Long before she became an entrepreneur, Ashley Alderson learned how to adapt and pivot.
A Hodgkin's lymphoma diagnosis at age 21 turned into a months-long struggle, but even while undergoing biweekly chemo treatments, Alderson donned a blond wig and managed to compete in and win the 2007 Miss Rodeo America pageant. In 2015, two years after launching a startup that connected boutique owners with customers, a business partner stole around $20,000--the bulk of what Alderson and her husband had invested in the company--and locked her out of client email listings. At the time, she thought: "I could either give up or make this happen another way."
She chose the latter, pivoting the remaining skeleton of her startup into an online community that allows boutique owners to learn from one another and swap business lessons. Today, her Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin-based company, the Boutique Hub, is thriving. With more than 4,500 members, each paying between $24 and $49 a month for the company's services, including boot camps, local events, and a flagship annual conference that stretches over two and a half days, the company booked $2.5 million in revenue last year. In 2020, it landed at No. 10 on the first annual Inc. 5000 Series: Midwest list, a ranking of the fastest-growing companies based in the region.
Alderson's newest challenge is providing resources and support to boutique owners as they grapple with how to survive temporarily closing their shops' doors because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alderson's success to date is due as much to her own stamina as it is to her timing. Eight months after Alderson agreed to merge her business--including PayPal accounts, contact lists, and social media groups--with that of another founder she met online, the new business partner failed to complete the legal paperwork cementing the deal. Alderson was spooked and backed out of the partnership, prompting the other founder to empty the shared PayPal account and block her from the contacts.
In an effort to save her business, Alderson turned to Facebook. There, she looked to rebuild her connections with the boutique community, offering free business resources and asking what retailers needed most. Her timing couldn't have been better: This was 2016, and independent retailers were concerned about changes in shoppers' behavior and a potential brick-and-mortar downturn that would hurt their businesses. More than ever, she says, they needed advice on how to reach customers online and scale their operations.
So Alderson tweaked the Boutique Hub to meet those needs. Whereas previously the company simply connected boutique owners with online customers through an online platform and social media, the business became a one-stop shop, offering access to industry information and vendor networks, discounts on tools and services like accounting software, and video seminars. "If we can change a business, we can change a life, a family, and a whole community," says Alderson, whose company has 15 employees.
She has her work cut out for her. Online shopping has become a bigger driver of retail sales, which means both she and her clients face the challenge of staying on top of social media trends, changing algorithms, and the competition to be seen on every platform. What's more, overall boutique sales are in decline. U.S. boutiques reported a 1.8 percent drop in revenue to $18 billion last year, according to market research firm IBIS World.
Harder still will be the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced retailers across the country to, at least temporarily, close up shop. They need to know how to transition to online sales if they're not already doing so, says Alderson. They also need to learn where to access government assistance if it's available. "Everyone is focused on finding answers right now," she adds, noting that the Boutique Hub is allowing non-members to access blog posts and podcasts that touch on subjects like SEO best practices and live-selling online, which lets retailers showcase their inventory to viewers on social platforms like Facebook.
The Boutique Hub has its own business challenges now, too. The company has already seen a dip in memberships as some owners cut expenses and operate on leaner budgets. Alderson says she's planning on rescheduling the company's annual conference, which was slated for June, but is waiting to set a date.
It's a tough niche to be in today, says Santiago Gallino, a retail expert and assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Beyond simply competing with online retailers, boutiques live or die based on how well they curate inventory to keep customers coming back, says Gallino. The most successful boutique owners need to master the effective use of promotions and markdowns, as well as find new ways to maintain relationships with shop visitors, he added.
While the Boutique Hub promises to help owners navigate all of the above issues, the retail industry--and Alderson's business--is itself wading through uncharted territory. Still, she remains upbeat. "I had a doctor tell me, after I was diagnosed, that a positive attitude is just as important as chemo," she says. "That opened my eyes to the power of a positive mindset."