When Failure Is Not An Option

In the course of my work, I’ve met all sorts of incredible entrepreneurs with amazing stories. Fashion entrepreneur Eva Mann is one of those people. By the time I met Eva, her company had already built a strong reputation for bringing a high-fashion sensibility to the world of uniform design.

What many people don’t know is that when she launched EM Designs nearly two-decades ago, she was just trying to keep food on the table for her four young children.

Before starting her business, Eva was married to a very wealthy man and lived an affluent life, complete with live-in housekeepers, limos and trips in private jets. Then suddenly, she was a struggling single mother.

“When my marriage ended, everything changed,” she said. “I went from having my own chef to taking my kids through the drive-thru at Taco Bell.”

Thrust out of the high life and badly in need of employment, Eva found herself at a crossroads. She’d never had a “real job” in her adult life. All she really had was a love for fashion and a design school diploma she‘d barely used.

“I always had a few small things going on just because I liked making clothes, but the only real business skills I had came from putting on charity balls to meet really cool people,” she says. “But I needed to do something to feed my kids, so I started EM Designs.”

Her first big break came when an industry acquaintance connected her with an interesting client — the dinner theatre chain, Medieval Times. The company was looking for someone to manufacture some of their costumes/uniforms. But Eva had bigger ideas.

“I just went for it and suggested they let me completely redesign them,” she says. “Unless you count my kids’ Halloween costumes, I didn’t have any experience designing uniforms. I was just acting out of pure necessity.”

Her pitch paid off. She landed the contract, but immediately discovered her second major problem — she had zero working capital to fulfill the contract she had just won.

“It seems so strange now, but I had absolutely nothing in my own name,” says Eva. “There was no way I was getting a bank loan. I didn’t even have my own checking account. Plus, you have to keep in mind that the world was a very different place for women entrepreneurs 20 years ago.”

“There just weren’t as many places to turn to for help,” she adds. “None of my friends were entrepreneurs and there certainly weren’t the kind of support systems or dedicated funding options like there are today.”

With no funds available, Eva was forced to turn to a risky form of bootstrapping — a sort of payday loan arranged through an old industry contact. Fortunately, the unorthodox funding play worked. It bought her the time she needed to fulfill her first contract and earn her first check.

After that she reinvested every dollar she could, self-funding the business until she was finally able to sell some receivables for a very tidy percentage. The improved cash flow finally gave her some breathing room. Only then did she realize the unique niche she was carving out in the industry.

“I had never made, or even worn a real work uniform, so I was coming at the problem from a very different place,” she says. “My background and interest was almost entirely fashion-based and there just weren’t many people looking at work uniforms that way when we started. It made us stand out.”

Eva’s approach proved a natural fit for Las Vegas and other nightlife/hospitality hotspots, where attention grabbing garb has long been a part of the visitor experience. Still, she had to learn how to deal with the complicated gender politics of the male-dominated casino and hospitality industries.

“There are still meetings when I’m the only women in the room,” she says. “There are more women now, so it’s probably easier today than it’s ever been. But it’s still not easy. There are a lot of challenges when you’re doing business in a man’s world.”

The spirit of “women helping women” has also improved over the last 20 years, according to Eva, who has always prioritized hiring other single moms and was years ahead of today’s flexible telecommuting trend.

“When I first started, I was working out of my garage,” she says. “But it wasn’t nearly as accepted to work from home back then. In fact, I hid it for a long time.”

“Things are better today, but there’s still a lot of judgment going on about the work choices women make,” she adds. “If you stay at home and don’t ‘work’ you are judged. If you work outside the home you are judged and even if you choose to base your business out of your home somebody is judging. As women, I think we can be especially hard on each other sometimes and it isn’t doing any good for anyone.”

With two decades in the books, EM designs is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, the company doubled their sales in 2016 — the culmination of a long-term strategy to overcome a growth plateau and cultivate new customers.

“One of the hardest things in business is managing growth. If you grow too fast and you can’t sustain yourself. But if you grow too slow, it’s a death sentence,” says Eva. “Plateaus are going to happen, but if you don’t push through and keep growing you won’t just stand still — you’ll eventually start rolling backward down the hill. So for us, it’s all about keeping the momentum in the right direction.”

Eva realizes that her journey has been different from many other entrepreneurs because she was essentially working without a net. This led to a near-obsession with profitability and aggressive cost-control measures that have much in common with today’s “lean startup” concepts.

“I come from a completely different place than your typical startup entrepreneur who gets venture capital and fails fast and moves on,” she says. “I had no fallback, so I focused on turning a profit and keeping my spending low. I kept working in that garage much longer than others probably would have. That’s part of the reason we’ve never lost money in 20 years.”

Although she understands not all entrepreneurs are motivated by literal hunger, Eva still credits her “sink or swim” circumstances with helping her succeed as an entrepreneur.

“There are different paths for different people. In my case, the lack of any other choice gave me clarity and made me resilient. And as an entrepreneur you have to be resilient — because believe me, you are going to be tested,” she said. “But it’s all worth it, because there are great things waiting on the other side of those tests and there’s such a sense of pride in building something from the ground up. At this point, I can’t imagine my life any other way.”

To learn more about Eva Mann and EM Designs, visit www.evamanndesigns.com

This post originally appeared in #FacesofFounders on December 12, 2017