The journey from Marine desert sand uniforms to stylish European apparel might seem like an improbable one. Not for Robert W. Stolz. Robert served four years with the Marine Corps following 9/11. This journey yielded lessons that brought success to his growing sustainable clothing brand of men’s and women’s Loden wool coats.
This career transition includes a crucial intermediate stop and marrying a woman from Austria. Austria happens to be home to the centuries-old tradition of durable Loden clothing. His wife presented Stolz with a traditional Loden jacket. When wearing it in the U.S., he often received compliments for its distinctive design. Later while living in Austria, he visited the traditional Loden mills. He was impressed by the environmental and social benefits of wearing high-quality sustainable clothing. This sparked an innate entrepreneurial streak that was absent from his years in the Marine Corps.
The Perfect Opportunity
Stolz learned German in order to pursue a degree in business strategy at the University of Vienna. While living with his wife in Austria, his studies coincided with his efforts to ramp up RobertWStolz.com. He focused on strategy, business intelligence and e-commerce. “It was the perfect opportunity to tailor my education to what I needed to know to build my business,” he says.
But “book learning” only takes you so far. Experiences during his military service from boot camp through his leadership duties as a sergeant played a vital role as well. “In the military,” he says, “I had to learn how to work with and motivate people from very diverse backgrounds. Part of that entailed learning how to be trusted and respected by subordinate Marines.”
Stolz formed relationships with mills and manufacturers in the Austrian clothing industry. Showing respect and kindness went a long way. “They had to take me seriously if I was to get what I needed, despite my lack of experience,” he says.
He needed breathing room in payment terms from his suppliers. But, it’s no small feat for a new retailer with no prior relationship with suppliers to receive credit for branded goods, but Stolz pulled it off.
Meeting the demands of military service in high-pressure situations bolstered Stolz’s confidence in making his ability to make his business a success. “It empowered me to think big and take on a huge, vaguely defined project like starting a company from scratch,” he adds.
The scope of the project stems partly from his need to acquire expertise in many areas Stolz had little or no background in. Those included wool fabric manufacturing, content development, web design, social media marketing, e-commerce financial administration and order processing, managing foreign currency exposure, international shipping logistics and customs regulations, to name a few.
The “project,” as Stolz calls his business launch, was “vaguely defined” . There was no precedent to use as an example. No American created a fashion label based on the unique qualities of Loden. He knew the products were exceptional and not readily available in the United States. There had to be a way to make it work.
Stolz believes he has some valuable competitive advantages that are applicable to other kinds of small business ventures. Those include:
- A small size with the owner focused on all facets of operations “enables prompt decision-making and the ability to pivot quickly when necessary.”
- Low overhead costs, without the need to lease real estate or purchase expensive equipment.
- No fixed contracts with marketing/advertising agencies, which provides flexibility in managing cash flow.
- A lean cost structure that allows him to price his products competitively.
- Being launched as an e-commerce business, he doesn’t have “any legacy issues transitioning to the digital economy and digital marketing channels.”
- Being “born global” with European suppliers and a U.S. market, the company is well-positioned to expand into other global markets.
Even though there have been setbacks, Stolz did not assume that long-term success was inevitable. “I knew that the risk of failure was very high, and was prepared to accept failure and move on if it didn’t work out. It would be a great complement to my business, even if it didn’t take off.”
He didn’t anticipate experiencing an extended murky period of not knowing whether success will be achieved. Stolz says he expected to determine within a year or two whether the business would fly, or not. He thought it would either crash and burn right away, or take off. Things have not worked out that way.
Finding Your Product Market Fit
Instead, he experienced success in some areas, and not in others. For example, the market segment he originally assumed would be his strongest—”younger people concerned with ethical fashion”—turned out to be a disappointment. He found greater success with “an older demographic who appreciate the high quality of Loden and its sophisticated European style.”
And then, there are the usual problems that plague any business. Suppliers, service providers and logistics companies sometimes blow deadlines or fail to deliver.
“I guess the tenacity I acquired in the Marines has helped see me through the emotional ups and downs of the entrepreneurship roller coaster.”
What keeps Stolz going is a strong interest in almost all of the facets of the business. He says tasks like bookkeeping can be tedious. Even bookkeeping can become interesting, if not actually fun, “when the financial picture is positive,” he says.
He shares four lessons he has learned from running his business thus far:
- Running a business is an emotional roller coaster. When a business is your own creation, it’s hard not to take the inevitable ups and downs to heart.
- Make sure you aren’t financially dependent on the business until it’s well underway.
- Every product idea or business model should be tested to validate that it solves a problem, and if somebody is willing to pay for your solution.
- Don’t start your business in a vacuum with a “go it alone” mindset. Look for resources (including those uniquely available to veterans) and “become part of the ecosystem your business belongs to, with a network of people who can give you advice or introduce you to others who can.”
A “go it alone” approach could spell disaster in the military. “Lives might not be at stake if your business stumbles,” Stolz says. “But a collaborative, proactive approach will help you to avoid the business equivalent of a military defeat, and boost your prospects for a victory.”