I grew up near South Padre Island, Texas. It's been my happy place ever since I first sunk my toes into the soft, grainy sand and tasted the salty water after plunging in. I would spend many summers, holidays, and weekends there with friends and family. Living in this environment required gobs of sunscreen to keep the skin protected from the sun’s searing rays, but the beach also had its own fashion that covered you up - a style people carried with them to their inland lives.
After graduating from college at Texas State, I found myself working a dead-end job in San Antonio for many years. I missed being close to the beach. As I contemplated my next steps, I eventually realized that I would have to move even further away, to Austin, for career opportunities.That’s when I decided that if I wanted to go back to my happy place one day, I would have to create my own business.
I spent several weeks coming up with a name and logo for this new business and pieced together some shirt designs that I thought would work. That summer, I drove back to the coast and went knocking door to door, looking for business. It was all terrifying and exciting at the same time. Not knowing much about seasonal buying, I found myself several months behind the time most stores invest in their inventory. And to be honest, my designs were not great. This was evident in the lack of enthusiasm from the shop owners and buyers I met with, and I was crushed by what I felt was a failure on my part. My presentation materials as well as gas, food and lodging costs were too high to run a sustainable business - so I put my dream on the back burner.
Several years later, I started working for ecommerce company Volusion where the conversations I had with entrepreneurs (Volusion customers) every day re-ignited my passion for my business idea.
After working at Volusion for a few years, I was passing through an arts and crafts store and came across a basket of blank, brightly-colored flip flops for sale. I immediately thought to myself, “How can I make these flip flops better?” and grabbed a couple pairs to bring home along with some tools and accessories.
Over the next couple of weeks, I started creating new designs for these flip flops, bringing my dream back to life. While developing my designs, I realized that the most important part of the flip flop was the sole, and if I wanted to give my business idea another shot, I'd have to figure out how to find a vendor that would sell them to me.
Through my position at Volusion, I’d spoken to hundreds of business owners about their vendors and their processes working with them, so I was confident in my search for a good vendor. However, the customers I spoke with were usually established businesses and our conversations never revolved around how to actually find and do business with vendors.
Today, I have gone through two peak summers selling my own line of beach apparel at Ocean Vida. My business is young and I’m still figuring things out, but here is my journey on how I located my flip flop vendor.
As many of you probably will if you haven’t already, I Googled my way into the vendor land. Using search terms such as "vendor", "manufacturer", "distributor", "wholesale", "dropship" and "OEM" (Original Equipment Manufacturer) combined with "flip flops", "sandals" and "soles", I ardently searched. I came across a number of both US-based and international providers. The search engine Alibaba was another great resource for locating vendors to find direct contact information. Alibaba also provided a grade on the vendor’s interaction with buyers, so I reached out to those with higher scores. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest provided insight into these company's culture, and I used YouTube to locate demo videos of their products and even found some that took you inside their offices and manufacturing plants.
After a while, I noticed that many of the same sellers were buying from similar vendors. I also saw that many were selling a cheaply imported version, while the well-known brands had better quality. This kept me focused on bringing the right materials together and helped me narrow my focus to vendors that provided a superior product.
Luckily, I was able to find one that touted itself as equivalent to the more famous brands on the market that sold soles and finished flip flops. I called them directly and we discussed their product, the availability of a sample order, minimum product orders, the cost with shipping, the ability to place my brand on it and the time it took to fulfill orders. This vendor had it all within my budget and could work within my time-frame. The flip flops were manufactured in Brazil, but they had a warehouse in Florida with a large stock. So I placed a sample order of ten soles. They arrived a few days later. I was excited - these soles were exactly what I was looking for, and I had actually completed the first transaction and steps to doing business with a vendor!
During my weeks of searching for a vendor and comparing my designs to existing models, I got a feel for the price range of cheap flip flops versus those with better soles and construction. I knew that the price of my entry product would have to be low to entice buyers into try a new brand. I also realized that additional hardware and man-hours for custom build-outs were killing any kind of profit margin, basically bringing me to a break-even point - and that didn’t even include shipping costs. My chosen vendor had everything in-house and, although I believed I could change the flip flop industry with my great re-design, I was just as happy with designing for the status quo and leveraging my vendor for a complete product with my brand.
Placing my first full order was definitely a shock to the bank account, as I hadn’t appreciated how much product I would have to carry to run this type of business. If you think about the footwear business, you need multiple sizes for kids, women and men, as well as multiple colors or designs. Along with the basic required volume of inventory, there were also branding costs, artwork fees and shipping costs for larger orders.
These costs upped the ante on my risk, which made me nervous as I was already using most of my extra money. I’m not one who easily parts with my funds until I’m confident of its return so investing in a large quantity of product was uncharted waters.
However, I was committed - and I made the necessary investments to get the product. My larger order would have to come from Brazil, which took about four weeks. My vendor kept me updated through the manufacturing process, shipping from Brazil, docking and unloading in Florida and shipping to me. When the boxes finally arrived, I was ecstatic to see my personal brand and product were actually in existence on dozens of flip flops. I put on my first pair; it was one of the happiest days of my life, They felt good - and I knew other people would appreciate them. I got even more excited envisioning others walking around in my flip flops. I was well on my way to reaching my dreams - and one step closer to putting my toes back in the sand.
I’ve learned a lot from working with my line of flip flops and I was very lucky to find that first vendor. Since then, I’ve added to my line of coastal apparel, including caps, t-shirts, board shorts, performance shirts and several new items lined up for next summer. With the addition of these new products came more vendors and, although I’ve had some bad ones, I've learned how to minimize my losses with experience.
I’ve taken several trips back to the coast and I’ve met some great people during this process. I can honestly tell you that following your dream can be a lot of work and come with a lot of stress, but never give up on it. Find your passion, find your vendor and move forward... your happy place is waiting for you!