Ask the expert: Persistence, risk-taking, and community-building, the keys to success for small businesses

After developing an affinity for design while in the costume department in high school, Rebecca Minkoff moved to New York City at 18 to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer. In 2001, she designed a version of the “I Love New York” t-shirt that appeared on The Tonight Show and became an overnight sensation. After years of designing statement-making handbags and accessories with her trademark leathers, studs and hardware, Rebecca returned to her roots of apparel design and introduced her first ready-to-wear collection in 2009. Today, Rebecca Minkoff is a global brand with a wide range of apparel, handbags, footwear, jewelry, timepieces, eyewear, and fragrance.

Here are Rebecca’s insights about business success, those she turns to with questions and the lessons she’s learned over the past year.

How do you generate great ideas / innovate to keep your business relevant?

I think it’s always about taking risks: trying things out, seeing what works, seeing what doesn’t. A lot of businesses can feel like they are stuck — like they have to do what everyone else does or follow certain rules. That’s why to stay relevant, I think testing new ideas and trying new things is so important.

What are some of the key lessons learned while maintaining a successful business during the past year?

At times, this past year felt like starting over. To survive, we all needed to be scrappy entrepreneurs during the pandemic. A lesson for me was digging back down to that gritty mindset I had when I first started that I could make something out of nothing.

I also think a key lesson of the past year was the importance of community and supporting one another in your network. For instance, we galvanized a community of women to do giveaways and cross-promotions that generated over a hundred thousand in sales within a few months. We worked with Madison Reed to be in each other’s publications, helping both of us to reach new audiences. This wasn’t something we had done before, but like I said – it’s about taking risks and not being afraid to try new things. Another great example is the text message program we launched. Eventually this new channel we hadn’t used before was representing 10% of our sales. This shows how important it is to be innovative and not get stuck in one box or way of doing things when you’re an entrepreneur.

What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business’ success?

Being persistent and never giving up, even when facing massive hurdles. Also, having a sound understanding and knowledge of finance — knowing everything it takes to run the money part of a business — is crucial to long term success.

Who’s your “go-to” person for business advice?

I’ve built a network with the Female Founder Collective and there are incredible women in this group like Birchbox founder Katia Beauchamp, the founder of Lively, Michelle Cordeiro Grant, or Divya Gugnani, the founder of Wander Beauty.

These are just a handful of the women I count as friends and supporters, and they’re the number one people I turn to for great advice. For female entrepreneurs starting out, I advise that you build your own network of women that you can go to with questions or for insights.

As you are the face of your brand, how do you feel when you get a customer complaint and what actions do you take?

Even after all this time, I still take it just as personally when I get a bad customer review as I did when I first started. My goal is to make all of my customers happy. We are a brand that wants to be there for all your milestone moments, so it’s key that we care and continue to listen to our customers and understand how we can do better every time.

This past year has been very stressful for many trying to run and manage their business. What’s the best techniques you used to handle work stress during the past year?

For me this past year the best way to manage stress was to take long walks — to make time to exercise and move my body.

I also make a lot of lists. I’m someone who feels very productive when I can cross something off a list, and that helps me stay focused and not get overwhelmed.

What do you consider to be the best personal traits when it comes to being a small business owner?

When it comes to being a small business owner, I feel like traits like resilience, fearlessness, and courage are so important. Also, being nimble is such a great trait. We saw a lot of corporations falter this past year because they couldn’t act and adapt quickly. The ability to adapt and make decisions quickly as you scale becomes essential to survival and success.

Best piece of business advice you have ever received and given?

My number one piece of advice is to become an expert in communication. Business is human-to-human interaction and I’ve found relationships determine the outcomes of almost everything.

So invest in yourself as a person to become an incredible communicator. Invest in your employees and ensure they become great communicators as well. In my experience, if you can communicate you can always find your way out of problems.

What advice would you give someone looking to launch a fashion and accessories business that they probably haven’t heard before?

One thing I would say is build your margin for a rainy day. When I was starting there was a lot of sexy language out there to build your business as if you were going to be acquired one day. But there’s nothing wrong with a smaller, yet profitable business. You don’t have to go into debt or take on an investor right away to have a business!

What is your definition of business success?

We’re all different so business success may be different for everyone and even different depending on where you are in life.

For me, it used to mean that I could check my bank account balance that would determine if I could eat or not that day. Now, it’s that I can have my company but also focus on the incredible Female Founder Collective and support the next generation of women entrepreneurs there. But it’s also the little things, like that I can sleep through the night or not worry about things falling through the cracks on the weekend. To me, those add up to what success feels like.

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