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5 things this Houston-born entrepreneur learned from launching a biz during a pandemic

Annabel Fowler Gatto launched her women's workwear company ahead of the pandemic. Here's how it went. Photo via Pexels

I realized a huge problem professional women were facing, and I launched a company to address it. But then, a pandemic hit.

Eight out of 10 women say they're frustrated and unsupported by traditional workwear brands and their offerings. For many, quality women's workwear means hefty price tags for clothes than, often, have unflattering silhouettes and difficult-to-maintain pieces. It's not a great experience.

Enter Suitably, a professional womenswear brand that offers seasonless staples—all machine washable and under $100. We launched in February 2020 with sky-high momentum. Then, six weeks later, COVID-19 shut down offices worldwide. Overnight, we saw a dip in traffic and the launch momentum slow. But we kept going — reinventing, reimaging, and engineering new ways to serve our customers during a pandemic who were, suddenly, working and interviewing from home. And, now, we're coming out the other side, a stronger, more dynamic and more customer-centric brand than ever. Here's what I learned from launching a workwear brand in a pandemic.

#1 — Be what your customers want and need 

Suitably isn't solely about fashion — it's about helping women be the best versions of themselves, personally and professionally. When COVID-19 struck, that need amplified among our core audience. From our interactions and proactive outreach we heard them loud and clear — they need help, support and guidance now.

We immediately shifted our focus from promoting the collection to doing everything we could to help our community. I made myself available for virtual coffee sessions and hosted over 100 of them during the pandemic. Next, we partnered with a good friend — a psychologist — and churned out free resources on everything from staying positive in a crisis to professional advice, life hacks and everything related to Zoom, from how to dress for a Zoom meeting in every industry to basic Zoom etiquette. The groundswell was immediate and powerful — women craved this information and this connection.

#2 — Be a voice for change

Weeks into the shutdowns when the global workforce was isolated and sweatpants-clad, we launched our next campaign, #GetUpGetDressed. So many women had shared their stories and told us they could barely get out of bed in the morning let alone get dressed and get motivated.

By encouraging women to #GetUpGetDressed — and to share their work-from-home style with Suitably's community — we knew we were doing more than promoting style. We were powering them to shake off the stress and fear, put on something that made them feel good and connect with other women in the Suitably community. Hundreds of women participated and the positive feedback we received was unparallelled. With that, our social footprint grew even more.

#3 — Be careful whose advice you take

Despite the positivity from our community, we still had the naysayers — people eager to share their unsolicited commentary on what we should be doing. The general consensus? Shut down or pivot Suitably ASAP — that a business like ours would likely never be relevant again. We were told to make "Zoom tops." We were told to explore athleisure and masks. We were told to wait for a vaccine then start over — to abandon everything we'd done, the brand equity we worked so hard to build and achieved or pause until the "world is normal".

The reality? None of those people were part of Suitably — and, like us, none of them knew how to navigate a global pandemic. Even so, it would have been easy to fall in line and let a knee-jerk moment of panic destroy everything we'd built. But, instead, we took a breath, took a beat and promised to drown out the noise and the negativity so we could move the business forward, putting the needs of our community first.

#4 — Be confident in yourself

Without the noise we were better able to reassess where we were and what came next — to go back to our roots and to the customer listening we'd been doing for the last few months and use that to set a new course. We knew there was light out there somewhere, and that if we just kept moving towards it, we'd find success.

Admittedly, that was hard sometimes. Even though I knew we had our finger on the pulse of our customers' wants and needs, every day brought a new learning. Despite the chaos, we pushed ahead, following our customers' lead. By the end of June, we had significant data to show that many women in our community, especially those outside of the tri-state area, were returning to the workplace or shopping in anticipation of returning to the workplace. We started to get customer chat's every day asking when new products would be launched, when our restock for sold out pieces was going to occur and we knew it was time to ramp Suitably 100 percent back up.

#5 — Be there for every step of the journey

While the customer journey is rarely linear, the pandemic brought new levels of uncertainty and disconnect. Based on the success of our support and engagement initiatives, we continued to follow our audience on their path — a path that, for many, led right back to the office. We immediately ramped up our messaging, with an eye on helping women get ready to go back — and to feel confident and ready for action the minute they walked through the office doors.

Because of the foundation we'd laid during those first few months — a foundation anchored in trust, understanding and support — our audience leaned in, ready to take that next step into the Suitably experience. Quickly, we were just about back to where we were before COVID-19, not just providing actionable content and a friendly ear but, also, amazing wardrobe pieces that made her feel empowered whether she was back in the office of working from home.

No one knows how to navigate a pandemic — but we all know how to build relationships. That, ultimately, was our strategy. And that, ultimately, is what helped us steer Suitably through the peak of the crisis so we could come out the other side a better, stronger, more dynamic brand than I ever could have imagined with a loyal audience who knows we're truly committed to them and to their success.

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Born and raised in Houston, Annabel Fowler Gatto is the co-founder and CEO of New York-based Suitably.

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Building Houston

 
 

Chevron has doubled down on its commitment to The Cannon in West Houston, a new study finds Houston a top city for STEM, a Houston startup takes home a win from a digital pitch competition, and more. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

Houston's innovation ecosystem has been booming with news, and it's likely some might have fallen through the cracks.

For this roundup of short stories within Houston innovation, a startup snags a win at a pitch competition, Chevron announces a new makerspace, a software company makes an acquisition, and more.

Houston named a best city for STEM

Image via SmartAsset

For the fifth year, personal finance website, SmartAsset, analyzed data for the 35 cities in the county with the largest STEM workforces. The study looked at the racial diversity index as well as the gender diversity index. The data for both metrics comes from the Census Bureau's 2019 1-year American Community Survey.

Houston ranked No. 7 on the list, and according to the report, the total number of STEM workers in Houston, Texas exceeds 79,500. Around 70 percent of the total STEM workers there are men, and more than 30 percent are women. Additionally, Houston has the third-best race/ethnicity index score in the study with more than 19 percent of STEM workers are Hispanic or Latino, almost 20 percent are Asian, and more than 8 percent are Black.

Texas makes up about a third of the top 10 list with Dallas and Fort Worth coming in at No. 9 and No.10, respectively.

Chevron announces digital makerspace in The Cannon

Photo courtesy of The Cannon

The Cannon and its surrounding Founders District in West Houston has announced the addition of Chevron's digital makerspace, which will be dedicated to startup partnerships and community organizations.

"Chevron's support for The Founders District and The Cannon expands our commitment to Houston's growing innovation ecosystem," says Barbara Burger, Chevron vice president, Innovation and president of Chevron Technology Ventures, in a news release. "We look forward to utilizing this new space to collaborate with other Chevron organizations, such as our Wells group, as we work to deliver more reliable, affordable, ever-cleaner energy."

While Chevron has been a key partner for The Cannon since 2018 and even had branded office space within the hub, this new space represents a new lease agreement for a significantly larger footprint.

"We are thrilled to partner with Chevron Technology Ventures in developing this exciting makerspace at The Founders District," says Mark Toon, CEO of Puma Development, the company developing The Founders District and founder of Work America Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to investing in Houston-based businesses. "CTV is the paradigm for meaningful innovation in Houston. By investing in emerging technologies in energy, they are paving the way for innovation to remain at the heart of Houston's most prominent industry."

Lazarus 3D wins The Ion's pitch competition

Photo via Laz3d.com

After months of pitching events, The Ion's Startup Demo Day for 2020 concluded on November 18 with four final pitches from Lazarus 3D, Skylark Wireless, HelloWoofy, and Swoovy.

After each of the four founders presented at the virtual event, which was powered by Dell Technologies, Lazarus 3D, a startup that produces 3D-printed organs and tissues for surgical practice, took home the win and the cash prize.

"I'm so grateful to Ion Houston — I've met so many people and made so many connections," says Smriti Zaneveld, co-founder and president. "All of the companies that present at these events are doing something so meaningful."

Applications are now open for the next series. Apply online by clicking here.

Houston tech co. acquires New Zealand business

Photo via Onit.com

Houston-based Onit Inc., a legal software provider, announced that the company has acquired McCarthyFinch and its artificial intelligence platform.

"Our vision is to build AI into our workflow platform and every product across the Onit and SimpleLegal product portfolios," says Eric M. Elfman, Onit CEO and co-founder, in a news release. "AI will have an active role in everything from enterprise legal management to legal spend management and contract lifecycle management, resulting in continuous efficiencies and cost savings for corporate legal departments.

"Historically, legal departments have been thought of as black boxes where requests go in and information, decisions or contracts come out with no real transparency," Elfman continues. "AI has the potential to enhance transparency and contribute to stronger enterprise-wide business collaboration in a way that conserves a lawyer's valuable time."

The newly acquired software has the capacity to accelerate contract processing by up to 70 percent and increase productivity by over 50 percent. With the acquisition, Onit is enhancing its new artificial intelligence platform Precedent and the company's first release on the platform will be ReviewAI.

New sustainability-focused app launches at Climathon

Photo courtesy of Footprint

Houston-based Footprint App Inc. launched its latest carbon footprint education and action software during the Houston Climathon that was hosted earlier this month by Impact Hub Houston.

By tracking the user's sustainable habits, the student-focused tool allows users to compete to reduce their environmental impact. Footprint has launched in over 50 classrooms across the nation and is also being used by several corporations.

"With the state of Texas recently receiving an 'F' in climate education from the National Science Foundation, we see Footprint as the perfect tool for K-12 and beyond to help Texas students engage with climate science in a fun, competitive way," says Dakota Stormer, Footprint App, Inc. CEO and co-founder, in a news release.

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