Break Through: Elena Brennan
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Break Through is a podcast series about making. Making discoveries, making a difference in the community and making the world a better place. It’s the stories of startups and inventors who are developing products that have social value by solving real world problems. It’s about artisans and entrepreneurs who have broken through the mold to live their best lives.

Welcome to episode number eight of Break Through, a NextFab made podcast series. I’m your host Ron Bauman founder of Milk Street Marketing and NextFab member. Our guest on this episode is Elena Brennan, fashion designer and founder of Bus Stop Boutique. A former advertising executive Elena broke away from the madness and chaos of that world to start her own business and fashion brand, Bus Stop X.

 

 

Ron Bauman:
How are you?

Elena Brennan:
I’m good. How are you, Ron?

Ron Bauman:
Good. Thanks for joining us today.

Elena Brennan:
Oh, you’re welcome.

Ron Bauman:
Thanks for hosting us here in Bus Stop Boutique.

Elena Brennan:
Yes. Welcome to my world.

Ron Bauman:
Well, it’s nice to have some fresh new scenery to come back to one of these interviews for the NextFab maker series podcast and video. So why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself.

Elena Brennan:
My name’s Elena Brennan, and I was born in London. My parents are Greek, so I’m 100% Greek even though I was born in London. I moved to America in the mid eighties for love.

Ron Bauman:
That’s the reason?

Elena Brennan:
It’s the best reason. I have a son who’s 30 years old. I have a little grand baby and she’s 16 months old.

Ron Bauman:
Get out of here.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. We’ve got like a little one running around. My background is advertising and marketing. It’s something I did for 27 plus years. I started off in London at J. Walter Thompson, an international ad agency. After 27 plus years, I lost the passion for it. I always loved shoes always. When the time was right, I opened Bus Stop. We’re actually in our 12th year. We’re turning 12 this month. I’m like really excited about that.

Ron Bauman:
That’s great. Congratulations.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. In 2015 I became… Well I don’t know if I should say I became, but in 2015 I started designing shoes. That’s what I’m really passionate about. Since then I’ve designed over 150 different styles. They’re very unique. It’s almost like a precious painting because there’s like one or 15 of each color. So you’re not going to see a lot of women wearing them. Later this month or next month, I’m launching my first ever wedding collection.

Ron Bauman:
Nice. Congratulations. Well, obviously we go a way back.

Elena Brennan:
We do.

Ron Bauman:
I’ve been watching Bus Stop Boutique from its inception. It’s amazing to see what you’ve done obviously. I’m so proud. I’m so happy for everything you’ve accomplished.

Elena Brennan:
Awe. Thank you.

Ron Bauman:
Why don’t you tell us… Because what I find fascinating is how you really just made that leap and what that leap was like saying, “I’m going to pack it in. I’m done with the advertising business. I’m going to follow my passion.” You lost the passion for marketing advertising and you rekindled that passion through shoes and through fashion. Why don’t you tell us what that was like to make that jump?
elena brennan - bus stop boutique
Elena Brennan:
Yeah, I mean it was something that I had thought about. I’d planted the seed for about 10 years. At that point I was a single mother because even though I moved here for love, it didn’t work out. We got divorced, but it’s all good. My son was little and so I wanted to wait until the time was right. Even though I loved advertising and I was very passionate about it, I started losing the respect for the clients, losing respect for the people that I was working with every day. Everything had to be done faster and cheaper and I just couldn’t stand that anymore. I did my research and on my son’s 18th birthday, I signed the lease.

Ron Bauman:
I remember that day.

Elena Brennan:
Low and behold, you can relate to this from working in the advertising field with advertisers and advertising agencies. Low and behold, on Mother’s Day, I got laid off and I was like, “Yes, this is fantastic.” I called my son Collin, and he was so upset. I said, “No, no, no. This is the best thing because now I can focus on my new venture, my new baby.” So that is how it all came about.

Ron Bauman:
That’s amazing. So fast forward 10 years later, now you’ve gone from just selling and distributing shoes to other lines and you’re now creating your own lines.

Elena Brennan:
Yes.

Ron Bauman:
Why don’t you talk to us a little bit about your creative process when you’re creating your own shoe designs?

Elena Brennan:
Well, I work with a factory in Taipei, in Taiwan. So the shoes are handcrafted by artisans. I’ve gone to the factory twice and it’s a female owned factory.

Ron Bauman:
Oh, fantastic.

Elena Brennan:
It’s fantastic. It’s all family run. She and I have a similar vision. So we work really, really well together. I design, I decide what silhouette I want, whether it’s an Oxford or a Chelsea boot. Then I talk to the factory in Taipei and they create a mold for me. Then I have sketches and then I decide what colors do I want.

Ron Bauman:
Do you do the sketches?

Elena Brennan:
I do the sketches. They’re not great. Then they send me all the little leather swatches from their factory. Sometimes they have to outsource it and get the leather from Italy or different places. That’s when the magic begins. I do it here in Philly, but once I did do it there in Taipei. They set up an office for me in their showroom. That was really truly inspiring. So I’m looking forward to going back and doing that again.

We went on to discuss the challenges and joys of being a woman entrepreneur, balancing business and artistic integrity, and why it’s important to stay true to yourself.

Elena Brennan:
I think you have to follow your passion. I always tell any entrepreneur, whether they’re female or male, that it’s okay to be scared because if there’s some fear or some… If you’re scared a little bit, that just enforces how passionate you are about what it is that you want to do. It’s okay to make mistakes because we’re all human. We make mistakes. As long as you learn from them. Then do your research. If there’s a need for something that you want to do and you’re good at what you do, you’re going to be successful and you’re going to be happy. I mean, I’m a lot happier now than I was working for an ad agency.

Ron Bauman:
Well that’s what we talk about all the time with entrepreneurs. It’s about quality of life. It’s one thing that even as I build my team now and I have over the years. One of the things I always say is, “How do you want to spend your time? What do you like to do?” I think one of the things I’ve learned from talking to other entrepreneurs, people will follow their passion is how you really know what you’re passionate about. I think sometimes young entrepreneurs can struggle to find out, what am I actually passionate about? So sort of take a look at what am I good at and what do I like to do?

Elena Brennan:
Also I think you can change. You can be passionate about one thing. I think it’s okay to switch careers and to switch gears. It’s never too late. Like when people say to me, “Oh, I’m too old to do this,” or “I’ve been doing this…” You can do whatever you want to do at any given time. If it’s something that you feel that you want to do. If it doesn’t work, then you just-

elena brennan

Ron Bauman:
Try again.

Elena Brennan:
Try again. But entrepreneurs, because they are so passionate and they work so hard, most of them are successful.

Ron Bauman:
Do you consider yourself an artisan or an entrepreneur?

Elena Brennan:
I’d say an entrepreneur because I was that before I became an artist, but I really love designing shoes.

Ron Bauman:
Being an advertising and marketing, you were obviously around creative people all the time.

Elena Brennan:
Very. Yeah, I’m very visually stimulated, so I feel like I could really be an interior designer or a shoe designer. Because I know what I like. I’ll look at something and I just know if I like that color or that shape or that style.

Ron Bauman:
How do you determine this is what I think somebody… You base it on what you like.

Elena Brennan:
I do.

Ron Bauman:
So you don’t really worry about externally, you only know this is what I like.

Elena Brennan:
I think there’s a-

Ron Bauman:
And you’ve got good taste.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. As a fashion designer, as a designer, I feel that you need to stay true to what you like. I mean, you can design for other people and you should really consider your customers, but I feel that you shouldn’t steer away from what you like.

Ron Bauman:
Stay true to yourself.

Elena Brennan:
Stay true to yourself. Exactly.

We then got to learn about the future of her fashion brand Bus Stop X,  her advice for aspiring artists and entrepreneurs and the value of mentorship.

Elena Brennan:
I want to expand. I want to open a boutique in LA, and in the next five years I’d like five boutiques in different US cities, but just selling my brand Bus Stop X. I want to gradually phase out all the other designers here in Philly, so this will be the flagship, and then roll out to other cities with other boutiques just selling the shoes that I designed.

Ron Bauman:
It’s a good retroactive segue to my next question was where do you see Bus Stop Boutique going?

Elena Brennan:
That’s where I see it going. I see five boutiques in five cities in five years.

Ron Bauman:
Do you have the cities picked out?

Elena Brennan:
I’ve picked LA.

Ron Bauman:
Of course.

Elena Brennan:
I think Miami. Possibly Austin, Chicago, and then I don’t know. Seattle. I’m not sure yet.

Ron Bauman:
Not going back to cheery old London?

Elena Brennan:
Not yet. I’m going to stick to the US for now.

elena brennan - bus stop x

Ron Bauman:
Awesome. Awesome. What is the best advice that you could give to a young budding entrepreneur in the world today looking to go out on their own?

Elena Brennan:
The best advice I would give young up and coming entrepreneurs is to do their research, do their homework, be true to your core values. Don’t listen to people that tell you you can’t do it. Listen to people that want to give you advice. But don’t let people put you off.

Ron Bauman:
What are some of the things you learned that you took, I mean, from the obvious, from the marketing and advertising perspective, but what are some things that you took from your prior career into what you’re doing today?

Elena Brennan:
What I took from my prior career is branding. I mean, I’m the branding queen. I love my logo. I’m very careful about where the placement of my logo is. I’m very careful. Maybe careful isn’t the right word, but I love working with words.

Ron Bauman:
Deliberate.

Elena Brennan:
Yes, and having fun with it too. But when you look at a piece that I produced, whether it’s a poster or a postcard, or if it’s a blog, my website, it’s very consistent. I feel that branding is important and I think that carried through from my advertising days.

Ron Bauman:
You’re also very involved with the community, the business community here. You’re in the fabric row section down here right off of South Street, which is a major commercial card door here in Philadelphia. You are the president of the Headhouse square business association.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. I’m the person out of the South Street Headhouse-

Ron Bauman:
South Street.

Elena Brennan:
I’m the president of the South Street Headhouse District, which encompasses a large footprint. We’re all about improving the area for commercial and residential. Bus Stop is on fabric row, which is very historic and it’s within the business district. So I do it pro bono. I do it for the love of the district and the area and the community. It’s a great community.

Ron Bauman:
That’s great. I’m sure that that’s beneficial to the business and your prominence and kind of getting the name out there.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. It’s definitely beneficial. I mean it’s a lot of extra work, but it’s good. I feel good that I can give back to the community and it can help my business too.

Ron Bauman:
Do you have any mentor? Are you mentoring? Do you have any proteges?

Elena Brennan:
I’m a mentor for young emerging fashion designers at the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. My mentor was my dad, but he passed away. He passed away in October.

Ron Bauman:
I’m so sorry.

Elena Brennan:
He had a very great business sense. I felt that any major big financial decisions that I wanted to make, I would ask him first. Also he had a little bit of retail experience. Even though he fell into retail much later in life, he was in telecommunications and it gradually turned into my mother having a little boutique and then my father helping her and then it became their business. So it’s like almost like in my blood. I never realized that. I never like put two and two together, but yet my father would just really give me advice on all aspects of my business but my life too.

Ron Bauman:
I think it’s funny how we hear this a lot about how, you know, people’s parents or their grandparents, they were retailers, they were merchants, they were small business owners. I don’t know if it skips a generation, but it seems like that generation, one of their kids go away to school, get jobs. Now of course we’re getting back into the time in society and in the world where people don’t want to work nine to fives, they want to be their own boss. They want to follow their passion.

Elena Brennan:
But you know what’s really funny is that… So I graduated from high school, I went to college and then my mom said, “Well, now you’re going to work for the family business.” I said, “No.” So I would like sometimes work there on Saturdays. But no, I want to get a job in an advertising agency and speak all these languages that I’ve learned. I don’t want to work in your boutique. Now look, I’m a boutique owner.

Ron Bauman:
So what kind of boutique was it?

Elena Brennan:
They were next door to each other. One was called Z Boutique and the other one’s called [Ziba 00:16:18]. one sold women’s clothing and the other one sold leather goods, a few shoes, but beautiful handbags and briefcases and belts and wallets, and some shoes. So it’s just really funny how it comes full circle.

Ron Bauman:
It always does.

Elena Brennan:
It was quite a few years later that I realized that. I do have another mentor who’s not as old as my dad, but he’s very sage and very wise. So I do, I think it’s good to have a mentor. It can be somebody that’s not even in the business. Somebody that you respect. It’s sometimes good if you have a mentor that’s not in the same business because they have a different point of view.

Ron Bauman:
Sure.

Next Elena describes how she differentiates her boutique with excellent customer service, how she uses social media to reach new customer, and answers the question; why shoes?

Elena Brennan:
I love shoes. I look back at pictures of me as a little girl and I’m always like doing this little thing with the shoe in my foot. When I first moved to Philadelphia, people would say, “Where’d you get your shoes from?” They were never from Philly. They were from London, New York, any place but Philly. I thought, Philadelphia needs some good fine shoes.

Ron Bauman:
That’s really the heart of marketing and entrepreneurship is seeing an opportunity, filling a void. Recognizing that.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. I’m very lucky because the few shoe boutiques and shoe shops that were in Philly sadly have closed, so I have less competition, which not a bad thing.

Ron Bauman:
That’s a good point. I mean you’ve mentioned some of the other stores have closed. We’ve discussed this a lot in the past. The competition with selling your shoes online. How do you sort of position yourself against some of the retailers who are relying on that? You’ve obviously created here in your store, you’ve created a really wonderful experience for the customers coming in.

Elena Brennan:
Yeah. I mean most of the sales are here in the brick and mortar rather than online. I wish I could go to bed at night and wake up the next day and sold 200 pairs of shoes. But I’m not there yet. I’m working on that. I’m working on my SEO to help that happen. But-

Ron Bauman:
I know some people that are good at that if you need someone.

Elena Brennan:
I have someone, but I’ll let you know.

Ron Bauman:
It’s nothing you can’t Google and find out yourself.

Elena Brennan:
No, one of my classmates. But customer service is really important. So if you buy something online, you don’t get that experience. We offer customer service styling tips. That goes a long way. We have events. Events draws in a great crowd and then there’s that sale conversion. There’s research to back that up that customer service and events really helps boost your business.

Ron Bauman:
Absolutely. Especially for a brick and mortar business. They come in here. Get them to understand the environment and the ambience and then you get that emotional connection. That’s what creates that loyalty to the brand and to the products and to you of course.

Elena Brennan:
Definitely. Yeah.

Elena Brennan - shoes

Ron Bauman:
How important is social media in your business?

Elena Brennan:
Oh my God. I love it.

Ron Bauman:
I know it’s sort of a rhetorical question.

Elena Brennan:
I love Instagram. I mean I do tweet and I do Facebook.

Ron Bauman:
Just daisy chain the posts off Instagram.

Elena Brennan:
But Instagram’s my favorite because I’m very visual so I love all the photographs. Also we get a lot of customers. I mean, it’s growing organically. We’re up to about like 4,300 and it’s growing slowly, but it’s growing organically. We do sell through… I mean, people see things on Instagram and they come in the next day. So it works.

Ron Bauman:
Using them hashtags?

Elena Brennan:
Yes. Oh, lots.

Ron Bauman:
What’s your top hashtags?

Elena Brennan:
Well, some of my favorites are #busstoploves, which we give to other… Like if we love a customer or another designer #busstoploves. I love #busstopontheroad when we go on road trips. #shoesfordays. There’s just so many.

Ron Bauman:
Oh, I’ve been following, I mean, you’ve done a great job sort of telling stories through the hashtags.

Elena Brennan:
There’s so many.

Ron Bauman:
And sort of stringing them together as a series so that people can follow along. That’s really I think the best use for those pesky little hashtags.

Ron Bauman:
Well, Elena, it’s been a pleasure speaking with you as always.

Elena Brennan:
Oh, thank you.

Ron Bauman:
We really appreciate you taking the time to sit down with us and host you here in the store at Bus Stop Boutique. 727 South Fourth Street, Philadelphia, PA. Fabric row.

Elena Brennan:
Yep, and Instagram’s Bus Stop Boutique.

Ron Bauman:
Business stop boutique.

Elena Brennan:
Follow us.

Ron Bauman:
#Busstoploves.

Elena Brennan:
Yes.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Break Through. I’m your host, Ron Bauman, serial entrepreneur, founder of Milk Street Marketing, and NextFab member. To learn more about how NextFab can make your ideas come to life, visit NextFab.com and be sure to follow #NextFabmade on social to see what our members are making.