Hi everybody, welcome to podcast Episode #7 of Season 2 of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast. My name is Marcus Neto and I’m your host. This is a podcast about the people behind the business community here in the Mobile area. I know you have a lot of choices when it come to podcasts so I’d like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In this episode we had a chance to sit down with Megan Kowal. Megan is the owner and creative mind behind Mermania Swimwear. She is part of a small but growing fashion community here in Mobile. She has been active in the Mobile Fashion Council. Mermania has an online store and is also located in the Urban Emporium in Downtown Mobile on Dauphin Street. She is also convinced Mermaids are real.
So let’s dive right in with Megan Kowal.
Marcus Neto: Welcome to the podcast Megan.
Megan Kowal: I'm so excited to be here. How are you this morning?
Marcus Neto: I'm doing well. I have to say I'm excited to have you here because you have a business that has a couple of different aspects that we've not talked to anybody about before. The whole fashion side of things is not something that I think a lot of people think of when they think of Mobile, which I think is really cool because I know a couple of people from that scene, and it is growing, and there's a lot of really cool things going on there. Then the other thing too is I know you have kind of an eCommerce side of the business, but you're also involved in the Urban Emporium. We've talked to Carol in season one, episode 10 or something like that, and she was talking about the efforts that they've put into that to try and provide a platform for new retailers and stuff.
Megan Kowal: They've really just made an amazing experience down there just being a retail incubator. It's just really cool knowing that me personally I'm not quite ready to have my own store front and my own staff. I don't have the money for the inventory, all of that, but they really have developed a great system to just give you the support, the knowledge, everything that you need to be successful as just a young entrepreneur. Learn what you need to learn before you spend all this money and then fail in a year. They're amazing. I would recommend it to anybody starting out in retail.
Marcus Neto: I have one point, I did know own a retail shop, and so I know filling even a small space of a thousand or 15,000 square feet, that takes a huge investment. Before we go too far down that path, we haven't even said what you do. Why don't you tell us about Mermania and your business and how you got started and all that good stuff?
Megan Kowal: I am designer for Mermania Swimwear. I started it as a personal goal. I'm very good friends with the guy who puts on Mobile Fashion Week, Richard Miguel. Then just [inaudible 00:02:10] I've met the board as well and just everybody part of that team is just so passionate about the event. I was a part of it because I was working with a boutique that I worked at, just a style for the event. I worked at a popup shop, and I was really inspired by the designers. We really don't have many local designers. We have a couple in the area, but for the most part we don't have very many. I feel like there's such an appreciation of our art, especially in the downtown area of Mobile.
I knew it was something that I wanted to do. It was just a personal goal of mine to just have a line. I wasn't even sure what I wanted to do yet, but just have a line to walk in Mobile Fashion Week of 2015. I worked for about a year on it. I tried doing dresses, and I was just like, "I like this, but I don't love it." I just ended up with all this swimwear fabric, and I was like, "I'm going to make a bathing suit. Let's see what happens." The first one I made was horrible, but I really loved it. I was like, "This is what I want to do."
I feel that this is a need that needs to be filled. It's way too hard for a woman to find a swimsuit that looks good on her, is affordable, is cute. It's just way too hard. I was like, "This is what I want to do." It was still just something that I was doing for myself. I made 12 swimsuits for the event they showed at Mobile Fashion Week and just people feel in love. It was crazy. I was like, "Might as well make it a career." That's kind of where it all started and it's just been quite a ride since then.
Marcus Neto: It's really cool. Obviously, it doesn't hurt that we're so close to the beach either. It was like such an opportunity. It was literally just ended out with some swimwear fabric?
Megan Kowal: Yeah, I bought the fabric because I loved the texture of it. I was trying to make some just flowy dresses. It was just really like [waved 00:04:11] and it was just really fun colors. I actually went to a sowing class and I asked the ladies, "What kind of fabric is this? I really like it." She was like, "This is like bathing suit fabric? I don't really know why you have it."
Marcus Neto: That's too funny. I remember when I made my very first website. I think I spent two months or something like that building my very first website for David's Counter Culture down at the beach. I don't even think that they exist anymore. I can say this now because they're no longer in existence, but I knew that that website back in 2004, 2005 was crap. I look back at that now and I'm like, "Man, I can do so much better." But there was just something about that first experience that just kind of took me down that path, and I was like, "That's it. I'm on the road that I need to on." I would imagine that's very similar to what your experiencing.
Like I said, we had Carol from Downtown Mobile Alliance on, and she explained a bit about the Emporium. I know you talked about the difficulties of a small business filling out a thousand square feet. You've kind of gone down the path of having an eCommerce aside, which one came first? Was it the eCommerce or the-
Megan Kowal: It was absolutely the eCommerce. My previous job before I went full-time with Mermania, I was very involved with the website for that boutique. I'm just so thankful to them for everything that they taught me when it comes to building websites and the importance of just quality pictures and the right kinds of models for your brand. I learned a lot from doing that, and I felt ready to do it for myself. The website definitely came first. The website was out like the week before Mobile Fashion Week when Mermania showed. The website's been around going on a year, the store's only been around since March.
Marcus Neto: If this gets too technical, then we can back out of this, but I noticed your using Shopify.
Megan Kowal: Yes.
Marcus Neto: Was that a conscious decision? Did you-
Megan Kowal: Yes, it was. I'm familiar with WordPress. That's where the other boutique site was that I learned a lot from. Just from reading reviews and just doing research on it, I felt Shopify was a better avenue for me to start, so I ended up doing that. I've loved every single step with Shopify. It's just been so easy to use. Actually, the boutique that I worked for we ended up moving over to Shopify, and it's just been an amazing decision.
Marcus Neto: Unless you're going to spend quite a bit of money doing a custom commerce site, Shopify is just absolutely amazing in what they offer retailers. I know there are businesses that are doing millions of dollars on Shopify. There's no limitation on it. If you're listening to this and you're trying to get eCommerce as something that you're offering, definitely look into because I think they started with like 30 bucks or something like that a month?
Megan Kowal: Yeah, they have the basic plan is I'm going to say it's $29 a month, that gives you a beautiful website. For the most part, everything that you need. Then the next plan is I want to say $79 a month, but it gives you like all of your recordings, your taxes, literally everything you would need to just keep up with that end of the business. If you're not quite ready for that, $79 a month, then the $29 gives you a beautiful very functional website.
Marcus Neto: The flip side is I think the last commerce site that we did was well over $20,000. If you're looking for a platform that's going to give a lot of functionality and you can live with the themes, because they have a lot of options as far as these go and stuff.
Megan Kowal: Yeah, they have free themes, and they have beautiful, beautiful themes that you can pay for. It's great.
Marcus Neto: It is awesome. If you were talking to someone that wanted to start a business in the fashion industry, what would you tell that person? You're relatively a year end of this, you're new, but you're also seasoned because you've worked kind of in this industry for long I would say.
Megan Kowal: I would say really find your niche. If you want to open a boutique, open a boutique, but find a niche because there are so many of them. That's why they just come and go, come and go. There's a boutique on every corner and then in six months it's closed. Because you really have to fill a need. That's what I was able to do with Mermania, especially with the custom side of making the swimwear. I have this stuff that anybody can just buy on my website. Small, medium, large, extra-large, whatever. Find something that people need and that they want, and then jump into the fashion industry. Because if you just open a store and there's just so many boutiques everywhere.
Marcus Neto: As far a running the business goes because I would imagine there's two different aspects to this, there's the creative aspect of, "Oh, look. This is awesome fabric, and I want to make something really cool out of this." I get it because we're in the same place, but then there's this other, for creatives, there's this other side of the business that deals with like profit and loss statements and balance sheets and funding and cash flow and all those other stuff, and even the marketing side of things like social media and understanding what converts and stuff like that. What have you found to be the struggle or what have you learned in the last year?
Megan Kowal: My biggest struggle has been just with managing the time between the two. I went to school for business administration, so I'm very familiar with basic accounting principles, how all of that works, how it makes such a huge impact in your business in general. I specialize in marketing, so I'm familiar with that end as well, I can do graphic design. There hasn't been one specific area that I felt weak in. It's more finding the time to do all of them by myself and not feeling like I'm putting enough energy here, so then this starts to falter a little bit or I started really focusing on the accounting side of it, I'm not producing as much. It's been really hard too just literally just find the time to get it all done.
Marcus Neto: When you are one person finding time to do the things that actually generate the income versus spending time on the things that you know you have to do in order to keep the business healthy, sometimes you struggle.
Megan Kowal: I just have an overwhelming support from my friends and family. They all know if I'm starting to struggle a little bit or there's just like stars in my eyes. Like, "Megan, [inaudible 00:11:14] fabrics." It's like, "Whatever you need."
Marcus Neto: It's time to put one of those suits to good use and go take advantage of the water or something like that. I normally ask and I would open this up, I ask the question of what are the last two books that you've read that you found helpful? Even opening that up to what are the last two resources that you found helpful?
Megan Kowal: There's this one book that I have really loved. It was actually one that I read while just starting the Mermania website. It was just literally Starting an eCommerce Site for Dummies. It's pretty straightforward. It just gives such good information. Even though I felt like I knew the basic principles, I really wanted something that just went into depth of areas that I may not have even thought about before because what I knew was just from working on it at work. I've never been properly trained in it. That book was very, very helpful. If you're interested in doing eCommerce, I would highly recommend just running out to Books-A-Million and grabbing-
Marcus Neto: eCommerce for Dummies. Was that the name?
Megan Kowal: It was Starting an eCommerce Site for Dummies.
Marcus Neto: It was literally like one of those yellow and black?
Megan Kowal: Yeah, it was a big yellow book. There was a ton of information in there. Then there's another one. I cannot think of the lady's name. She's the owner Nasty Gal. She started that company.
Marcus Neto: I can't remember the name either, but I know who you're talking about.
Megan Kowal: What is it? I'm drawing white. What is the name of that book she wrote? It talks about just like how she started it and decisions that she had to make through the process of Nasty Gal.
Marcus Neto: For those of your that are listening, we're frantically googling this too.
Megan Kowal: As soon as you say her name and the name of the book, I'm like, "Oh my gosh, how could I even forget?" That book is really incredible. It even talks about how-
Speaker 3: Is this #GIRLBOSS?
Megan Kowal: #GIRLBOSS. What is her name?
Speaker 3: It's Sophia Amoruso.
Megan Kowal: Yes, yes. That's exactly it. You're right. You cannot be more right. She talks about how she had to make the hard decision of just deciding she wasn't the best person to be CEO of her company. I think that that is a decision that a lot of people should sit down and think about because you may have started this out, but now that you've grown it into a multi-million dollar business, are you still the best person to keep up with all of it? You could have just been the creative person and it turned into this, but are you the best business minded person to run this company? I just really love that she was able to set back and say, "If I really want this to keep going, if I want to keep this growing, I need to find someone with the right mentality for this." And it just wasn't her.
Marcus Neto: Have you ever read the E-Myth?
Megan Kowal: I have not.
Marcus Neto: Because it sounds like what you're saying kind of parallels that book. That is a book that I will literally keep extra copies and just hand it to people because the premise of that book is that often times we are technicians that find ourselves starting a business. I may be a photographer or a person that loves photography, and then I decide, "I love this so much, I'm going to make a business out of it." Then at some point in time, that business grows to the point where you really need to start putting a lot of the emphasis into the business side of things, and you lose touch with the side that really made you fall in love with, the reason why you went into it.
He uses the example of a lady that loves to bake pies or bake cakes, I forget which one it is, but she's a baker. She starts making more and more, and then she has to hire somebody to actually make them because she's dealing with all the business side of things. Then the business grows and he actually talk about you actually have to if you're going to start and run a business, then you have to spend time on the business, and then you hire people to actually do the task. A lot of people do want to do that. They actually want to do the task, but they want to be able to dictate what the culture of the business is.
What you're talking about isn't necessarily something that he covers, because I think there are a lot of people that would benefit from just saying, "You know what? I started this. I'm going to bring somebody in who is business minded and let them kind of handle all the administrative stuff, and I'm going to be partnered with this person, and I'm going to run the creative side of things, and we'll kind of move forward in this." If you take yourself as an example, you're going to grow this to a certain point, and the managing of the business is going to be taking out more and more of the time, but that's not what made you fall in love with or go down this path.
Megan Kowal: I think that's what really, really just hit my heart in that book was that it was never my goal to run a multi-million-dollar business, it was to design and make women feel great. That's what I want to stick to, that's what I'm passionate about. Of course, until I get to that point, I will be the person in charge.
Marcus Neto: You do it all.
Megan Kowal: I hope that when it gets to that point, I'll be able to recognize it and say, "It's time for me to get someone who take this business to just even newer levels."
Marcus Neto: You mentioned something a minute ago, and I didn't go back to it. You have a custom side? You do like actual custom [inaudible 00:16:55]?
Megan Kowal: Yeah, absolutely. If somebody just they don't quite fit into a small, really don't quite fit into medium or they're small at the top, large in the bottom or just in general just cannot find swimwear that fits their body, take their measurements, and they show me what they're looking for, and we figure it out together. That goes just to make them a swimsuit that they fall in love with. Too many people dread summer times, it's like, "I have to go to the pool, I have to go to the beach."
Marcus Neto: Is there anything worse for women than having to find a bathing suit that fits?
Megan Kowal: There's literally nothing worse. A lot of women won't talk about, but they go to a store and try on a swimwear, and they end up crying in the dressing room. It just shouldn't be that way. I'm really trying to take all of the dread out of bikini season.
Marcus Neto: That is so cool. You're doing a great service to your fellow women. That is so awesome. What do you like to do in your free time? Any hobbies?
Megan Kowal: I really enjoy spending time with my family. I don't get to see them very often even though they're pretty close, but I just spend so much time sowing. I really enjoy seeing them. My little sister just had a baby, and he's precious. My mom and sisters are in the Mobile, Theodore area, and then the rest of my family is in Tampa. That's where I was born. I do a lot of traveling just between the two just spending time with just everybody. Friends and family are really important to me. They definitely keep me motivated. If I'm ever feeling down, they're the first ones to be like, "Megan, get it together. Come on." Those are what is really important to me. As far as just hobbies go, I really, really love to read. I think it's good to be able to step out your life for a little bit and into somebody else's. At least for me, clear my mind at Mermania. Just to be someone else for a little bit.
Marcus Neto: One of my buddies gives me [crap 00:18:57] because he says I look like Tai Lopez. I'm not as skinny as Tai is, and I'm not nearly as wealthy as he says he is, but he says that I look like Tai Lopez, and I always laugh. There's one thing that he says that actually does ring true, and that's that books are the cheapest form of getting an education and sitting down with somebody that has a lot more experience than you. That's why I will regularly go and just buy, I think last week I bought like five or six books on Amazon and just had them shipped out because at like seven to 15 bucks, you can't buy somebody lunch for that much and download all that information from them, right?
Megan Kowal: Exactly.
Marcus Neto: I just think it's really cool. When did you move to Mobile?
Megan Kowal: I was pretty young. I was five I want to say, so I've been here for a very long time. Any long holiday, summer, spring break, anything like that, we spend the entire vacation in Tampa with my dad, grandma, cousins. Between the two, definitely both of them very much feel like home to me.
Marcus Neto: Very cool. Did you go to school here locally?
Megan Kowal: Yes, I did. I went to Theodore High School in South Alabama.
Marcus Neto: And college? In USA or-
Megan Kowal: Yes.
Marcus Neto: Okay, very cool. Local. Local, local. What's next for Mermania?
Megan Kowal: Right now, as much as I've been the second store front, it's Ruby Blue Boutique out in Semmes. That was literally last weekend. The closest next thing in the agenda is all for the month of July I'm going to be down in Miami taking a swimwear design course. It's going to be one-on-one with the seamstress, which is really great. She's going to really help me refine my technique and learn things that I just can't figure out on YouTube. I've never had any formal training in this, I just kind of do it. That's going to be really, really good. I think it's just going to help a lot. They look good, but what I'm saying is I've taught myself how to do it. She's going to show me like the formal way how to make a swimsuit. It's going to be really good I think. Then apart from that, just keep opening stores, keep growing the website presence. You're going to think I'm crazy when I say this.
Marcus Neto: Why is that? Uh-oh.
Megan Kowal: I want to become the leader in just Mermaid Entertainment in general, so obviously starting off with the swimwear a side of it. In the next ten years, I would love to have the Mermania Water Park and have Mermania movies and just be focused more on just like creating the Mermaid Entertainment brand rather than just this one where even [that 00:21:46] it started with the swimsuits.
Marcus Neto: Very cool. You have a tie obviously to mermaids. Is there some story behind all that?
Megan Kowal: I'm the child that was in the pool pretending like she was on the rock like Ariel and the waves are all behind her.
Marcus Neto: Thank you Disney for years and decades of influence of-
Megan Kowal: Absolutely, wishing I was born a redhead. That was me for sure.
Marcus Neto: That is so cute. That is just awesome.
Megan Kowal: Little Mermaid was absolutely my favorite Disney movie growing up. I love Disney in general. I love everything that they've been able to do, just the whole magical experience that they create. I've always been tied to mermaids. I've always loved them. I've always loved big long curly hair, just everything to do with it. I love the water. I could swim in a pool for probably 10 hours and don't get tired of it.
Marcus Neto: That's awesome.
Megan Kowal: I've always been a mermaid at heart.
Marcus Neto: That's cool. Tell us where people can find you. You mentioned, and say it again, the name of the boutique in Semmes.
Megan Kowal: It's Ruby Blue Boutique out in Semmes off of Snow Road. That one opened up last weekend.
Marcus Neto: You're here at downtown in the Urban Emporium, which is right across from Downtown Mobile Alliance on Dauphin Street.
Megan Kowal: Yeah, 260 Dauphin Street.
Marcus Neto: You're online at?
Megan Kowal: Shopmermania.com
Marcus Neto: Where else? Like Instagram, Facebook, stuff like that.
Megan Kowal: I have an Instagram. Just type in Mermania, it should pop right out. Facebook as well. Type in Mermania. It's just a little mermaid silhouette as the picture. You should find it pretty instantly. Those are the two that I have.
Marcus Neto: Very cool. Say there's a retailer at the beach that's listening to this, they just go and find your website and email you if they're interested in carrying your products or something?
Megan Kowal: Yeah, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You all can reach me anytime. I'll probably write back at three in the morning. If you're interested in picking up the line or just collaborating, whatever you want to do, I'm open to anything like that.
Marcus Neto: That's really cool. I think I stumbled across your Instagram account at one point in time and was just kind of blow away by the quality of the images and then quite honestly was shocked to find out that you were local.
Megan Kowal: Thank you.
Marcus Neto: Just hats off to you because you are really doing a good job.
Megan Kowal: Let me give a shout to the photographer then because there's nobody like her. Her name is [Joel Rosen 00:24:22]. You all may be familiar with her. She works a lot with Access Magazine. She is amazing.
Marcus Neto: I've seen her stuff before. She's really good.
Megan Kowal: If your brand needs like a pick me up when it comes to the photography side, she's the one to go to. Don't even think about anyone else. It's [Joel 00:24:40] all day.
Marcus Neto: Awesome, very cool. I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. Wrap up any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share.
Megan Kowal: I really enjoyed this experience. I'm glad that I was able to meet you all. If you don't, I would love to hear just more about how you all got into this and what excites you about it, what makes you get out of bed every morning.
Marcus Neto: [We'll then 00:25:02] sit down, and we'll talk a little bit more about that. I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur and it was great talking to you.
Megan Kowal: You too, thank you so much.