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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
portfolio for wardrobe, some corporate stuff, and work for
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
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."
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
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
and Home Business Blog