University of Hartford student, WeHa Works intern, and startup business founder Nikki Lehr certainly keeps busy. The young entrepreneur launched Messed and Distressed, an innovative line of “perfectly imperfect custom clothing,” in June 2016. Nikki told Innovation Destination Hartford about the challenges of being a young entrepreneur—and why she’d recommended the experience to others.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: You’re currently interning at WeHa Works. How did you connect?
NIKKI LEHR: I knew I wanted to intern at a startup, so I looked up startups in West Hartford and Hartford and emailed them. I sent my resume, introduced myself and said I was looking for an internship. I just reached out to places where I wanted to work.
John Vaselina, Founder of WeHa Works, was the only one who responded to my email. It worked out really well.
IDH: What does your internship entail?
NL: It’s a digital marketing internship. John already had his business and a plan. I put together a branding strategy of how to connect with the community—internally with members of the co-working space and then also through social media. I’ve also had a few ideas about his brand identity.
IDH: How did you come up with the business idea for Messed and Distressed?
NL: It actually started as I wrote my college essay answering the question: What is the place where you feel most comfortable? My answer was: Inside a sweatshirt.
In college, I started bleaching and cutting sweatshirts for myself. At first, it was for me and then people started to like them. And then, I just love the idea of entrepreneurship, so I started the business.
IDH: Have you always had that entrepreneurial drive?
NL: I launched a startup my senior year of high school. I worked on it for about a year and a half. The website never went up—it’s ready and it could go up anytime. But then I started Messed and Distressed, which is easy to do while I’m at school. The other idea was more of a serious business.
IDH: In terms of marketing, it sounds like your target audience was other students at first. Does your website generate much outside traffic?
NL: It does. I get most of my traffic from social media promotion, the website, and word of mouth. I have a really big family and they’ve encouraged friends to buy products. So it’s cool, it’s not just college students. There are also a lot of moms who want sweatshirts.
IDH: About these sweatshirts—what’s unique about them?
NL: The idea is you start off with a basic sweatshirt, and then you custom design it. You choose the color and you can design the bleaching pattern and the cutting styles. It’s all personal preference. That’s what’s unique about it.
IDH: What have you learned about the process of launching a startup?
NL: I’ve learned that it’s really difficult to express my message. My clothing line is really made to make women feel great. When you wear it, I want you to feel confident and understand that it’s made for you. A lot of people sometimes see it as just sweatshirts.
It’s been challenging to get a solid following. What’s also challenging is consistency. It’s hard because I go on runs when it’s really great and then I’ll slow down. It would be better to have a constant balance than just spurts of activity.
This is also my first business venture and I do have a lot of other plans. But this is my start. I’m really trying to learn a lot from the experience. Yes, profits are extremely important. But it’s also a learning experience, that’s really what this is.
IDH: In terms of the future, do you anticipate growth? Do you see Messed and Distressed becoming a full-scale business?
NL: I do see it growing. I want to expand into production and have manufacturing, really changing the design and making different types of clothing, like jackets.
So I do want to run with it, but I don’t think it will necessarily be my bread-and-butter because I have a lot of different goals and values I want to achieve through business. But things never goes as planned, so we’ll see. Maybe this will be bigger than I think it is.
IDH: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
NL: It means I get to connect with people. That’s also one of the main reasons I reached out to John because I like smaller-scale businesses. The customer service is more personal. And I love connecting with each customer.
I want to build relationships with people and inspire them. That’s my main goal in life. I want to connect and help people. I’d like to do it through a meaningful business.
I also recognize that a business only works if it’s filling a gap that people need. So my goals as an entrepreneur are to fill people’s needs and work with them.
The experience with Messed and Distressed is really special because it’s doing what I love and it’s profitable. It would be great to make a living doing what I really love.
IDH: You mentioned the importance of helping people. Do you foresee doing any work with nonprofits in the future?
NL: Absolutely. I have another project in the works, it’s called More Than Your Body. It’s more of a campaign than a business. The goal is to help women recognize that we are more than our bodies. I hope to combine the campaign with a nonprofit—sponsor and host events. I want to turn it into a blog and get involved with people.
IDH: We talked about filling a need, do you have any other tips for other young entrepreneurs who are thinking about launching a startup?
NL: Don’t think too much about the numbers. Focus on the business and learning from it. I have the luxury of doing that—focusing on what’s important, making connections with people.
I’d also say, don’t be so hard on yourself. Remember to put things in perspective and just go with it.
This startup is my baby. I love working on it. The business side of things is really enjoyable to me—managing inventory, accounting, designing, customer service, and manufacturing.
I also love exploring the creative outlets, such as doing photo shoots. And I’m really interested in video production. I’m learning what I like to do as well as what I want to do. That’s an advantage of being an entrepreneur young. I recommend it to other people—it looks great on your resume and you get practice in all different areas of business.
- Interested in learning more about WeHa Works? Read our interview with Founder John Vaselina, WeHa Works Works.