On Episode 17 of Decision Dialogues, Jennifer Faherty hosts a discussion between Victoria Consoles and Lisa Cross, owner and operator of Sweat Threadz, a custom athletic clothing shop. Lisa talks about her unconventional career trajectory, working as a pediatric ICU nurse, then a triathlon coach, to founding Sweat Threadz. She provides insight into her decision making process and explains some of her biggest successes and failures, maintaining that her passion for her work is the most important factor for both her own satisfaction, and the success of Sweat Threadz.
The summary below has been created by a professional transcription vendor upon review of the recorded presentation. Please excuse any typos as well as portions noted to be inaudible.
Thanks for joining us on Decision Dialogues. We’re thrilled to have you along. My name is Jennifer Faherty, and I’m the Chief Client Experience Officer at Modera Wealth Management, LLC. Today, my colleague Victoria Consoles, Senior Planning Associate from Modera’s Boston office, and I, will be chatting with Lisa Cross. Lisa is the founder of Sweat Threadz, a custom active apparel company. Welcome everyone to the show.
Thanks, Jennifer. And Lisa, thanks so much for joining us today! We were able to talk a couple months ago, and hear all about how you started your company and everything from what you—what your career started out at and where it is now. So you’ve seemed to reinvent yourself over the years. I’d love to sort of talk about that, and how you got to Sweat Threadz and the journey along the way. So you started out as a nurse, correct?
Correct. I went to Mass. General Hospital School of Nursing many, many years ago; worked as a—in a pediatric intensive care unit out in Ohio for several years, before starting my own family. Over the years since then, I’ve been going back to school over and over and over for new career paths, new interests, new hobbies, I became a triathlon coach—a running coach. I’ve always loved to sew; I learned when I was a little girl, and made my kids’ Halloween costumes, made draperies, made myself clothes. I recently made my own wedding reception dress. Nothing fancy, But I felt really strongly about wearing something that I made, and got a lot of compliments on the dress, so I think it came out pretty well.
And then just started really getting interested in sewing activewear, especially because more fabrics and textiles are now available to the general public than they were years ago.
That’s great. So how long have you been running your business Sweat Threadz for, now?
Technically, maybe two years. It kind of started as a hobby, and people would ask me to make things for them, or they’d see something I was wearing and asked me to make them something similar. But I think it’s been about two years now that I’ve been officially selling and making things.
So Lisa, can you talk about your first experience as a business owner and how that helped you to develop to where you are now? I’m curious too, if that led you to any of your client group with your current business?
Sure. So I was a part owner in a triathlon and coaching business. There were three of us who were partners, and the focus was really on coaching, and I hadn’t really started getting into the sewing activewear at that point. But I enjoyed being the owner of a business, and the partnership part of it didn’t go so well, which is why I ended up leaving, and none of us are involved in it any longer.
But it gave me the trajectory of going a different direction. That’s when I was looking for something to do that had to do with being active, had to do with being in sport, and I started in the sewing again. My clientele, yeah, they started out as my friends and my friends from triathlon. And a lot of my friends were also my clients, even when I was in the coaching business. So yes, it did overlap. They’re the ones that see what I’m wearing, know that I’m starting a business, know that—and they’re also active and they’re looking for unique items, custom items to wear for themselves. So that’s how that overlapped.
Okay, so, and did you—any of the business mentality or anything like that from your triathlon coaching business, did that transfer over to Sweat Threadz? Or was it just a totally different dynamic there in terms of running a business?
Good question. Um, I would say one thing I learned I did not want to be in partnership with anybody else. I wanted to be on my own; I wanted to be something I could control in my own time, in my own space. But being that my background is being active, I wanted it to be part of that as well. Those things I did, did carry over from the other business, I also have to say, I don’t think either one of them was run very business-like, and that’s something that I am evolving with, and making some changes as I go along.
But from a business perspective, I did learn some lessons from my coaching business that I’m trying not to implement with Sweat Threadz. And then I’m trying to move forward in a more businesslike manner, rather than, you know, having my friends call me up and say, “Hey, can you make me such and such? You know, can I have it next week?” You know, so I’m learning to be a little more businesslike.
I’d actually, I’d love to hear more about that. Because I think that’s always interesting. I was in a similar situation a few years ago. At what point did you have this decision where you knew you wanted to make that a business? Rather than maybe something you did on the side of maybe extra income?
Well, it’s still transitioning, let’s just say that! I think because I was getting a lot of interest, and I had the ability in my home to set up my little shop here, we transferred it from a smaller area. But people kept saying, “Oh, you should sell that. You should sell that.” And I thought, well, I’m going to investigate how to do that, so that I’m not just making things willy nilly. And I did spend about a good year researching how to get clientele, how to organize a sewing business from a logistics standpoint—fabric supplies, sewing machines, space. Also, from another perspective, cutting down on waste. You know, everybody wants to buy all kinds of things, and then buy something new and throw the old stuff away. I’m trying to be very selective about what I buy—what fabrics I buy, where I buy them from—and I save almost all my scraps to make, you know, you can make smaller things like bras and headbands, that kind of stuff from the scraps.
And so what’s kept you in just the athletic clothing area? What keeps you from expanding? Is it just the passion for the athletic clothing? Or is it just easier to stick with one type? Because I mean, there’s all different sorts of athletic clothing out there, I can’t imagine it’d be easy to learn how to sew and make all of these different products?
Well, that’s a really good question, too, because I lately have been looking at some of the other smaller businesses that are A, women-run, and also activewear that have found a niche like that. For example, Sauce Hats—I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. They’re a business out in Colorado or Montana, somewhere out in that direction. They make winter hats, and that’s all they do. And I’m like, “Oh, should I really focus on one particular item?” And I’ve kind of struggled with that a little bit.
Last year at Christmas, everybody wanted buffs. This was before the COVID buff. This was the winter before that. Everybody wanted winter buffs for outdoor activity. So I’m like, “Oh, maybe I should just make buffs.” But what I have more of a passion for is making things that fit each individual. And that’s why I went the custom route. People will say, “Well, why don’t you, you know, just make a small, medium and large and sell it that way, have a particular item?” Well, because we’re not all small, medium and large. Or maybe one part of us is a small and the other part is a large—ask me how I know that’s the case!
So I keep focusing on that, that I would like custom items rather than one item that is just made in particular sizes for people to try,
Of course, and that sounds like that’s what sets you apart from all the major brands and athletic clothing companies out there right now, is that you make things for a particular person. Especially with what you said with the, you know, you could be, you know, a different size, then you know, you might not fit one of the storebrand sizes. So that’s great that your business is a place where everyone can go to look for something that they need—especially when you’re training for triathlons or marathons and things like that, you need specific activewear for those type of events. So do you cater towards different seasons and things like that?
Yes. So right now I’m getting a lot of requests for bathing suits. Just you know, I know this is a podcast and you can’t see it, but I made this bathing suit. People want things that are particular for the season. In the winter, I make a lot of tights, made some skiing long underwear, but now it’s turning into shorts, bathing suits, and those tend to be more desired than, say, a running t-shirt. And it seems like you know, people can find a t-shirt that they like, or that fits them. But the shorts are a little trickier, or bathing suit’s a little trickier, and then they come to me. Running skorts, I’ve made a few of those.
And the other thing I kind of want to interject here about the custom part of it is, if I make something for somebody, and that bathing suit I just showed you as an example, and the skorts I’ve been making, if they need to be tweaked after they’re delivered, like let’s say, you know, something isn’t snug enough or it’s too snug, I redo it, so that it does fit the person. I have a fit guarantee. So sometimes that’s not so businesslike, and, you know, I make less money that way, but I feel like that is, you know, we talked about being custom is my niche—and that’s what I aim for.
So if somebody says, “Oh, you know, my tights were falling down a little bit when I was running,” we do a whole evaluation, I get them over, right? They put the tights on, I might take a few pictures, I ask them to describe what happens when they move around in them, and then I adjust them. And generally, it’s just one adjustment, and it fits better. But sometimes we work a little longer than that. But that is you know, that’s my goal, so that’s what I work at.
Well, it sounds like you put a lot of effort and care into each piece that you’re creating, and for these clients. So how do you market to the clients? Is it by word of mouth? Do you pay for marketing? What does that look like?
Most of my marketing is word of mouth. I do have a website, I use Instagram a lot, and Facebook. And most of my clients are people I know—friends, relatives. But I do get some clients who don’t know me well, or who see one of their posts wearing an item, or something that I’ve posted, and I’ve made some for them. I have sent things out to California. I’ve sent things out to Montana, Pennsylvania. So it’s mostly word of mouth. But I do not pay for any other marketing except for my website.
Okay, and do you ever have so many requests that you have to turn business down? And if so, what does that look like for you? And have you ever thought of hiring or increasing the size of your business to an extent?
Yep. So I have never turned anybody down, but I’m very clear when somebody wants something, about how far out I am. And I’ll say, “Well, yeah, I can do that for you, but it’s going to be six to eight weeks before it’s completed.” And then they can make the decision whether they want to move forward, and most of them do. I’ve had a few people comment, “Oh, it was really worth the wait.” And I’m like, “Oh, did I make them wait that long?”
But I also don’t want to rush the product, so I want a high quality product—so if I sew something, even if it’s a simple seam, and I just don’t like it, if something seems off, I’ll rip it out and do it again until it’s right. And again—not great from a business strategy, but it is for the product strategy. And people have asked me if I ever want to expand and hire people, and I’m a little bit too much of a control freak for what I just talked about. You know, I’m very particular about how I sew things. Not saying that other people are not particular. And I also like that I can do it on my own time schedule from my home, and right now that’s what’s working. So I’m going to stick with that.
So I’m curious as to how has COVID impacted your business, and what does that look like? So gyms and everything have been shut down. So did that have a negative impact on you? Because at the same time loungewear is the new businesswear, right?
Exactly. No, it didn’t impact me at all. I think I told you this when we spoke before about, there became a mask making frenzy for a little while, when masks were first required about a year ago, because at first everybody was like, “Oh, we don’t need masks.” It was kind of one of these things, they were saying you don’t need them, and then you do need them. And then when the CDC came out with their policy that mask wearing was effective, I couldn’t make them fast enough—both for clients who wanted them and then there was a grassroots organization in the area who were making masks for local nursing homes, hospitals that couldn’t get enough, especially at the very beginning of the pandemic when supplies were low, and people couldn’t get their hands on PPE. I think I made several hundred masks anyway, that were donated as part of that effort. My husband would come downstairs, “What are you making?” “Masks, masks, masks, you know?” And there, it seemed like there was a good month where that’s all I did.
But back to the question about, did it impact my orders in my business? No, not really. People did change a little bit what they wanted—there was a lot of buff requests, a lot of mask requests, and actually, I even still had some, just at Christmas time this year, one of my clients wanted to give her family custom masks. So she picked out the fabric, and I think she sent them to her family all over the country, and then her sister who’s actually married to a man who—he works, he’s a diplomat, somewhere out of the country—and they were here during the pandemic and went home. And she just called me up and ordered a family worth of masks to be shipped over there. So that has continued in the background along with the custom activewear. So I like it.
Do you use some of that extra fabric that you’re saying you try and avoid waste for things like masks, too? Or is there a specific fabric you’re using with that?
Yeah, no—so the activewear fabric and the mask fabric are separate because the CDC recommends cotton for the masks. That’s what I use, and I use a double layer of woven cotton. The athletic fabric is a knit fabric, and because of the construction of each, that allows more particles through. It also, most of them, even though they’re considered “breathable” fabrics, they’re not talking about breathing through them. And they’re some of those knit fabrics are difficult to breathe through.
That makes sense.
Yeah, I’d love to rewind a little bit just because I’m curious: In the very beginning, you mentioned that before you founded Sweat Threadz, you were a coach, but then even before that you were a nurse. So what brought you from nurse to coach, making that first leap?
I was a nurse before I had my children. I stopped working when they were young. A lot of life changes—we moved, they became more independent, and I became—I was always a runner, but I started becoming more interested in triathlon. And as I participated in a few races, I realized I wasn’t going about it the right way. And it prompted me to investigate being—I was coached at the time. I found a coach. And then I decided I wanted to be a coach, because I thought there was a lot of good information out there that I could apply not only to myself, but to others. And that’s also what prompted me to become a sports nutritionist, because it’s such an important component of endurance sports. That, back when I first started, was often neglected. It’s much more emphasized now than it was back then. It was for my own personal interest to put it, in a nutshell, is why I became a coach.
Yeah, it seems like it really came out of like an organic kind of, organically to your personal interests, or a need you saw as well. Was it difficult though to go from I would say, maybe being employed, to kind of being an entrepreneur and business owner? Was any of that challenging? Or did you mostly find it rewarding?
It was rewarding, what I found—well, so I didn’t go directly from working as a nurse because I did spend a lot of time, a good 10, 12 years at home with my kids. So that was even more of a transition. But I was always, I did a lot of volunteer work. So being a volunteer, and then becoming a business owner—that was, I feel like, an easier transition than going from, you know, working at a hospital as a nurse to, you know, owning my own business or working independently. Because as a volunteer, you pretty much are working independently for other people, but you decide what you’re going to do, and you decide how much time you’re going to put into it and the reward is the reward, you know. It’s not monetary when you’re volunteering, it’s the, you know, the feelings and the satisfaction that you get from it. And I think that’s probably more similar to starting the business, than chasing the dollar, if that makes sense. Even though I’m chasing the dollar, it’s rewarding.
Can I ask, Lisa, in either of the businesses. I like to hear the two sides of, you know, a big mistake that you’ve made over the course of business ownership, and then also, you know, one of your biggest successes as well?
Okay, so mistakes. That’s easy, and I think we’ve touched on it a little bit, is not being businesslike, and running it A, as a hobby, or as something fun to do. And when I owned the triathlon and endurance coaching business, we—that was one of the struggles, was being businesslike. And when we first started it, we had a business plan. We had, you know, job descriptions. We had all that, but we didn’t follow it very well, and there was no—nothing in place for disagreements to be settled, except for whoever had the loudest voice.
So then going to Sweat Threadz, I really didn’t start it with a business plan. I’m still creating that now, and I’m getting myself to the point now where I’m running it more as a business than a hobby. And I think that was a mistake from the beginning—even though I did a lot of research, and I, you know, got the website, and I did samples and all that stuff, I didn’t have a business plan. I think that’s really important, especially for somebody who’s self-employed, and is their only employee.
Successes—I think the successes are measured by—for me personally, are measured by—the feedback from other people. So in the coaching business, when people would say to me, “Oh, you really helped me in my last race.” To me, that’s a win. To me, that’s a success.
That’s where your passion comes from, too, it sounds like.
Correct. And same thing—I had a repeat client over the other day, and she was ordering something different. And she’s always telling me about how the first pair of leggings that I ever made her, are her favorite. And in fact, she got a dog chased her and ripped them. And she brought them to me to fix them. And I said, “Well, I can fix them, but it’s gonna cost almost the same, because, you know, I have to take them apart.” And she’s like, “It’s okay, that’s okay. They’re my favorite.” And to me, that’s rewarding, and that is successful. And then she had to pay for them again! So you know, so that’s really—I love it when people, like, they’ll take a picture and send it to me say, “Look, I was wearing my tights in my race the other day,” or somebody else contacting me said, “I saw so-and-so wearing your items I’d like to get them; they look really cool.” To me, that’s how I’m measuring success, because I’m not making a lot of money. And I’m trying to.
There’s a great graphic—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it—where there’s a circle of things, things that you’re passionate about. And then another circle, things you can make money on. And where it overlaps, there’s, you know, shaded, on the area that you overlap. It sounds like you’re moving more towards that overlap part where you can have both.
I’m trying, I’m definitely trying. And so for example, just recently, I’m changing how I price things. Before, I would just give people a price. Now it’s like, “Okay, here’s what your fabric and all your supplies are gonna cost, and here’s what my labor’s gonna cost.” And when they see it that way, it’s easier to charge the appropriate amount, because they see where the money’s going. And I’m getting more confident in my product. You know, at first I’m like, “Oh, who’s gonna pay that much for that?” And now I’m like, “Oh, yeah, they’ll pay for it. In the end, it’s a good product, so I should charge more.”
Funny story, my husband also is self-employed, or was self-employed, and is going in that direction again, and he’s a carpenter. And I’m always lecturing him on “You need to charge what you’re worth.” And then I look at me and I’m like, “You need to charge what you’re worth.”
Easier said than done.
Exactly. It’s easier to say to somebody else.
Great lesson though.
Yes. So I’m working on that.
So where do you see yourself in the next, you know, five to ten years? Is this something you want to continue expanding? Or, you know, making more profit off of?
Sure. Yes. And I think one of my goals, besides the business aspect of it, is to be a little more efficient in how I do things. And I think that would make it more profitable. I am getting close to retirement age, and so is my husband. And we’ve talked about how to work our own individual businesses into a retirement scenario where we can, you know, do it when we want. Ideally, that’s not going to happen to do it how you, as you want, but to fit it into a lifestyle where we can have fun and do things, but not—and still run our businesses but not be tied to them. My problem is I have a hard time saying no, you know, when somebody says they want something, which is why I give them the time period, you know, “It’s going to be eight weeks.” And if they’re okay with that, then okay, I’m happy to make it.
So it sounds like you’ll have to pivot boundaries so that you can create a retirement lifestyle for yourself.
Correct. But again, in about five—you know, we do have a good five years. So hopefully, the business will be solid, and I can do that. But yeah, boundaries are hard for me.
Well, Lisa, thank you so much for your time today. And we like to ask all of our guests one final question: what was the last non financial decision you’ve had to make?
The last was to work on organization. So as you can see—but you know, you might mention what’s behind me with all the fabric. I need to organize my workspace better, and I took last weekend and did a lot of it, and reorganized, which is also part of the part about being more efficient. Because when I spend, you know, fifteen minutes looking for a particular item to sew with, it’s not efficient! So I would say that’s probably the biggest one, aside from what we are having for dinner. You know, but business related, it’s working on organization.
There you go. Well, thank you so much for your time today. We we loved hearing about your business, and it’s really fascinating. I’ve been able to see several of the clothing pieces you did and they’re absolutely beautiful.
Oh, why thank you very much! So feel free to look on Instagram and Facebook and find me! It’s Sweat Threadz with a z at the very end, because Sweat Threads with an S was already taken. But it makes me unique.
Thanks very much to Victoria and Lisa for letting us listen in on their conversation. We appreciate their time and perspectives. And thank you for tuning in. We hope you’ll join us next time on Decision Dialogues for more stories from successful business owners. So long for now.
Lisa Cross is the founder of Sweat Threadz, manufacturer of custom fit and designed athletic and lifestyle apparel. Sweat Threadz’s focus on custom manufacture means their customers’ apparel will fit and flatter each of their unique shapes, while providing superior comfort.
Before founding Sweat Threadz, Lisa worked as a triathlon and running coach, and as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit.
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