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15Jan/190

Lessons from Matt D’Avella’s Ground Up Show

Episode 92 - Slow Fashion, with Dani Nagel

The Ground Up Show is a compelling interview podcast which features creative people (filmmakers, writers, musicians, entrepreneurs) sharing the story of how they are accomplishing their dreams. Created and Hosted by Matt D'Avella (the documentary filmmaker who is best known for Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things), The Ground Up Show is insightful and inspiring. I listen every week and always manage to take three of four practical lessons from each episode

In episode 92 of The Ground Up Show podcast, host and creator Matt D'Avella interviews Dani Nagel, founder of fashion brand Dazey L.A. Dazey is what Nagel calls slow fashion; the counterpoint to the high-volume, low-quality, disposable-clothing approach of the fast-fashion industry.
Nagel makes clothing only on demand, once it's ordered, with minimal inventory. She uses locally-sourced materials and manufacturing. And her designs speak to theme's she's passionate about (her current collection contains messaging around sisterhood and unity and the roles those themes play within feminism, for example).

Nagel came to the slow-fashion movement from within the fast-fashion industry. As a tee-shirt designer at Macy's, she says "I just remember walking out to the warehouse and seeing like 5,000 units of this tee shirt design I did. (It) was just a dumb design. And I was like, where is all this all gonna go?" She says she realized that these shirts were never meant to last, that she was contributing to what she says is the second-most polluting industry in the world (behind fossil-duels). She then discovered the documentary True Cost, which highlights the toxic downside to fast fashion.

Nagel's fascinating Ground Up story starts with a fashion degree, then takes off when she's fired from a job for working freelance gigs off the clock against company policy. Here are my main takeaways from the episode:

Sometimes we leap, sometimes we're pushed

Nagel told Matt that after she earned her fashion degree, rather than pursuing her own apparel business right away, she took jobs in the fast-fashion industry. "Every young fashion designer wants to have their own clothing line," she says. "It's not realistic though. So I put that dream in the back of my mind and got an internship with a tee-shirt company. It had never dawned on me that I could do art and design and fashion fused into one thing. After that internship, I decided I was going to be a tee-shirt designer."

The internship led to a job, based in San Diego. The job led to others. "I got a job with Macy's in L.A. Then I got a job at Urban Outfitters. I was a job hopper." But a job hopper with a solid work ethic. "I put my head down and worked. I was a design machine. I would sit there, all day, and pop out designs."

With the dream of her own line still buried in the back of her mind, she landed at Hot Topic, "Which had an awesome company environment. They treated their employees like family." That comfort led to complacency though. And the dream started to surface. "It was so cushy and nice (at Hot Topic) that I got bored. I started listening to podcasts about entrepreneurship. I started doing some secret freelance work on the clock. I started posting my work online."

The challenge she was about to encounter was that as a corporate designer, her employer owned the rights to all her work output. "They saw me posting stuff on Instagram and that was it. I was fired."

With a head full of entrepreneurship content, Nagel launched into freelancing. She had to admit failure just a few months later and went back to designing for someone else.

Prepare for what you can, accept what you can't

Nagel said she failed at her first attempt to build a freelance business because "I had no game plan. I just thought I was going to make it work. I was listening to these podcasts, to these entrepreneurs doing amazing things, and I ran out of the gate believing I was going to do this, that I'm awesome." Besides no game plan, Nagel says she also suffered because "I was so used to that corporate paycheck that I couldn't handle the stress in between freelance gigs."

She went to work for a startup, a move she credits as vital to her development. "I was able to do things I was not able to at the corporate company." She gained experience in marketing, social media, photography. "Working with a startup is an awesome way to dip your toe in and get that experience that you don't get with your (limited corporate) job."

As well as gaining valuable work experience to apply to her own business, Nagel used the time at the startup to ready herself for the challenges she knew she'd encounter when she next took the entrepreneurial leap. Risk-averse and conservative financially by nature, she had been saving money for some time. "I was able to save up money and have a freelance plan," she says. "Saving up gave me the freedom to start my own business. And building up a freelance base kept me afloat for the first six months of my brand. That was huge."

She also had a much better perspective of what could happen if she tried again, and still fell short of her goal. "People get so in their head imaging the worst-case scenario. Sometimes you have to sit down and be like, really, what is that worst-case scenario? And is it really that bad?" For Nagel, she knew she would have to go back to designing for a bigger company. "Is getting a job again that bad? I had a decent resume. It was a little embarrassing when I got fired, failed at freelancing, and had to get a job again. But I was fine."

Build the team that expands your possibilities

Nagel left the startup to launch Dazey L.A. in 2016. From there, her Ground Up lessons are about the journey of building and growing a sustainable creative business. The first was to invest more than just money into her business.

Nagel said at first, her business was the combination of all her passions in one. She was the designer, sourced the materials, took the photographs, built the marketing, and posted all social media. It was a grind at times, but she was doing all the things she loved. "I wanted to do it all. And I had the energy to do it all. I was just so excited." But, she says, she had set an unsustainable pace. "I was just working too damn hard." She needed help.

"It took me a while to hire my first employee," she admits. "Once I finally crossed that threshold and did it, I realized it opened up so much more time for me to make more money and spend time on marketing the brand."

Hiring allowed Nagel to focus on the things she was best at, the things that could grow her company and today, her small team handles the day-to-day operations. "I know what I'm good at. I'm good at creativity. I'm good at branding and marketing. I'm bad at logistics. I'm bad at software. So I found people who are good at that stuff, people who are way more organized and almost keep me on top of things. They give me the freedom to focus on being creative and focusing on social media and Instagram."

Let go of anything not moving you closer to your goals

As well as investing in building a team, Nagel's Ground Up journey led her to understand that to be successful, you have to be thoughtful about how you direct your company's energy and resources. Nagel now regularly takes stock of everything the company is doing and make smart decisions about what to let go of.

One example: "We were focusing on wholesale," she says. "We realized that wholesale was a fraction of the money we were making compared to direct-to-consumer sales and (sales from) our ambassador program, yet we were putting the same amount of effort into it. So we decided to put (wholesale) on the backburner and focus on the things that made us more money."

Another example was the company blog. "As much as I loved to blog about things, and share images and thoughts, it just wasn't getting the views that were worth the effort that I was putting into it. My time was becoming increasingly valuable." So instead of continuing to invest her time and energy into creating blog content, she found someone to take that task on.

Dazey L.A. is currently hard at work on their next collection (around themes of authenticity and vulnerability). Nagel also recently co-founded the female co-working space Biz Babez in downtown L.A.

Subscribe to The Ground Up Show on YouTube or Apple Podcasts. Matt also has a Patreon page if you want to support him directly as well.

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