Our team is made up of Eric White, Tyler Hechler,and Allison von Hausen. When we started our team at the beginning of the semester, we already had a pretty clear idea of what our project would be: needlepoint belts. Eric and Tyler are both in a fraternity, and many of their brothers are interested in buying our products. We hope that our connections with greek and non-greek life, as well as outside of the university, will lead us to many future customers.
Most of our innovations throughout the semester was on the material side of our production. The first major innovation we had was deciding to use D rings to fasten our belts together. We found that it was going to be very difficults to create a leather buckle, even though it was a popular choice among customers we discovered. Instead, using D rings would be a less expensive alternative that is much easier to acquire and assemble onto the actual belt.
Another material innovation is to use ribbon rather than fabric for the outer part of the belt. Using ribbon would take much less time to put on the belt, because with fabric we have to take extra time to pin it down and make sure it is all straight and even with the rough edges folding underneath. Also with ribbon, we wouldn't have to cut the fabric into strips. We started ordering what we thought would be popular in bulk, and then some other patterns just 5 yards at a time to test them out.
Having these smaller quantities of a larger variety of fabrics is what I consider the most innovative part of the business, because it allows for greater customization. We are offering our customers 26 variations in belt styles as well as custom sizes in the belt. We feel this is the best innovation that we came accross and allows each customer to have a unique experience.
The first people who became interested in our product are the fraternity brothers of Eric and Tyler. The needlepoint belt style wa first made popular by vineyard vines, and when we made a customer lower-cost alternative, their interest grew rapidly. One of the biggest things we learned about them that helped our venture was their interests. Knowing these, we were able to pick out better fabrics to put on the belts that might suit their interests more. For example, many of them are interested in fishing, so we got ribbon with pictures of bass on it. They also typically are associated with the republican party, so we got a ribbon with red, white, and blue elephants on it, in addition to an American Flag fabric. Their interests helped us learn what kinds of ribbons to get to be of interest to them. Some of the customer discovieries we did with them are on our old Blog .
Critical to SuccessEdit
We always knew that we had customers interested in our product, but the biggest key to success was actually following through with producing the product, and producing it well. The biggest challenge of all of this has been obtaining our materials for a reasonable price (see the problems section for more information on this). Once the materials all came through, assembling them and keeping a very high quality product became the focus critical to our success. Allison started producing the belts, and had to try multiple times some times to make the stitching look good with the pattern (making sure it looked straight and didn't stretch out the fabric). Also, she had to make sure that all the ends were reinforced by stitching through it multiple times to make sure the D rings would stay in place. Initially, it took close to an hour to make a belt in a high quality, but after practicing and getting the hang of the sewing machine, we got it down to closer to 20 minutes from the beginning of the process to the end.
Minimum Viable ProductEdit
Once we had enough interest to know that this would work, we started to focus more on quality and manufatured our next MVP with the sewing maching. The quality of this one was much much higher and people were much more excited about it, but it was too big! We learned that measuring is very important to make sure that our belts would be the perfect fit.
From there, we figured out how we should go about measuring these. Each order was asked to provide an actual waist size. Then, we now add two inches to accomodate the flap the D rings would be sewn under and another four inches for the section of the belt to be pulled through the rings themselves. We also learned to make sure to put fabric on the backside as well so when it was pulled through the fabric could still show. Another thing we learned is that most people feed their belts in counterclockwise (from an aerial view), so to make sure the fabric underneath was on the left side of the belt (when the fabric had to be face up to make sense).
The first resource that we found was very close to JMU: Ragtime Fabrics . Located downtown, the store has knowledgeable employees and a fairly wide selection of fabrics and other materials. We got many of our initial materials there, such as D-rings, fabrics, and webbing to test with.
We also used a website called Strapworks to order some of our materials in bulk, such asD-rings. They typically cater to companies and include discounts for larger orders. Their products include webbing, metal hardware, plastic hardware, ropes, fasteners, and more.
A third resource we used was Amazon . This was really great when we started buying ribbon because it was not as expensive, and they sold them in 5-yard lengths. This made it easier to get many different ribbons to test out and see what people would like. It is also extremel helpful to have Amazon Prime because the free 2-day shipping made it way easier to get our products fast.
So far we have run into a couple of problems with the business. The biggest one was the issue we had with the D-rings. We ordered 1" D-rings to go with our belts and discovered that they were too small for the belts. Then we had to ship them back and order a new size. We chose to order 1.5" ones because we knew they would be big enough. What we should have done is measured the webbing and ordered them in that size. The new D-rings we got in were so much bigger that they looked ridiculous. So we sent them back again, measured the webbing, and ordered the right size: 1.25" and now we are just waiting for these to come in.
Another problem we had was the fabric. It became really hard to cut the fabric into strips that would be the right width to fit the webbing. To solve this problem, we switched over to using ribbon instead, and anywhere between 5/8" and 1" works well with the webbing.
The third problem we had was sewing the materials together. Originally, we hired a friend to sew them using machines in the art studio. However, these machines proved to be unreliable, often breaking. It got to the point that we couldn't even sew one belt before the machine needed to be fixed to work again. Now, we are going to have to rent out time to use the machines at Ragtime Fabrics, costing us more, but these will hopefully be good enough that we can sew and finally assemble our finished product.
For students who are looking to be successful on this project, our biggest advice is the following: if you have a product that people are interested in and there is going to be good demand for it, start producing it as fast as possible. Because of the whole D ring situation, we could not produce our final products to sell until after Thanksgiving break, leaving us with only two weeks (at least for the grading) to make up our losses. In addition, with finals approaching, that was the busiest time of the year that we had, where it became a lot harder to make them, and students weren't looking to buy at that point anymore either. Overall, be careful to get the right materials, and get them fast so you can start making and selling your products.