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I have a beautiful granddaughter who was born with Down syndrome. She has enough challenges to face in her life and I want to make sure that finding appropriately fitting clothes will not be one of them.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

New reason to head back to the factory

Downs Designs is launching a sister company… NBZ Jeans (no button, no zipper jeans).  We’re hoping to have our new line of jeans in stock by early next year if all goes well.   These new jeans are being designed for men only at this time.  We also have plans for a similar jean for boys later next year.    Research regarding disabilities that affect dressing is overwhelming.  The number of men and boys with a disability that makes manipulating a button and zipper difficult is in the millions. 

With the success of our stretchy men’s jeans without buttons or zippers for people with Down syndrome, I thought why can’t I make typical sizes with the same design in mind?  Women have no problem finding elastic waist jeans with spandex but a similar kind of jean for men is nearly impossible to find.  In the adaptive wear world, what is available in elastic waist jeans for men is not very stylish and are mostly for the elderly.  But with the rise of autism and other disabilities, millions of younger men and boys are faced with challenges in dressing as well.  Downs Designs jeans offer a comfortable, stylish jean that aids in independent dressing but do not fit typical men.  So the need for typical sizes in this type of style is one I hope I can meet.

So I just spent a week in China at the factory, preparing our new line of jeans for men.  I’ve chosen the fabric, pattern, accessories and stitching for 8 sizes of men’s jeans.  I hope to get samples of these jeans made in the next month and try to get them into production before year end.  I hope all goes well.

With the high costs of Downs Designs’ “try-on” service, its overhead is very high.  NBZ will share expenses with Downs Designs which will be a great help to Downs Designs’ bottom line and allow me to continue to give every customer our very special, individualized service.   My goal is to grow Downs Designs but it’s a slow, expensive process.  Having help with overhead expenses will allow me to build it just a little faster.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Five new styles are now available

New items arrived last month and I've been so busy, I just haven’t had time to catch up on my blog.  I try to post at least once a month, but the time has flown by!

So, here’s what’s happened over the last two months:    

We received our Youth boy jeans, the Alex and Patrick.  These two styles have been selling very well and customers have been very happy with them.  The fabric is amazing and they look great.  I’m so happy to have another age group available.  The Youth girl styles are still not in production which really saddens me to say.  The last samples that came from the factory still had some design problems but I think we've finally solved them and we may begin production very soon.  This means they won’t be available for about two months or so and that’s if there are no complications

Two more styles for the ladies are now in stock - the Diva and Sheryl in black denim.  We completely redesigned these styles so they will need another “try-on service”by our customers.  We made these two lades styles in much bigger sizes and I’m happy to have them available.

We also have 5 sizes of the Timmy style in black denim.  We originally were going to make another style for the ladies, but we had some design problems and chose not to make the third style.  With the leftover fabric, I had the factory make the Timmy in black in size A, B, C, D and E.  They look great and make a nice casual dress pant but the sizes are limited.

So, how’s our Staples prize coming along you may ask?  I must say it’s taking a little longer than I had expected.  A portion of the prize was an agent from Gannet Local and that part has been a little slow.  They finally assigned us an agent and we've been working on a marketing strategy which should start to kick in sometime this month (October).  I’m anxious to get this going as the Christmas season is just around the corner.

I have some more exciting news:  Last month I was contacted by Karen Watts who owns a hair salon in Arkansas especially designed to cater to children and adults with special needs.  As a mother of two boys (one with autism and one with Down syndrome) and a hairdresser, she saw the need to create an environment that would address the challenges of getting a haircut for people with disabilities.   Her salon helps make getting a haircut a more pleasant experience. 

Besides doing hair in her salon she carries many items that cater to people with disabilities and thought our jeans would be another great service she could offer.  So we decided to set up our first “try-on” station.  I sent her one of each size of our children’s, youth and teen jeans.  She won’t have to carry stock or do any sewing, just determine which pair fits the best, then help place the order.   She’s an incredible lady and I’m proud to be associated with her.

Getting the new jeans in last month (September) really boosted sales.  I was so busy with shipping I was struggling to keep up, so when we entered into Down Syndrome Awareness month (October) and we had a store wide sale and things really picked up.  Our turn-around time is taking a little longer these days, so please be patient.  

With the increase in sales I hired someone to help me in the shipping department.  I’m happy to introduce our newest member of the team, Mary Diemert.   Mary has a lot to learn about our unique business and I’m so confident that she will do a great job.   

Well, that about sums it up, I’m glad to report that sales have improved and we've added new styles.  Let’s keep our fingers crossed that we can finally complete the youth girl style and hope for a busy holiday season.   

Monday, August 12, 2013

Winning the Staples "Push it Forward" Contest

Can I be more excited about the month of July!   I have to say that July was one of the most amazing months Downs Designs has had to date.  I don’t even know how to keep it short because so many events occurred that are major changes for us.

The biggest news of all is that Downs Designs won the Staples National “Push It Forward” Contest.  Laura saw this contest on Facebook and entered it by chance.  She had to write a small paragraph about why Downs Designs could use their prize.  Well, their prize was $50,000.00 worth of the digital marketing and boy could we use it!

Because I’m still a struggling young business, there hasn't been money in the budget for much marketing.  So winning this prize at this phase of my business couldn't have come at a more opportune time.  What we won is $35,000.00 of digital marketing and an agent from Gannett Local, a digital marketing advertising agency; and one year of Constant Contact and all their extra add-ons.  We also won a one-hour session with Steve Strauss, one of the country’s experts on small business.  Then, on top of that, we won a check for $10,000 to cover the extra taxes.

OMG, can you see the value in this for us.  This is really an opportunity for Downs Design to learn ways to grow the business.  

So with all the work ahead in marketing, I brought on board another amazing person, Chrissy Lorenzo.  Chrissy is a journalist with experience with Pinterest, Twitter and other social media networks.  She will be able to expand our marketing in other ways.   We’re all happy to have her as part of our team.

The second great news is the success of our attendance at the National Down Syndrome Congress Conference.   It was our fourth year and by far our best.  Jillian and Laura are completely responsible for its huge success.  They suggested that they take all our pants and shirts (3 of each size), our dressing rooms and a sewing machine to the conference.  They wanted people to not only be able to try on our jeans but get fitted and get the jeans hemmed right there.

So I rented a huge van for them, they took Jill’s sister and boyfriend along for extra help, loaded the van with all our “stuff”, and drove all the way to Denver (Wagon’s Ho!).  They were one of the busiest vendors there and sold lots of jeans and some shirts.  I couldn’t be more proud of my staff for the hard work and sacrifices they make to help grow our business.  They go way beyond the “call of duty”!

Well, the last good news will be hard to put on paper. I cannot express in any words, or get across the value of what happened next!!!! 

Here’s what happened:
A few months ago, one of my customers from Chicago called to reorder some jeans for her daughter.  She told me her daughter lived in a group home and lived a very independent life.  I mentioned that we may be able to set up a trunk show if there were enough people there with Down syndrome.  She told me there were about 600 residents and maybe 200 with Down syndrome.

How could there be any facility that big?  This place in Chicago is called Misericordia.  It was started about 45 years ago by a nun, Sister Rosemary.   You can visit their website www.misericordia.com and learn more about it but I can tell you that there is absolutely no place like this anywhere is the U.S. 

I also mentioned that I was looking for an investor.  So, this amazing woman invited me to Chicago to meet with her and her husband.  Her husband sat with me and reviewed my business plan and said he was going to help me find an investor, that there were plenty of families there that would be willing to help…can you believe this?  That would be the best possible situation….to find an investor who has a child with a disability that would totally get what I am doing.  She also planned a small cocktail party for me and I met some wonderful people. 

I’m not sure I can express my excitement these days.  Good things are coming!  For me every day is a new adventure.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Our new website has launched!

Since my last writing, there has been so much activity going on that I’m not sure I can explain it in a few pages of writing.  But, the website finally launched and I couldn't be more proud.  It looks amazing and I’m so excited how it turned out. 

The pressure of creating a new website was unbelievable.  I didn't know it would be so intense.  Laura and Jillian did an amazing job preparing and reviewing all the photos and text that went into the site.  The site builder, Sean, worked relentlessly for several weeks and I must admit, the pressure mounted and finally exploded.  But I couldn't be happier with the results and everyone’s hard work is really reflected on our new site.  I can’t thank everyone enough for the time and effort that they put into it.

I also want to introduce Devon Beckwith to our Downs Designs family.  Devon is a photography major at Purdue University.  She is helping us out this summer with new photos for the site.  I can’t believe the pictures she has been taking and how great they look.  I hope by the end of summer, she will have improved our site photos completely.  

We actually did a photo shoot recently with two of our models, Emily and Michael, and it turned out to be so much fun.  We shot them in our shorts, capris and short sleeve tees in Emily’s beautiful back yard.  We have more models yet to photograph, so stay tuned to see how they turn out.

We also ran a Facebook campaign which brought our “likes” to over 15,500 as of this writing.  In about a month we added over 10,000 people to our page.  Now I’m hoping to see an increase in sales as a result of these efforts.   

Our next big event is just around the corner - The National Down Syndrome Congress Conference.  It’s coming up in mid-July and will be here before we know it.  We have some really big plans for this year’s event.  Laura and Jillian are really going all out to make this year’s event our best ever.  What would I do without those gals; they continue to amaze me with their hard work and love of their jobs and what they do to help build this business.   

With the introduction of shorts and short-sleeve t-shirts, Doris, our seamstress, has been working extra hard as well.  Her idea to shorten the sleeves on our shirts and hem our pants into shorts was brilliant.   It’s an opportunity to offer a little more variety for the summer.  I love how the shirts look in short sleeves and the pants make great shorts or capris. 

We’re also trying to prepare a small catalog as well.  It’s another project Jill has been working on.  We hope to have it completed by the conference and put it on the site as a downloadable item, just like our brochure.  With everything else going, I hope we get it done in time.

Here’s the latest update on what is in production.  The ladies black jeans had some design problems.  So, we are only going to have two styles coming out in black.  Since we redesigned our ladies patterns, there were some problems with the “dip down” style.  It just wasn't possible to make it like we wanted.  Since we added larger sizes, it created some difficulty in the pattern.   With these problems at hand, we decided to just go with the Diva and Sheryl styles in black.  We’ll have to see how our new styles work out once we start selling them. 

The youth girl style continues to be a problem.  We are now having our other factory attempt to make the samples.  We cannot explain the problems we've had with the youth girl pattern.  One problem after another has plagued us. The factory has finished the youth boy styles and they will ship with the two ladies styles that are in production now.  We hope to have the youth boy styles and the two new ladies styles available in the next 6 weeks or so.  But with regret, the youth girl styles will not be ready by then.  Our other factory is also preparing the Jacob and Danny styles in black denim.  We hope that they will arrive in about 6 weeks as well. 

We finished shooting our new video.  It should be finished by the conference.  It was way more work than I would have expected and I’m anxious to see the final results.  How do you fit your entire story in a 3-minute video…challenging to say the least. 

The last big item that I’m working on is preparing to seek out an investment company or even a private investor.  It’s time!  I hope to find more funding to help grow Downs Designs to another level.  I think I've reached a point that I've done all I can do at this level and if I want to expand this business and build our sales, I need help.    

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Time Flies

I can’t believe I've been back from China for two months already.  I haven’t posted since early March.  There’s been so much going on and not so much going on all at the same time. 

My trip to China was absolutely vital.  We were having issues with some of our patterns but by sitting with the pattern maker at the factory face to face, I was able to clear up some of his concerns.  Our designs are unlike anything they make so it can be a bit confusing for them.  For example, he doesn't understand why the knee placement is so short.  But through Joey, my sales representative who speaks good English, we were able to work through the issues at hand.   Having photos and samples are a great help in communication as well.  

We received the samples about a month later of the youth girl and youth boy in denim and three different styles of the ladies jeans in black.  We've redesigned our ladies styles with improved sizing and we've changed the waistband that the ladies jeans currently have.  We’re also going to offer more sizes as well.

Once our samples arrived, Jill made appointments with all the models.  The youth boy was a successful fitting and we just started production on those.  The youth girl, unfortunately, was not a good fit.  We still have a few more adjustments to make before I feel we are ready to put them into production.  This youth girl style has been a real challenge for some reason…not sure why!

The Sheryl jean and the Diva jean samples were also good.  We will no longer be reproducing the Emily Dip Down style; we've altered the style now with a different shape that we feel will be a better fit for more ladies.  This new style will be called the Rebecca Dip Down jeans and all three ladies styles are now in production.  The other factory that I have been working with just sent us samples of the Danny and Jacob Dip Down style in black.  The fit was good so we’re starting production on those two styles as well. 

We’re also introducing our new website this month.  We’re making our website more user friendly and more fun.  Photos and testimonials of our customers who have sent us pictures of their loved ones wearing our jeans and tees will be splashed throughout the site.   We can’t wait to show off their happy faces.

Our new site will also explain in detail about our exclusive “try-on” service.  This service makes ordering risk free and assures each customer of a perfect fit or their money will be refunded.  The first order takes a little time to get it right, but once the correct size is established, the next order is easy.   We’ll help each customer with their order every step of the way.

Since our first video is now a little outdated, we are starting production on a brand-new one.  We hope it will bring everyone up to date on our progress.  We also will include a how-to-measure video to make measuring more clear as well.   We know it can be intimidating to those who have never sewn or taken measurements.  But getting a great fit is worth the extra effort!

We also have some new marketing plans.  WE NEED MORE SALES!  Downs Designs needs to get the word out to more people who need our clothes.  I think I will talk about these ideas in my next writing.  I want to discuss in more detail about some of our new ideas to “spread the word”. 

Follow our progress on our Downs Designs Facebook page…so much is going on these days!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My next trip to China...coming up!

Wow, here it is March of 2013.  Since my last post, the New Year has been very quiet.  After an exciting November and December in 2012, January came in with a “retail sales letdown”.   It's nothing that I didn't expect, but it has been very disappointing.  But as March has begun, I’m starting to see a little pick up!

I do have some sad news to share.  Late in January, Laura's father had become very ill.  For weeks she was at his bedside and a few weeks ago, he sadly passed.  We missed her dearly while she was gone but she was where she needed to be.   

Laura had made plans to attend the Abilities Conference in Atlanta and DSAIA Conference in Cincinnati but was unable to attend either.  Jillian took the "bull  by the horns" and lifted that responsibility off Laura's shoulders.  She couldn't find airline tickets to Atlanta for a reasonable price because of the late purchase, so she actually drove there.  She said the conference was amazing and met so many people with many different disabilities.  The DSAIA Conference in Cincinnati was another great event.  I can't thank Jillian enough for stepping in and taking care of all the arrangements.  

Well, I'm heading back to China this week to spend time at the factory.  We're working on the samples for the youth sizes and the samples for the ladies jeans in black denim.  During the Chinese New Year Holidays, the entire country shuts down.  It’s the one frustration I have with China.   The whole month of February the workers take time off to go back to their homes to celebrate their biggest holiday of the year.  Unfortunately, many don’t return to their jobs, so the month of March the factory owners have to rebuild their staffs.  This causes about a two-month delay every year in production.

So now the youth sizes will not be ready for a few more months, which is a big disappointment, but if there is one thing I have learned in this business ... its patience.  But I'm glad to be there in person to meet with the sample maker myself.  They have lots of difficulty with our special sizes and shapes.  The shape of our pants styles are nothing they have ever seen and they find our styles very challenging.  So maybe with me there, I will be able to explain more clearly what we need.   

The ladies jeans are of a big concern for me.  The first factory that made our ladies’ jeans did a fantastic job and the ladies jeans fit very well.  Now we are going to make them in another fabric (black) and by our new factory.  If the samples don't come back right, then it will take time to make more samples.  I can only hope they get it right on the first try.  So, this trip may be the most important one of all.

Also, I decided that making skirts is just too labor intensive.  So I'm taking that idea off the table.  It would be cheaper to make new ones; but we're not ready to make skirts just yet.  Our first priority is finish all the pants and to make them into other fabrics.  We plan to focus on making the best fitting pants anywhere for our Down's customers.  

It was finally necessary to raise our prices.  So effective March 1, you will notice a small increase in the price of all our jeans.  Also the post office had a price increase, so our shipping costs had to go up a little as well.  I still believe the cost of our jeans is very reasonable and with our exclusive “try-on” service, I feel they are well worth it.    

Well, please keep spreading the word.  It’s vital to our growth and development to increase our sales this year.  Now that we have products to sell, we need more sales.  So please, if you like our products, help us grow our business!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Plans for 2013

Well, January, 2013, is here and, as expected, sales have slowed down, but our work has not.  Everyone is busy with plans for the New Year.  Here’s what each of our team is working on:

Laura (marketing)

Laura has mapped out her year of travel.  She is preparing to “hit” the road in 2013.  She has plans to attend conferences, Buddy Walks and meetings with DS organizations.   She keeps up with our Facebook page and what’s going on the around the country.  Downs Designs had not done any marketing until Laura joined our team because we were still developing our styles and sizes, but now that we have almost all our pants sizes in stock, we now have products to market.  It’s time to let people know about us and Laura is doing a great job with that!

Jillian (designer)

Jillian has finished designing the pants for all ages.  Unfortunately, the Youth Sizes didn't get into production in 2012, but we hope to have them in stock by late spring or early summer.  She is also working on a new order for the ladies jeans in black denim.  The black denim jeans will have no rivets.  We hope that black will be a color that can be worn as more casual wear.  Also, if someone is working and required to wear black pants, this will solve that problem.  And the ladies jeans were our first jeans and we have made many changes in our jeans since then. So our new black denim ladies jeans will have our new waistband and no tags. We have plans to make the rest of our styles in black denim as well.  Jillian is working on some new designs.  I won’t say just what she is planning yet but we hope to create something new in 2013.

Doris (seamstress)

Our "Hope" Jeans with a little added color 
Well, Doris has been another great addition to our team.  She not only is doing a great job at hemming and alterations, but her creative mind has been busy as well.  She suggested adding a little color to our children’s jeans.  We have not introduced her idea just yet because we’re waiting for our improved website to come out.  But here’s a sneak preview of what we’re going to offer in the children’s jeans.  This picture is of our little girl jeans with a flannel pattern added to the cuff…they are adorable!  We will have a few colors to choose from and for the boys, a few plaid options.

She also came up with another great idea.  Remember the 500 pair of men’s jeans that I decided not to sell because of the problem with the back rise being too short.  They've been in storage since 2011.  Well, she took a pair of those men’s jeans and turned them into a denim skirt.  What has she done!  We are going to test the skirt on our models and if the fit is good, we’re going to offer them on our website.  We’ll see how people like them, but I think it is a great idea.

She also suggests that we could make shorts or even capris from our existing jeans.  Since we’re hemming the jeans anyway, maybe someone would like us to hem them shorter.  That would be an easy solution for now if someone wants a pair shorts or capris.  We’ll have to see how that goes as well.  Next summer we hope to offer shorts, but this year it’s just not possible unless we use our jeans in other ways.

These are some ideas we’re discussing for 2013.  We’ll do some posting on Facebook to get opinions from our almost 3000 Facebook “Friends”.

Our Website

We have plans to improve our website this year.  We’re going to try to make it more “user friendly”.  We’re going to make our shopping cart part of our website rather than a separate link.

Then, with the help of modern technology, we hope to offer even more personal service.  We’re going to try to add a video chat on the sight so we can do visual fittings with our long-distance customers.  If we can see the person trying on our clothes, we can help make sure they get the best fit possible.  Even now with smart phones and email, I’m able to help with our fittings, but I think if we have a video chat line, it will improve our service even more.

My plans

Well, for the last few months I've been working with a fantastic woman, Susan Swartzwelder.  Susan is a professional business plan writer.  She has a consulting business helping people like me write their business plans.  My goal this year is try to get a bank loan.  I have personally been funding Downs Designs for three years.  We have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal and personally-borrowed money because banks will not help a small business get started.  Even though our government says there is lots of money available for small businesses, it’s not true at all.  But Downs Designs is still a very young company and relies on constant financing from me.   Our first 2 years were all about research and development.  Last year we just started getting in products to sell, but until August of last year when Laura joined our team, we had done no marketing.  So I feel that 2013 marks the beginning of Downs Designs.

With the help of Susan and the great job she is doing to create my business plan, my goal for 2013 is to get some financial help.  We need working capital to keep us going until our sales are able to support the business.  But I have confidence that the help will come.  God didn't give me this business just to see it fail, so I know this is the year I’ll finally be able to present our plan to financial institutions with positive results.

The next thing I must do is raise our prices.  If the business is going to survive and continue to give our personal “try-on” service, I must increase prices.  We’re going to include the hemming charge into the price of pants and then raise the price of the pants $7.00.  The other price increase will be the shipping costs.  The U.S. Postal Service is increasing their postage rates January 27.  I will have no choice but to increase the cost of shipping.  This is not going to be a pleasant task, but to sustain Downs Designs and keep it operational, I have no choice in this matter

My next trip to China is March 6, 2013.  This trip I will be choosing other fabrics for our pants.  I want to look at khaki, navy and another denim option.  The black fabric I chose on my last trip looks great (I've already seen a sample).  But the most important part of the trip is to continue to build my relationship with the factory owner.  Because of our special designs, the owner’s cooperation is vital.  He is so kind to allow me to order very small quantities.  The small-quantity orders he allows me to place is almost unheard of in this industry.  Most jeans factories require much larger minimum orders than I place.  But because of my trips to the factory and the relationship that I continue to have with the owner, I feel confident that our good relationship will continue. 

I've been studying Chinese for about a year and have increased my lessons from twice a week to three times a week.  It’s a tough language to learn but I feel I must.  Because of my travels to China several times a year to a place where only one person speaks English (the owner’s son) I feel very strongly about learning the language.  My goal is to actually talk with the pattern maker and factory owner myself instead of through an interpreter.   I wish I were younger, I think it would be easier, but I’m doing my best.  I have a great teacher who has the patience of Jobe; I don’t know how she does it.  I take my lessons from an online school called E-Chinese Learning.  My teacher is in China and we have our lessons over Skype.  We meet at 8:00 am three times a week for 50 minutes.  This on-line program is exactly what I needed to help me with this language.  I've tried learning it on my own though CD’s but it’s just too hard.  I don’t have to leave the house or sit in a classroom and I have private lessons from a true Chinese person who lives in China.  It’s the perfect solution.  I’m sure I’ll be studying for years before I get comfortable with the language.

I’m so proud of all my team and their hard work.  And I’m so grateful for our customers and their patience and support as we develop Downs Designs.  This year increasing products and sales are our top priority.  Now we need your help to spread the word.  Please share our website with your friends, school or organization.   We have our jeans in stock and we need to get them off the shelf and in your hands…Karen