An interior decorating service for men and a swimwear line for women may not seem to have much in common. But the entrepreneurs behind both Calgary businesses have cornered a designer niche without any design background, by zeroing in on a consumer need that wasn’t being fulfilled in the marketplace.
After 27 years in the hospitality industry, Michelle Lavoie was ready for a career change. She gravitated toward interior decorating and design — with a twist. After years of decoding the desires of male clientele in fine dining rooms and private clubs, her natural target was the single guy. Her business, A Man’s Home, was born.
In 2007, no one in Calgary was targeting the segment of the population that normally relied on mothers or sisters for decorating needs. Yet Michelle’s exclusive niche worried her. “Part of me went, well, if it’s such a good idea, how come nobody else has done it?”
But she’d heard too many stories of men ending up with a dozen throw pillows on their beds instead of channeling their own DNA into their home décor. Michelle moved forward, and soon she was assisting guys with putting their personality stamp on their living spaces, be it a motorcycle in the living room, or simply ensuring the furniture was man-sized.
Meanwhile, SAIT marketing grads Lisa Audia and Sarah Hlapcic were schooled in the merits of a unique business angle. Without a fashion background, neither of them expected to be bikini designers. But a girls’ trip to California led the friends to air their frustrations with finding a flattering fit for the beach.
“I went on a rant session about how I didn’t understand why it was so hard to find a bikini I love, both top and bottom,” says Lisa. “Sarah went on the same rant I did. Then we both looked at each other.”
The light bulb went off. They founded Beleza Swimwear, focusing on solving the problems that drove them nuts – bikini bottom elastic that cut into skin, fabric with little or no lining and the absence of a comprehensive mix-and-match selection within one collection.
The two niche businesses take different approaches to marketing. With A Man’s Home, Michelle admits it’s her biggest challenge.
“Men don’t know if they need a painter, they don’t know if they need furniture, they haven’t got a clue what it is they need,” says Michelle. “Unlike women who will Google ‘interior decorators Calgary,’ men almost have to fall on top of me to realize ‘Hey, there’s a service that will look after my needs exclusively.’”
Meanwhile, marketing was top of mind from the moment Lisa and Sarah launched their business in July. They sponsored the Tropic Beauty Model Search at Calgary Stampede to kick-start sales and headed to the MAGIC apparel trade show in Las Vegas to introduce their swimwear to retailers. They believe their marketing background will drive their success, unlike fashion designers who may have a more artistic approach to a bathing suit.
“We’re not thinking this cool, crazy idea,” says Lisa. “We’re more thinking – what need are we fulfilling if we create this top, who does this speak to, who will fall in love with this?”
While Beleza Swimwear wraps their first catalog shoot this month, the website for A Man’s Home doesn’t show examples of Michelle’s work — she doesn’t want her clients to feel limited by photos of previous décor assignments. Instead, she relies on word of mouth. But she doesn’t wait for it to happen on its own. She’ll be speaking this weekend at Calgary’s Home + Design Show.
A former broadcast journalist who has worked for CBS, ABC and CBC, Tiffany began covering financial news when she was based in Toronto, working for CityTV and Cable Pulse 24. The UBC graduate’s career has seen her report on a wide variety of topics, including directing and producing a feature documentary about a controversial undercover police tactic, Mr. Big.
Besides her work for You Inc, Tiffany is also creative director for the fashion/lifestyle website Blue Besos. In between, she tries to find time to work on a novel about the TV news industry.
Her favourite interview ever was with cellist Yo Yo Ma.