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056: From an $800 Startup to a Million Dollar Custom Apparel & Merchandising Business (w/ Zee Ali)

Zee Ali is the founder of Zee Group, a full-service custom apparel and merchandising company. Their products include custom apparel/uniforms, promotional products/custom premiums, print material/direct mail, event/tradeshow products, graphic design, award products, brand identity, and packaging/gift with purchase. 

Zee started the business as a hospitality apparel company while he was studying restaurant management and culinary arts at Triton College. He started it with just $800 in his bank account and has grown it into a million dollar business. 

Period in full-time business 

He has been in business for 7 years now. 

Core revenue streams 

When he started the business he was selling chef coats and uniforms to culinary schools. In fact, he was selling the chef coats to his fellow students while he was studying the culinary arts. When people were asking him for aprons, hats, knives, pastry sets, pens and mugs, he would supply them all without exception, and so far his company offers more than a million products. They have partnered with some of the largest brands in the world including Nike. 

His company is a B2B business that customizes merchandise for clients. 

Culinary arts industry 

His company works with different culinary schools to provide them with all their uniforms, pastry sets and other items. They also manage the logistic fulfilments for the schools. Zee worked in the industry for a while from being a buster to a server, bar tender, and executive chef but he now doesn’t have time for that. In future he would like to travel through Europe and do some cooking.  

Starting out in business 

The root of his business journey started when he was very young. He was always money hungry and had side hustles all the time. He sold bootleg music, dvds, cigarettes, and any item he could get. He eventually got a job at a senior luxury living community as a busboy and worked his way up to a server. He used to really want a chance to cook and one Saturday he got the chance to wash dishes which eventually led him to becoming a prep cook and later a line cook. He had the job all through high school and through sponsorships he got a chance to join culinary school.  

While there, he started getting chef coats from a flea market for a few dollars and then selling them to other students from his duffle bag. He kept selling the chef coats because a friend of his used to get them from a good source and together they would make good money from that. 

Getting the first set of clients 

His first customer was a culinary school he was referred to by one of his teachers. He showed up at the school with his duffle bag and his prices printed out, which really impressed the chef who ended up making an order immediately but Zee couldn’t supply them there and then because the chef required him to have some business-related paperwork to become an approved vendor. Zee went and got all the necessary paperwork for his business and went back to them after which he got them as his first customers. 

He would always secretly record all the conversations he had with clients and prospects because he never understood all the business language they used. At that time, Zee was not branding the coats and the only reason why he got them so cheap from the flea market was because they were considered defective coats. They used to be in great condition so he could comfortably sell them to his customers. 

Growth strategy in the beginning 

Zee used to print fliers and give them to people in the culinary schools. He also convinced teachers to let him show up in their classes and let the students try on the coats so that the ones who needed them would order. When he started getting into the other merchandise like t-shirts and hats, he would target businesses that were visible to him like auto shops and many more. It all worked well for him. 

Tip: If you are working on a business, make sure to take the time out to identify your ideal customer profile and spend time to figure out how big the prospect should be. 

Growth strategy now 

Zee now has a very clear understanding of his target customer, and who is a good fit for his company. They are always testing new ways of acquiring customers and they use methods like direct mail, retention programs, and referrals. 

Why branding 

Zee says he started Zee Group to make money and within 5 years he was doing very well, he lives in downtown Chicago and bought everything he ever wanted to buy except a Lamborghini which he says he will eventually buy. Once he had bought everything he ever wanted, he got depressed for a while because he didn’t have any purpose. Once he recovered from that, he found his purpose because the reason he runs Zee Group is because he is very passionate about marketing, he hasn’t accomplished all his goals with the company, and he loves scaling a business. 

Fear of failure and biggest moment of failure 

He says that in everything that he has ever accomplished in business and personally, he always wanted to quit but when he didn’t and achieved his goals, it was a very fulfilling feeling. He says that to him, failure is just a stepping stone to getting closer to where he wants to go.  

He says he has failed numerous times and the reason he keeps going is because he is inspired by the motivational story lines he sees on WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) which have contributed to his mindset, where he knows that no matter how rough things get, he can figure things out. He referred to a time when his company had a 6-figure account that made him very confident but at some point the client stopped emailing the Zee Group and they later learnt that they had lost the account. That account formed 80% of all their revenue and losing it devastated Zee. But he eventually learnt how to diversify his client base. 

Zee acknowledges that there are a lot of different businesses worldwide which may make it harder for someone to start a business that is similar to already existing ones. This may cause someone to fear starting a new business. Zee Group builds on its competitive advantage by greatly emphasizing customer service and always over delivers on their customers’ expectations. 

Tip 1: If you don’t fail, you will never make it. It’s either you get used to failing or you can just hide and loose everything 

Tip 2: If you are creating a business that is similar in a lot of ways to your competitors, the real way to separate yourself is to create a brand that is radically different from the rest. Your value proposition needs to be very clear 

Biggest breakthrough in business 

He says that this was when he learnt about the branding industry. While in culinary school he got to meet a lady who introduced him to the owner of the largest rugby apparel company in the US and Canada. That’s how he started learning about the promotional items business. 9 months later he was exposed to industry related conferences, events and educational resources. He even hired a consulting firm and all that gave him confidence to do the business that he is in now. 

Tip 1: There is no excuse to not hit your goals, its either you are lazy or scared 

Tip 2: List down all your problems then go find the answers to each of them. Do whatever you can to find the solution 

Zee Group Products 

They have partnered with hundreds of different brands and the core of their business is apparel. They don’t custom manufacture the items unless they are required to. They usually use apparel from brands like Nike and then do the necessary decorations according to each client’s branding needs. 

Faith, Fun, Family, Finances, and Friendships  

Faith comes first because it applies to everything else, and for Zee, health comes second, then relationships (fun, friendships, and family) and finances. 

Burn out experience 

Due to working too much and exhaustion, he ended up being diagnosed with shingles because of stress. He used to work 18 hours a day. 

A day in life when starting 7 years ago Vs. a day in life now 

When he first started, he didn’t know what he was doing. He had a job and still did the business as a side hustle. He didn’t know what was right and what was wrong, but he kept moving. He figured the faster he moved, the faster he would make the mistakes and the faster he would figure it out. 

He now knows what he is doing, things are structured now, he tries to work in block schedules, his day typically starts out with working out, writing and reading; and working on operational issues. 

Mentors 

Zee invests in mentors and he once hired a consulting agency that was specialized in his industry and they helped him understand what he needed to do. He also invested in one on one coaching and other programs from them. He has several incredible mentors and he learns valuable lesson from them. 

Book recommendation for entrepreneurs:   

  1. Zag: The Number One Strategy of High Performance Brands – Marty Neumeier 
  1. The Ultimate Sales Machine: Turbocharge Your Business with Relentless Focus on 12 Key Strategies – Chet Holmes  

Legacy: 
To have people learn from his lessons so that they can have a more impactful, better life, and find their purpose – Zee.   

Best way to connect: 
@thezeeli – Zee’s Handle on all social media platforms 

Get Your Hopes Up and Maximize Your Dreams 🙂

Cheers,
Davis!

About the author, Davis

My Dream of sharing inspirational success stories started many years ago and this Podcast is an amazing show that brings some of those conversations to light.

This show is dedicated to being a voice of encouragement to you because I believe God created you and I with a purpose to fulfill and I want to be here to cheer you on through this Podcast, our Blog and through our other channels of interaction via our comments section after each Podcast and Blog as well as on social media.

I love business and entrepreneurship and I truly believe you have greatness inside of you 🙂