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Christina Getachew of Substance

Christina Getachew opened Substance, a sustainable women's fashion boutique, in Over-the-Rhine late summer of 2012. It is her second location in the state; the first is in Columbus. Getachew plans to expand Substance greatly as a franchise in the coming years by encouraging growth in shops located in redeveloped areas. Substance offers chic clothing and accessories that are sure to last much longer than typical garments, in both function and form.

How did you start your business?

Prior to starting my business, I worked in the fashion industry in New York City for more than a decade. I was on a fast-track career path, and I learned a lot about the business and operations of fashion while working in all segments of the industry, from retail management to buying and merchandising to design and sourcing overseas. I also learned about how and what I would like to do differently in my own business.

In 2001, I left New York and my corporate career to join my husband in rural Tennessee, and I began working on a business plan for my own startup. I worked closely with peers and administrators at the Small Business Development Center at my local chamber of commerce in Clarksville, Tenn. They helped me fine-tune my business plan so I could go out and find startup financing. After several awkward meetings with banks where I presented my plan, I succeeded in getting a small line of credit. I produced a few thousand cotton T-shirts and launched my first website in November 2002.  

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

The idea for my business has evolved. Having come from the New York City corporate fashion industry, I knew a lot about big business where fast turn and high consumption are the measure of success. I knew very little about small business, but I knew I wanted to start my business with a focus on something more principled than trend forecasting and chasing to improve the bottom line.

I believed then, as I do now, that where there is style, there should also be substance. So it began with that simple principle. And I made a commitment to give a percentage of every sale to programs that improve public school education for children in the United States. Today, we continue those donations that to date have benefited over 3,000 students in underserved public school districts across the country.

The idea of my business is an evolution that continues even now that I've opened my second storefront. Carving our path for growth through the Great Recession wasn't easy, but it helped me to fine-tune our operations, and by focusing on ways to be more sustainable, I found an identity for the company that worked and felt good.

What resources here did you take advantage of and how did they help?

The network of small businesses in Over-the-Rhine that help to promote each other is remarkable. My new storefront has benefited greatly from the word-of-mouth among the business owners and residents of the OTR community. Our Chamber is superb for developing and promoting a calendar of events that grows the attention that this district gets for all the incredible goods and services OTR has to offer people from all over Cincinnati and the Tri-State. So I recognized these resources early into my own planning for events and marketing, and was able to align my own efforts to events happening in and around the OTR district.

With two stores and a website to manage, I rely heavily on my team of skilled associates. I had a small budget for staffing the second location, but found the DAAP program for Fashion Design to be a huge resource for talent and have established an on-going co-op position for students who are studying fashion design at UC to work in my business.

What would you do differently if you started your business again?

If I were to start my business again, I would do so many things differently. The simplest response may be that I wish I had started down the path that I am on toward franchising sooner than I did. I had been in business for more than five years before looking at franchising as a model for how I operate. The franchising business model is one that forces you to always work "on" your business while you are working "in" your business. It forces me to look at the big picture growth of the company and to grow the team of talented associates that help me in that effort.

What’s next for you and your company?

The store I operate now in Columbus is a prototype for more locations. With the opening of Substance OTR last year,  I've begun the steps to building a franchise and I dream of having at least 10 new Substance locations in cities across the country by 2020.

Interview by Sean Peters

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