Beth Robertson didn't know how to sew when she started Shades Kids, her Sarasota-based children's clothing company.
In fact, she wasn't even planning to start a business.
But in less than four years, Robertson has created a company that shows no signs of slowing down. In the past eight months, Robertson says, sales have increased 200%. Shades Kids ships 75 to 150 orders a day and recently moved into bigger office space in Sarasota to accommodate its growth. (Robertson declines to provide specific annual revenues.)
The former elementary school teacher remembers feeling “antsy” while at home with her two kids. “I had a really strong desire to create something,” says Robertson. “I just didn't know what that was.”
A dinner party conversation with the owner of Garnet & Gold, a Tallahassee retailer specializing in Florida State University gear, gave her a kickstart. Robertson was living in Tallahassee at the time and always dressed her kids in cute school-colored outfits on football game day. The owner thought other fans might gravitate toward Robertson's traditional Southern, less sporty but still school spirit-filled aesthetic, and she offered to stock anything Robertson would make. The store would use it as market research and give Robertson 100% of the profits.
Robertson agreed. She started watching sewing videos on YouTube. The dozen baby outfits she made sold out in the first weekend, and Garnet & Gold placed an order for 750 more pieces.
“It was just about two weeks from not even a thought in my brain to quite a bit,” says Robertson. “I didn't have a business plan. It just kind of started and I had to catch up.”
Robertson, who moved to Sarasota for her husband's job just as she was forming the company, now has a loyal following. Customers snatch up sweet pinstriped “Jon Jon” rompers, ruffled dresses and T-shirts appliqued with everything from fire trucks to seahorses. Online prices range from $19 for personalized pajamas to $46 for a personalized backpack. Most designs sell out.
During the first year, Shades Kids merchandise was in 34 stores. But once the company's personalization services took off, Robertson shifted the focus to online sales. The company's five seamstresses in Sarasota do some of the sewing and all of the personalization.
Sales come from both the company's website, in addition to Facebook and Instagram. The social media sites build buzz and allow Robertson to connect with customers and generate orders. Shades Kids has more than 15,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 6,000 followers on Instagram. The company hasn't used any other forms of advertising.
“It's so instant and so easy to reach so many people quickly,” says Robertson. “To have over 20,000 people who have liked your page for a reason and are interested in children's clothes at your disposal at any time is an invaluable tool.”
Social media collaborations have helped the company get in front of new customers. This past Christmas, for example, a joint photo session featured pajamas from Shades Kids, holiday cards from Breathless Paper Co. and zipper bedding from Beddy's. Each company shared the photos on their social media pages, widening the reach beyond just known followers. “Collaborations have been really helpful,” says Robertson. “There's this whole mompreneur world, and the majority of the companies are really amazing at helping out.”
Robertson also sells Shades Kids merchandise through trunk shows. She has about 40 reps, predominantly in the Southeast, who host in-home parties. Much of the company's overall sales come from the Southeast, since it doesn't make cold-weather clothing. Several customers are in the United Kingdom.
Robertson would love to be able to increase her inventory, but she's cautious. “If you order more you need more people to put the personalization on, to ship it, to photograph it,” she says. “My goal is to keep up the growth pace we're on now.”