Balance is beautiful. I still struggle a lot with work-life balance, which is an overused cliche but so valid. The reality is that I really love working, and most of the time any hour I put into my business feels more interesting than doing dishes or even socializing with friends and family. But I don’t feel guilt if I take a full weekend to decompress and not check my email. I’ll often channel my “inner dude” and just binge TV or play computer games if I don’t feel like socializing. I define self-care my way, it’s not just about spa days or beach vacations, but the result is the same if you set the intention. I’m getting better at interpreting my body for clues to what my mind and spirit needs, and prioritizing them. The result is a happier and more creative me, which translates into better leadership decisions and interactions with my teams.
From Internet marketing disruptor paving the way for digital marketers to fashionista reinventing how women 35+ shop and dress for success. Dana Todd is not one to sit back and wait for the next invention that will make our lives easier. As a true entrepreneur, she creates a solution for the problem at hand. That’s why it’s no surprise that after launching two successful companies, she’s back with a third and redefining how women dress today. I caught up with Dana in between her raising her first round of financing, teaching, crowdsourcing the news on her latest ecomm start up, and signing up new designers around the world.
Here’s the scoop:
Dana Todd, CEO, Balodana — “The dressmaker, reinvented”
Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Would you believe hair color and menopause?
Friends and colleagues had always known me for my dramatic hair colors — pink, purple, red, you name it. When I turned 50, I felt strongly to explore my natural hair color, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager!
As with any big change, ripples occurred: suddenly I hated everything in my wardrobe. I always wore conservative business suits and clothing to offset my crazy hair, so when I went natural (brown and silver) I felt old, frumpy and conservative — which isn’t at all my personality. Worse, when I tried to find a new clothing style to represent the new me, my post-menopause body changes prevented me from finding anything remotely adventurous.
I wasted time and money and finally gave up — until I discovered that you can buy really amazing fashions online that are made exactly to your body measurements, just like in the old days of dressmakers but with a new hip style.
I found that in Eastern Europe and other countries, designers hadn’t lost the skills of tailoring. They are designing looks that are as good or better than US high-end boutiques. The experience of getting these clothes was amazing, but the experience of buying the clothes was not. It was clunky, intimidating and inconsistent. Being someone who solves for customer experience as a career, the light bulb went off. I figured if I could help every woman in America to feel as transformed and hopeful as I felt, I’d have a billion dollar business.
When did the entrepreneur light bulb go off?
My ah-ha idea was the spark, but the light bulb started burning at full intensity when I started looking at the data and the research. I spent a year researching the market, interviewing people in the garment industry and even visiting Romania and Moldova to recruit and talk to dressmakers.
On the flight home, a woman overheard me talking about my idea, leaned back two rows to hand me her business card and said
“Call me when you launch — I’ll be your first customer.”
That’s when I knew I really had something special. In my research, I focused only on women 35+ who shop online, and I found that there are 56 million of us, and most of us are unhappy with the status quo. At a projected annual spend of $190 per customer, it easily proves that there’s a new billion-dollar market to be had.
Additionally, there’s an opportunity to marry business benefits with social and environmental benefits. Slow fashion is far more sustainable and ethical than traditional manufacturing and provides jobs for many women. All the sewists (many in the US) are begging for someone to create a collective voice and market demand for them, which Balodana is primed to be.
What advice would you give other women wanting to start a biz?
Before you start, do a LOT of research and don’t believe your own hype and fantasies until you crunch the numbers. Build a personal board of advisors that are equally men and women. Ask them to tear down your idea, ask the hard questions and do the business math. If you can do your homework to answer their questions — or pivot if you find there are legitimate concerns — then you’re halfway there.
I would also suggest taking advantage of your local small business administration and other nonprofit organizations, which are typically tax-funded and have low-cost or free programs to help you with the business planning aspects.
Work it all out on paper before you invest any cash. In Chicago, we have an incredible nonprofit called the Women’s Business Development Center that offers programs from business plan reviews to multi-week accelerated training.
Next, you should anticipate and plan for a much slower rate of adoption or fundraising that you hope — things almost always take longer than you think. Even if you have committed backers, the sheer paperwork logistics can take months. Make sure you have a runway and some options. Read the Prototype Manifesto and potentially rethink your product and market development strategy.
If possible, build the market before you build the product. Use crowdfunding as market testing and a cheap ad campaign to help you see what needs to happen next. (Don’t expect it to pay the bills, most of them don’t really hit a financial home run.)
Lastly, but most importantly, it’s all about your network and the relationships you’ve built and will continue to build. You never know who’s going to make a key introduction for you or become a great hire. If you’re just starting out in business, it seems daunting, but step away from the computer and the mobile and get to know some actual humans up close and personal.
How do you bring goodness to the world?
Our mantra is to make women happy and also save the planet. That’s our reason to be. It’s interesting to me that usually when you make women happy or healthy, there’s a secondary halo benefit that goes far beyond the individual to improve families, communities, and economies. The current garment industry is damaging to the planet and to people — it’s the largest legal industry that still employs slaves, and the environmental impacts of the production and transport of textiles and clothing put it among the worst polluters in the world.
Going back to “slow fashion” that is handcrafted and made to measure creates far less waste, the money goes directly into the maker’s pocket, and the end result is something that renews confidence for the woman wearing it. To me, there’s no higher calling.
None of us are able to achieve success without some adversity along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
It is very difficult to only call out one person — I’m so blessed and grateful to be surrounded by generous and brilliant people who have helped me become the person and the professional that I am. I’m going to cheat and give top billing to two people: Marlene Matheson and Vince Bianco.
Marlene was one of my business partners at SiteLab, and she encouraged me early on to develop and grow as a manager and an executive. She also let me run free creatively, and gave me so much support for my visions and plans for the agency and later for our spinoff Newsforce. She put her neck on the line for me countless times, and held the agency together through not one but two global recessions.
Vince was our CEO at Newsforce, and among the many lessons he taught me was how to bring your faith into your business in a healthy way, because when you’re an entrepreneur there are many days when faith is literally all you have to guide you and keep you sane. When the chips were down, and the 2008 crisis hit, he bought us all copies of the book “The Alchemist” which is all about not giving up before you get to the end of the journey.
Learning from his experience raising funds, managing a business and keeping the team aligned and moving forward was the greatest MBA I could have earned. He has been instrumental in helping me think through Balodana’s business and funding strategy, and I’m grateful to have him as a friend.
Five Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience?
- You don’t have to be an asshole to be an effective boss, but you do have to be unafraid to hold people accountable. My early management role model was a young male startup owner who thought you had to be an asshole to be respected as a CEO, and it affected how I treated my people. It wasn’t until I got proper management training and tools, and gained experience, that I achieved understanding about how to develop people at all levels in a company. I overcorrected sometimes and tried to be too “nice” and didn’t hold people accountable; this is ultimately good for no one because they don’t learn and grow any more than you benefit from excusing poor work or attitudes. To hold someone accountable is ultimately to trust them not to break or to blow up, and that’s often hard for leaders.
- Balance is beautiful. I still struggle a lot with work-life balance, which is an overused cliche but so valid. The reality is that I really love working, and most of the time any hour I put into my business feels more interesting than doing dishes or even socializing with friends and family. But I don’t feel guilty if I take a full weekend to decompress and not check my email.
I’ll often channel my “inner dude” and just binge TV or play computer games if I don’t feel like socializing. I define self-care my way, it’s not just about spa days or beach vacations, but the result is the same if you set the intention.I’m getting better at interpreting my body for clues to what my mind and spirit needs, and prioritizing them. The result is a happier and more creative me, which translates into better leadership decisions and interactions with my teams.
- Never forget your “why.” A few years back, Simon Sinek introduced his “Start with Why” and Golden Circle of brand leadership in a TED talk. Marketers jumped on the wisdom to think about how they position their messaging and external brand strategy, but the concept is actually far more important to bring into your company’s internal DNA. It should be consistent at all levels of a company, affecting business strategy, communications and hiring. If management starts changing their personal “why” — for example, changing to an external focus on selling the company, or trying to expand to a different market — it creates a schism if you don’t talk it out. Make sure that all employees know why they come to work each day and let it guide as your leadership north star. At Balodana, when I’m having a rough day, I remind myself of the dialogues we have with customers who feel transformed in their clothes, or who are tentatively exploring their style boundaries and trusting our concierges to help them. Making women happy (and also saving the planet) is our “why”, and we celebrate every incident that helps us feel we are making a difference.
- Instinct counts as data, but it should not be your only data. You can make a lot of costly mistakes if you only count your gut, even if it’s the part of your leadership identity that has high value. Intuition and instinct often come as a result of years of experience and learned lessons, kind of a short-cut to decision and action. (Perversely, “flashes of brilliance” or “ah-ha moments” are rarely arrived at through staring at a spreadsheet, but that’s where we are stuck most days).However, unless it’s a time crunch or an emergency, you should always count your instincts as theories, and either tests them with scenarios or research more deeply with real data. Too often we get caught up in the creativity of our thinking, and as leaders, our words carry a lot of weight and can send people into expensive wild goose chases to make us happy. If you have a great idea that you know could be resource intensive or could affect long term direction, ask your staff to debunk you and show you all the reasons it would fail. This also gives them a role in understanding and deploying good decision-making.
- Celebrate your strengths, and hire or partner for your gaps. I’m a big fan of Tom Rath and I use his book “Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow” in developing employees and planning hires. We often as leaders focus too much on identifying people’s weaknesses as a means to change them, but there’s more upside to seeing it more as a big jigsaw puzzle where you hire people for their unique skills and partner them to cover the holes. Bonus points if you teach them to embrace their own gaps and partner themselves up for effective teams. The more diversity you have, the stronger and more interesting your team is and the more capable they are of solving big challenges. And as women, I like the idea that we can focus on positives instead of negatives about ourselves: we waste a lot of energy trying to be everything for everyone. At this point in my life, I’m still learning and improving, but I know I’ll get to success faster if I don’t wait until I’m “perfect”.
Favorite “Life Lesson Quote” ✒️
One of the simplest quotes from the powerful book “Who Moved My Cheese?” is one of my most powerful mantras:
“What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
Anytime I get anxious or paralyzed by a situation, I ask myself this question and force myself to list some answers. It’s the key for me to unlock choices and creative thinking. I get really depressed when I am backed into a corner because I feel I have limited or no choices.
The reality is that you always have choices, and whether or not I act on any of them isn’t the point. Simply knowing them helps me pull out of a stall, and over time you learn to use these situations as exercises for honing strategic thinking skills and actions. I use this tactic anytime I feel fear, from meeting strangers in a networking situation to asking investors to fund my startup.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I should say Oprah (that would really be amazing and she’s on my vision board), but I really want to meet Arianna Huffington. For the same reasons, I admire Oprah: both women have reinvented themselves multiple times and at different times in their lives.
Women are so lucky that we are designed by DNA to transition in different stages of our lives, and we live long enough now to explore them all to the fullest.
I’m drawn to Arianna’s story as she went from being a famous wife to finding her own voice as a media mogul and political powerhouse, despite so many obstacles. As an entrepreneur starting a new business in my 50s, I want to know how she’s doing in her latest incarnation with Thrive.
I can break anything in about five minutes flat, which doesn’t sound like a good thing but it’s actually a strength in tech. I apply it liberally in beta testing and it helps me be my own “mom test” for software development and user experience. Also, I can usually spot a typo 20 feet away.
Taurus! Brave, sensual, loyal…and a bit clumsy.
“Venture Deals” and “Princesses Behaving Badly”
Where will social media in five years ⏰
I have to believe that we’ll get a handle on the two biggest failures of social media: data privacy and information bubbles. What’s already happening is that we’re talking about it, and next I think we’ll see some legislative changes that will impact the major players.
I don’t think we’ll see any new massive unicorns emerge in social media, but rather a continued fragmentation and rise of niche companies that layer into shared experiences and interests. For example, Spotify is emerging as far more than a music player — it’s a music social network and is doing some interesting integrations with Google Maps, dating apps, and sports tech.
The building blocks of social media are about meeting new people, connecting more deeply with people you already know, and having fun. TikTok is a quickly rising example of the latter, and I think we’ll see more powerhouse specialty players like it.
I also think that AR and VR will gain traction slowly but surely; I doubt it will be how we primarily interact with social media, but it’s a channel that has plenty of room to grow once we figure out how to improve the clunky hardware interface.
Favorite Drink Order? ☕️
Tea! I am obsessed with PG Tips black tea, the household staple of old British ladies. I drink mine with milk.
Favorite Instagram Account?
@balodana of course!
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And my family members and friends, but they’re not famous. @chrissyteigen is my favorite celebrity account.
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Smartphone and computer are all I need in my life. I am a bit of a hardware Luddite, I don’t even have an InstaPot.
Favorite Way to Decompress?
Quality time with friends is the very best decompression, a belly laugh is the best cure for stress and I have some utterly hilarious friends. Since many of them don’t live here in Chicago, we actually talk on the phone for hours and it’s such a joy.
My spiritual practice Subud is incredibly helpful to find my peace and inner voice. I also am a notorious binge-watcher of streaming content.
Women You Admire?
The list is so long, starting with my great grandmother (a Texas pioneer woman) and my mom.
Others include Arianna Huffington, Kara Swisher, Hilary Clinton, Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Michelle Obama, Amy Schumer, Oprah, Samantha Bee, Mary Meeker…I’m seeing a pattern here.
They’re not always the most “likable” women but they are breaking rules and the norms, and they do it with such style! I love an imperfect but strong character, as long as there’s a core of integrity in their power.
View Dana Todd’s profile on LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional community. Dana has 12 jobs listed on their…www.linkedin.com
What are you most excited about for 2019? Share something you want to promote or latest news/launches for your brand.
Now that our site is launched, we’re next creating a national network of local tradespersons (tailors, alterations specialists, and dressmakers) to help us build our market and also to activate a collective voice to educate women about what they’re missing out on when they only buy clothing from retail racks.
We’re adding four new designers in the next month, which will put us over 1000 styles that women can choose from! And I’m raising seed capital, which is really kind of fun and challenging because you learn new things and hone your business skills.
Dana Todd is a woman to admire, not only for her ability to break through social norms but because she uses that confidence to empower other women. Whether it’s through tech or fashion, this female disruptor is always at the forefront of innovation. Meet her latest venture and find your fashion match at Balodana.
Remember, you are not a number!
This post by Lisa Buyer originally published on Medium’s Authority Magazine, a publication by Yitzi Weiner.