Chelsea Sloan: The student who built a fashion franchise

By Shanaz Musafer
Business reporter, BBC News, New York

image captionChelsea Sloan was named Global Student Entrepreneur by the Entrepreneurs' Organization

"A glutton for punishment" is how 28-year-old Chelsea Sloan describes herself.

Many people are happy to focus solely on their studies (with maybe some partying thrown in) when they are at college or university.

Not so Chelsea, who decided to put what she was learning on her business major into direct practice, and set up a business with her brother Scott at the same time.

But having to juggle her studies with setting up the company, Uptown Cheapskate, was not always easy.

Going to classes for an hour and a half in the morning then rushing back to the office to work on business plans, having to miss classes for business trips - even her friends would ask her how she had time for everything.

But as Chelsea puts it, her motivation was simple: "As an entrepreneur it all comes down to you. The success or the failure of your store is squarely on your shoulders."

image captionClothes have to meet strict criteria for the company to accept them for resale

The idea for Uptown Cheapskate - a franchise "fashion exchange" - came about when Chelsea took a year and a half off from her studies to serve a church mission in Alaska.

"While I was there I started talking to my brother about starting a business. There were some [companies] out there doing something similar but not very well and we thought we could do better," she says.

Uptown Cheapskate is a very simple concept - bring your designer brand clothes, shoes and accessories into a store, the staff will assess them and if they think they can sell them on, will offer you cash for them. The idea is to make upmarket brands available to young adults at an affordable price.

"The resale industry just for our demographic is a $2.5bn industry. We wanted to make an upscale resale experience that doesn't have to feel thrifty," she says.

On her return from Alaska, she went back to the University of Utah and enrolled in classes, while simultaneously continuing to work on the business idea with her brother.

They worked on it for another six months and opened the first Uptown Cheapskate store in Salt Lake City in 2009.

Balancing act

Chelsea was helped by the fact that her office was just five minutes away from campus but balancing her classes with the business was a tricky challenge.

"I brought a laptop with me. Not only was I doing the franchise side, but was also managing the Salt Lake store and a second store remotely.

image captionChelsea set up the business with her brother Scott, 31

"But the school that I went to had a no laptop policy in class, [because] most kids were playing games or surfing the internet. But that made it difficult for me because I don't like to write when I can type."

Inevitably, she also missed some classes because of work trips and says that her university did not have a very structured work relief policy to accommodate that.

"I graduated cum laude but not magna cum laude because I missed a couple of classes where attendance was mandatory," she says.

But of course, there was one obvious positive element. "I was able to be in business while being in business school. I got a couple of really good business ideas," she says.

Although it took her around an extra year to graduate, she says it was "totally worth it".

And her efforts were rewarded in November 2012 when she became the first woman to win the Entrepreneurs' Organization's Global Student Entrepreneur Award, beating off competition from 1,700 candidates in 20 countries.

"I was tremendously surprised [to win]," she laughs. "But I think the best part for me was it really validated Uptown Cheapskate. We're not a very sexy company but our owners are making money."

image captionWhen a new store opens it is empty and takes about two months to fill

She may be soft-spoken and modest, but she is clearly a very driven young woman. She believes if you are going to start a business while still at school, you have to decide whether you have time to do both, but ultimately you have to put the business first.

"Your business supersedes everything else you're working on," she states.

"You have to put 100% into your business because it rises or falls on you. Failure isn't an option. If you don't have an idea to do something better or different than what's already being done, stay in school until you can," she advises.

Fashion rules

The Sloans' idea certainly seemed to capture people's imagination.

When they open a new store, they have lines of people at the door.

But they're not coming to buy - and if they are they'll be disappointed - as the store is empty. They are coming to sell their old clothes - to make some money, and to provide the store with its stock.

"We spend the first two months buying products from the community," Chelsea explains.

But if you think you can make a quick buck from a well-worn dress or pair of jeans that you bought 10 years ago, think again.

The company has very specific standards for what it will and will not accept, according to the current fashion trends.

There are hard rules - for instance, right now, a T-shirt needs to be longer than it is wide otherwise it can look too "boxy" - and soft rules - such as they generally don't buy blouses or shirts that are deemed too short, but there are some slouchy styles that are ok if they're a current colour.

One of the perils of buying from the public, though, is that you don't know where they bought the product from in the first place, so you have to be careful to avoid buying fake brands.

Building a franchise

It is probably not too surprising that Chelsea and Scott ended up in the industry they did, given their roots.

"My parents had started a children's retail franchise called Kid To Kid, so we had learned a bit about the retail industry from them," Chelsea says.

image captionThe company is careful about only buying genuine products and not counterfeits

"As with anyone starting a company, you start with something you have a bit of knowledge of and that you're good at."

She says the franchise model - whereby the company allows individual operators to use its name and sell its goods in return for a royalty fee - appealed to her because it allows you "to scale while limiting the risk".

"I'm really a service provider for my company to help my franchisees," she says. "Each of those owners was able to bring something to it, to manage their location."

While the return may be less - they receive 5% in royalties compared with 20% if they ran the stores directly - running the business as a franchise meant they were able to grow their brand faster than they would have through normal expansion or by taking on venture capital partners.

Four years after launching, there are now 30 Uptown Cheapskate stores across the US and 10 more will open by the end of the year.

The Sloans' original goal was to have 100 stores in the first 10 years, but thanks to their early success, that has now changed to 100 by 2017.

Chelsea is excited about the prospect of expanding outside the US - she has already been in discussions with people in Australia, Sweden and Ireland - and believes the resale industry has plenty of room to grow.

"When I look at the European markets I think they're prime for the taking," she says, "because there isn't really anything there already."

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