From hobby business to roaring success.

That's the tale told by Kate Echeverry of Unique-Vintage.com, which sells vintage-style dresses dating from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Echeverry started out 10 years ago, prowling flea markets and estate sales in her spare time, hunting for vintage clothing she could purchase at bargain prices. "Vintage was so hot, and I thought it was fun and interesting," Echeverry says. A friend built a website for her for free, and when she had amassed 50 items, she photographed them and loaded them onto her site.

It took six months before she got her first order--and she was ecstatic. She grossed $2,000 that first year. The next year it doubled, and by the fourth year sales totaled $16,000. Four years ago, pregnant with her first daughter, she decided to take the business full time. "It was doing just well enough that I was contributing to the household," she says. "I quit my job, stayed home and poured my heart and soul into this website."

The drawback to her authentic vintage clothing was the small sizes. Women were smaller in the vintage period, Echeverry says, and potential customers were asking for dresses in larger sizes. So Echeverry began looking for new lines of clothing that were vintage-inspired.

She found what she was looking for at Magic, a trade show in Las Vegas, where she met young designers who were crafting clothing that evoked the '40s and '50s. With more sizes available, sales boomed. And Echeverry got serious.

"I hired a programmer, did a little advertising, [and] the business took off."

She went from being a stay-at-home mom to someone who needed a baby sitter, and then a full-time nanny. Next she hired an employee who was comfortable working in an environment with a baby and a nanny. She chose a neighbor who had just graduated with a degree in fashion. The pair shipped packages out of Echeverry's garage from an inventory of hundreds of dresses, which had spread throughout the house. ("My husband was a good sport," Echeverry says. "He never complained.")

Soon there were more young women working for Echeverry. Then prom season arrived in 2007, and Unique Vintage was overwhelmed with orders from teens seeking unique prom gowns.

Echeverry says she hadn't anticipated the impact proms would have on her business. But in short order, she was shipping 100 orders a day out of her home. "I called my dad to come help ship packages," she says.

At that point, with FedEx and UPS rolling up the street regularly, Echeverry realized she needed to find a retail space. By now, she had three employees, a nanny and a baby--and her husband also worked out of their house.

The first retail space was 2,300 square feet, mostly used as warehouse space and housing for employees. Within six months, Echeverry hired four more people, and soon she was up to a total of 10. When the tenant next door vacated her retail space, Echeverry expanded again, to 4,600 square feet. Nowadays she has about a dozen employees most of the year, rising to 22 employees during prom season. She has two mobile pods in back of the building, and has leased a place across the street to do photo shoots.

Echeverry estimates that she spent $500 on the first dresses she purchased, and she put everything she earned back into the business until she quit her full-time job in pharmaceutical sales. "I didn't even pay myself until my accountant forced me to," she says.

She is grateful to her initial vendors for their willingness to work with her and sell dresses to her one at a time. "They were good to me when I didn't know what I was doing. Now that I'm doing so well, I've stuck with a lot of those vendors because they were there for me," she says.

She's also grateful to Google. She says the company's organic rankings "have been the No. 1 driving force of the growth of my business." She describes her rise in website ranking as a "snowball effect." "The more relevant you are, the more people clicking on you and the longer you've been online, the more websites are pointing to you."

She concludes, "The more people know about you, the more people know about you."

Unique Vintage typically doesn't get walk-in traffic. "People search us out online and drive here," says Echeverry. That traffic has included out-of-staters who stopped by while investigating California colleges and a German couple on their way to Las Vegas to get married. "They wanted to grab some retro clothes," she says. Some celebrities have purchased Unique Vintage clothing, too, although Echeverry does her best to avoid name-dropping. "I'm torn between promoting it or keeping it quiet so they feel comfortable coming to me," she says.

Echeverry strives to keep Unique Vintage a family-oriented place. In addition to her first hire, who is now the firm's office manager, the company includes her dad and her sister's friend from junior high. She provides health insurance and 401(k)s. "I've made it a good environment to work in, and in return I get people who take ownership of the business; if I'm not here, I know it's in good hands," she says.

Echeverry also gives back by donating dresses to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising for sale in the student store. She also raised $5,000 for charity when O, the Oprah Magazine, picked up an item about Unique Vintage's plans to donate 20 percent of certain items to cancer research. This year, because she has a soft spot for pets, she plans to donate funds to the Humane Society.

Echeverry also has produced her own charity contest for the past two years, which she calls the Glamour Girl contest. She asks young women to write an essay describing why they deserve a free prom gown. She then picks 10 local winners, and 10 winners worldwide.

According to Echeverry, the turning point for Unique Vintage was a brief mention in Glamour magazine in the fourth year of her business. To this day, Echeverry doesn't know how it happened. But that month, sales jumped from $1,000 a month to $5,000. Echeverry says that's when she knew Unique Vintage could be a full-time job for her. "That's when everything changed," she says.

Echeverry's advice for would-be entrepreneurs:

  1. Don't quit your job. "If you can keep a full-time job to pay your bills, do that for as long as possible, because it takes pressure off you. It gives you time for your business to grow." But she also cautions that it's a lot of hard work, and you have to plan on working nights and weekends if you go that route.
     
  2. Don't expect overnight success. It takes a lot of hard work to have a successful business, Echeverry says. She advises giving your business a year or 18 months to succeed. "See if people like your ideas. See if you're getting a good response." If the reviews seem positive, go to trade shows. "If you're getting a good response and a lot of interest, you might be able to make it happen," she says.
     
  3. Start small. Echeverry cautions against taking out a loan, in case the business doesn't work out. "Then you'd be in a worse situation."
     
  4. You have to take risks. "Some aren't going to work, and you can't beat yourself up about it, because some of those risks are going to take off," she says. "I still take chances. If it doesn't work, I move on to something else." One example of a campaign that fell flat was a full-page ad in Spanish Seventeen magazine to take advantage of Quinceañera. Echeverry says that advertising in Seventeen's prom issue has been "phenomenal" for Unique Vintage, so she was confident she was making the right decision. She still isn't sure why it didn't work. "Maybe I chose the wrong dress; maybe I chose the wrong model. You don't know until you try," she says.
     
  5. Don't discount relationship-building. "In the end, it does come back to relationships. As you're meeting people, you need to take care of that relationship. You can't take it for granted." As an example, she points to prom season. Her vendors can't produce enough dresses to meet the demand in April. "You better hope your supplier likes you, because not everyone's going to get the dress that everyone wants this season," Echeverry says. "It helps that I've built friendships and relationships with my vendors, because I'm pushed up closer to the top of the line to get those dresses."
     
  6. Don't worry about the competition. "There's enough business out there for all of us," Echeverry says. She doesn't want to copy anyone else's ideas or be accused of doing so. "I hope what we're doing is different," she says. But she also acknowledges, "You can only pick so many retro styles before they all look the same."
     
  7. Create your own niche. "We've created our own niche because we don't do hard-core rockabilly girls with tattoos. My customer is the mainstream girl who wants something kind of retro, but more sweet than bad. We're the only ones balancing in the mainstream with just a hint of rockabilly or edge."