The Unbelts Story: 10 Years, 10 Lessons Learned

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The Unbelts Story: 10 Years, 10 Lessons Learned

Unbelts founder Claire here *wave*. 

10 years ago this month, I sold my very first no-bulk stretch belt. Building this business over a decade (!) has brought a ton of change and a lot of hard decisions: bigger margins or ethical labour? Outside investment, or going it solo? Paid marketing, or dynamite customer service and word-of-mouth sales?  And one of the biggest: avoiding failure, or learning to fix mistakes? 

Jump into the Delorian with us and take a trip back in time.  (And don’t forget to tune in to my Instagram Live talk with Candice Munro from Buttercream Clothing July 21st at 8:30pm MDT if you want to hear more of *two* business’ unconventional growth stories - there’s going to be some real real talk.)

October 2010: Help, my jeans don’t fit 

I didn’t mean to start a business at first - but I did need a comfortable belt. My jeans hadn’t fit perfectly since I got hips as a teen - pants always fit in the thighs and hips, but gaped out at the waist.

When I moved to Shanghai after graduating from the University of Alberta* in 2008, this only became more challenging. My weight was fluctuating and I was having a really hard time finding pants that fit me properly - my butt was a M in North American sizes and, for real, a 2XL in China. What I’d end up doing is buying something that sort of fit and then trying to close the gap (literally) with a stretchy belt thing that I had made with the help of a tailor on my street.

I thought that finding pants that fit was a “me problem”, but the more people I talked to, the more I learned how many of us were struggling to find jeans that fit in both the waist and the hips. We were hitching up our pants all day or settling for bulky belts that were hard to wear under a t-shirt. 

*I studied Industrial Design and Mandarin Chinese. No one, myself included, knew what on earth I’d do with that combination. It’s probably a good thing I built my own job. 

Lesson learned → Don’t assume you’re the only weirdo. If no one’s pants fit, everyone’s normal.

October 2010: Time to prototype

Elastic, stretch belt prototype on couch

I started small. Real small. I’d been living in Shanghai since 2008, first continuing my Mandarin studies and then working for a non-profit in marketing. By 2010 I’d left that job and was working hourly doing all sorts of odd jobs. Perhaps the most unique was providing business etiquette consulting, which included taking C-suite executives for steak dinners to improve their confidence at Western-style business meals. I could support myself and  have time left over for hobbies like developing the size-inclusive stretch belt of my dreams.

I made about 60 prototypes in my apartment in Shanghai, and I gave them out to friends and friends of friends who provided me with early feedback - what they liked and didn’t like about different fabrics, buckles, and styles. 

A friend from home who’d been hearing about my belt idea generously and unexpectedly offered me $2,500 to see if I could make the business fly. I budgeted very, very carefully and spent the following months hunting down local suppliers who were willing to take a chance on me by making tiny quantities of their elastic, buckles, and labels instead of the tens of thousands they were used to. 

This was a terrifying period. Knowing someone else’s money was in the pot paralyzed me for a long time - I’d take days to decide on the smallest details, and small setbacks made me feel completely defeated. I’ve always been a perfectionist and, at 26, I hadn’t had a lot of chances for failure. I would learn that mistakes are okay and that getting something tested is more important than getting something perfect, but I wasn’t there yet.

Lesson learned → Forgive yourself for paralysis by analysis. Your inner saboteur doesn’t need an extra layer of self-criticsm.

July 2011: We have a product! Kind of.

Bag of elastic Disaster: the first batch of elastic that was delivered to my apartment was wayyyy too stretchy - more like wet, limp noodles than a robust pant keeper-upper. 

I wept.

And after a few days, I got on the phone with the factory. They had no reason to care enough about my order to re-make it - I was a tiny, tiny tadpole in a very large customer pool, and I’d had to pay upfront for them to even consider working with me - but the manager finally agreed to a re-do when I explained that I couldn’t get my very first business off the ground without their help. 

Lesson learned → Be a human in negotiations. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the wrong or in the right - if you can’t get the other party to engage with you, you’re out of luck. 

I decided to call the business “Flatter:Me Belts” because the belt was flat under t-shirts. I hated the name, but had to start with something (my perfectionist self was learning). Two women in my neighbourhood sewed about 300 belts, and in July 2011, I packed those belts in my suitcase and flew with them to Vancouver and Edmonton to see if I could find retailers. I chose stores that carried Spanx, thinking that sassy shapewear customers would also be into no-bulk belts, and the hunch paid off. Almost no one said no, and I used the revenue from our first 20 retailers  to pay my tailors to sew more belts.

January 2013: Maybe I can’t do everything myself

Kristina Cartwright and Claire Theaker-Brown

For the first two years of the business I was doing sourcing, production management, sales, marketing, graphic design, web design, you name it. I had a lot of help from generous friends and family who offered their time, expertise, and packaging/sending abilities, including my university friend Carla, who stored and shipped belts from her spare bedroom in Vancouver. But there came a point where paying people in belts and lattes while trying to juggle all the big stuff myself wasn’t going to cut it anymore.  

Kristina was my first hire in 2013, and she still works at Unbelts today. Her partner Taylor had been on my rowing team in university, and we became friends on the shorelines at competitions. We’d stayed in touch when I moved to Shanghai, and Kristina herself had moved abroad to France. Our work days overlapped, but her being 7 hours earlier meant that she could make Canadian business calls on my behalf - and voila, I no longer had to stay up until 2 a.m. to collect retailer payments. Kristina quickly became invaluable to the business and when she moved back to Canada, shipped our belts from her spare bedroom; she became my right-hand person.

Lesson learned → You don’t have to go it alone. And you’ll get more sleep if you don’t. 

September 2014: Goodbye Shanghai, Hello Edmonton

Claire Theaker-Brown with suitcase

I initially flew to Shanghai with two suitcases and a student visa. I never imagined I'd stay so long, or that I'd return to Canada with (in no particular order) a cat, a marriage, and a business. 

When I moved back to Edmonton, Unbelts HQ moved from my apartment to Startup Edmonton, a downtown entrepreneurial hub. I was devastated to leave behind my community in Shanghai, and especially the tight-knit group of small business owners who thrived on cooperation and knowledge-sharing. I was nervous about growing the business in Canada - though finally being in the same time zone as our customers was pretty darn exciting.

The first phone call I made on my Canadian phone was to Alberta Women Entrepreneurs to ask about programming for new (-again) Edmontonians. I sought out other business owners who were open to sharing their experiences and resources, because I was starting from scratch, and I trusted that one day, I’d have valuable info to share with them, too. It turned out that a lot of people were pretty interested in learning about ethical sourcing in China - so a lot of cups of coffee with a lot of new acquaintances turned into a pretty good foundation for the business’ next chapter.

Lesson learned → When you move, pack the best things about your last home and bring them to your new one. I found the non-competitive, open-source-business spirit of Shanghai hard to find in Edmonton at first - so I found a few people who would create it with me.

November 2015: Getting our B Corp Certification 

B Corporation sign on table

The words “ethical fashion” were starting to buzz, and big, fast-fashion companies were starting to use them to promote their offerings. I saw a pretty urgent need to show our customers we were really walking our talk - especially after four years of long train rides to small, family-owned factories, frank conversations with our sewing team about their needs, learning about studio waste management, and everything else we were doing to run the most sustainable little business we could.

I learned about B Corporations, which rigorously assess businesses across industries for their upholding of social and environmental sustainability values. After an intense application process, we became Canada’s first fashion-industry B Corp outside of Toronto, and only the fourth in Canada.

Our B Corp status means we meet the highest verified standards of social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability. For us, getting certified has been a way for us to measure what we’re currently doing - and hold ourselves accountable for learning and improving further over time. 

Lesson learned → Set a crazy goal, like B Corp certification, even if you don’t know how you’ll get there. Break it down into little manageable chunks and ask for help along the way.

December 2015: Oh, Baby

Claire Theaker-Brown pregnant outdoors

In December 2015, we welcomed my daughter Penelope.  It meant big changes all around: to my body (I’d never been so happy to be in the stretch belt biz), and to how I thought about the business.  It became a year in which we focused on building systems (a wholesale website, a part-time shipping assistant role) that helped the business run with less of me. In a wonderful full-circle moment, I hired my former Industrial Design instructor and mentor, Steve, to manage order fulfillment.

This was an extremely challenging time. I couldn’t take a traditional one-year maternity leave, and there weren’t a lot of supports for a new mom who was also an entrepreneur. I felt out of place everywhere I went - showing up to a postnatal support group in a blazer and being mistaken for the facilitator, then showing up to work wearing a BabyBjorn and being asked by the front desk attendant who I was visiting. Sometimes, I felt like I was living the hustle and setting a great example for this baby girl who’d grow up to know it was okay to be a woman with multiple, powerful identities. But most of the time, I felt like a failure at home and at work. 

Lesson learned → The world is not built for new parents who own businesses, but those who have been through it before will be there for you. Seek out suppliers who won’t be freaked out when you have to use their conference room to feed your baby. And kick out the cardboard box rep who visits your office, laughs at the playpen, and tells you it looks like a daycare. You don’t need that in your life. You’re already covered in spit-up.

June 2017: Time to change everything 

Unbelts rebrand, clothing tags, thread, scissors

After six years, it was time to retire the Flatter:Me name and brand. I love a pun, but I never loved implying that our customers should be flatter than they are. Flat, round, pear, somewhere in-between for six days every month - we’re not in the business of judging bodies. We’re just here to cover great butts with great belts. 

Flatter:Me also reflected a time when I was thinking small (fun fact: the reason for the original black and green branding was because I scored an amazing deal on lime green ribbon and black-and-white polka-dot bags from a supplier clearing them out). The name was trademarked outside of Canada and I knew that if we ever wanted to go beyond our borders, we couldn't be getting ouselves sued.

We chose Unbelts because we needed a name that would resonate with every person who says “Oh, I never wear belts,” or “I hate belts.” We’d learned that these peeps? They’re our best customers. We don’t make leather belts. We make comfy belts. No-bulk belts. Invisible belts. Pant keeper-uppers that are so comfy you forget you have them on.

Lesson learned → Choose a name that will let you and your customers grow.

May 2019: Ready for our close-up 

Unbelts, Dragon's Den

In the Spring of 2019, five months pregnant with my second baby, I decided last-minute to audition for Dragon’s Den (for the Americans in the room, that’s Canada’s Shark Tank). I couldn’t believe it when I was selected to pitch to the Dragons, and had to check with my doctor and midwife: filming was scheduled for late May, when I would be deep into my third trimester. We decided I’d go for it.

A quick solo trip to Toronto (the last alone time I’d have for two years) and a hectic and sweaty filming day later, and the deed was done. I couldn’t tell anyone what had happened in the Den - the confidentiality agreement was REAL real. When the episode aired on Halloween later that year, I had a three month-old. Every Dragon’s Den fan in Canada saw me cry on-screen, and witnessed the most pregnant-ever pitcher receive two deals. 

Lesson learned → Notice what your comfort zone is and treat it like an interesting set of information that doesn't actually need to define your actions. Getting in front of cameras is NOT my happy place. I impersonated a person who was more comfortable than I was, and the payoff was real. I grew so much in confidence that less than a year later, Unbelts had its U.S. national TV Debut on The View.

May 2020: Wanna buy a mask?

Right after our appearance on The View, the world shut down. Our episode was the last one taped live in front of an audience, and the Unbelts team, too, dispersed to work from home.

Sabrina packing masks

Our spring trade shows for belts were cancelled, our retailers were closing their doors due to government mandates, and we needed to figure out how to stay viable through very uncertain times.

In some ways, pivoting to cloth masks as a belt company was a weird move. But in many ways, it made perfect sense. We’re in the business of providing comfortable, washable, problem-solving products for diverse bodies. The masks on the market at the time weren’t getting great reviews for comfort, and we knew we could provide a better solution.

We also needed to keep our suppliers alive if we wanted our belt business back up and running after COVID. The relationships we have with the people who make our elastic, our buckles, our thread, and packaging run deep. Our elastic factory and our component suppliers who were dealing with uncertain sales due to the pandemic needed our support - badly. 

Another major COVID pivot: the learning cohort that our manager Krista and I formed with another local family so our three school-aged kids could learn together at home supervised by parents who could keep their jobs. This was a wild year of personal and professional lives blending, in many ways, inextricably. I hope the world will never forget what it learned about the real demands of caregiving, and that respect and support for working parents - especially moms - will turn into real and lasting policy change.

Lesson learned → In a crisis, act fast to control what you can. You only have to be 70% sure that your decision is a good one if you know you’re facing 100% disaster by doing nothing. 

The future: world belt domination

Woman wearing stretch belt with suitcase

We’ve got some serious goals, and some serious hills to climb.

Sometimes, I feel like we’re in the weeds. We’re transitioning out of our COVID pivot and getting back into the world of belts (has there ever been a better time to be selling stretch waistbands, really?). Big risks were taken over the past year, and most of them paid off (mask customers - THANK YOU, friends), but we made some big mistakes, too. We have to move through our mask inventory so we can get all our belts back in stock, and we’re still figuring out how to navigate a bigger stock balancing challenge than we’ve ever had before. 

But when I zoom out, I see the big picture. We’re really excited about the next iteration of our genderless belts. We’re building our line of upcycled products made from studio waste. We’re researching new eco-materials that no one’s ever made elastic from before. We’re broadening our affiliate program of passionate customers who want to tell their story for us, and get paid for it (interested? Email us). COVID turned our business model on its head and allowed us to connect directly with thousands of new customers - if that’s you, HI! ...and we’re dead-set on turning every single mask buyer into an Unbelt-wearer, too.

I can’t believe it’s been a decade since the first Unbelt was put on a retail shelf. I can’t wait to see what the next ten years bring. And I thank you for joining us, whether it’s this year or our first, because we’ve got a lot we want to do together.

Claire