Women find patterns of success

Their love of bling on clothing has translated into a profitable Vancouver company

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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photoJulie Schoen, left, and Angela DiBetta, owners of Dazzling Design and Apparel, demonstrate a new laser engraving machine Tuesday in Vancouver.

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photoOne of the devices used by Dazzling Designs is a laser machine capable of etching designs on everything from clothing and granite to leather.

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Inside the Vancouver offices of Dazzling Designs & Apparel Inc., the signs of owners Angela DiBetta and Julie Schoen's ability to grow the seed of an idea into a successful business are everywhere.

Post-it messages written by employees about what the word "dazzling" means to them crowd one office wall, underscoring the company's emphasis on staying true to itself.

A cutting-edge laser machine etches designs on everything from clothing and granite to leather and picture frames.

And three robotic machines precisely set the rhinestones that sparkle at the heart of the business into designs that are ironed or heat-pressed onto clothing.

When it comes to pleasing customers with eye-catching products, DiBetta said, "we want to wow and ahh you in every sense."

But it wasn't easy for the 10-year-old, profitable company — a custom manufacturer of rhinestone heat transfers and wholesaler of loose stones — to get where it is today. The story of the two women's evolution from an infatuation with bling to a well-informed love of running a business is as much about the gumption of friends DiBetta and Schoen as it is about the importance of adapting and learning as you go.

And DiBetta and Schoen understand well just how far they've come.

"We knew nothing coming into this business," Schoen said.

It all started in August 2003 at the Clark County Fair. That's when DiBetta -- who, along with Schoen, was working in direct sales for The Pampered Chef at a booth there — noticed someone selling rhinestones at another counter.

Immediately, she paid the person a visit and struck up a conversation about the attractive stones. "I fell in love with them," DiBetta said.

Anyone else may have bought some shiny rocks and moved on.

Not DiBetta. Not only did she make a purchase and create a sparkly shirt, she started talking to Schoen about launching a business. DiBetta wanted to make more garments with pizazz. A lot more. Both women had experience in direct sales. And their hunch was that there was a market in the U.S. for a reliable maker of rhinestone heat-transfer motifs.

Schoen plied the Internet, researching everything about it. They knew they'd have to get hold of a rhinestone-setting machine to rapidly produce enough products to cover their monthly costs. The risk was palpable.

"We didn't have a lot of money," Shoen said.

They got close to a lease deal for a machine, only to see it fall through. Undeterred, they financed a device with help from family and friends. By December 2003, their first rhinestone-setting machine -- which they dubbed "Simon" -- had arrived from Austria, and was up and running.

DiBetta and Schoen launched a website. Google ads were crucial to getting the word out.

Calls started pouring in. For the first six months, neither DiBetta nor Schoen drew a paycheck.

Nevertheless, they were in business.

Fast-forward to today: DiBetta and Schoen's hunch about finding a niche in the U.S. fashion and apparel industry hit the mark.

The company, at the Eastridge Business Park in Vancouver, is growing. Seven people work for DiBetta and Schoen, and the owners are looking to hire more.

Last year, they raked in just shy of $800,000. They hope to haul in $1 million in revenue by the end of 2013.

DiBetta and Schoen paid off the first rhinestone-setting machine within five years. And they've added other devices, including a laser machine, to their collage of equipment.

The company counts a diverse field of businesses as its customers, including large private-label companies "you would find at your local mall," according to DiBetta, and small- to midsize "private labels found in boutiques and online."

Dazzling Designs also works with everyone from screen printers and embroiderers to promotional companies and project-management firms.

"The bulk of our clientele is out of state," DiBetta said.

DiBetta said she tends to take a more conservative approach with business decisions, while "Julie's the risk taker." Both say they complement each other.

They also agree on another point: They always need to be learning, adapting, staying on track.

They both recently read "The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It," by Michael Gerber.

The book confirmed that Dazzling Designs has made many smart moves over the years, DiBetta said. But it's also got her and Schoen thinking about further development.

"We've been very diligent in our business," DiBetta said, "but there's always room for improvement."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com