Joining Womenonbusiness.com today is Karen Justice, writer, designer and painter -and an entrepreneur. Her company, Wild Jungle Chick, is becoming one of the largest greeting card retailers online and in Florida.
Kristin: Karen, can you give us a little background on your entrepreneurial journey?
Karen: I left home at seventeen. Being on my own so early was frightening. There was no one to lean on; I was a very nervous, insecure person and I had to be my own support.
My first job didn’t pay much. It was definitely paycheck to paycheck. I was an entry level clerk in a small accounting department. I hated it because the office was part of a packing plant.
I’ve always loved animals and I couldn’t bare the thought of what took place a few buildings away. Sometimes I could hear the animals’ terror. I needed to get out of there, but there aren’t many choices for someone without formal education. I’d pour over newspapers at night looking for some hope. For whatever reason one ad jumped out at me. I took a chance and I applied for a job that I wasn’t even slightly qualified for.
Life has many turning points and this was one of mine. Out of hundreds of applications, they picked me. They said I had a very high IQ score so they were overlooking my lack of formal education and willing to train me. Within a year I, I was launched into the business community as one of their top level technicians. Armed with a calculator and my briefcase, I was responsible for auditing, flow charting, and financial documentation of systems for some of the largest businesses in the country. I developed a well rounded business background but it wasn’t until I turned 30 that I had the courage to try and make my own dream come true.
I had no formal training as a designer. I had friends who had been to design school so I knew there were many things I didn’t know about the fashion industry. However, ever since I was little, I’d loved to draw and design things. It took all the courage I had to start my first company with no capital but I did it.
Kristin: What was your first company? What was the most valuable lesson you can share with the readers?
Karen: My first company was called Tail Feathers. I designed elaborate pieces that someone like Cher might wear. I immediately got publicity because the creations were so gorgeous, even though I didn’t make any money. I thought to be successful you had to be different but that’s only a small part of it.
When you’re different, you get noticed but there are a lot of obstacles; you have to start a trend. You have to educate people and create the desire for your product. It requires a lot of exposure and marketing. It is very hard to make a profit unless someone that has a strong background in marketing and deep pockets notices you.
You must examine your market. Observe what is selling in your genre. By doing this, you are finding out what the market already WANTS – This is what a buyer wants to buy. Someone has an idea and other people copy it – creating their own version of the idea. This is how fashion trends become fashion trends – many people simply do their version of the same thing. People copy people.
The exciting part is that this is also how you make money. You still launch your own innovative ideas but you also offer your version of the popular trends. You just do what’s being done. This gets you in the door. Buyers will see you if you’ve got what they are looking for. It gets you in front of the decision makers and is where the initial volume of your sales will come from.
Kristin: How did you come up with the innovative concept of Tigre Lis?
Karen: The name is French for Tiger Lilly. For me it stood for how I feel about women. Today we need the strength of a Tiger but it’s wonderful if we can keep our feminine side. For me this is represented by the Lilly.
I love romantic things and I love to create cartoon characters. It seems a lot of women feel the same way as women loved the designs. Tigre Lis was fun and dramatically romantic. A lot of people collected it. Celebrities purchased it and to this day, it’s still traded on EBay.
Kristin: From what I know of Tigre Lis, it was a decent sized company. How did you adequately manage all of your showrooms, staff, production, marketing, operations, etc?
Karen: I started Tigre Lis in my kitchen. I’d just gone through a divorce and had almost no money to launch it so at first I was tap dancing over fire. I did everything myself and only expanded as I could afford to but I did take one chance. I pulled the money from my first few months’ sales and bet it all on a trade show in New York. I was so lucky – I was the right line at the right time. I couldn’t write orders fast enough. I came home and worked 24/7 to get the orders out then saved every cent I could, pouring any reserves back into expansion.
First, I had the showroom in Miami then on Fifth Avenue in New York. I hired a publicist and got much value for it than if I’d spent the same dollars on ads. I only spent dollars on advertising in industry and trade magazines. To create the fashion presence, we sent samples to key fashion magazines and were able to get a lot of free publicity – they are always looking for exciting looks for their layouts. The great thing is that they always acknowledge their sources in their layouts.
I also trained all of my own reps. I objected to the way a lot of sales people handle clients. I found when I used multi line reps they produced very little volume, even if they were given great territories. When I switched to my own reps, they got ten times the sales volume and I had a more direct line to my customers and the market place.
Not having much money and no real credit options was really a blessing. I constantly needed to be creative and innovative. If I wanted something, I had to create the money for it first. Many new entrepreneurs make the mistake of investing in untried ideas with funds they haven’t earned yet. Luckily, I was protected from that trap.
Unfortunately, though I fell into a different kind of trap. As my company grew so quickly, managing it became a full time endeavor. I had showrooms all over the country, I was personally appearing at many of the trade shows, and I constantly needed to create new designs and keep the line fresh. I had less and less time to design.
I was up against a wall. It’s hard to find great people to run your company. I hired a consultant. He seemed to know so much, thus I was talked into a partnership. At first, all was fine but it soon became obvious that I hadn’t asked anywhere near enough questions – about overall goals and beliefs. We borrowed heavily for further expansion and our overhead became quickly.
There was no more fun. I felt I had to answer to someone else. We had different ideas about most things. The toughest part was he couldn’t see my vision. Life became drudgery.
We struggled on for another couple of years. We were both relieved when we finally agreed that it wasn’t working and we dissolved the company. It was painful lesson but one of the most powerful growth experiences of my life.