How I Started a Mega-Successful Company at 26—Without a Business Plan

Donni Charm Founder Alyssa Wasko Fashion Career Interview

Product, Textile, Electronic device, Laptop part, Room, Clothes hanger, Laptop, Collar, Computer, Denim,
(Image credit: Courtesy of Alyssa Wasko)

If Thomas Edison regarded failure as figuring out 10,000 ways that don't work, Alyssa Wasko of Donni Charm is even *more* chill when things don't go her way. Not that she's even close to getting on ol' Tommy's level because, at just 26 years old, she's slaying the scarf/fashion/philanthropic/entrepreneurial game.

How did she do it? Here, in her own words, Wasko talks hustling as a kindergartner, figuring it out as you go, and peddling cashmere in Arizona.

Marie Claire: There's a bittersweet story behind the conception of Donni Charm, isn't there?

Alyssa Wasko: It was a few months after my father passed away, and I'm the kind of person that likes to be extremely distracted and busy when things like that happen. So I went back to school. I just knew, number one, that my dad wouldn't want me to sit home and sulk. I took on an additional 10 credits on top of my normal course load and drowned myself in work. Then there was this period where I was in between tests and there wasn't a lot going on. I'd always done things in fashion and been creative, and worked in fashion in high school and in the beginning of college, but I just wanted to do some sort of project. I made these little neck scarves for myself and a friend and I put angel-wing charms on them. I just found it very comforting. Weirdly, all of our friends wanted them, and it just slowly evolved from there. I started making a ton of them until I couldn't really keep up with how many people wanted them at my school. The whole thing—the name—is my dad's. His name was Donald, but everyone that was really close to him called him Donni. Everyone used to say I was his good luck charm, and that, mixed with the angel-wing charm, was how the name was born. It really was just an outlet for me to channel what I was going through.

MC: At what point did you realize that this had crossed the line from a side project or a coping mechanism into a viable business?

AW: I think pretty quickly, to be honest. Once the word spread on my college campus, we would have trunk shows with 200 scarves that would literally sell out in 30 minutes to the point where people were fighting. Once that started happening, and I saw how successful [it was]—the kind of money we were bringing in—is when I knew it was something more serious. I couldn't keep up, so we started getting them manufactured and the sales just continued. Something to keep in mind is that I went to the University of Arizona—it's 90 degrees there, and I was selling gigantic winter scarves.

I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 6 years old, I lived in Denver, and there was a festival that took place a block from where I grew up. They would close off all the streets, and everything was so expensive—the water was five or six dollars. I said to my dad, "We should be selling water to these people that's less money," so I set up a stand outside of my house where everyone parks and walks to the festival. I made thousands of dollars. I've always done things like that, and my dad had his own law practice, my mom had her own jewelry business, so I think that's maybe how I was bred. It's also just thinking of what would make [my dad] proud—in a sense, he's been my business plan.

MC: Can we talk about some of the growing pains you've experienced?

AW: We've made so many mistakes. But I really welcome all of them, and I internalize them, and I figure out how to make things better. That's what makes us who we are, and that's what makes us so successful at the end of the day.

Manufacturing's a tough one, and there have been a lot of disappointments with people regarding deadlines and timelines. These sound little to someone on the outside, but those things have made us so involved in our production process. We weren't getting what we wanted out of that, so we moved all of our production to California, in L.A. Our factory is 30 minutes from our office there, and we are there every single day overseeing absolutely everything that goes on. Our product is now in a place where it's so amazing because we've had to make it better, or had to figure it out in those scenarios when your Barneys order is shipping in two weeks and there was a mistake with something.

When something happens that's a letdown, people on our team, their eyes get watery. And I look at them and I'm just so grateful that they care so much.

I'm 26, and having people rely on this business as their source of income, their job, their livelihood, and being responsible for human beings—that's something that isn't necessarily a pitfall but is such a learning experience for me. Little things that people don't think about, like certain taxes that you pay in a certain place, and registering your business with this identification number versus that one, and having our payroll registered with the right withholdings and this and that. Those are things that I have zero background, zero experience in that you have to learn, because we don't have a venture capitalist or outside investors or anything like that. Everyone at the company wears so many different hats. When something happens that's a letdown, people on our team, their eyes get watery. And I look at them and I'm just like, the fact that you care so much, I'm so grateful for that.

MC: It's great how you've built philanthropy into the business.

AW: When the brand started, it really launched and got its footing because I was in college. Our first models were students, our first photographers were students, the person who built our first website was a student. With our campus ambassador program, we have more than 80 reps around the country at different schools. They learn about the brand, spread awareness, sell product. [They] get those tools and something to put on their résumés. But we also review their résumés, give them interview tips, we really prepare them for the real world.

I get so much satisfaction from empowering these college students. I've had girls come up to me and introduce themselves and say "Hi, I was your campus representative for University of Michigan, and I have an amazing job at BCBG because I talked about Donni Charm in my interview the entire time." Then they leave, and I start hysterically crying. That, to me, is everything.

MC: Looking forward but looking back at the same time, have you thought about putting a plan for growth in place? And looking back, do you wish you had started out with a business plan?

AW: To be honest, I really wouldn't change a single thing. At all. I think that we might be in a different place—I fully acknowledge that—than we are right now if we would have done things a bit more conventionally, but I think we learned and became who we are because of the process we've taken and the mistakes we've made. I think that it made the brand what it is, and I think that creates longevity. I'm not looking to create a hot trending item that lasts for two or three seasons. We're building something, like a lifestyle and a brand that I hope is here for a long time. We're right where we're supposed to be.

Follow Marie Claire on Facebook for the latest celeb news, beauty tips, fascinating reads, livestream video, and more.