Lena Schlabach, a native Ohioan and mother to two daughters, drew inspiration from her heritage when she started her first business, Lena’s Amish Granola. After establishing a huge social media following, she returned to her first passion — fashion — and launched Farmhouse Frocks, a country-chic line of clothing made by skilled Amish seamstresses. Fans flocked to Lena’s story, as well as to the relaxed, feminine style of her designs. Today she has two brick-and-mortar stores and hopes to open a third in 2017.
We talked to Lena about what drew her to creating such a unique retail business, why she won’t be taking her manufacturing process outside the Amish community and what she's hoping to learn next from *you.*
Name: Lena Schlabach
Business: Farmhouse Frocks
Started: August 2014
Why did you start your business?
I started Farmhouse Frocks because I’m a plus-size woman and could never find items that fit my personal style. I love clothes that are cute, comfortable and feminine. Before that, I was running Lena’s Amish Granola and already had a social media following that often delved into the positive side of Amish culture.
Initially, my clothing was meant to serve the plus-size woman. As soon as I launched, women of all sizes wanted my styles, so I immediately made that change. Farmhouse Frocks found the right niche from the start — people loved the clothes, the range of fits and the company’s ties to the Amish. All my designs are produced by Amish women and are 100% made in the USA.
People seem really drawn to that connection, and I think it’s a big part of what makes the brand special.
Who was your very first customer?
My first customer found Farmhouse Frocks through my social media presence. A great deal of my business comes in that way. My slogan is "More Faith Than Fear" — that it’s better to approach life with faith rather than fear — and that hashtag has really started to take off on Instagram.
As far as offline activities, Farmhouse Frocks was in business for three weeks before we did a Country Living magazine fair that reached 50,000 people. I’ve done those every year since my initial launch, as it's a great way for me to get the product into the people’s hands. I want my customers to be able to touch, feel and try on our clothes. Each year I set goals for my revenue when I attend the Country Living event, and it’s brought my company to new levels.
When did you know your business was going to work?
I could tell from the social media response to my product that I filled a gap in what was out there. People love my story of growing up Amish and the transition into creating a fashion business with strong ties to that culture.
When country music star Ruthie Collins started wearing my clothes, it was also a sign that Farmhouse Frocks is a niche business with big potential!
What has been the biggest surprise so far after starting your own business?
The first big surprise was the response to my story and company. I really didn’t expect people to resonate with it as much as they did, or for it to generate that kind of social media buzz.
There has been a challenging surprise: In starting a retail business for women, I’ve really been exposed to how sensitive and self-critical women are when it comes to sizing. When I did my very first show, there were no sizes on our clothing, and women couldn’t handle it! That was a big lesson we learned.
Our female shoppers can also be sensitive — extremely so — about what fits them versus expectations, and I really didn’t expect that this would be such a complicated aspect of my business. I want Farmhouse Frocks to be an empowering brand, so I’ve incorporated training on that sensitivity for our store staff.
What has been your biggest lesson learned in pricing?
Pricing is the biggest challenge when starting a business, but it’s also one of the most important things to get right. I had to look at competing companies and see what I could offer in comparison. When I’m pricing, I always stay focused on my brand and its consumer base.
I feel very strongly about staying small and keeping my production in the Amish community. There’s always the temptation, financially, to go overseas but I won’t do that.
I’m also conscious of product placement and inventory display, and I’m very intentional with where I hang items. For example, I make sure my higher-priced clothing is at the front of my stores.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I have a pretty strong online presence and two studios to manage, which requires a lot of juggling. I get up around 6:30am and meditate for an hour with my coffee. Then I get down to production, as the Amish are early risers.
I have meetings and interviews during the day, so I’m usually out of the house until 5pm. Then I cook dinner for my family and enjoy time with them before getting back to work, sometimes until 10pm or 11pm. I use that time to place fabric orders and much more.
My work doesn’t always look like work because I’m having so much fun and I love what I do. But I’m always trying to pay attention to my work-life balance.
If you could go back in time, what’s the one thing you would do differently when starting your business?
It’s tricky to pick just one thing because I feel that every lesson learned was needed! One thing I would have done is implemented a better training system for store staff and created a more rigorous interview process when vetting potential employees.
I have a good accountant and secretary now, but at the beginning I didn't have these and they're so key for me as a creative person. I need help with numbers and delegation!
What would you like to learn today from a community of other small business owners and self-employed professionals?
I’m looking for advice on how to implement good training for my staff. I’m also adding a hiring test to figure out what a candidate is best at and what they like the most.
Does anyone here have any suggestions on how I should best approach this?
Are *you* a staffing superstar? Lena is working to grow her online — and offline — retail business, and she's looking for tips on how to best source, vet and train her team.
Do you have experience in this area, or ideas for how she can best implement staff training? Share your own stories with us in the comments below! :-)