by Nicole Morell of Honeybunch
Fancy Pants Kids is the labour of love of Toronto’s Gretel Meyer Odell. Her appealingly simple, well-priced and well-made costumes and capes took Toronto toy stores by storm this year. Join us for an enlightening chat with Gretel about the trials and tribulations of a first year in business.
Your pre-Fancy Pants life involved professional theatre, which seems entirely logical, tell us more.
Prior to Fancy Pants Kids, I had an 18 year career in live theatre. Most of that time I was a professional stage manager – that’s the person who ‘runs’ the show in the practical sense. You are the first one in, the last one out, the one who organizes, schedules and cues a show…and MOM to the cast and crew. It was an exciting and rewarding career with fun, amazing friends and travel…until I became mother to my own child…then a career as a professional mother hen just didn’t suit me any more.
How were you inspired to start FP?
I’ve always loved dressing up (Halloween is a favourite holiday) and costumes. As my son started being invited to tons of birthday parties, I got really overwhelmed with all the gift-giving. I felt compromised by the options available when buying a gift for my son to give. The absence of lasting play value in many “fad” toys, plus the waste and the fact that as a parent myself I really didn’t want more plastic toys in my house, made me look for creative solutions. Together with my son, we would design a one-of-a-kind costume accessory for each friend and give a handmade costume as a gift. Without fail our gifts were the hit of the party, and more importantly, a year or two later, parents were telling me that their kids were STILL playing with and loving their costumes. I began to see that my designs were resonating with both kids and parents and they were outlasting the other costumes that had been purchased for family collections. I began to see that maybe this could be a business. The idea of making and sharing great dress-up clothes as a LIVING was very appealing.
Tell us about the process of launching FPK; when did you start?
I left my job in the summer of 2008. I had done my research and knew that there was no way that I would be able to make a credible attempt with no previous business experience – I had my sights set on the Ontario Self Employment Benefit Program. (Note: this is a government-sponsored program whereby selected applicants receive one year of financial support, business training, assistance with business plan and mentorship while starting their business.) Given that I was leaving my gainful employment with benefits, and having been the main breadwinner for many years, I knew I needed the financial support to bridge the gap while I floundered and learned. The OSEB program was a Godsend. I learned so much, found comrades, resources and advisors. I avoided a lot of pitfalls that could have finished me right away. I started the program in November 2008 and began building my business full-time in February 2009, after completing the training phase of the program.
Was it a slow build or did you just go for it full tilt from the beginning?
What is this ‘slow build’ of which you speak? ‘Full tilt’ is the only gear I seem capable of. If my heart is in something, I jump in with both feet. I have discovered through this process that I am a risk taker. This means that I take hits, but it also means that I am getting ahead faster than those who take fewer risks. I am aware that results will come slowly and cash flow will take a while to turn around, but I am so confident in my own ability to do this and feel so fully supported that I know this can work. I just keep forging ahead.
Your philosophy is evident in your designs – no character-based costumes or traditional gender-based costumes here – how do you reconcile the need to be commercial (as a retailer I can say to my chagrin that princesses always sell) with a greater vision? Do you hope to reach people who ‘get it’ or is there a bit of convincing and explanation involved?
I’m not a big fan of pink and lace and frill, but I am quickly learning that there is a huge segment of the market that is dying for just that. I recognized early on through my market research and the early months of trying to make sales that my vision isn’t always an easy sell. I am learning greater flexibility – but have established some clear limits. Since everything I make is Made to Last, I just can’t load up my designs with frills, rhinestones and sequins – this stuff has to wash and wear well. I will not design anything that is specifically gender-directed. I will expand the colour range of my products to include more pink and purple and more ‘dressy/fancy’ accessories – but I doubt you will ever see dresses in my line. If more pink is bought for girls than boys…so be it.
I cringe inside when I hear people say, “but what do you have for girls?” I try to stay patient and tell them about how many girls love to wear the heavy lush cloaks, the dragontails, the capes etc. I have started showing people photos of girls and boys having fun with all of my designs and explaining that even though perhaps the black Pointy Ears Headband makes them think of Batman – there are dozens of other stories and characters that their kids could create with it. I am working to attract and win as big a piece of the market as I can without compromising what makes my product special. I have to accept that some people need more glitz and they will have to go elsewhere FPK cannot meet their needs. My goal is to let the kids shine through – how can we do that if they are clad from head to toe in one vision?
What’s your biggest seller?
The biggest seller so far is the Classic Supercape. It’s simple, affordable ($25) and ridiculously resilient to wear. I think it’s the perfect birthday party gift for boys or girls in the 3-6 years range. Every tickle trunk needs a supercape. I would go on to say that I think my most popular and successful design is the dragontail. I have only just begun the marketing on this product (am launching it at the Canadian Toy and Hobby Fair and Spring One of a Kind Show this year) but the response has been overwhelming. It is appealing to kids of all ages (including parents) and the best is that it can FIT all ages! Seeing parents trying them on and chasing their kids around is the BEST! I have high hopes for the Dragontail.
When did you know you had a ‘real’ business? What was your first success?
I’m not sure how to answer that. I felt that my successful entry into the OSEB program was a validation of my business idea and my ability to make it fly. I think my first success was my first sale to a retailer. I went in with my heart in my mouth and her eyes lit up when she saw my product and she immediately took on my line. I have had my designs validated over and over this year. I have been accepted to practically every juried show I have entered and just found out that my late application to the Toronto Spring One of Kind show has been accepted. All that said – I’m a long way from paying myself and a very short way from the limit of my line of credit…small victories are fleeting when there is still so much to do!
How do you make decisions?
I am a risk taker. But I also have a stable of fellow entrepreneur friends who I bounce decisions off of, so that I have the benefit of some other perspectives before jumping in with both feet. I talk to my husband, who usually grunts absent-mindedly as his eyes flicker back to his iphone and assures me he’ll support me in whatever I choose (but he means it!) I look at where I want to be and ask myself if this is going to help get me there. I feel like I spend all my time weighing out cost vs. benefit.
Is running your own business exciting and rewarding or is it a nail-biting, insomnia-inducing roller coaster?
I have never been under as much stress as the past year has brought. I’ve always worked in stressful conditions, but now I carry the burden of worry about the perilous financial position I put my family in. The fact that my business-building has completely undermined any financial stability we may have had in the past is a constant stressor. However, along with heightened stress has come a heightened sense of self and the re-emergence of the feeling that I’m ‘up to something’ and building a project that is going somewhere. The rewards of working from home and being physically closer to my sons’ daily routines have been tangible. It has been a tough ride for my elder son at school this year as well as it being a chicken pox/croup/flu kinda year for both kids. There would have been a lot of stress if I had had to take the time to care for them within the context of being an employee. A lot of stresses are lessened when you are in charge of your own time. Trying to run a business in an already crowded, small family home is a MAJOR challenge.
If you could change something of the past year, what would it be?
I don’t know how I could have avoided any of the hard parts of this past year. I think all the rough stuff was par for the course and I just have to work my way through these tough first years. It would have been nice to have had more money (heck, ANY MONEY) coming into this project, or more workspace. It would have been nice to have not ground my teeth, or developed gastric pains. It’s been a doozy and we’ve had a lot of limitations on our time and resources – I guess the one thing that really would have helped would have been if my husband and I could have found a way to spend more time alone together, recharging, reconnecting and keeping it real. I wish I’d taken more hot baths.
What’s important to you?
Communities. Building them, feeding them, participating in them. I don’t think any of us can survive without support and empathy. We need to nurture our parenting communities as parents so that we can benefit from all the support they can offer. I have discovered an incredible new community in entrepreneurs – especially those who are juggling family. How would I even survive a week without the ability to connect to someone who can nod quietly and just understand where you are at?
You must have had a fantastic tickle trunk growing up – what was inside it?
I grew up on a farm on Prince Edward Island. My entertainment was CBC radio, my parent’s LP collection and 180 acres of farmland & forest. My mom had bought a whole bunch of vintage clothing from a second hand shop which comprised my dress-up collection. I remember a great pair of fishnet stockings, stiletto heels, a bright blue turban, long fancy gloves and a pair of pants that was so big that you could put a kid in each leg with room to walk!