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Published June 8, 2020
Published June 8, 2020

We launched a webinar as a response to the COVID-19 crisis in mid-March as a way to have real-time conversations with big thinkers in the beauty and wellness space. While the turnout has been fantastic (thank you for the support), sometimes technology doesn’t always cooperate. That was the case with our recent DTC Founder Roundtable: From Disruption to Mainstream; the platform we used performed an update, which created havoc with our webinar. For this reason, we decided to take the conversation offline and tackle the top-five questions that came up.

Our founders included:

1. When trying to raise seed funding, start-ups are often told they need to launch an MVP (minimal viable product) first. What does that look like for DTC brands?

Matthew Herman: Boy Smells is a self-funded company, and when developing our first products, we tried doing so in a thoughtful way. The packaging is flexible; we can shift it from SKU to SKY, letting the market dictate what we produce. We’re able to shift glassware, wax, and packaging into the most popular items, without barcodes or product names printed on the boxes. The only liability we currently have is on fragrance and labels. Since Boy Smells’ initial inception, we have gained learnings on what does well for us, and we are able to plan more precisely into new launches and limited-edition items with limited risk.

Josh LeVine: I believe that if you have a strong conviction when launching a business, raising money, and building a brand, then what you are creating will resonate. I think data and metrics are great, but I am a traditionalist in the sense that I believe great products and companies are built by founders who are ahead of the curve and have a sense of need.

Tina Hedges: The concept of an MVP, advocated by author Eric Reis in The Lean StartUp, gained popularity in the tech community as a way to test product strategy and market fit with minimal resources. Finding a way to launch your brand quickly and without lots of financing can be incredibly useful and provide valuable insights. In full disclosure, I did this with LOLI Beauty. We originally launched an MVP that was a 3-month surprise subscription box of zero-waste DIY beauty as a way to get paid to focus-group. We were able to see what level of sustainability, personalization, and clean beauty our consumer preferred.

When launching an MVP, it’s important to make sure your brand strategy is well-tuned. Don’t just rush to get a product out and overlook the overall mission and purpose. If you’re considering launching an MVP, make sure you can answer these questions: “What do you stand for?,” “What do you believe in?,” “What’s your target audience?,” “What makes you different?,” “What’s the experience?,” “How do you show up—meaning your brand identity?”

2. Community is a big marketing buzzword, but you have each built and nurtured a loyal client base. Can you share some tactics you’ve used in building and nurturing your communities?

Matthew Herman: We very simply lean into inclusivity and positivity, and a sense of humor. The community we built was somewhat of a surprise, we did not go after it immediately. However, now it’s become something we’re very proud of and are leaning into it. If you have a good foundation of a brand that resonates on all levels—product, design, mission, and tone of voice—the community will build itself.

Josh LeVine: More than anything you need to be authentic. I know that is a serious buzzword, but think of it this way: “Is your community an extension of you, your personality, something you stand for and believe in and would engage in regardless of whether or not it is in the context of your business?” The foundation of ASYSTEM’s community is built around people like my business partner Oli and me. We are into health and wellness, fitness, nutrition, lifestyle, culture, family, the idea of bettering oneself and those around you, having dialogues around interesting and relevant topics, supporting one another, etc. So therefore, that is the exact type of community we built: people with shared ideals. The tactics to activate it were everything from publishing a coffee-table book featuring men within our community, to hosting workouts and meditation and mindfulness events, to collaborating on product and design ideas. Our community members essentially become brand ambassadors and help grow the community organically. We stay engaged constantly.

Tina Hedges: We actually didn’t actively try to build our community—even during our MVP, our customers sought us out and helped spread the word. We’ve never paid an influencer and, quite honestly, since we’re a small, lean team, we don’t even have enough time in the day to actively seek out community members. We have found that the eco-warrior, sustainability-conscious consumer, is happy to share their finding with their like-minded network. We’ve stayed our lane, even when it wasn’t cool to be zero waste or waterless. What we do concentrate on, is customer happiness. This is core to our brand and has shown, time and again, that kindness and good service goes a long way. When I worked at Estée Lauder many years ago, I heard a quote from Estée that went like this: “Telephone, telegraph, tell a lady.” This beauty visionary truly understood the importance of community and social virility. One unhappy customer will undo all the goodwill created by 100 happy customers.

3. What advice do you have for brands that have had more traditional distribution and are in the process of pivoting to focus on building the DTC channel? What are some of the most important things to focus on? How are you communicating your brand, and does that land with your audience?

Matthew Herman: It’s important for brands to find the right way to amplify. For some, that might be brand ambassadors, or paid digital marketing, or amazing assets that convert customers. Most likely, it winds up being a combination of all of those things. We have a great team that supports us. I make sure to not be the smartest person in the room, and only work with people I can learn from. My mantra is to try not to get in the way of the ideation and execution of our team.

Josh LeVine: When we launched Frame’s (another brand I co-founded) e-commerce, we already had a robust wholesale business and a real level of awareness in the world. This made driving people to our site easier, but we had to compete against great retailers and deliver an exceptional experience. I think as you pivot, you need to be aware that the customer is going to have a choice to buy from you or your wholesale partners. Therefore, you need to deliver an exceptional site, a seamless experience, amazing customer service, and a simple checkout process. Nordstrom, Net-A-Porter, and Amazon all have this, and now you are competing for the same customer.

I also recommend thinking through merchandise strategies and looking to offer exclusive products, new products first, collaborations, etc. Give some level of exclusivity to your own site.

Tina Hedges: Don’t outsource all your digital platforms! Create and encourage brand ownership, expertise, or at least knowledge of your tech stack. It’s so important to be able to manipulate in real time all your channels and platforms and not to be at the mercy of third parties.

4. What tactics have you found most successful in acquiring customers and driving repeat purchases?

Matthew Herman: We have a great community of people on social media who post and repost our product in their homes and in daily usage—they give us credibility. That credibility in turn gives people the confidence to buy a candle from us without ever smelling it.

Also, our price point is incredibly reasonable compared to many prestige candles. Boy Smells candles are not a status symbol that sit on your mantle and you only burn when trying to impress your friends who come over. We are priced for consumers to try and buy frequently. Inclusivity can also be reflected in your price tag. We view the value of a product in how it improves your life, not the dollar amount tied to it. Our candles are a self-value symbol, not a status symbol.

Josh LeVine: We decided early on that Asystem would not be a performance marketing/acquisition house of cards that only focused on acquiring customers at all costs and not building a relationship business with a real bottom line. With that said, my opinion is that you have to do it all. You have to look to traditional PR and media, gifting, events, social media, affiliates, influencers, digital community building, and more. On top of this, you need to have a brand that stands for something—and in today’s climate, I think you have to vocalize that, have real opinions and stand up for what you believe. Lastly, I believe product is king at the end of the day. Great marketing can drive the initial sale, but the product must deliver both an emotional and physical benefit.

Tina Hedges: That’s such a great question and I can’t wait to hear what my fellow panelists say. For us, we found that free samples contributed to rapid growth but weren’t economically feasible long term. We then launched a welcome kit and removed the friction for trial with guaranteed refunds up to 60 days. We also find really being on your CSR platform and being able to answer customer questions quickly, as they are in the consideration mindset, is key. Lastly, content has played a pivotal role for us. From deconstructing our products on BuzzFeed Ladylike to stalking skincare and spirituality on a premier podcast, I Am Sahara Rose, where we can share our story in a meaningful way, it definitely moves the needle for us in revenue.

5. What predictions do you have for DTC brands and, more specifically, the DTC channel?

Matthew Herman: Out of necessity, people will be shopping online. So building brand loyalty is now more important than ever. If done right, DTC has a bright future.

Josh LeVine: I think more than ever people are realizing the power of the relationship between brand and customer. DTC allows you to have a direct relationship with your customer and community as opposed to having a middleman in wholesale. I think many people still want to shop in stores so long as the store gives them a compelling reason to come, but my opinion is brands will really focus on their direct channels and utilize them more like flagship stores, tying in the community aspect. Websites should be the digital embodiment of your entire brand’s world—product, marketing, and community.

Tina Hedges: More than ever before, it’s super important that DTC brands articulate what they stand for as an organization, and don’t just copy and paste a nice mission statement written by a fancy creative agency. The consumer is savvy and sensitive, they are able to suss out “mission imposters” and “social cause washing.” Know what you as an organization care about and stay in your lane. Some other thoughts about the future of DTC brands are:

  1. The landscape is going to get pruned. There’s just not space to have the amount of clutter and imposter brands, especially in beauty. So make sure you have a true North Star, whether that be a passionate founder, a product USP, or an underserved audience.
  2. It’s going to get more expensive and less profitable. The days of striving for growth at the expense of profitability are over. Make sure you have a business model that works.
  3. The attention span of the consumer, the emotional and intellectual mindshare of the audience, is shrinking. There is just not enough time or focus for a brand to concisely share their story, so new formats are going to be even more important.

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