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Olga Kostrova: A Woman's Tenacity to Succeed
This is an inspiring story of an immigrant who tried to make it in the fashion business, and found success in photography. Learn from Olga Kostrova the valuable lessons of becoming an entrepreneur. 

by Isabel M. Isidro
PowerHomebiz.com Managing Editor

Starting a business requires flexibility, as better opportunities may come from a different endeavor. In Olga Kostrova's case, she found success in photography when her fashion business stalled. She started photography to save on costs in creating her high fashion portfolio, only to find that her pictures generated better business than her clothing line.

An Immigrant's Fashion Dreams

Olga Kostrova, 29, started her fashion business in 2001, a year after migrating to Canada from Ukraine with her husband. She found employment in Toronto as a brand manager of a cosmetics company, but quit to pursue her dream of starting her own business.

Olga felt she was ready. As she said, "I quit because I wanted to start my own business. I am prepared and I am ready. I have a lot of ideas."

She strongly believed that she would succeed! Possessing the assertiveness and gregariousness of an A1 personality, Olga has a Masters in Economics tucked under her belt, complemented by an extensive management and marketing experience. In fact, an advertising company back in Ukraine offered her the CEO post, which she refused as she and her husband planned to relocate to Canada.

It took her six months to find the right business. When looking for a business to start, "I decided to do what I really liked to do, and start a fashion house. I knew that I would be good. I know that many people in Canada love my clothing, as people would often come up to me in the streets and say, 'Oh, I love your jacket;' or, 'Oh I love your coat.' So I thought of developing an upscale clothing line."

The Challenges of Starting a Fashion Business

Raising capital for the clothing business, however, proved to be a difficult challenge. "The main issue was capital. It took me several months to finally get money because it was pretty hard." More so given the fact that she was not looking for loose change; she wants to raise $2 million for her start-up business!

As Olga said, "To start a fashion business, one needs a lot of capital. It is very expensive to produce merchandise. Especially with what I do: I use very, very expensive fabric. I use exclusive stuff. It is like designer clothes: very expensive."

Unfortunately, she does not have the capital to start her dream business. Nor does her family. "My family is not here, so I am not able to borrow money from my family. When we came, we sold our apartment for $12,000 - that's the price of a condo in my country - and we brought that money here when we moved to Canada."

Being a newcomer in a country that requires an established credit history to borrow money did not help her, either. "I'm a newcomer so no bank would give me money. No investment company wanted to invest in a start-up business. And I have no credit history records."

However, Olga is no shrinking wallflower. Her problem of not having the capital to start the business of her dreams brought out her tenacity and innovativeness. "I wrote 3,000 letters to different people and companies who I thought might be interested in funding my business! Yes, 3,000! If you want to get something, be prepared to spend a lot of time and effort."

"I have a lot of different stories when I was searching for money. You would not believe it. There were days when I thought I cannot find capital and do not know what to do anymore. I did some crazy things. I took a piece of paper and typed: 'SOS I need help. I am looking for investor. If you know of anyone, please help.' I put this piece of paper on my back, attached to my coat, and just went to downtown Toronto's financial area. Maybe I will meet a crazy person like me who can help me. Of course, it did not happen. Some people approached me, talked to me and gave me some encouragement, because at that time I was already so depressed that I cannot find capital for my business!"

Her unconventional methods worked! One of the recipients of her letter, an owner of a big corporation in Canada, invited her to do a presentation of her business. "He invited me to present my ideas to him. He was impressed with my presentation. He told me after the presentation, 'Olga, I'll give this money not to your business, but to you personally because I saw your eyes and I think you will get whatever you want.' He gave her $50,000 as seed capital.

With the money, Olga created OL Grandeur Fashion House http://www.olgrandeur.artmill.org   offering a collection of upscale women's fashion. "The money I was able to raise was not enough, so I started smaller than I wanted. But I was able to develop my clothing line."

Finding the right people to create her clothes then proved to be another challenge. "I designed the clothes. But it took me a long time to find the appropriate people to work with. Because I am developing an upscale line, I needed quality. I have a very strict quality requirement."

She asked around for referrals. "If you don't know the answer, just ask around. Someone is bound to know it! I met a lot of people, and asked them what they do, what do they charge, and compared pricing and quality. I found some people willing to work for me. I then checked the fittings, how I want to look it, everything. So I had several people who now work for me part-time."

Her first collection consisted of 70 pieces. "They are really nice pieces; pretty innovative. People liked it very much, which is good."

She then applied, and got approval, to participate in the Toronto Fashion Week, which gave her clothing line the exposure it needs. "One of my major clients saw me in Fashion Week and liked my line. They (buyers from an upscale department store in Toronto) came to my showroom and looked at everything. They gave me a couple of suggestions on how they want to see the complete line."

Selling the collection, however, proved to be the main obstacle. "I created a collection; and when it's a collection, it is pretty hard to sell… When you market, it is easier when you do something specific - dresses or just blouses. But since I did a collection, I wasn't able to sell it in my way, in quantity that I want per piece right from the start." She wanted to wholesale the entire collection, instead of offering them for sale piece by piece to small boutiques.

"I dream of a big business. I try to approach main clients. The boutiques are ok: they are interested but they order very small quantities. I need to be profitable right from the start because I need to save the money that I got (I don't have enough). To do so, I need to get specific quantity of orders per style. Otherwise, it is very expensive here in Canada to manufacture it."

"The high-end market in Canada is very tight. Majority of stores and independent boutiques buy low priced clothing lines. Textile experts insist that majority of women are not seeking very elegant, exclusive pieces any more. But my market is not majority! I am building this line for SPECIAL women."

Olga decided to momentarily pause her efforts to wholesale her fashion line, although she continues to market her line on the Web. However, she vowed, "I may start again next season I will not push it right now. I plan to wait, do more research so I can be better prepared."

Changing Gears to Photography

Olga's setback in the clothing business brought her to a business that she never expected to be in - photography.

Photography has been one of Olga's interests since childhood -- she just liked to take pictures - although she never had any formal training. Hence, she never dreamt of running a photography business. "I know how competitive it is. It was just one of my hobbies; just like fashion design, painting, acting and writing."

She first engaged in photography as a bootstrapping strategy for her fledging fashion business. "To save money on a photographer, I invited my friends to model my clothes and I took their pictures myself. And the photos looked great … Then I discovered that, "Wow! I liked it very much!"

When her fashion business slowed down, she took up photography as a hobby. "I soon developed a huge collection of different photos. I took portraits, nude, landscapes, animals etc." Her friends complimented her photos and encouraged her to pursue the medium. "So I thought maybe they are right and that I should try it. So I tried to explore it and do more different stuff, and just got better and better. But I never thought I'd be doing photography professionally. I just never thought about it."

Her friends urged her to turn this hobby into an income-generating venture. "My friends told me, "Olga, you have so many good images. Try to do something about. Try to sell it. You really have a lot of good pictures." So I approached some people. The result is this business."

Olga then urged her husband to create a website for her to showcase her photo gallery. In September 2002, she launched Artmill Stock Photography at http://www.olgrandeur.artmill.org 

"I placed the first 500 images online and started contacting potential buyers. The result was great. People loved the images … and the prices." Olga got very good response from web designers and artists who buy images for their work.

In less than a year since she launched her photography business, Olga was able to successfully market her own photo site and serve the photo needs of Fortune 500 companies. Today, Olga's major clients include web and graphic designers, advertising agents, printing houses, newspapers and magazines.

Word on her talent as a photographer soon spread. "When I realized that several actors came to me again and again for their portfolio, I started to design my own portfolio as a photographer." Soon, Olga was "invited to do new portfolios for top Canadian models, actors; and portraits … portfolio for wardrobe, some corporate stuff, and work for advertising agencies."

Her success in getting clientele for her photography business came largely from word-of-mouth. However, it is also a lot of marketing effort - "a lot of letters, a lot of phone calls." Her skills at networking also helped increase her customer base.

"I called up people and introduced myself. Some people found me on the Internet. They see my work and they liked it. In some cases, they see a model's portfolio; they ask who the photographer is; and so the advertising agency calls me to come."

Olga's photography business covers both stock and assignment photography. "I like doing photo stocks and not photography by order, because you are more flexible; you do what you like to do - put images you like, and people choose what they like and what they want for their personal or professional needs."

Olga is still amazed at the turn of events: "I started with photography to save money on photographer. And I would never place it online if my fashion business had a great result right from first day. So now, I started selling something I have never planned to sell."

Next Steps

While her first stab at the fashion business failed to produce the success she wants, Olga remains steadfast in her plans to pursue her fashion dreams. She plans to continue designing her fashion line and develop a strong competitive brand.

"Now I'm waiting for the next (fashion) season. I plan to go to the Las Vegas Fashion Week in June so I can see the American market. The Canadian fashion market is much smaller; there are not enough high-end stores in Ontario ... I will try to develop contacts and network there; try to find representation or sales agent; or try to do the orders myself. Maybe I need to develop another strategy. We'll see. I have no idea how it will go now."

Yet, at the same time, she intends to build on the success of her photography business. "In my spare time, I will continue to take photos … I plan to grow my photography business. I will be creating an affiliate program, and hiring staff to help me." Olga currently has four part-time employees helping her in her businesses.

What is her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs? "When someone come to me and tell me that they have this and that goal but don't have anything specific in mind, my response is: 'Please, do something that your creative mind leads you to … And if something goes wrong, watch for new opportunities. Just open your eyes and keep going!"


-- Isabel M Isidro is the Managing Editor of PowerHomebiz.com  
Read her blog at PowerHomeBiz Small and Home Business Blog