Hats Off: The Louise Green Millinery Story

As is often the case with small businesses, theirs was never planned. Louise was always a creative soul and in 1987 she started buying vintage clothing – particularly tuxedos and jackets – that she re-trimmed with lace and beads. Then she began doing the same with hats.

Louise found success selling her garments through consignment shops in Santa Monica, which inspired her to enroll in millinery classes at a community college. “It’s a little bit backwards the way it sort of happened”, said Louise, “I didn’t wake up one day and decided I want to start a hat company. It was really organic, I simply grew into it. I was always creative but didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I loved designing and sewing and this is where it all started. There was no point of decision or a business plan; I simply worked from day to day and grabbed the opportunities as they came up.”

The Beginning

Lawrence became involved when they began shipping hats across the country. He would come home from his day job and spend his nights tending to the operational affairs of the business – bookkeeping, shipping, marketing and public relations.

The young couple was making hats in the living room of their 1000 square-foot apartment. They had two kids and another on the way. Their cleaning lady became their first employee and then their neighbor started selling hats for a commission.

When one of their neighbors moved out, they took over his apartment. When the business grew they took over another unit, and then another. They ended up with a total of seven one-bedroom apartments -- living out of two and working from the other five -- all on separate floors. The Greens agree that this was the most fun and creative time for the business.

Eventually, they moved to the 6,000 square-foot warehouse they work in today. The Greens bought the building and rented the second floor to a tech company. The residents of Los Angeles’ Westside wanted a location without a commute and that was accessible to customers coming from Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and the San Fernando Valley.

When asked how the business affects their family and marriage, they claimed it’s actually easier than working with a business partner. “I can trust my partner,” Lawrence said. Although Louise and Lawrence always agree about the business’ direction and goals, they sometimes conflict over particular decisions. However, their division of labor – creative and operational – gives them each their own domain and expertise.

Small Business USA

“We are a real small business USA -- a mom-and-pop business -- and we do everything ourselves,” Lawrence said a day after a photo shoot in which he was both the photographer and photo-editor. The Greens say they have saved a lot of money over the years by doing everything themselves, . Because the business wouldn’t be sustainable if they hired people to do their marketing, bookkeeping, graphics, web development, social media and administrative functions, Lawrence wears a lot of hats – figuratively, of course. “When running a small business”, he says, “You have to be modest. There is no point to paying professionals if you’re not making the money.”

After the first trade show in New York, the Greens’ business expanded dramatically, with product moving around the country. Eventually, they added five sales representatives in different regions selling and attended a record nine trade shows a year.

The Greens say a small business owner has to delegate effectively. While Louise comfortably delegates some of her responsibilities, Lawrence still struggles -- which sometimes leads to late nights at the office. “We get the job done but it’s not easy. It’s not easy to delegate or to find good employees,” says Lawrence.

Social Media

Social media has made a positive impact on the Greens’ business. Louise maintains their Facebook and Twitter pages while Lawrence oversees the company blog. Louise communicates with fans, customers and friends — sharing her fashion inspiration and experiences. In turn, customers tell Louise what they would like to see in next season’s collection. Louise never uses social media to overtly promote sales, although she feels it plays an indirect role in increasing her company’s sales. Facebook also presents the face behind the company. According to Louise, many people didn’t realize for a long time that Louise Green is an actual person. Some thought it was a pseudonym while others suspected it was a man. Today, her customers know her and communicate with her directly, which Louise finds to be a great advantage.

Customer Service

The Greens believe in customer service. They try to repair or refresh items free of charge for returning customers because it’s the cheapest and best advertising in addition to inexpensive goodwill. “A good story has legs”, says Louise, “and people tell their friends. This extra few bucks that it costs us, are not going to change the business, but if you have a great rapport and a great reputation, it will change your business”. As a result, they have a lot of returning customers.

Louise says the recession didn’t have too much impact on their business. She believes people will always look for something different, and because her hats are very unique in their quality and design, sales remain high. “When I design”, says Louise, “I don’t worry about the economy; I always try to do the best product that I can.”

The Greens’ Do’s for Starting a Business

The Greens recommend being ultra-conservative and modest with money. Pull in the belt and don’t spend or borrow. When they started, they had no investors and took no loans. When the business started, every penny made was reinvested. It certainly helped that Lawrence was still working.

Louise and Lawrence also believe there’s more to a business than money. “You’ve got to love what you’re doing, love the process and love customer service, say the Greens. “You spend more time at work than you spend at home today, so it’s really important to love your job. Enjoy what you’re doing and the money will come.” The Greens consider themselves fortunate to have found a niche they enjoy so much

To those struggling with job loss caused by economic downturn, the Greens offer hope: Being fired from your job is terrifying but it is also a great opportunity to start doing what you really like doing and what you are truly passionate about. Becoming your own boss and being in control on your own destiny has a great value to it.