Mark Barlow spent the first
Before making his first sale, Barlow spent more than a year designing and developing his masks, finding subcontractors for parts and dies, setting up a website and advertising in a motorcycle magazine. He studied social media marketing and the basics of business management. Though his business turns four this year, it almost didn't make it through its first business cycle.
Lesson One: Market Research
Barlow went into the venture knowing a lot about motorcycles and biker culture, and even more about the basics of engineering and design. What he didn't understand was the industry of motorcycle accessories and apparel. It stood to reason that summer would be a busy time, since that's the season when bikers are most often on the road. He depended on higher income during those months to successfully launch his business.
"It turns out," Barlow
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Lesson Two: Have Reserves
That slow summer gave Barlow two options: borrow money to stay afloat, or close down and go back to the gas company. He chose to borrow, going deep into debt to make it through the slow months before the holiday and winter peaks. When the money started coming in, he spent most of it paying interest.
Barlow wishes he'd had deeper reserves going in. Aside from the stress and lower quality of life from living on less, he "could have spent the money that went to interest on new designs, marketing, or paying people to do the daily grind stuff," Barlow says. "That would have left me more time to build the business." Solid State Covers is doing fine today, but Barlow can't help but wonder what it would look like if he'd spent those first years growing the brand instead of paying the bank.
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Lesson Three: Think Creatively
Solid State Covers has sold masks in every continent except Antarctica, and Barlow has plans for a weatherproof balaclava to fix that. "I never even thought about international sales, but it's the wide reach that keeps the orders coming in," Barlow says. He now aggressively markets to Europe and the U.S. military personnel, who buy his masks wherever they happen to be stationed.That same openness has helped him dial in the best possible marketing presence. "The biggest magazines have been the worst value for me. They give me fewer responses at multiple times the cost for the smaller ones. I got a kick out of seeing my ads in the flashy titles, but that's no reason to spend good money I could use better someplace else."
The Biggest Lesson of All
Barlow learned his most important lessons from his failure to not only have good market data, but to know how to react to it. "You have to pay attention to that, but you can't ever count on it," he says. "For instance, the industry had holiday rushes going back for decades, but in 2012 ... nothing. The holiday bump never came. I had to be ready for that."Read more articles on marketing and sales.