Tom Hunt and his two co-founders shared a vision of a future where men don't need to be restricted by fashion norms. Thus Stitch Leggings was born: a fashion brand that sells leggings for men.
However, when they went on Dragon's Den, a reality show where entrepreneurs pitch their business ideas to a panel of investors, they were laughed at.
That didn't stop them though.
On this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear from Tom Hunt about how Stitch Leggings is promoting their mission to spread "meggings"—male leggings—and why their ideal customers weren't who they thought they would be.
- What kind of questions you should ask your customers to learn more about your market.
- How to develop your customer avatar.
- How to encourage and reward influencers to drive more sales
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
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- Store: Stitch Leggings
- Social Profiles: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram
- Recommended: The Mum Test, Seth Godin’s Purple Cow (book)
Felix: Today I’m joined by Tom Hunt from stitchleggings.com, that’s S-T-I-T-C-H-L-E-G-G-I-N-G-S.COM. Stitch Leggings enables the male gender to both look great and feel comfortable in leggings and was started in 2012 based out of London, England. Welcome Tom.
Tom: Hi. I’m very excited to be talking about leggings on Shopify today.
Felix: Cool, yeah excited to have you on. That’s it, you’re selling leggings. Tell us a little more about your store and the idea behind this product. How did you come up with, or how did you and your team come up with this idea to sell leggings to men?
Tom: Yes, so what happened with … I’m not sure if I should really share this story online but we used to live next to a really trendy market in London, me and my two best friends. We always used to go to this market and there was loads of pretty girls walking around, but we never, we’d be too scared to talk to them. We thought if we had a market stall on the market, then we’d be able to talk to pretty girls. At the same time, we also saw a guy at a party wearing leggings, looking really cool. We decided to combine or to tackle this and started the company selling male leggings with a market stall on this trendy market by our house.
We ended up purchasing 18 pairs of female leggings from eBay, drawing on our male logo to make them branded male, and then trying to sell them on the market stall. Sold none in eight hours of trading, but then still had a great time. Still, I don’t think we spoke to any girls either, but we had a great time and we decided to start an e-commerce store to continue the business even though we didn’t sell any. To actually get real male leggings designed and brought over from Shanghai, and then start selling them online. About three months later, we sold our first pair to somebody that we didn’t know. That was an amazing feeling. Then it sort of spiraled from there.
Felix: Cool. I think that’s a perfectly fine reason to start a business, being motivated by something maybe not even related to the product itself exactly. You said that you guys had purchased 18 pairs of female leggings and tried to sell them in person. Was this something you were doing on the side of a day job for all you guys? Or what?
Tom: All three of us were working in the city of London in either consulting or recruitment jobs.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative), was this something you did on the weekends? How did you guys find the time to try this out?
Tom: Yeah, it was something we did on the weekend, we were all living together, so in the evenings we managed to get stuff done as well.
Felix: Okay, cool. You guys took the approach of selling these in person first, you guys did not try to start an e-commerce business right off the bat?
Tom: Correct. Why was that? I think we wanted to test the idea, as well as we wanted to go on the market stall. Then we sort of realized that we lost money by going on the market, because there were fixed costs associated with having the market stall, and also the time we had to invest. E-commerce was still big back then, but it was a bit less big than it is now, and we were just amazed by the lack of fixed costs that were associated with setting up an online store. We thought there really is nothing to lose if you’re just paying 20 pounds a month for … It wasn’t actually Shopify then, it was a company called Moon Fruit, we’ve migrated to Shopify since then obviously. The fixed cost was so low, it really was very little risk in starting something up financially.
Felix: Yeah, definitely. One of the key reasons that you wanted to start selling in person at first was to evaluate, to see if there was any actual demand for this kind of product, but you ended up selling nothing. What kept you guys going, even though the “experiment” didn’t work out numbers-wise, you didn’t sell anything? What made you decide let’s keep on pursuing this further?
Tom: I think it’s because we had fun, we really enjoyed the process of trying to sell, and setting everything up. Yeah, I think that was it, it was because we enjoyed it.
Felix: Okay, yeah I think that definitely is an experience that a lot of entrepreneurs have, which is that … Selling online is at least if you don’t have the experience of selling offline first, it’s kind of impersonal, you don’t get to see the customer face-to-face, you don’t actually go through the selling process. You put up ads, and you drag to the landing page, and the product description, do some of the selling and everything, but there’s no kind of all at once, let’s try to sell this thing. What was your experience like? Did you guys have any experience in sales at all, prior to setting up this table in the market?
Tom: No, zero. Actually one of my friends was a recruiter, and obviously he has to sell roles to candidates, apart from that, no, no one had any sales experience, that’s probably why we didn’t sell anything, I guess.
Felix: Does this make you guys nervous then? Opening up a store, never had any sales experience, one guy kind of had sales experience, but not selling in this industry of course. Where you as nervous about how do we even approach somebody? How do we pitch our product?
Tom: No, I really wasn’t. I’m not sure why, I think it was because for us it was a massive joke. It was like, yes we’re trying to start a business, but it was also fun as well. There was no pressure.
Felix: No pressure, yeah that makes sense. I think when you take that approach, like you’re saying, and just try to have fun, and not have these super-high goals, especially at first, it really helps you not run into a situation where you’re demotivated because you’re not hitting all of these crazy goals that you set for yourself. Any tips for someone that never has sold before, a similar situation that you guys were in at first, and you didn’t want to maybe start selling in person? What are maybe some tips that you can offer to make that first experience a little bit more manageable, or a little more successful?
Tom: Yeah, I think what I’ve learned about in person selling since that time, is to, before you try and sell anything, understand the problem that the person is trying to solve. Then if your product does solve that problem, that’s awesome, you’re more likely to make the sale after you’ve made that understanding, and they know you understand. If your product doesn’t provide the solution, then also you should recommend someone, or some other product, even if it’s not yours, that does. Then obviously you build a trust in that person, and they may come back.
Felix: I like that, starting with the problem makes sense. There’s a kind of predicament that some businesses run into where they will create a solution, or create a product, and then go hunt for a problem. You’re saying go the other way, first understand what is the problem that people already have. Then hopefully you have a fit for it, if not then you might have to reevaluate the product, or definitely offer something of value back to the customer, potential customers, by referring them somewhere else. Always keep in mind what is the problem that the customer has. Knowing that, how did you guys understand the problem that the person, the potential customer has? What approaches have you taken to understand the market, or the customer’s problems?
Tom: Yeah, so over the four years or so we’ve been running the store, we’ve obviously been exposed to our customers. We have this customer avatar that we focus everything around. The first thing I’ll say is that to understand this problem is very important to meet your customers face-to-face. We actually hosted an in-person, live night for Stitch Leggings, where anybody who came wearing their leggings would get in for free. We had deejays playing, and we had a number of our customers turn up. Yes, we made a bit of money from that night, and we had fun, but it also enabled us to get in front of the customers, and actually understand what they were like. What their greatest fears and desires are.
My first tip is to try and, if you can’t get them on Skype, meet them in person so you can actually really experience these people. Then once you do get in front of them, it’s really, really important to not ask closed questions, and just have a really open conversation. You should find that these little gems, or these little things that you can tie into your marketing will just pop up. I’ll give a real example from the leggings company. We realized that the people we’re selling to, they had a certain mindset that is always against convention. They were almost trying to sort of stand out, and be individual, and sort of hated the high street. If you go to our … Once we learnt this, almost every marketing message we now send out in emails, in tweets, or on our site, it’s all tied into this liberate the man from modern conventional fashion.
If you go to our home page, StitchLeggings.com, you’ll see that all of the content on there is tailored towards this inner sort of desire that our perfect avatar has. We actually know that when that type of person lands on our site, it converts. That’s what I’d say, is get face-to-face with a person, and then ask open questions so that you can uncover the deep fears or desires.
Felix: This is interesting because I feel like male leggings was never a, not necessarily a problem, but was never something people actively talked about wanting. Did you find that people wanted leggings, or I guess they’re called meggings? Or did you just find that people wanted to wear things that went against the male fashion conventions?
Tom: Yeah, I think it’s a bit of both. We actually started out trying to redefine male fashion. Then we realised that more of our customers were actually wearing them for practical reasons like cycling or yoga. I think it’s a mix, I think people will get referred to the site, and then that mission will sort of really resonate with their personality, and then they would buy. Or they just like wearing leggings for yoga of cycling, then they’ll come and buy. It’s a bit of both.
Felix: I want to go back to your questioning technique, you said don’t ask closed questions, ask open questions. Can you describe to me the difference between a closed question, and an open question? Or maybe do you have an example of one or the other?
Tom: Yeah, sure. A close question would sort of … You’d give a binary answer like yes or no. You’d say, “Do you like leggings? Do you want to wear leggings? Do you want to wear male leggings?” Someone would say yes or no. Instead you would ask, “What do you like to wear when you’re at home on a Friday evening?” Then you would keep going. That would be one line of questioning where you’re trying to understand what garments they like to wear. Then I would actually start out even broader than that, and start talking about you behave like you do. If I was face-to-face with one of our customers, I would start talking about what their goals are. What they’re trying to achieve in life.
Then try and understand why they’re trying to achieve that thing. Then if they mentioned a specific behavior, or specific goal, I’d try and understand why they think it is that they want to hit their goal? This is actually how we uncovered that desire to not be the same as everybody else from one of those conversations. I think start really, really broad, as in what people are trying to do with their lives. Then you can get a bit more niche down on your product area to uncover more information.
Felix: It sounds like the line of questioning starts very broad, trying to understand their lifestyle, their goals in life. Then you try to whittle that down to the point where you find out what’s preventing them from achieving those goals. What are the problems in their way from achieving those goals. In your case, you discover a multitude of reasons, but one of them was that people wanted to break away from some of these male fashion conventions. You wouldn’t be able to understand that, I feel, unless you ask, as you said, these open ended questions. If you talk more. I think one of the problems of closed questions is that you don’t really get people to … They’re just focused on answering your questions, rather than talking about the way they’re feeling, the things that they’re thinking. I think that’s a great point about asking open-ended questions, rather than closed questions.
I think one of the other potential traps that you can run into when you’re doing this kind of surveying, whether it be in person, or through some kind of online forum, is that we tend to kind of lead the customers towards your own solution. You’re almost kind of … I have this automatic bias, which is sometimes really hard to break. Where you want them to, maybe not consciously, but because your product is your baby, and your product is so important to you, you start to ask questions that validate, or confirm your own hypothesis. Do you do anything to avoid this, or how do you make sure you’re trying to get as much of the unbiased environment as possible when asking these questions?
Tom: There are two things I would do. The first is read a book called The Mom Test. Which is like a classic book in the startup world where basically they say that if you ask your mum if she wants an iPad app, she’ll just say yes because you’re asking here. That’s the first thing I would do. The second thing is really you just get better, you just get more skilled with it over time. The more conversations you have, the more likely you are to spot yourself giving information away. Actually the third thing I’d also is just basically if the person does not know what you sell, make sure you do not mention what you sell until right at the end of the conversation.
Felix: You think that that would influence you, or influence them?
Tom: It would influence them. As soon as someone hears what you’re doing, then they immediately would tailor their opinions to you, because you’re right there, face-to-face. It’s like human nature to make people warmer, and like you more, in my theory anyway.
Felix: I agree with that, I think people just want to be polite in general. If they know that you’re working on a particular product, that they’re going to try to be supportive. That’s like 99 percent of the time, they’re going to try to be supportive by giving you answers that, like you’re saying, make you happy. They’ll give you answer that they think you want to hear, rather than what they truly believe themselves. I think that’s a great point that you want to try to stay as anonymous as possible about your intentions, and about your product when you’re poling, and talking to people. You mentioned earlier about customer avatars, can you tell us a bit more about it? Maybe for the audience that doesn’t know what this is, what is a customer avatar?
Tom: A customer avatar is a person that does not exist that encompasses all the specific qualities that you are going to go market to. It is just a profile of a very, very specific profile of the person that would buy from you. The reason why it’s very, very specific, and does not really exist, is because if you can concentrate your marketing efforts on this very specific person, then anybody with a fraction of those characteristics would potentially buy.
The reason I would, and any sort of online marketing professional would urge you to make it as specific as possible, is because of the nature of the internet these days with people getting bombarded with I don’t know how many thousands of marketing messages per day. As soon as they see one that really calls out their deepest fears or desires. As soon as they see the ad, or that tweet that really calls out their deepest fears or desires, then it sort of hooks people in. That only occurs due to the specificity of your messaging, and of your avatar.
Felix: I like that you mentioned that you want to be as specific as possible, because I think an immediate reaction is a I want to be a generalist, and I want to appeal to as many people as possible, because I want as large a market as possible. You’re saying get very, very specific about this person, even if they themselves don’t exist, they don’t hit all of these particular factors. I think what you’re getting at is a lot of people, even they apportion themselves like this avatar, they’re going to aspire, or relate to the rest of it. Even if they’re not exactly that avatar.
I think that’s very important that you don’t want to make it as general as possible. You don’t want to be a product for everybody. You want to try to be specific to one type of person that has a specific type of problem as much as possible. You mentioned that to build this, you talk to people in person through that event, and probably subsequent events since then, in person, or on Skype. Are there any other ways that you found that’s been helpful for you guys to develop a customer avatar?
Tom: The key really is to interact as much as possible. If you’re setting up a store, you send the support email to yourself, not your virtual assistant to start with. You try and get your first customers on Skype. You set up your in-person event. That’s really the key, is having as many conversations as possible with those open questions. Obviously when you don’t have any customers it’s hard to do this, and if you do have … That’s when you really have to take a stab in the dark, and you have to, from your previous knowledge of this type of person, try and build this avatar. Obviously with the product that you have to sell in mind.
I mean sometimes you can take the avatar first, and say here’s the type of person I’m going to have, and therefore I need to make this product. Or, if you have a specific product you want to sell, then you have this specific product and then you work the other way, and decide the person who I think would want this product. First you have to take a stab in the dark, and then that image of the person is converging upon the ultimate perfect avatar, with every conversation that you have. It’s an educated guess, and then it’s multiple conversations to perfect.
Felix: I mean because it’s an evolving description of a customer, and it’s something that you … Like you were saying, you put as a hypothesis, as [inaudible 00:19:51] first, and then based on conversation it more molds based on these interactions with the customers. How do you, or do you document this information about your customer, of the customer avatar?
Tom: We just have one Google document that we’ve had really for the past few years that contains all of the information about this person, and is continually updated whenever we want to tweak, or edit who this person is. We try to record all the specific email chains, or Skype conversations, or text message conversations with the avatar. We try and keep that all in a folder on Google Drive as well. There’s this one specific document that has the Bible.
Felix: Cool. Do you ever see a potential split? Like let’s say over time you start seeing trends in two different directions, it sounds like there might have been a split where there’s some customers that just wanted to defy the male fashion conventions. There’s the other split where it’s more of a functional, not split, but another type of customer that’s buying for functional reasons for yoga or cycling. Do you see these kind of things happen? What do you do when you start seeing a trend of potentially maybe more than one avatar?
Tom: Yeah, so then what we … We haven’t actually done this yet, we kind of have merged them all into one avatar, this person who attempts to defy convention, also does yoga. We’re actually bringing out some cycling leggings next week. Therefore I think we’re actually going to split out the avatars, we’re going to have three. We’re going to have the person who is not into sport, doesn’t wear leggings for sport, wears leggings for fashion, is one. Then we’re going to have a yoga and a cycling avatar as well. I mean there really is no limit to how many avatars you can have, if you want to … Each avatar will have a separate marketing campaign. It depends how you want to dilute your marketing efforts.
I wouldn’t say, unless you were a massive company, selling thousands of units a day, you wouldn’t need more than three to five avatars. We are going to have three, and therefore every marketing campaign we do will probably be targeted at those three different people.
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. When you do have, like you were saying, one of the ways that you use this customer avatar is to effect, and to build specific marketing angles, marketing campaigns. Each avatar needs to be marketed towards differently. How do you manage all this? Is there technology that you use, or apps that you use to make sure that you are able to track specific, potential customers? Or actual customers, based on which avatar they fall into?
Tom: Yeah, sure. We just use the very basic Google Analytics, or Google UTM tracking links. Every tweet, or every Facebook ad will have a tracking link made with … We can link to Google Chrome tracking link creator, link generator, [inaudible 00:22:52] I’m sure. We add the avatar name, and the source of the traffic in that link. Then we’re tracking just the basic e-commerce conversions in the Google analytics, so we can see if every conversion on the site, which link, and therefore which avatar, which channel, which traffic source it came from. Nothing too high-tech, like those Google Analytics links are so easy to create, and then setting up e-commerce tracking in GA is really not hard either. That’s everything we’re currently doing.
Felix: Okay, makes sense, yeah definitely makes it much more scalable than just trying to keep track of it manually. One last question about this avatar thing is, you’ve built your avatar, let’s say you had a hypothesis for one. You’ve spoken to 50 customers, and it’s evolved over time. You kind of now feel comfortable that you have an avatar that you can go to market with. How do you guys use your avatar on a daily basis? Maybe not even daily, but how often are you looking at the avatar, and how does it influence the kind of work you guys do on a day to day basis?
Tom: Out of the three of us, I’m the guy responsible for growth. It’s really whenever I am creating anything that would interact with the outside world, I wouldn’t review that Google document, but I would envisage that person in my mind. Whenever I’m writing an email, I would put it, “Dear David.” David is the name of my avatar, so I always write, “Dear David.” Or [inaudible 00:24:20] that I want to send an email, but I always envisage myself talking directly to David, and I think about what David would be doing at that time of day. What David had for breakfast today, what David is doing tonight. Formally we would update that document whenever we gather more information, but in reality, he is being reviewed whenever I’m creating any marketing materials.
Felix: You’re saying you’re speaking to them, to David, to your avatar directly, you’re not just creating this avatar and then still, when you write the email, you’re trying to talk to ten thousand people, or however large the email list is. You’re just trying to write an email as personal as possible, directly at the avatar?
Tom: Yeah, exactly. I think if you don’t you’re going to get ignored. I get email newsletters all the time, and it feels to me like they have no idea who I am, or how they can help me. Whereas, I hope that when David receives my email he’ll be like, “Ah, this guy Tom, or this company Stitch Leggings really, really understand me.”
Felix: Yeah, definitely. Speaking of one of the avatars which you guys created, which was the kind of customer that wants to defy these male fashion conventions. Was this always something that was easy towards, or did you have to spend a lot of time educating people when your … It’s not just selling a product that is … I wouldn’t say, I mean obviously you have a market for it, but I think at the time, at least very early on, it wasn’t a typically, obviously not a product that wasn’t predominantly targeted at men, that was predominantly targeted at women. Did you have to overcome any obstacles, like marketing obstacles, or PR obstacles, while selling a product like this?
Tom: I actually think no obstacles were placed in our way, we were given more boosts, like inorganic boosts, because of the remark-ability of the product. I’m a big fan of Seth Godin’s work, where his classic book Purple Cow, where he talked about the more people remarked about your product, the less money you’ll have to spend on marketing, because people will make remarks upon it, about it, in front of other people. What actually happened when we started, we managed to gain massive press exposure on some of the biggest news sites in the UK, and on the biggest television channel in the UK, purely because of the story we were telling about the product, and the remark-ability of the product itself.
Felix: This exposure on TV, was this the Dragon’s Den appearance that you guys were on?
Tom: Correct, yeah.
Felix: Okay, let’s talk about this a little bit more. You guys went in, and correct me if any of these stats are wrong, but you went in looking for 20 thousand pounds for 20 percent equity in the company. I don’t think … At least it didn’t turn out monetarily successful, you guys weren’t able to get a deal, but obviously a ton of exposure through this channel.
Felix: Tell us a little bit more about that experience. How early on in the business was this appearance?
Tom: We went in in the middle of 2014, and the episode was posted at the start of 2015. We actually applied at the end of 2013, so a year into the business. It was very sort of ad hoc thing. I saw the advert, and I just tried to apply, eventually got in. We were told that they had no idea how the dragons were going to react. The dragons, I’m sure you can link to the episode below, but they actually thought it was a big joke. Which is fine, it was funny, and the episode was funny. It got on TV of course, meant that we didn’t get the investment that we required, but the exposure was pretty good for the brand financially.
Felix: Yeah, and for the audience that might not know about Dragon’s Den, it’s basically Shark Tank for any American audience. Entrepreneurs go on pitching a product of theirs. Did you guys, this is maybe not exactly relatable for all audience members, because they might not be on a show like this, I think preparing to pitch to investors is always a valuable asset, a valuable skill to have. How did you guys prepare for that? How did you guys make sure that you had everything in order for a pitch like this in front of very serious investors?
Tom: To be honest, we were really not that well prepared, which may be the reason we didn’t get the money, it might not have been the fact that we were wearing male leggings. Since that pitch I’ve obviously got a lot better at that. To be honest, we were not well-prepared. I actually think that we wouldn’t have really, at that time, have known what to do with the money if we did get it. The reason we really wanted to go on was because of a) the exposure, and b) because it was fun. Now I want to quickly jump back to our avatar again, we seem to be talking about that a lot, but I think it’s very important. If you think about three guys running a business, going on and getting ridiculed on TV, maybe that’s not a good message, you wouldn’t want to share that content, or you wouldn’t even want to do that if you had any type of business.
If you think about the avatar that we have, someone who does not like convention, seeing their heroes go up against convention, effectively successful business people from the UK, who are, let’s say, mainstream. Then us being martyrs and losing a fight to these people on live TV. For me, and I’ve actually had feedback from my customers of course, that was a very powerful thing to do, and has given us this amazing piece of content. That now of course is sitting on our homepage. When we think about who our avatar is, and what content would make them have a greater affinity to the brand, maybe it was actually a good idea to go on, and get ridiculed. As opposed to it looking bad for us from a business perspective. That was really the rationale, it wasn’t so much to get the investment, because I’m not sure we would have known what to do anyway.
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. I think that that’s, like you’re saying, a lot of it ties back to the avatar. I feel like either result, whether you got the investment or not, you could have marketed, or presented the result of your Dragon’s Den appearance differently, and still been as effective. Again, it goes back to the avatar, it goes back to what kind of values that they have. If it’s successful you can present it as a win story in this kind of fight against male fashion.
Or, because you didn’t win, you can present like this is a “enemy” that you guys are going up against, as you’re trying to defy these kind of conventions. I think just knowing the avatar is going to be vital for you, because you can essentially take anything that happens, any story, and put the kind of proper angle, and I don’t want to say spin, but put a proper flavor on it that will resonate with the avatar. You mentioned earlier that out of the three co-founders, you’re responsible for growth. Was this your role from the very beginning?
Tom: No, because no one really had any experience in online business when we started, we were all sort of jumping in and doing whatever. Then in the background to the legging story I’ve sort of left the corporate world, and then learnt online marketing, and started various other online businesses as well. Learning online marketing was crucial for all of them, and so I think it’s actually something that’s become somewhat of a passion of mine. I’ve taken on that role organically with the leggings company as I’ve got better at it, and started to enjoy it more.
Felix: When you did take on this role early on, or just early on in the business in general, what did you guys kind of focus on for that very early growth? Especially for any listeners out there that are in this phase, where they have a product, maybe they’re still working on their avatar, and they’re just trying to get some sales through the door. Get at least some cash flow on a monthly basis through the door. What did you focus on early on in terms of growing the business?
Tom: Yeah, so because we had no money, I guess the strategy was create content ourselves, and then distribute that to where we knew our avatar existed online. Whether that’s just tweeting out, and then using specific hashtags, or creating Instagram images, and then using specific hashtags, that’s like the small-scale way. That started to bring in the first few sales. Then to scale that up, still without spending any money, it’s finding the people online, who had the audience of your avatar, sending them leggings, and then alongside a discount code. Then agreeing with them that they would wear the leggings, and say put five pictures on Instagram with that specific discount code. Those were the two things, they are the two things that I would urge anyone to do, who’s just starting up their store. Start doing that right now, and I’d be consistent with it over a number of months, and obviously track everything. To get those first sales through the door, to get you some revenue, that you can then spend on ads, or to pay content creators to write stuff for your blog. That’s what I would recommend.
Felix: I like that you’re using a free method to kind of kick-start some cash flow so that you can then reinvest that into your business. To place a label on this approach that you’ve taken, you’re doing influence marketing, you’re trying to find influencers out there, that, like you’re saying, has an audience that matches your avatar. How do you begin that search process? How do you identify that this particular influencer has an audience that belongs to the avatar that you guys have created?
Tom: Yeah, so I’ll focus on Instagram, because that’s been the most effective channel. It really is just a case of spending a lot of time on the application. Obviously your avatar is already formed, you know exactly who they are, and what they’re like. You then start searching hashtags, you then start going through, and finding people with significant audiences that you think your avatar would follow. What’s really handy about Instagram actually is that when you find someone that’s perfect, you follow them, you click follow, it immediately matches you with three people similar to them, that you also could potentially follow. That’s for like once you get one good one, or a couple of good ones, Instagram is automatically finding you people similar to them. That’s what I really like about Instagram, but it really is a manual process.
Once you find them, of course you need to track them, spreadsheet, track number of followers, get all their personal information … Not personal information, get all the information, track in a spreadsheet, that’s really important so you can follow your journey with them. Make sure that obviously you’re following up with them to make sure they post.
Felix: Yeah, it’s definitely important to track this, especially as you work with more and more influencers. Speaking of that, is this a numbers game where you try to reach as many influencers as possible, especially early on? Or do you try to be hyper-targeted in your approach?
Tom: I think it depends how much you want to spend. Obviously there’s the cost of the item that you’re sending people. For us, it was definitely a numbers game, we sent out hundreds of pairs of leggings. Some won’t even get to your person, some people won’t post even though you send it to them. Some people will be amazing, and because you’re sending specific discount codes, you’re only going to lose say seven pounds, that’s approximately the cost of the leggings. You can very quickly understand who is a good influencer for you, and who isn’t, based on how many sales you get. If you get a ten to one return on that ROI, return on investment, then you’re just going to send them more. You’re going to send them more pairs, and you’re going to give them better discount codes. You can control it, you can mitigate the risk by only sending one item, and making sure you’re tracking the results for each influencer.
Felix: Okay, so you are taking this kind of shotgun … Not shotgun approach necessarily, but you’re trying to find every single influencer out there that you think has an audience of your customer avatars. You are reaching out to them, asking them … What are you asking them exactly? You’re just saying, “I want to send you free products.” Or how do you kind of pitch this?
Tom: Yeah, it’s just a DM on Instagram to say we’re opening up our ambassador program, would you be interested in contributing? We’d be happy to send you one pair if you agree to promote us on your profile with five images, with a specific discount code. Again, that’s a numbers game. A number of people won’t respond to that, a number of people will. It’s just a case of capturing their information, sending them a basic contract to sign, I recommend doing that, just to increase the conversion to sending a pair and people posting. Yeah, again, numbers game. Basic outreach on Instagram DMs, and then tracking, making sure that the people that have agreed actually do it.
Felix: Okay, so you … I guess there’s two different approaches that I’ve seen with influencer marketing. There’s the approach where you have an ambassador program, and I’m assuming … Are they getting compensated through a referral bonus, or how does that work?
Tom: Yes, up until now, no they haven’t, because we haven’t invested in the affiliate software. However, only recently I learnt about a technique to actually track affiliates for free. All you need to do is ensure that the link you give to your influencer is one of those Google Analytics UTN tracking links, and you can actually give your influencer read-only access to your Google Analytic count, if you wish. Then they can actually track all of the conversion, all the e-commerce conversion with their link. Therefore they trust you, and they trust the fact that they can actually see all the conversions that they make. Then you could pay out manually. That’s a very cheap way to give affiliate commissions without paying for any expensive software. We’re actually going to start doing that soon. Up until now we’ve just been incentivizing with the product itself.
Felix: Okay, cool. I think that that’s a great way to get started, incentivizing with just the product itself. Just by offering that discount code, I think one key thing to keep in mind is that influencers, they have their audience, and they want to make their audience happy. There’s no influencer out there that hates their audience, that doesn’t want to make them happy. By giving them kind of value to give back to their audience, through a discount code, you’re giving them a tool to make their audience happy. It’s really important to keep that in mind too, that you’re not just coming to them as, “Hey advertise this for me.” You’re also offering their audience a discount code, and by having them use that discount code, when they’re broadcasting to their audience, they’re giving something back to their audience.
Definitely keep that in mind when you are pitching an influencer. You mentioned that when you’re tracking this you are able to identify which influencers are amazing, that are driving a lot of conversions for you guys. What do you do when you work with them more? Just send them more products, and you said that you were giving them a steeper discount code to give to their audience?
Tom: Yes. We’ll send them better, limited edition products, and even we’ll double the amount of discount we’ll give, just because we only give five percent discount now for first time influencers. Then we mitigate our potential loses, but then we’re happy to offer more if someone can bring higher volume.
Felix: Is this something that you mentioned right off the bat? Or do you say, “Surprise, because you’ve been doing so well, here’s some better deals.” Or do you tell them that up front that if they hit this particular threshold, this particular goal, this is what’s available for you?
Tom: Yeah, so we say if it goes well … Usually after we’ve agreed, we say if this goes well then we’d be more than happy to continue our relationship on more favorable terms.
Felix: Okay. You mentioned that you have a contract, I’m assuming this part that you just talked about is included in the contract, or at least included in the conversations? I haven’t heard of anyone that has asked the influencer to sign a contract, do you find people get turned off by this when you start talking about legality, this aspect of it all?
Tom: It really isn’t a watertight legal contract it’s something that we drew up. We say that it’s not watertight, but just so we can understand each other’s commitments in this relationship. Yeah, we do get a lower conversion rate, but then maybe the people that do not sign the contract are the people that also would potentially not promote the product. We kind of see it as a good filter.
Felix: Yeah, I think that that’s a good point, that you are … By adding more hurdles, you might decrease your conversion rate, but the ones that do make it through are the ones that are more serious. Sometimes you do want less people to work with, less people to deal with, essentially, and look for high impact influencers anyway. I think it’s a good idea to have these kind of hurdles. Maybe not early on when you can’t find anybody to work with you at all, you might want to give a little bit more leeway, but once you start working at these much bigger numbers of influencers you’re reaching out to, it makes sense to at least protect or de-risk your side of things. What kind of stipulations, or what kind of requirements or commitments do you usually ask of an influencer when you do work with them?
Tom: The standard for us is just five posts featuring the product on Instagram, without a link obviously, but with … Without a clickable link, and the discount code in the description, and tagging our brand on Instagram as well.
Felix: Okay, cool. What happens when you … I know that you said the contract is not something airtight, and you probably wouldn’t pursue it anyway. When you do send out the product, how long do you wait, or how long before follow-ups? I think that’s another maybe potentially awkward situation that a lot of entrepreneurs are put in where they don’t have a lot of funds, so they send out these products. Then they’re just not getting kind of scammed, but they’re just not getting as much commitment from the other side as they would like. How do you deal with this kind of situation?
Tom: Yeah, so we definitely drive for the commitment beforehand, of course, and we get people to agree with the contract, and we send out the product. We just have a virtual assistant who’s charged with following up. Then if we follow-up, we probably wouldn’t follow-up more than three times, we admit the loss if someone doesn’t reply three times, because the investment is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We don’t go crazy about it.
Felix: Just give the audience an idea of how long you setting up a program like this takes. Do you remember how long it took you guys from deciding that you were going to be focused on reaching out to influencers, to actually maybe getting the first sales from the influencers that you worked with?
Tom: [inaudible 00:44:12] with about ten people, it took a few hours on Instagram to find those ten people. Sent them out the next day, started getting pitches coming through after about ten days. Then started getting … We didn’t actually make that many sales from those first ten, because we didn’t have the influence to nail it down, but we definitely had affiliate or influencer sales coming in around two to three weeks after we decided to do the program. In terms of investment, total investment, it’s pretty minimal, especially if you’re starting up. In terms of effectiveness, yeah, it’s not as fast as putting up Facebook ads, but it can bring sales within two to three weeks.
Felix: Yeah, definitely. Probably a lot cheaper than running Facebook ads, or at least better return on your investment. Yeah, so influencer marketing sounds like what you guys did early on, and it sounds like what’s been successful for you guys, even today. Give us an idea of how successful the business is, based on all these marketing techniques that you’ve employed.
Tom: Yeah, so I’ll give you a volume of leggings sold yearly. To start of we sold 150 pairs in the first year. This is us investing two hours a week, we’re all working full-time, so 150. Then 450 in the second year, 850 in the third year, and this year we’re going to be selling somewhere between 1200 and 1500. Not a massive business, like we rarely take … I think we’ve only taken money out of the business once, the money has been reinvested back in. We haven’t actually … I’ve yet to nail paid acquisition. Pretty much all of that has been from these organic, or influencer, social media content, and SEO marketing. Of course, experimenting with Facebook on a weekly basis to try and get that positive ROI.
Yeah, I mean in terms of marketing ROI it’s been very good, but we have yet to scale. We have this little foundation of sales coming in from SEO content, social and influencer, but it’s really when ie. now the positive ROI on paid ads, predominantly through Facebook, that we’re going to see some significant growth. Again, we’re still … None of us are full-time, we still have full-time other projects. I probably invest a few hours week growing this, I think that if I do hit the positive ROI Facebook paid marketing then we would potentially consider us all focusing on this full-time, but until then, we wouldn’t.
Felix: Yeah, I think that scale is the key to the success, I think paid ad positions is definitely there, because once you figure that out and get a positive return, it’s just a matter of putting in more money, and essentially printing money, at the end of the day.
Felix: Once you figured it out, that’s the kind of key, the goal everyone is trying to reach when they’re trying to gather business. What can you use from your learnings of the free channels? From the influencer marketing, from content marketing, that has helped you on this road towards figuring out the paid acquisition piece?
Tom: I think going back to the avatar again, about having very specific knowledge of what this person is trying to achieve with their life. Then finding out where they exist on the internet, then putting content in front of them. That’s the three steps. Who are targeting? Where do they live on the internet? Then how can you put your content in front of them for as low economic cost to you as possible? For me, that’s using social media manually, first you get it working yourself, and then you give it to a VA. Then finding influencers manually. First you get it working for yourself, and then you give it to a VA. Yeah, that’s the three-step process. Once it’s working to a positive ROI then you hand over to a virtual assistant.
I mean it’s largely exactly the same process that we’re going to use when we get the Facebook advertising working right. First decide exactly who you’re targeting, like the same avatar, and then find out where they are. Okay, they’re on Facebook. Then put the content in front of them at a low economic cost, it’s getting the targeting right, and then monitoring the campaign. Exactly the same thing, but instead of paying Facebook to put the content in front of a few people, you’re giving influencers, or you’re being sneaky on Twitter or Instagram.
Felix: Definitely. Now that we’re kind of in the holiday shopping season, definitely by the time this episode goes live, we’re going to be in it. Any plans, or what are you guys focused on to take advantage of this season?
Tom: Yeah, so we usually have specific discount codes that we give strategically through specific influencers, and to a specific group of people that come to our site. We usually also put together, so we package together products. Like the perfect gift for him will be a number of specific combination of leggings, maybe with some special items, that we haven’t [inaudible 00:49:20] yet. Just bundle them together in this special package that we can add an extra little margin on, because it’s like this special Christmas present. That’s really everything that we have done in the past, and probably will do in the future.
Felix: Yeah, I think those kind of gift guides are so, so vital for … Especially if you can make it on other gift guides, from other brands, for other content sites. I think make it on them is basically getting free customers, because they don’t have the time, or just are overwhelmed by shopping. They’re just like tell me what to buy. If you can be in front of them when they’re in that stage, I think it’s a very cheap way to acquire customers. What are some future plans for the brand, outside of holiday seasons, maybe within the next year or so? Where do you want to see the brand go?
Tom: Yeah, so as I mentioned, we’ve developed this other avatar, and we’re bringing out specific cycling male leggings out. Once we have them, we’ll have a total of 19 different products. Then it’s really just ensuring that I invest enough time in paid ad position. Once we have paid positive ROI campaigns running for those three different avatars, then we’re going to be at a scale, and then we’re going to have massive freedom on what we actually do with the brand going forward. We did actually try to branch out to a different product, it wasn’t really successful. It was a single handed watch.
Our theory was that the same person who sort of wants to defy male convention, would also be interested in a watch that only has a minute hand. We got them developed, they weren’t the highest quality of watches, to be honest. We only sold about five, and discontinued the line. Further product lines would need a lot of thinking, and more importantly, a lot of conversations with the person, that we didn’t have. I think we only had two conversations with customers about what other products they would like to see from our brand. That was probably the reason why the watch failed.
Felix: Once you have a customer base already they can easily access from all the thousands of pairs that you sold, do you take the approach differently now where you do the surveying, do these questions? Asking questions even before you have product in mind, or do you still go back to the approach where you come up with a product first, and then … Not sort of back into it, but you try to validate your hypothesis about an existing product?
Tom: Yeah, so it’s quite interesting, when we released the latest few designs, we had our brainstorming session, drew up four images of what they would look like, and then sent out a survey to the complete list asking people to vote on the designs. Then only produced the top three. I think that was an extremely powerful campaign actually because when you did come to launch the designs, the email you would write would be like, “You helped us choose these designs, here’s a specific discount code. Thank you very much for helping us develop these designs. We only have 50 of them, here’s a specific discount code.” That email converted really, really well.
I’m a massive fan of enabling your existing customer base to feel like they collaborate with you, and to actually collaborate with your future products. It kind of gives you an excuse to market to them, when you launch the product, and I think will increase the conversion rate because they feel like they’re … Well they are involved in the process.
Felix: Yeah, definitely. I think when they are, like you’re saying, involved, they are much more likely to support the end product if they had an influence in it from the beginning. Okay cool, so thanks so much again Tom. StitchLeggings.com is the website, S-T-I-T-C-H-L-E-G-G-I-N-G-S.COM. Anywhere else you recommend the listeners check out if they want to follow along with what you guys are up to?
Tom: Yeah, you can just go to the site, I’d love you to check out our funnel, and our lead magnets, that would be awesome. If you have any questions about Shopify, or how we built the brand, or PR actually, we’ve been very effective with that, you can tweet me at TomHuntIO, I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have.
Felix: Awesome, thanks again so much for your time Tom.
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