Sizing Image

257: How Ashley Merrill Reinvented Sleepwear and Built Two Successful Brands

Posted by Austin Brawner on June 23, 2020

Most companies add a second product line when they want to grow. This week’s guest decided to build a second brand instead.

Ashley Merrill founded women’s sleepwear line Lunya in 2014 because she was tired of wearing her husband’s clothes around the house. Five years later, she decided to expand into menswear, but just adding a men’s line didn’t sit right with her.

Tune in to find out why Ashley decided to start a second brand, how she grew her company from a startup to an established business, and lessons she’s learned about building a team.

Episode Highlights: 

  • 5:16 How an ambition to solve a problem resulted in launching Lunya
  • 8:00 How business has evolved since its unconventional 2014 launch
  • 10:42 Why having major funding in the beginning isn’t always best, and the spending that eventually moved the needle for Lunya
  • 13:05 The value of identifying your brand muse.
  • 15:28 One company value that’s contributed to Lunya’s success
  • 16:30 Hiring lessons learned growing from a start-up into an established business
  • 21:00 How Lahgo started and why Ashley built a second brand, rather than simply adding the men’s line to Lunya
  • 25:44 The biggest trap entrepreneurs can get stuck in
  • 28:48 The High 5 Test and the lessons Ashley learned from getting her MBA
  • 33:20 How non-traditional methods of getting in front of people help the brand
  • 39:36 Ashley’s key piece of advice for business owners

Links and Resources: 

Are you ready to scale up your ecommerce business?

If you want to grow your business faster and more profitably, Brand Growth Experts can help. We’ve worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs and marketers to help them stop leaving money on the table and take their businesses to the next level.

From personalized coaching to live workshops, Brand Growth Experts will work with you side-by-side to define your marketing strategy, scale your advertising, and hire the team needed to take your business from six to seven figures, and beyond.

If you’re ready to profitably scale up your business, head over to BrandGrowthExperts.com and learn how we can help.

Sponsor: Wallaroo

The world of eCommerce is changing quicker than ever before. With new offerings and changes to everything from Shopify to email to SMS to Facebook and Instagram ads to TikTok, it can be overwhelming to stay up-to-date on the best approach for scaling your business. That’s why you need a passionate, hard-working agency on your team to do the things you don’t have time for. Wallaroo Media is that agency. 

Wallaroo is a full-service digital marketing agency that specializes in scaling eCommerce brands. They love working with companies in the $1-5MM revenue range and partnering with them to scale them to $20MM and beyond. They’ve worked with respected brands like Rhone, Casper, and Cotopaxi, as well as many other up-and-coming brands in that $1-5MM range. They’ll feel like a part of your team every step of the way. 

Wallaroo is offering a free social ads audit just for our listeners. Head to ecommerceinfluence.com/wallaroo to sign up for one today!

Sponsor: Widen

Are you struggling to keep track of all your content? As a growing brand, managing content is difficult because it comes in many forms, has countless sources and destinations, and is ever-changing.

For more than 20 years, Widen has helped solve these challenges. Use Widen’s cloud-based software to bring your photos, videos, copy, and product specs together and then send them anywhere to quickly support your marketing and sales channels.

Brands like Trek, Trunk Club, and New Balance use Widen to take control of their narrative with up-to-date, reusable content. You can too. Head over to ecommerceinfluence.com/widen for a free demo.

Transcript

Click to Expand Hide full text

Austin Brawner: What's up everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell and yeah, I'm really feeling really good about all of the incredible discussions you've got going on over in the coalition.

Austin Brawner: Great too. Thanks, man. We've been, working hard. We've been launching new content, we've been putting new trainings together, we've been hiring over here, putting a lot of the quarantine in COVID has redirected at a lot of my energy coalition, it's been a really, really good thing.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. It's been really fun to just, I am a stalker, to be honest, I do contribute here and there, but I go in and read what people are thinking because it's so fun to see the mind of so many founders over there, of what they're thinking about, what's on their mind and digital operators too. I mean, and marketing operators and I don't know, it has a really nice mixture of a whole lot of things that I find fascinating like today's interview, honestly, a little transition into talking about that. We have Ashley Merrill, who is the founder of luxury sleepwear brand Lunya on today's podcast.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. And I am really, really excited to share this episode with all of you. She comes in with a really great perspective, having started a business eight years ago and built up to a very large team, very successful business and spun off to a second company that's Lahgo, which is like Lunya. And she comes in with a ton of experience and can share lessons through her journey that I think many of you listening are probably... You will resonate with this if you're building a business. There's-

Andrew Foxwell: Oh my gosh. There's so many.

Austin Brawner: But we talk everything from conversion ads to building a team, lessons you've learned along the way, how they think about doers and hiring versus more specialist down the road, which is really, really interesting.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. I think that there's a lot of good gems here, so let's go ahead and welcome her onto the podcast.

Ashley Merrill: Well, thank you so much for having me.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think that you have absolutely an interesting story and you're growing really a ton right now and yeah I mean, lot of different things that we could get into. But first let's start with the backstory, how did you start this company? Why did you start a luxury sleepwear company? And how did you land on this idea?

Ashley Merrill: Yeah, so I mean, ultimately my background really isn't in fashion. So, I came to it because I could relate to the problem as a customer. I was wearing, my husband's old hand-me-downs around the house and they were less than attractive, we'll put it that way. And I started to think, "Why am I wearing these? Is there an opportunity for me to do something where I could be just as comfortable, but maybe know not to look like this," or feel a little better and maybe even a higher bar than that. Like maybe there'd be something that could help me sleep better.

And so this is the evolution of how we ended up here. Began very early on by, again, with none of this background in fashion, had to figure out how I could network with people in the industry and get the right people to join and that's really, it was a slow, long process. It started with me really starting to vocalize the fact that I had this ambition to solve this problem. And what was amazing is how incredibly supportive people were in helping me. They'd be, "Oh, I know this person, maybe you should chat with them."

And so one thing would roll to the next, and sometimes I'd bring people on they'd help consult for a while and they'd take me to somebody who'd maybe support me in a different area. And so that was really how everything got started. I made lots of wrong decisions. So, first I started working on this in October 2012 and didn't launch anything until November 2014, it's [inaudible] November, until September 2014.

So took me quite a few rounds and changes and all that. And the first products we made candidly we're not that awesome. So I've been even since launch, but an incredible evolution to get to a place where I can confidently say we have incredible best in class products for you while asleep being in around the home.

Austin Brawner: It's so interesting to hear the backstory around how long it takes to actually get something going. Right? Like I think a lot of times you will look from the outside in and they're like, wow, let me use popped up in the scene relatively, recently and you see them everywhere with your guys retargeting. And if you do get in the retargeting funnel, you guys have a great retargeting funnel.

Ashley Merrill: Thank you. I mean, look online has always been our... That's been our main platform. So yeah, we have definitely a full-funnel marketing strategy.

Austin Brawner: And it's so interesting. So from the outside looking in, it's like, oh, it's happened quite quickly. But after two years in development and in 2014 you kicked it off. Could you talk a little bit about what's happened since then and how it evolved when you launched in 2014? Was it a hit right away or was it? Tell us about what happened there.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah, no, I just laugh about it because I think I shared that experience as a customer or an outsider, I look at brands and be like, "How did they blow up overnight?" And then of learn a little bit more and you're like, "Oh, that company's been around for like seven or eight years." I just found out about them. And even with Lou lemon, I remember when I first found out about Lou lemon, I was, "Look at this cool new brand." Meanwhile, it had been strong in Canada for years before I ever heard of it. So, just interesting how things can look so different from the outside.

I launched in 2014 two very little fanfare. I actually accidentally launched it. It was a funny story while I was I'm giving birth to my daughter, I was writing this thank you letter on Facebook because Facebook was the thing at the time. And I was posting to my only employee at that time, just thanking her for being just so supportive while I was going through having a baby and she really was willing to take up a lot of slack when my personal life was having a lot of demands on me.

And I was putting this thank you letter on and people misread my post and then everybody thought that was a launch and so they started re-sharing it. And if you clicked on it, it would take you to a website that had a blocker on it, which you'd have to enter a password. And I started looking at the virality that was happening and I was like, "Oh man, I'm not going to get people to repeat this kind of behavior. I guess I have to unveil the site and just let it happen."

And so I was literally in the maternity room and we just decided to let it roll. So that's really that launch story. And when I say it was getting virality, I mean, like everybody, my friends were re-posting it and that was the best I was going to do really at the early stages because I wasn't ready to invest in marketing or anything like that. So that was what it looked like.

There was not a lot going on in terms of sales. It was amazing how little sales we actually for quite a long time. And it was okay because I think we learned how to hustle, gave us time to figure out the product, and in hindsight it feels okay when I was in it, it just was like just constant smacks in the face. It was like a step forward and two back, we just felt like we could not make progress, but I think that I look back on it and I'm just like the learning curve forced on me that I would say a really scrappy entrepreneurial style which we learned is still with the company.

A lot of companies that have raised an enormous amount of capital they don't have that. And I think that that's one of those things where it's, "Look, take the money if you can get the money." But on the other hand, I do think sometimes not having the money teaches you something too. And I mean, don't get me wrong, I funded the company but it's not in the kinds of quantities that we were hearing about people funding companies in the past handful of years. And I really didn't give it a lot of juice until quite late in the game. So early on, a lot of scrappy employees that were able to do three people's jobs at once and a lot of just making it work. And so, that was really what it looked like.

It didn't start to grow in a big way until we put online conversion spend behind it. Unquestionably that was the thing that moved the needle for us and still does move the needle for us in a big way. I think we're a brand that understands how to market online and so, that's been something that has served us.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. I mean, I think that's where you start to see a lot of growth trajectory for different companies is putting them, working, spend behind it. Within that pulling the lever of spending more, I think it's interesting the brand and the storytelling part of it for me in terms of what you're doing because it's one of those things that I don't know that a lot of other people could have gone out there, but for some reason around sleep, people want it to feel luxury, right? The other things people are willing to be, "You know what, a $30 pair of pants or a $70 pair of pants. I don't know, is there a big difference?"

Ashley Merrill: Yeah.

Andrew Foxwell: But with sleep, there's something that's very... You've identified that need in a big way. In terms of the brand and as it nears the marketing, and as you started ramping up that spend and telling that story, what were some of the most powerful levers and conversations that you had there to really make that growth trajectory faster? Because a lot of people put money behind marketing spend and I don't think that... It doesn't take off as quickly.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah. I would say early on what we did is we defined a muse. And so we said, "This is our girl, she's this old, she likes these things, she has this household income, she lives in these places." We were very, very specific. Now I think that what's cool about that is it gives you a true North. It doesn't mean every customer looks like that. It's not an average.

It's you pick this muse who's aspirational to your customer base and aspirational in whatever way you want it to be. It doesn't necessarily have to be, "Oh, she's more beautiful than me," or whatever this... It could be aspirational like, "Oh, this is a brand that is almost like the friend I want to have." We spent a lot of time on tone and making sure we're resonating. And so I think that from our standpoint, we were very specific in who we were trying to resonate with.

And I think that really helps you, particularly as companies scale. Early on where you have a strong founder presence, the founder can be your true North right? Oftentimes they build companies in their own image because it's what they understand the best and hopefully the business makes sense for the image they're building against. In my case, I did have that advantage too. I think in a lot of ways paralleled our target customer.

But I went ahead and set a muse anyway because it gave us an objective person to talk about in brand marketing conversation. So instead of saying... Otherwise, it becomes subjective and arbitrary. As you build a company a lot of the people that joined the company see themselves in the brand. And so I had a lot of women that would be close to my target audience that we're joining because they connected with this brand.

Well, the problem is, you all get in a room and you all think you are the muse. And so then it's completely subjective as like, well, what's the right call? What should the photo look like? What should the copy look like? But when you create this arbitrary, not arbitrary, excuse me, when you pick this very opposite of arbitrary, this is a very intentional muse, then we can be, "Oh, would this person like this?" And it lets us all make it less personal and well, being very personal, but it's almost like we're talking about this other individual.

So I'd say that was one very useful skillset. And then the other is, I've tried to build growth as a value of the company. So we have a very much of... My background wasn't tested so much more of a test and learn like, what's the minimum viable product? How much can we test? And that's shown up in everywhere from product buying to product designing to marketing campaigns. And so how many tests can we run? How little effort and costs can we put into it to get the answers to our questions? And so we set up retros so that we're looking back on things we've done and trying to be really iterative. And so I'd say, that'd be another thing.

Andrew Foxwell: You mentioned that you're talking a little about conversions as being the candidate with the ramp-up point. And you talked about the brand and thinking about a muse. When you first started dedicating and ramping up, spend and started to see the company grow and take off, when did it go from a couple of employees that were doing three jobs to starting to hire for specialists? Or how did your growth around hiring and running the organization change as you guys ramped up from obviously 2014 to now? Were there any inflection points?

Ashley Merrill:
I mean, I feel like we hit a new inflection point every six months. But what you're describing was actually the most painful inflection point. I would say that happened about two and a half years ago. And that's where early on in a company, right? You highly value people that are not super expensive that are very flexible and able to do a lot of things that often look like young hires who are excited about the learning proposition, but they don't have deep skill sets or expertise.

And so, what I would say was for a long time, that was really great. And then because there's so much low hanging fruit that we could hit given that we were in a niche on our own. So we didn't have to start with really, really deep, clear, awesome differentiation in every category because we really were in a place of a lot of white space. And so that was really an interesting transition. I would say it's hard for the employees and hard for the leaders because inevitably the company's needs change and to be very candid, not a lot of people can make that transition with the company.

We think about like I think people like to say, "Oh, you go join a startup. And that means you can grow with the startup." It's true, you can and I have a few examples of people that have, but by and large people, and it's not because maybe they can't hang with the startup or with the company anymore, it's maybe they don't even want to. Often what resonated with them early on was that opportunity to spread their wings really wide. And so when you're being pushed, you're pushing somebody like that into a deeper, more narrow area, it's almost like it's not what feels natural to them. And so, I would say that was really painful. I was a very young leader at that point and so then I kept looking at myself and being, "What am I doing wrong?" I can't figure out how to get this person to do this.

And then at a certain point, I had to accept I started making a good network of entrepreneurs that I interacted with more regularly and realizing that this was actually really common. So now I've realized that... And I think I used to, because it was so small and you take it really personally when things like that would happen, you couldn't help, but just be, "I'm a failure." And then the employee felt like they were failure and everybody felt bad, whereas, now, and I have...

Look, I don't like it when people leave, I want them to stay, but I also believe that people should be where they can thrive and the company should have... Ideally, we have a role that they can thrive in, but when those things don't align, it shouldn't be personal. Everyone can be really cheering for the other person and wanting that person and the company to get what they need.

Austin Brawner: Sure. Telling that story brings back a really strong memory of, I worked at a startup that we grew really, really fast, like two and a half years. And when we first started, it was completely remote, only three of us. And it evolved into about 30 people, 35 people in an office. And I will never forget they talk to some HR person or consultant and they brought in a timestamp thing where you had to put your thumb in and-

Ashley Merrill: Oh God.

Austin Brawner: In and check out. And then more went in. I knew I was done.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah. You're like [inaudible] because it's getting weird now. Yeah. And I think it's hard as a leader too, because you want to preserve whatever it is that made you special and it's hard to find the... Look, I mean, I'm sure it's hard for everyone every stage, it's just that I can relate most closely to my own position. And trying to figure out what are the special things about your culture, about your brand, about what feels like to work at Lunya or Lahgo that I don't want to let go of even as we scale. And there are no clear answers on some of these things. So a lot of it is just trial and error.

Andrew Foxwell: Well, let's jump into what you just mentioned which is talking about Lunya the women's brand and then Lahgo the men's brand.

Ashley Merrill:
Yeah.

Andrew Foxwell: And you know that in the men's brand just launched recently I think if I'm not mistaken.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah.

Andrew Foxwell: So how did you go about launching that brand? I mean, how did that start [inaudible], and what are some of the steps you took getting that off the ground?

Ashley Merrill: Yeah. I mean, look, I started with women's because it was easier for me. I understand the women's audience pretty well. I think it always felt like there was potential to veer in different directions and those directions could and still can look like many things, right? People would be like, "Oh, you should be in bedding, you should be in men's and kid's and all these things." And so back to the test and learn a thing, what happened was I started having a decent amount of demand from men coming into the stores with their wives or even just wandering by and being, "Do you guys carry men's?" So we were getting some rumblings of interest there as we started to gain size.

And then, we decided to do a test. We tested kid's and we tested men's and we realized that with the quality of good that we have, it was forcing the price point on kids a bit too high. And I say this as a mom myself, there's a limit to what I'll spend on my kids because I know they're going to only be able to wear it for the 10 minutes before they outgrow it or put a big hole in the knee or something.

And so the value proposition of investing quality for kids just was hard to justify, but we did try it. And then we also tried men's and we realized right away there was traction there. The men were really liking it and the women were serving as a really great entry point to introduce men to it and so that was really exciting. And what we knew was that we didn't want to just take something that worked for women and bring men into the exact same thing.

We know that in so many ways women and men have shared experiences but in a lot, they have very unique experiences. For example, from my perspective women, a lot of what they want is permission to feel okay about enjoying themselves and setting down their to-do lists and it's hard for them to even at home, but it's to take a load off, take a minute. And this is something to say no to the dinner. Like our girl loves the conversation about canceled plans because she's drowning in obligation.

But men have a very different challenge. Men are kind of not welcomed into the home. There is a very fascinating dichotomy between what it means to be a man in a historical sense and how to feel comfortable at home. Men are not part of wellness conversations. My husband who's also an entrepreneur has literally never been asked the work-life balance question and I have almost never made it out of an interview without it. So what was that thing was telling me was that here women may be needed one kind of acknowledgment and support, but men, what they need is to have a place and to feel okay and to be welcomed into whatever that wellness conversation or balanced conversation looks like for them.

And so it was really exciting to me to let each have their own playground and to be true to who they serve versus trying to water everything down for the middle.

Austin Brawner: This is interesting. Right? I think a lot of times for men wellness is sometimes dictated to them within the household or-

Ashley Merrill:
Right.

Austin Brawner: ...the changes are made and then they're at the very end of the process. They're participating because the changes have been made.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah. It's a good way of putting it, yeah.

Austin Brawner: Interesting observation that you've made there.

Ashley Merrill: Well, I mean it helps because I can watch the species in real life. With my husband, it's been hilarious because he'll be like calling me out and he's, "I'm home a lot. I play video games a lot. You can make me some clothes, too." I was, "Oh yeah." It's so funny but it's sometimes those things that feel so obvious, it's right in front of you and yet on the other hand, I just was slow about it and so I'm really excited to be diving into it now.

I think there were so many great observations we had when we started talking to men and bringing them into the process and working on the Lahgo brand. Men want to use a website differently than women want to use it. They're more interested in the functionality proposition and a little bit less into the just straight styling visual beauty piece. And so we really wanted to give the two companies room to cater to their actual audience.

Austin Brawner: You mentioned that it was right in front of you, but I think one of the challenges that everybody faces especially when they're building a business is just the trade-off of like everyone's got so many different... Most entrepreneurs have lots of ideas for what they can do and often struggle to like remain focused on the thing right in front of them so-

Ashley Merrill: Yeah.

Austin Brawner: ...so you need to move that forward. And it often changes at a certain point when you have a team large enough to be able to keep things moving while you work on something else or so on.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, if you think about it, it took me five years. So Lunya launched in 2014 and Lahgo didn't launch until October of last year. And I think that's right. I think it's good that it didn't because per your point, I actually think the biggest trap that entrepreneurs do get stuck in is trying to do too many things at once you end up splitting your resources and not doing anything well.

So the staying focused on Lunya to me was the right move and I don't regret not starting Lahgo sooner. I'm actually really excited to be started, really digging into Lahgo now because now is the moment that I have... Lunya is much more established and so we have more ability to pull up from Lunya and really divert my attention whereas in the early days that would have been the wrong move.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. And it can lead. Yeah. I mean, as you mentioned, it can lead to disaster when it's just, "All right, we need all hands on deck just to keep this one thing moving."

Ashley Merrill: Right. Well, and I think that this leads to the over... There have been past few years, people raising way too much money in my mind. And I mean that for them. The amount of pressure it puts on you, if you're going to raise 40 million, 50 million, 60 million with these young companies, it's huge.

Austin Brawner: Oh, yeah.

Ashley Merrill: And so, I'm not just saying, I'm not faulting them. I'm almost like I feel that the stress that, that probably brings on for them. And so, I think that what happens is you feel than the need to do so many things at once. It's a gift to be able to focus on doing something really well before having to move to the next thing. And I do believe in it because I also think it creates really strong best practices.

It's what I said earlier, right? People will lament not having a lot of money to support their company's growth, but sometimes when you have less, you can hire fewer people. You have to focus just on the most valuable things and that's often a good thing. We could not open Brick and Mortar for a very long time in my mind I don't know a very long time is subjective. And I think that taught us really good rigor. We learned how to be a great company online. And before we even started to go into the next chapter.

Austin Brawner: For sure. I'd love to hear just speaking a little bit about learning and the process that you go through building a company. I believe you got an MBA from UCLA. How do you look at that experience? Did that prepare you for being an entrepreneur? Were there any lessons you took away from that? Would you do it again?

Ashley Merrill: The MBA or start a company?

Austin Brawner: The MBA.

Ashley Merrill: So nothing prepares you for being an entrepreneur in my mind besides doing it. I think there are certain personalities... I also think I'm not one of those people advocating that everyone go out and become an entrepreneur. I think there's a very specific personality type that tends to excel in that. There's a test online called the High 5 test, which tells you your five strengths.

And I do a decent amount of investing in other companies at this point and often send that High 5 test to the entrepreneur and I can't even tell you how similar the profiles look of different entrepreneurs. It's funny often you'll see things like, catalyst, optimist, doer, these kinds of words, which are just, these are the people that are basically going to get punched in the face a ton of times and just keep moving forward because that's really what it is.

And then there's a variation on the outside of it. But those are just very, very strong correlations. And I think when I look at what was the most helpful, certainly the reason the MBA was valuable for me was that I actually was starting my company at the exact same time I was getting my MBA. So I was in my accounting class showing that accounting professor happened to be like a super senior person at some other accounting firm. I was getting to show her my P & L and like walkthrough with her before class. I don't know how else I would have gotten... Basically gave me a crew of advisors to look at each part of my deck and help me poke holes in my ideas and so in that way it was indispensable.

And I think that I engaged in a different way because it was all real life for me. I wasn't in marketing, arbitrarily learning marketing, I was in marketing trying to figure out the marketing plan for Lunya. And I think that made it apply right away and then it stuck in, in a good way. I'm not usually someone out there advocating for an MBA. I think there are really specific reasons that it can be useful. I think if you're not confident, you need to be confident over at some point to run a company because you have to make other people believe in you. They have to follow you. And if you don't feel confident in yourself, there's no way other people are going to feel confident in you.

And sometimes that MBA just builds your own confidence that, "Okay, I do understand, all these, I understand what a rough marketing plan should look like, I understand what, whatever P & L should look like," but I would say that it won't directly tell you how to do anything. Most of the things I learned, I learned by making a lot of mistakes or and I would say, and, or I should say building a really great network of entrepreneurs around me and oftentimes peer level. So when I'm at a small business, they all had small businesses and we were bouncing ideas off each other and really created a bit of a community where we knew we weren't alone and we weren't solving all the problems by ourselves.

And I was lucky enough that my husband being an entrepreneur who has a few years ahead of me, I had learned... I mean, he'd come home every night and we hashed through his day and the challenges, and so in some ways I felt like I lived through a decent amount of that with him. And there's no question that served me when it came time for me to do Lunya.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. I think that's the advisor thing is what I've heard from others as well that have done an MBA and I think that there's virality in it. It's just interesting because I think it's more common corporate business honestly than it is in entrepreneurship. So it's an interesting question of how has it really brought you where you are-

Ashley Merrill: Well, you can take that 80, 120 grand, whatever it is. And if you said, "Am I better off getting an MBA or using that 80 or 120 grand to start a business?" If you're saying, "Hey, my longterm intention is to build a business." I would say, take the money and build the business.

Andrew Foxwell: Yeah. I tend to believe the same thing. I do want to touch on marketing. The one jumping back to some of the marketing because that's something I think you've done very well and is a core part of your growth. You've done something that not a lot of others have, which is sponsored content. A lot of PR, a lot of sponsored content that I can see. And some of those things, maybe, I mean, some of those things are natural, some of them might be PR, but Kinfolk was a piece I saw.

Can you talk about some of these non-traditional methods of getting in front of people? And I mean, are you using those in ads? This is more of a tactical question, but how are those helping you or is it something that you just feel like, "You know what, this is something I think is I want to do, I want to get out there. I want people to know about us and have external validation on what we're doing here to tell the real story."

Ashley Merrill: So it's part of a full-funnel marketing plan, right? So early on, all we did was conversion marketing. That's it. There was no other piece of marketing. It was just like Facebook, Google and that's it. What happens as time goes on though, at least there were two forces at play here, the cost to convert would go up over time because there was more market saturation, everybody and their [inaudible] created a direct to consumer brand. And so we were all competing for the same audience.

And I needed to get in front of different people. So ultimately when you're constructing them the hourglass or the funnel or I've heard a million ways of describing this, but you have to build awareness at the top level. And if you're using conversion marketing to build awareness, it can be expensive. And so typically the reason I think we see bigger brands go for multichannel marketing is that sometimes it's about the interplay of the marketing and how it comes together to overall impact a lowering cost of conversion.

So, the way to think about it is if ultimately people need to see your brand, I've heard a million different numbers but like three to eight times before they want to buy, let's say, it's really just about to knock it off some of those times in whatever the most cost-efficient way is. And this is the, to my earlier point around experimentation testing and analyzing in a retrospective way, you can never stop experimenting. If you only put your eggs in the Facebook basket, what if they changed their algorithm? What if the cost to acquire goes up too much? You have to build a more differentiated marketing strategy.

And at least for us, part of that was, and it's continually part of it, but is differentiating that top of funnel awareness play. And I think some of that we test different sponsored things where press certainly is useful and then there's a lot of other things we've done billboards, we do catalog, I'm a believer that you want to have a broad spectrum of things you use even retail by the way. In my mind, it is a top of the funnel engagement tool. It's a billboard that sells products.

Austin Brawner: Yeah. It's really interesting to see how different brands interplay different top of funnel marketing and-

Ashley Merrill: Yeah.

Austin Brawner: ...I'm self find something like like Facebook and Instagram that works right? Scale it up really high and then it's a big question of what's the next channel that's going to work.

Ashley Merrill: I mean, I also think you have to be sensitive to the product you sell. Not every product works the same way every time. Glossier I think one of the things that were so great with them is once they got their product in the hands of all the beauty YouTubers it was really great because that's all ready... People are used to watching makeup applications through YouTube videos and so they could find this natural audience that already existed and tap into it in a really great way.

Unlike Girlfriend, the legging company when they basically gave away free... I'm air quoting which you can't see, but gave away free leggings but they charged a huge amount for shipping and so you had this situation where they basically built their top of funnel by giving away free products but I'm sure they made that product, makes sense from a cost standpoint but it was great because they basically went, "What's the best way to market our product?" And they went, "We're so confident in our product, let's get it to a lot of people."

And I think there's, outdoor voices does a great job with their events and community engagement. And I think there's so many brands that have done really cool techniques. And I mean, I hate techniques because it feels almost cold and calculating, it's not really that it's almost like it leaned into whatever is natural for them. Like our billboards, we did a whole bunch of billboards didn't show any product at all, and they said, "I don't buy sleeper because," and it would list out some kind of reason an example would be, "Because how else would, I ran a 5K 10 years ago. I don't buy sleep wear because I like wearing holiday flannels make me feel festive all year round."

And I didn't need pictures because everybody saw that and they related to it. They're like, "Ah, this is me." And it was just funny. And so I think you can find so many different ways depending on what your product is and I do think it's really useful to maintain, stay fluid and don't assume that just because one thing worked for somebody else that that makes sense for you and your brand.

Austin Brawner: I think that's so important. And one thing that I've said before on the podcast is if you hear some example that somebody shares that you think it's going to be really valuable for you because it matches up with your brand, don't listen to other podcasts or don't listen to anything else until you try it.

Ashley Merrill: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, exactly. And you only know by trying. And so when we test things like sponsored content and all that I think you recognize you're into a mutual partnership, right? The person I'm testing with knows that if it doesn't perform or provide value to us, we won't continue. So you have these situations where as much as possible you want to structure it like a partnership so that they are aligned that, "Hey, I'm a longterm spender with you if I can get X, Y, and Z results."

And we're pretty clear with people on what good look like. And I think that's also really important because even when you advertise to places, when you start thinking of more of an advertorial type of a sense, they're partners. They want you to wins because they know that, that's the only way you're going to come back and continue to do business with them.

Andrew Foxwell: Thinking about, as we wrap things up here to be conscious of your time, as you said, you're working with a lot of other entrepreneurs and you're funding those businesses and you're helping them work through things. What's something today that is maybe a couple of tactics or something that you feel is underutilized if people aren't necessarily taking advantage of that for companies that are doing one to 5 million a year in revenue could be taking better advantage or could really impact things for them. And that could be marketing, it could be content, I don't know. What do you think that is?

Ashley Merrill:
I'm thinking about that stage of a business and I'm thinking about, what tends to happen at least happened for us at that stage was it was still a relatively small team. For us, at that stage, we were probably still sub 10 people. And so we were all doers. We were all literally in the personality profiles, almost every one of them had doer in it. And so one of the things that's tricky about that is that you don't take a lot of time and my new obsession is processed and early on goal orientation.

And so I think what happens is you don't take a lot of time to analyze your processes the way you work, the goals you're setting and how you're approaching them because everybody is just so busy trying to churn things out. I will say if you can take some time and you can step back for a second and almost force yourself, like leave the office, book a day so that people don't bother you and really go, for me, it would be an example, it'd be, how do we put a product line? Let me define this. Let's build a RACI chart that connects back to it. So people are clear, like who's responsible? Who's accountable? What's their role in that meeting? And literally breaking down every step of the process.

I think because I was so busy doing, and frankly, this has been a gift that COVID gave me was I was forced into having fewer interruptions. And so when that happened it gave me the ability to pull up as I probably should have been doing a long time ago and thinking a lot more deeply around how we work. And there's so much you can do when you really take that time or if you take the time, you might need fewer people. You might be more efficient. You'll probably be going to produce a better product with fewer mistakes. You're going to serve your customers better.

And so I will say one of the things I think it's easy to undervalue while you're just hustling early on is the importance of clarity around goals, around how you work, around even accountability and all these things which feel very unsexy, but they actually make... In my experience that the team feels much happier because they know what they're supposed to be doing and what great looks like so they can actually really focused on that versus this endless doing treadmill that you end up on.

Austin Brawner: I think that's a really great piece of advice. It reminds me of, we did an episode with a guy named Mike Danner, who is [crosstalk 00:42:26]-

Ashley Merrill: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Austin Brawner: ...that Dr. Axe now Ancient Nutrition, he's been there through the entire growth process. And he said that if you're attracting people to you to follow you, if you either give them a bigger challenge or a bigger vision. And the more clarity around both the challenge and the vision that you have then people can align with you. And it sounds like a lot of what you're talking about is getting clear around those things. Hey, this has been an excellent conversation. Thank you so much for hopping on and taking some time to chat through your growth story and share some of your wisdom that you picked up. If someone wants to learn more about you or what would be the best place you could direct them to?

Ashley Merrill: So if you want to follow my journey, it's Ashley double underscore Merrill, M-E-R-R-I-L-L, and that's on Instagram. And then if you want to follow along to go to Lunya, L-U-N-Y-A.co, and Lahgo L-A-H-G-O.co that's the websites. And then both brands are independently on Instagram at Lunya or Lahgo. And so I think that's the best way to stay up with what the companies are doing. So definitely check us out.

Austin Brawner: Cool. Thank you so much.

Ashley Merrill: Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time. This has been really fun.

Andrew Foxwell: Thank you.

 

Austin Brawner: What's up everybody. Welcome back to another episode of the Ecommerce Influence podcast. My name is Austin Brawner.

Andrew Foxwell: And I'm Andrew Foxwell and yeah, I'm really feeling really good about all of the incredible discussions you've got going on over in the coalition.

Form Image

33 Tools & Apps The Fastest-Growing Brands Are Using Right Now

Enter your email to access this list of killer tools for scaling up your ecommerce business

Please enter a valid name and email