How New Orleans T-Shirts Became This Mom’s Small Business Success

  • November 4, 2015

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It took moving away from New Orleans–just an hour away, to Baton Rouge, for college–for Lauren LeBlanc to realize how exceptional her home city was. “New Orleans is its own island,” she says, “such a special place.” She hadn’t recognized how singular it was until she no longer lived there.

Fleurty GirlLeBlanc went to college, left to take a job as a creative director for a TV show on Louisiana agriculture, got married, had three children, and then got divorced. She began thinking about moving back to New Orleans, but it was Hurricane Katrina that sealed the deal. “I felt too far away,” she says, but there were no jobs for her to return to. So she began thinking about starting a business as a way to create her own job.

She noticed that everyone wore New Orleans-themed t-shirts, but that there weren’t many style options for women. There were crewnecks, and more crewnecks, and nothing else. So she took the $2,000 tax refund she received in 2009 and invested it in her own line of t-shirts, branded as Fleurty Girl. “I wanted to celebrate New Orleans and there weren’t t-shirts out there for women, with graphics printed higher on scoop necks and v-neck styles,” she explains.

LeBlanc built a website herself and traded an armoire in her house to an illustrator friend who had long admired it in exchange for three shirt designs. She created a Facebook page and started sharing her designs with the world.

The world quickly took notice. Her shirts were a hit, selling out in 30 days. So she took her earnings and reinvested them in more shirts, repeating that process every time she sold out.

Within six months she was ready to invest in a retail storefront. “Women like to try things on, so it was important to find retail space,” says LeBlanc. Only she couldn’t afford a home and a store, so she found a two-bedroom house in a mixed use area and sold t-shirts essentially out of her living room.

What was the turning point for your business?

Sales were growing steadily but it was the 2010 Super Bowl that catapulted Fleurty Girl forward. The New Orleans Saints were playing and Fleurty Girl was selling t-shirts emblazoned with the Saints’ catch-phrase, “Who dat,” hand-over-fist. Business was great.

Until she received a cease-and-desist letter from the National Football League (NFL) telling her to stop selling her shirts, of course. They were cracking down hard on the sale of fan shirts and LeBlanc was a victim.

Still working at her day job in Baton Rouge, LeBlanc began getting calls from customers wondering why she didn’t have any “Who dat” shirts in stock. She explained the situation by phone. An irate customer berated the NFL on Twitter and the situation “blew up,” LeBlanc says. “No one wanted an NFL shirt, they wanted a Fleurty Girl ‘Who dat’ shirt,” she says. Suddenly the media was at her workplace wanting to interview her, and the conflict became a national story.

Because it was clear that her retail business was requiring more of her attention, she quit her job to focus on Fleurty Girl. The Saints won the Super Bowl and sales continued to climb. Six months later she opened a second location, followed by several more stores every six months. Fleurty Girl now has five shops; LeBlanc moved out of the original storefront and into a traditional home a few years ago.

How did being a mom make you a better business owner?

“Being a mom made me get it done,” says LeBlanc. Having kids – now 13, 10, and 10 – relying on her kept her on track. “Being a mom was a blessing.” A bonus has been that her children have watched her grow the business and have seen the sacrifices she has been willing to make to be successful.

How has being a business owner made you a better mom?

Seeing their mother working so hard “has taught the kids a great work ethic,” says LeBlanc. “I want them to learn the value of hard work,” she says, so she makes them work for their allowance. It isn’t just handed to them.

What advice do you have for other business owners?

“Don’t lose your base income until the business can support itself,” says LeBlanc emphatically. She remained employed full-time, managing her business on the side, for almost two years before giving up her safety net. She never took out a loan or partnered with an investor, choosing instead to continually reinvest her revenue back into the company to fund its growth.

“Use the resources around you to pay for things your business needs,” is her second suggestion. Barter what you have, such as the armoire she traded to an illustrator, or skills that you possess. “You don’t necessarily have to write a check,” she says.

“Focus on customer service,” is her third recommendation. “Customers can buy what you sell almost anywhere. It’s the in-store experience that makes the difference,” so make sure your customers enjoy buying from you.

All that, plus LeBlanc’s signature doggedness, has made Fleurty Girl a homegrown success story, a company that now has 25 employees and an expanding product line celebrating New Orleans’ unique style and culture.

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