Business Monday

Vintage clothes store’s finances undergo a makeover

After Tobi Salver graduated with a degree in graphic arts from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale in 2007, she hit the road for Los Angeles, hoping to build a life in fine art for herself.

But life’s twists and turns, as they often do, led her to a new love: fashion.

Creating sets and wardrobes in mostly low budget movies with little money, Salver discovered she was quite good at making cheap clothes look good, repurposing vintage clothes and putting the right pieces together. LA had a healthy buy-trade-sell market to supply the movies. But Salver remembered Miami distinctly lacked one, but could surely use it “because God knows the women here wear something once and throw it away.”

So in 2010, she moved home and used about $25,000 in savings to launch Fox House, a Web-based new and vintage clothes store, in 2011.

Salver, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, had plenty of creative zeal, using her background in graphic design and training as a photographer, to create the Web site with a line of moderately priced items. She knew enough to start the business online, without the added burden of a monthly lease. And she navigated the tricky world of fashion bloggers, securing enough exposure by word of mouth to build the business.

But she never drafted a business plan. And as the daughter of a CPA, she knew she had to get a better handle on her finances. So she reached out to the Miami Herald and requested a makeover.

The Herald contacted Nancy Allen, president and CEO of the Women’s Business Development Council of Florida, a nonprofit she founded two decades ago to counsel women in business and provide the necessary certification to entitle them to a host of benefits. Allen enlisted fellow board member R. Penny Rodgers, a retired commercial banker with Citibank and president of Opportunity Consulting & Development.

Together, the pair poured over Salver’s books and Website to come up with a makeover that dived into not just Fox House’s finances, but its marketing strategy and operational structure.

Meanwhile Salver, armed with her new plan, secured store space in Wynwood to meet a secret goal: a pop-up shop in time for Art Basel.

“It’s been so amazing,” Salver said. “It’s been such a learning curve and learning experience. And especially working with Nancy and Penny. They were so helpful and so genuine and so good at what they do and gave me so many resources.”

The first time the trio met, Salver explained that while she felt fully comfortable on the creative side of her business, she needed help organizing logistics. As Allen pointed out, she’s not alone.

“A lot of women business owners do the same thing in that they start a business and two years down the road, they say, I was supposed to have a business plan?” she said. “And the fact you’ve been in business without one for two years is a testament to your strength.”

Salver explained that she sometimes felt overwhelmed by working 60 hours a week without making more progress.

She tries to add new products daily and is also redesigning the Website, Some weeks sales top $1,000. But some weeks sales are dismal. Most, she said, are generated through social media, so she has worked to collaborate with bloggers providing free merchandise in return for posts. But top bloggers, for example those with a half million followers, typically demand payment. Some even have agents that manage deals. Salver avoids for-pay bloggers, believing instead that if a blogger really loves her clothes, she’ll have better results.

Both Allen and Rodgers encouraged Salver to develop partnerships, not just with bloggers but professionals in finance and web design. Salver has also been looking for investors for seed money.

Having what Rodgers calls “trusted contacts” can really help a young business navigate those first steps. Both also suggested ways that Salver’s website could do more work for her by polling visitors for feedback.

“These polls kind of help you create focus groups and it’s free,” Rodgers explained.

Rodgers also created a spread sheet for Salver outlining her needs and tagging the issues she deemed critical.

Among the urgent needs: a business plan with detailed projections, accounting software for tracking expenses and income, an inventory tracking system and a website redesign and blog.

By creating a business plan, Rodgers explained, Salver can gauge and track the sales fluctuations that fill her with worry. Reviewing her projections monthly will let her direct sales efforts, Rodgers said. So, for example, if sales are low and inventory high, Salver can hold a clearance or discount sale. On the other hand, if inventory is low, she can take orders.

The day after their first meeting, Salver headed to Wynwood to look at store space. Two years ago she’d looked, and found prices too high. But she secretly hoped she could stage a pop-up shop in time for Art Basel. As it turns out, luck was on her side that day.

During her walk, she said she bumped into a Realtor who showed her one space that was too big. So she headed back to his office to consider other spaces and at the office met developer David Lombardi, a neighborhood pioneer who turned out to be childhood friend of her aunt’s.

“He said, ‘You’re family. Tell me what you want and what you need,’ and said, ‘I love supporting young businesses,’ ” she said.

Lombardi gave her a deal on a six-month lease for space at 215 NW 36th St. “that I couldn’t say no to.”

So Salver moved out of her apartment and back home with her parents, swapping her rent for lease payments, and is getting to work on opening the store this month. She got Quickbooks and up and running, and now can track not only her finances, but her inventory, which she links to her online sales.

“Before if I had two black dresses and sold one, my site didn’t automatically remove it. I would have to do it manually, so I was keeping inventory by hand,” she said. “It just saves so much time. She also has a Web designer redesigning her page. She hoped to launch both the store and the new web site at the same time, but realized she needed to focus on just one. And since her current site is doing its job, she chose to focus on the store.

Taking advice, she now concedes, wasn’t always easy, particularly when it involves something as precious as a first business. But allowing herself to admit she needed help, she said, has made a world of difference.

“It’s great to be able to talk to people who are professionals in different areas because they raise ideas I never would have thought of, and their ideas spiral into other ideas,” she said. “You have to be open to it. If you’re going to pretend everything is in order, you’re not going to get anywhere.”