by Sarah LaFleur, Guest Writer, Entrepreneur.com
In 2011, I left my private equity job to start my own company, with the goal of making it easier for professional women to shop and dress for work. I knew that getting the business off the ground would require hard work, but I (naively) assumed it would be straightforward. Having seen the success of other hot direct-to-consumer startups, I thought that if I followed their formula of making beautiful products, pricing them reasonably and selling them through an ecommerce site, we would see instant success. I was wrong.
When we launched our website in 2013, we excitedly waited for the orders to roll in. Instead — crickets. We didn’t see any traction: No one was visiting our site, and we didn’t have a marketing budget, so acquiring customers was difficult. I realized then that other ecommerce models weren’t particularly relevant for us. We needed to go back to the drawing board when it came to how we were selling our product.
About a year after launching our site, our sales were still lagging. One day, I walked into our inventory room, and saw that it was packed with product we were struggling to sell. I thought, We are going to die under a mountain of dresses.
In an act of desperation, my six-person team and I decided to be more proactive about getting women to give us a try. We emailed our customer list, saying, “Can we send you a box of styles, and you can keep the ones you like and return the ones you don’t? You don’t have to pay anything up front.” A surprising percentage of customers responded “yes” to that email, and we made more money in that one week than we ever had in one month.
That experience led to an epiphany: Our customer is too busy to shop. Typical ecommerce websites are overwhelming to her. She comes home after a long day of decision-making at work, and the last thing she wants to do is figure out what size to order, or if a particular silhouette will complement her body shape. She wants to outsource that decision-making to someone else. So, rather than expecting her to browse online, we developed a styling service just for her: Our Bento Box program was born.
When we launched this service, our revenue tripled overnight, and we’ve grown steadily ever since via that and other channels. What began as a crisis soon became a brand-defining moment. We realized that it wasn’t enough to get the product right. We also had to rethink the entire shopping process and adapt it for our customer’s specific needs and lifestyle. How we sold our products mattered just as much as the products themselves.
Thanks to that desperate moment in our tiny fulfillment center, we realized that what our customer needed was not just a beautiful dress, but a styling service that would help her save time. Once we understood that, we configured our whole business around serving her, both online and offline. Ever since, MM.LaFleur has been synonymous with both beautiful clothes and stellar service.
I always tell early stage entrepreneurs that your darkest moments can often yield game-changing breakthroughs. Ours forced us to stretch ourselves and challenge our assumptions about who we were. It wasn’t an influx of funding that helped us turn things around — it was our ability to get creative within major constraints. Now, when we face a challenge, we always think back to that moment in 2014 and remember: Constraint breeds creativity. You never know when your next breakthrough is right around the corner.
Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur is founder and CEO of MM.LaFleur. Before founding MM.LaFleur, LaFleur worked in the luxury goods group of Starwood Capital in New York and Paris. Prior to that, she was a management consultant at Bain & Co. and TechnoServe, where she advised consumer packaged goods and financial services companies as well as agribusinesses. She graduated from Harvard and sits on the junior board of the International Rescue Committee. MM.LaFleur is named after her mother, whom she calls her biggest inspiration.