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									                                                                                                   Business Startt-up

Entrepreneurial duo says it’s the
perfect time to open a plus-size
clothing boutique .
By: Jenn Hardy

When Jessica Mealey and
Katie Burke were 10-year-old
school friends in St. John’s, NL
they dressed Barbie dolls.Fif-
teen years later, at the height of
economic uncertainty, they
would open a boutique and go
into business dressing full-fig-
ured women.

In the span of just over a year
came the idea, the business
plan, and the opening of Struc-
ture Wardrobe and Styling in
St. John’s. The young owners
say the boutique, which carries
quality fashions from all over
North America, is not just a
clothing store but a place where
full-figured women can go for
one-on-one style consultations
and make-up tips.

CAPTION SPACE Two bureaux noisily untangles one lampstand. Two
partly purple wart hogs slightly easily bought Mercury. One Klingon
laughed. Two speedy lampstands lamely tickled the poisons.

                                                                      September/October 2009 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 43
                                                           August, 2008                                  paperwork and necessary red tape.
                                                              Mealey, a fashionista since her high       Inventory, too, was a challenge. When, for
                                                           school years, wears plus size clothing and    example, they ordered “skinny jeans”, a
                                                           has always had a hard time finding nice       popular taper-cut pant, the jeans they
                                                           clothes. Last summer, she and Burke went      received were too small for Structure’s
                                                           on a shopping trip to Winners and came to     clientele. Though the merchandise was
                                                           the conclusion that the clothing selection    sent back and the store credited, it was
                                                           in Mealey’s size was “ridiculous.” That’s     still disappointing. Progress was further
                                                           to say, no 20-something wants to be           complicated when some of their
                                                           caught dead in the floral polyester           merchandise was held at the border by
                                                           muumuu that happened to be left in stock.     Customs. Burke explains that she might be
                                                           Mealey says full-figured women in their       expecting an order on a particular date,
                                                           20s to 40s are often forgotten about. They    but it could be delayed at Customs for
                                                           need to buy something to go to a wedding,     another week.
                                                           for example, and get stuck buying                Still, Burke says neither she nor Mealey
                                                           something just because it’s there and it      were deterred from their goal. “We’ve just
                                                           happens to fit. The trip to Winners may       been on this path for so long with the
                                                           not have allowed her to come away with a      mindset that this is going to happen for us.
                                                           new wardrobe, but it did spark an idea        As far as I’m concerned, we’re attracting
                                                           that would prompt the opening of              all positive things and this is only going to
                                                                                                         go one way for us. And that’s going to be
        Last summer,                                       Structure.
                                                              “Later that night we were hanging out      success.”
      she (Mealey) and                                     and we looked at each other and said,            Burke explains that recession or no
       Burke went on                                       ‘That’s what we should do’.” And so it        recession, people need clothes. “With the
                                                                                                         recession there’s also been the return of the
       a shopping trip                                     was understood that the childhood friends
                                                           would go into business together. They         power suit. People want to make an effort
       to Winners and                                      were soon brainstorming the idea over         to look good at work.”
        came to the                                        Mealey’s kitchen table in Montreal (where
                                                           they then resided). “Neither of us loved
    conclusion that the                                    the jobs we were currently in, and we            It would be unrealistic to expect a
    clothing selection in                                  thought, we can sit in Montreal and wait      business partnership made up of two
        Mealey’s size                                      it out, but someone else might beat us to
                                                           it,” says Mealey. They decided to go home
                                                                                                         childhood friends to be conflict-free, but
                                                                                                         their sisterly relationship works. They
       was “ridiculous.”                                   to St. John’s and do more research.           admit they bicker. Fight like a married
                                                              Mealey found a job working at the          couple, even. But because they have
                                                           competition—basically an undercover           known each other so long, there is no
                                                           spy. While she helped her customers           holding back. There is no secrecy, just
                                                           to the best of her ability, she also          honesty and bluntness.
                                                           noted their recurring disappointment, a          Growing up together in St. John’s,
                                                           disappointment she knew all too well.         Burke and Mealey went their separate
                                                                                                         ways at 14. Mealey went to high school in
                                                           You gotta have faith                          Ottawa while Burke stayed in her home
                                                              Was it youthful naïveté that had Mealey    town. Mealey went on to study political
                                                           and Burke jumping into new business           science in Montreal while Burke studied
                                                           ownership at the exact moment the world       French in France, business at Memorial
                                                           seemed to be crashing economically? They      University, and make-up, special effects
                                                           don’t think so. Both their instincts and      and high fashion in Vancouver. Working in
                                                           first-hand experience said that there was a   the film industry, which she trained for at
                                                           gap in the marketplace. “Even if we had a     the John Casablancas Institute in British
                                                           minor setback we always knew it would         Columbia, didn’t really catch her interest,
                                                           work out,” says Burke a month before the      so she moved to New York, doing
                                                           grand opening.                                freelance make-up and styling on the
                                                              There were a number of setbacks, such      runway, for weddings and in private photo
                                                           as the funding process with its associated    shoots.

44 | Atlantic Business Magazine | September/October 2009
   Burke says her work in New York              on behalf of       the Atlantic Canada
prepared her for the business venture           Opportunities Agency. Burke and Mealey
ahead. “Being involved with the industry,       had applied for assistance and received the
especially in New York where everyone is        maximum loan amount of $20,000 as well
at the top of the game, was tremendous,”        as regular access to an MBO business
she says. “They are the best of the best,       consultant.
and not just knowledgeable in fashion but
in business too. You sponge off them and        Location, location, location
learn as you go and learn how to build an          With plans well underway for a May
educational experience for yourself rather      opening, one big piece of the puzzle was
than reading from a textbook.”                  still missing: they had yet to sign a lease.
   As a child, Mealey’s father (who owns a      Mealey wanted to open their store in
bed and breakfast) instilled in her a love of   downtown St. John’s on Water Street, the
business ownership. During university and       oldest street in the country. Though
after graduation, Mealey worked a variety       bustling with traffic thanks to the area’s
of jobs in advertising, administration and      many pubs, restaurants, offices and high-
corporate research. Those seemingly             end boutiques, Burke was concerned
random jobs, she says, provided her with        about the high lease rates and lack of
the perfect skill set for a budding             parking – she says parking in that area is
entrepreneur.                                   an “absolute nightmare.” They settled on
                                                the Churchill Square shopping district,
Counting their pennies                          located in the east end of the city. The
                                                                                                       She explains
   Like many aspiring business owners,          clean, family-friendly neighbourhood has            that when you are
these two 25-year-olds weren’t exactly
sitting on a cushion of cash. They
                                                plenty of parking as well as government
                                                offices, banks and Memorial University in
                                                                                                  14-plus, clothes can
contributed their own meagre resources to       close proximity. As professional working          be really expensive,
the cause, but it wasn’t enough. And,
though they had originally hoped for
                                                women make up a good portion of
                                                Structure’s clientele, it turned out to be an
                                                                                                    and not because
government funding, they didn’t even            ideal location.                                    they are particularly
apply because of retail’s high-risk nature
and the associated difficulty for grant
                                                   “We like the fact that Churchill Square
                                                has a sense of exclusivity to it,” says
                                                                                                     good quality, but
approval. Besides, Mealey says, there are       Mealey. “We like to think of our store that         just because they
always opportunities for government             way. Almost like an exclusive women’s                can be hard to
expansion funding in the future, after          club that’s hidden away and you can come
they’ve proved their worth. They also           shop and feel comfortable and get an                     come by.
initially shied away from bank financing        honest opinion. It’s a different sort of
because, in addition to money, they were        shopping experience.”
also looking for advice and direction.             Different indeed. Structure is not just
   That led them to the YMCA-affiliated         another big-box clothing chain, the kind
Y-enterprise in St. John’s, a “Community        which frustrated Mealey for years. “If
Partner” of the Canadian Youth Business         you’re a size eight, you can go to 10
Foundation. There, they met with a              different places and shop around,” says
consultant who helped with the financial        Mealey. She explains that when you are
aspects of their business plan by working       14-plus, clothes can be really expensive,
with them to determine projected start-up       and not because they are particularly good
costs and sales. Mealey says Y-enterprise       quality, but just because they can be hard
was also a great resource in terms of           to come by.
seeking sources for funding.                       Not only is Structure a place to buy
   In February, 2009, they received a call      clothes, but as the store’s full name
from Metro Business Opportunities, a            suggests, there is a style element. “It’s not
non-profit corporation in St. John’s which      just a store, it’s a service,” says Mealey.
helps entrepreneurs in the creation of their    There are two parts to the business:
businesses. MBO administers funding,            clothing sales and style consultations.
through a program called Seed Capital,          Burke, with her eye for style and years of

                                                                                                September/October 2009 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 45
CAPTION SPACE Two bureaux noisily untangles one lampstand. Two partly purple wart hogs slightly easily bought Mercury. One Klingon laughed. Two speedy lampstands lamely tickled the poisons.
Umpteen very irascible pawnbrokers fights the poisons, although Quark grew up, then Mark untangles Mercury, but two quixotic trailers grew up. One speedy dog laughed, then dwarves towed f

experience in the industry, is able to help                     following CBC radio program On The Go                            Early days
clients dress properly for their body type.                     on Twitter, contacted the show’s host, Ted                         Three months in and everything is still
She jokes that it’s like an outlet for TLC’s                    Blades. After a series of conversations                          running smoothly, even after two break-
fashion faux-pas televison show, What                           about the business, Blades decided to visit                      ins in two weeks. The first time, the
Not to Wear. Like show hosts Stacy                              the store and interview the women not                            thieves didn’t find much cash, though, the
London and Clinton Kelly, Burke and                             only about selling clothes, but about body                       women laugh, the “polite” thieves even
Mealey guide their clients through the do’s                     image in general. This was followed by an                        took the dimes. (They left the pennies.)
and don’ts of fashion. “Women come in                           article in a local bi-weekly newspaper, The                      The second time around, they made away
all shapes and sizes,” says Burke. “We can                      Current, and a four-minute televised                             with Mealey’s Ipod and dock, as well as
teach people what does and doesn’t look                         business profile on NTV. Demonstrating                           the “ancient” camera she was using to
good, and how to camouflage areas that                          their growing acumen, they invited well-                         take pictures for this publication.
might be imperfect.”                                            known local singer and entertainer,                                The good news is that clothes are selling
                                                                Shelley Neville, to model for them during                        and customers are returning. Though sales
Grand opening                                                   the segment.                                                     were going well (in May, they doubled
   In the days leading up to Structure’s                           Mealey says the response has been                             their financial projections for the month),
launch, the pair had a million little details                   phenomenal. “We have had nothing but                             they soon realized they needed more
to take care of, from final paint touch-ups,                    positive feedback and customers telling us                       resources so they could increase their
to setting up the phone system and laying                       that our service was desperately needed,”                        inventory. They decided to apply for an
out the store. They were also busy                              she says. “Women are coming forward                              expansion loan from the Canadian Youth
marketing their new venture, sending out                        with their thoughts and feelings on what                         Business Foundation, facilitated by Y-
press releases and doing a lot of Internet                      they would like to see in the store, which                       enterprise. CYBF is a program for
promotion, as well as asking family and                         we love. We have a market that is                                entrepreneurs which matches them with
friends to spread the word. They scored a                       untapped for the most part, at our                               mentors who act as a sounding board
huge coup when Mealey, who had been                             fingertips.”                                                     when difficulties arise.         The loan

46 | Atlantic Business Magazine | September/October 2009
application involved a presentation           say we didn’t have the right inventory at   hashing out an agreement, and hope to
before an eight-person panel. Mealey said     the right time.”                            launch the custom clothing line by the
their props, including a rack of                Their simple solution to slow             end of 2010 or beginning of 2011.
merchandise, didn’t quite hit home to the     suppliers? DIY (do it yourself).
mostly-male panel, but when they started      Structure’s    future    plans    include
talking numbers, ears perked up.              minimizing their dependence on the
                                                                                                                Enter our online trivia contest:
   “Most people who apply for the CYBF        middle men and women. They are in the                   
funding have not opened their business        beginning stages of getting a designer to                         Volume 11, Number 1
yet, so we were in a unique position,”        work with, as well as finding a North                             (2002) A profile of Robert Manuge
says Mealey, “but it also benefited us        American factory to produce the                                   reveals details of secret Project Y:
                                                                                                                the Nova Scotia industrialist’s top
because we were in a position to say          merchandise. By the middle of next year                           secret strategy to attract Michelin
‘we’ve been open for over a month, this is    they hope to be in the final stages of                            Tire to Pictou County.
the response we’ve gotten and this is how
much we’ve done in sales, etc...’.”
   Still, the panel asked tough questions.
They wanted to know why, if this
demographic is booming in North
                                               Supercharge your website.
America, and it’s such a profitable                  Adding video is easier, and less expensive, than you think.
market, why aren’t other stores adding
plus size to the selection? Like Structure,
every clothing store has to have a focus.
Mealey has realized it is impossible to
please everyone, and is focussed on
sticking to what she knows. Customers
shouldn’t walk into Structure looking for                     PEDERSEN PRODUCTIONS INC.
a t-shirt. Much of the clothing is simple,
                                                       Decades of experience helping people tell their stories on camera.
and not too expensive, but it is a
boutique, not Wal-Mart.              | | 902.220.6842
   The questions from the CYBF
were answered correctly, and with a
matching contribution from the Business
Development Bank of Canada (which is
partnered with the CYBF for this lending
program), Burke and Mealey welcomed
$10,000 into their account to go towards
stock and advertising.
   Always eager to receive feedback and
tips, the duo, in July, initiated monthly
get-togethers with other female boutique-
owners in the city. At a coffee shop
or in someone’s living room, they talk
about strategy, finance, challenges and            Growing Strong Aboriginal Business
marketing. “It’s a time and a forum for us
to exchange ideas and talk about our
                                                          in Atlantic Canada!
experiences, because we have different
                                                      Thinking of starting or expanding your business...
businesses but can still learn from each
other,” says Mealey.                                     Ulnooweg offers business loans and business
In the future...                                       support services to help Aboriginal entrepreneurs
   In the short time Structure’s doors have                      reach their dreams and goals.
been open, the owners have come to
realize the annoyance of having to depend
                                                              Ulnooweg strives to provide service to
on suppliers.
   “We discovered that our collections                         all communities in Atlantic Canada.
were not released in the time line we
needed for our customers,” says Burke.
“They are coming up with the summer
                                                                Contact our Toll Free 1.888.766.2376 or
stuff in the first part of July, but our
                                                      email: to discuss your business needs.
customers are preparing to go away for
holidays and like to make purchases in                         
advance…. We are able to look back, and

                                                                                           September/October 2009 | Atlantic Business Magazine | 47

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