Today’s Small Business Success Story spotlights Joanne Litz and her husband Dennis Wolk, who own Steel Pony in the heart of Philadelphia. Combining the ingenuity and personal aesthetic of its two owners, Steel Pony is a clothing company that sells individually dyed and hand crafted pieces.
Joanne and Dennis purchased a clear window decal from Signs.com to display their logo on their storefront.
Tell Us About Yourself
I was born and raised in Philadelphia and for as long as I can remember I wanted to be a fashion designer. In high school we had to take home economics which included sewing and cooking. Everyone else did pull on pants but I wanted a challenge so I made my first jacket. At that point I was determined to go into fashion. I worked for other companies and honed my skills, learned a lot and finally in 1992 went out on my own with my partner who is also now my husband. He was an artist looking to make money doing art so Steel Pony was born.
What does your company do?
We make Hand Dyed, Artisan Clothing and Handbags. The clothing is all natural fiber, made sustainably in our studio storefront in Philadelphia on Fabric Row.
Where did the idea for your company come from?
Our company grew out of our need to work creatively and frankly I could not find comfortable fun clothing that looked dressy to wear so I just started making it.
What sets you apart from your competition OR what is your unique selling proposition?
I have written so many USPs trying to hone in on what sets us apart, so here are a few.
Steel Pony-Made by Hand-One at a time.
Be Bold-Wear Steel Pony.
Creative Fashion for Creative People.
I have to say I keep changing and trying different things on for size. Right now I have “Sustainable Fashion, Artisan Clothing and Handbags” as my header. I also use “Clothing made with you in Mind, Handmade one at a time”. I am just starting to work with a marketing company and I am sure I will change it yet again.
What is one strategy for gaining customers that you have been successful with?
I am fairly new at retail so I am still experimenting. I find Facebook ads to be very effective and I also do a newsletter that I mail to customers. I do both an e-mail and snail mail newsletter. I just started it in February and my customers seem to like it. I do a “Betcha Didn’t Know” column (weird facts), question and answer regarding something about fashion or related. We always have an interview with either an end consumer or store owner. I do a process column talking about how we do things and then some sort of fashion article like “The 5 Must Haves for the Beach”. The clients love it. I get great feedback on that. They love to read about us and I also profile customers. We will be doing a lot of events which I think will get our customers engaged but I do not have a lot of feedback on that yet.
Is there an area that you’ve struggled with in regards to customer acquisition that you believe is critical to future success? If so, how are you overcoming that?
I think gaining customers is always a struggle if marketing is not your forte. For us it has been more about being visible. We worked in a second floor Studio for 23 years and only people that came to craft shows or found us other ways were able to find us. Now we are in a storefront and we get some walk by. We are also in a neighborhood where people live so the community is excited to have us.
We still sell wholesale but have stopped doing trade shows so that is the area we struggle most. I am not great at calling stores to see my newest collections and have not found anyone that I hired to work well in that area. In order to overcome that it just means that I have to get over it and pick up the phone. If I could find someone to do the selling for me I would.
How do you compete with the bigger competitors that are similar to yours but have a recognizable brand and large marketing budgets?
I don’t compete. I just try to stay authentic and people respond to that.
What is one of the biggest challenges you have had with your business and how did you overcome it?
The biggest Challenge has been the downturn in the economy in 2008. I can not say that we have overcome it but Dennis (my partner) and I never give up. We continue to try new things… look at what works and what doesn’t and we are always tweaking.
If you could rewind time is there anything you’d do differently? If so, what?
I can’t really say that I would do anything different. I would of course love to be more successful but I feel it is all part of my journey. It has never been dull I can tell you that.
If you had advice for other SMB owners, regardless of the industry, what would it be?
Love what you do because you will be spending most of your time doing it. Find a good mentor.
How do you “WOW” your customers?
I wow my customers by continuing to come up with interesting and creative designs. I also wow my customers with my customer service. I want everyone to be happy. My customers feel I have the best customer service. I try to make them happy so whatever it takes, I do. When we see someone in a piece that we think doesn’t look good we will take it back and redye it for them at no charge. They do not ask us to do that, it is just something we offer at the moment. For them it is like getting a brand new piece for free.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
I think by being in a brick-and-mortar we will continue to grow our customer base and it gives me the opportunity to do more community work. Right now I have just launched “Give a S#!*t” which is a program where we donate a portion of each sale to a non profit. I have other goals like that I hope to initiate.
Where can you be found on the internet?
Editor’s Note: We appreciate Joanne taking a few minutes to interview with us. She has a great energy about the work she is doing. When she wasn’t finding what she was looking for for her own wardrobe, she created a clothing line that was unique. She recognized the importance of establishing strong brand presence through her handmade product offerings. By focusing her resources and harnessing her creativity, Joanne was able to create a growing client base of customers who love her brand. It isn’t enough to create a brand. You must continually invest in the brand to keep it relevant and meaningful. Joanne continues to do that by creating new, exciting articles of clothing, and getting involved in her community. Thanks for sharing, Joanne!