Howard Bender is the founder and president of Coco Myles, a website that allows women to design their own custom dress by choosing from a variety of different fabrics, tops, bottoms, beading and accessories. The site is focused on the bridesmaid dress market. Before starting Coco Myles, Howard was a successful international trade attorney assisting both foreign and domestic clients on the intricacies of importing, exporting and forging successful international partnerships. Howard was inspired to create Coco Myles in 2005 as a result of two distinct events; the first being a change in U.S. law related to the quota/visa requirements for the importation of dresses. The second was his watching his daughters play virtual dress-up on barbie.com. In refining the idea for Coco Myles, Howard decided that the company’s model and offerings were ideal for the bridesmaid dress market for a number of reasons. First, bridesmaid dresses are an ideal product to sell online since it is a collaborative purchase and it’s rare for a bride and her bridesmaids to all live in the same geographic area. Second, historically, bridesmaids dresses have had a bad reputation because the bride could choose a style of dress that the bridesmaids might not feel comfortable wearing. Coco Myles allows the bride to choose the color and fabric and then permits the bridesmaids to design their dresses online ensuring matching dresses that each bridesmaid feels good about wearing. Coco Myles is also able to produce it’s dress in five to six weeks compared to the industry average of 12 weeks. Finally, from a pricing perspective, Coco Myles offers its dresses at an average price of $140.00. This price is less than half the amount offered by larger retailers such a J. Crew and Ann Taylor.
What are you working on now?
At present, I’m working on broadening what Coco Myles does to a larger marketplace. From an operational standpoint, we think we’ve developed the best possible solution for brides and bridesmaids looking for bridesmaids dresses, and we’re currently looking to take what we do and expand upon it via strategic partnerships with other brands and retailers, either under our brand name or in a private label capacity. A lot of retailers, who are much better known than we are, are attempting to make inroads in the bridal market. With a domestic bridesmaid dress market of $1.6 billion, and an international market that’s at least as large, I think we’re in a unique position to become, or help some other retailer/brand become, the brand that’s synonymous with this purchasing decision.
3 Trends that excite you?
1. The continuing acceleration and adoption of individuals participating in social networks. I’m a big believer in the power of networks. A great book on the subject is “Nexus” by Mark Buchanon, which breaks it all down in very scientific terms. What’s really exciting is that I still think it’s sort of the Wild West out there in terms of how individuals and businesses can best harness this power. Despite what social media gurus may tell you, I don’t think anyone’s really figured it out yet.
2. The ability of different software/applications to create solutions. I think the trend toward “apps” or unique pieces of software that do one or two things really well but are built upon other types of software is very exciting (e.g., apps that let you know where you parked you car).
3. Consumers’ acceptance of purchasing merchandise online. Given our business, and particularly the fact that we’re selling formal dresses, we’re still going through a period of adoption/maturation when it comes to our potential customers buying merchandise online. I think all online apparel retailers owe a great deal of thanks to Zappos for helping folks discover just how easy and convenient it is to buy footwear/apparel online.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The most important thing is to commemorate an idea once it pops into your head. Do it as soon as possible! It really doesn’t matter how — could be in Evernote, a digital recorder, or on a napkin. Just make sure there’s some way to preserve it so that your future self will have access to it. There have been way too many times when I’ve thought “oh this is so good, there’s no need to write it down, I’ll definitely remember it” and I totally forget what it was that was so earth shattering. Once I have an idea, I tend to draft a very broad outline on paper. I tend to think of things sequentially and if there’s some unknown or disconnection point, I’ll leave a question mark in there. I find that it’s tough to have all the answers right away, but I’m a big believer in the theory that ideas need to ferment in order to have further inspiration. It’s amazing how many times you’ll think of a possible answer at the most unlikely times — like in the shower or while exercising. I’ll also seek feedback from others (two heads may not always be better than one but they’re never worse) since it’s hardly ever the case that I’ve thought through every ramification of what we’re trying to do.
What inspires you?
Doing a good job inspires me. When we started Coco Myles, no one was doing what we were doing both in terms of creating dresses using a web interface or producing them in the manner in which we do. Taking an idea that exists in the ethers and then seeing it come to fruition, especially when it’s something that no one’s ever done before, is incredibly satisfying. I also get tremendous satisfaction when we get notes from customers who take the time and energy to commend us for our dresses and/or customer service. Our philosophy is that we’re dealing with someone’s wedding and we take that responsibility very seriously and always try to act with the utmost kindness to our customers. Since I was trained as a commercial litigator, I can tell you that it’s much more satisfying to share kindness than it is discovery requests.
What is the biggest mistake you’ve made?
The biggest mistake I’ve made is probably not seeking more capital as soon as possible. We had such great growth our first two years in business, 2006-08, that I thought the best thing for us to do would be to grow organically. In retrospect, and particularly in regards to the financial situation the past two years, it would have probably been better for us to have actively sought out venture partners earlier in the game.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away?
I did write this down, by the way, although I haven’t flushed it out. I was driving into Manhattan the other day and looking for a parking garage and I wondered if there wasn’t some application that could take advantage of the phone’s GPS and list local garages while also providing discounts/incentives for parking at a particular one. Again, just a fast thought that hasn’t been flushed out. Such an app may even exist for all I know.
What is one tool that you’d recommend?
Simple. Learn Microsoft Access (or some other database program). I remember taking a weekend about ten years ago to learn the basics of using Access, which is usually the Office suite program that goes unused by most folks. It wasn’t as complicated as I thought it would be, and I can’t tell you how useful being able to create relational databases has been in all phases of my career — even being an attorney. I remember how people would shake their heads in disbelief when someone would admit to not knowing how to use Excel. You wondered how they got by. I almost feel the same way now about people who don’t know Access. The other thing too for entrepreneurs is that building your own database really helps you focus on your operations. It’s like a three dimensional (and useful) blueprint.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
My favorite business/entrepreneur books are “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen. I’d love to see either of those authors interviewed on IdeaMensch.
What is the most challenging thing about being an entrepreneur?
The inevitable setbacks and feelings of helplessness. Being in a big company or large law firm is, in may ways, very comforting, even if that comfort is illusory. However, when things go wrong and it’s your company, you tend to take things very personally — or at least I do. I remember when one of our first inbound dress shipments was delayed because of mechanical reasons. I couldn’t sleep that night. I think you become accustomed to these types of events as time goes by and you grow stronger because of them. Basically, you can’t get too low from the lows and too high from the highs. Things are never as good, or bad, as they seem.
How do you balance work life and personal life?
I have a wife and three children and, while I’m passionate about my business, I make a concerted effort to make sure I also get to spend time with them. It’s very easy these days for your work life and personal life to be blurred, especially when you’re starting your own business. I also do yoga and meditate, both of which help me to be mindful and keep things in perspective by being in the now rather than worrying about the future or regretting the past.
I happen to really like Facebook, which might sound odd coming from a guy in his mid-40’s. I signed up a little over two years ago, and while I know it’s gotten a ton of attention and press recently (i.e, Zuckerberg being named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year”), I still think people underestimate its ability to affect human contact and understanding. I find it amazing that my children have the potential to never lose touch with friends. I’ve recently reconnected with friends from my childhood, some of whom are better friends now than they were in the past. I’ve started using LinkedIn but, I have to admit, I’ve not been very good about utilizing all its resources. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to get more into LinkedIn. And I did dabble with Twitter about a year and half ago and found it too unidirectional and chaotic. Also, many of my friends and contemporaries were not tweeting at the time. I found myself being followed by no one but online marketers so I just let it go. My account is still active so if anyone reading this is into Twitter, please feel free to follow me and help show me the way.