The Fort Myers clothing company Dona Jo wouldn’t be celebrating its 10th anniversary if owners Ashley Ferraro and Raphael Costa weren’t athletes and workout buffs.
The Southwest Florida business has a new showroom and offices on Alico Road, only a few miles from Florida Gulf Coast University, where Ferraro and Costa met. She was from Pittsburgh; he was from Brasilia, Brazil. She was on the swim team; he played varsity tennis. She was a marketing major who didn’t like math; he majored in business management with a minor in entrepreneurship and loved numbers.
She remembered him from an economics class.
“He was always late, on Brazilian time,” Ferraro laughs. “He’d come in 15 minutes late, 30 minutes late, and I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy, why is he always so late to class?’”
He blamed it on tennis practice.
They met through a mutual friend, fell in love and married. After graduating in 2010, they couldn’t find jobs in recession-riddled Southwest Florida and headed to Pittsburgh. Costa, now 35, got a job with a business consulting firm; Ferraro, 34, worked doing advertising for nonprofits.
The idea for Dona Jo started after Ferraro visited Brazil early in their relationship. They were frequent visitors to the gym when visiting. “The one thing that always stuck out was all the bright colors, the prints, the style,” Ferraro says. “Everything was very different from what people were wearing here in the U.S.”
She thought how cool it would be to bring that type of clothing to the U.S.
Costa thought about becoming an entrepreneur after he won an entrepreneurship contest at FGCU for a business plan to build outdoor gyms. “Maybe I should open my own business one day,” he said, after winning. “That was always stalking me.”
Their first idea was to bring the brands from Brazil and sell them in the U.S. Audrey Russo, a friend, mentor and future investor, said that wasn’t a good idea; the clothes were beautiful, but the quality wasn’t good enough and the fit was wrong for the U.S. market.
They decided to manufacture their own designs—a bit less bold and less sexy—in Brazil and sell them in the States. They own their manufacturing facility in Brasilia.
They talked a lot about holding on to Costa’s Brazilian roots, Russo said. “They’re doing it in his hometown; there’s a lot of goodness to this,” she says. “It’s an amazing story.”
Most of Dona Jo’s early clothing was intended for the gym and running, Ferraro said—leggings and tops. It changed direction about six years ago and started focusing on skirts for pickleball, golf and tennis, after noticing skirts were a hot seller for one retailer.
Ferraro’s mom, Colleen, became known as the tennis skirt hustler. She took a pink Steve Madden bag filled with skirts when she played tennis and pickleball at the country club and unloaded the bag. “Everyone would be reaching for things and grabbing and follow me to my car and buy out of my car,” she said. Colleen’s friends fit Dona Jo’s demographics, women between ages 40 and 65 who have the time and money for a stylish activewear lifestyle, although the company is also developing a line of less expensive clothes for a younger demographic.
The company gets 80% of its revenue from online sales, 10% from retail and 10% from Amazon, Costa said. To beef up retail sales, Dona Jo hired two independent reps, one in Florida and one in the Southeast. “So, we’re going to start with these two and see if we can get more traction with the stores and possibly add more reps after that,” Ferraro says.
It’s also looking to increase its social media reach by adding Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok efforts to the Facebook and Google accounts on which it currently depends. Social media has changed dramatically since they started the company, Ferraro said—it used to be able to get results by doing its own posts, but that’s no longer true; it now has to pay for ads and influencers. The plan is to work with 100 influencers at a time to promote the product, and one good thing is that the company will be able to track which influencers help sales, something that wasn’t possible before, Costa said.
Dona Jo hasn’t been all bright colors and bold patterns. The 10 years have been a learning experience filled with roadblocks and detours. “Every year there seems to be something,” Ferraro says.
The company had to buy out its Brazilian partner in the first year because it wasn’t working out, Costa said. That’s when Russo invested in the company. “They needed a little bit of money, and I said I was willing to be a significant investor because I believed in them,” she says.
Costa and Ferraro discovered early on that, though machines to make the flat seams needed on the clothes were plentiful in the U.S., they couldn’t find one in Brasilia. They finally found one in Brazil, but then they had to find somebody to get it working and teach people how to keep it working.
The first company the couple hired to ship products from Brazil to the U.S. proved unreliable and expensive; they were never sure when or if the products would arrive. “We figured it out along the way, but we didn’t have a lot of help,” Ferraro said. “It was just us figuring it out.”
Dona Jo survived the onset of COVID-19—it helped sales that the only safe exercise was playing outdoor sports—but the post-pandemic time has been more challenging. Business had been growing 20% to 30% a year; that won’t be the case this year. “We’re literally just hanging in there,” Ferraro says. “Trying to keep our levels where it’s healthy, where it’s keeping everything running.”
Inflation has eaten away at their 6% to 10% profits, Costa said. The price of their fabrics increased 30% or more, which wasn’t sustainable, Ferraro said, but they product-tested new fabrics and found comparable ones at a better price.
The pros outweigh the cons despite the challenges along the way, Ferraro said. Her advice for anyone starting a business: “Pick something you are passionate about, because it’s not going to be fun every day and it’s not going to be like the stories you see on TV. It’s hard work.”
Be careful and don’t fall for the get-rich-quick “we can help your business” pitches on the internet, Costa added. “There is no shortcut,” he says. “You have to work really hard at what you do.”