It seems like so long ago that we were preparing to launch Stellari when COVID-19 hit, and hit us hard. We felt it was important to pause, take a breather, and assess what we've accomplished with the support of our generous donors in the past three months.
Working to #MaskUp Los Angeles
In March 2020, state and local governments began announcing restrictions, public events were being canceled, and it was becoming increasingly clearer that it was not the time to launch a travel-focused fashion line.
Once we’d overcome the initial shock, our first thought was: How can we help? This wasn’t about our business anymore, it was about all of us. But, how could a company with zero revenue (that hadn’t even launched yet) help? Ironically, it turned out that being a pre-launch startup put us in a good position to pivot and move quickly.
At that time, there was a critical shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment) for healthcare workers, first responders, and essential workers . We were shaken and saddened by stories of doctors and nurses sewing their own masks from bed sheets, and images of paramedics wearing bandanas and scarves because they had nothing else.
At the time, the CDC was still publicly saying cloth masks were ineffective, but having lived and worked in countries which had been hit hard during past outbreaks of SARS and MERS, we'd seen and learned firsthand the importance of wearing masks. We predicted that the official guidance would change, and once we saw that hospitals and healthcare management groups were asking for cloth mask donations and releasing cloth mask patterns, we knew we had to act.
Inspired by people sewing masks day and night for donation, we realized we were in a position to leverage our existing manufacturers and quickly make cloth masks at scale. After all, it wasn’t just hospitals and clinics that needed masks, non-profit charities, homeless shelters, nursing homes, grocery stores, and other essential local businesses all needed masks to protect their workers. By providing cloth masks, we could help fill a vital gap and relieve some of the pressure from the demand for medical and N95 masks.
Our top priority was to help our local community as quickly as possible, which had two goals:
1) Get masks to those who needed them.
2) Help keep local workers employed.
Although making products in America meant it would cost more per mask, by working with the local Los Angeles garment industry, we could produce masks more quickly and have them delivered within weeks instead of months. While a mask made overseas (such as in China) might cost a tenth of the price, we were concerned about supply chain issues, and more importantly, worried about local Los Angeles workers.
With all of this in mind, we paused our clothing line launch and pivoted 100% to making cloth masks. We started in early March by carefully researching Los Angeles garment factories. The partners we chose included: A Cut Above the Rest, Lefty Production Co and All the Right Stuff. They're based here, in Los Angeles, so if we needed to look at a sample, they were only steps away. We used a cloth mask pattern developed by Lefty Production Co. in coordination with the Mayor of LA’s office and Kaiser Permanente, America’s largest healthcare management system. Being in such close proximity dramatically reduced the time it took to get the product (and our carbon footprint) since we weren't having to wait on shipments via plane or boat. Yes, this was a global crisis; but, we still wanted to hold true to our core values of sustainability and ethical production.
We hadn’t began our fundraising campaign yet; however, we felt very strongly about the need for masks and wanted to have some ready as soon as possible. So we took a risk and used $17,000 of our own startup capital to order 5000 masks from our partners so we could have masks ready to ship as soon as the campaign was up and running.
With a lot of debate about masks still going on at the time, Stellari Founder and CEO, Janelle Wavell-Jimenez, also wanted to provide helpful information about masks. She wrote a thoroughly researched article on Medium explaining in-depth why masks are important and how they help fight COVID-19. A few days later, Yahoo! News picked up this article and interviewed her for for a video piece about the importance of mask use just days before the CDC adjusted their guidance on cloth masks.
The Indiegogo Campaign Timeline
On March 31, we launched the #MaskUp campaign on Indiegogo with an initial funding goal of $25,000. Within one hour, we had raised over $5000, and within 24 hours, we had reached 50% of our goal.
By April 4, we had received enough pledges to fund an additional order of masks. We rolled the dice again and added an additional 5000 masks, upping the total to 10,000. We also went over to the factory, picked up the first batch of newly created masks, and made our first donation of 250 masks to HopeNet Los Angeles, a local network of meal programs and food banks that feed families.
Two days later, on April 6, we began shipping masks to those who pledged at the “Get 2 + Donate 3” level. By April 21, we had finished shipping all initial pledges and had donated over 2,000 masks to 10 local hospitals, essential businesses, and non-profit organizations.
By the campaign’s end on May 3, we'd donated over 7,500 masks to 27 healthcare facilities, non-profits, and essential small businesses. Most were in our local Southern California area, but we were also able to donate masks to communities in Puerto Rico, North Carolina, and New York City. Our local donations included the Union Rescue Mission, Children's Hospital Los Angeles, and the HopeNet Los Angeles Mission.
Thanks to our supporters, we raised just over $30,000, and we donated the masks as follows:
- Hospitals, clinics, and elderly care: 3,950 masks
- Essential businesses: 1,150 masks
- Local non-profit organizations: 2,250 masks
- Local government: 250 masks
- Other: 100 masks
Together, it was a total of 7,700 masks donated, and we still have an additional 1,500 masks we'll continue to donate.
A Crash Course in Business
While the #MaskUp campaign was one of the few crowdfunding campaigns to break $10,000 in donations, from a business point of view, the campaign was a bit of a failure.
The total cost per cotton mask directly from manufacturers came out to $3.84 per mask, which was very close to our initial estimate of $3.60. Since we had never run a business before, we rounded up to $4 for an "operations reserve." As you might be guessing, that doesn't really leave much room for error.
We didn’t fully take into account that donating masks “at cost” needed to include things such as: transaction fees, paying for shipping or delivery, packaging materials, gasoline, and more. We also failed to consider the cost of our CEO working full time to package and ship the masks.
One of our manufacturers, Lefty Production, sells the same mask they produced for us for $6, which is a very good price for an American made mask straight from the manufacturer. Brands (like us) that buy masks from these manufacturers sell these masks between $8-$10. In retrospect, pricing the mask around $5 would have been a good way to cover all costs while keeping the price point affordable.
In the end, we came up around $10,000 short. To be honest, we're a little embarrassed to have made such a rookie mistake--but we consider this an invaluable crash course in production and fulfillment. We all make mistakes, and progress > perfection is one of our core values. We're also immensely privileged to be able to recover from our oversight. Since wearing masks will be part of our "new reality" for the foreseeable future, we also believe we'll be able to recoup our seed investment through sales of our limited edition sustainable cloth mask as well as individual donations.
Even with everything we know now, we’re still pricing our non-medical cotton mask donations at $4.00. After all, why should well-meaning donors have to subsidize our error?
A sustainable, new daily essential
That brings us back to the present where it's July 2020, and unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of slowing. The Indiegogo campaign ended in May, but we knew there would still be an urgent need for masks. The next question was “how do we make this daily essential sustainable?”
On June 29, we officially soft launched Stellari with our first product: The Sustainable Face Mask just two months after the Indiegogo campaign ended.
How on earth did we do that?
Because we had no inventory to worry about, no vendors needing to be paid, or any of the typical issues more established businesses are struggling with, we were able to quickly pivot to making a sustainable cloth mask. We took the time needed to thoughtfully engineer a mask that can be easily adjusted to perfectly fit a variety of faces, and stylish enough to wear all day. Being a small, scrappy company wins again!
We also took some cues from indie video game studios and decided to sell a special, limited edition sustainable mask called The Founder’s Edition. The idea was to give people who wanted to support the company a way to do so--like crowdfunding without the transaction fees. The Founder's Edition mask comes in an exclusive black and gold colorway, and we only made 500 of them.
While the purpose of our soft launch is more to test our processes and make sure we’re growing slowly and sustainably as a company, we also wanted to take this opportunity to showcase one of our favorite fabrics: Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Lyocell. Certified Lenzing’s TENCEL™ Lyocell is a sustainable fabric made from eucalytpus fibers that is ethically and responsibly sourced from forests in Europe. Not to mention, it's silky-smooth and antimicrobial (it can go more uses/wears between washes, which also means less water waste).
Like the masks we originally made for the Indiegogo campaign, our new sustainable masks are made in Los Angeles, and we’ll continue to work with local partners who treat and pay their workers fairly. We’ve only just started on our commitment to our core values of supporting local businesses, using sustainable materials, and keeping our carbon footprint as low as possible.
Once again, we’d like to thank you all for your support of our #MarkUp donation campaign, and for helping in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. We appreciate all the wonderful feedback and comments we’ve received from you.
Thank you for reading this wall of text and #MaskUp!