Melanie Duncan is a serial entrepreneur who, along with her business partner and husband, Devin, has been experiencing success since college. While studying, they started Custom Greek Apparel, an online store offering sorority and fraternity members apparel with customized colors, fabrics and embroidery. Next, they launched Luxury Monograms, offering custom monogrammed home decor items. Soon their products were being featured in magazines and on Good Morning America, the Nate Berkus show and more. When Duncan's businesses were well-oiled machines, she decided to jump into the online education space, offering classes and support for makers and small business owners selling physical products. Now she has had over 160,000 students go through her training programs, she’s consulted on digital strategy for major corporations, and spoken on stages all over the world.
I caught up with her recently in New York to ask her what she believes led her to such massive success, and what other makers and online entrepreneurs can do to follow in her footsteps. Here were her best tips.
Start as simple as possible.
Duncan started with custom embroidered clothing just for Greek organizations. She saw how hard it was for them to easily order and customize what they wanted, since at the time there were no online stores offering customization offerings. She spent hours at the sewing maching, on the floor cutting fabric and attending trade shows. Eventually that turned into a seven-figure empire. Her advice to other makers is to remember to start with the minimum viable product.
“Stop trying to create so many different SKUs or products and focus on creating one exceptional offering,” she said. “I see a lot of people just becoming -- very sadly -- mediocre, because they're trying to create this big mega online store and they haven't really been distinctly identified as a certain purveyor of something.”
This applies to all entrepreneurs, Duncan added. Whether you offer services, informational products or handmade goods, first become known and sought after for one amazing offering.
Let your ideas evolve.
Becoming known for one thing, however, doesn’t mean you become rigid. Duncan and her husband were originally going to try screen printing, later they tried travel apparel items, and eventually found success with the Greek embroidered items.
“Even if you have a great idea, doesn't mean it's gonna be easy to turn it into a successful business,” Duncan cautioned. “When we stopped doing in-person marketing . . . our first order that we know specifically came from just online advertising, and once we knew that that would work, we knew that the business was going to be successful.”
One of the hurdles Duncan had to overcome was the seasonality that came with her customer base of college students. A natural extension of what they were doing was customized embroidery on home decor items.
“Luxury Monograms was created in order to stabilize the amount of business that was created,” Duncan explained. “We did a lot of [positioning] as gifts for weddings or bridal showers, even baby showers. Mostly weddings, but weddings tend to be very popular right around the same time as Custom Greek Thread's demand was a lot lower.”
If you find yourself in the feast or famine cycle, look at how you can expand your offerings or tweak them to suit the slower times of year.
Assign clear responsibilities.
Duncan and her husband are a bit of unicorn scenario -- they started a random business in college. Neither of them was in a Greek organization or had any ties to the apparel industry, but the business grew from one success to another. They got married, traveled the world and now they are the picture perfect power couple, running multiple businesses from their stylish Upper West Side apartment. I asked her how they have maintained a happy marriage and a successful business partnership, and her advice is great for all couples, family businesses or even business partners.
“The worst thing you could have in a business is a diffusion of responsibility.” she said. “If you're working in a business with your partner and you're kind of working on everything together, you're working on nothing. You need to have your particular areas, own those, and then have complete and utter confidence [in each other.]”
Use your existing connections.
When Duncan was trying to get Luxury Monograms off the ground, she tried to land coveted press exposure in magazines and on television, but couldn’t get through to any decision makers. Instead of continuing with the traditional route, she turned to some lifestyle bloggers that she knew personally. She didn’t just ask them for a blurb or a giveaway arrangement, however. She asked herself a key question: What would make this easy for them to say yes to?
“At this point, a lot of them were doing posts every single day, So I thought, ‘Okay, what I'll do is I'll write an actual blog post up for them’ and I wrote a custom post for each person.”
The blogging strategy succeeded quickly, increasing their brand awareness, and soon Duncan achieved her ultimate goal -- product features on shows like Good Morning America, the Nate Berkus show and more.
When you need to expand visibility for your business, start with who you know and remember to ask yourself “What would make this easy for them?”
Find a community.
Anyone who has hustled hard towards a big goal has felt it. The distance between yourself and where and who you used to be. Duncan explained that entrepreneurship pushes a person to grow and change, which means relationships change.
“I've lost some very dear friends because of how much I've changed and how much my life has changed, and that's been the worst part [of entrepreneurship] but I'd say that's also been the best part.”
Now Duncan’s list of close friends reads like an entrepreneurship A-list, with fellow entrepreneurs Amy Porterfield, Todd Herman and more. You will need support and encouragement as you build your business, so find a community to plug into.
Design your life.
Duncan is the poster child for what some call lifestyle entrepreneurship -- building your businesses so that you can have the life of your dreams. She and her husband made a goal of moving to New York, of traveling the world and working remotely, of getting the businesses on autopilot so they could take time off when they recently had their first child.
“Entrepreneurship has not changed my job or just my income, but it has changed my entire life,” Duncan explained. “It has changed who I am, and the impact I've been able to have. The life that I'm able to enjoy, it is so far above and beyond what I had ever even expected for myself.”
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