This College Dropout Made a $1.9 Million Clothing Business (Without a Loan)
Kyla Smith was exhausted, working 15-hour days, unsure if this whole entrepreneurship thing was worth it.
She was sitting in a coffee shop chatting with some friends, when a woman interrupted them.
“Excuse me, are you talking about Evolve Fit Wear?” she asked. “My friends and I love that site!”
And in that moment, Smith’s exhaustion evaporated. Seven years into her business, she finally felt like she had made it.
She, a college dropout, had built a successful fitness clothing website — without any investors, without any loans.
“Just to hear that out of a random person was the most rewarding feeling,” she says. “When you’re completely burnt out, life will bring up these little moments to remind you you’re on the right path.”
From Shoe Saleswoman to Pop-Up Shop
In 2007, Smith was in her early 20s, living in Los Angeles and working as a sales representative for a shoe brand.
Although she spent most of her time traveling around the country, she had several months off each year. She grew bored during those periods and started brainstorming ways to make extra money.
Since she had sales experience, enjoyed exercise and yoga and had attended a year of fashion school, she thought selling workout clothing might be a perfect fit.
“I love how good I feel when I put on a new workout outfit,” she says. “It makes me feel so healthy. I chose to sell workout clothing because I love that feeling, and think it inspires people to work out.”
She contacted several workout clothing brands and asked for a “line sheet,” which lists wholesale prices and minimum orders (often between $500 and $1,000).
“It was all about repping the smaller brands,” she says. “Finding cool unique ones that weren’t Lululemon, because they have enough representation.”
Eventually, she settled on three lines from Brazil and one handmade line called Sandra McCray.
Then she took $5,000 of her shoe saleswoman savings and bought clothing from each.
The next Saturday, she packed her call full of inventory and set up shop in the lobby of a high-end gym.
She nearly sold out.
With her profits, she purchased more inventory and began spending all her weekends selling clothing at the gym’s different locations.
Each day, she paid the gym a flat fee of $150 and then sold between $2,000 and $3,000 of clothing at a 50% profit margin.
“I just kept bankrolling the money into more and more inventory,” she says. “After nine months of doing that every weekend I was home, I had a 14-foot trailer and five racks of clothes.”
That added up to about $30,000 worth of inventory, which Smith calls the “sweet spot” for retail.
At this point, she was three years into an international business degree, and still working her full-time job at the shoe company. Something had to give — and she dropped out.
“I wanted to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I don’t regret that.”
Taking Her Operation Online
About a year after starting her business, Smith realized she needed a website.
“I was hauling this trailer around LA, which isn’t good for parking or driving,” she says with a laugh.
And since she was only at each gym every few months, customers started asking her to meet up in gas stations and parking lots around the city.
A website was the obvious solution — but one big thing stood in her way.
Smith was, as she puts it, “the least technical person ever.”
Deciding to persevere anyway, she worked through the process step-by-step and took photos of her inventory with a cheap camera. Much to her surprise, it started selling.
So, determined to improve her technical skills, she took online courses on topics such as Photoshop, search-engine optimization, Quickbooks, photography and marketing. And, alongside her knowledge, her online business grew.
Drop-Shipping to Success
For five years, Smith kept her full-time job while hustling Evolve on the side.
“A lot of entrepreneurs think they’ll quit their job and live happily ever after,” she says. “But it takes a long time [to build a business].”
Finally, in 2012, she quit her job and moved to Portland, Oregon, where overhead was cheaper than LA.
With the move, she also took her business entirely online.
Today, 50% of her sales come from “drop-shipping,” which means Evolve doesn’t keep the physical inventory at its location.
Instead, if it gets an order for, say, a Spiritual Gangster muscle tank, it’ll send the order details to Spiritual Gangster, which will then ship the shirt to the customer directly from its own warehouse.
“Any new brand, we drop-ship,” Smith explains. “That way, we can offer a large selection from that brand and see what sells before we invest in inventory.”
It’s an interesting business model that, according to Smith, works well with smaller brands who also want exposure.
“If you’re selling something online, sell the brands that no one really knows,” she says. “They’d be more likely to drop-ship because they want the opportunity for growth, too.”
Another 30% of Evolve’s sales comes from Amazon: Two years ago, the web-retail giant approached Smith to see if Evolve would be its vendor for yoga clothing. It didn’t want to deal with the myriad smaller vendors, preferring instead to go through one store.
“I was hesitant at first,” says Smith. “But it’s turned out to be a great channel.”
Evolve now has an office, warehouse, photo studio and five staff members. It also has an in-house clothing line, which includes the most incredible goat yoga leggings.
The company’s sales have almost doubled each year since 2014 — in 2017, they totaled $1.9 million, with a profit of $325,000.
Smith attributes her success to several factors.
The first is smart marketing: 65% of the website’s traffic comes from organic search, which she helped by writing keyword-rich blog posts about Evolve’s products. The company also gets some sales through affiliates; bloggers who earn a 5% cut if customers find Evolve through their sites.
Another key to success has been excellent customer service, with Smith explaining: “We talk to people like they’re our friends.”
And the last? Evolve’s body-positive messaging.
“We steer away from ‘here’s how to look skinny’ or ‘these pants make your butt look great,’” Smith says. “It’s important for me to spread the message to be healthy in your body.”
(She even organized a yoga-pant parade last year, in response to a man making the ridiculous statement that women over 30 shouldn’t wear yoga pants.)
Smith, who’s now been selling workout clothes for over a decade, applies that positive thinking to all aspects of her business.
“There are some days when I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “But there’s always a new day. There are going to be ups and downs — and there’s always going to be an up around the corner.”
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.