Hot Brands That Started as Small E-Commerce
Every brand you’ve ever heard of had to start somewhere, and most of them started out small.
For previous generations, that meant starting up in a garage or a tiny storefront. Today it’s more likely to mean starting out with a small online store on a website or an e-commerce marketplace.
How can you grow your little shop into a recognized brand? Here are a few examples of companies that have done just that, and what we can learn from them.
ModCloth: From dorm-room operation to mega-retailer subsidiary
ModCloth is one of the highest profile new fashion brands of the digital age, thanks to its vintage-inspired styles and inclusive sizing. The vintage motif is no accident; ModCloth started in 2002 as a way for co-founder Susan Gregg Koger to sell her surplus thrift store finds online from the comfort of her dorm room. As the company’s reputation grew among shoppers, sales grew—slowly at first, and then by 40% annually as of 2013. Earlier this year, Walmart subsidiary Jet.com bought ModCloth for an estimated $50-$75 million.
Lessons from ModCloth:
1. Do what you love and use what you know. Susan’s thrifting habit formed the basis of her business, and she knew how to find styles that would appeal to her customers.
2. Listen to your customers. In 2015, after ModCloth surveyed its customers and found that more than half were embarrassed to have to shop in “plus sized” sections, the brand dropped the plus-size designation from its store. Now, sizes XS through 4X are simply presented as sizes—a decision that supported customer preferences and generated a fresh round of positive publicity for the company.
3. Turn your customers into a community. For several years, ModCloth’s site featured a Be The Buyer tool that let customers vote on samples to gauge demand for new items. Customers can share their product photos in ModCloth’s Style Gallery.
ModCloth is also active on social media platforms like Pinterest, where the brand has 2.2 million followers, and Instagram. ModCloth also runs Make The Cut themed design contests for its customers that generate lots of buzz.
French Girl Organics: From sideline to boutique natural beauty brand
French Girl Organics has been lauded by Vogue as a “brilliant beauty brand” and cited by actress Emma Watson as part of her regular beauty routine. The line’s projected sales are $1.5 million for this year. That’s not on par with ModCloth, but it’s impressive for a brand that started as a knitting author’s sideline, made with plants from her garden and sold on Etsy. Now French Girl is sold through its own website as well as through Neiman Marcus, Anthropologie, Goop, Amazon, and by the end of October, Madewell.
Lessons from French Girl Organics:
1. Do what you love and use what you know. Author Kristeen Griffin-Grimes combined her appreciation for French culture and her gardening habit to give herself a break after leading tours of France based on her French Girl Knits books.
2. Leverage high-profile media and celebrity mentions. French Girl’s website proudly proclaims the brand as French-born Watson’s “top shelf pick” and links to Watson’s interview with Into the Gloss. French Girl has done a good job of collecting mentions by other major beauty and lifestyle outlets, too, including InStyle, Allure, W, StyleCaster, and the Huffington Post.
3. Own your own digital real estate. French Girl Organics still has an Etsy presence, although as of this writing, the shop has been in vacation mode since July and invites visitors to shop the company’s own website. Having an independent shop that you control is important for several reasons—not the least of which is that you can collect email addresses from customers on your own site to build and leverage your list.
Of course, virtually everyone wears clothes and has some personal grooming ritual, a fact that gave ModCloth and French Girl Organics a broad potential market from the start. What if your business serves a tiny niche instead? Can it still become a “big” brand? To answer these questions, let’s look at one of the most narrowly defined niches around: professional mermaids.
Finfolk Productions: From garage business to “splashy” Instagram icon
How much of a brand can you build selling $1,000 to $3,900 silicone mermaid tails to performers, resorts, and theatrical costumers?
Ask artists (and twin sisters) Abby and Bryn Roberts. Their business, Finfolk Productions, has been cited by Hubspot and Inc. Magazine for its outstanding Instagram marketing, alongside better-known, deeper-pocketed brands such as Staples, Lululemon, National Geographic, and Starbucks. Finfolk’s social media savvy has paid off. The five-year old company has announced its plans to move production this year from a residential garage to a 14,000-square foot space to accommodate “exponential growth.”
Finfolk’s Instagram photos are gorgeous, and the idea of being able to swim as a mermaid definitely has its appeal. But Finfolk Productions also checks all the boxes when it comes to brand-building.
Lessons from Finfolk Productions:
1. Do what you love and use what you know. The Roberts sisters have a background in performance and fashion design that they put to work answering a casting director’s call for mermaid tails.
2. Listen to your customers and act on what you hear. The sisters told their local newspaper that after they made their prototype tails they found a group of people in the “underground mermaid community” talking online about their work. Once they tapped into that market, their company took off.
3. Turn your customer base into a community via social media. Finfolk has 181,000 Instagram followers, several other social media accounts, and the respect of social media marketers and industry watchers. Finfolk also has customers around the world who make unboxing videos for YouTube to show off their new mermaid tails. One of those videos, made by a professional entertainer based in landlocked Oklahoma, has earned more than 2.7 million views.
4. Leverage high-profile media and celebrity mentions. Finfolk has been mentioned in media outlets from BabyCenter to Glamour UK and the South China Morning Post, and gets a boost from “FINfluencer” Lauren Elizabeth, a self-described stay-at-home mermaid with nearly 5,000 Instagram followers.
The moral of the story here is that certain brand-building steps can apply to virtually any type of retail business serving just about any group of consumers. If you love making good products, listen to your customers, leverage social and traditional media, and control your own customer data by having your own online store, you’ve got the tools you need to grow your brand.
Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelancer who enjoys writing about business development and marketing, e-commerce payments and fraud prevention, and travel.