How One Woman Got Her Roller Derby Business off the Ground

Rachel Navarez is the owner of Iron Doll Clothing, a mother, a wife, and an all around badass. We chatted via email to discuss how she got her roller skate in the door of athletic clothing for women.

Image Credit: c/o Rachel Navarez

Sapling: So how did you get started with Iron Doll? I know you were in Roller Derby, but how did you turn that into a career making team uniforms?

Rachel: Iron Doll Clothing was started in 2009 with a $600 check as a deposit for a custom order from my very first customer, the Angel City Derby Girls.

I was working as a production manager for a clothing company that had taken a hard hit from the recession in 2008. My hours were cut to 4 days a week and I was looking for extra work to supplement my income. I had been involved with Roller Derby since I first moved to California, in 2004. I moved L.A. to attend fashion school, and I was often was asked to design uniforms. I didn't know anything about running a business and I didn't have any money to start one, so I never thought too, too seriously about it. After some convincing by my teammates I agreed to give it a go. At the time, there really weren't any cute options for us and it was frustrating.

Sapling: It's amazing what a little convincing can do! Necessity is the mother of invention, right? If you see a need, there is probably a business that can fill it.

Image Credit: c/o Rachel Navarez

Rachel: Well, I had just come back from working on Drew Barrymore's Derby movie Whip It and was filled with confidence; I was primed and ready to try something adventurous. When I met with Angel City to discuss uniform designs they told me they were about to participate in their first regional tournament and wanted to wear something more professional than ripped up t-shirts. We agreed on a style and colors and they were ready to move forward. I had no extra money, so I requested they put down 50% deposit. I figured this would cover the costs of materials and production.

I took that $600 check straight to the bank and opened a business account, which was apparently all you needed to do to "start a business." Right after they debuted the uniforms during regionals, I started receiving emails and requests from other derby teams - and not just across the United States, but from all over the world.

Sapling: Were you still working your day job? How did that work?

Rachel: It was tough at first, juggling the two jobs. But then in March of 2009, I went full-time with Iron Doll, but sort of by accident. I was recovering from minor knee surgery when I discovered that my ACL was torn and required surgery. And in true 'when it rains, it pours' style, I was also laid off of my job. I just jumped right in and started replying to my new customers, taking orders, and explaining my situation. Since all of my customers were Derby people, they understood the limitations of my injury and agreed to a short delay in product.

Sapling: How did you scale your business so quickly?

Rachel: Since derby was still relatively new and there were so few businesses actually catering specifically to the sport, I had a product that was very much in demand. Teams were wearing my uniforms and traveling to skate other teams who then asked "where did you get those?" Through word of mouth my business grew very, very quickly. I was working long days, regularly putting in a full 12 hours before heading to Derby practice. I needed help fast and started reaching out to unemployed friends. By 2012 I had seven employees and over 500 customers in 8 countries.

Sapling: Did this all come naturally to you? You studied fashion and design, not international business, right?

Rachel: Because of my production background, I was very knowledgeable in costing and sourcing materials, but I still had no formal business training. Most of my decisions were made by trial and error, common sense, or what I learned NOT to do at my last job.

Sapling: So how did you know you were going to make money without a formal business plan in place?

Image Credit: c/o Rachel Navarez

Rachel: My business model was set up for profit. All of my manufacturing was made to order, meaning I never sat on inventory. I only made what was needed and always shipped complete. My goods were priced at a 50% margin, the deposit was used to cover costs and the final payment (in theory) was profit. Until overhead, errors, material overages, payroll taxes, other taxes, marketing, advertising, and all other costs of doing business took their share.

Sapling: What kind of marketing do you do for sports uniforms? You can't really advertise those to the general public.

Rachel: Derby bouts and tournaments were typically my best bet for advertisement since my customers were the players themselves. I'd set up a booth at these events 4-6 times a year. The first 4 years I didn't even sell anything, I just displayed samples of uniforms I had made for other leagues. I would explain my process to skaters, send samples for fittings and quality review, band give them my contact information. Most teams were so pleased with my work that they reached out right away and we started the design process.

Sapling: I can't believe you didn't have a big e-commerce site for teams to access! That seems so natural.

Rachel: Since all of my work was specific to their team needs: colors, names, numbers, etc., I couldn't figure out how to set up an online store or take orders at trade shows. I just showed up and hoped people liked what they saw. It was quite the risk considering booths were $500-$800 plus airplane tickets, car rental, hotel, and food. It could cost me up to $2500 just to travel to an event. I carefully budgeted my first few shows, staying at friends' houses, using local transportation, or splitting rooms. While this had financial benefits it was a royal pain in the butt and incredibly inconvenient. Have you ever tried to drag two suitcases full of samples up the subway steps in NYC during rush hour? Or booked the cheapest room in the city only to find out it was actually a retirement home that rented rooms?

Sapling: That's life when you're just starting out, you do what it takes. When did you decide to pivot your business model?

Rachel: Eventually, I began to think beyond my market and what would be next for Iron Doll. I decided to offer athletic apparel in addition to uniforms. In 2012, I began working on this new product line. 2012 was also the year I had my first child, so I was forced to scale my hours way back. Despite the challenges, I still found myself working on Iron Doll every second I could. In July 2013, I introduced my new athletic apparel. Designed and inspired by the strong, individual women of Roller Derby, the apparel was meant to take you from strength training to grocery shopping. You could say that Roller Derby was light-years ahead of the "healthy is the new skinny" movement. Players need apparel that fits a large range of sizes, is high quality, stays in place, and won't break the bank.

Sapling: I mean, you are the customer, so you know the market.

Rachel: I had the perfect formula: my design skills, knowledge of the sport, my fashion background, and my production access. I knew it was going to be a huge success, and it mostly was... Skaters LOVED the compression capris for both uniforms and practice. But the athletic tops were just kind of meh. Derby didn't really "get" fashion athletic wear, players could continue to get cheap shirts at big box stores and only invest where they needed to. The business plan for uniforms was easy: Place an order, ship it all, and get paid. No money sitting on the shelves in inventory. With the athletic line, I had to front all of the money to get hundreds of pieces made, and there wasn't a guarantee that anyone would buy it.

Sapling: That's a huge investment, were you worried that it wouldn't work out?

Rachel: Of course! While I sold a lot that first year, it wasn't enough to cover all the expenses and it took a very long time to see a return on my investment. Selling product at events helped offset the cost to travel, but I usually just broke even. It didn't leave any extra money to invest back into the company or to replenish inventory. It was a constant and stressful cash flow battle.

I continued the uniforms and apparel for another 3 years. The market slowed down, more competition appeared and I eventually went back to running the company myself. I was smarter about time management and did just fine alone and turned a small profit. Often, during the slower months, I couldn't afford to pay myself. With two children at home now, it just wasn't working out.

Sapling: There is so much competition; you weren't the big fish in a small pond anymore.

Image Credit: c/o Rachel Navarez

Rachel: Exactly. And I wasn't really too into being the big fish anymore, either.

I eventually decided that my priorities had shifted and I was more interested in my children than I was roller derby. While I have not decided whether or not to sell Iron Doll, I have decided to close my doors.

Sapling: So what's next for you? I know you aren't going to just sit back and do nothing.

Image Credit: c/o Rachel Navarez

I have landed a part time job as head designer for Steady Clothing, a retro-vintage inspired clothing line for men and women. And I've already started dabbling in little girls clothing and plan to launch my first Etsy shop called Duchess and Goose. It will be a girls clothing line specializing in unique pleating and stitching. It is a family business involving myself, my husband's specialized trade of pleating and stitching, and my two daughters – who have already taken an interest to sorting buttons and picking fabrics. What can I say, I'm obsessed with business and making.