Don’t be afraid to say no to buyers. When big companies offer to write an order but want you to give them mark-down money or a major discount, it’s OK to say no. Once I gave a big box store a big discount because I was afraid they’d walk but it cost me my margin and ended up hurting my business, not helping it. I learned from it though and never agreed to a bad deal after that.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Germaine Caprio. Germaine launched Majamas in 1999 after designing, patenting and selling the first nursing tank top to Nordstrom Department Stores. Little did she realize she was creating an entirely new market…clothing designed for women to wear AFTER delivery. Soon she was creating a full collection of transitional clothing women could wear long after their babies’ first birthdays. After the 2008 recession, the maternity/nursing category began to fall off. Seeing the market shifting, she decided to focus on creating sustainable, beautiful basics all women could wear. Today she offers four collections: Women’s, Men’s, Baby and Maternity all under the Majamas Earth label. MAJAMAS EARTH is committed to making beautiful eco-friendly clothing that doesn’t destroy our beautiful planet. That’s why they manufacture all their collections 100% in the United States.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was raised by amazing parents who told me I could do anything so I tried everything I liked. My mom was a nurse, a fashionable, smart environmentalist and way ahead of her time. She’d read stories out loud from the newspaper about deforestation, suburban sprawl and animals going extinct…but we managed to turn out happy anyway. My dad loved sales and working with customers. My drive to do what I do comes from both of them. They taught me to be humble, grateful and kind to others and that real success isn’t all about money.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
My “ah hah” moment came to me after having a baby. I found myself wearing a bra to bed and trust me, no one wants to sleep in a bra after wearing one all day. So with no formal design training, I created a nursing tank top I could sleep in and even wear under my business suits. I made a pattern, brought it to the woman who altered my clothes and had her sew it. I finessed the fit and shared samples with friends who needed a tank like mine. They loved it and encouraged me to patent it. My “ah ha” moment hit me after I realized how many I was giving away. So I brought a sample of it to Nordstrom and they bought it on the spot. I called it The Original Nursing Top and it launched my brand Majamas.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
We hear stories about people turning their ideas into a business and forget these things don’t always happen overnight. It took me three years to perfect my tank top and lots of nights ruminating over how to turn my nursing tank into an entire business that could support my family and me. I think having encouraging friends, the support of my husband and an appointment with a major retailer helped me turn the corner and take that last big step. Of course, if the buyer didn’t like it, things could have turned out differently. Her order gave me confidence and the push I needed. I wasn’t going to say no to Nordstrom so I committed to her delivery date and found myself in the clothing business.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Take your time. I realize that sounds un-entrepreneurial but most ideas evolve and get better with age. If it’s a physical product, only time helps you see what needs to change or to improve upon. Of course, waiting too long can be the one thing that keeps you from doing it for a living but if it’s a strong product, you’ll get to a point when you know it’s time to take that leap. I call it the “now or never” moment.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Fashion is an ever changing industry so keeping my work interesting isn’t hard. Fabrics, styles and customers are always changing and I haven’t been in my “comfort zone” since launching my company. I design year round which is the most fun part of my job but even on days that I don’t get to do that…which is most of them, I’m working on finding better, sustainable fabrics, new clients and new ways to innovate. Plus, the retail world kind of keeps things interesting all on its own. For example, when 2008 hit and our independent maternity stores started closing, I began designing eco-fashion all women could wear. I think most entrepreneurs will tell you, once you get on this path you never want to stop running so you’re constantly on the lookout for ways to improve and grow your business. For me, it’s the constant challenge that keeps me engaged and my work fresh and enjoyable.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I guess it’s the little things I love about running my own business that bring me the most joy. When the office feels tense, I can crank up some music to help us all pivot to a better place or order in comfort food that makes us happy. I love that I can get into the office when I want to although I still feel guilty when I take time off. Over time, that’s become one of the biggest drawbacks. You never mentally escape owning your business which means it’s on your mind 24/7. In order to overcome that, I workout every day, meditate and talk things thru with my husband, who’s also my business partner. He and I balance each other out and encourage each other when things feel impossible. If I didn’t have him, I’d have a high therapy bill for sure.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I was thinking about owning a clothing company, I never thought a lot about being a boss. I only thought about creating and selling to customers. I mean, I imagined having people working for me but I never gave a lot of thought to actually having to motivate them and keep them happy and engaged. I’ve learned it’s like being a good Co-Pilot; they have a flight plan and it’s my job to keep them on course without flying their planes. Letting them do what I hired them for is the only way to help them own their work and grow. Some days, that’s more challenging than others and it takes away from what I have to do. Still flexibility is a must when you’re a company owner because stuff happens, things come up and your crew is relying on you to handle it. That idea of my sitting in a studio “creating” or only calling on customers was a fantasy and I’m glad about that. Having a strong, committed team supporting me is a lot more rewarding.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Absolutely! The garment business is a capital heavy one. It takes a ton of money to make clothing and there are always slow periods when you know in 30 days, you’re going to have to write a fat check to pay for the stuff you’re making today. It can be really stressful and discouraging but when I think about quitting, I think about all the people I’d let down if we went out of business. We have a very high customer return rate and a lot of people rely on us for their organic, sustainable basics like bras, panties, Men’s boxer/briefs and more. If we didn’t exist, our customers might have to settle for another brand that isn’t made as responsibly as Majamas Earth. I’d like to think in some small way, we’re making a big difference in people’s lives.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Remember, I never had any formal design training. Somehow I whipped up a pattern and cut a sample to bring my seamstress so she could sew it. She was a super sweet woman so she didn’t laugh when she saw it but she gently told me I may want to use a professional pattern maker to make my future patterns. I found someone with much more talent and experience and learned that I didn’t need to be a great pattern maker to be a great designer. I just had to rely on talented people to help me. Delegating is a big part of being a good business owner and I figured out early on I’d get nowhere without doing that.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Corny but I gotta say my mom. She was a passionate environmentalist and saw climate change coming well before most scientists. She taught all of us to respect the planet and she made a big impression on me. When I got into the garment business, I knew I had to do things differently from other clothing companies and make my collections ethically and responsibly. She not only taught me to respect the planet but she taught me to respect others. She cared about people and went out of her way to help them. She helped me with the name Majamas but died a year before I launched my business. I’m convinced she continues to help me and I do my best to think about what she’d do when faced with a problem. There are lots of amazing entrepreneurs doing great things to make our world and planet a better place and my mom inspired me to become one of them.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Clothing manufacturing is dirty business; that’s why we only buy fabrics from mills based in the U.S. and continue to make all our garments here in ethically run shops. By operating locally, we’re cutting down on the pollution most garment lines create by leaving a smaller carbon footprint. I’m convinced our way of doing business helped to start a trend in the garment world. I mean, most clothing lines were moving their production overseas when we started out, and no one was calling their clothing “sustainable” twenty years ago when I got into this business. Now that seems to be the trend and I’m happy to see more clothing companies trying to improve their way of doing business. But we’ve been operating this way from day one and I’m always on the hunt for a better, cleaner way to run my company. We all have to wear clothes…please let’s not stop doing that…and I’d like to think Majamas Earth has made the world a little better by making ours responsibly. Plus I think we’ve helped a lot of people become more fashionable and comfortable in the process.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Accept help when it’s offered. I hate owing anyone money and looked at an investment as a loan instead of as an investment in my company. I’ve come to realize people want to see good businesses grow and if proper paperwork is done and everything is legit, taking money from an investor can help a company grow faster and stay innovative.
- Don’t be afraid to say no to buyers. When big companies offer to write an order but want you to give them mark-down money or a major discount, it’s OK to say no. Once I gave a big box store a big discount because I was afraid they’d walk but it cost me my margin and ended up hurting my business, not helping it. I learned from it though and never agreed to a bad deal after that.
- Never hire friends or relatives. It’s easier to manage without emotional ties to your team and hiring friends and relatives makes your job more difficult. I hired a friend’s daughter and her boyfriend…yeah, stupid, I know! The daughter was working out, but her boyfriend wasn’t a good fit and I had to fire him which basically turned her against me. She took advantage of our friend connection, stopped doing her best work and even compromised my files. Needless to say, it wasn’t a pretty ending and only caused me more stress. I still feel awkward every time I see her parents because I never told them my side of the story and I know they only got hers but, I learned a valuable lesson and never hired an acquaintance like that again.
- Spend money on good business insurance. Years back a guy in California bought the copyrights to a ton of prints that were already in use and one of them was one we’d used years before he bought it. We used it in our entire collection that sold into some of our largest retailers. The guy who purchased the rights to this print…and hundreds of others bought the right to sue past and present companies using any of them in their collections and suddenly, I found myself with a major lawsuit on my hands. Not only did I have to defend my company, but I had to defend the retailers who bought the styles we made using this print. My insurance company handled everything and if I hadn’t had good business insurance, this suit could have bankrupted my company.
- Don’t hire anyone without good references and a credit check. I made the mistake of hiring my first production manager without speaking to her former employer. I knew her a little bit because we shared a showroom but never got a true picture of her work ethic or knowing why she no longer worked at her old job. Turned out she wasn’t trustworthy and didn’t do her job well at all. I know it’s impossible to get a lot of information out of a former employer when looking into a new hire but there are always subtle clues in their responses when checking references. Going thru the proper steps to hire her would have saved me a ton of money and stress.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to see more people care about what they wear in the same way they care about what they eat. So much clothing is made overseas in factories that dump dyes into the oceans polluting our planet, yet most consumers have no idea that the clothes they’re buying could be costing a community their drinking water. I’d like to see the same certification for clothing that happened with food when the word organic was being slapped onto every label. Sure, a clothing company can go thru specific certifications but most end up being pretty pricey and it’s a lot for a tiny company to absorb. We need an affordable process from a third party that gives clear meaning to what makes a clothing company truly “sustainable”, “eco-friendly” and even “organic”. Food became regulated by the government and USDA Organic became a standard. It only got that stamp after being inspected and approved by our Department of Agriculture. Seeing our skin is our biggest organ, don’t you think it should be the same process for clothing?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When my girls were little, we loved to watch A Bug’s Life and a quote from Hopper the mean Grasshopper to Princess Ada, the new leader has always stuck with me. After the food her colony gathered for him disappeared, she told him it wasn’t her fault. Hopper’s answer, “First rule of leadership, everything’s your fault” rings true for me on a daily basis. Ultimately, I’m responsible for everything from the way our site looks to our customer’s experience and everything in between regardless of who’s doing the work for me. I must have the final say and take full responsibility for any message we purvey. It’s a heavy responsibility but one every leader and owner of a company must adhere to. I just wish more leaders of some of the biggest countries and companies lived by these words of wisdom. Owning our work including all the mistakes that go with it is the only way to be a true leader.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Leonardo DiCaprio and not only because we kinda share a last name. He along with Laurene Powell Jobs and Brian Sheth have formed Earth Alliance “dedicated to urgently addressing Climate Change and environmental threats to Earth”. I feel as if he’s taken his celebrity and put it to great use to help our planet. I have a lot of respect for famous people who do productive and generous things to help others and I believe his fame will influence more people to take Climate Change seriously. In turn, I think he’d respect my mission to create beautiful clothing for Women and Men that doesn’t harm our beautiful planet. Who knows? Maybe he’d even do us a solid and be one of our models. Now that would be amazing!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.