Date Posted: Monday 2nd September 2019
DIARY directory caught up with Emma Watkinson, CEO of online fashion retailer SilkFred. The e-commerce platform began in 2011 and now employs 70 staff and sells 600 fashion brands online. SilkFred nurtures and helps small independent fashion brands to grow their businesses. Emma spoke to DIARY directory about the nature of the brand and the initiatives it uses to create a totally unique shopping experience.
Why did you decide to set up SilkFred?
Like most businesses, it came from wanting to solve a problem. A friend of my co-founder had invested in a new brand that wasn’t performing well, so he asked me, as his friend in retail, for advice. We started to look at all the different things that this brand had done: building a website, appointing a PR agency, buying in stock, and creating a boutique in their hometown. Nothing had worked. We realised that we could help brands like this, who have a really cool product that is different from anything else on the high street. We thought if there are lots of brands like this, which we felt there were because they were knocking on our door all day long, we could make a solution for them. It was something that we felt we needed to do. It was a compulsion.
There are quite a few fashion retailers online, so what makes SilkFred stand out above its competitors?
The most obvious thing is the way we work with independent brands. We are an entrepreneurial brand that helps other entrepreneurs. We also have an ever-growing mix of micro and niche brands that puts us in a customer-centric position. The way that it often works is that other retailers have a team of editors and buyers curating what customers see, but we never took that position, we never claimed to be tastemakers of fashion. It was very much - here is an exciting mix of brands that you can’t get anywhere else, you tell us what you like and we’ll build from there. So it’s very much driven by the demands of the customers and from the brands’ point of view it’s very powerful because they get access to a lot of data that shows them where the demand is. A lot of brands that are working with SilkFred are now tailoring their offering to the SilkFred customers, which is exciting. The brands are coming to SilkFred to compete for the interests of the customer. We are different because of the mix of independent brands, and the fact we sell things that are hard to find. We are also a friendly price point, from around £40 rather than £80 to £100.
Also behind the scenes of that, we are a female-led fashion company and when we look at the spread of etailers and retailers out there, there aren’t many with a female CEO. Our team is 80% women so we make a lot out of the brand being a brand for women by women. We had a campaign that went out a couple of weeks ago about dresses that you could feel comfortable bloating out in. Customers responded really really well because it is wedding season. It is a long day, you’re eating multiple rounds of food, and there’s all the prosecco. Our campaign was centered around 'what am I going to feel good in all day? What am I going to feel comfortable in? And what am I going to feel glamorous in all day?' When we presented it like this, a lot of people came back to us and said no one is talking to customers in this way.
How do you communicate with your customers?
It’s all on social media. How we really started to catch fire was by having conversations with our customers. We came of age on social media at the time when bots were popular. As a small business, it felt like we were communicating person to person. There was never a huge strategy in the beginning to have a tone of voice. Making the communication fun and approachable really helped because one of the things I think is difficult for customers with fashion is that it can feel intimidating, and customers may feel that they aren’t cool enough or good enough to shop from certain places. If you think about luxury wear, you walk down Bond Street and it’s big glass doors and scary security guards. I never wanted to have that approach. Even though we are very much a high street price point we sell what are technically designer brands, so I wanted to make it feel inclusive and not intimidating.
In terms of social media, how much do you rely on it?
Facebook and Instagram are very meaningful to us but also Google and every digital channel that you can think of, we are all over. Social is very important, first of all, because you get to communicate with the customer directly, secondly, it’s a level playing field so you are getting judged on how good your product is and not how much money you have. When people say to me that social media advertising doesn’t work, I’ll often say go look at your product because more often than not, people don’t like it. When I think back to the beginning of SilkFred, when we started I was 23 and I didn’t have a profile, someone said ‘no one’s heard of you. No one has heard of the brands you are selling. How are you going to get people searching for you?’ When on social media it’s the power of an image. So if you have a good product and image you can go quite far.
Do you have an in App shopping feature?
Not yet. Apps are interesting because you can track behaviour on a user level, which you can’t do online through the web.
As Instagram trials hiding likes and followers, do you think that could affect SilkFred?
No. Instagram is a perfect window for selling products so we are always going to be looking for how much traffic we can drive to the site. Likes aren’t really a part of why we use Instagram and based on my understanding, from what we have been told, the likes will still get reported to us and Instagram’s algorithm will still work the same. I think it is a good thing as people can become too concerned about the number of likes they get.
In terms of influencers, it is an interesting debate around their influence and how they use Instagram by advertising products. There is a lot of responsibility on influencers to come across as authentic, to paint an image for younger girls who are often susceptible to them. However, these people are businesses they need to make money and pay rent. Brands should be trying to reach as many people in a way that is as authentic as possible but I also don’t disagree with influencers charging for their time.
What issues do you think e-commerce currently faces?
One of the bigger issues is service proposition. You can see some of the bigger etailers struggling to maintain free shipping and returns. Companies like Amazon have set the bar really high. Customers don’t have any sympathy for independent fashion brands, they want the same service as a multipurpose billion-pound company. You have got to think about the cost that it is to be in business to offer up all these. It is important to consider what the customers want you to do to exceed expectations and delight them. The challenge for the industry is to keep meeting expectations and keep delighting them.
People are also starting to look at the environmental impact of how much they are shopping and what they are wearing. And regulations such as GDPR can also make it hard for smaller businesses - huge companies may have law firms to help them implement these things, but for some of our brands it is 10% of their revenue to implement, and they get fined if they don’t comply. For a small business to pay thousands of pounds for a legal team it is really difficult. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it or the regulations shouldn’t exist, it is more of this kind of thing that there are the more barriers it throws up.
What changes have you seen with online shopping as the high street has declined?
With online shopping people have more choice and get their time back. People are now spending more time and money on experiences than they are on clothes. A big shift has been due to that. I remember someone saying to me, who shall remain nameless, who ran a big off the bricks and mortar chain of stores: “Don’t you women love to go out in your groups to shop and try on things.” NO! We want to go to the pub, spend time with our friends and families and spend that time enjoying ourselves. A lot about the leisure of shopping has changed significantly. It’s less of a social pursuit and more of an “I want some new stuff. How do I go and get some new stuff?”
What have the biggest challenges been in your SilkFred journey?
When you are creating something from scratch there are huge scary challenges because everything you are doing is new, not just for yourself but also for your team. Logistics is an on-going challenge for everybody, as when you are growing really quickly you still need to offer a good customer experience. Challenges are growing the team, making sure you are continuously hiring the right sort of people for your culture, especially as you grow. It is very easy to stay connected to a common goal when you are 10 people but when you are 20, 30, 40, 50, 100 it becomes more challenging.
What has been your proudest moment?
There are so many but I think seeing how the brands have grown is best. How we work with them and partner is something that is close to my heart. I know what it is like to create and grow a business; it is hard and quite lonely. It is very different from having an idea down the pub to actually creating something and bringing it to market and putting it on display for everyone to judge. So for the brands, when I have seen them grow from teams of two to 10 to 20 people, having been on that journey with them is something that I’m really proud of. The credit goes to them but I feel like we have been a significant part of that.
Also seeing the team reach new heights. I am a big believer in homegrown talent because, not only is that my journey but, I love to see people with the right attitude and mindset progress and progress quickly. For example, someone took a risk of joining our team when we were four people and not well funded, they joined us an intern when they graduated from university. They now manage a team of eight people. That is something that I am really proud of.
In addition, seeing some of the stuff that our customers have done. We had this breastfeeding-friendly campaign, which was really successful. It came from a customer who posted a photo on Instagram of her breastfeeding in a mirror, wearing a dress from one of our brands. We were all like: “Wow! You look amazing. Is that dress breastfeeding friendly?” She told us that she buys a lot of dresses from us, as she goes to brunch with her friends and wants to look glam whilst being able to breastfeed. We sent out dresses to customers to try and find the best ones for breastfeeding. We ran the campaign on social media. We invited that customer to come to London and filmed her in a story of her picking out breastfeeding friendly items. We then sent her and her husband out to dinner and put them up in a hotel for the weekend. When I talk about SilkFred I try and present it as a community and as an eco-system.
How do you see the brand developing in the next five years?
Internationally is a big part of our plans for the future. I think because we are a platform and because of our appeal to an everyday customer and because of our flexibility to be completely customer-centric, I think we are really well-positioned.
What advice would you give to women who want to set up their own business?
I would advise them to not wait until it’s perfect before “launching.” I see a lot of really talented, creative, intelligent people getting so close to starting, but then not quite because they need their business card to be perfect, or want their website to be perfect or need a look book or photography. Often the biggest barrier to getting anything started is you. It’s better to put something out in the world and see what people think and to keep learning and asking questions and keep building from that. I waited a long time before we launched because I wanted it to look like my perfect vision - and it still doesn’t look like that by the way. That’s why I say to people don’t wait until it is because the likelihood is that it never will, so you’re better to just get going. Another thing, which is particularly relevant to women entrepreneurs, is to proactively build a network around what you are doing and seek out mentors. You’ll find that a lot of women who have created businesses or done anything in their careers and gone on to do something successful are always willing to be helpful and to share advice.
Visit SilkFred at silkfred.com.
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