What does it take to make your basic laboratory coat great? It takes Laboratory Style Initiative. They specialize in lab coats, and the people who wear them.

I recently asked the founder, Elaine Tanhehco, a few questions about her business.

Tell us a little about Laboratory Style Initiative.

Laboratory Style Initiative produces high-end lab coats for women. You could call us a boutique lab coat company. Our lab coats feature truly unique, stylish details, such as welt pockets, pleated collars and split cuffs. We’ve heard many times that we should branch out into designing women’s outerwear! Though our styles are distinctive, they are thoroughly professional and respect the tradition of the white coat.

What inspired you to start a lab coat business?

I love science and I love fashion. Unfortunately, these entities are usually mutually exclusive. Even though lab coats mainly have a protective function, it is also part of one’s public uniform. As a scientist, I was tired of looking sloppy in cheaply made, shapeless lab coats whenever I had to give a talk or meet a client in the lab, and knew that other women in science in medicine had the same problem. For fun, I had been reading books about the business of fashion and sketching designs, thinking I might want to start a line of dresses. However, in the back of my mind, I knew there was little chance that my sketches would ever see the light of day. Then I realized by combining my love of design with my background in science to create a new type of lab coat, I could express my creativity in a way that was more manageable and less daunting than starting a fashion line from scratch. I wanted to give women a choice to help them look and feel sophisticated, confident, and in-control.

With no experience in apparel or ecommerce, you must have had to learn on your feet. What was the startup process like for you?

The start up process was probably the most frustrating experience of my life, and this was after years of lab research (which can be a very hit or miss endeavor) and co-founding a previous business. Despite trying my best to research all avenues, I still made many mistakes from working with the wrong people for too long to underestimating the randomness of apparel manufacturing. It took over two years and re-starting with several contractors to produce my styles. Then once I had product ready to sell, I had to wade through the business aspects of retail from setting up a website to marketing. My time was spent reading, asking, testing and trying (and trying, and trying). My belief in our beautiful and unique products kept me going. I’m still learning as things progress, and have learned to accept and enjoy the process for all its bumps and warts. Nothing worthwhile comes without a little pain!

What separates you from the competition?

Our innovative lab coat designs set up apart from any other lab coat available on the market. For example, our “Iris” style features a clever double collar, while our “Marie” coat has pleated pockets and a back yoke with a button tab. The details are distinctive enough to make a clear statement but are still completely professional. They appeal to women who enjoy reading Vogue magazine and follow runway trends, as well as those with more conservative tastes. The lab coats are made of a comfortable yet substantial twill for a crisp appearance, and are accented with marbleized buttons to do the designs justice. The patterns for our lab coats were engineered by a patternmaker with over 20 years experience in everything from uniforms to couture, and are incredibly complex. Aside from her skillfulness in translating ideas into actual garments, her expertise in fitting a woman’s body can be seen in the slimmer armholes, curved panels and sculpted shoulders of our lab coats. Our lab coats are also proudly designed and constructed in the U.S.A.

Do you have any goals you’d like to accomplish in the next year or so?

In the next couple years, we hope to continue to grow our business, increase exposure of the company, and secure a few bulk order contracts. We would like to increase the number of styles that we offer, in addition to more options per style (for example, additional colors and sizes). We plan to use our customers’ requests to guide what type of new products we will develop and offer. Over the long-term, we hope to change the image of the lab coat from frumpy utilitarian cover-up to fashion accessory!

What are some lessons your business has taught you?

I’ve learned so many new things in setting up Laboratory Style Initiative, from manufacturing to website design, but I’ll list a few of the most generally applicable lessons here. Producing your own product rather than selling ready-made goods brings a whole other layer of complexity and expense to setting up your own business. Once you find someone you trust in the industry, ask them for referrals, especially if you are delving into something that you are not familiar with. For example, my patternmaker lead me to the button salesman, who in turn helped me with factory leads for production. A great marketing plan is as important as a great product. Always remember it’s not a matter of if something will go wrong, just a matter of when – be prepared with contingency plans and be ready to push through when inevitable issues arise.

If you could go back in time, is there anything you would change?

Looking back, there are a lot of things I would’ve done differently, but I did learn from each mistake. In the beginning, I was so focused on getting my lab coats made that learning about the intricacies of ecommerce took a back seat. I recommend learning about search engine optimization (SEO) even before you choose the name of your company and considering your website design. Once you name your company and put up your website, it may be difficult to optimize things to be more search engine friendly, it’s better to build those things around SEO principles. I also should have hired a consultant experienced in apparel manufacturing to guide me through the process from the beginning. The fashion industry is somewhat closed and not something easily learned about from books, and many suppliers and contractors do not even advertise on the internet. Due to my lack of experience and knowing what to expect, it took me awhile to realize when contractors were leading me down the wrong path, which added significant time and cost to production.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’m actually not a huge risk- taker but you only live once. Don’t let lack of planning or unwillingness to sacrifice give you an excuse to just sit on your dreams. Aside from investigating as many facets about this business as possible before starting, I also planned financially and saved for this venture. I knew that one day, I’d regret not even trying to launch Laboratory Style Initiative a lot more than not buying the expensive handbag or shoes that I was eyeing at the moment.

Do you have any advice you’d like to offer fellow entrepreneurs who are just getting started?

Passion for your product or service is not enough. You must also enjoy the planning, accounting, marketing, legal aspects, and other details of running and growing a business, or at least, have the resources to delegate tasks that you do not feel comfortable tackling yourself. I started Laboratory Style Initiative because of a love of design, but design is only about 5% of what I do, while 95% of my time is spent on business matters. Be realistic about your personal tolerance for risk and ability to push through adversity. If you decide that your own business is for you, it can be incredibly rewarding.