White Plum – Modesto’s Worldwide Fashion Brand
By Alex Cantatore
Four years ago, Hilary Zwahlen knew nothing about the fashion business. And sure as heck didn’t know anything about the internet.
Yet, for some reason, Zwahlen decided to open an online clothing business.
Today Zwahlen’s business, White Plum, is one of the hottest up-and-coming clothing brands on the internet. White Plum is on track to do $11 million in sales this year, a staggering rise to success that astonishes even Zwahlen.
“I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that it would turn into this,” Zwahlen said.
In what seems like a past life, Zwahlen made a bit of a name for herself in the entertainment world. She spent 10 years living in Los Angeles, dancing at the Emmy Awards next to Josh Groban, serving as a professional dance partner on Oxygen’s “Dance Your Ass Off,” and starring in an episode of MTV’s “Made.”
“Then I moved to Modesto with my husband,” Zwahlen said.
With a toddler, a newborn, and Los Angeles six hours away, Zwahlen needed to find a new career.
And if she was going to take a risk, now seemed like the best time; she didn’t have a lot of money, so she didn’t have a lot to loose.
At first, Zwahlen thought she’d get into the jewelry trunk show business. But she estimated the start-up costs at $100,000 — more of a risk than she could afford.
So instead, Zwahlen and her husband, Rod, decided to start an online clothing store. The start-up costs seemed lower, and Zwahlen thought she saw an underserved market niche.
Most clothing brands take one of two paths. They either produce sexy, high-end haute couture, or they take the stack ‘em high, price ‘em low budget route.
White Plum would go after the less defined middle of the market. And White Plum would target an in-between age group: 25-35 year-old women, many of them young mothers. Maybe they didn’t have time to go to the mall, or maybe everything at the mall looked too young, or too old. Basically, Zwahlen was targeting herself.
The Zwahlens invested $20,000 to build a website and buy some merchandise. And using a little of her Hollywood expertise, Zwahlen spent $400 on a nice camera to take the photos that would make her products look their best.
“I pretty much bought a lot of stuff, and didn’t make any money for six months,” Zwahlen said.
For those first six months, things didn’t look good. White Plum made no money. And Zwahlen didn’t think she’d get it back, ever.
But suddenly, things started to turn. Zwahlen made a few connections in the world of mommy bloggers, running promotions that had some success here and there.
And through those mommy blogs, flash sale sites took an interest in White Plum. These sites, like Zulily and Jane.com, offer just a limited number of a few items every day — and do big business.
When a flash sale site first reached out to Zwahlen, they asked if she had 150 of one item to participate in a sale. She didn’t; people just thought White Plum was bigger than it was because of their nice website and photography.
And what if she bought those items and they didn’t sell? It was too much of a risk.
Then, by chance, Zwahlen stumbled onto 50 tote bags she had stashed in her newborn’s room. She ordered another 100, took what she describes as “bad pictures,” and entered her first flash sale.
The tote bags sold out in an hour. For the first time, White Plum was really in business.
“One deal at a time, we started to build our business,” Zwahlen said.
Before long, Zwahlen needed help. Rob Zwahlen quit his job to join White Plum in June, 2013. And Jay Zwahlen, Rob’s brother, left his career and bought into White Plum to become a partner in September, 2013.
The business moved from the Zwahlens’ home to a 1,800 square-foot warehouse on 9th St., then moved to a larger, 7,000 square-foot facility in November, 2013 — just one year after the business was founded.
White Plum made nothing in 2012. By 2013, it recorded $2.2 million in sales. The business more than tripled in 2014, to $7.7 million. And this year, White Plum is on track to do $11 million in sales.
Through all that explosive growth, White Plum received no outside funding. In the recession, they couldn’t get a loan or find investors. They applied for as many credit cards as they could and bootstrapped their way up, putting all the profits from past sales on the line every time.
“We essentially put everything on black 30 times, and spun the wheel,” Jay Zwahlen said.
Now, White Plum has 65 employees, ranging from warehouse pickers to customer service and photographers, working in an in-house studio. White Plum ships 500 to 2,000 packages per day; at one point the U.S. Postal Service said the business was the largest shipper of first class packages between Sacramento and Fresno.
Through it all, Hilary, Rod, and Jay Zwahlen relied on each other. With no experience, and no one to ask, they taught themselves and developed their own logistics systems. They learned the best way to print a label, to box orders, and to negotiate shipping rates; it turns out there was a reason others weren’t using USPS.
“I was really kind of obsessive and researched non-stop,” Hilary Zwahlen said. “I’m a big believer that if you have a brain in your head, and access to the internet, you can do anything.”
The trio would work all day, go home, put their kids to bed or go to the gym, and come back to the office. They would work until midnight, night after night, only to wake up early for the next day’s work.
Though the brand’s whimsical, affordable, slightly more conservative fashion has already won over shoppers from across the country, there’s still room to grow. With more hard work, there’s no telling how big White Plum will become.
For More Information, visit whiteplum.com