3 Lessons From When a Big Break Went Bad

Po Campo exhibited at Outdoor Retailer for the first time in August 2011 and it felt like we were the stars of the show. Despite being in the back of a tent in a parking lot across the street, there was a flurry of traffic the whole time, with buyers from nationwide chain stores calling their colleagues on their cell phones, saying “You gotta get over here and see this bag line!”.

I thought this was my big break. Finally, we were getting interest (and orders!) from large retailers, dramatically increasing our sales to the point where I could not only start paying myself but maybe get a little office and a little staff, the whole bit. The buyers said they needed the new product within five months for a spring launch and I said, “Sure, no problem!” even though I knew this was actually a big problem, since I wasn’t sure how I was going to make the bags. We had recently decided to split ways with our existing manufacturer and hadn’t lined up a new one yet. 

The next few months were the most stressful of my life. From having to come up with $50,000 in two weeks for the factory’s downpayment to taking a call on Christmas Day to learn that the bags would be months late, to paying out the nose to get bags made locally to meet our January order commitments, to finally receiving the bags from China – in April – only to learn that there weren’t all perfect. All those big customers I was so thrilled to line up dropped my product line and rather than propelling Po Campo forward, the whole episode set us way way back. I hope I will never have to go through that again

And I hope you won’t either! Here are a few lessons that I learned so that you won’t repeat my mistakes.

1) Rushing manufacturing leads to problems. You may be able to pull all-nighters with your local team to hit a deadline, but this just doesn’t seem to work with manufacturers, especially ones on the other side of the world that you have a short history with. There are just way too many things that can go wrong and your business will bear the brunt of it. I think it’s better to communicate delays with your customers (or not take the orders in the first place) than to force manufacturers to go beyond their comfort zone and try to do the impossible. We now agree on a development and production schedule with our manufacturer that we are both comfortable with and don’t rush it.

2) You do dumb things when you’re desperate. I was feeling so rushed to get manufacturing started that I shelled out for a big downpayment before seeing any good samples from the factory. I know, very scary – and stupid! But I was feeling desperate. The factory said they needed the money to know that I was serious before getting started, which is fair enough, but I needed good samples to know they were serious about making my product. I put their needs ahead of my own, which irreversibly put Po Campo in an inferior position that I paid for later. My desperation mindset is similar to the scarcity mindset, where you make bad decisions because you feel like you have so few options. Whenever I hear myself think, “But I have no choice!”, I try to think of as many choices as possible.

3) Look before you leap. Do I regret taking those orders? A little bit. Part of the thrill of the entrepreneurial journey is that you are in unchartered territory most of the time. You do a lot of leaping off of cliffs and hoping for the best. I just wished I looked before I leapt, because I probably would have realized that in this case, the risk outsized the reward. The risk, the very real possibility of not being able to fulfill the order on time and losing customers was much greater than the reward of launching in new stores in January. A safer route would’ve been to tell the stores we weren’t ready to launch in spring, but how about summer? We would’ve missed a few months of selling in their store, but the likelihood that we would’ve been able to coast into the finish line would’ve been much greater.

I recount this story, and some of my other lessons of the “big break” in a podcast with Jane Hamill on Fashion Brain Academy. Have a listen!

I’d love to hear some of your stories about when you bit off more than you could chew, and how you recovered from it (hopefully). Please share in the comments.

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