30 to 40
In the late 1980s, Deb Erickson was a vocational rehabilitation coach for the state of Minnesota. She also had a passion for making clothes, including her own workout wear. Over time, friends, fellow exercise enthusiasts, and fitness instructors asked her to make workout gear for them, too. And then in 1989, one of her instructors at Northwest Fitness, Mary Ann Dallas, a former Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders coach, asked her to make practice wear for the squad.
The practice uniforms Erickson created were a hit, and soon she was making their regular uniforms, too. Word of mouth brought her business from coaches of other squads, including that of the Minnesota Timberwolves as well as several high school dance teams throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin. By 1992, Erickson decided it was time to stop juggling what had become two full-time jobs.
Her company, the Line Up, designs and manufactures performance and competition apparel for a wide variety of teams. Its fashions are now worn by more than half of the NFL cheerleading and NBA dance teams; it also creates performance apparel for high schools and universities. In addition, the Line Up creates figure-skating dresses, tryout and rehearsal outfits, and fashion swimwear—NFL and NBA cheerleading and dance teams have worn Erickson’s swimsuit designs for their team calendars. With one exception (it worked with an outside designer for the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders’ uniforms), the Line Up designs and manufactures all of its performance apparel.
“We try to really understand the customer and what inspires them, what they want to communicate in their performance,” Erickson says. “Someone might have an idea in their head but need to execute it in the real world, and we work to solve that problem.” By offering a wide range of apparel, Erickson says that the Line Up’s price stay competitive, while maintaining its “made in the USA” commitment.
The result of such problem-solving is a premium product that costs notably more than a mass-market, off-the-rack costume: The Line Up’s costume prices range from below $100 to as much as $600 apiece; a mass-market outfit might cost $50.
It’s money that Jane Foster, costume director at the Dance Arts Centre in Chanhassen, is willing to spend. “I work directly with choreographers to decide what dancers will wear for the competitive season, and the Line Up has been a fabulous source for creative ideas to help me realize that vision,” Foster says. “They help with ideas, research fabrics and really handle things from start to finish.” A mass-market costume might cost less, she says, “but might also not fit as well and not look as good on stage.”
Foster has worked with Erickson for more than 15 years, which points to another reason for Erickson’s success—her customer relationships are as durable as her costumes. The firm has had only two years in which revenue was less than the previous year: once in the 1990s, when the Line Up lost a large account, and again in 2010.
What helped keep the Line Up’s spirits up during the recession was its Internet sales channel. In 2008, the Line Up opened an online store, where buyers on a budget could customize a standard design with color, fabric, and simple modifications. The Line Up recently began providing a resale service for those wishing to sell company-made costumes they’re no longer using.
“It’s very costly to do custom everything, and you can’t serve every client that way,” Erickson says. The website gives customers more affordable options.” In 2008, web sales accounted for about 13 percent of business. This year, she expects them to account for nearly 50 percent. The site also serves as a sales portal for fully customized uniforms, which has helped the company extend its national and international business and boosted revenue by another 20 percent.
In April, the Line Up moved into a new 16,000-square-foot design and manufacturing facility that allows the company handle all aspects of garment creation in one place. The space houses new manufacturing tools, including embroidery equipment and software that lets customers create designs that can be printed on fabric.
While transitioning from a sole proprietor to an employer, Erickson says she has learned to hire engaged employees—and how to manage them. “I’ve changed my approach, to giving people more ownership and understanding of what they need in order to make a profit and make the customer happy,” she says. That hasn’t always been easy for someone who’s used to complete product control. But Erickson knows that this allows her to continue pursuing her craft.
“This is creative, and it’s a way to do fashion without making street clothes,” she says. “It would be tough to make money sewing suit jackets, because it’s too labor-intensive. This is something where I can make money.”