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Big Business Tactics for Small Outfits

Many entrepreneurs start their own businesses to escape the confines of corporate life. As a result, few bring that structure to their own operations. But this isn't the case with Catarina Norman and Malin Leschly, the co-owners of Flicka, a Scandinavian clothing and design boutique based in San Francisco. Launched in September, 2004, Flicka may be one of the very few five-employee outfits with human resources, legal, and finance departments.

BusinessWeek Online reporter Burt Helm recently spoke with Norman, a former financial analyst, venture capitalist, and tech strategist, about her path toward startup life, and why traditional corporate practices can work for a small business. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Q: First of all, why Swedish clothing and furniture?

A: I'm half Swedish, and my business partner [Leschly] is from Sweden. We met in January, 2003. It was a dream of mine to franchise one of those [clothing] brands, and her dream was also to franchise one [in design]. Scandinavian clothes are classic, simple pieces with kind of a twist. And people have known about Scandinavian furniture for a long time -- it's classic, timeless, and modern, but still reasonably priced. That's why we decided to bring in the design side as well.

If we bring in people with the design, they'll then see the women's clothes, have the same associations, and see the similar lines and the similar style.

Q: You seem comfortable with entrepreneurial life these days, but you began your career in investment banking. Why?

A: Graduating from college, I considered fashion and photography, but I knew it couldn't pay the bills. I talked to photographers, I spoke to people in the fashion world, and it didn't seem like either of those careers had either the training program or the track you could go on and learn the ropes and build your r?sum?. It really didn't seem like such a clear path. It just seemed like if I went into the corporate world, I could go back with those skills under my belt.

Q: Many people decide to start their own company because they clash with Corporate America. But you've made a great effort to bring that culture with you.

A: We have really structured the small business that way. Malin's in charge of HR, legal, and she's in charge of buying for all design products. I'm in charge of finance, buying for all fashion products, and we kind of share marketing.

[In September, 2003,] we did a full-blown business plan, even though we were self-funded and didn't need to do as much as we did. But we gathered a lot of research and met with anyone associated with the fashion world. Then in January, we invited eight women all from different backgrounds, and we showed them our branding ideas and what types of products we'd like to sell.

We also did a survey online about how much people spend at boutiques. We took that, combined it into our business plan, and made our first buying trip in February, 2004. The collection started shipping in August, and we opened in September.

Q: Do you think other entrepreneurs can benefit from structuring their companies this way?

A: It makes it a lot easier. I don't know how people do it alone -- and without that kind of organization. There's just so much to do.

Q: What do you think is the most valuable lesson you have learned from the investment-banking and venture-capital world?

A: In my very first job out of college, I was meeting with CEOs in the first week, and that teaches you not to be shy. I've pushed myself to network more, which is something people are always anxious about. I learned the fundamentals of networking and pushed myself to network in my personal life. Now it comes naturally. And when you're doing it for your own business, networking and marketing becomes fun because it comes from the heart.

Q: Was there anything in the startup world that you found yourself unprepared for?

A: The people that we deal with -- our vendors are fashion brands -- a lot of them are really creative people, and few of them have a strong financial background. They don't deal with Microsoft Excel very well. We learned very quickly that the best way to build a relationship with these brands was to meet with them in person and be with them four to five hours.

For a number of brands, we did do a series of presentations, but some of the brands didn't respond to that corporate approach -- it was too much. We really had to learn how to respond to different types of businesses.

Q: How have you gone about learning the nuances of the fashion business?

A: I met some women who were starting their own thing. I said I wanted to start something as well, and the next thing I know, there was a women's business group meeting. We had a small advisory board from the beginning -- three women from the fashion world who we had asked to help us. At the end of the day, they were all friends. We would meet with them, buy them lunch and coffee, and just talk to them and get their advice.

Q: Why do you think your concept has worked in San Francisco?

A: We think Scandinavian design and clothing is really appropriate for the San Franciscan market. People like to have slightly trendy pieces, but it's not like L.A. where they need flashy pieces. And San Francisco is a very entrepreneurial place. It used to be the whole dot-com craze, but after the crash, I think people here really assessed what they wanted to do with their lives.

Now it seems people are starting companies that match their passions. I have one friend who started a yoga studio, one a stationery boutique, one a fashion boutique. After being down for a while, people here are feeling better again.

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