Imagine you start a company retailing swimwear. You're entering a massive but also (as massive industries tend to be) extremely crowded market, and your capital is limited. Your living room table doubles as your fulfillment center. And your advertising budget...well, the less said about that, the better.

So you do what bootstrappers do--you turn to social-media marketing: Twitter and Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest...all the usual suspects.

Then you consider LinkedIn.

And you think about it.

And you think about it some more.

And then you make a carefully considered leap, publishing a post on the self-styled professional networking site that includes a photo of Miss Universe contestant Natalie Roser in a bikini with the headline "Is This Appropriate for LinkedIn?"

And while you've published other posts on LinkedIn, some using photos of women in bathing suits (all are catalog shots using professional models featuring suits your company sells), this one touches a nerve. Many people are supportive.

Some are not--in fact, enough are not that LinkedIn takes down your post and your account.

After some back and forth with LinkedIn, your account is back up and you're continuing to publish posts that include photos of models wearing swimwear--and while some LinkedIn users still think what you're doing is inappropriate, in the meantime you've picked up 40,000 followers and fielded offers to create your own swimwear line, to write a book, to start a podcast, to partner with major brands to do fashion shows....

But are you appropriate for LinkedIn?

To find out more, I talked to Candice Galek, the founder of Bikini Luxe, an online swimwear retailer selling approximately 3,000 products (more on that later), about creative ways to find and engage with customers--and about sticking to your plan in the face of adversity.

It's interesting that people have criticized you for marketing on LinkedIn when, in essence, LinkedIn is a marketing site.

LinkedIn has been a great experience for me. I jumped on, met a lot of great people, made a lot of amazing connections.

But in terms of the marketing aspect, what I do has been considered controversial or destructive. I feel it's more innovative than destructive. Sometimes I just put a question out there and allow people to communicate and comment.

For example, the first time was the "Is This Appropriate for LinkedIn?" post. I didn't say it was or wasn't, I just asked the question. I let people decide.

From my point of view, you could argue that there's a shock value from seeing a woman in a bikini...but LinkedIn is a business site, and I'm in online retail, so I think it does belong. The photos just need to be tasteful; ours are what you would see in a grocery store magazine or at a bus stop.

So where do you think the problem lies for some people?

I think some people get sidetracked because they're not viewing the photos as a product or service. They just think of it as a photo of a woman in a bikini.

That could partly be due to the fact I have chosen not to brand the images. People tell me I should brand them, they tell me I'm doing it wrong by not having a logo or a call to action...but my plan has been to encourage people to engage, and if it's too "salesy," that wouldn't happen.

Plus, a softer approach works because the posts do translate to sales. I can't say splashing my logo across would make them sell more; in fact, I think that would have the opposite effect. I can see a direct correlation between posts and comments and queries and sales.

No one wants to be constantly sold, and if you feel you are being sold then you're even more likely to ignore a topic or an individual.

How did you deal with the negative comments?

In the beginning, I took the time to respond to every single comment. I answered each one individually. Sometimes that meant just saying, "I disagree with you, but thanks for expressing your opinion."

And some of my harshest critics I was able to turn around by saying why I disagreed with them. Some of them are now my most vocal supporters and are active on every single thing we post.

What kinds of comments did you get?

A lot of women say my message is setting back the clock; and they've worked hard to be professional and they feel my LinkedIn posts undermine that. Or they feel threatened or harassed by random guys who send them inappropriate messages; the stuff you "expect" on Facebook does also happen on LinkedIn.

I feel the opposite. I'm trying to empower women and give them a voice. Now that I have 40,000 followers, I have people listening to me, and I feel I need to speak out.

Here's the thing about negative comments on LinkedIn. Even if someone leaves a negative comment, it's still shared to their followers, so that means they're promoting me and my business to their followers.... So in the end, I still win. My top post has 18,000 comments, so that means 18,000 people shared it with all of their followers.

The end goal is sharing my business, and if a negative comment is part of that, so be it. A lot of negative comments came from people that didn't do their homework. Some think the photos are of me--they don't realize it's part of my business.

Answering comments allowed people to connect and feel like they were engaging with a real person...and many became supporters. Some of the people who commented early on are still around.

In three months, I've amassed 40,000 followers, and I think a lot of that is due to helping people feel like they are part of what I'm doing.

How does LinkedIn marketing differ from other social platforms?

Like many retailers, we try to take care of multiple platforms. We have about a million impressions a month on Pinterest, we're active on Facebook and Instagram, we're jumping on to Twitter...but every platform is different, including what types of models resonate. Users on some sites prefer an edgier look; others like clean, bright images of younger models. You have to figure out what works and what doesn't, and it takes a while to figure out.

Why is one particular swimsuit selling so well? Is it the model? Is it the setting? Is it the title or description or placement?

You're in constant test and review mode. It's really hard to figure out but fun to try to figure out.

What has been your plan for growing and expanding your customer base? Some companies lose their core customers when they expand their scope....

As your business grows, your customer base naturally changes with you. In the beginning, we had younger customers who liked skimpier styles. As we've grown, we're featuring styles and sizes that I wouldn't have thought our customers were interested in.

We've managed to keep both clienteles, and multiple brands, offering something for every size, shape, style, and interest.

I've never wanted to drop the original clientele because they built the business, and that's more my style, but I definitely understand there are tons of people looking for different styles...and you can't ignore what will work. Only a certain number of people are 20 years old and a size zero.

What's interesting is that we get flack when we use models who seem unattainable, but we don't get any credit for using models who are closer to the norm. I expected people to say, "Hey, this is what I look like...we're thrilled you're using models I can relate to," but they don't.

Two years ago, you were writing tracking numbers into a notebook by hand and now you have a number of employees and a rapidly growing business. What marketing advice would you give other startup founders?

Try to be different. Doing what other people do means getting the results they get. LinkedIn was a risk that paid off.

Then make sure you're on social media multiple times a day and try to collaborate with others (for us, it's fashion bloggers) who have a following similar to what you provide.

Most of all, try things so you can learn from your mistakes. For example, it was hard for us to determine inventory levels. In our first few months, one of the items we were selling trended on a social platform and we needed 50 of them right away. Resolving that was really hard.

If you're a retailer, don't skimp on quality. Make sure you sell products you're proud of. I feel like we could be growing much faster but I worry a lot about the quality of the products and the types of relationships we're building. I trust that the brands we carry are top quality products that feel good, wear well, and our customers enjoy. I've built professional relationships but also friendships.... I don't just want a basic business relationship. I want people to be happy.

What is your biggest challenge going forward?

Staying focused. I've been offered lots of opportunities because of the LinkedIn "debacle."

Deciding what is a good fit for us, and for me, is important. We've been offered fashion shows, partnering with brands like Ferrari and Hublot...people have talked to me about podcasts and writing books.... All that is fun, but at the same time it's scary.

Those are great problems to have, though. I've achieved what a lot of people hope to achieve on LinkedIn: connections and friends and opportunities.

Published on: May 31, 2016