How this 27 year old built a cult following fashion brand in 4 years

 
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Mary Young is the founder of her eponymous label – MARY YOUNG, a Canadian designed and produced Lingerie line.
Our Founder, Dorcas Solomon had the pleasure of interviewing Mary in her downtown Toronto office, and we are quite delighted to share the conversation with you. They talked about the “How’s,” - from how to develop a business idea, to funding, social media strategies and networking. We hope you find Mary’s insights helpful in your personalized journey and business endeavour.

 

THE JOURNEY

Q: So, tell us how it all started.

Mary: Growing up I was knitting, crocheting, sewing, everything for my dolls and eventually for myself. I got my first sewing machine at the age of 10, so I knew this is really what I wanted to do. I moved to Toronto from a small town outside of Ottawa for school - went to George Brown for fashion design. After my first year, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a designer, I realized it was going to be really hard to be a fashion designer in Canada. Future job prospects were not looking good; you could either start your own line which would require a lot of funding, try to get a job at one of the five major fashion design Canadian companies which is very competitive or start an alteration or a dry-cleaners shop. So, I enrolled at Ryerson University for Fashion Communication believing this would provide more job opportunities. For our final year, we had to produce a thesis that required research and present it in an artistic manner. A couple classmates created websites, magazines, and books – none of these mediums seemed to appeal to me. At that time, I was hand-knitting headbands and scarves and selling them under an accessories line I was running as a “side-hustle.” One of my professors suggested making a collection of knit sweaters as part of my thesis. Interestingly, she also made a comment about creating full outfits which I could show alongside the Design students at a fashion show.

I took that advice and created a full collection drawing from the Rap and Hip-Hop culture and how that genre of music was formed. This genre of music gets a bad reputation for being overly sexualized - and obviously with that comes lingerie. So I took that idea, put a twist on it by moving away from overly sexualized lingerie, to comfort-based lingerie – reclaiming our underwear for ourselves – paired with knit sweaters.

I got great feedback from the show which sparked a 4-month research into the lingerie industry, after a while I couldn’t see myself in that industry. I was never the kind of girl that was concerned about my bra and underwear matching - nope, function, and that’s it. I later realized the reason I felt that way was because I was alienated by an industry whose messages are “you wear lingerie for your partner - you never wear it for yourself”, or “wear nude flattening, lifting, reshaping etc. to be better and look better”. There was nothing about comfort, these are the most sensitive parts of your body, so why is it not comfortable? Recognising that the industry wasn’t moving in that direction – this was almost five years ago – items such as bralettes and soft-cup bras were not really a thing back then. Since there wasn’t a lot of Canadian lingerie brands, I decided to write a business plan and see if it was viable. A lot of the feedback from the industry really encouraged me to do this. After writing the business plan and sort of looking at the landscape, I knew this was definitely a gap in the market and something I believed should be filled because I couldn’t be the only person that felt left out by what I saw in fashion. Clothing can really change your attitude, and for women, underwear is the first thing you put on in the morning. If you don’t feel good wearing it, you’re going to have this unease with you all day. So that’s really the long story of how it all started.


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Q: Should passion for an industry propel you to pursue a career in it?

Mary: People talk about pursuing “their passion,” which I think can be a very nice thing for a lot of people. For me, my passion was fashion, which can sound horrendous to say. But the clothing industry, fashion and what it could do – was my interest or passion. Just by pursuing fashion, I was able to find a niche area that I could focus on and continue to grow in.

I definitely saw a lot of girls that came to school with the mindset of “I love clothes and I love shopping,” but never thought about what area they would fit in e.g. “Do you like the PR aspect or are you interested in doing marketing for a fashion-based company?” There is more than just loving clothes to actually have a career in the fashion industry or the industry of your interest. It’s being able to take that love for something and focus it in on something finite that you can actually run with.

DEVELOPING A BUSINESS IDEA

Q: What is an important factor to know when starting a business or figuring out how to turn an idea into a profitable business?

Mary: Being able to determine if you’re going to succeed is being able to actually write a business plan. I never studied business - I don’t really understand that whole realm. I have obviously learned. At the time, I had very little knowledge of what a business plan was, but I found a template online, I filled it out, spent a lot of time on it. I had different people proofread and add in examples. To this day, my business plan has changed completely from what it was when I first started, but it gave me the idea of how am I going to market, who my customer is, how I’m going to connect with them, what it’s going to cost me to make my product, if I’m going to do this and invest some money - how much am I going to invest, when am I going to see a return, that sort of process. I think a lot of creative people who have great ideas don’t do the hard work of actually planning it out to see if it’s viable, and that’s when a lot of businesses fail because there’s not enough attention given to the success of something - the potential success. You may have an amazing idea but the industry or the market isn’t ready for it today, that doesn’t mean it won’t be one day. So it is important to always have those ideas but also watch what’s happening in the landscape. For me, when I launched the lingerie line - we didn’t use padding or underwire - that happened at the cusp of this new revolution of underwear coming out. If I had done this fifteen years ago, it probably would not have been successful. I was watching what was happening in the industry, and I was starting to realize that people were moving away from underwire and padded bras and away from “a one type of sexy” and sort of reclaiming their femininity. I was able to see that and run with my idea versus just thinking my idea is great and everyone’s going to have to love it one way or another.

‘‘You may have an amazing idea but the industry or the market isn’t ready for it today, that doesn’t mean it won’t be one day’’

Q: For business owners that are looking to scale, what are some things to keep in mind?

Mary: I’m definitely learning how to scale now as I’m growing. It depends on if you’re a product-based or service-based business. If you are product-based, don’t make more than you need for a small inventory. So if you’re making three colours and four sizes, don’t make twenty of each size in each colour, do five, see which colour sells, which size sells, and then restock based on that. This is why understanding your cash flow is important as well as how much is selling of what you’re selling. As you start to understand this, you can see what you need to restock more of. I would also say keep your overhead as low as possible for as long as possible. I worked from home for two and a half years out of a 500 square-foot apartment and my intern and I were five feet from my bed at all times and that’s not a glamorized story but that’s where you start. I did that until I was literally exploding out of that space and I had to come into an office. But it is keeping costs as low as possible for as long as possible, finding shortcuts and ways to save money. But definitely don’t produce things unless you have orders for it or you can see that customers are actually wanting it.

In terms of service-based, don’t hire people on, have contract workers. If you have big projects that you need extra hands, or you need another editor, find freelancers - utilize them, you can grow great relationships with them. That way you have less responsibility and less overhead. Look at co-working spaces if you are service-based so you have a place to meet with someone. You don't need the same storage as someone who is product-based. Keep basically all of your money in your business, don’t think you’re going to be making a great pay-day, you won’t be paid for a long time and that’s just the reality of having a business.

Q: Any further tips for business owner.

Mary: I would say in terms of online, SEO (search engine optimization) is huge - I highly recommend people spend time on that. It takes 6-8 weeks to get indexed online anyways, so the sooner you do it, the sooner you’re going to be indexed. Also reach out to blogs, websites, and media to get backlinks (other sites that link to your site.) It helps create more credibility for your site. It starts to push up your site in the search engine ranking. I think this is a really huge aspect that a lot of people look over

FUNDING & FINANCES

Q: Funding is a huge hurdle when starting a business, how did you go about navigating funds for your business?

Mary: It’s a huge struggle, a forever struggle. I thankfully had some savings I was planning on buying a condo with that I ended up investing. I also went to an organization called Futurpreneur, which help young entrepreneurs - ages 18-39 - get funding of loans, unfortunately not grants - I mean that would be lovely. They help you get loans through two different organizations - themselves in partnership with Scotiabank and Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). The great thing about Futurpreneur is they give you all the tools to build your business plan, you have a mentor for the first two years of working with them, and they set up the loan in a repayment structure that would enable it be paid off in five years if you stick to it. They definitely give you a lot of resources on how to succeed - besides providing mentors, they have meetups and the likes.

Taking out loans is one of the biggest ways to fund. You know, people would always say “I don’t want to take out a loan.” Unfortunately, you need to spend money to make money. You’re not going to grow unless you go into debt, it’s terrifying, but it’s true.

I must add, do it wisely and have a plan and structure. Know the right time to take out more debt. You won’t be able to invest in the growth of your business if you don’t have that money.

Q: How do you manage your finances effectively as a business owner?

Mary: When I first started, I actually had a cash flow that I did on Excel. When you’re very small and your sales are relatively easy to track and pretty minimal, I highly recommend doing a cash flow where you break down your expenses into fixed costs (things that won’t change every month) and variable costs that change based on production or different times of the year. Also, make sure that you track your sales - whether it’s Business to Business (B2B) or Business to Consumer (B2C). Being able to sit down and actually put those numbers in yourself would enable you understand what’s happening in your business. A lot of people don’t want to do that because they are not on the business side, and I understand that. But even if you have someone who is managing your accounts or your accounting, for that matter, it is really important to understand your cash flow (what’s coming in and what’s going out) otherwise you’re not going to know how to spend your money. That’s when you start spending more than you’re making and you lose track and that’s not good. So when I first started, I was doing it on Excel, like I mentioned, now I use Quickbooks which is a great tool. They also have an app you can use on your phone. It really helps in terms of making invoices, sending invoices, tracking profit and loss, being able to pull statements of Q1 over Q2 or Q2 over Q1, and overall growth. Once you get to a point where your business is growing, and you have multiple sales channels - that is what you really want to get into. I highly recommend that anyone who maybe isn’t business-savvy should first learn to be business-savvy. You can learn. The sooner you learn “business,” the more successful your creativity will be.

BRANDING

Q: How do you set your brand apart from everyone else?

I think a brand is painting the big picture of what you’re selling. So it is really important to think about your tone of voice, your messaging, what you stand for, what you visually look like. For me, I make sure that all of our imagery is cohesive. If someone were to see a photo of some of my product - not on my website nor on my social media but somewhere else - they would recognize it right away - “oh that’s a MARY YOUNG photo and that’s a MARY YOUNG product.” Being able to build a consistent brand that has a strong narrative will take your business so much further and obviously drive more sales.

Setting my brand apart from everyone else is harder now, because the trend of comfortable lingerie has become really big. I get it - what I’m doing someone has done and we are all trying to do something very similar. For me, the biggest thing is the brand itself is my name, MARY YOUNG; which means it’s more personal. I personally don’t love lace. I’ve never really felt comfortable in lace, specifically in lingerie. And I always found that there were not a lot of options for women that didn’t have lace. So, I feature products that have no lace, that feel a little bit more athletic but still have a sex appeal to it without it being focused on the sex appeal.

Also, just encouraging women to celebrate their bodies instead of hoping to change it. That is now what a lot of brands are really working on, which I think is great because that conversation needs to be at the forefront within the industry and media. For me, it’s really staying true to what I believe in and making sure that the brand vocalizes that, whether it is through copy or just through imagery or whatever it may be. Staying true to why I’m doing what I’m doing, that’s what people will connect with. There are a lot of copycats out there, companies that have very similar designs to mine for half the price. Obviously, it’s unfortunate because they have more money so good for them, but the way I look at it is - someone is going to buy that product, realize it’s not that well-made, not have the same connection to it, and eventually they’re going to want to buy a better quality of that same design, and that’s when they’re going to find me and connect with our brand and feel a part of our community and continue to shop with us.

‘‘You know, people would always say “I don’t want to take out a loan.” Unfortunately, you need to spend money to make money. You’re not going to grow unless you go into debt, it’s terrifying, but it’s true.’’

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SOCIAL MEDIA TIPS AND STRATEGY

Q: What role has social media played in your business?

Mary: It’s been a very major part of my success. When I wrote my business plan, I thought I’ll get into stores, I’ll go the wholesale route, eventually the e-comm shop will start to grow. When I launched the business, it was completely reversed. Wholesale has grown and still continues to grow, but e-commerce is our biggest sales channel, which is great because I’m able to connect with the consumers that much more. The biggest reason is because of social media and even to this day, Instagram is one of our biggest social referrals. The reason for that is because you can see the brand. You get to understand that Mary Young as a brand isn’t just selling underwear, it’s encouraging women to have a conversation, it’s asking women to think differently about themselves, even things I personally like to do. Thankfully, when I launched the business, it was on the cusp of when Instagram was becoming big. Right now it’s really hard to launch on Instagram without paying for a lot of sponsored posts. When I launched there wasn’t the same sort of cost to work with influencers, influencers were not influencers yet, they were just people. I was able to have different people - small influencers post things without cost and be able to grow organically. Even to this day, I have a lot of wholesalers and different retail accounts that connect with me on Instagram and that’s the way that they find out about the brand and want to carry the product, which I think is pretty interesting.

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Q: What are some tips on using social media well?

Mary: I would say choose 2-4 social media channels that you want to focus in on. More is not always better especially when you’re starting out, so be consistent and direct with what you’re doing and have a different narrative and different strategy for each. If you are pushing your Instagram posts to Facebook and Twitter and it’s the exact same thing, people aren’t going to follow you on all three because they’re getting the exact same content. Have a different narrative for every channel - maybe it’s a bit more professional on Twitter and a bit cheekier on Instagram etc. I personally use Facebook to share articles and blog posts more than I do on Instagram. Instagram is more product-based, lifestyle photos. Everything starts to trickle through, but it’s all written differently and the copy’s different. I think that’s a really big thing that a lot of companies miss out on. They just think, “I’ll do the exact same thing across the board,” but you’re not going to really connect with people where they are. Not everyone is on Instagram, not everyone is on Facebook, so you want to find your audience where they are. I think quality over quantity.

We live in a world where content is everything and it is, it is extremely important to have good content, but you can use your iPhone to get good content, especially if it’s for Instagram. You’re not putting this on a billboard, it doesn’t need to be shot in raw and on a DSLR, but have a good strategy of what you’re saying.  I always avoid making my Instagram feel like a sales catalog. A lot of brands, which are very successful, big brands, will just have product after product in every image. For me, it’s more of a lifestyle. There’s more happening with the brand. There are blog posts that aren’t about product, they’re just about conversation that we encourage. I try to have a 3:1 ratio - three product photos, one lifestyle photo - whether it’s a quote or color inspiration or something I’m personally doing. I think it’s really important to have that balance so when people go to your social media they don’t feel like they’re just seeing a Shoppers Drug Mart flyer, I love flyers, I’m all about them, but I want them to be real life.

‘‘If you really understand a problem, cause, and solution for that company you’re wanting to collaborate with, then you have a chance.’’

COLLABORATION

Q: How do you go about working with other brands?

Mary: If I am selling at a retail location that is not my physical location, I like to know what other brands they carry. Is the price point around the same? Is my $55 pair of underwear going to sell or is a T-shirt at the store $32, why would an underwear sell at $55? I think that’s really important when you’re looking at selling with other brands.

When it comes to collaborating, most of the one’s I have done have really been in terms of giveaways. We did a Canadian Babe set with Peace Collective: sports bra and underwear. Their target demographic is quite wide, but some of their demographic is my demographic. Knowing that we have crossover demographic is key. I’ve done giveaways with jewelry lines - again same thing, their demographic is my demographic, our communities overlap. What they stand for is what I stand for. They make things well and thoughtfully, same with us. So having the same morals and making sure you’re extremely cohesive is key.

There’s another level of collaboration - this is where I find the word a bit weird because is it a collaboration or is someone just paying someone else to do something? There are times that I’ll be paid to talk about brands on my social media, which I only do if I personally as Mary Young the individual would talk about the brand within my friend group. If for instance I was approached by Starbucks to do this big campaign and it was for a new breakfast burrito they had, “well I’m dairy-free and gluten-free,” I can’t eat their breakfast burrito, and as much as the price tag on this campaign sounds lovely, I personally can’t do it. Whereas I know a lot of people look at a price tag, and go “whatever it’s fine, I need the money etc.” I think staying true to yourself and staying true to your values will have better return in the long run.


Edited for WALKOFPROMISE by Obie Odunukwe




Q: For brands that are just starting out and looking to expand their reach, what tips would you give them on reaching out to other brands for collaboration?

Mary: My tips would be to find brands that are around the same size as yours. I see a lot of small brands reach out to quite large brands, but sorry to say, often times, it’s probably not going to work. So find someone who is around the same size as yours that would equally benefit. Also, when you’re approaching people, really think about how they’re going to respond to the email or the call or whatever it may be. A lot of times people think, “this is going to help me so much that’s why I’m going to pitch them.” okay, but is it going to help them? If you really understand a problem, cause, and solution for that company you’re wanting to collaborate with, then you have a chance. Say for instance, their problem is they’re not reaching a certain demographic or they’re alienating “this person” by only offering “this product.” You understand the bridge is your collaboration, and there you go, you’ve provided a solution. So being able to reach out with a solution, I think will help all small brands effectively pitch and work with new companies and brands.

NETWORKING

Q: Networking is a huge part of advancing ones’ business or career. Any tips?

Mary: It is very important to ask others for advice and guidance. One thing people always ask me is, “can I pick your brain?” And obviously, I asked people that too when I started. My approach is don’t say “pick your brain” because it sounds like you’re taking someone’s knowledge and walking away with it and their knowledge came at a cost, whether you realize it or not. Me working for myself has cost me money. So again, look at it from a perspective of - is there anything you can do to benefit them? Obviously, you as the new entrepreneur is benefitting more, but maybe for example I’m looking for an intern and you know of it, and you go “at my school we have internships I can help you find an intern,” or different things like that. Also, when you want to ask someone for coffee or to have a conversation, really narrow in on what you want to talk about. Don’t just say, “I want to learn everything about your company.” Say, “I’m looking at producing in Canada and I’ve contacted a bunch of production houses and I’m not sure how to develop the tech packs and this is an area that I know you’ve had to face. I would love to get your quick insight on what I should be doing.” The more specific the better because a lot of times when people want to “pick my brain” and learn everything, it comes across that they want a roadmap to success. And a) there isn’t one, so I can’t give you one, b) I’ve also had to learn by making a lot of costly mistakes and as much as I want to help everyone, I think part of the journey of being an entrepreneur is you have to learn them on your own and in your own way. I definitely want to guide people in the right direction but it’s not going to benefit anyone to have a step by step guide to success. It may have worked for this person, but not for that person.

For me, if a contact requests for coffee and it takes me an hour to get there and get back, then we have coffee/chat for an hour, that’s two hours out of my 8-hour day, so a quarter of my day is gone. These are examples of things I think people should really consider when reaching out to a contact in their network.  

LIFE & WORK

Q: What does work-life balance mean for an entrepreneur, is it attainable?

Mary: I definitely think work/life balance is something that comes and goes. It’s never 100% there - especially when you’re in a busy season. For me, November through end of February are my highest, craziest months, just insane. No matter what I do, no matter how hard I try to be proactive, I have no balance during those months and that’s just the reality of the industry I’m in. So you won’t have balance all the time and I think step one is accepting that, because we can be so hard on ourselves. Once you start to think “I’m not doing enough in finding balance, and then not doing enough at work,” you start to go down that path. I think understanding that it is normal for balance to come and go is the best place to start.

Step two, I look at socializing whether it’s with friends or family the way I would look at having meetings. In the earlier stage when I was working from home, for me I really needed to socialize almost every night because I was alone every single day. I was like, “ah I haven’t talked to anyone, haven’t literally used my voice,” so I would schedule going to the gym as I would a meeting - I can’t cancel it. I said I was going to be there, I have to be there. A lot of times I would coordinate to make sure that another friend of mine was going to the gym so I had that accountability partner, and getting to seeing a friend while working out is great. I was reading something earlier about shared experiences; for connecting with people, it’s really important to do things together. That’s a great way to find balance outside of work, because if you just get a coffee with someone, you might start talking about work and then you’re not really “balancing” because yes you may be with a friend, but you’re just talking about work. So it’s great if you are doing an activity that distracts you from work. Also stick to the time with your friends and your family or your partner and make sure you respect that time the same way you respect a work meeting.

Q: How has starting a business influenced your life?

Mary: I can’t imagine what my life would be like not having a business, in all honesty. I didn’t plan on starting a business out of school, I sort of fell into it. I knew at some point that’s what I would do, and I assumed it would be after working for someone else and making money. So for me, I think I’ve learnt so much about determination, perseverance, and time-management mostly, that I don’t think I ever would have learned working for someone else. There may be a time in my life where I work for someone else and I’m completely open to that.

Even if I were to work for someone else, I would have some sort of side-hustle just because of who I am. I think starting my own business was a part of my life that was going to happen at some point or another and the timing was right now.

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