Modesto fashion startup sells to L.A. firm

August 15, 2016

 

white plum zwahlenMODESTO — When Hilary Zwahlen decided to start a business in late 2012, her intention was to supplement the family’s income while staying at home raising two small children.

“I went to get my business license, and I thought it was just going to be some little thing that I would do to make a $1,000 a month,” said Zwahlen, founder and Chief Creative Officer of White Plum, a Modesto-based e-commerce fashion retailer.

White Plum turned out to be much more than the small enterprise Zwahlen originally envisioned.

In just four years, the company grew to employ 75 people and enjoyed a customer base of 300,000 while generating up to $9.5 million in annual revenue.

White Plum attracted industry attention and in June was purchased by Stikeleather Apparel, a contemporary men’s clothing and accessories company located in Los Angeles.

Still, White Plum came from humble beginnings. Situated in the family’s living room and with the ghost of an idea in mind, Zwahlen developed a website and began reselling costume jewelry she sourced from importers.

The learning curve she faced was significant.

“I did not know what I was doing at all. I really didn’t,” she said.

After several months of constant work with little payoff, Zwahlen was tempted to give up. Instead she reached out to the blogging community and was approached by a company that suggested White Plum sell products on boutique daily deal sites such as jane.com and zulilly.com.

The idea required a change in the way Zwahlen had structured her operation, but ended up being a major turning point for White Plum.

“You need to have at least 50 units of one product, which I didn’t,” she said. “I had a lot of onesie, twosies because of how my business was set up.”

She decided to give it a try with some tote bags she had purchased for $2. White Plum sold 150 at $10 each in one day and Zwahlen knew she had to redirect her company.

“It was really scary at first because you had to buy so many units up front,” she said

Zwahlen started by studying the market and zeroed in on a target consumer she understood well enough to invest in.

“I understood that there was this customer,” said Zwahlen. “I was a young mom. I had just had two kids. My body had changed. And I knew this customer because it was me: a budget shopper, a mom. And you want something that is going to cover you but is still cute.”

White Plum started sourcing quality clothing pieces that manufacturers had overproduced, and resold them at bargain prices.

“We started to build a business on that and within six months I had done probably $500,000 in sales,” said Zwahlen.

White Plum generated $2 million in sales by the end of its first year and outgrew the Zwahlen’s living room. With 20 employees, the company moved to a small warehouse for just two months, then to a 12,000-square-foot facility.

A re-seller at the onset, White Plum began developing its own label and designs. Demand for the company’s leggings brand in particular exploded, and by the time the company was sold, 60 percent of sales were of White Plum’s design.

Grit and determination are what Zwahlen says catapulted White Plum from a home-based hobby to a successful multi-million-dollar business. During White Plum’s beginnings, Zwahlen acted as buyer, shipper, and customer service representative. She sometimes stayed up until the early morning hours to get things done. Meanwhile, she was taking care of her family.

“It’s all you are doing,” Zwahlen said. “There was no exercising. There was no hanging out with my friends. There was nothing but my children and my business for at least a good 18 months.”

Her advice to hopeful entrepreneurs is to be flexible and adapt whenever the market dictates.

“When you see the opportunity, there’s a need to constantly be changing,” she said. “What worked for us on our flash sales sites our first year did not work for us our second year. You’re always having to modify to the needs of the marketplace. You’re always having to think strategically.”

While that first year was tortuous, it was also thrilling to watch her business start to grow.

“If you really want to grow a brand and you have big vision for what you’re doing, just be ready that this is what it’s going to take,” she said.

Zwahlen expects she and her husband will start another business, but next time she plans to take a back seat. Meanwhile she hopes to expand her family and write a book.

“There are more young women who are doing businesses now who want to be home with their children,” she said. “I want to target that group — young women or women in general who are entrepreneurs.”

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