Lynne Lambert’s journey to entrepreneurship began in Brooklyn’s Borough Hall subway station. While waiting for her train, inspiration struck when she wondered why nobody had ever made anything with the familiar letters and numbers encased in colorful circles that indicate the city’s various subway lines. Lambert did not have business training or background in the apparel industry. In fact, she was a successful voiceover actress featured in hundreds of commercials, as the voice of a baby doll, and throughout the Grand Theft Auto 2 video game. Despite her lack of experience, Lambert went on to found NYC Subway Line, a line of apparel and accessories decorated with the intellectually property from New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), including subway symbols, maps, and station signs.
Why did you start your business?
I was a longtime actor. I was schlepping around on the subways to my auditions and bookings in New York. Unfortunately, as you get older in show business, for a woman especially, the opportunities start to dry up. I didn’t see that I was physically capable of getting younger, so I felt open to other possibilities.
One day, when I was waiting for a train, I looked up at the sign and got fixated on it. There were these big numbers 4 and 5 and letters inside green circles. I thought, “Why hasn’t anybody ever done anything with these?” At the time, I had a six-year-old. I was always struggling to find a gift for all the birthday parties he’d get invited to. I thought, “Wow, what if I just had a 6 Train shirt, and I could give it to all the kids turning 6? That’d be so awesome! There are letters, too, and people could get their initials! People would want to wear these! We could make this a business!”
I ended up approaching the MTA. At first, they weren’t really keen on granting a license to me because I had no background whatsoever in the industry. But I persisted and persisted. They finally gave me the license and I went with it. The first time I shipped, I shipped to Macy’s Herald Square and a bunch of museum stores. It’s just been going ever since!
How did you get the funds to get going?
I had always saved my money. I thought that was a wise move as an actor, when you don’t know exactly where your next job is coming from. The first few years of the business, I used my life savings to support the business when it couldn’t pay for itself. I didn’t have any employees at that time and my office was in my home, so I kept expenses low.
Along the way, I had opened a business line of credit. I wasn’t up for tapping it very often, but I would do it infrequently.
When things started getting bigger and it seemed like my business had a lot of potential, I met with a consultant who said, “You really should get factored.” I went with the factor for a few years and really did not enjoy the experience. It was expensive for a small business. We were paying about 2.5 percent of our sales in fees. We had some customers, including a really big reputable customer, that didn’t release financial information at all, so they couldn’t be factored. But, most importantly, we did a better job collecting than they did. They wouldn’t even look at overdue invoices unless they reached a certain level because they were used to dealing with really big companies.
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Have you heard of business credit?
Yes. Overall, it’s always been very important to me to have my credit in order. We have a very strong credit rating because we pay our bills on time and we have a decades-long relationship with our bank. Being an upstanding citizen counts for a lot when it comes to credit. You can’t expect other people to do right by you and lend to you if you haven’t been doing the right thing in your bill paying!
Managing the Business
What’s most challenging about running your business?
We’re a niche business. That’s hard because we work just as hard and make very ambitious, high-quality products, but we do it on a smaller volume than most apparel companies. The biggest challenge for us is to attract and keep our vendors who are used to a much greater volume than we can do.
On the other side, we deal with national retailers, but most of them will only buy us for their New York stores, or don’t want to be bothered buying something only for their New York stores. It’s an obstacle because, even though we know we are making a fashionable product that people order from all over the country, it’s hard to tell the story to some retailers that in Arizona there is going to be a big market for New York City Subway products.
How do you finance your business to manage cash flow or growth?
We lost half of our inventory in Hurricane Sandy. Insurance covered a portion of that, but to help make up the difference, I was encouraged to take out a small business loan. We still have that small business loan, and we have our business line of credit, which we access as needed.
Do you use trade credit from your vendors or suppliers?
Yes. We are on net terms with the ones we use domestically. When we purchase offshore, we normally ask for them to let us pay a third upfront, a third at the time of shipping, and a third net 30 on delivery to our warehouse in the United States. I’m sure those people have researched our company well. While they might not extend those terms to everyone, we have managed to get them because of our reputation.
What’s the biggest mistake you made early on?
One of the biggest mistakes that I made at the beginning was bending to my vendors’ will and ordering large quantities of things. That’s not smart. It’s better to pay a bit more for the quantities that you feel you can safely sell than it is to order mass quantities of things and hope they sell.
What’s the smartest thing you did in your first year?
My inclination was always to sell to customers that I thought could really do well with our products. If anything ever went wrong, like they got a defective piece or we had to ship late, we tried to make it good right away and give them honest, forthcoming information upfront. Building relationships like that is a hugely important thing to do.
Also, when introducing a new product, I always want to give people a chance to try it without setting a minimum. I’ve told our customers, “On your first order of any new product you want to try, please feel free to order only one. Even though our minimum order is three per size, we never want you to get stuck with product that is not working for you.”
What’s the most rewarding thing about owning a business?
I still get a huge thrill out of walking down the street and seeing someone carrying or wearing one of our products. I love feeling that I’ve created something that will be here for generations to come.
What does the future look like for your business?
We have a couple of new products coming out that I’m really excited about. One is a fully reversible tote that’s done with very convincing imitation leather. It’s just a stunning tote bag with the subway map printed on one side. And we’re in discussions with some big companies where we’d like to have a presence in their New York City stores.
What advice do you have for someone starting a business?
Don’t quit your day job. If there’s any way you can start your business and still go on earning a living doing something else, do that. You don’t need the extra pressure of not being able to pay your bills while you’re starting a business.
Another thing is something I didn’t do, but I’d recommend trying to work in the industry for someone else. Really make sure that you understand the ins and outs of that business before you start your own. You can save a lot of ramp-up time that way.
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