Along with his wife Sandy, Jim Martin is the owner of green 3 Apparel, a company that makes clothing, accessories and home goods from sustainable fiber like organic and recycled cotton. Combining their backgrounds in the corporate apparel industry and an interest in non-toxic farming and socially responsible manufacturing, the Martins sell green 3 coast to coast via specialty retailers and catalogs like Uncommon Goods and Sundance.
How did you get started with your business?
My wife Sandy started the company in 2006. She and I both have always been in the apparel industry on the corporate side. She really wanted to start her own business and began preparing for it by taking classes on how to be an entrepreneur and writing business plans and so forth. She put together the plan to launch the business. One year later, I decided to join her and make this our full-time thing. We both left the corporate world and focused on being entrepreneurs.
Sandy grew up on a farm in Michigan. Farming can be very damaging to the health of the farmer because of the chemicals and pesticides they work with. For her, when starting her own company, she wanted to make it as environmentally friendly as possible, and that’s where the focus on organic cotton came from. She just felt strongly that if we were going to start our own brand, we should do it as right as we could do it and make it beneficial for everyone.
The Made in the U.S.A. component also came from Sandy’s background. She had done product development and merchandising all around the globe. She’s been in factories in Africa, Asia, India and so forth. She just felt passionately that if we were going to build our own company, we should do it all Made in the U.S.A.
How did you fund your business in the beginning? Have you taken on any additional funding since?
We personally funded the business via savings and equity. We leveraged some of our personal assets to borrow money.
Some small businesses get to a point where they can’t fund their own growth anymore. As you continue to grow, you have to build inventory. As your sales progress, your need for funding progresses as well. It gets challenging. You start looking at conventional methods like banks or venture capital, but all of those different avenues present challenges. That’s the stage we’re in right now: How do we get the second wave of funding to be able to pursue potential growth?
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Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
We certainly had an understanding of the industry because we had come from the apparel industry, but we had always been with multi-billion-dollar corporations, so the channel of distribution was completely different. We had never been in the specialty store area, we had never dealt with catalog retailers. Our backgrounds were more with the Wal-Marts, Targets and Kohls of the world. We created a brand and started a company, but we needed to learn on the fly about the distribution channel we were pursuing.
Who was your first customer?
We decided to do wholesale tradeshows rather than the sales force route. We did the largest tradeshows we could get into. We knew if we could get people to take a peek at it, based on the merit of the product, level of creativity and so forth, they would want to buy. Little by little, we began to get traction with specialty and catalog retailers.
In the apparel industry, as soon as you get some exposure, other people who compete with the people carrying your product start calling. Things began to get momentum on their own.
What was the biggest mistake you made in your first year?
The biggest mistake we made was thinking it was going to be relatively easy. You look around and see other people who have started their own businesses and you think, “Man, I could do that! With my background and what I know from the corporate side, I’m probably ahead of the game. This shouldn’t be too hard!” We were kind of ignorant and arrogant. I had no appreciation for how hard small business and entrepreneurialism is. It’s much harder than working in corporate America, I think.
Sandy and I had both come from big corporations, and I think we lost track of the power of the corporation. You think the things you do and the successes you have as being all about you, your effort and your skill set. You don’t always take into account how powerful the company is that you’re working for. Then, when you’re on your own and you don’t have the power of the multi-billion-dollar brand behind you, you have to work even harder to achieve success.
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
From the very beginning we had the philosophy that we weren’t going to let anyone really know how small we were. When we put together our catalogs, our sales materials and our booth for shows, we always presented ourselves as being considerably more established than we were. I think that was beneficial. All of those things about first impressions are true. If a customer looks at you and thinks, “Wow, they’re really small,” or “They don’t have it together yet, but maybe they’ll get it together,” you may never get another opportunity with that customer.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
It’s incredibly tangible because you’re involved in all elements of it, so your successes and your failures are much more real and in the moment than when you’re working in a corporation. You might just be a step, or a department, or a part of a much larger team. You never get to feel the reality of the successes or the failures. This is much more visceral.
The fact that you can have your family involved in your business can be very challenging at times, but it can also be really wonderful. While our daughter was growing up and going to high school and college, she worked for us and with us. Just being able to spend time like that with my wife and my daughter, that’s an opportunity I wouldn’t get in a more conventional work situation.
What’s the most difficult/challenging thing about running your own business?
The economy that we’ve been in since 2009 has been different. Despite the indicators and things you read in the media, the economy has not really fully bounced back yet. That’s been a challenge. The banking and the lending situation has absolutely changed as well. It was probably too far one way where it was really easy to get financing and loans, but now it might be too far the other way.
What’s the most surprising thing about running your own business?
You have to wear all of the hats. When you’re part of a corporation, if you come in to work one day and your computer won’t boot up, you call the IT department and they call someone over. Now, you are the IT department! If something weird happens in the building or a pipe breaks, you’ve got no maintenance crew. You might be the best marketing person in the world, but when you start your own business, you’d better be the best everything, because you have to wear all the hats!
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
When you’re a small business, you’re exposed to other owners of small businesses because your suppliers, your printers, your photo studio, etc. might be entrepreneurial owners of small businesses. As I’m exposed to more and more small businesses, those are the people who really inspire me and who I really try to learn from. Our knitter, for example, is a third-generation family business on the East Coast that has been doing it for 50-60 years. Those are the kinds of people who really inspire me and who I try to learn from, because they’ve been able to be successful and have longevity in a really difficult climate.
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What I’ve Learned
What advice do you have for others starting their own business?
If you have not come from the industry, go work in the industry first before you start your own business. I think it’s a big mistake that some people make. Like, if someone wants to own their own coffee shop, but they’ve never worked in a coffee shop or the restaurant industry. I tell them, “Go work in a coffee shop for a couple of years and, on somebody else’s nickel, watch, learn and see what you should and shouldn’t do, as opposed to doing it on your own nickel and learning all those hard lessons yourself.
What do you wish you had known before starting your business?
I wish I had known the amount of time it takes. I heard a really funny quote one time where someone said that as a small business owner, they get to work half-days: They work from 9 to 9. That’s absolutely the truth! It’s half of the 24 hours.
When you work for a company or a large corporation, when it’s time to go home, you go home. You don’t necessarily think about it or talk about it all the time. But when it’s your own business, or especially when it’s a family business, you do. It becomes 24 hours a day, seven days a week unless you try really hard to get away from it.
About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.