How much can you make the first year?

This is a question I hear a lot from people developing business plans. I am never able to reply with an answer they like. Handily, WWD provides an excellent example and answer. Apparently, one can expect to sell 20 million dollars worth of stuff in the debut year. Provided of course, you know what you’re doing. The example in this case is Dorian Lightbown of Nic & Zoe who’d been designing for Sigrid Olsen for 16 years. According to the story,

Targeting specialty retailers, Nic & Zoe has been picked up by 600 stores, including Nordstrom. Brown said the company expects to reach $20 million in first-year sales volume.

That’s a lot of stores to pick up in a debut year. You’re only able to do that if you have a lot of credibility. In other words, her samples didn’t just look good, she had 16 years of credibility; her sell through is estimable as she’s a known quantity to her stores. Likewise, she had the back of the house covered in that she partnered with Telluride Clothing Co to produce the line.

In an unrelated way, the story interested me for another reason; that Dorian started the line in the midst of life crisis and tragedy (her husband was diagnosed with brain cancer and died quickly). The quirky thing is, a lot of DEs do that too. It is so common that when somebody tells me they’re launching a line, I assume something life changing has happened to them recently (within the past 3 years). I mean, how many designers start companies because they need a job? It’s more typical that technical people start their own companies because they need a job but not designers. I’ve long known that consulting with designers has sometimes meant helping them overcome their emotional challenges. I was surprised to see an article about that. I think that when all is said and done, success really hangs on passion -wherever it comes from.

Oh and on yet another unrelated matter of Dorian Lightbown, evidently the company she worked for successfully sued Gillman Knitwear Co. for knocking off their sweaters. If you are curious about the standards that are used to determine similarities between styles, read the decision from the 1st US court of appeals. Surprisingly, it’s highly readable without a lot of legalese.

Get New Posts by Email


  1. Mike C says:

    We started Fit Couture because we’d both been let go from the same company. No way we would have started a clothing company if we’d both remained gainfully employed. The thought wouldn’t even had occured to us.

  2. Jess says:

    It doesn’t seem like it would be worth it in the end to be a company that makes knock-offs if you get sued left and right and have to shell out all that money for legal fees.

  3. Jessika says:

    As someone hovering around this stage of things, this is especially interesting! I just started to ask myself what it was that has pushed me to want to launch a line now and the answer is not especially dramatic, but it feels like suddenly the resources (as in knowledge) seem more accessible to me. I’ve spent quite a few years feeling frustrated about how to do this and just knowing that there is a blog like this to go to and learn from, for example, is a comfort.

    I’ve also needed the right encouragement to want to make the plunge. I have simply become TOO busy (making one-off garments to order)and am even already getting media attention, etc. and have had to find a few people to help me. This also is encouraging but difficult because I’m trying to keep up with it all WHILE making plans to develop a line. Has anyone else struggled with a transition like this?

  4. jocole says:

    i started my line for reasons of my own, i wanted to quit my job, and be able to work mostly from home, so i could raise my kids. so far, so good.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Jessika, you’re in one of the hardest (if not the hardest) positions to be in. I don’t envy your growing pains. It’s so wonderful to finally get that recognition but that brings its own burdens too. Success can kill you faster than failure. I really look forward to helping you work through this. I don’t have any ready answers tho; it’s hard to know what to do when everything is happening so fast or needs to get done so fast. Maybe Big Irv has some ideas on managing growth. I think it would make an interesting post but I don’t know how to structure it. I think it’d leave more questions than it would answer. Who knows, maybe writing it in the terms of questions I’d ask would be the way to do it.

  6. J C Sprowls says:


    I’m teetering on the edge of commitment, myself. I mean, I’ve done a reasonable amount of custom work on a part-time effort (min 20, max 30 hrs per wk) for the past 12 years. And, I’ve just recently moved to Denver for personal reasons.

    I’m in process of re-establishing myself (fortunately have a day job) and I am trying to decide which direction I want to take my tailoring work. I truly enjoy designing and making for each individual client. But, my goal is to leave the industry I’m in (i.e. replace my salary) and adopt a child in the next 3-5 years. I don’t feel confident that I can meet that goal being a tailor, alone.

    If I can offer a suggestion with regard to making time… I would put a limit on the number of hours per week on the custom work. Raise prices if you need to. Do whatever you can to carve out x number of hours per week that you are dedicated to exploring the creation of your line.

    I’m currently in studio 20 hours per week (hell-or-high water). Now, I’ve got a huge list of menial tasks that need to be done (e.g. build a shelf, etc). But, in a few weeks, the backlog will clear and I can begin planning my potential new business.

    Small strides is what it takes. Take a look at your schedule to see what you think is possible.

  7. Big Irv says:

    Wow, this could really turn into a interesting post. I have worked with some companies that have experienced meteoric growth and those that have been slower , more steady. I have worked with dozens that never got out of the starting gate.
    I think I understand Jessika’s issues. I think you have to put together a plan with a specific date for launching of your brand. Even if it is only with a few friends and family, it’s still a launch and will signify the start of the game,and you are ready to play.
    I made a comment in the forum about KKGirl’s decision to attend a significant trade show as an exhibitor. That is a huge leap. She will quickly learn if she is on to something. She will have indications of what route she needs to follow.
    I think Jessika can reduce her angst if she made some samples and found out exactly what retailers thought of her styles. She has received media attention, and I’m sure it is for good reason too.
    Maybe hiring a rep to test the waters or sell in your own home territory is a logical step.
    Perhaps this post will lead to a forum discussion of how to manage growth after starting a sewn products venture. This such an essential area to have knowledge in once you start your company.

  8. Jessika says:

    I think it is an excellent suggestion to allot a certain amount of time to line/business development and limit the amount of time and energy that goes into custom work. Also making a specific time-oriented plan would be a good way to keep on track…All great advice. I think the most difficult aspect of this phase can be focus. It can be tricky focusing on a new way of doing things while at the same time maintaining whatever sort of business you already have in the works. My other main concern is to not compromise my standards along the way (not being flakey, not letting poor quailty happen, not overlooking important things due to being too busy, etc.)

  9. Daniel says:

    I thought your previous article made it clear that it’s basically impossible to protect brand against any broadly similar product that competes with it.

    IE, I can’t make a car called “Ford”, but I can make a car with four wheels and an engine and Ford can’t sue me for that. How different can a purse possibly be anyway? THey have to follow a pretty narrow pattern to be a purse, not a dress.

    How similar is similar and how concerned should a DE be with getting sued for name, design, colors, etc.?

  10. brian says:

    I recently opened an Internet store selling specialty sized bras, tho I’m not a designer. I opened it in response to the lack of product available out there. The store’s been open for about a month, and I am swamped with “stuff” to do. Luckily I have another company that doesn’t require all my attention, but still…my friends call me The Hermit because of all the time I spend at home, doing research or working on the different things required to make an Internet store work.

    Its tough, but, like someone said before, its all about the passion…mine is to serve an under served population and to not have to deal with any employees. Hey, maybe I am a Hermit!

  11. Top 10 lies of designer-entrepreneurs

    Don’t anybody get their bloomers in a twist. This is my version of a post entitled Top 10 lies of Entrepreneurs by Jason over at Signals vs Noise, who is quoting Guy Kawasaki (formerly of Apple and author of How…

  12. Mena says:

    I just ran into your website and I love it.
    I have just started my business and to be able to read all these experiences, questions and response are so helpful. “The article” from how much can you make the first year also was instructive. Please keep up those stories because they motivate me, keep me learning and help to keep me going.



  13. Antoinette says:

    You mentioned an article above and linked to it, but the link is broken. Can you check the link and let me know if it’s just my and my browsing ways? I’d like to read the article you referred to.

    Thanks so much. Your quote resonates with me: “I think that when all is said and done, success really hangs on passion -wherever it comes from.”

  14. Kathleen says:

    Hi Antoinette. The WWD link is archived, have to have a special subscription for that (I don’t). I searched for the article on NBIA but I guess they move old content off site. Not a wise choice imo considering how much long tail traffic they could potentially draw through searches but there it is. Sorry

  15. DesignerElla says:

    Within the past 3 years a mistake or two plus the recession has meant my old job wasn’t that lucrative.

    But what just happened was I met my soul mate.

    Jessika, “I’ve also needed the right encouragement to want to make the plunge.” Yes, he makes me feel like I can do anything I desire. At least when it comes to my own two hands, not necessarily the things we cannot so much control.

    As the setup progresses, I know I could have invested less money into my blogging (former job) and seen *enough* money much sooner – but I am ready now, and this was always my eventual goal, to do things that would lead me to here and where I’m heading.

    Thankfully nothing tragic has happened to me, knock on wood. I don’t think I could do this after the death of a husband, no I know I could not.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.