To commemorate Inc.'s 40th anniversary, we're matching 40 aspiring founders with 40 experienced mentors for the Founders Project. Our mentor in this issue, Sarah LaFleur, was once a Harvard graduate and jet-setting associate at a private equity firm who worked on luxury goods deals. She always felt underwhelmed by her clothing options--but of course she would: LaFleur was raised by a mother who sported Parisian suits and worked in fashion.
So LaFleur ditched the cosseted world of private equity to channel her enmity for "frumpy pantsuits" into the women's workwear startup M.M.LaFleur. Named after her mother, M.M.LaFleur puts Japanese and Italian fabrics in the hands of pedigreed designers to create tailored women's suits and separates. The direct-to-consumer brand launched in New York City in 2013, but found its groove a year later with the Bento Box--a customized, try-at-home sampler of chic. In three short years, the company rocketed from about $300,000 in sales to $22.5 million, making M.M.LaFleur No. 43 on our 2017 list of the 500 fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. The company is still expanding rapidly, with revenue estimated at more than $70 million in 2018.
LaFleur's mentee, Michelle DeLoach, lived far from any fashion capital, but she doesn't lack for style--or entrepreneurial drive. She graduated from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas, as a sorority sister without much use for her communications degree. But her mother was a talented seamstress, and, like LaFleur's, imbued her daughter with a love for fashion. DeLoach kicked around in department store sales for a while before stepping out on her own to sell customized dresses, door-to-door, to women at Lone Star college sororities. After she landed six group-sales orders totaling $35,000, her Austin-based startup, Revelry, was born.
As DeLoach's business matured with her customers, so did her product. Revelry moved into bridal wear by sourcing better-quality fabrics to design light and flow-y bridesmaid dresses and bridal gowns that women can try on at home. That pivot brought her $3.8 million in sales in 2018 and the No. 326 spot on this year's list.
But this founder, who made her first sales in person, needed guidance on executing a more aggressive digital marketing strategy. DeLoach was eager to work with our Inc. 500 alum--and who could blame her, given that LaFleur has increased her company's sales 50-fold in the past five years? What follows is an edited excerpt from the first conversation of their six-month-long mentoring relationship.
DeLoach: Right now, I'm at a crossroads. Revelry does great word of mouth, but one of my big struggles is getting business through those e-commerce channels. I recently hired a creative director, who's going to be reshooting and doing videos of all of our gowns this fall. But we've only recently been diving deep into digital marketing--and I'm not an expert in it. I'm trying to figure out what kind of person I need to run things and what kind of team I need to build out.
LaFleur: Budgetwise, what do you have apportioned for the job?
DeLoach: We've been profitable for a long time, so we have a healthy budget for that hire.
LaFleur: So, there's no silver-bullet answer. We're doing a hybrid model now--half the team is in-house and half is outsourced. Ultimately, our goal is to bring it all in-house so it's a true expertise for us.
One way you can go about it is to bring in someone with three to five years of experience who has done performance marketing before, and is self-sufficient and can get things started on Facebook, Instagram, Google. If they can find a channel or strategy that works for you, it can be incredibly lucrative.
But something that's different about digital performance marketing compared with traditional marketing is that it's an experiment. The people who tend to be best at it are analytical and can run multiple tests at a time.
For this, it's actually not enough to hire the performance marketer alone. Unless there is a person saying, "I want you to try these 10 ads with these 10 pitches," you don't have a ton to experiment with. So you have to be able to provide relevant assets and copy and turn around marketing pitches quickly.
Whether people will see crazy conversion differences depends on how good the visuals are. Or how good the copy is. Those things matter a lot.
So, if you have a decent budget, I might go the agency route. They know all the latest things happening on Facebook, Instagram, Google. It's more expensive, but they have deep expertise in each channel.
DeLoach: So then the question is, how do you pick the right one?
LaFleur: I think, honestly, it's less about the agency and more about whom you get at the agency. We've gone through several agencies, and some people at an agency are amazing and some are terrible. The amazing thing about performance marketing is that the results are the results. So if it's not working, you just say, "I'm not seeing the results here" and move on. I'd probably be very involved, especially at the beginning, and I'd give any trial three months.
DeLoach: This makes me feel better. I've been meeting with people to find that hire and feeling like I'm not getting anything done on the company.
LaFleur: Especially at this stage, if you have the cash flow to support it, building out your team so you can scale is one of the most important things you can be doing--if not the most.
DeLoach: That's reassuring. I can get analysis paralysis about where I should be putting my time.
LaFleur: I really get you. I do this 10-minute exercise--not on Monday morning, because Monday morning has a way of making me panic--and ask myself: What three things do I want to get done this week to move the needle for the business?
With a small team, you're still involved with a lot of the day-to-day. But the idea is to scale your company and to have experts running the business for the most part.
Right now, it sounds like your No. 1 job is hiring a digital marketer. Forty percent or more of your time should be spent on recruiting, whether that means you're going on LinkedIn, going on recruiting appointments, talking to [recruiting] agencies. I don't tend to use agencies, so a lot of my best people have come through my own contacts or stalking LinkedIn. When an email comes from a CEO, a lot of people are willing to hear you out.
Do you have a CFO?
DeLoach: My husband is our CFO.
LaFleur: Wonderful. You can tell him: Please run all the analyses in the world, make sure all the checks are going out, but, most important, just always make sure I never run out of cash. You do that for me, so I can handle my biggest jobs, which are to set a crystal-clear vision for the company and hire the right people--and fire the wrong people.
DeLoach: That's one of the hardest things about being CEO--letting go of someone if they aren't working. But when you know, you know.
LaFleur: Totally. That's a really important part of the CEO's role. Too often, people keep people around, hoping maybe it will work out. But if you're already spending time on hiring, it shouldn't feel impossible.
One week after this conversation, Michelle DeLoach sent an update: "I dedicated 40 percent of my time to hiring, as Sarah suggested, and we just hired an amazing director of operations and marketing. Things already feel like they're coming together, thanks to her help."