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In this episode of eCommerce in the Trenches, JD meets with John and Courtney Brown, the power couple behind online fast fashion store Cents of Style. Courtney discusses the years long struggle to become successful and the twists and turns they went through to becoming a multi-million dollar business. They also dive into how to maintain your brand vision and image while scaling and how various types of marketing can impact your strategy.

JD: Hello, and welcome to eCommerce In The Trenches. This is JD Crouse, and I’m stoked today to bring to you some friends of mine. We don’t know each other that well, but we do have history together. John and Courtney Brown from mycentsofstyle.com. John and Courtney, welcome to the show.

John: Thanks, JD. We’re happy to be here.

Courtney: Yeah, thanks for having us.

JD: Awesome. We’re going to jump right into it. You guys have been in business quite a while. Courtney, if you would, tell me a little bit about the origin of My Cents of Style. How did you begin your journey, and what led you to launch your eCommerce store? Just give us a bit of a sneak peek into what led you to launch this store.

Courtney: Sure, yeah. I started Cents of Style 10 and a half years ago. It was the spring of 2007, and Cents of Style really came out of a place of need for me, a creative need, really. We had just adopted our daughter, who is now 12, and she was a little baby, and I, quite frankly, was looking for something. I was looking for a creative outlet, outside of motherhood and being a stay-at-home mom.

At the time, John was the VP of Sales at an import company and was traveling a lot, and I had this new baby, and I was thinking, you know what? I need something. I need something to do. I’ve always loved fashion, so it was a pretty obvious kind of transition for me to begin a fashion company, a fashion brand. I started Cents of Style, an affordable women’s fashion brand, and I started it direct to consumer in the model. It was trunk shows and in-home parties and craft shows and pop-up shops.

Again, this is all the way back in ’07, so not a lot of eCommerce was happening in the way-

JD: Right, right.

Courtney: In the way then that it does now. We continued with that model, almost as a hobby company for about three or four years, until I realized I had a really big problem and that it wasn’t scaling in the way that I wanted. I reached my max, and I think to date from about ’07 to ’11, I was only doing about $100,000 to $150,000 a year, and just doing my own little thing, but the irony is I was probably about $45,000 in debt at that point, and I realized I either needed to walk away or I needed to do a 180 on the business plan.

With the super-supportive partner that I have in John, he said, “Let’s switch it up. Let’s try one more thing.” To be very honest, we had a small eCommerce presence before that, very small, but in 2012, we did a 180, took our revenue to zero, and started again 100% online and, since then, have grown to be a multimillion dollar eCommerce business.

JD: Nice. When you say that you reached your max, John shared with me, on a call that we had a week or so ago, that you had quite a few sales reps that were out there selling your products in the field, so to speak, in home. Talk to me about that. How many reps did you have?

Courtney: Yeah, so, again, it was all … I’ve never taken venture money. I’ve never had outside money, so my idea was to take it direct to consumer via reps, via other women, who would sell this fashion, these affordable, fast fashion accessories. We grew pretty quickly in those first couple years. I got up to having about 40-45, what we called, stylists in and around Idaho, Utah, Arizona, but it just was not a scalable model, in the fact that I didn’t want them to carry their own inventory in the traditional direct sales route. We were trying to share inventory, and it just really couldn’t scale at that point, so, yes, in 2012, I got rid of every single stylist that I had and started again. I rehired three of them to help in the new venture.

JD: Aw, it’s always fun to let people go, right?

Courtney: It was hard. It was really hard. Obviously, I came out of it, and it was the very best decision, but really, at the time, I felt like an enormous failure.

JD: Yeah, well, because you had probably invested a lot into these gals, and they were probably … I’m just guessing. Were they friends and close relationships when you started, or, for sure, after you’d worked with them for a while?

Courtney: Yes, absolutely. Isn’t that how all business begins? You don’t all of a sudden just hire a random person. You’re talking about your sister and your best friend and your neighbor, and their sister, and their friend.

JD: Yeah, well, kudos to you. When you decided to go online, take me back, because sometimes it’s difficult, right? Where you are now is a very, very different place from just understanding of technology. Obviously, the technology in the eCommerce space has really advanced, but, if you could for a moment, take us back to getting your store online and taking those first product photos and putting them up and getting the inventory online. Do you remember some of the fear, some of the uncertainty?

Courtney: This is where John and I make a really good team, because he’s the one that pushed me to do this. I probably never would have gone online. I remember the first, before we went with shopify in about ’11, we were with a free hosting service, a free eCommerce service.

John: I think it was webshopplus.com or something like that. It was one of these … This single dude had coded up this platform, and he gave it away for free. That’s what we were selling on the $100 a month we were selling online. Then, Courtney and I had a discussion, decided we really needed to up our online game, and so I went down the route, while I was working, like, “Let me investigate and compare and contrast all the different platforms out there.” I remember looking at BigCommerce, Volusion, Shopify, and Shopify was the new kid on the street at that time, and I don’t even remember why, but I just remember thinking, that’s the platform we need to go with.

You look at it. It’s easy to use, and I want to make sure that, since I couldn’t be there–at the time I had my other job; I couldn’t spend a lot of time helping with the little details–I wanted to give a platform that I knew that the girls could really just own and just really take to the next level. Shopify was the choice we went with.

Courtney: Honestly, to date, that has probably been one of the best technology decisions we’ve ever made for Cents of Style. We have a website that looks like it’s a $25,000 or $50,000 website, that we created for–I don’t know–a couple thousand dollars.

John: It was like 12 … Yeah, our first bid for the theme was from an agency out of … No, it wasn’t.

Courtney: No, it wasn’t.

John: It was a local lady, who charged us 1200 bucks to do our theme, and that’s what we had for several years, and it worked.

JD: That’s awesome.

John: It wasn’t perfect. Then, photography was a challenge for many years after that. We were working out of our basement, unfinished basement. We had on Amazon, buy the little white box, bought some LED lights. We were hanging purses on strings, trying to make it look like it had proper form. We had a local neighbor, who was a kids’ photographer, a hobby photographer, and she took the best pictures that we could take at the time. I think for us, we’re trying to frame our past as being grateful for that past, because it wasn’t perfect. When we look at those pictures now, we cringe.

JD: Right.

John: At the time, they were the best pictures that we could produce with the skillset and the people we had.

Courtney: To add to that, those pictures took us to where we needed to go, to where we are now. It’s the best we could do, and one of our values at Cents of Style is owning it, right? Owning the successes, owning the failures, owning the things that got you to the new place that you are. We can cringe when we look at those photos. I can laugh out loud, when I look back at those first lifestyle photo shoots we did, especially because we’re in fashion, but at the time I was so proud of them. To take them now and disregard them is unfair-

JD: Yeah.

John: Right.

JD: Yeah.

Courtney: Because they got us to where we are now, and it’s so funny, because, you’re right, John. We did it in the unfinished basement, with this $15 Amazon setup.

John: Right, right.

Courtney: Now, we have, in house, three people, who spend all their day long photoing product and editing and getting it to the place where it gets up on the website.

JD: Yeah, well, that’s one of the things that I love about entrepreneurship and eCommerce in particular, is the most important thing, it seems like, is that you just start, is that you just do the very best that you can with what you have, and if you have a message and a product mix and a story that resonates with a market out there, you’re going to know quickly, right? You just roll with it, and you get better, and you iterate, and you pivot, and you go, and you go, and you go. As the money is available, you try to hire better and better people and vendors and things, but you don’t have to do the very, very best when you launch. That’s the beauty of it.

John: Right. It’s all about starting somewhere, just doing. Then, the act of doing teaches you so much about what you can do better.

JD: Yeah, yeah.

Courtney: Yeah.

JD: Very cool. You talked and teased a little bit. By the way, stay to the end, because you’re going to learn how to sell 27,000 units in 72 hours. If you’re interested in learning how to not only market and promote and move a ton of product very, very quickly, but all of the issues, wonderful issues, with supply chain, fulfilling those orders and then doing it all over again, maybe a couple times again, John and Courtney are going to talk about that, so hang around.

You teased about being a vision-based business. What does that mean to you guys? What are some of those visions? If you would share, mind sharing with us, and why is that important to you now?
Courtney: Oh, vision, for me, is everything. That sounds really cliché, but actually, JD, our vision work all began that night that we met for the first time, when we were at ICON for Infusionsoft, back in ’15.

JD: Really?

Courtney: Yes, that is where our vision process began. We knew, after the growth we had experienced in ’13 and ’14, we knew we had to slow down to speed up, get our feet underneath us and know where we were going instead of just tripping over ourselves. We just knew we needed to put some vision in place, because … Clay Mask of Infusionsoft, Clate–I’m sorry–of Infusionsoft said this, and it has stuck with me, “It is one thing when you are hiring your brother, your sister, your best friend, to work for you. It’s another when you start hiring the first person you don’t know, and it’s completely another thing when someone you don’t know is hiring someone they don’t know.”

How do you make sure that your original purpose and vision and idea for your company stays in place as you scale? How you do that is your vision. We went to ICON that year. John had gone the previous year, and he really wanted me to go in ’15, so we went, and at ICON they told us about essentially a private workshop that Infusionsoft did, and still does, I’m sure, about vision work and how to create a vision for your company, as a guiding star of where you’re going.

At the time, we bit the bullet and spent the money, and went and spent two days with the leadership of Infusionsoft and learned how they created vision. Then we created a vision for our own company. We take on Jim Collins version of vision and we kind of meld it with Simon Sinek’s, and that is: Purpose plus values plus mission equals vision. Essentially it gives us, not only it gives us a guiding star, but it also provides us with a culture ultimately that runs and moves our entire company.

John: Yeah, so-

JD: So, well, I want you to, because I want everybody to get this … by the way, Simon Sinek, Golden Circle, why versus what? I’ve actually taught. I used to have a marketing class and I used to actually teach that. It is one of the most impactful concepts that I’ve ever actually embraced and run across, so my ears really perked up when you talked about him. Then, of course, for those of you who aren’t familiar, Jim Collins is the author of the book, Good to Great, right?

Courtney: Exactly, so we’re talking about thought leaders and people that, this is what they do. They teach about these things. Then, learning from them and learning about it from them, then implementing it, it honestly has changed everything.

JD: Wow.

Courtney: It has-

JD: Purpose, values … Purpose plus values plus mission equals vision and then the actual character of the company. Did I get that correct?

Courtney: Yes.

John: Yes.

Courtney: Jim Collins, that’s how he references it: Purpose plus values plus mission equals vision. Simon Sinek, that is the why, the how, and the what. You start with that why, that purpose, and then you move from there.

John: To compare the two: Purpose is why, values is how, and mission is what. They correspond almost exactly. It’s just a different set of vocabulary to accomplish the same thing.

JD: Hmm.

Courtney: In the spring of ’15, we brought our company together, and, at the time, I believe it was about 10 employees, maybe 12-ish.

John: Around that point, yeah.

Courtney: Around that number. We collaborated and we did it together. Honestly, we’re in 2017 now, and if you want to talk about game changers, that was game changing. That’s so funny, because I was eight years into a company, and that was the first time I had done vision work, but it was iterating on all of the ideas that were already there. It was putting them on paper and giving them words and vocabulary, and it was putting words to them, so that everyone can point to it and say, “We believe that. We are that. We are living to this vision.”

JD: Can you share … You said one of your vision, core elements of your vision is that you embrace owning it, and that you honor the past, and even the mistakes and what other people would say, “failures.” Can you share with me maybe some other elements of your core tenets that have been impactful?

Courtney: Absolutely, this is my very favorite thing to talk about.

JD: I can tell. I can tell.

Courtney: I’m very, very passionate about this, and, JD, if I had done this years before, I can’t imagine how much further ahead I would be right now.

JD: Well, I want to take a pause because, if you’re out there and you’ve just launched your store or you’ve been at it for a couple, three years, I get you. If you’re listening to this and you’re covered up with throwing bodies at problems, i.e., hiring people to try to solve problems; if you’re trying to patch together systems that you’ve never worked with before, inventory management systems, CRMs, and ESPs and God knows what other acronym that we can come up with for the industry, and we’re talking to y’all about creating a vision statement, a core guiding set of principles to guide your company, I get it that you don’t want to listen to us right now, but Courtney and John have been at this for a while, and so I just want to lean into this a little bit, and hopefully it sticks, because I’m receiving it, too, because we really have some core principles and we lean into those things, but we haven’t really put them on paper. Sorry for the little commercial why I want people to listen to this, but now it’s all yours, Courtney. Take it away.

Courtney: Thanks, no, but what you said is so valuable, because if you don’t know why you’re doing it, if you don’t have that defined, it’s going to be incredibly difficult for you to decide which CRM you’re going with. I know that sounds completely cliché and so pie in the sky, but I promise you, if you slow down to do this work, it will speed you up.

John: This work is hard. This is some of the most mentally draining work that you will ever do, but it’s also the most powerful work that will be your guiding star in every decision you make. We spent a whole–what?–three to four days with our whole leadership team. We rented a cabin. These were big investments for us at the time. We didn’t have just cash flowing everywhere to do this. We made this a sacrifice and made this a decision of something that we wanted to do for the company. We took our leadership team, and that’s how we started it.

Courtney: Yes, for sure. You asked about the origin story earlier. Really, I believe, everybody’s origin story speaks to their purpose. I was a woman searching for a creative outlet. Our entire purpose, our guiding star, our why at Cents of Style is to empower women to lead bold and full lives.

Now, I love this because, first of all, it is not only Cents of Style’s purpose, but is my own personal purpose in life, is to allow women, however I can, to see that they are complete and whole and seen, just in who they are. Again, this doesn’t mean … This speaks nothing to profits and to revenue or to what. This is completely the why.

JD: Yes.

Courtney: This is completely the why. Now, I told you that value before, the how, those how, those intrinsic pieces of you … At Cents of Style we have six. We have six, and we use just one word that represent those things, and we say they’re a piece of each of us. They are literally the pieces of us that will get us to our goal, that will help us reach that mission, which is the what.

Our six values at Cents of Style are hustle, create, own it, tribe, radiate, and clarity. Those, we say, we hire and fire to them. All of our culture programs are wrapped up in those values. We do recognition, based on those, and they are a part of our vocabulary and our vernacular at Cents of Style.

JD: Nice, so just to reiterate, your how six core concepts are hustle, create, own it, tribe, radiate, and clarity.

Courtney: Yeah, and different companies do it different ways. We decided on single words. We feel like words are impactful. They are important. They do a lot, and so ours are single words.

John: We do have a sentence or two that helps give context to each of the words, especially as we’re onboarding new employees or explaining them to a third party partner, but we really focus a lot on the words.

Courtney: Yeah, so if you take on … Then you go to the mission or the what. This is where Sinek and Collins maybe diverge a little, because Collins tells you to make it a three-year goal, right?

JD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Courtney: Our three-year goal is to impact/reach two million women a month with inspiration, style, and fun. Again, profit, revenue, all of that, is a result. If every day I am looking to how I am impacting and interacting and engaging with women and how I’m helping them through inspiration, style, and fun, then I’m doing it right.

JD: That’s so good. That is so good, Courtney.

Courtney: I’m telling you that there is nothing, not one thing, we have done in becoming a business that is going to very quickly reach that $10 million revenue number that has impacted us more than putting this vision on paper, because it has given … This vision is its own life force for the company.

JD: How does your vision correlate or transition into tactical execution.

John: Oh, this is my bread and butter, JD. I love this stuff. We learned … After we did our vision work, we were so excited. It was amazing. It’s really impacted our culture. Everyone in the company helped create the values. We co-created the mission, and then we got through and were like, “All right, now what?”

There was. It was about a six-month period of just floating and being super I the clouds, like, “This is amazing, guys. We’re so excited,” because we felt it. It was an emotional experience that we had in the creation of the vision statement. Then we were on a path of like, “All right, now how do we make this make sense?” We stayed open to different ideas and one of the … Looking back, one of the most interesting connections we made is in the airport, leaving ICON, where we had dinner, JD, we were sitting in the Phoenix restaurant, and Courtney and I were talking, like, “This is so fantastic, but how do we make this make sense? How do we make this a tactical strategy?”

A guy overheard us and leaned over and said, “Hey, did you just go to this workshop?”We were like, “Yeah.” He goes, “I taught Clate everything he just taught you.”

JD: No way!

John: “I’m starting an entrepreneurship club to teach people the next step, which Clate hasn’t licensed from me, so he can’t teach it. Do you guys want to become members?” We’re like, “Yes.”

Courtney: “Yes.”

John: By meeting this guy, his name is Tyler Norton, and we look at him as a friend and as a mentor and as one of the most-

Courtney: He’s a brilliant strategist.

John: A brilliant strategist. We learned a process called StratLink, strategic link, and basically it’s how to link your vision with strategy and tactical processes and procedures. We have this process, and I think I sent you a copy of it, where it starts with a very high level. What is our purpose? What is our mission? Then it flows to key initiatives. Then it flows to strategic initiatives that are three-year oriented. Then, I didn’t send you this, but we also then do yearly initiatives and quarterly initiatives, and they all flow up.

The quarterly flow to address and to accomplish the yearly. The yearly flow up to address and accomplish the three-year mission. It has allowed us to think big, but take bite-size chunks off at a time, so we don’t get overwhelmed, but the whole time we are working towards that greater purpose to empower women to lead bold and full lives, with our three-year mission to inspire two million women a month with inspiration, style, and fun.

JD: Very cool. Well, I’m going to have to check out Tyler, and you guys giving him such a glowing endorsement.

Courtney: Yeah, Tyler is a genius strategist. His dad actually was the head strategist for Nabisco and Kraft, I believe, so he grew up in this world of strategy. That’s really what it is. You have to take your vision and then take it down and make it a strategy, and then you create goals from there, tactical, whether it’s yearly, monthly, weekly goals. You just take it from the big, and you just take it down the funnel, until it’s a one thing you can do today.

JD: Cool, well, I’ve got to get in the weeds a little bit with you guys, because my whole podcast is built around helping people learn how to attract, convert, and retain great customers. If you all would, let’s come out of the ether and … because it’s heady stuff, right?

Courtney: It is. It is.

JD: It’s very important, and it drives everything, but let’s say that we … There’s so many things out there. There’s so many things that are screaming for our attention, so many shiny objects, and I believe that you all have really swam against the current. You’ve gone against the grain, and so I would like to talk about that a little bit. How do you guys attract people to your brand and invite people into your story? What are some of the big ways that you’ve seen success over the last several years?

Courtney: When I made that big switch in ’12 to going 100% online, the very best decision I made, in that same, simultaneously … I said, I’m going to give it one more shot. I’m going to go 100% eCommerce, and the second decision I made was I was going to do affiliate marketing.

JD: Okay, why? What made you think that this is the channel, this is the way I should go?

Courtney: Two things … Blogging, and especially mommy blogs and frugal living blogs and craft blogs were taking off. They started coming around in about ’07-’08, and by ’12, they had figured out how to monetize, so that was one reason. The second was my very best friend was running the affiliate marketing of one of the biggest-

JD: Aha-ha, now the truth comes out. You’ve got a hookup.

Courtney: Yeah, right? No, connections.

JD: You’ve got the connection.

Courtney: No, to be fair, she was running the biggest affiliate, excuse me, the affiliate marketing program for one of the bigger frugal living blogs in the country at the time, and she looked at me, and she said, “This is your in.”

JD: Wow.

Courtney: “Look at affiliate marketing.” I knew nothing about it, so she said, “Go talk to ShareASale.” They’re a company out of Chicago, and they’re a boutique affiliate network. Brian Littleton and his team at ShareASale, my hat will forever be off to them and what they did and helped me. They made it very easy for me to set up an affiliate program, where I went to bloggers and influencers, and I had a pay-for-performance model. I said, “I have this great item. We’re putting it on sale on Friday. I will give you 10% if you sell any of it.” Honestly, that’s a game changer for us, and it is still one of our major traffic drivers five years later, and the relationships I’ve created in that affiliate and influencer realm will lead us to bigger and better things every year.

John: We look at affiliate as new lead generation.

JD: Okay.

John: We partner with many of these either bloggers, affiliates, or influencers, and they promote a product, and they get paid when the customer converts. Then, we then get to re-market and re-advertise to that individual, but on our terms, where we own the contact and we own the email, so we can then put them into our marketing automation flows, tell our story, share our vision, but initially it comes via a pay-for-performance method-

Courtney: Model.

John: Model from the affiliate.

Courtney: Which is a really great way to go about it, because, again, it is pay for performance. It’s not even pay per click.
JD: Right.

Courtney: It’s pay per conversion. Yes, you pay a little bit more, some might argue, but because you have the name of an individual behind it or, so, because it’s an influencer or a blogger, they already have an audience that is listening to them, and they’re captivated. We actually see much higher conversions from those sales than we do from any other sale that comes through, higher than any paid advertising, higher than any social traffic, even higher than email sometimes.

John: It usually is. It averages about 5 to 6% conversion rate, which is an incredibly high conversion rate in the eCommerce world. It’s because they’re coming from a trusted source.

Courtney: Exactly, and that’s one thing we’ve really focused on in all of our obtaining new customers and retaining old ones is trust, and is creating, quite literally, a relationship, that it’s not just a transaction, right?

JD: Mm-hmm (affirmative), right.

Courtney: That we’re real people and they’re real people.

JD: Do you guys do affiliate leaderboards and things like that or do you do anything special for some of the mommy bloggers that have really, really been instrumental and have actually sold a lot of your products through their blog?

Courtney: Yeah, I mean we’ll … We’re coming into the fourth quarter, which … Hallelujah for all of us consumer goods companies out there.

John: Yes.

Courtney: We’ll do fourth quarter bonuses and lots of other things. Also, we do another actually natural outgrowth of this affiliate program, and especially because we’re in fashion, is we’ve actually started creating custom lines with influencers and affiliates, a custom T-shirt or an entire collection, based on that person, and we usually only do that with our very best performing affiliates.

JD: Well, and talk about affinity. If y’all are using your supply channel, your supply chain, your relationships with vendors to be able to do something specific, a piece of jewelry, a piece of apparel–oh, my goodness!–I can’t imagine the goodwill that that spreads across your relationships that are already … If you were sending them checks, if they’re getting paid anyway, and you can just take it up another notch or two, good job! That’s awesome!

Courtney: Thank you. It is really fun. That’s, again, our companies whole entire name, purpose, everything, Cents of Style. It’s taking that person, taking that woman, and getting to show off who she is, what her style is, what her story is, and it’s just actually incredibly organic to who we are, as a company, and what we do, and the best part of it is that it links to a story, and it links to a person. It links, and so the product sells itself, in that sense.

JD: Yeah, so talk to me about conversions, affiliates … I mean, before we jump to conversions, everybody, the rage … We built our business primarily on Facebook advertising, so very, very different, opposite end of the spectrum from you guys. What percentage of your traffic and conversions does Facebook represent?

Courtney: John Brown.

John: Social traffic represents less than 10% of our overall traffic. Then if you can, you divide that up between Instagram and Facebook, they’re about 50/50, when it comes to where they’re coming from. Instagram actually converts at about double the rate as Facebook does. It converts at about three and a half to four percent, where Facebook converts at about two-ish percent.

JD: Isn’t that crazy? It’s so cool. That’s why I love you guys’s story, because I think for eCommerce players, you all are a rare breed. I mean, I know there’s a lot of people playing in the affiliate space, but building a business on it at scale? What you guys have done is, it’s amazing. I love it, love it, love it.

John: Thank you.

JD: Are you still … I’m still stuck on attraction. Do you still have a good relationship with ShareASale? Have you tested other-

Courtney: We still are exclusive with ShareASale.

JD: Okay, cool.

Courtney: They have grown and scaled, and so have we. It has worked very naturally for us to continue with them, plus they make it so easy. They just do. That’s a big thing for us.

John: The affiliate world is this dark and scary world where there are … Courtney and I have gone to conferences, and we’re like, “Where are we? What back alley did we just step into?” It has this reputation for being kind of shady, and there are large networks that fall into that category. It’s like they’re trying to trick you into clicks and leave the cookie this and go there. ShareASale really has a reputation for looking out for the smaller brands and connecting them with people that make sense. That has been a great relationship. How often … We consider ourselves a small business and we’re working on growing, but we’ve met and have a relationship with the CEO of ShareASale, because he’s just a nice guy, and that’s who they are, where that would probably never happen with these larger affiliate networks. That’s just not how they operate. They are a relationship driven company.

JD: Well, that’s the coolest thing. If you’re in business very long, you realize that relationships is people doing business with people, and if that’s the kind of company that you all are, and it is, then it’s really fun to do business with other companies that that’s what they’re about, too, is they want to have a relationship with their customers.

Courtney: Right. That would be my really big piece of advice about acquiring new customers, is treat it like a relationship. Stop treating it like a transaction. I know that’s how we kind of have tricked ourselves into thinking we’re big, if we can treat it like a transaction, but any personal touches you can apply, anything that makes them feel a part of your company and your tribe and your group, do it!

JD: Yeah, all right, let’s go to conversion. What have you guys done that you think has led you, other than obviously the positioning and the posture and how a lead, a prospect comes to your site … Obviously, if they’re coming from a mommy blogger, and it’s a strong relationship/referral, it’s a nice handoff. It feels very natural and warm. That obviously is going to impact your conversion, but as there been anything else on the site that you have done that you feel like has really helped your conversions?
John: Yeah, so I think it’s like we said, treating the opportunity as a way to nurture a relationship and to start a relationship. That starts with everything from how you are talking to the customer, like the product description … We try to make all our product descriptions very approachable, where it’s friendly. We’re talking to them like a friend. Then, it comes down to where we really think … If they’re not converting at the first visit to the website, it’s that nurturing process, and that’s where marketing automation really comes into play, so that every time they come to your website, they are a warm lead, looking, and they feel comfortable with who you are as a brand, with your story, and when they see something that catches their eye–it might not be the first time, the second time, or third time, but that fourth time–“I get it. I have confidence, and I have a relationship with Cents of Style, so this makes sense for me to make this purchase.”

JD: Right, so they’re saying, they’re answering the question in their mind, “Can I trust these people?” and they’re coming back with an emphatic, “Yes, I do. They are who they appear to be.

Courtney: Yes.

John: “I learned about them via somebody I already trust. They talk about them all the time. Great, now I get emails from them on a regular basis. I went through a storytelling campaign from Cents of Style, where they told me who they are and why they do what they do, and that spoke to me. Now, I just saw something that, from a fashion level, speaks to me. Click. I bought it, and the experience all the way through was holistic and organic.”

JD: Yeah.

Courtney: Let me just sweeten the deal there. We also, and for better or for worse–I an argue both sides–have set ourselves up to be very price conscious and deal specific. In September of 2012-
John: ’13.

Courtney: Oh, it was ’13.

John: Yeah, 2013.

Courtney: Sorry, ’13, that makes more sense. Thank you. I came up with an idea called, Fashion Fridays, and it was a very simple idea at the time that every Friday, I was going to give a reason for somebody to show up on my website. I was going to give a deal to them for coming. Honestly, if we talk about conversions, that single decision alone impacted our conversions. We made it a consistent thing, right? Sales weren’t just here and there. No, every Friday you were going to show up via email or via an affiliate, and you were going to get a knock-your-socks-off, fashion, on-trend deal. Yes, we have sacrificed some growth margin points to do that sort of thing, and some average order values, but in return we have insane conversions.

JD: The people would argue that you’re actually cutting away at your base, because people that would normally buy on Wednesday, they’re just going to wait for Friday, because they know you and they know your brand, and they know that you’re going to offer an insane deal. Is the insane deal typically on a specific line of products or a specific collection, not necessarily sitewide, or is it … Do you have [crosstalk 00:41:45]-

Courtney: It’s never sitewide.

JD: It’s never sitewide, okay.

Courtney: That’s where we are able to do this, because Cents of Style is not one product. It is not even 10 products. We have thousands and thousands of skews, and we get new product every single day, so you don’t know what the deal on Friday’s going to be. You’d better grab those shoes on Wednesday, because you don’t know when they’re going on sale, and they may never go on sale. It’s very strategic. One week scarves may be on sale. Another week, it may be jewelry. Sometimes things never go on sale. That is never advertised. It is just the fact that on Friday there will be a deal that is advertised.

JD: Nice.

John: In fashion, the scarcity is a real thing, where something will come into fashion and go out of fashion, and something will come into stock and may never be returned to stock, so once it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s just something that most women understand, that things … You’ve got to get them while they’re around and available.

JD: Yeah, there’s nothing like … If you’re listening to this and maybe you’re just getting started, there is nothing more wonderful than a legitimate scarcity situation, a legitimate deadline, where it’s not fabricated. I mean, let’s be honest. If you’re a marketer, you’re always trying to figure out how to ethically create scarcity and deadlines, because we know that it impacts buyer behavior, but when you have a legitimate number of a specific skew and/or a date … A great example is Christmas. I mean, if you don’t order by this date, we will not get it to you for gifts. That’s just, that’s all there is to it. Those are wonderful things: deadlines and scarcity. I love that. Since you brought it up, talk to me about how y’all sold 27,000 units in 72 hours, and then went on to sell so much more in that month. Tell us that story really quick.

Courtney: Whew! All right, so talk about a game changer. We had started Fashion Fridays quite literally only about four months before, and our affiliate gang was just starting to get its feet and wheels under it. This was the holiday season of 2013, and chevron … Anybody remember chevron?

JD: I do.

Courtney: I cringe when I look at it now, but it was all the rage.

JD: We actually have a lot of rolls of chevron fabric for our headbands, if anybody’s interested.

John: Nope, I’m sorry, JD. That ship has sailed.

Courtney: We had experimented earlier in the fall, and this is another great principle is think big, test small, with a smaller deal with one affiliate on this particular chevron infinity scarf. Man, it’s 2013. It’s not only chevron. It’s a scarf, and it’s infinity, so it is every trend wrapped into one. That deal, earlier in the fall, went off like gangbusters, and we didn’t anticipate it happening that way, so we thought, “Okay, that worked. Let’s put it into this date on Fashion Friday in November,” thinking it’ll be a good day. Maybe it’ll be a record-breaking day.

You know what? It was. We sold, just like you said, about 27,000 units in 72 hours, over the course of that weekend. It was insane. We probably were on the phone with the manufacturer six different times that weekend, begging for more product, and finding out when it could be delivered and making sure we would have it, so that we could continually increase the stock on the website and continue to essentially pre-sell those scarves that we didn’t have on hand, but that hit just right; that affiliates picked it up; the email went well; it was the right product at the right time and the right season; and, man, did it explode.

JD: If you haven’t lived through something like this … I’ve never experienced this kind of volume, but I’ve experienced similar volumes. I can only imagine the emotions that y’all were feeling, because on the one side, it’s like, “Oh, my goodness, I have literally hit a vein of gold, and we have got to put all of our focus and attention, and we’ve got to keep this sucker in stock.”

On the other hand, you’re going, “Please, can I get the product? How quickly can I get the product?” You don’t want to upset your customers, because you want to actually fulfill on the promise, and so it’s this two-sided thing of trusting your vendors, which is really putting yourself out there sometimes, even if you’ve done business with them for years, and on the other side going, “We’re printing money over here. Oh, my gosh, I can’t even believe this!” Probably somewhere in the middle there, you don’t even know how much you’ve sold, because you’re just busy putting out fires and trying to make sure everybody’s getting communicated with well. Am I right, or was there other emotions going on?

John: I’m going to throw a third part in there. We got a phone call on–when was it?–it would have been on a Monday, because this happened over the weekend. Our merchant services account shut us down.

JD: Ohh!

John: They didn’t believe that we were selling that much, and they said, “We’re holding your money for a week, until we see if someone else … if these are fraudulent charges.” I lost my … I was just pissed. I was yelling at the guy. I couldn’t … I was like, “Are you kidding me? We have never had a charge back!” This, this, and I was going off on the guy, but it was out of my control.

JD: Yeah.

John: What we basically did was we moved our … I mean, at this time, we’re operating out of our house, right? We talked about out of our basement. We moved all of our furniture into the basement, and our whole main floor, which is a … It was a modest house, 1300 square feet, about 1000 square feet in the main living room. We turned that into a warehouse. We had chevron scarves piled all throughout the entire main level. We pretty much hired the whole neighborhood, every stay-at-home mom we could find that we already had a relationship with. For three weeks straight, we did nothing but fulfillment. We filled up UPS trucks. We filled up postal service trucks. We were making daily trips to the local post office. We were doing everything we could to fulfill our end of the deal after that, and it was madness for about three and a half weeks. It took us about three and a half weeks to fulfill those 72 hours’ worth of orders.

Courtney: With-

JD: So … I’m sorry, Courtney, go ahead.

Courtney: All I was going to say is, as I’m retelling this story now, nearly four years later, I’m realizing that the things we learned that weekend about scalability and fulfillment, by scaling your fulfillment team based on the year’s ebbs and flows, those principles have stayed with us and have helped us grow, because of the necessity of what happened that weekend.

JD: Yeah, trial by fire, right?

Courtney: You got it.

JD: You don’t figure it out until you have to.

John: Right.

Courtney: You got it. You can try to figure it in your mind, but, again, it goes back to what you said before, JD, about action, and just starting, because just doing is actually the best teacher you have.

JD: Absolutely. How much did you go on to sell? How many units of that chevron infinity scarf did you sell that month?

John: We sold about 72,000 units of that. It was in multiple colors, but that exact unit, so about 72,000 units throughout the month of November-

Courtney: And probably a little into December.

John: Yeah, a little in December, yeah.

JD: All of the people … Whenever I see a chevron infinity scarf out there in the world, I can probably attribute a pretty good chance that Cents of Style had something to do with that.

Courtney: I’d like to think so.

JD: Aw, that’s amazing. Well, we’re getting near the end. If you have any nuggets to share with us about retention and increasing the lifetime value of a customer and repeat purchases, what would you guys say? How do you retain great customers?

John: I think the number one principle … There’s two major principles that we focus on. Number one is making sure you think of it as a relationship. Number two is don’t always just ask for the sale. Tell your story. This is why vision is so important, so you have a cohesive and impactful story to tell, and tell that story again and again and again, and if it’s the right story, you’ll attract the right people again and again and again.

JD: Courtney?

Courtney: Amen.

JD: Amen? You don’t have anything to add to that?

Courtney: Retention … Give them a reason to come back.

JD: Nice.

Courtney: We all think … We all do this. We all think everybody knows what’s going on. Obviously, they understand our vision. We had this epiphany this week again at Cents of Style. We talk about it all the time. Everybody else must know about it. Well, guess what? They don’t.

JD: They don’t, yep.

Courtney: Give them a reason to show up, whatever that is for you. Whether it’s a sale, whether it’s a story, whether it’s content, give them a reason.

JD: Mm-hmm (affirmative). John, I wanted to hit on this before we end today. Cashflowing a business like Cents of Style, where there’s thousands of skews that have come in and through your business throughout the years, do you have a backdoor or do you have disposition strategies that helps you just keep the stale inventory out of your warehouses, where you just … Because, I mean, it’s difficult, right? It’s difficult to sell every single thing that you buy. What have you guys done, because obviously you’re doing something right.

John: I would say we have two major strategies for that. The first is what we do day-in and day-out. We have a sales team, and their whole focus, or the majority of that team’s focus, is on what we call partner sites. These are discount sites. Think of Groupon. Think of jane.com, Living Social, Zulily, that we are constantly and consistently–and that’s the key, the consistently–offering some of our second-tier products, some of our third-tier products, at heavy discounts, to keep them flowing through the system.

JD: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

John: One thing that we have learned is that cashflow is king, and in an inventory-based business, you have a lot of cash in inventory, so you have to keep that inventory churning again and again. You’ve got to sell it out, so you can buy more; sell it out, so you can buy more. Every season, every week, every month, every day, every hour, keep it churning. That’s one of our major strategy is we use these partner sites as a revenue source, as well as our backdoor, as well as a way to keep our fashion and our fashionable products fresh and on trend, because if we’re stuck with last year’s trends, and that’s our cash, we don’t have cash to buy this year’s trends to hit our bigger goals and sales objectives.

JD: Right.

John: The second major strategy we use is, actually, it’s a warehouse sale. It’s nothing revolutionary. We have … In our local area here in Utah, we just did one in July. We got a thousand people in our warehouse sale within, it was a six-hour period, and we sell it basically at cost or sometimes slightly below cost, because we look at it as a currency exchange. I will exchange you my currency, which is inventory, for your currency, which is cash. I don’t care if I’m making money at this two to three times a year sale, I just want your cash for my stale inventory. It has been a huge, huge opportunity. We did more revenue in six hours in our last warehouse sale than we’ve ever done in a warehouse sale. We’re figuring it out. We’re perfecting that art form, and we have a loyal following of people locally, who show up at every warehouse sale two to three hours early and wait in line in the heat or in the below-freezing weather, because they know they’re going to get a good deal.

JD: That’s genius. Well, John and Courtney, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I’d love to have you guys back on. What can we look forward to in the future? What are you guys excited about? Is there anything that you can share?

Courtney: We have such big things coming to Cents of Style, and I think what I’m super, super excited about is where commerce is going in general, this idea that commerce is moving beyond the transaction and is really becoming experiential and contextualized via content and experiences. I’m so excited about taking it beyond the transaction, if you will, and where it’s going with storytelling. That’s where Cents of Style is going, and I know that’s incredibly vague, but have us back on in January, and we’ll talk more about it.

JD: Absolutely, we’ll do that. I would love to do that. John, what about you? What are you excited about, anything different?

John: As we’ve grown and scaled, we’ve kept things pretty simple, and that’s always been my philosophy is keep things simple. Just do what needs to be done. As we perfect those simple processes, it’s allowed us to get more and more complex and more and more efficient. I’m excited for, which may be kind of silly, but we’re starting the process of barcoding everything and increasing our efficiency by helping our fulfillment staff just know with a surety what they’re shipping, so they match it and we’re just reducing errors. Like I said, I know that sounds small, but it’s huge for us, and I’m so excited about it.

JD: Well, especially for an operations geek. I’m not saying that … I’m saying that very affectionately.

John: No offense is taken. No offense is taken.

JD: No, no, no. I mean, I’m not a geek at all, but when you talk about shaving 20 cents off of the cost of fulfilling a transaction, or even 10 cents, whether it’s labor efficiencies or packaging … I’m sure that you guys have, too, but I can’t tell you the lengths that I have gone to, to try to shave off seven cents off of an order. It just adds up. It just flat out adds up.

John: It could make or break a year. Let’s be honest.

JD: Yeah.

John: Ten cents times a quarter million packages a month, half a million packages a month-

Courtney: No, a year.

John: A year, sorry. I mean, these are big numbers, 10 cents. These are huge opportunities, and so little things can make a big difference, when you do them consistently.

JD: That’s right. Well, great. Well, if you guys would love to check out Courtney and John’s site, it’s mycentsofstyle.com, and check out Fashion Fridays. They’re going to … Today is a Friday, so I just saw some Fashion Fridays on there, so if it’s Friday when you’re listening, go check it out, and I will absolutely circle back with you guys in January. I can’t wait to see you all next. Thanks so much for being on eCommerce In The Trenches, John and Courtney. Thank you, guys.

John: Thanks, JD.

Courtney: Thank you.