The Business of Failure
Recently I've re-released a bunch of my old designs for the streetwear brand Damaged Kids. WileI was the co-owner of the brand the history of the brand was a story of twists and turns; both negative and positive.It ultimately failed. As with any failure there is a lot to learn from a business standpoint on what caused this failure. I've spent a long time dissecting what went wrong and how I could learn from this.
I took on the task of building a financial infrastructure and work flow process for Damaged Kids when I was 24 years old. It started with a friend of mine who was working on Damaged Kids on their own and needed help managing it. They asked me and I happily accepted. Building the infrastructure for Damaged Kids was a lot of work. When you go into business at all you need to consider so many things. For instance; an Ecommerce site, a bank account for the money to go into, business emails [gmails don't inspire the most confidence], business cards, spreadsheets to keep track of your product stock and your cost of business, shipping accounts to get tracking for customers, a money managing system, accounting for the taxes, a way to deal with consumer facing issues, a list of vendors to print your product, social media marketing, the list goes on and on. The only tools I really had to figure out what Damaged Kids needed was my Minor in General Business from VCU, my own work experience, observation, and a lot of research on the internet. What I was the least experienced in but where I had the most interested was the process of how to become a legal business entity. It was evident quickly to me we needed another way to manage our money and business expenses. Not to mention we needed to consider having a partner agreement to protect our friendship and our business. I even spoke to a lawyer about how to go about contracting all of that. Even if it’s a business of just two people it’s a serious thing and I did not take that lightly.
The best advice I ever got from a lawyer was “Always have a way written out.” Hopefully it wouldn't be needed, but if it is, what ever the terms it can be a smooth business transaction.
If Damaged Kids had gotten to a point of a legal entity it would have protected all that work, and protected my investment. I needed all those considerations really badly because to say I was left hanging in the end is an understatement. I woke up to a surprise tweet about Damaged Kids closing. I didn’t even know till the rest of the world did.
I learned 3 major things from having that completely blow up in my face.
1.) Slow Down and Don’t Skip Steps.
I think if I had just taken my time this could have gone a lot better. Before the ‘company’ moved to Los Angeles I think I should have pushed harder for it to be a legal entity. If I had done that I don’t think I would have struggled so hard in Los Angeles after everything ended. I would have had more of a voice if any of this was legally on paper. There would have been real consequences to actions because at the end of the day none of this was an actual business, this was just two people managing a product. It’s a great example of ‘nothing is real unless it’s on paper’
In business contracts being word of mouth is pointless. TRUST gets you NOWHERE in that sense.
If I took my time, I could have protected myself a lot better in this regard and maybe even some of my investment. If I had a proper Partner Agreement set up if my business partner wanted to bow out of the business he could have sold me his share of Damaged Kids and I could have kept it all going. The point being that there was no outline for anything, and no consequence for anything.
Had I done this step and had written a way out I could have bought my partner out of the business or sued them for the decision they made without my vote. I could do neither because I let this step get skipped. Nothing was real so again no consequences were real.
2.) Understand the Weight of What You’re Proposing to Your Consumer Base.
There is this saying “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” I think a lot of times people are truly filled with the best intentions but that doesn’t always make the outcome positive for everyone. I learned that you have to have a strategy to what you’re doing especially if money is involved. Damaged Kids was crowd sourced meaning other people donated to a master fund to make this possible. Damaged Kids also had a lot of ideas….and a lot of words. It was so easy to throw promises, and designs up on the internet. But when it came time as a team to make those promises real, minds were changed, or money was too tight, or time wasn’t on our side, or we would get distracted by something else or a tour would pop up and screw up everything [my partner was a touring musician]. So a lot of things fell through the cracks and that’s what started to make the whole thing so sticky to me. I also think if I confidently spoke up more, we would have either failed faster, or gained great momentum and moved farther because more action would have been required. Our consumer base was given an expectation, and they gave money to that expectation, and some parts of those promises were never followed up on. Then all of a sudden the brand disappeared.
There is something to be said that investing in and of itself is risky, but, we were promising charity, and giving back to a community as a selling point. All selling points HAVE to be followed up on, and we just didn’t ever have the money to do that with Damaged Kids. We didn't build it into the pricing structure well enough. That is also another area I wish I fought more for. Our shirts were always too cheap for our bottom line goal. Because of all of that, in my opinion, the way Damaged Kids was marketed could be viewed as irresponsible. You HAVE to mean what you say and be transparent. I think the image that was envisioned for Damaged Kids also got in the way of our transparency.
3.) You Have to Understand the Risk of Getting Into Business With Your Friend.
I lost my friend very painfully as a result of this business endeavor. It’s hard to balance ‘business partner’ and ‘regular friend’ when business and money are involved especially when both you and your buddy's personal money is tied up in the business. It's also especially hard to balance those things between two creatives. There’s a lot of ego in there. You have to have a solid friendship that's grounded in stellar communication and really carry your individual weight around. It's a very odd set of circumstances for codependency. For me my biggest take away as a friend was that I had to be able to let little things go, or give space to weird things I'd never experienced before in my friendship and be very patient with all of that. It was super odd and eventually the communication broke down in such a way that we failed each other. It was so hurtful it cost us our friendship and we haven't spoken since this close of businesses. Not one word.
In my mind you should pursue getting into business with a close friend the the mindset that you’re about to date a guy you’ve known since your childhood. It's important to weigh the risk of if it doesn't work out and ask yourself what you're truly willing to risk with in that friendship. Also if you’ve had any weird or complicated things in your past together don’t even do it. It’ll all come back up and make the whole thing weird. Is it fair to ask your business to survive that? You both have to 150% be in, or don’t bet the farm on it.
Over all looking back on it now I think I could have done way more to protect myself. I should have had a partner agreement at the very least before I moved out to Los Angeles. I needed to have something so that someone was just as accountable to me as I was to them. I should have had a clearer business plan before I spent the money to move to L.A. so that if my partner backed out I could have kept going on my own and so that we could deliver on our promises better. I should have pushed for Damaged Kids to be a business entity the second it broke $1000 in profit with in a month so that if we did have to split everything my work could have been legally protected in our “written way out”. Because I didn’t do that, I still lost money as tshirt stock was still being sold after the close of the ‘business’ because there were no consequences to any profit made in selling of tshirt stock. I didn't see a dime of that money made off the back of my design work. I could have had more confidence in my share of the ownership of DK like I do today. That meaning I think I should have viewed it as 50% mine instead of viewing it as me just helping my friend. Back then I always viewed Damaged Kids as my friend's vision and me just managing it...but my management made this vision live, so I was just as important. I should have owned that better and commanded that better. I didn’t fight hard enough for the things I wanted and knew we needed - like quickbooks, and G-suite, and the legal paperwork. How that has changed today is now I am a lot less emotional when I am ‘business Lauren’. A 'Creative Lauren' I care a lot, and am humble, and empathetic, and connect to people through my creativity and networking skills. But when conducting business, I am a paper trail lady. If the partnership, business license, figures, plan, etc, isn’t on paper, I won't move forward till all those t’s are crossed and all those I’s are dotted. Out of respect for myself, the work, and the design.
I hope if you’ve been thinking about starting a business you think about all the pieces you need, and you find a team that works for you. Turns out my team, didn’t work for me. So here we are now.
Take all failures in stride and learn from them. It’s really hard to swallow your pride in a failure - but once you do you gain a wealth of knowledge.
I’m still no expert in running a business, but I’m trying to learn more and be better. I ask to be taught, I contract for clients and go to their offices to see their work flow, and talk to people who don’t do my job [graphic design] and I ask what they do, and what they bring to the big picture. Because some day, I’d like to end contract work to pursue my own business full time. I am currently actively working on my timeline goals to do this.
If you have any business stories please let me know! I’d love to hear your story.