We often hear of the “Cinderella Stories” or the “Unicorn” businesses in the news, but those stories are often puff pieces or PR spin that leave out a lot of the details. “Founder Stories” hopes to pull back the curtain and talk openly and honestly with the founders of successful companies.
Michelle Crawford was kind enough to be our very first guest for Founder Stories, and we were thrilled when she said she could join us.
Michelle is the co-founder of Society+, an eCommerce company focusing on plus-sized clothing for women. Since founding the company in 2014, Michelle and her co-founder, Jessica Kane, have been providing plus-sized women with stylish, fashion-forward clothing with a positive message. We spent some time with Michelle to talk about some of the successes and challenges she’s faced up to this point, as well as some of Society+’s goals for the coming year.
Filling a Need
Like any entrepreneur worth their salt, Michelle has an uncanny eye for identifying a gap in the marketplace. Before founding Society+, Michelle ran an eCommerce clothing store, but she didn’t carry plus-sized options. After hearing from countless customers about not being able to find anything for themselves on her site, she thought there had to be a way to serve this population of women.
After doing her research, she was shocked to discover that over 60% of women are plus-sized, but only 18% of inventory was available to them. Further, when she heard what other clothing brands were saying about plus-sized outfits, she was more than a little upset. Hearing the heads of big-name companies talk about how plus-sized women “diminish their brand” or “we only want the cool kids wearing our clothes,” Michelle said, “That is not okay.”
Society+ was born.
Michelle reached out to plus-sized fashion bloggers to see how she could help solve the problem. One of those bloggers was Jessica Kane. Jessica “got it,” and when she and Michelle started talking, they had a blast dissecting the market, making plans, and setting up suppliers.
“Our KPIs resulting from our beta period were through the roof, and we knew we were on to something.”
Aside from simply filling a market need, Michelle and Jessica sought to change the way plus-sized women are portrayed in advertising images and collateral. Michelle explains, “There is an unwritten rule in fashion that brand imagery should be ‘aspirational.’ The experts say that people purchase based on aspiring to be the person in photograph. But even with plus-sized companies, the ‘aspiration’ was always in a Size 8 or 10, and those just weren’t our customers.” Michelle continues, “And another thing we saw was that they still had traditional fashion styles and even haircuts, and hardly any women of color. So we thought to ourselves, ‘What if our aspiration was your smarts, your success, and your kindness? Let’s highlight the confidence of these women.”
This awareness of their customer base and the confidence to buck the “norm” means that they constantly hear, “Your models look just like me!” Both Michelle and Jessica credit this approach to their incredibly low return rate, too.
Challenges of a Startup
Michelle’s logical and practical approach to the business is one reason why Society+ has continued to grow over the past 4 years. When she first started Society+, she admits they poured a lot of time, energy, and money into Google Adwords with very little success. “It was a total disaster,” Michelle remembers.
So, she pivoted. She found someone with experience in Facebook advertising and let him run with it. He immediately proved the power of Facebook Ads’ ROI. This boost from Facebook powered growth in the earlier days of Society+, and as Facebook’s algorithms change and other means of advertisement make themselves available, Society+ isn’t afraid to try something if the data backs it up.
As a startup, Michelle and Jessica are always looking at the numbers. “How do our current orders and return rates affect how much capital we have in the bank? How can we be sure we’re investing our money wisely in every aspect of the business?” These are just a few of the questions they answer every day when they get into the office. By keeping a pulse on the health of their business, while also ensuring their customers are happy, Michelle and Jessica have been able to pinpoint (and continually refine) their customer acquisition costs.
Michelle and her team, however, are not immune to some of the problems that success start-ups face. For instance, 80% of their website traffic comes from mobile, but they have an 84% drop-off rate through their Social Media funnel.
Rather than scratch her head and hope people’s behavior changes, Michelle and her team are actively working to find the best way to monetize social media. This means finding an easier way to get people through the checkout process as seamlessly as possible.
The Right Team at the Right Time
Having led Society+ for over 4 years, Michelle is keenly aware that Society+’s success is due in large part because of the intelligence and dedication of her team. “We don’t have an ‘ideal’ team member. It doesn’t matter how old you are or your gender or your ethnicity.”
So, what does Michelle look for in a team member? She breaks it down into 3 Must Haves:
- Team members have to be proactive. “I’m not here to babysit people. I want someone to not wait for me to set targets and goals. I want them to come to me with a plan.”
- “It’s an absolute requirement that we have people who are positive and encouraging.”
- “Team members have to be smart and have your skills up to date.”
Quick to thank others for Society+’s current success, Michelle points out that she couldn’t have made the impact she has without Jessica’s amazing contributions. “She’s the most incredible human being I’ve ever met. She’s phenomenal. You hear about so many co-founder relationships that dissolve, fizzle, or blow up, and thankfully we don’t have that.” Michelle points out that Jessica is both creative an analytical, and kind and gracious.
On Advice for Growing Companies
Smart people learn from other smart people, and Michelle is no different. Her favorite business book is The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. When asked Why that book? Michelle replies, “I’m not a confrontational person by nature, but business is filled with hard things that need to be done. You have to learn to face those difficulties and look at them objectively, and move forward from them confidently.” Makes sense!
The best business advice she’s ever received? “Sleep on it. I tend to listen to all the information, and I feel urgency of a situation. I tend to want to run forward and make a decision. Give yourself some space. Let your mind free up a little bit. I would have saved myself a lot of heartache before.”
She also says that companies shouldn’t shy away from challenges, but should embrace them. “One of the gifts that came with growth is that I had a much clearer understanding of who I want to continue working with. Challenges help you see Who is it that will help me constructively go through that process the next time? These experiences enabled me to not take those situations personally.”
On Life Outside of Society+
When Michelle isn’t running her successful eCommerce company for plus-sized women, she’s mom to 3 wonderful kids; a son and two daughters. “Spending time with my family helps me keep everything in perspective.” Her idea of unwinding after a long day is reading with her youngest daughter, cheering on her middle daughter in her sports, and supporting her middle-school aged son through all of the challenges that middle school brings!
Before her day gets started, Michelle can be found rocking out to the soundtracks of Hamilton and The Greatest
Showman on Earth. And, when it is her 7 year old daughter’s turn with the iPod in the car? It’s time to Shake it off with Taylor Swift!
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, Michelle is most excited about making big moves into video. “We’re visualizing a QVC for the next generation.” Solving the problem of monetizing social media is also high up on the list.
At the end of the day, though, Society+ stills loves the feeling that comes when a happy customer sends their Thanks or posts an uplifting photo on Instagram after having unboxed their newest shipment from Society+.
Before the end of our interview, Michelle is asked, “What do you love most about Society+?”
“We love our customers.”