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A Contest Boosts a Startup That Makes Jeans for the Disabled

Small business contests held by big brands abound. When I last reported on the theme, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) had just kicked off a competition to award $250,000 each to 12 business owners. Since then, FedEx (FDX) and BBVA Compass (BBVA) have launched similar initiatives. Intuit (INTU) is getting set to announce the winner of its Small Business Big Game contest, awarding a Super Bowl ad (worth about $4 million) to one lucky company.

What’s going on? Most online small business contests include a social media component, rewarding business owners who drive Internet traffic to the contest website. That resembles old-fashioned battles of the bands, digital marketing expert Jeremy Kagan told me in October. “If you had a bar, you’d invite some bands and tell them whoever brings the most people through the doors is the best,” he said. “The victory for the bar is that 500 people come and drink beer.”

Just because contests are good marketing for big brands doesn’t obviate the benefits for the participants. The winners of JPMorgan’s Mission Main Street contest get money and a free trip to learn about online marketing at Google’s (GOOG) corporate headquarters. Stephanie Alves, who won one of the JPMorgan grants for her Los Angeles jeans brand, ABL Denim, plans to use the money to hire staff.

In 2011, Alves started a tailoring business that specialized in adapting clothes for the physically disabled. Last April she raised more than $16,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to start manufacturing jeans that are easier to put on. People in wheelchairs often want pants with higher backs, she says. She also makes jeans with zippers on the sides, which help people with mobility issues get dressed.

Alves is running ABL Denim on her own, tackling design, production, and marketing while contracting work to pattern makers and sewers in L.A.’s garment industry. For the moment, she’s selling jeans on her website but hopes that specialty and mainstream retailers will eventually carry her brand.

“The disability community is a tight community,” she says. Its support helped her crowdfunding campaign and the voting portion of the Mission Main Street contest. She’s convinced it also means a big market for her garments, which she started shipping in September. “The disabled want fashion like anyone else,” she says.

Clark is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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