It was Christmas 2013 in Arkansas when Lauren and Lance Stokes were working out of their make-shift office and distribution centre in Lauren’s parents’ basement. Her mom was pitching in to help them pack and ship an influx of orders for their brand screened t-shirts in a hurry.
“It was all hands on deck. We were designing and manufacturing and going to market ourselves – plus doing the invoices and shipping the products ourselves. And we were growing so fast that, overnight, we just couldn’t pack the boxes fast enough,” says Lauren.
That moment was a major turning point for the couple, as they realized they would have to hire some employees and find a real warehouse soon in order to maintain and grow their business.
Fast forward to today, Lauren James Co. now ships their products out of an 80,000 square foot warehouse – with over 35 employees and counting.
“We’ve been growing right there with Shopify the whole time,” says Lance. “Our biggest challenge now is adapting and trying to scale with our growth.”
What’s the secret behind their success so far?
On the surface, it might seem like the couple has had a lot of luck and great timing. But as their story unfolds, it’s clear that they made a lot of smart business decisions which helped them to get where they are today.
Starting Small with a Focus on Family
Just a few years ago, Lauren, a registered nurse by trade, was put on 10 weeks of bed rest prior the birth of their first son. Not having a lot to do, she began reading magazines and watching a lot of TV shows. What she saw inspired her to start sketching dresses that suited her style but that she couldn’t find in the market.
When Lofton James finally came into the world, he weighed just over 5 lbs. Because he was so little, Lauren didn’t feel ready to return to work after her mat leave.
Lance suggested that she try turning her fashion sketches into a real business.
“I was only 24 years old at the time and he told me ‘you’re so young, if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to nursing,’” says Lauren. “So, I just went for it.”
With a background in business, Lance recommended to start small – with just t-shirts in order to build some capital to manufacture the dresses that Lauren had designed.
The couple decided to keep the fashion brand name in the family and incorporated Lauren’s name with their son’s (he was a big part of their inspiration after all). And so, Lauren James Co. was born.
“We started out buying 36 blank t-shirts with one brand screened design and sold them online with a website called Store Envy. With the profits from those shirts, we bought and sold 50 shirts, then 80 and so on,” says Lauren.
At that point, they began making connections with retail stores in their area. And as those stores began demanding more of their branded t-shirts, they knew it was time to launch an online store.
“Our business got so busy that Lance eventually quit his full-time job to become the COO in July of 2015," says Lauren.
With no web design background, Lance chose Shopify to build the first LaurenJames.com website by himself.
“What’s great about Shopify is the ease of use and flexibility of the platform. And now with Shopify’s open API flexibility we can stay on and continue to scale our growth with the platform,” says Lance.
The team recently hired a digital lead, Chase Hundley, who had worked with a few other online stores before joining Lauren James.
“In comparison to other platforms, I found the Shopify account team to be very helpful in terms of support,” he says.
“Plus, it’s great not having to worry about downtime or things breaking. And our account manager, Sean, helps us out a lot with integrating apps. He also sends us a lot of recommendations for other tools which have been really useful to us.”
Designing for a Niche Market
Many budding fashion designers try to create clothes that appeal to everyone. And that is a tough business to be in. A better approach is to design fashions for a niche market that will identify with your brand. And that’s exactly what Lauren and Lance did.
“My target customer was me,” says Lauren. “I was a 24-year-old girl who loved to wear pretty dresses, comfy t-shirts and cute shorts to the gym. So, everything I made was something that I wanted but couldn’t find in stores. And since I’m from Arkansas, everything has a southern twist to it.”
Because Lauren kept the designs simple, classic and highly targeted to a niche customer in the beginning, her t-shirt creations took off quickly with the 18-24 year-old southern college girl demographic.
“Our designs are not trendy and we don’t follow trends. We just set them,” says Lance. “Even when our clothes are out of style, we know they’re going to come back in style once a year because they are so classic in design. And we always focus on quality first, and on how manufacturing plant employees are treated.”
Another smart decision that the couple made was to hire employees who also happen to be their target customers.
“We have 35 college girls working part-time in our warehouse who pack and ship our products,” explains Lance. “We also hire young, digitally savvy full-time employees who have a startup and 'get it done' mentality.”
As a result, the team solicits a lot of feedback from their employees.
"We’re sourcing and getting new product in and stuff is going to market and they are giving us feedback on the spot,” says Lance. “That same feedback is trickling in from social media all of the time – and we listen very intently there.”
The company will turn on a dime to implement something that they hear from their customers – both online and in their warehouse.
Becoming an Instagram and Social Media Sensation
When they were starting out, the couple used a lot of free social media platforms to grow brand awareness for Lauren James.
“We didn’t spend any money on traditional marketing early on,” says Lauren. “We were lucky that there are now so many inexpensive ways to promote your brand online.”
They started by launching an Instagram account to show off their designs.
“We did a lot of simple stuff, like t-shirt giveaways and asking people to 'tag a friend' to win a prize. I think we were one of the first people to use the 'tag a friend' tactic,” says Lance.
Now, with over 175,000 Instagram followers, the Lauren James team has built up an audience to help them gain high visibility for new product launches online.
Other social channels have also been good to them. To extend their reach online and convert more of their site visitors into customers, they recently launched a Facebook re-targeting ad campaign that is integrated into the Shopify platform.
And they have maintained an impressive return on investment as a result of their efforts.
“For every dollar that we spend, we get anywhere from $15 to $18 dollars back right now,” says Chase. “I think a lot of that performance has to do with how we organically grew our customer following prior to launching the campaign. I refer a lot to our customers as ‘fans’ more than customers. We often now see people waiting on the site before some of our scheduled launches that we’ve promoted in advance.”
The team’s hard work and highly targeted strategies are continuing to translate into high volume sales growth.
“We recently received 7,000 orders in 2 days,” says Lance. “I think it comes down to the fact that when you mix the right amount of organic growth with a wholesome start, you get great results.”
Setting out to Build an Iconic Brand
While work-life balance can be a challenge at times, the couple manages to keep their business and married life separate.
“We bring a lot of humility and patience to everything that we do,” says Lance. “At work, we’re CEO and COO. At home, we’re husband and wife, mom and dad.”
Ultimately, the couple would like to see their family business become an iconic brand. “We’ve found something that people really attach to and it’s awesome,” says Lance.
Because they design for a highly targeted and digitally savvy customer base – from whom they solicit regular feedback – this ecommerce power couple is off to a great start.
“The possibilities are endless,” says Lauren. “We started with t-shirts, dresses and shorts. Now, we’re getting into outerwear and we want to create a more work-appropriate clothing line in the near future. This all happened because we saw a void in the young, female lifestyle fashion market and we just tried to fill it.”
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