From hidden fees and cramped conditions to inconsiderate staff and bad food, the experience of air travel, for lack of a better word, sucks. In this week’s episode, Bill uses the airline industry as an example to evaluate the value of seeking, and the risks of neglecting, a great customer experience as well as its impact on brand loyalty. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding. I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. This is One Big Idea and we’re calling this the Not So Friendly Skies for a couple of reasons. I hope and pledge that this will actually be an idea, and not just a rant about how much air travel sucks. That is very present in my thinking, given a trip to and from LA last week.
There’s also an article, that recently came out from the American Customer Satisfaction Index that ranks these things annually. The article had newly updated rankings for a variety of brands across travel, dining, hospitality, and other consumer products. It found, not surprisingly, that the airline industry continues to be a laggard when it comes to overall customer satisfaction. Southwest and JetBlue are the highest, but they are well below the level of other leadership brands. Then you find the rest of the marketplace being far lower and also the overall airline category being really low. In fact, one of the lowest categories that is studied in this overall index.
The slight increase that they saw from year to year, in terms of customer satisfaction with the airline industry and with several specific large scale airline brands, they attribute to a couple of things. One, the fact of lower fuel costs has led to low fares remaining low. In some cases, getting lower. Some airlines, I think American, brought back free snacks in the form of a little bag of 6 mini pretzels or whatever the case may be. Not to mention that American and US Airways have gotten some of the craziness out of the way in terms of the merger immigration, systems, and affinity programs, etc. that are working a little better. There is a variety of reasons why there may have been a slight uptick in the satisfaction scores year over year, but the bottom line is that the airline industry still, at least on customer satisfaction measures, is a horrific performer.
As someone who’s a moderate to frequent traveler, I know exactly why that is. It’s very unpleasant, at every touch point. Really, the exciting thing of course is getting off the plane, looking at your watch, and realizing that you’re going to get off in 15, 20 minutes, whatever the case may be.
In satisfaction, or when it comes to net promoter scores or other measures of satisfaction, you can get to a decent level – let’s say it’s a 1 to 10 scale. You can probably get to 5, 6, 7, even 8 by just delivering crisply, by being polite, by communicating well, by being transparent, by doing more or less what you said you’re going to do, from a brand perspective. As we know getting the 9 or 10 and real advocacy reaching that kind of level, the pantheon of well-regarded and well-loved brands is not just about the product. It’s about the experience as a whole.
I’ve talked on this podcast, but certainly to colleagues and clients as well about an experience we had in our family. When my wife gave birth to our first child who’s now five years old. When you go into that experience at the hospital, what you’re really looking for is obviously, everything to go well. Everyone to be safe and healthy and happy. That happened. The care that she received was fabulous. Coming out of that experience we ranked that very positively, but then when it came time to sleep there for the day or 2 on the back end of the delivery, she was in a room with a roommate, the room wasn’t very nice, the roommate was noisy. The overall experience, I mean listen, we weren’t going in expecting the Ritz, goodness knows. Coming in we’re just like, ‘10 fingers, 10 toes everyone’s happy, smiling, healthy.’ That’s what we need. That’s the dream here. Coming out we’re like, ‘Well that happened and it’s great, but you know what this was really unpleasant in a lot of ways.’
All this is to say that to really get to 9’s and 10’s in customer satisfaction you have to deliver not only product but experience. Now the airlines don’t get anywhere close to that as the data indicates at this point. Airlines deal with the literal customer journey. They are taking people to different places. The interaction with an airline brand and with the travel experience begins long before flight attendants or listening to pilots over the loud speaker. Along the way, airlines have made both individually, and en masse, seemingly an endless drumbeat of anti-consumer decisions, in terms of fees, in terms of smaller travel berth in cubic inches, things like that. Again, it isn’t a surprise that you’re seeing these scores.
I understand in many ways why this is on the financial side of it. Consumers want lower fares. This is how they get them, or how they keep them low. Spirit Airlines was the lowest performing customer satisfaction brand, at least in the airline category. Their Spokesperson, CEO, and marketing folks have long said, ‘You know what, it isn’t going to be great but the reason it isn’t great is because unlike other airlines that make you pay for things that you don’t want or need, we’re going to keep the fares as low as we can. Make the overall thing no frills, because we think that’s ultimately what you want and charge you a la carte for different things.’ Either way, customer satisfaction for Spirit and for others was very low. They made this bargain and they perform lowest on satisfaction and overall low performing category.
Again, I get it. There is a challenging cost structure in the airline industry. There are plenty of examples of airlines performing, at least in terms of passenger travel, at decent capacity levels yet not performing financially. There’s labor cost issues, there’s uncontrollable elements, to a degree, like fuel costs. There’s a lot of issues related to just the financial structure of running an airline, I get it.
I don’t mean this as a joke question. In the airline industry when it comes to an individual flight that one person may take on one day, competition is minimal. There aren’t multiple carriers often or if there are, the price difference is significant, the timing difference is significant. This isn’t about walking down the aisle of grocery store and choosing which detergent you want. The choice factor here remains minimal for a lot of structural reasons. Industry-wide costs are high and they’re borne by everyone. It’s very difficult to make a profit within this financial structure.
This isn’t a joke question. Ultimately, what financial value would an executive place on customer satisfaction being high, brand goodwill being high, brand loyalty being high? They use affinity programs to create brand loyalty and lock in brand loyalty beyond smiles and happiness.
On the other hand, there is some choice here. We do see brands like Southwest and Virgin and JetBlue, to a degree, being liked and that translating into financial performance. Southwest is legendary, in a lot of ways, for breaking the mold of the industry cost structure. Being able to operate in a leaner way to get more versatility from their work force and have a happier workforce. That certainly shows, you certainly feel it, the strength of that culture. Again, is that worth it financially for others to make significant investments and improving the customer experience?
Another thing that should not be forgotten is that, in the airline industry often, while specific brand’s goodwill may not be strongly in evidence with a couple of exceptions, the airline industry as a whole has relied on the goodwill on the American people from time to time when it comes to things like bailouts, when it comes to things like regulation of the sort that congress may be seeking to to put onto the backs of airlines as they operate. They have relied on and they often rely on the American citizenry as being supportive of the industry. We shouldn’t forget the fact that overall goodwill as a category does matter. It certainly matters at critical moments when it comes to inflection points for the industry.
I was thinking about this more deeply when I was flying to and from LA, and there has been many years of doing this. You’re sitting there and reeling from all the calamities that may have happened on the way to the plane – in terms of being late and nobody knowing what’s happening and nobody wanting to tell you. Then you stand in this long, sweaty line and everyone is pushing. The overall thing is just very unpleasant and then you get on and you’re like, ‘Oh great, I’ve got 6 hours.’ You want to try to sleep or you want to be productive but WiFi is super expensive. Talk about a brand with Gogo, good grief.
Anyway, everybody knows that. I don’t have to go through the litany of this. There you are and you’re settled in and maybe you’re in a bit of a relaxed state. Then all of a sudden, a flight attendant comes on the loud speaker trying to sell you a credit card. I mean, good heavens. The way that they’re trying to sell it to you, they’re obviously not engaged in the pitch. They’re told to do this. It’s part of their ritual, it’s part of their checklist. They’re not reading this offer with any feeling and the way the offer is written is about, ‘Hey, just for you. Today it’s a special.’ We know that’s not true. You hear it every time. Every single time you fly, you hear it. Maybe they change up cadence but it’s written in a very schlocky direct marketing way.
I happen to actually have the card. It’s not a bad deal, the American Airlines version of it. Not a bad deal at all, if you fly a lot. If you’re a consumer and you’re not suspicious of this, by the way that they’re reading it and the way that they’re treating you and how they walk down the aisle, slowly looking over their glasses, holding out. Trying to catch your gaze and watching you avert it as they have these applications in their hands. I mean good heavens.
Not a bad deal, again, but horribly presented and someone somewhere within the airline structure decided that any additional revenue that they can bleed out of consumers through this opportunity should override the impact of customer goodwill, and the impact on brand dilution, and brand strength. If you fundamentally create brand loyalty by an unspoken compact that a brand has ‘got your back,’ this is the opposite of that. My rule has always been, and you look at freecreditreport.com and others, if in order to sell something to you, the seller must conceal what it does or how much it costs, you’re probably not being consumer friendly, ultimately.
That’s how it feels in every touch, in a lot of ways with airlines, but certainly when it comes things like this. They’ve finally given you 6 measly pretzels and the cost of that is you’ve got sit here and listen to this pitch and have it inflicted on you. Basically be, lied to is too strong a word, but, ‘This special deal just for fliers on Flight 804,” or whatever the hell it is.
Certainly in the UK and Western Europe it has been evoked to value brand equity on a balance sheet. We don’t really do that much here in the US, financially. We study it but it’s treated in some ways as a soft brand asset – of course, we at Finch believe, it’s anything but.
What’s the right balance here? How can you, if you’re looking at an airline which is a very unwieldy and complex organization, certainly, how do you sync up and manage it in a true, meaningful, progressive way that customer journey when you have so many people involved, so many dispersed functions? Often in many cases, there is a union situation so that the corporate ability to say, ‘Here are the rules. Follow them. You’ll be managed against those metrics and against the dashboard of how well you delivered this.’ It is not as linear as it might be in an environment where you’re not dealing with personnel. Then you certainly have TSA as a part of this. You certainly have local airport folks who are part of this, so there is a maximum ability to control the brand perspective of an airline. But how do you sync up these touch points in a way, if you really do want to progress the journey and you really associate value well with this brand loyalty and goodwill, how do you fundamentally do it?
I’ll stop there. I’m babbling about this but it was fresh in my mind reading this article. As well as just experiencing yet again, horror may be too strong a word, but certainly the unpleasantness interpersonally, physically, emotionally of flying back and forth coast to coast last week.
As always, 3 ways to do so, if you’d like to help us here at Real-World Branding. Let’s have a dialogue on Twitter. Please if you feel we’ve earned it, rate us in the App Store of your choice. Then subscribe so you do not miss a week of what we do here. We do one week on, in terms of interviews with brand and business builders that go deep, and then one week where I just ramble. Hopefully, not as much as I’m rambling today, but I appreciate your indulgence. We will sign off with all the best to you for a wonderful week from the Cradle of Liberty.
When used correctly, technology can enrich brand experiences. In this week’s episode, Nicole Staple, Co-Founder of Brideside, shares her insight into the how optimizing the customer journey has helped her company provide a better experience for bridesmaids. If you like our podcast, please subscribe and leave us a rating!Podcast: Play in new window | Download Subscribe: iTunes | RSS
Nicole Staple: First of all, the millennial woman and the millennial consumer really values brand and she really values that emotional connection to the brand that she’s buying from. So we knew that was going to be very important.
Bill Gullan: Greetings one and all, this is Real-World Branding and I’m Bill Gullan, President of Finch Brands, a premier boutique branding agency. Today, a conversation with Nicole Staple. Nicole is a co-founder of Brideside, which is a fascinating, progressively multi-channel business that at least started by focusing on a better experience for bridesmaids’ dresses. If any of you have sisters, or spouses, or are yourself a woman who has been a bridesmaid, you will relate to the horror stories that one always hears about bridesmaids’ dresses. And so Nicole and her partner Sonali [Lamba] went out to change that.
What they’ve built is a very very, again to use the word, progressive, approach which includes certainly an e-commerce piece and they have that national scale through e-commerce. It does include a physical showroom, has a really innovative try-at-home program that e-tailers are using to kind of blur the lines and close the loop on the customer journey and she’ll tell you about it and do it much more justice than I ever could. Nicole Staple, founder of Brideside.
Bill: We’re joined by Nicole Staple, the founder of Brideside. Nicole, thank you for your time.
Nicole: No, thank you. It’s great to be here.
Bill: Is holiday a big time for you all? I would imagine that a lot of the events that people are purchasing from you for is a summertime type of thing, although not exclusively, but obviously many e-commerce and retailers, holiday is it. Is your business really seasonal like that?
Nicole: You know, it’s not. It shouldn’t be necessarily seasonal as people in our category aren’t buying for the holidays. With that being said, people are buying 4-6 months before their wedding, so it’s funny you should ask that as a first question because we’re doing this interview on December 1st. Actually, November was our biggest month ever in the history of the company. Largely actually driven by Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
Bill: That’s great.
Nicole: So we are coming off a really big month and are just really excited internally here.
Bill: Congrats. We will do a virtual hoisting of the glass or whatever in your honor. Why do we still call it Cyber Monday, by the way? Nobody calls it cyber space. We should probably rename Cyber Monday.
Nicole: I don’t know. It’s so silly. We are a big fan of Mondays. We do #MaidsMonday. So maybe we should just call it Super MaidsMonday or something.
Bill: Awesome. Not to get ahead of ourselves, your journey to where you are, the paths, the twists, the turns, I won’t steal it, but involved in finance and venture capital, going to grad school, could you take us sort of through the career journey up to this point and kind of how you landed here at Brideside?
Nicole: Sure. Absolutely. I went to Wellesley College outside of Boston, it’s an all-women’s college. Early on, I had pretty strong passion for, at the time, economics and business. I come from a family of entrepreneurs, so it was always something that was at the forefront of my mind. Particularly, going to Wellesley where there’s the messaging of women who constantly were taught to really break through glass ceilings and enter into non-traditional industries for women, which even just a few years ago, women in doing technology startups was even more unrepresented than it is now.
I always had that sort of fire in the belly, but I didn’t really know where to apply it. Like every good college graduate in the early 2000s, I went into investment banking and actually was in the healthcare industry. The funny story there and one moment that completely changed my career trajectory was when I was on my final round interviews in college for my investment banking job, I sat next to this man and he started chatting with me. He asked me ‘If you could do anything in the world, what would it be?’ I was like, ‘This is ironic, because I’m going to this interview for this job that I’m pretty sure is going to be terrible.’ It turns out that guy was Jeff Pulver, he was actually a pioneer in voice-over IP, and an incredibly well known investor and start-up guru.
That conversation ended up changing my complete trajectory. He’s still someone I keep in touch with and I knew that when I went into finance that I wouldn’t be there for very long, but I needed to figure out how to get to where I wanted to go. After doing investment banking for two years, I decided that I wasn’t quite ready to start a company because I had no operating experience and I really didn’t know anything about start-ups. Back then, in New York City, there wasn’t really the Silicon Alley that there is there today.
I got a job at a venture capital firm. The venture capital arm of Silicon Valley Bank, actually, SVB Capital and moved out to Palo Alto. That’s really where this entire path was born for me and Silicon Valley was incredibly inspirational. It allowed me to learn about the growth path of early stage tech start-ups. It allowed me to build a really strong network, and from there I went to business school knowing that someday I’d probably be in this position.
Although, at the time, I was much more focused on social enterprises. I helped launch a national non-profit chapter here in Chicago before business school, was pretty involved in the social enterprise space while at Kellogg, but always kept my ear to the ground in technology and Brideside was born out of my time at Kellogg, which is another story as well.
Bill: To that end, someone with a really strong finance background who was an economics person, at least undergrad, Kellogg has such a strong reputation across disciplines, but we hear of it a lot in the marketing and consumer packaged goods realm. I know that you’re concentration was innovation and entrepreneurship. Was there some grand plan at work in terms of why Kellogg made sense for you versus anywhere else? Was it that you liked the campus or other people you met?
Nicole: I did have a boyfriend who lived in Chicago at the time.
Nicole: Although, I don’t like saying that. I had a little bit more of a focus on the Chicago area, but I was actually deciding between Chicago Booth University of Chicago and Kellogg at the time. The reason I chose Kellogg in many ways is one of the reasons that I think Brideside has been so successful. Some of what you mentioned, Kellogg does have a reputation in marketing and CPG, but it’s actually broader than that in that they’re really, really good at teaching students to think about their customer first.
For us, that was the way we were. That was the lens with which we were taught everything that we learned. That’s really, really important. I chose Kellogg. The culture seemed great. I actually liked that it wasn’t known for ‘finance’ because I wanted something different. If I were choosing Kellogg today, it would even be completely different. They’ve completely overhauled their curriculum towards more of an innovation and entrepreneurship focus. I told my husband last night ‘I think I would have saved a year of my life had I gone to Kellogg now and launched a company,’ because it’s amazing. I think every business school is starting to teach much more practical courses around how to start and scale a start-up.
Bill: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think what we can take from your journey, among other things, is that you’re smart. Which brings us to Brideside, and anyone who’s ever either been a bridesmaid or has friends or siblings who have been bridesmaids, spouses, has certainly heard the ballad of the bridesmaid when it comes to dresses and everyone’s got to wear teal, and you never get to wear it again, and you have to pay for it, and you’re an afterthought, and you can’t choose. Tell us about the founding thesis for Brideside and how all this came to you and you knew that this was what you wanted to build.
Nicole: To your point, Brideside was definitely born out of personal experience. Actually, my co-founder Sonali was planning her wedding while applying to business school, and she had 14 bridesmaids in her wedding. She was relatively young when she got married and she experienced the emotional turmoil that goes with coordinating women of different body types, personalities, and all of that. She came in to Kellogg thinking about the wedding industry.
She often tells the story that she showed her wedding planner Google Docs and her wedding planner had never seen such a thing. Her mind was blown, and she was actually one of the most well-known wedding planners in the Orlando area. Sonali was like ‘You know what? There’s something here.’
Bill: Yeah, there’s an opportunity we have to progress how this category works, right?
Nicole: Exactly. When I joined, I really didn’t want anything to do with the wedding industry. I was like, ‘You know, I know a little bit about start-ups from the investing side, so I can maybe help, but I’m not sure I’m really going to be involved.’ Once I started building up the financial model and we started truly working on it together, a lot of things came to light for me which convinced me that this was the right business to jump into.
Bridesmaids, there’s a very clear pain point, right? There are women that live all over the country. They have to coordinate all of these purchases. There’s a very clear pain point there and they spend a lot of money. We felt it emotionally, and we wanted to solve that problem that we are feeling. Bigger than that, bridesmaids really, there’s a Trojan horse for the entire bridal retail industry, which is a 14 billion dollar industry. Bridesmaids’ dresses make up just under 2 billion of that, so its really just part of that bigger story.
For us, at the time, 98% of retail transactions were happening offline in this industry. It was incredibly antiquated. It hadn’t evolved with the way that women like us were shopping, and there were some business components of this industry that made it really interesting to us. The first was that there are incredible network effects among these groups of women.
We had historically heard that customer acquisition costs in the bridal industry is incredibly high. It’s really hard to get a bride’s eyeballs online. It’s a very long purchase cycle, it’s a one time purchase. It’s just really tough. Everyone told us ‘Don’t do it’. We said, ‘Okay, if we can get these women to love us, there are 8 of them that buy at one time. So while we might spend a lot to get the bride, we’re getting 8 purchases out of it, and all those women are either going to get married themselves or be in other weddings.’ Then you start to have this sort of viral coefficient and word of mouth that starts to spread, and actually makes a unit economics of a bridal party quite attractive.
The other part of it is what’s super cool about this industry, for people that know retail, is that bridesmaids’ dresses, in many ways, is still a cut to order industry. We only carry inventory for our home try on program, which makes the working capital of starting the business in this space really interesting, because then you really can focus working capital on customer experience, technology, and marketing, and not so much on the inventory and overhead risk of that side of the business. We still operate that way. We don’t place the final order with the manufacturer until the entire bridal party has ordered, which is pretty cool.
Bill: You obviously have a strong grasp, not surprisingly, of both the emotional side of this and the economic fundamentals that drive the category and in particular, these types of purchases. Back to that sort of softer side, being true to the name of our podcast, could you take us back to when you all were starting out? You had the idea, you gamed it out financially, and the time came to think through the name, the identity, and the brand personality. How was the thinking and how did it evolve on that?
Nicole: We knew that we needed a really fresh approach, from a brand perspective, to this market. Some of what I mentioned to you before, what comes to mind when you think of wedding boutiques, for example? At least what came to our mind was appointment only, expensive, rude salespeople. When you looked, at the time, at what was offered online really was nothing. It was these discount retail sites, websites that looked like they were built in the early 90s. It was a complete mess.
Back to what Kellogg taught us, which was really customer first and brand first, the first thing we did was tons of focus groups and tons of data collection on our customer. What we realized is that, first of all, the millennial woman and the millennial consumer really values brand and she really values that emotional connection to the brand that she is buying from. So we knew that was going to be very important. What we also learned early on was that it was really stress, emotional stress, which was driving the dissatisfaction in this industry. We knew that every part of our experience, from the user experience online, to the way that we communicated to the customer, to the products that we offered, and to the pricing needed to focus on removing that stress and drama from the purchase process. What we say now, and that way that this identity has evolved, is that we’re here to provide peace of mind to wedding parties.
We say internally that we want to be the exhale that every wedding party feels when they walk down the aisle. When you come to Brideside, you want to feel at ease. You want to feel taken care of, you want to enjoy the journey and this moment because it’s an incredibly emotional time. It’s important to the bride, it’s important to her friends, so she shouldn’t have to think about the coordination aspects, and that’s what we want to remove from her plate so that she can really enjoy the emotional experience of getting married.
Bill: The name, as one artifact of that brand development process, is a great example of ‘nailing it’. It rhymes; it has sort of a great acoustic rhythm to the way that it sounds. It speaks to, as you say, being on the bride’s side – if you’re a bridesmaid, being by the bride’s side. It really kind of checks all the boxes, and obviously you’re able to own it and use it in the digital sphere. Was that name sort of a thunderbolt or was it a painful laborious brainstorming process? How did you settle there?
Nicole: It was a little bit painful, I’m not going to lie. Actually, if I’m going to be totally honest with you, the name was originally Bella B. That was our project name, our working name when we were at Kellogg. We were sitting around a kitchen table drinking wine one night, brainstorming all of these names, and Sonali’s husband, from the kitchen, who was cooking dinner – actually, I think he was playing video games. Not even thinking about anything, he screamed over ‘What about Brideside?’
Bill: That’s perfect, that’s the right way to do it. You play some Grand Theft Auto and you figure out the name, that’s super cool. There’s so many stories of coming to great things that way, whether it’s names or other things. That’s really funny. She was married when this happened, were you also? If I may pry.
Nicole: No, no. I was not married. I got married just about a year ago. I met my husband at Kellogg. I had only been through this experience as a bridesmaid before, and she actually only been through it as a bride. She hadn’t yet been a bridesmaid. It was interesting experiences and point of views that were coming together.
Bill: Yeah, perfect, and having 14 bridesmaids, she’s either too popular or doesn’t want to make tough choices, but either way.
Nicole: I’ll leave that to her to comment on.
Bill: Fair enough. You mentioned a few, in the try it home program, obviously Warby Parker and other kind of retail pioneers are driving this and really connecting a bridge between traditional pure e-commerce and all the other things that are important in an experience like this. You have the try at home piece, you do, I believe, have several showrooms in the Chicago area, obviously, you have the e-commerce storefront. Given the channels involved here, the touchpoints in your business model, how do you think about the customer journey as you choreograph what it feels like for her, to deliver all the things that we know are important to the brand?
Nicole: This is an incredibly good question. I’m glad you’re asking it. It was very insightful for you to ask this question because, in fact, the customer journey, in my opinion, is our biggest competitive differentiation, and in many ways is where we’ve positioned in this market by having the best understanding of the customer journey.
Our product really is the way that we manage the customer journey, almost more so than what we sell, it’s how we sell it. We often call it our bookend. The bookend being how you reach your customer and how you sell to the customer, and the book in the middle being what you sell. Which is sometimes to us, it’s less hard than figuring out the customer journey. Around the customer experience and understanding, from start to finish, it’s an incredibly long sale cycle. It required us to have and to manage a bunch of different touchpoints, and what was important to us is that every part of the company aligned around the customer journey we were trying to build. That’s our front-end technology, that’s our internal business processes, that’s even our organizational structure.
The way that we think about it through our sales funnel is a combination of online, offline, and human touch. We have a team of internal style consultants. It is one of the pieces of the business we’re most proud of. Every bridal party that signs up on the site, regardless of where they live, is assigned a style consultant. That style consultant can manage up to 300 or 400 active bridal parties at any given time.
Our communication tools, our internal technology, and funnel management systems allow them to easily understand and have the right data to personalize their messaging, to make sure they’re touching people at the right point during that process. Then the offline piece, our headquarters is in the West Loop of Chicago, and here we have one big showroom with multiple fitting rooms. That experience is incredibly complementary to the online piece, because if the bride lives in Chicago, or maybe she’s here for a weekend to visit her sister, she can come in, meet her style consultant face to face, and then use her online account and her bridesmaids that live in other places can use our home try on program to still go through that same concierge process and have the same style consultant that the bride met that first day in the showroom. Everything is actually very complementary and provides this really smooth experience for the customer.
Bill: Yeah, that’s super smart. Obviously this is a business with the digital piece of this that scales geographically, you mentioned the fact that everyone’s all over the place, all over the country and all over the world. What is the incidence of the actual live showroom participation within the customer base? Is it a big chunk of it?
Nicole: About 20% of our customers touch the showroom.
Bill: That’s a lot. That’s great.
Nicole: Yeah. In the stage where we are now, where we just have really this one offline showroom, that’s about where we want it. We’ll see as we think about geographic expansion. Chicago’s actually the biggest wedding market in the country, and it’s really this hub for the Midwest. They often say if you win the Midwest, you win the rest.
Bill: Right. If it plays in Peoria, right, perfectly. One of the things that may be part, and don’t tell me things that are private or that you don’t want to tell me, just slap my wrist through the phone. That full sort of authentic Brideside experience, by the way the showroom obviously isn’t required to have a great experience but does seem to enhance it, possible geographic expansion around, bricks and mortar isn’t exactly the right term, but I mean, is it an important part of the expansion strategy to think about more showrooms in more places?
Nicole: Absolutely. Yeah. Weddings are actually not as seasonal as you would think. Nationally. They are seasonally by geography. When you think about how to balance out that seasonality throughout the year to build a really big consistent and stable business throughout the year, and not just in certain months of the year, that’s where you think about geo-targeting.
Bill: Makes sense. That is maybe one piece of it, and again, feel free to keep secrets secret, of course. When you think about the growth path from here, some of the major hurdles, the significant opportunities that the size of this category, the foothold that you’re gaining within it, major topics that are on your plate and that of the team? Obviously, there’s continual demand generation and awareness and conversion, all of the normal mechanics of this, but what are the kind of top of the table types of topics that you’re dealing with at this point?
Nicole: This year, recently, the second half of this year, we’ve almost quadrupled the size of our style consultant team, or our sales team. That has been managing that growth and keeping our culture and everything that, moving to a new space, everything that goes with increasing headcount so rapidly has been a big focus as we started to near the end of 2015 and we’re on-track to triple revenue this year over last year.
So it’s been really successful. When we look into 2016, now that we really have this model down, there are a bunch of cool things in the pipes. One that is very public now is the launch of our new exclusive collection with an incredibly hot bridal gown designer out of New York City called Kelly Faetanini. So we launched the Altar Ego Collection, A-L-T-A-R Collection with Kelly. It’s actually a new concept in bridesmaids’ dresses. It’s a series of short dresses and long skirts that can be worn together or separately for lots of different types of looks, so it plays into that idea of mix and match, it plays into re-wearability and it’s something that’s exclusive to Brideside. Not only the actual dresses, but also the concept was really differentiated and really cool and different to the industry.
When we think about how do we stay ahead of the market, I think all the proprietary technology we’re building both on mobile and desktop and in our showroom is important, but also exclusive product and collaborations is incredibly important as well. That’s heading to the New Year, we’re also thinking about new product categories. We recently launched men’s accessories; socks, bow ties, pocket squares to help with color matching and the stylist then has more tools in her toolbox to help up sell that bridal party on different things that help them complete the look. We also just launched flower girl dresses, so we’re thinking about now how can we really leverage that personal concierge experience that we’re providing to sell more items to the bride and help make her life ultimately easier.
Bill: Yeah, and part of that is making sure that when her bridesmaids look as great as they do that the groomsmen are not a bunch of schlubs here-
Bill: You got to measure up. We got to get the cuff links done, we got to get everything done.
Nicole: Totally, totally.
Bill: Historically, one of the reasons why this is so interesting, in addition to it being just super smart given anecdotal experience hearing from angry, disaffected bridesmaids over and over, is that, as you say, the traditional bridal channel, where they’re selling the dress to the bride, is antiquated but seemingly the primary way since forever and ever. There are economic reasons for that, but do you think that this ultimately gets to the gown, or are we really focused on the concierge sort of constellation of services around that central gown piece? If you don’t want to answer, feel free not to.
Nicole: It’s a great question, and it’s hard to know. For a bride that’s a bit more casual, we actually sell her some of our more formal dresses now as the gown. The gown is definitely much harder, and there are several real players that have entered that space in the consignment space, which I think is very cool, and are helping brides lower the cost that way. To be honest, it’s probably pretty far out. I think there are other things that make more sense for us, but you never know.
Bill: For the traditional gown experience, obviously the more showrooms you have the greater the potential to deliver, glass of champagne, hopefully not the snooty women working there but the positives of that experience.
Bill: Super interesting concept and the growth that you’re experiencing and obviously the way you all think about this is very progressive, and it’s a breath of fresh air for a category that seems to have desperately needed it.
Bill: When you look back at both the art and science of building this company, and all the other things that you’ve achieved, I’m sure that many of our listeners, in addition to furiously Googling or entering Brideside into their mobile browsers, are also saying ‘Wow, this woman is awesome and very inspirational.’ From your career path, for those who have been inspired by it, a couple of words of wisdom or sort of rules that you followed as you’ve built this incredible career?
Nicole: I think one of the biggest learnings for me is that this is really a marathon and not a sprint. We went through a tech incubator. You probably know this, Dreamit Ventures in the Fall of 2012 and I’ve been in your offices before, obviously. At that time, thinking back to those days when you see all the momentum that builds around articles in TechCrunch and massive fundraising rounds, it is incredibly easy to get caught up in that and have the expectation that your business is going to go from 0 to hero in less than 12 months.
My attitude is that’s actually how really strong, long-lasting businesses are built. It takes a lot of testing and a lot of fundamentals to lay the infrastructure for the business you really want to build. The first thing, and I think this is a very Chicago attitude as well, is just really keep your head down. The longer that you are plugging away at your business and tweaking things and fixing things and testing things, and just keep going at it and figuring out the right solution and hanging in there, the better you’re getting at honing your own business model. The more competitive you’re inherently making your own business by becoming an expert at the field that you’re in.
That’s really important for us, is just staying really heads down and just staying focused on the fundamentals. With that, I think it’s important to set the right milestones for your business. What are the right metrics that are going to determine your success? We got some great advice very early on from a well known venture capitalist who said, ‘Strip away everything that money can buy and find the thing in your business that you can do right that doesn’t need a lot of money to do. That’s your secret sauce.’
We focused on that a lot, in a lot of our key performance indicators and a lot of the internal milestones that we set for ourselves are really focused on that. We challenge ourselves to not always just think about top line, for example. Many times, top line is the most important thing, but there are underlying levers in our business that might be more important. How can we set appropriate milestones for ourselves that we know in every given point in time if something is working or if it’s not? For someone that’s just starting a business, it’s important to know if you should keep working on the business or if you should not.
We’re not naïve about that. We’ve always, even times that we’ve had harder months or harder stretches of time where we said, ‘We don’t know if this is working’, we’ve said, ‘is this really not working? Are there things that we can find in the business that are working?’ By sticking with it and figuring out our own model and what makes us special, we’ve now seen a tremendous growth and tremendous success this year, I think, in many ways and I’m really glad that we stuck with it.
Bill: Yeah, that’s great. Do you and Sonali have a clearly defined division of labor? You were co-founders, you were friends, you were obviously business school colleagues that had a great respect for one another and warmth to the friendship, but how easy or how clear are those lines functionally within the company?
Nicole: They’re very clear, and one reason that I decided to jump on board with this company and to launch it with Sonali is because she was so tremendous and because we both had such clear strengths that were complementary and not competitive. Sonali operates, the lines are very split in that she operates essentially as COO and manages everything that services revenue. Everything from customer care to sales operation, she manages our whole technology team. She manages merchandising, all of that piece. I’m really head of growth, so I oversee sales goals in the sales team. I manage all of our marketing and fundraising and business development. That’s really actually how it’s been from the very beginning, so it worked out really well.
Bill: That’s great. You mentioned some of the growth that you’ve experienced on the stylist side as well as obviously throughout the company. When you look at, and again it obviously depends on the function, but when you are bringing new members of the team in, what are some of the characteristics that you’re looking for? What do you think can be taught versus what someone needs to walk in the door with to be a productive member and a happy member of the Brideside team?
Nicole: That’s the name of the game for us. Particularly given that we do have a sales force that’s a different sort of structure from a lot of tech businesses maybe. This is the coolest thing for me, personally. It’s been a challenge for me, and one that I really welcome, and has been super cool to learn about.
First and foremost, what a lot of people say is cultural fit is first. That’s the do you get to keep talking to us type thing. With us, what cultural fit means is incredibly down to earth, a little quirky, tends to be just very sort of flexible person. We need to see that you’re going to be okay with uncertainty. We try to get the best and the smartest talent we have, and often that means recruiting people from really top tier, brand name companies and asking them to take a 50% or more pay cut, right?
A lot of it is telling the right story to them to get them on board, and then making sure that they’re truly okay, that they have the gut for it. From there, particularly when it comes to our style consultant team, there are very different types of personalities that make a great saleswoman. Particularly here where they’re working with customers offline in a more traditional retail styling and online, where it requires them to be incredibly tech-savvy and understand how to analyze data. We’re really looking for unicorn-type people. We walk them through a series of case studies. We do a lot of mock appointments. We’re testing a lot of different right-left brain characteristics just to see do they have that perfect mix?
So far, we’ve had a pretty amazing retention rate. The team, I think, is tighter than ever. We often say one of our values internally for the style consultant team, we want to be a team of cool girls who sell you what they wear and tell you what no one else told them. We look for people that are honest, smart, witty, and can sort of play off that broader brand that we talked about earlier.
Bill: That’s great. We’ve overstayed our welcome in addition to me fiddling with the audio for what seemed like forever before we started, so thank you so much, particularly at this exciting moment, best month ever just completed, the excitement of the holiday season ahead. Really grateful for your insight and your time, I’m sure that coming out of this conversation our listeners will be incredibly excited to see where this career and this company goes, and really grateful for you sharing what you did.
Nicole: My pleasure. Thanks so much.
Bill: Nicole Staple, co-founder of Brideside, a fascinating business concept that just looking at her career and the way that she’s thought about obviously the practical elements of the business model, the financial model, the structure as well as the sort of emotional side of this, the why -the problem that needs to get solved, the thing that needs to be improved or done differently. Brideside is it in that category and it’s going to be a really, really fascinating story to watch unfold. If any of our listeners are in the market, I can guarantee you that you’ll have a great experience with Brideside.
Three ways to help us at Real World Branding, sound like a broken record here, but we’d love it if you’d give us a rating if we deserved it, I’ll mix up the order this week so we stay fresh. 4 or 5 stars if we do deserve it, and our skin is thick, so we certainly want to hear feedback. The best way to do that is on Twitter: @BillGullan or @FinchBrands. Ideas for future guests, ideas for future topics, questions to ask different guests, let’s keep the dialogue going. As noted, we are doing this in a humble way, learning every time. Both on the production side as well as certainly on the hosting side, so we’d love to hear feedback. Things that we’re doing well, things that we could do better to make this ever more valuable. Then, the third way to help us is to make sure you do not miss an episode by subscribing in the App store of your choice. Every other week we have an interview with a business and brand builder. In the off weeks, we have what’s called One Big Idea, where I focus on a particular topic and talk about it for 8, 9, 10 minutes based on our experience here at Finch, and what we’re seeing in the marketplace. That is about it. It’s hideous outside. Winter is coming. However, a great week to all of you, and in that spirit, we’ll sign off from the Cradle of Liberty.
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