I launched my brand during Covid and here’s how I survived.

Q&A series with Liana Ledgerwood, founder of Milae Collective Maternity Bra’s.

From her first prototype which she sewed herself in May 2019 to officially launching her innovative nursing-bra company Milae in April 2021, female founder Liana Ledgerwood provides texture, colour and real-ness to how she did it.

By Cara Sumpton, Apparelmark.

May 7, 2021

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TLDR – We laughed, we cried, and the bras that everyone is asking me about are now available! https://milae.ca/

Liana strolled into our Apparelmark office in the summer of 2019 with two prototypes in hand, a vision for her brand, and a personality that we all recognized will make her a successful entrepreneur. From that moment onwards, our freelance fashion design team was tasked with a proposition to create a nursing bra that is both technical, beautiful and functional on every level.

We had big goals of launching in Spring 2020, with a solid backup plan of Fall 2020. Then the pandemic hit and everything got delayed, but of course! Flash forward to April 2021 and the Milae has finally arrived!

Before we get into our chat, let’s preface it with some thoughts for anyone thinking about launching their own apparel brand:

  • With typical “go-to-market” apparel design, development and production timeline typical client expectations Is that the project will take approximately 9-11 months from concept to completion, depending on market forces and complexity of the design.
  • For new brands like Milae these timelines typically extend further and can range from 12-15 months.
  • As a fashion freelance design consultant, we have worked with 65 brands to date and found that in the majority of the cases extended timelines played a factor to ensure the product came out as close to the target market needs as possible.
  • New brands have the luxury to spend more time to get the product right with no pressure of seasonal-calendars than larger, established brands have.
  • They also need more time to build up their assets: website, social platforms, and customer base (which in Liana’s case was already steadily growing).
  • 66% of the new brands we’ve worked with didn’t end up making it to market at all for a variety of reasons which we will explore in a future post.

Without further a due, let us jump to the Q&A with Liana!

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How does it feel to be in the top 33% of new brands that make it through to launch, and on top of that, during a global health crisis, and on top of that, with 2 kids, and another company on the side? Is there something you are eating, drinking, reading that gives you superpowers that we all need to know about?

Ledgerwood: Haha, I wish I had super powers but I think it comes from my parents. I am the youngest of three kids. When I was very little my mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad owned a restaurant. My brother and sister would get put to bed and I would get to stay up and sit on my mom’s lap while they talked business as my mom was the bookkeeper. I think I learned early on what it took to be successful from my parents and how to persevere through all the frustration and chaos to get to your ultimate goal. My dad owned the restaurant for 36 years and added a pasta factory on top of that about halfway through. He truly is my role model as an entrepreneur.

“Although I’ve lost the tip of my finger the show must go on. Learning to adapt and work around it will only make me stronger!” #justkeepswimming

Funny you say that. My parents are both entrepreneurs as well. I guess we can agree that having early exposure to running a business is part of the secret sauce of making it happen.

Now, out of all the brands we’ve seen successfully launch (yourself included), I know our team at Apparelmark agrees that marketing-ability plays a huge part of it. Successful brands are building up their direct-to-consumer channels, developing authentic connections with their customer base, and getting their first 1000 sales this way. We notice as a common step one (of the brands that make it), the founders themselves are changing their status to Founder of X, and sharing everything the companies about, a long-time before anything is even for sale! The founders that “fake it til you make it” are the ones that are actually making it!

What’s the secret to growing a following from scratch, on a business that doesn’t yet exist, and a product that is not for sale yet? How did you manage the conversation with this following about a delayed launch? Was this following part of the reason that you kept going, and kept you accountable to launching?

Ledgerwood: The product was made out of a need that I had. I did it because nothing on the market was working for me. I think the simple fact of sharing what I was up to was really resonating with other women. People would often tell me they are following my story because they just want to see where it will go. In any business that I have run or owned, I have always believed that honesty with your clients and community means more than anything. With my social media community, I always told the truth. Once the shipment was delayed, I let them know. When it was delayed again, I let them know. I decided that although it would have been great to do a presale or a crowdfunding campaign that I needed to hold off because the state of the world meant so much uncertainty with when I would receive my product that I wanted my products in my hands before I sold a single one. This guaranteed that my clients would receive their orders in a timely fashion once they put their orders through.

“After having a baby it can feel lonely and like your body is no longer yours. Wearing mesh panties and traditional style nursing bra does not help make you feel like yourself. We are here to change that!”

So, honesty is the best policy. We also agree that trying to avoid “over-promising and under-delivering” is a good way to build trust with your customers.

Now, most people show up to our office with just an idea or a vision, but you showed up with two beautiful hand-made prototypes. It must feel pretty incredible to see something hand-made, now in the hands of people around the world.

Is the response what you’d expect? Did you do anything to celebrate this mega-huge accomplishment?

Ledgerwood: The response was a lot more positive than I ever thought. I am still really naïve to social media and influencers and so once I launched, I was surprised that influencers started to respond to me or even reach out to me and want to collaborate without any monetary settlement. They were just excited to see my product on the market and wanted other moms out there to see it as well. Unfortunately, there was no real celebration. I timed the launch after I put my kids to bed and after the launch, the orders just started to come in. I was sitting on the living room floor with my husband on the couch and was truly just in disbelief.

“Proud to say I designed, cut and sewed this prototype all on my own”

I love how you were able to follow up on your realization for a change and actually apply your self to make a physical sample to show your self and to our team you were serious about It. This type of determination, patience and resilience Is what separates successful brands from stagnant ones, especially during times of world crisis like COVID when you were hit with a massive delay on the production order.

I remember the boat left the factory in January and arrived in March. For some context, typical transit time for goods via Boat are 30 days and typical transit times for Air shipment is 1-2 week. During 2020, we saw all shipments standard times completely thrown out the window, most brands still went with the boat option, as the cost-saving was significant. Either way, there can be delays at ports due to customs, duties, and border issues. Some shipments are fine and on time, and some are completely lost at sea, or stuck at ports due to a backlog of shipments. During 2020, we saw delays in shipments across the board, with no way to know, and even some air-shipments had massive delays too, and cost more!

Would you boat your goods again, do you see this as a short-term problem? Airfreight costs more, but would you suggest to other brands that the ore visibility into your shipment would be worth it?

Ledgerwood: This is a hard question. I think for my next order I will have them be flown in and take the burden of the cost and then after that see how the world is going with the pandemic. I think for other startups as long as you have not set yourself up with a major deadline to get your products to consumers shipping your products by boat is okay. The problem that I did not foresee was because it took so long for my products to arrive they were flagged by Canada Customs and had to go in for additional exams at my expense. I think had I flown them I would have saved some money potentially. I think I still lack enough experience to offer any advice on this issue and I will just be playing it out as the time comes.

I can say that all my friends, especially those that popping by for a fitting (the ones with kids who are breastfeeding) are also waiting patiently for these bras. I can’t imagine what that would be like, to be out of pocket, and everything out of your hands like that. Even though it was hard, it was hard on us too as your partners, and I’d like to think we made the best of it and worked through all the issues. We certainly love being a part of your story, and can’t wait to put the hard times behind us and focus on the future.

So, what’s next? Did you break out the sewing machine, or what is the next idea on the horizon? Is it getting easier? Do you feel the success settling in?

Ledgerwood: Within a week of launching I realized that the bras I made were wanted by women of all sizes and that I needed to create a few more sizes to accommodate the many sizes that all women come in. After that, I have a cotton style that I am so excited to develop, and then from there to start to create pregnancy/nursing/postpartum tops that can be worn at all stages of life. I want people to see this brand as something sustainable in that you are not just purchasing these items for a few months but instead wearing them throughout your life. The goal I am most excited to achieve is to get to a place where I can hire a development team that would consist of women on mat leave. You see as a new mom not being able to work meant I felt like I lost a part of my identity and the reality was that our society and workforce does not accommodate women at all stages in life. I think if women want to work after they have their babies they should have the freedom to do so!

“I’ve been asked how I knew what steps to take to get here. The truth… I didn’t! No one does. What will separate you from the rest is your ability to keep going.”