently going through treatment or other health issues where mobility and comfort are a concern, where they need something that is easy to put on and take off.

So when I moved on to the next small town of Westport, I decided not to lead with the breast cancer story. I just talked about bamboo knit Canadian-made clothing that is soft, comfortable, easy to wear and looks good on. It worked. I had my first retail customer. And this was despite the fact that I had initially gone into the boutique and mistakenly asked for whom I thought was the owner but was actually the name of a store down the street. Oops, how embarrassing! I almost didn’t go back it in.

First retail customer, Seasons of Westport

First retail customer: Seasons of Westport in Westport

What I have learned is not to take the “no's” personally and to ask for help. When approaching prospective customers, I always tell them I am new to this business and in learning mode so any tips, suggestions, advice they may have would be greatly appreciated. I always ask if they can think of any referrals or connections that might be a good fit for my line. And everyone always gives me something. So I don’t come away feeling rejected. I come away with a nugget of information and that keeps me going. I went into the cold calling with the mindset that I would probably have 50, maybe 100, rejections before finding a buyer. In fact, that did not happen but there was a lot of “no’s”. I am just giving you the abridged version. It’s trial and error, like testing a hypothesis to see if you’re on the right track.

Over the summer, my daughter was attending a figure skating school in Barrie, Ontario. I decided to put my time there to good use and do some cold calling up in the Muskokas and surrounding area. It was one of the Care Coordinators at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre who pointed me in this direction. I researched potential boutiques in the area and sent out “cold call” emails to see if I could arrange a few appointments ahead of time. But that was met with crickets…no response. So I packed up a few samples, hopped in my car, and knocked on doors. There were lots of “Your clothing is really nice but it wouldn’t be a good fit for our store”.

My last stop was a boutique off the main street, down a laneway. I had the address on my list but missed it on my first go round. This boutique specializes in bamboo clothing. The owner, Mark, really liked my stuff but said the price point was too high for his clientele. We chatted for quite some time and I asked him how other lines do it. He said, “If you don’t mind me asking, what is your markup?” I told him I follow the standard in the fashion industry of 2 times cost. He said that was my problem. Traditionally, that has been the standard, but nowadays, you have to take a smaller markup and go for volume. I told him I would go back and look at my numbers and be in touch. I went home, well my home-away-from-home, and re-worked my numbers with the help of my mother-in-law who was a costing expert for many years with the bank. With my accounting background and her expertise, we came up with a new pricing strategy, not exactly where Mark wanted my price to be but closer. The new strategy is a risk. Many people in the industry will probably think I am crazy. But I want to try it, take a chance, and move forward.

I went back in to see Mark with a trunkful of my new fall fleece jackets which I had just picked up from my manufacturer. He told me my price was still too high for his clientele but we continued to chat. I then offered, “Try it out at my suggested retail price for a month. If it doesn’t sell, I’ll take it back”. He said, “I can do that. It’s basically consignment”. We chatted some more. And then he said, “You know what I really like you so I am just going to buy it at your price. I’ll know right away if it’s the right price or not. If it doesn’t sell, I will lower the price and we’ll split the difference on the cost”. I agreed. So I unloaded all the jackets I had in my car. Boom, all of them sold in one shot. Then he asked what other styles and quantities I had in stock. I gave him approximate numbers and he said, “I’ll take all of it. I’m going to build this wall over here around your line. I will feature you.” Holy cow!

coKANna lines at Millbank Trading Company

First major customer: Millbank Trading Company in Bracebridge

So when I got back to Ottawa, I packed up 300 tops and shipped them off. He sold 7 of the jackets in the first weekend and he is now averaging 3 pieces a day. Since then Mark has placed 3 more orders. Now, I am at a whole new level of business. I have spent the last 2 months scrambling to get more tops, jackets, and pants ordered, and a new skirt developed. It is a work of science, creativity, perseverance, and a bit of luck to coordinate fabric ordering, manufacturing, and shipping to meet tight customer deadlines. Fabric colours are often back-ordered or even discontinued. The manufacturer wants just-in-time delivery of fabric. It’s a challenge to coordinate everything. I could not meet all of Mark’s deadlines so I have lost part of an order. It’s all about timing especially going into the holiday season.

I am now trying to line up alternative solutions. Putting in place Plan B and possibly C. Looking at bringing on board back-up manufacturers and suppliers.

I’m also in the process of arranging financing. With large upfront purchases of raw materials and manufacturing, cash flow has become a whole new issue for me. I have always been of the belief that it is next to impossible to obtain financing for small businesses particularly for women in small business. But, it has been a lot easier than I thought it would be. My bank, RBC Royal Bank, and Business Development Canada (BDC) are both helping me out. Although this help does not come cheaply, it is a necessity of doing business especially for building up some credit history and growing my business.

So that is where I am at. What I am learning is to keep an open mind when it comes to business and life. Be open to opportunities, nuggets of information, words of advice, changing direction, and following your intuition. There is no well laid out path to follow. It’s a little bit of planning with a touch of curiosity and a lot of creativity. Making decisions and taking action. Reconsidering, making new decisions, changing direction, and taking action. One step at a time. You don’t need a lot of experience, or specific skills or know how, or a step-by-step plan (this one was particularly hard for me and I spent a lot of time and money looking for it). You just need to be willing to step out of your comfort zone, take a chance, learn from your mistakes, and keep taking action. Believe me, it’s a slow process, it doesn’t happen overnight. We often hear about success stories that seem to have happened overnight. But what you don’t hear about is the long road or many roads they have travelled, the failures, the doubts, the times they felt like giving up but didn’t. That’s not as interesting or inspiring, but really it’s what we need to hear so we don’t give up, we keep believing in ourselves, and we don’t feel all alone on this journey.

This is what I call “failing up”. Taking our failures, learning from them, growing from them, and moving on up.

Colleen Kanna is a breast cancer champion and creator of coKANna designs, a line of bamboo knit, Canadian-made adaptable clothing for women. Five percent of online sales are donated to the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre in support of their Head Start Program for women newly diagnosed with breast cancer.


  • Colleen

    Lol…thank you, Christen!

  • Christen Bennett

    Great article Colleen! You are an inspiration! Go Get’em Tiger(with soft bamboo skin!)!!!

  • Colleen

    Jodie, thank you so much! I’m always so thrilled to hear from readers.

  • Jodie

    So fun to read about your adventures and successes! Congrats Colleen!

  • Colleen

    Thank you, Marilyn. You are one of my biggest supporters!

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