Ladies, grab a cup of tea or coffee and get ready to learn. This interview from Nneka C. Alexander, owner of Brides by NoNA is amazing. Nneka is the creative director and head designer of her brand, is mostly self taught and is a highly successful business woman. After working in finance for many years she finally decided to pursue her dreams of creating her own line of evening and wedding dresses. Her designs have been published in several high end magazines and she has a huge social media following. Nneka is sharing the details of her success so far and sharing some really great advice in this interview. Enjoy!
Please introduce yourself and tell us about your business. What is it called and what services / products do you offer?
My name is Nneka C. Alexander and I am the Creative Director / Head Designer behind the luxury brand of bespoke bridal and formal wear, Brides by NoNA. My business is centered around creating high-end custom wedding gowns and evening gowns with special emphasis on impeccable quality and expert design.
Can you share a bit about how you choose this line of business?
I was born into fashion (I keep telling myself that). From an early age I have always had a very good understanding of fabrics, color-coordination, patterns and body types. I remember always going to my mother's closet as a kid and bringing out all her most colorful clothes, shoes, jewelry and bags and then modeling them to my siblings in my own little "fashion show".
These "fashion shows" became so frequent that my audience (my siblings) seemed to be decreasing in number with each performance. They were sick of it but I didn't care -- I loved doing it too much to quit. Fast forward to my adult years, my love for the fashion industry kept growing to the point that I was insatiable.
I hated what I saw on the clothing racks at malls and even high-end boutiques so my typical shopping experience included purchasing a clothing item that was somewhat interesting to me and then I would take that clothing item home and transform it to what I really wanted. I would add sleeves where I wanted sleeves, add embellishments where I wanted some glitz, add some appliques to give it some pizzazz, etc.
I noticed that people always complimented my outfits and they would always ask where I purchased my clothing from but I couldn't really give them a straight answer because even though I bought it the transformation done to the outfit was pretty extensive that they would not find that exact same outfit anywhere else. Then it hit me -- why not make your own label? A label that caters to the fashion-forward client with an appreciation for intricate details, premium quality and unique design.
To start off, I experimented with custom-made evening gowns for family members and close friends only. They loved my designs so much they referred my services to co-workers, other friends, acquaintances and even strangers. After I had mastered the art of making evening gowns I then decided to try my hand at making wedding gowns starting off with my family members only. The gown was too important a part of the wedding for me to even consider making one for anyone that wasn't in my family. Then my twin sister got married in August 2013 and I made all her wedding outfits -- the wedding ceremony dress, the wedding reception dress, the pre-wedding party dress, and the bridesmaids dresses. Next thing I know, her wedding goes viral on instagram and everyone is looking for the designer of the outfits and that's how Brides by NoNA came to the limelight.
What transition did you make to owning your own business?
I was a double major in College and graduated Cum Laude with a BBA degree in Finance & Business Administration. Prior to Brides by NoNA, I worked for two years as an Investment Banker on Wall Street with Credit Suisse in New York. I then moved to Atlanta after I got married and continued my Finance career as a Senior Finance Specialist in the Finance Reporting division of Coca-Cola Refreshments.
For two years, I juggled my finance career with Brides by NoNA until both got extremely busy that something had to give. I had to let go of one. It was a very tough decision but with prayers and with the support from my family, I made the decision to let go of my finance career which I loved so much (and still love) and I put my all into my brand.
Do you take any special training?
Though I did go to fashion school part-time, I am self-taught for the most part. Matter of fact, most of the skills I acquired in life were self-taught. Believe it or not I taught myself how to drive and even cook. The moment I realized that I learn better when I study things myself and teach myself, I became my own teacher for a lot of things in life. This is why I am a very strong preacher of the message that "you must know yourself!
You must know your strengths and your weaknesses as these will either make or break you!" Nevertheless, I am constantly updating my skills and knowledge because I am in an industry that constantly evolves. Fashion trends are very fleeting -- here today, gone tomorrow only to resurface decades later so I know I must keep my designs relevant and fresh by constantly evolving my brand. I have my design mentors who teach me latest design tricks.
I have a plethora of reading literature which I use in studying the industry. And one thing I do to get out of my comfort zone is I try to tune out everything work-related and take out at least one week in the year to travel outside of the United States to a fashion capital of the world. I visit the couturiers in that country and see what they do different that sets them apart. It helps refresh my mind and stimulates me to think outside of the "usual".
My best inspirations which I translated to designs have come from my travels outside of the country so I always look forward to them.
What are some of your biggest accomplishments as a business owner?
I have always wanted to set my brand apart as a luxury brand and so I was very ecstatic when the high-end magazine MunaLuchi Bride accepted me into its exclusive Coterie group. While reeling in that excitement another high-end magazine, Modern Luxury Brides Atlanta, reached out to me with interest in my work. They sent a representative to my studio to look at the quality of my work and take videos and pictures for presentation to the editor.
Today, Brides by NoNA is one of the preferred vendors in both magazines listed in the quarterly publications. Brides by NoNA was also awarded the "Couples Choice 2015" award by WeddingWire and I was just recently listed among the "Women of Power & Influence" in Modern Luxury's The Atlantan magazine.
All these accomplishments have helped me achieve my goal of being recognized as a luxury brand. However, I take no glory for myself or anything I have done. I return the glory (ALL of it) to God Who made all these possible.
What mistakes have you made with your business? What did you learn from the experience and how did you bounce back?
Being everything to everyone. Starting off, I wanted to please everyone. I made myself available to all my clients round the clock so no matter the time of day they contacted me I would respond as long as I was awake...even at 3am in the morning. That was ridiculous! I was burning myself out and it showed in the way I related with my employees and clients.
I would get short with them (not rude but short) and my patience was very thin, which is unlike me because I am not one to get easily flustered. I had to step back and realize that my intention to be everything to everyone was hurting me and my clients as well. Try getting only three to four hours of sleep constantly everyday for just one month (and even no sleep at all on some days) and you will see a side to yourself that you never thought existed. That's what happened to me and I had to call a time-out on myself.
I realized that in order to serve my clients better I had to set clearly defined hours of operations and stick to that. I still am not able to get to all clients that try to reach me within the day but I am working on a plan to solve that so that all clients are responded to in a timely manner. The work that I do is highly customized and so each client needs my time and I must give that to them but in a well-balanced manner.
I also make it a point of duty to never wear my feelings on my sleeve. I put on a smile even when I don't feel like it. I remember not feeling very well one day. I had these excruciating pains in my abdomen and I just wanted to shut it down for the day and go home and crawl into bed but I looked at my calendar and saw that I had one last consultation with a bride in a few minutes. I couldn't cancel it because she was so excited about it and had been looking forward to it so I waited for her.
When she arrived I welcomed her with a huge smile so that she could feel comfortable with me and then I went straight to work designing her wedding gown like nothing else mattered in the world at the time but her and her dress. Internally I felt like doubling over and grabbing my abdomen in a fetal position but for one hour I had to be nice, attentive, understanding and pleasant. I've learned never to take things personal and never to wear my feelings on my sleeve.
What do you consider the most important elements of running a successful small business?
Understanding your business and the demographics of your business so that you can provide your services more efficiently.
Offering quality products and/or services. People value quality over quantity.
Great customer service because your customers are the core of your business. Without them your business ceases to function. I am still learning how the art of great customer service. I know it takes time but I am trying to get better at it everyday.
Do you have any start-up advice you can share with women reading this who would like to launch their own businesses?
Don't be in a hurry to start something. Take the time to pray and plan well. After you have done that, then take that leap into the entrepreneurial world. There will be challenges but don't think of those challenges as failures -- no! Challenges are opportunities for you to learn and make a better comeback.
Don't be discouraged if you don't start making sales immediately. Even if 100 people say "No" to your product offerings and/or services, there will be one person who will say "Yes" and that one person could be the door to 1,000 yeses!
Be nice to people! Don't discriminate against your customers because of their buying power. Treat them equally. A person who makes a ten dollar purchase should be treated just as kingly as a person who made a thousand dollar purchase.
Do you have any advice on managing your small business finances?
First things first: Tithe! Ten percent of all your profit belongs to God so pay up! LOL!
Understand that your money is a tool. Use it to make you more money!
Write down everything! Income, expenditures, promotions, etc. Everything should be documented no matter how small.
Reconcile everything periodically! Reconcile all income and expenditures on a weekly, monthly, quarterly basis -- you choose which works for you.
Hold yourself accountable. Don't spend lavishly. Before you swipe, ask yourself if that purchase is necessary and what the rewards will be to the business. Think of purchases as investments that should earn you a return and not just expenditures that go to waste.
Save, save, save!!! Put something aside for the future no matter how small, and don't dabble into it!
How do you balance work and life owning a small business?
You tell me because I am still learning :-). So far what works for me is planning and prioritizing. I make sure I have a plan of action items for each day and then I prioritize the order which I will tackle them.
I have clearly defined hours and days of operations and I make sure my clients are aware of those hours and days. They are also visible on my website. After business hours are strictly for family and personal.
I give myself two days off in the week to recuperate and give my family my undivided attention.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I'd like to keep it interesting and say...watch this space! *Wink!*
Please share a fun fact about yourself
I still LOVE to play dress up *covers face*. Sometimes i'll go into my closet and just try on some of my most recent designs that I created for myself. I'll throw on some accessories and some shoes and put on a show for my husband and my two-year-old daughter. My daughter claps for me and gets so excited when she sees me all dressed up but my husband will only give me five minutes of his attention before he eventually tunes out. LOL!