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Rebekah Risbeck of Mint L.A. Delivers a Lesson in Retail at Startup Stories

"I don't want to glamorize it because it is hand over fist with everything going back into the business. People think I like to shop and that's why I'm doing this, but that is not the case," Rebekah Risbeck said. With that statement, Risbeck, owner of Mint L.A., a women's clothing boutique catering to young professionals seeking trending fashions at reasonable prices, kicked off the July session of Startup Stories.

Risbeck, who ran away to Los Angeles and the fashion industry upon turning 18 came back to Greater Des Moines (DSM) a decade later to begin what has become a successful operation, now boasting two locations and a growing online sales presence. Appearing as the guest of Mike Colwell, Executive Director of Square One DSM, this fashion maven turned retail entrepreneur both entertained and informed a capacity crowd with her effervescent persona and a rapid-fire delivery that belied her Midwestern upbringing.

Stepping into Entrepreneurship

Ten years into a successful career in the Los Angeles fashion scene, while passing through her native Des Moines, she happened upon a business opportunity that would change the direction of her career. Discovering that her old friends were in tune with the fashion trends she was witnessing and helping to shape in larger metropolitan areas, she also discovered that they could do so only through online shopping. "This started my wheels spinning in an entrepreneurial direction," she said, knowing that her diverse fashion background, design, development and distribution would well suit her for a foray into retail. What she lacked was any real business building knowledge.

"I Googled how to be a business owner," she said with a smile and to the delight of the audience, explaining that while working 60 hours a week for the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, she availed herself of every resource she could and put together a business plan for a brick and mortar boutique.

Long and very engaging story made short, Mint L.A. opened shop in an obscure small location in Downtown Des Moines (DSM) in 2011. Since that time, driven by the 16-hour workdays, it has relocated to West Glen in West Des Moines, expanded to Prairie Trail in Ankeny and begun a national and international distribution through a growing online presence.

Key Discussion Points

Believe in Yourself

"Believing in yourself is number one," she proclaimed. Choosing to leave a comfortable and prestigious job, confronted with consistent rejection from banks, and knowing that the demands of retail entrepreneurship would challenge every other aspect of her life, a firm belief in herself was an absolute necessity and she recommends it for every entrepreneur.

Know Your Customer

If believing in yourself is number one, knowing your market is number one A. While true in every business, it is markedly so in fashion. Identifying and catering to your niche market is critical, and drifting from your focus can only do you harm. "If you start chasing multiple markets, you are going to fail, it is as simple as that," she said. "You market to whoever you want, and sell to whoever wants to buy," Colwell added with Risbeck's emphatic agreement. Developing a passionate and loyal customer base requires attention and pays dividends.

Focus on the Business

Despite her love of fashion, the passion at play for Risbeck is business. "The business side is what I'm addicted to. There are a lot of spreadsheets and analysis involved," she said warning again that shopping is the farthest thing from her mind.

Retail is Not Pretty

While declaring that the backroom of any retail outlet tells the real story replete with clutter and disarray quite contrary to the front of house appearance, Risbeck warns that the successful entrepreneur must understand the retail model and be prepared to deal with all the problems associated with a business. This includes the challenges of finding the right sales force in a tight labor market, and an entrepreneurial unwillingness to off load responsibilities as the business grows too large for one person to oversee. The strain can take its toll. "At some point I might flip out," she admitted.

Test Small

Unlike some of the more tech-oriented startups featured at the monthly sessions, retail has some inescapable and significant overhead costs associated with brick and mortar operations that maintain inventories. Without extensive resources, Risbeck has combatted this reality with a small step approach ranging from her initial storefront, the living room of a ground floor apartment, to her planned product turnover which is measured in days or weeks rather than the months or seasons of the big box stores. "I test small, I might love something and think that it is going to sell, but I still stock very small quantities," she explains. This strategy has the added value of producing a perceived scarcity and a resultant sense of urgency among her clientele.

The Value of Networking

"Whether you like the people or not, smile and maintain the relationship," she said pointing to the relationships she established among vendors and manufacturers early in her career that have now made it possible for her to acquire inventory at a price point which serves her target market and her business model. "Relationships are the key," she preached, an easy sell at an event known for its networking.