Five Start-up Mistakes: the Diary of a CEO

Just over a year ago Sally Dear launched Ducky Zebra - a sustainable childrenswear brand that breaks the ‘pink, blue rulebook’ with their colourful, unisex clothing. There’s been plenty to celebrate since launch. But there have also been a fair few mistakes. In this article, Sally shares 5 learnings from her first year - in the hope you can learn or gain from them (or at the very least be entertained by her naivety). 

1. ‘Test and Learn’ is not akin to ‘saying yes to every opportunity’ 

My background isn’t in fashion or retail. It’s in marketing, predominantly for the automotive and rail sectors. I always knew that launching a childrenswear brand was going to be a steep learning curve. And so I decided to dedicate my first year to testing and learning. Discovering which products and sizes were most popular, which sales channels were most effective and which marketing messages resonated best. 

My first ‘test and learn’ opportunity came along early, with a 4-month pop-up in the Oxford Covered Market. Our very own physical store, which opened just two weeks after launch. It was perfect timing to boost our launch activities and raise awareness. I learnt so much during this period, including:

  • The power of face-to-face: this was where the magic, stories and relationship-building was at its best
  • How small changes in our store-layout and visual merchandising made a big difference
  • The value of receiving immediate in-store customer feedback 
  • The positive correlation between physical pop-up and online sales
  • The even greater correlation between weather and footfall
  • Insights into who my customers were 

I wanted to continue the momentum after our 4-month pop-up finished. And that’s when I started to say ‘YES’ to pretty much everything. Markets, fairs, podcasts, talks, networking events, guest blog posts, collaborations, webinars, courses, giveaways, facebook ads, website updates, rental, wholesale and much, much more (alongside developing and launching two further collections). 

Unsurprisingly, after 180 days of saying ‘yes’, I reached a state of overwhelm and burnout. I’m so grateful to Joey Clifton, a coach for purpose-led professionals, who helped me refocus on what was important, set exciting goals for the year ahead and realise that I don’t have to do everything right away. What are my key learnings?

  • ‘Test and learn’ doesn’t equate to saying ‘yes’ to everything, but instead requires a more methodical approach 
  • By setting 5 or 6 exciting goals for the year ahead, you can better prioritise and focus
  • Allow time to celebrate your achievements, measure your success and plan ahead

    2. Re-learning marketing 

    I have over 15 years experience in marketing. And so I assumed this part of running a start-up would be easy. I was wrong. Running a business with next to know budget (or market share) is a very different ball-game. While many of the principles remain the same: excellent customer insights, strong brand values, good storytelling, clear content pillars etc. the approach and execution is different. What are my key learnings?

    • Photography: If you have any budget, spend it on high-quality professional photography. This instantly lifts your website, social presence and PR. I’ve been really fortunate to work with a fantastic photographer, Alexandra Tandy who has helped to bring our brand to life through her clever photography.
    • Tools and memberships: While tools and memberships can’t replace skills and expertise, they can certainly help. Canva has been invaluable for creating social posts, flyers and resizing imagery for the website. And my membership to groups such as The PR Set has been a fantastic way to develop my own skills and confidence in areas of marketing I was less familiar with. 
    • Organic: While it doesn’t necessarily give immediate results, organic marketing is free (apart from the time it takes) and tends to have a longer-term impact. I’ve prioritised Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), Social, Podcasts and Webinars to help our longer-term growth.
    • Collaborations: If there’s anything I’ve learnt it’s that the small business community is a supportive one. I’ve formed some fantastic collaborations, which have helped to amplify and maximise our ‘organic’ marketing. Whether it’s co-hosting a webinar, a social collaboration, a guest blog post or a joint press release - collaborating with others has helped to extend our reach, while adding third-party endorsement. 
    • Experiential: For a product-based business with low market awareness, allowing customers to touch and feel our clothes has often been more effective than talking about them online. As a result our marketing strategy now includes a hybrid of online and physical activities.

              3. Good systems save time (and stress)

              When I launched Ducky Zebra I underestimated how many different channels and platforms I would be selling our clothes on. As a result, we didn’t have the right systems in place to manage our inventory. Our stock management became a little chaotic. And it transpires it takes more time and effort to get the right systems in place retrospectively.

              What are my key learnings? If you have a product-based business plan ahead for multi-channel fulfilment and get the right systems in place (even if they aren't particularly fancy) to better manage your stock.  

              4. From being sensitive to resilient

              Have you ever run an email campaign and then obsessed over the unsubscribe rates? Or shared a social post that flopped? I’m embarrassed to admit, but I’ve wasted far too much time worrying about things like this. Of course it’s valuable to keep an eye on your KPIs so you can learn and improve, but taking them personally doesn't help.

              What are my key learnings? You need oodles of resilience when running your own business and an appreciation that taking a step back and reflecting on things objectively is important - both for your business and your sanity.

              5. Delegate: The whole chicken and egg conundrum

              “You won’t scale-up if you don’t delegate”, “To grow you need to invest”, “You will be your own barrier to success if you try and do everything yourself.” These are common phrases small businesses hear all of the time. But the challenge is real. Do you grow your business, so you can invest in the right people? Or do you invest in people, to help boost your growth? If I’m completely honest it’s still a challenge I’m battling with. So if you have any advice (or grants) that might help, do send them my way!

              What are my key learnings? The overwhelm I mentioned earlier can escalate when you’re doing everything on your own. Consciously delegate, when you can. 

                Keep hold of your ‘why’ 

                There are so many other learnings. But I’ll end with my favourite. Keep hold of your ‘why’. It’s so easy to forget the ‘why’ behind your business when you’re facing daily challenges, and yet I’ve learnt it’s the ‘why’ that drives the strongest connections, the best energy and the greatest growth.

                What’s our ‘why’ at Ducky Zebra? We want to shake-up kids’ fashion. It’s 2023. We’re predicted to see the proliferation of green technologies, the growth of hyper-automation and the rise of adaptive artificial intelligence - and yet kids’ fashion remains unchanged: Kind, sweet and gentle versus bold, heroic and confident. If we want confident women and empathetic men we need to change these (often subtle) messages, with which we carry from birth. 


                Brilliant as always, Sally. So exciting and envious to watch you on your journey. Keep doing what you are doing and inspire others along the way, changing our world one T-shirt/Jumpsuit/Hoodie at a time. Xx

                Fiona Clark July 04, 2023

                Hi. Thank you for this amazing read. It’s just what I needed at the right time. I’ve only been operating for 9 weeks and this week had several fantastic leads and then two nights of insomnia thinking I can’t do it and I’m lost in my own maze.
                I’m going to re-read this again and again to keep me on track and balanced.

                Keely Ward July 04, 2023

                Sally it’s an absolute pleasure to be reading about your success and most of all your honesty of approach, sharing those invaluable lessons learned. I am slightly biased as we had four fantastic years together as co-workers, but I’m so proud of what you’ve achieved. What’s evident is that you’ve started with an authentic vision and taken cautious and, at times exhaustingly slow steps, but your foundations have been laid – now we just need the world to care about your passions as much as you do!

                Sandra Mcdowell July 04, 2023

                Fantastic post Sally, thanks for sharing your lessons from year 1 and will be great to see where you take your business next

                Miriam July 04, 2023

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