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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, July 9, 2012, 6:57 am

Lessons from little failures can prove large

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    Brad Bollinger, Business Journal Editor in ChiefIn 1989, Missy Park was told the only way to launch a mail-order company was to send out no fewer than 250,000 catalogs.

    The founder of Title Nine sportswear and the keynote speaker at the Business Journal’s June 28 Women in Business Awards Gala didn’t have the resources to come anywhere near that number. So she gathered her friends to model the clothing and take the photos and she mailed out 30,000 catalogs.

    Then she sat by her home phone waiting for the orders to pour in.

    The results weren’t exactly overwhelming. She received 56 orders — but only 13 were from someone other than her friends.

    But she did notice one thing: All of the orders included a sports bra. So she took that kernel of information and acted on it. Today Title Nine sells 250,000 sports bras a year and the company employs nearly 300 people across eight states and 21 locations.

    Missy Park

    Missy Park

    The message for the audience of 280 people attending the awards gala was this: From small failures come the seeds of success.

    Another example.

    Title Nine’s first retail outlet — the Berkeley-based company has 19 stores today along with its thriving catalog and online business — was a less than ideal location in “the most dangerous area in town,” she was told. But the rent was reasonable and thus the risk of failure small. The company has carried that philosophy forward spending about $40,000 to establish a retail location compared to the industry standard in the hundreds of thousands.

    Taking smart risks inexpensively — and failing cheaply — allows the company to experiment without threatening the entire enterprise. Title Nine’s current bit or risk taking: Challenging Victoria Secret’s dominance of the bra market with a new website and catalog called BOUNCE.

    “You reach success through many little failures,” Ms. Park said.  To that end, Title Nine has an annual employee competition for the best failure. Over the years, the company has used that competition for continuous improvement — and a lot of laughs.

    And what is Ms. Park’s challenge to women entrepreneurs: Don’t avoid trying something because of the fear you might fail. But fail cheaply and fail smarter.

    ***

    Last word: A clear highlight of the June 27 Business Journal conference and premiere showing of the HBO series Weight of the Nation was a live cooking demonstration by Kaiser Permanente’s Dr. Preston Maring.

    Dr. Maring and two helpers and fellow panelists, Peter Rumble, Sonoma County director of Health Policy, Planning and Evaluation and Larry Meredith, director of Marin County Health & Human Services, prepared a corn, cilantro and tomato salad employing Dr. Maring’s efficient chopping techniques.  Those included a single slice through multiple cherry tomatoes held flat and stable between two plastic lids.

    Dr. Maring, who has lead the effort to establish farmers’ markets at Kaiser facilities — there are now 40 of them in five states — quips that a family’s diet can be transformed with two simple tools: A sharp knife (don’t be afraid to get one) and a cutting board. 

    Go ahead. Just try it, he said. Toss in a little fresh vinaigrette and add red onions to the corn, cilantro and tomatoes and enjoy.

    Brad Bollinger is the editor and associate publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.

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