guest column

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

 
 

Houston innovators podcast episode 140

What Houston can expect from its rising innovation district

Sam Dike of Rice Management Company joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss the past, present, and future of Houston's rising Ion Innovation District. Photo via rice.edu

Last month, the Ion Houston welcomed in the greater Houston community to showcase the programs and companies operating within the Ion Innovation District — and the week-long Ion Activation Festival spotlighted just the beginning.

The rising district — anchored by the Ion — is a 16-acre project in Midtown Houston owned and operated by Rice Management Company, an organization focused on managing Rice University's $8.1 billion endowment.

"We're chiefly responsible for stewarding the university's endowment and generating returns to support the academic mission of the university," says Samuel Dike, manager of strategic initiatives at RMC, on this week's episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "Part of those returns go to support student scholarships and student success — as well as many of the other academic programs."

"The university sees a dual purpose behind the investing," Dike continues, in addition to focusing on generating returns, RMC's mission is "also to be a valuable partner in Houston's ecosystem and pushing Houston as a global 21st century city."

RMC saw an opportunity a few years back to make an investment in Houston's nascent innovation and tech ecosystem, and announced the plans for the Ion, a 266,000-square-foot innovation hub in an renovated and rehabilitated Sears.

"In some ways innovation is not necessarily about creating something completely new — it's oftentimes building upon something that exists and making it better," Dike says. "I think that's what we've done with the building itself.

"We took something that had really strong bones and a strong identity here in Houston," he continues, "and we did something that's often atypical in Houston and preserved and repurposed it — not an easy logistical or financial decision to make, but we believed it was the best for Houston and for the project."

Now, the Ion District includes the Ion as the anchor, as well as Greentown Houston, which moved into a 40,000-square-foot space in the former Fiesta Mart building, just down the street. While RMC has announced a few other initiatives, the next construction project to be delivered is a 1,500-space parking garage that will serve the district.

"It is not your typical parking garage," Dike says. "The garage will feature a vegetated facade with ground-floor retail and gallery space, as well as EV charging spaces and spaces to feature display spaces for future tech. It's going to be a nice addition to the district."

The new garage will free up surface parking lots that then will be freed up for future construction projects, Dike explains.

He shares more about the past, present, and future of the Ion and the district as a whole on the podcast. Listen to the interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



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