Michelle Glitman decided to start her own online clothing retail operation, called Miishka, in August 2010.
Unusually, however, she didn’t create a website to sell through. Instead, she launched a Facebook page and took orders manually.
“Fan” numbers subsequently exploded. Less than two years after launching, the page has nearly 87,000 fans with a 40% return buyer rate.
The business’ entire revenue is driven via Facebook, with 60 new customers purchasing from Miishka each week.
She tells StartupSmart how she managed to build an army of Facebook fans in such a short period of time and why she’s finally looking to launch a dedicated website for the business.
Why did you decide to launch a Facebook page before a website?
It was a conscious decision to do it this way. We’ve had a Facebook page since August 2010 and our website won’t launch for another month.
Before I launched the business, I thought, “Why would I launch a website without a fanbase? How will people find me?”
There’s SEO, of course, but I wanted something beyond that. I wanted brand recognition and I wanted to know that people liked the idea and wanted the products.
Setting up a Facebook page is a low cost way to do this. I decided to start the Facebook page and then see how it went.
It ended up growing so quickly and so organically that I concentrated my efforts on building the Facebook fanbase, rather than immediately launch a website.
What was the market like when you created the Facebook profile?
There were just two other people selling fashion via Facebook in Australia back in 2010. It really was the beginning of online commerce in Australia, especially when it came to Facebook.
It all started with girls selling their old clothes online by taking a picture of their wardrobe and posting it. I saw that I could do this in a more professional way. People ended up loving it.
So what drove people to your page?
Advertising has been important, but what girls loved most was the way we put different clothes together, both vintage and new, and displayed them.
Another important part was the customer service and interaction. Every single comment on the page gets a reply and people really like the engagement.
I’d spend ages every day just replying to customers. Interacting with your customers provides you with the best research possible. They’d tell me what they liked and what they didn’t in a really uncomplicated way.
I would run sponsored stories to encourage friends of fans to also become fans of the Facebook page and increased the reach of page posts by running ads to target friends of fans.
How quickly did your fanbase grow?
It feels like it exploded overnight, really. I initially invited 500 people I knew on Facebook and then put together a small collection of clothes, around 20 to 30 pieces, and put it up on the page.
The clothes literally sold out within two days. The fanbase jumped to 5,000 within the first month and it then hit a tipping point.
It was at this point I started doing adverts within Facebook and I managed to get some coverage in various publications.
Facebook has been an incredible marketing tool. It has completely changed the business.
Did it take you by surprise?
Yes it did. I’m very much full-time now and I had to bring on another full-time person within the first three months. That definitely took me by surprise.
The plan was to engage people first, see how Facebook went and then build the site. It has got to the point now that we need a site to cut out a lot of the processes involved in selling via Facebook.
There’s a lot of things we can streamline. Sales via Facebook have to be done manually – buyers email us if they want to purchase something and we have to then invoice them.
As there is no incentive or compulsion for them to pay, people tend to lag and we have to spend time chasing them up. A website cuts down and automates this process. We need to do this as it just takes up so much time doing it manually through Facebook.
It’s a mix of vintage and new. I travel around markets, have personal contacts, connections with Australian designers and overseas suppliers.
How does this stand out from the market?
We occupy a niche spot, I think. Our customers can rely on great quality pieces that we often sell below the retail price because we have fewer overheads than the big retailers.
I’m aware of the fashion trends globally, but I don’t just look at what’s happening in the UK and copy it. I go on gut feel, I take inspiration from what I see on the street.
You’ve got to focus on your target market. Our customers are very active young women, mostly aged 18 to 25 years old, who have active social lives.
We provide them with collections that they can trust and we show them how to wear the pieces. We take on feedback, listen and interact with customers.
We have four part-time staff who work as models and photographers. We took the time and effort to make the images and products look good, which is important on Facebook.
The major retailers now realise the importance of online and social media, but they usually move a lot slower than us.
The beauty of running a business by yourself is that you can play in the market, take calculated risks and be flexible.
I imagine starting this way has kept your costs down.
Yes, we don’t have the overheads of a physical store, but at the same time you need capital for your stock, which I had to get from savings.
I went through the NEIS program before I started, which helped a lot in the first 12 months of the business with planning.
You’re about to launch your site – do you want to shift all your Facebook customers to that?
We are looking to transition people to the site, but we have to be careful to get that right as other businesses have messed this up.
If you push people off Facebook onto something else, they can be a bit uncomfortable and end up going elsewhere. The site has to work together with Facebook and integrate fully with it.
We want people to be comfortable and at ease with using the site. The site will have credit card and PayPal options, which will make things easier.
It’s not the case of choosing one or the other, it’s about the two platforms working together. We’ll post the same content across both areas.
I think Facebook will always be the main driver to the site and probably the best marketing tool we’ll have. We will move to other areas of marketing, but there’s no point denying the reach that Facebook has. There’s no reason why we’ll relegate it when the site launches.
What advice would you give other start-ups that are keen to build a huge Facebook following?
If you’re starting a Facebook fan page, keep the interaction up. I posted on the page 10 or 15 times a day at the start, which showed that we always had new content and also that if you posted something as a customer, you could expect to get a reply.
You’ve got to nurture your fanbase, understand them and listen to them. They will tell you what you are doing right and wrong and you can’t just ignore them and decide what they should like.
It’s important to put up a lot of creative content. Facebook is very visual, so we spent a lot of time and money ensuring all the images are great, which people always commented on positively.
If you’re showing products, don’t cut corners – get the photography and lighting right. Make it professional or don’t bother at all. There’s too much competition around now for you to not put the effort in.
Keep an eye on what other businesses are doing but don’t change direction too much. I changed strategy slightly to focus more on new clothes than vintage as that is what is more profitable, but you have to stay true to what you are trying to do.