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Start Small, Go Big: A Crash Course for Startups

Thursday, 11 Oct 2012 | 3:49 PM ET
Source: dailycandy.com

"Don't look over your shoulder…you'll look yourself right out of business." In other words, stop fixating on the competition.

That's just one piece of advice from DwellStudio founder Christiane Lemieux to the founders of online-only home furnishing startup Apt 2B. The advice was part of a mentoring session at her retail location in SoHo.

Lemieux is one of 12 mentors for DailyCandy's third annual "Start Small, Go Big" Academy for entrepreneurs, taking place at various locations around New York City this week. NBC Universal is DailyCandy's parent company. The website focuses on fashion and food among other topics.

"We wanted to develop an academy to help propel startups by setting them up with connections in their industry that can help catapult them to the next level, " said Ashley Parrish, DailyCandy's editor in chief.

Lemieux said she got involved in the academy because she would have benefited from a mentor years ago. "Maybe someone could have talked me out of some of my mistakes! All of us are facing the same problems, it's just a question of scale."

Six academy spot winners

About 3, 000 small businesses applied for six academy spots. The winners were flown to NYC to meet with mentors.

Apt 2B founders Mat Herman and Alex Back, based in Los Angeles, won the "Most Inventive" award.

Herman described Apt 2B as "a virtual store next door. We're keeping it local, but we live online, with no brick and mortar location." The company uses characters, like the Guy in 2A and The Girls from 2C to help consumers choose furniture. Herman and Back serve as virtual landlords.

Fashion winner

Vintage-inspired women's clothing designer Lauren Nevada won the fashion category and the opportunity to sit down with fashion designer Lauren Moffatt, founder of Lauren Moffatt, at her workspace in New York City's Fashion District.

Hearing Nevada's story brought Moffatt back to her roots. "People think you have to have a lot of money to get started, but it's not necessarily true. We had $3, 000 and lived on a sailboat in Jersey City. But that allowed us to start this clothing line."

Beyond success stories, "Start Small, Go Big" mentorship stresses straying from financial temptations, and staying on track.

"Businesses do grow really fast and then they hire more people and great really nice offices — we never did that, " said fashion designer Moffatt.

"It can be tempting to want to grow fast and find a space with a little more room, but at the end of the day, it's nice not to be overextended and have to worry about the [volatility] from season to season, " said Moffatt, as she looked around her cramped, but productive workspace, littered with fabric, patterns and finished products.

Customers rule

In addition to growth concerns, the mentorship stresses customer relations.

"No matter what inspires me, it's always the customer in the back of my mind." Moffat said it can be difficult to gauge what consumers want. She uses herself, friends and staff to guide her designs.

Lemieux of DwellStudio is available for dissatisfied customers. "If they Tweet me about a problem, I fix it and I Tweet it back" via Twitter. "You have respect your customer."

While Herman and Back complimented Lemieux on her success, she was quick to remind the Apt 2B founders that just because she's more established, doesn't mean she's figured it all out. While DwellStudio.com is a key part of her business, online competition is getting more intense and changing everyday.

"Amazon.com is a huge factor and it's disrupting this market like no one else. But we're on it, because we have to be…and it's very hard to compete against the flash sale sites. It's changing the consumer to never feel like they have to pay full price for anything, its scary. I went in kicking and screaming we will never be promotional…but you can't compete online if you aren't willing to play by the rules that everyone else is."

Telling a business story

But Lemieux believes in the power of a strong brand and urged her mentees to stick to their unique stories.

"The best brands tell their story and tell it consistently. Once you stop telling your story, you're just another online furniture store."

Email us at SmallBiz@cnbc.com and follow us on Twitter @SmallBizCNBC.

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