Entrepreneurs design business solutions with SBDC advising

Nuu-Muu Dress

BELLINGHAM, Wash.—Experts recommend incorporating exercise into your daily routines, but for many women, exercise clothing is the last thing they want to be seen wearing outside the gym.

Enter Nuu-Muu, an online retailer of women’s athletic apparel—particularly, exercise dresses—for women and girls. Nuu-Muu was founded by Ashley Fullenwider and Christine Nienstedt in 2008 and now employs six people, not counting the founders.

Friends since graduate school, Fullenwider was the first to discover the benefits of riding a bike in a dress, but Nienstedt became a fan while wearing a floral print polyester dress on a 700-mile bike trip the two took from Mt. Vernon to Kamloops, B.C., in 1999. When Nienstedt wore the same floral dress to run a half-marathon a few years later, she got so many positive comments that a business idea was born.

“It’s so nice to get where you’re going and be able to enjoy being there,” Nienstedt said. “The right outfit makes a difference.”

When Nienstedt started dreaming up a business plan, Fullenwider was the obvious person to partner with. They have a shared love of outdoor adventures, comfortable clothing, and style, and they both wanted to keep their day jobs. Nienstedt has been a paralegal at a law firm in Seattle for the past 20 years and Fullenwider is a nonproliferation analyst for Argonne National Laboratory

Their staff, including a fulltime designer, social media butterfly, bookkeeper and shipping clerk, manage the day-to-day operations for a product line that includes three different dress styles in a dozen different prints for women and girls.

The project might have grown organically, but it required constant care and feeding, and the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Western Washington University was there to help. The Western Washington University SBDC is part of a network of more than two dozen SBDC business advisors and one export advisor who work in communities across the state to help entrepreneurs and small business owners start, grow or transition a business. SBDC services are confidential, tailored to the needs of the business and are provide at no-cost to the client.

Fullenwider started meeting with an SBDC advisor in Bellingham in 2008, when she and Nienstedt were still trying to figure out if they had a viable business proposition. Over the years, they have met with several different SBDC advisors, all of whom have helped them keep moving forward. Since 2016 they have been meeting with CJ Seitz, director of the SBDC center at WWU.

Nuu-Muu is a retail business for the 21st century in several ways. They have a website, but no actual storefront. They have an office, but employees typically work from home. Fullenwider lives in Bellingham, but Nienstedt lives in Boise. They are currently exploring export opportunities.

Once a week they have an all-staff conference call.

“It’s a really good balance for me,” Fullenwider said. As a political scientist, her work is filled with nuance and shades of gray, but working with spreadsheets and financial data is much more black and white and their objectives are clear—meet the needs of their customers, build a profitable business and have fun doing it.

Fullenwider recommends the book, “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World” by Adam Grant. One strand of the book is about how successful people who take risks in one area of their lives often manage that risk by playing it safe in other areas. “It’s about how useful it is to have another stream of income,” Fullenwider said. “We’ve been able to create the business we wanted to create because we don’t have to worry about how we are going to live. It’s not all about the bottom line.”

Fullenwider handles most of the financial oversight while Nienstedt manages the website and oversees marketing. Fullenwider began meeting with SBDC advisors in 2008 when she was looking for assistance in determining if she and Nienstedt had a viable business. Over the years, she has continued to get assistance with financial planning, business systems, spreadsheets, cash flow and HR issues.

“I love working with CJ because she is so honest with me,” Fullenwider said, “and she’s really efficient.”

Efficiency is obviously a critical issue when you already have a full-time job and are trying to keep a business moving forward. Nienstedt said she really appreciates the SBDC’s focus on helping clients find solutions that work within the constraints of their own time, budget and expertise.

“We are grateful to SBDC for their practical and spot-on advising,” she said, “and also to their attention to the human aspect of our business. They have made a positive difference for our business.”

The Washington SBDC Network has been hosted by Washington State University since 1981 and receives federal funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. State and local funding is provided by Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.

By Hope B. Tinney


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