What Raleigh Denim Taught Me About Running My Business
My daughter Marley and I just got back from a spring break trip to Raleigh, NC. Now I know Raleigh may not be the ultimate spring break destination, but that's part of the reason we chose it - low key, relaxing, and somewhere we've never been before.
I saw a documentary a few weeks ago about Raleigh Denim Workshop, and their pattern maker who is 82 years old and still making patterns by hand. Marley is 14 and is very serious about a few things - music, fashion, and thrifting - and something about this documentary led me to believe she would also find it fascinating. Turns out I was right, and she quickly marked Raleigh as our spring break headquarters.
Raleigh, NC, is a really cool town that reminds me a lot of Savannah, GA, where I grew up. There are old brick buildings, little cafes and shops overflowing with character and good food, and giant oak trees and green space everywhere. Nestled among those old brick buildings was an unassuming workshop that could easily go unnoticed to passersby, and what waited for us inside was a lot more than blue jeans.
We were greeted by Wesley, the brand ambassador for Raleigh Denim, who gave Marley and I a private tour of the workshop, sharing the history of this still young company and the story of their business model, as well as how their jeans are made. (All by hand from pattern to sales floor, all right there in that workshop.)
After our tour, while editing pictures, I started to reflect on the things we learned about Raleigh Denim, and realized there were quite a few takeaways that can be applied to my own business. In no particular order, here are 8 things I learned about business from Raleigh Denim Workshop:
#1 - Make a way
The Raleigh Denim story goes a little something like this: Victor and his wife Sarah were passionate about wanting to use their hands and make jeans in a traditional way. After much trial and error, and a lot of hands-on learning, they eventually founded Raleigh Denim after making several pairs of jeans for themselves and their friends.
Raleigh Denim wasn't founded on a whim. It was founded out of a passion for high-quality handcrafted jeans and a fierce determination to make their idea a reality, no matter what. That passion is what continues to fuel the success of this small business since it's inception in 2007.
When you believe in something so passionately, make a way.
#2 - Niche down
Raleigh Denim Workshop is good at jeans. Yes, they sell shirts and accessories, too, but they are known for making the best jeans money can buy, and doing it with the utmost care.
Each and every pair of jeans is made in the Raleigh Denim Workshop by hand, sewn on old machines that were once used by Levi's. Each seam is stitched and trimmed by hand. Each leather band on the waist is burned by hand. Every button hole is made by hand. There is no mass production or quick & easy finishes. Raleigh Denim has found a way to create the absolute best pair of jeans you'll ever own and that's what they're known for.
Find what you're good at and continue to perfect it. You can either be mediocre at multiple things or very good at one thing.
#3 - Use the best tools
Every machine in the workshop is what would be considered vintage, including the button hole machine (above) and the hemming machine (which, by the way, there are only 40 of in existence and Raleigh Denim owns 4 of them). Raleigh Denim doesn't use these machines because they're "cool" but because they are truly the best machines for making the type of jeans they want to produce.
And it goes further than the machines - the denim is the highest quality raw selvedge denim purchased from Cone Mills, the only remaining selvedge denim manufacturer left in the US. Selvedge denim is superior denim in many ways, and selling raw denim jeans allows the consumer to create their own "wash". Essentially, each pair of jeans tells it's own story over time.
Whether it's certain equipment or the highest quality supplies, running a successful business requires an investment of both time and money. But the outcome from this investment is a superior product or service that you provide to your customer.
#4 - Have a motto and live it daily
Raleigh Denim Workshop has their motto prominently displayed on the workshop wall, and it reads, "To Be Rather Than To Seem", which is also the North Carolina state motto. This serves as a daily visual reminder to their entire staff of 25 to truly be the absolute best at what they do, not to just feign appearances.
This made me realize that I, too, need a motto for my business - something that reflects not only what I do but why I do it. I'm currently still working on it, but once I hammer it out, I'll proudly display it on my office wall as a daily reminder to myself.
#5 - Dictate your own future
One of the things that impressed me most about the story of Raleigh Denim was the fact they have been approached by countless large brands requesting thousands of pairs of jeans, but only sell a limited number to a few retailers nationwide.
There are a few things to learn from this: (1) Raleigh Denim is not in a hurry to grow too quickly. (2) Producing in larger quantities will sacrifice the quality of their work. (3) They have values and stand by them, no matter the dollar sign in front of an offer.
Being selective of who they work with, and limiting the number of jeans produced, gives Raleigh Denim the opportunity to grow at their own pace and remain exclusive. They have said "no" to some large name brands simply because it didn't make sense for their business. (Side note: The brands they said "no" to eventually came back with a request for fewer pairs of jeans, so Raleigh Denim was able to work with them after all.)
By knowing exactly what your company's values are, and going out of your way to honor those values, you have the ability to dictate your own future and be in control of your own success.
#6 - Create passionate people
Wesley, as I mentioned, is the Raleigh Denim brand ambassador (above). He is the face of Raleigh Denim on social media and for the tours like Marley and I enjoyed.
But he wasn't simply a guy who likes jeans and wanted a job. Wesley is truly passionate about what Raleigh Denim stands for, about the fashion industry in general, and for his job within the company. His eyes lit up as he told us about the vintage hemming machine, as he has been an avid collector of vintage sewing machines since he was young. He believes in the brand that Raleigh Denim has created, so much so that he turned down another job and relocated so he could come work for them.
I want people who are passionate about what I do, so much so that they eagerly and excitedly share my story with others. That's the kind of business I hope to create - one in which my values and work ethic are evident in everything I do, and people are anxious to be a part of it.
#7 - Put your name on it
Every pair of jeans that comes off the line at Raleigh Denim is hand signed by it's maker. The workers who hand craft each pair of jeans believe in their work so strongly that they are willing to put their name on it.
Forgive my Southern for a minute y'all, but that'll preach!
As I build my business, I want to be so proud of everything I create that I will gladly put my name on it. But beyond that, when I get to the point where I have employees, I want to inspire them to believe strongly in their work, too. Your signature on your work should be a symbol of integrity and quality, and should be evident in everything you create.
#8 - Know your worth
I'll be honest with you: Raleigh Denim ain't cheap. However, they are worth every penny of what you'll pay for a pair of their jeans.
Raleigh Denim uses only the highest quality denim, hand crafting each pair of jeans on the best vintage machines, and goes above and beyond to add extra special touches to make their product one of a kind. They do charge more for their jeans, and they don't apologize for it either.
It's one thing to charge premium prices for your work because you hope to make money, but it's a totally different mindset to know your worth and set prices unapologetically. For a while, I was scared to charge too much for my services, but I quickly realized that I was not only attracting the wrong clients, but I was also demonstrating that I didn't believe in my work enough to charge more.
I know my worth. I believe in the quality of my work and have client testimonials to back it up. And as I continue to grown and learn, so, too, will my worth.
The next time you're in the neighborhood of Raleigh, NC, stop into Raleigh Denim Workshop and say "hi" to Wesley for me. Take a tour, learn the story.
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Your turn: Have you learned business lessons from an unconventional source? Tell me about it in the comments!