To Survive Rapid Success, Remember to Slow Down
In 2010, I realized a dream: I launched my own namesake eyewear and sunglasses brand, Garrett Leight. The business is in my blood. My father, Larry Leight, is the founder of Oliver Peoples, a decades-old eyewear business where I’d spent years working and learning. I created Garrett Leight to capitalize on that expertise but better serve a consumer I identified with, one who was a little younger, with an easygoing West Coast sensibility.
The brand took off fast. Within a few years, we had stores in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Retail was our strength. We literally never had a zero day at our stores. We understood how to create a great customer experience via an educated staff of opticians -- who just happened to have really great style.
But that success created a confidence that quietly became a liability as we continued to grow.
In 2016, I was ready to expand into tertiary markets, and I knew Austin, Texas, was a perfect fit. I found a place on South Congress and signed a lease with developers. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. The developers were delayed, but I was happy to sit tight; I believed in the location.
But I was also impatient. I wanted to put down roots in Texas, and when I found a storefront in the Dallas neighborhood of Knox-Henderson, I jumped. I was just so high on the business at the time. Sales were growing 200 to 300 percent year over year. I felt like everything we touched turned to gold. Plus, we looked at some data analysis on the neighborhood, and it seemed to fit.
I should have looked into it more. The Dallas customer, it turned out, wasn’t our customer. The brand awareness just wasn’t there. We tried everything. We hired a PR agency. We reached out to local influencers. We partnered with restaurants, chefs, artists. We sent our global retail guy to spend time at the store. We transferred our top salesperson there. It didn’t work.
At the same time, we were experiencing other growing pains. Our time of rapid growth had led to a rapid growth crisis. We overshot our inventory on a collection and had to absorb those costs. When we first launched, we recruited a top sales team by offering an incredible commission. When they were selling $150,000 worth of product, we could afford that commission; now they were selling $3 million worth of product, and it was crippling our bottom line.
It all compounded and led us to a breaking point: We had to restructure. We cut commissions and hoped our sales team would ride out our growing pains. I let 10 people go at HQ. And we closed the Dallas store. It was too risky to keep investing in something that wasn’t working. The perceived failure was tough -- closing doors is never a good look for a growing brand that’s still acquiring customers. (Competitors loved it, I’m sure: “Did you see that Garrett Leight closed?”)
These were all decisions that had to be made, but they were terrifying. I knew I could either make these moves internally to save us, or I could go out and sell the company and hope to keep just a small piece of it. A year later, I’m happy to say I still own my business -- and we’re cash-flow positive and profitable. We’re even opening two new stores this year. (Austin, finally, will be one of them.)
Now I’m moving forward with renewed confidence -- and a better understanding of what this company needs. We’re in the middle of a Series A raise, and I’m looking for strategic partners to fill in the spaces where we’re weak, like, as we learned from Dallas, data and analytics. I’m also looking to build our financial strength and support, to make sure we’re set up to open more stores and grow more rapidly.
Rapidly, but strategically.