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One Founder's Playbook for Scaling an Ethically-Made Fashion Brand

Candice Munro the founder of Buttercream Clothing.

Candice Munro started Buttercream Clothing as an alternative source of income while she was a stay-at-home mom. The business focuses on sustainable and inclusive clothing ethically and has grown into a vital service for customers and a source of employment for local workers. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Candice shares with us the intricacies of building a slow fashion business, leveraging social ads, and the process of launching new clothing items.

For the full transcript of this episode, click here.

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Show Notes

Slow, thoughtful and ethical 

Felix: For the folks out there that might not be familiar with this term, explain to us what is slow fashion?

Candice: Slow fashion basically just means that things are made ethically and locally and we try our very best to prevent any sort of waste in production. We make small batches and we service our customers with a couple of different types of sales avenues. We have a presale model and then a ready-to-ship model. That's how we approach slow fashion. Just for the sake of not making too much and wasting fabric. We also try to make patterns that are using most of the fabric. If you can imagine fabric utilization, it becomes really important not to have waste in production.

Felix: Why did you choose this model? Why was this important to you?

Candice: In the very beginning it was the only way we knew how to make clothing. I literally started at my kitchen table, so I was sewing garments at my table. I was the only seamstress and I hired local people. It was an organic way to get the business growing and scaling. As I got to know more about fashion and learn about the industry, it just felt like the right fit and it was made in Canada. We're really proud of that. It was an organic way to move forward. Now we're really taking a stance in being local, being ethical. Especially in the economy right now we're trying to support as many locals as we can.

 Four female models in dresses by Buttercream Clothing backdropped by cliffs and ocean settings.
By using a presale model, Buttercream Clothing is able to ensure all of the clothing they produce is sold and reduces waste in their production. 

Felix: What other areas should people who are interested in building a slow fashion business focus on? What are the important parts to take note of? 

Candice: Definitely the fabric itself that you're using. We all struggle. It's really hard to call any fabric 100% sustainable or eco-friendly, there's a lot of greenwashing happening. Trying to use better fabrics is a goal of ours. It's really difficult too when you're starting out to get better fabrics or more eco-friendly fabrics, because of the high quantity that you have to order. Even now we're talking to a mill in Ontario, Canada and they mill your own fabrics for you right in Canada. It’s a better eco-friendly status, but it's really hard to talk about fabric production that's perfectly sustainable. An example would be whether you're using more natural fibers, that's a really big conversation in ethical fashion right now.

Maintaining brand values at scale

Felix: How do you make sure that, or at least do your best to make sure that the partners that you have, the materials you use align with your values?

Candice: I've traveled a lot for fabric sourcing back in the day meeting different mills, or I used to go to these conventions. There's a great one in Las Vegas called the MAGIC fabric show. You can source fabric and garments there for stores that are selling from other producers. We've done a lot of due diligence traveling around meeting people. You can look for certifications. That's a really great thing to look for when you're sourcing fabric. That's simply looking at what certifications for different types of fabrics can we find. Whether you're using knit fabrics or woven fabrics, there's a lot of different certifications. That's a good thing to have. When we're talking about manufacturing, I always make sure to visit my mills or my factories.

I get to know my home seamstresses. That relationship becomes really tight for us as a brand because I want to make sure everyone is getting treated fairly and getting paid fairly. They're happy with the work, and that's like the core value of–ethical production. Do your due diligence, take your time, visit your suppliers and your people, if you can. I know it's hard right now, but the most important thing is to make sure everyone has the same value system as yourself as a brand.

A pair of models on a pier wearing clothes from Buttercream Clothing.
From suppliers to seamstresses, Buttercream Clothing ensures that their value system is shared across the supply chain. Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: You mentioned you fell into this model because it was the only way you knew how to, when you started. Where did the idea itself come from? 

Candice: I'll take you way, way back. I've always sewn as a teenager. I used to sew and I love creating things. That was always just a hobby, right? 11 years ago, when I had my first child, I thought, “I want to stay home, I want to do something.” My parents were entrepreneurs. They had a hair salon and I was like, "Okay, I can start my own business. It shouldn't be that hard." At that time I started making aprons, I called the business Buttercream Aprons, and I sewed these vintage looking aprons at my kitchen table. I went to farmer's markets. I was on Etsy. I started out on Facebook back in the day when it was really easy to get sales on Facebook.

Buttercream Aprons was how it really started. I had this little brand and then as people knew I could sew, they started asking for clothing like dresses or skirts or shirts. That's when I realized, okay, the aprons aren't selling great. It seems like women spend a lot of money on clothing. I pivoted at that point and changed it to be called Buttercream Clothing. That's where the name came from. It doesn't really make any sense but people like it and that's where everything started to snowball. We started making garments, really simple tank tops and dresses and skirts. Then I met more seamstresses. I found some factories, and that's how the brand became more robust and a bit more sophisticated than the home kitchen table setup I started with.

The pivot that changed Buttercream's trajectory

Felix: You mentioned a pivot that took place after you realized women spent more money on clothing than aprons. Was it as simple as changing directions, or were there any detours along the way? 

Candice: It was pretty much that. When I realized the apron sold a little bit here and there, but people don't buy aprons often. I now do speaking engagements and one of my favorite things to do when I talk to a group of people like entrepreneurs starting out with these questions is I say to them, "How many people here have bought an apron in the last month?" No one ever raises their hand. It's become “what niche are you filling and what is the actual need for your business?” I see that a lot of times with new startup businesses. I love startup businesses, but if you're flogging away at this one product and it's not selling, I often recommend taking a hard look at it and be brutal. Look at how you can change this to make it better. 

"If you're flogging away at this one product and it's not selling, I often recommend taking a hard look at it and be brutal. Look at how you can change this to make it better."

What does the market require of me? When I had this question over and over again, people were saying to me, "Oh, you should make this dress. I really love this dress I had years ago, I'd love to have something similar." Or, "Oh, I'd love this bamboo fabric in a tank top." That's when I realized the requests that were coming in weren’t for no reason, it's what the market was demanding. That was really, really important to me to listen to that and pivot completely, like I changed the whole brand. Even now we do that too with our communities. We ask them what they want, what pieces they want to see, what colors, what changes we should make to current pieces. That market research is so valuable.

When pivoting, a lot of people can feel like that's failure, but I just look at it like you're getting great information from your customers. There's not really a way that you can see if it's going to work or test the waters. Changing and trying things–that's your market research when you hit the ground running, right?

Felix: I think a lot of people struggle with pivoting because they believe so wholeheartedly in their vision. Was it easy for you early on to make that decision to pivot? 

Candice: It was really hard actually. In the very first days, I didn't know how to sew clothing. I had only done basic things. I used to have these dress parties. I'd go to someone's house, we'd have friends over and I'd sell presale dresses. At that time, it was really hard. I had to find the right machines, learn new techniques, and learn pattern making. I've never gone to fashion and design school. It was very scrappy at the time. I was just putting all the pieces together, so it was a struggle. A lot of it has been a struggle. Everything that we do and learn in the business is new and you try to figure out the best path. Those early days were super exciting but very, very difficult, and a big steep learning curve.

After that point, it's just doing the same thing over and over again, especially with production when I'm dealing with home seamstresses or the local ethical factories that I work with in Alberta. It's the same depths we're doing over and over again. That becomes quite routine and much, much easier, but yeah, it was a struggle. Everything's a struggle with any startup. You're wearing all the hats, you're juggling your personal life and the business. It's hard, it's not easy for sure.

Making waves as a small fish in a big pond

Felix: You went from this super small niche to a bigger marketplace of women's clothing. Did you do anything to differentiate yourself from other women’s clothing brands? How did you stand out? 

Candice: People say, "There's so much competition. I have no chance of starting a new brand." But I don't believe that. If you can do something original and do it really well and offer amazing customer service, there's room for all of us. I love helping new brands, because if we can help each other elevate our brands, we can all get ahead. For Buttercream, I think first and foremost it was using real people as models. When I say real people, I mean not professional models. We've always used friends and family, people that are actually customers–some of our customers are our best models–so showing real body types and then offering more inclusive sizings. 

A model along with a dog in a field, wearing a blue dress from Buttercream Clothing.
Despite being in a saturated market, Candice believed that there’s room for new brands to stand out in the fashion industry. Buttercream Clothing 

We do size extra small to 3X. This year we're expanding into size 4X. Next year we're trying our very best to offer a size 5X. That piece right there has been really important for the brand to set us apart. Most traditional brands have not offered anything plus size for years. That's becoming more popular. Our model representation, our sizing, the quality of the garments and just the style of it. I wouldn't call our brand very trendy. We're very much more of a classic, basic pieces brand that you'd wear every day for years and years to come. That's what differentiated the brand from other ones. It was that we provide basic pieces you can wear for the next six years and you'd never know what season you bought it in, coupled with the size inclusivity.

Felix: What kind of struggles have you faced around getting people to try the brand, especially when it comes to the pre-sale model you were referring to earlier? 

Candice: That instant gratification piece. It's hard right now online. We're all used to getting our parcels in a couple of days. I was lucky in the beginning when I did a ton of markets, I did local markets, farmers markets, crafters markets back in the day. I was lucky in those days that I got to meet so many people. People got to try the garments and feel them and wear them on the spot and take them home. I believe that's where our client base grew from. Then they got to know the styles and that helped the brand gain traction online. You meet someone in the market, you talk to them and you get to know them, they buy your piece. Then they come back to the website and can order something similar or email or message saying, "Hey, how does this fit compared to the top I got at that market?"

That was a really cool start. We did a ton of work at the markets, one every weekend for a couple of years. That really, really built the brand. Online shopping has grown so much in the last year that people are getting over these obstacles to purchase. Having a good customer support staff–or if it's yourself, just being available–when people have size questions, is so important to be able to offer proper advice. We do a few things. One thing I'd like to do is videos, like videos of the garment on people. Here's a size extra small, here's a medium, here's a 3X, and it's an actual video where you can see them moving. We also have a model stats page on our Shopify site.

The stats page shows a bunch of different models and we've got about 10 different body sizes on there with their height, weight, and their bust, waist, and hip measurement. It's very specific. Most people shopping can go to our models' stat page and compare their measurements and be like, "Oh, Ryan is a size 1X I'm certainly the same size as her." Then they'll know what to order on the website.

Work-life balance is hard

Felix: You mentioned you started the business as a stay-at-home mom who wanted to be able to work from home while raising a family. How did you maintain that balance when Buttercream Clothing started to scale? 

Candice: The work-life balance question I get a lot. People ask me, how do you do it all? I've got four kids ages ranging from 11 to two. We've got quite the age gap. I don't know what the proper answer is to that one, because I think everyone in business and also working other jobs, if you're not an entrepreneur, there's not really the proper answer to that. We don't really have that perfect formula. For us the business started taking off years ago. My husband actually quit his job to stay home with the kids when they were little. That was really helpful when they were young. That was a great support to have him on board. It's not possible for a lot of people and it's also not a really wise move for a lot of people if your business is just growing and your income isn't stable.

For us, it's been a lot of late nights–we've worked a ton of late nights. I don't know if that's the best way to do it, but that's what we've done. Now that the team is growing, we're delegating as much work as possible to people that we know can do it as well as us or better. I've got a group in Alberta that's amazing. For instance, they're taking over all the order fulfillment, they're packing all the orders. We have people helping with email. I'm still doing most of the communication and social media, but there's key players that we have involved in the brand now that are taking some of that work off of us. It's really hard to answer how do you have that perfect work-life balance? We're all just doing our best to survive right now.

A model wearing jeans and a shirt along with a scarf from Buttercream Clothing.
While Candice started the business as a stay at home parent, her husband switched roles and took care of the household when Buttercream Clothing was taking off. Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: There’s something to be said about purposefully slowing your businesses growth in order to maintain balance. Is that something that Buttercream Clothing tried to do? 

Candice: We just kept growing. The first couple of years’ growth was super stressful, but good. We were so grateful for it. Our very first year compared to our second, we had about a 10 times increase in sales. That was stressful because we're having to find the production and also the money. You have to have money to grow a brand. When you're so new and your business is in the beginning, things are slow. It's hard to find that funding. Now we're at a nice spot where we're growing steadily each year, but certainly the first three, four years were very, very stressful. We had some good support from different lenders. Then we started being creative. We started doing different things like Instagram flash sales. It's certainly just a time to get creative and figure out what you need to do to get there.

I love setting goals. We have financial goals for every day, week and year. That's what drives us now, is hitting those goals, making sure that we're tracking on those. We haven't tried to slow down the growth as much, but we're trying to provide products faster by having stuff ready to ship. We call our ready-to-ship section freshly baked. Every two weeks now we're launching a new freshly baked garment. We put it on the site and it shifts out within one or two days or even the same day sometimes.

Launching a new product every two weeks

Felix: Every two weeks are you coming out with a new design? That sounds like a pretty fast turnaround.

Candice: It is. Some of them are new, but some of them we bring back seasonally. Over the last two, three years, we've been doing this model. Basically, I've got three ethical factories in Calgary. Those factories are usually doing two to three styles at a time for me. Every time they've done the style, we launch it on the site and they're just constantly cycling through their work. It's months of pre-planning. Right now I have up until the end of fall planned. We get all the fabric to them. We get the patterns to the factories and they're constantly working through these big batches of styles. We launch them as soon as they're in our hands and stagger them. 

In the next couple of weeks here we have an exciting collaboration collection coming out with a blogger in Vancouver. It's the first time we're launching five styles that are all ready to ship at one. It's going to be interesting to try a different aspect of this model–having a whole collection that people can buy like a shirt, a scarf, pants, a sweater all at the same time.

A model wearing a dress from Buttercream Clothing.
New designs and seasonal favourites, Buttercream Clothing brings in new products every two weeks to ensure fresh and timeliness in its offering. Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: What's the launch process like when you’re wrapping up the cycle? How do you drive attention to the new products?

Candice: I have a great system now, We've got this flow chart we share with the team. We pick up the product. We photograph it on models. We have new photo shoots all the time. We've got fresh models, new colors of the product. Once we have photography back, we load it on the site. We then advertise on Facebook and Instagram and send it out to my newsletter, launch it on the site and that's it. Usually the pieces will sell out within the first day. That's what we've been seeing. If there's any leftover, I'll do a flash sale or I'll do something creative where we donate the extra garments. We've got a charity in Vancouver that we work with called Mamas for Mamas, and we donate garments to them. It's a pretty nice system. We get the product, we launch it itself and most of it is gone pretty quick.

Felix: You mentioned you’ll be collaborating with a blogger on an upcoming launch. Is that something you do often? 

Candice: I've worked with influencers in the past to promote products, but have never done a collaboration. This one is a blogger named Kaitlin Hargreaves, she's a part of the Jillian Harris group and she's amazing. I met her years ago. This was the very first collection that we've actually made garments as a team. Kaitlin had a ton of input on the pieces. She designed them herself. I had samples made at my factory, we sent it to her, she approved it or she changed them and we perfected five pieces. This is the very first time we've actually done a co-branded collection and it's pretty neat to see. I'm excited to get her people excited about it. My people already know that the Buttercream following is strong, but to have a new set of eyes on it, it's going to be really exciting for us.

Year-end review: 26 annual product launches

Felix: What's the process for developing new designs or new clothing?

Candice: My creative director’s name is Rita and she's in Alberta. Her and I sit down and we come up with new styles and then we sample with the factory. I have a digital artist in Calgary. I keep saying “in Calgary” because my family lives in BC. My team runs out of Calgary and I'm remote here in BC. My designer will send us images. We tell her what we want, she sends us images and then the factory does one sample of mine or Rita's size. We try it on, we make changes, we go back to sampling. It takes about two to four samples, and then we're ready for production. Once we're ready for production, the designer then prints out a pattern. The factory cuts our fabric, they sew it up.That's when the whole launch process happens.

Felix: When you do get new pieces, new samples, what are you usually looking for?

Candice: There's so many things. Sampling is such a science on its own. We always know what we want. We get ideas from other people–people watching or garments that we've had in the past–and we tend to be like, "You know what, I don't see a garment like this." For instance, we're making these jogging pants right now. We've never seen this style of jogger, but in a capri length, a crop length. We're making that right now. We get the sample and we try it on for fit and comfort, making sure all the stitching's good. Pockets are always the bane of our existence, making sure the pockets fit right. Any kind of closures, making sure they work. There's quite a process in the actual approval of a sample, and then going back and forth with the factory saying like, "Hey, this stitch wasn't exactly what I was hoping for. Can we change it to this other finish?"

Once we get it and we know it's perfect, it's like, "Yeah, this is the piece." I always have that feeling of when you know you’ve got the final sample. That feeling of confidence to move forward. There's nothing worse than going into production with a product that you know isn't awesome. We make sure it's perfect before that.

Felix: You mentioned one of the biggest things you did early on was hire local seamstresses. When did you realize this was necessary? When did you start saying, "I can't do this. I can't run the business and do the sewing of every garment." When did that happen? 

Candice: Buttercream Clothing got busy when my first child was three and I’d just had my second. I remember sitting at the table sewing a whole sack of dresses one day and they were outside playing with my husband. I'm like, "What am I doing? Someone else can do this." That's the moment I realized my talent isn't that special, and anyone else can do what I'm doing. Granted in business I do think as a CEO we need to be doing specific things that no one else can replace. The sewing aspect of it, anyone else can do this. As long as they have the same work ethic, they have the same talent and skill, it's not that hard to find. At that time I hired a girl from a local community fashion school, which was really cool to find, a student.

She started sewing the dresses for me and our scarves and accessories. That was the first taste of getting my time back. I don't have 40 hours of sewing this week. I can hire someone else to do it. Our profit margin could support paying someone to make the garments. That's how it grew. I started finding people from fabric stores or colleges, online, friends and family, and now our team in Alberta is lovely. The home seamstress team, there's about 12 women that work full-time and they take care of the presale items. Pre-sale pieces get purchased off of the site and then they make them as they get ordered. Every week they get a new list of what was ordered recently.

The delegating begins, but the work never stops

Felix: Once you were able to offload production, where did you focus your efforts? 

Candice: I was just really growing the brand. We really focused on our Facebook advertising at that time. Facebook was amazing for us to grow and find that niche clientele. That was my role at that time. The marketing and the growth of the brand. Design was also important at that time. I was making all my own patterns then. I spent a lot of time designing the garments. It's funny when you grow and as you hire out and delegate, somehow at the end of the day you still feel like there's not very much time left over, but I think it's just more people to manage. Right?

A model on a porch wearing a shirt and jeans from Buttercream Clothing.
Delegating production comes hand in hand with detailed training to ensure the transition is as smooth as possible. Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: How quickly did you start to see the delegating pay off? Was it gradual or did you notice an immediate freeing up of your time? 

Candice: It's very gradual, especially with production like this. The sampling process with the home seamstresses is quite tedious as well. You need to be training people to do things the right way. You're getting things back from them. You have to be critiquing them how to change things, make it better. It wasn't within weeks or months, I feel like it was years. Because we were growing and hiring more and more people, that process is something that you're doing over and over again. I still feel like it was two to three years until we were feeling a bit more stable with our time. Now the days are just different. We've got a lot of email communications, a lot of communications with the team. In Calgary, we just got ourselves a brand-new warehouse, which is new.

We've never had a proper space. The business has been functioning out of everybody's houses for so long. The last little bit has been setting up the warehouse, getting that all organized. The team has been amazing to do that while I'm not there. It's funny how your time gets traded from doing everything in the beginning to doing the important things. Every job is important, but now we're overseeing the growth and the marketing. I don't feel like we actually got hours and hours back, but luckily now we do take most weekends off, which was a treat. It’s just, how much do you want to work? I say this to people all the time, because I actually do business coaching now. Do you want to work all the time? As an entrepreneur I feel like we end up just working a lot more hours than most people would.

Felix: When people come to you and you ask that question, what are you looking to get out of it? What kind of answers are you looking to get out of them?

Candice: That's a hard one too. You can create structure in your day. A lot of people do that well. My struggle with the business is just not being able to stop because I really do enjoy it. We tend to work a lot because we want to, and because we see the reward. I'm bad at putting proper boundaries in place because I really enjoy work. I wake up and I'm working and I go to bed and I'm still working. Granted we do take time for the kids in the day and then weekends off. It's what you want to make it. That's the nice part about being an entrepreneur. What do you want out of it? Do you want to have set hours? Do you want to work all the time? It also goes hand in hand with the success of your business. You do need to put the time in and it's certainly not easy.

The case for hiring local, independent contractors 

Felix: You've mentioned a team of 12 full-time seamstresses now. What's the hiring process when you bring on someone new?

Candice: I met a lot of great people in the beginning doing markets in Calgary. People with brands and some people wanting to work for other brands. For instance, one of my main seamstresses has her own kids' clothing line. I met her through friends at a market and she's like, "Oh, I'd love to fill in for you if you need extra help." I'm like, "Okay, well that's awesome because she already knows what type of clothing we were making because she did similar things in kids' clothing. Through her I met some really cool people because there's a great community in Alberta of seamstresses and talent. People that can do pattern design or I don't know, there's a really cool film industry there. My one seamstress has worked in the film industry and she's done costume design.

It's been really organic meeting people through my current seamstresses. I'm constantly asking, "Hey, do you know anyone that's talented?" Word of mouth for me has been the main process. The hiring process is basically sitting down with them, showing them how I make a garment, having them do a sample for me and then that's it. They're off and running if they like the work, if they can do it in a timely manner. We hire our seamstresses as contractors so they can get paid by the piece. It's nice because they work for other people. They have their own brands, a lot of them. It's a very flexible feeling. 

Felix: What do you use to help manage an entire workforce while meeting presale deadlines?

Candice: Yeah, that's my job. I'm running the freshly baked part, at least the ready to ship stuff. I'm always in contact with the factories, making sure that we're getting production happening. Everything's rolling. Then Rita is in charge of the seamstress list as far as the presale goes. We've actually brought in an app called Katana. That's been really, really cool for us. A pre-sale order comes in on the site and it filters through Katana and that pulls fabric out of our fabric inventory, and that creates a seamstress list. For instance, Christina will do all of the dresses and leggings. Leah will do all the shirts and sweatshirts. Katana is the one you set these–they're called recipes. You set the recipes up and then every garment that sells it comes through this app and it filters it out for us. 

We used to do this all on Excel spreadsheet, which was a nightmare. Now it's really nice, super easy to use is one-click seamstress lists are made and then when orders get fulfilled, you mark them done in Katana. We use another app called ShipStation and then it fulfills the order. The whole process is quite automated now.

The road to scale 

Felix: You were worried that COVID-19 would negatively affect the business, but it turned out to be the opposite. How did you adapt or what changed along the way that allowed you to grow the team during these troubling and turbulent times?

Candice: When COVID hit, I was so panicked for the team. That was the first thing I thought, “What if we can't support the team?” Most of the people that worked for us, this is a bigger source of their income. I was really worried about them. Of course our family, I didn't know what it meant for our family. Suddenly April became our biggest month that we’d ever had, except for last Boxing Day. The whole shop local movement really meant something to the people that we had connections with. We saw people coming out to support online brands. People that had never shopped online before as a rule started dabbling in this world because you had to shop online with everything closed.

A model wearing a set of active wear by Buttercream Clothing.
Building a group of Facebook allowed Buttercream Clothing to connect with customers and build a community. Buttercream Clothing 

It was incredible to see our sales doubled pretty much overnight, which was so wild. We never would have wished this on anybody, but it was an interesting side effect. Because of COVID-19, our team has grown so much. We only had one support staff that was helping with fulfillment. Now we've got four and we're looking for another one to bring on. Our seamstress team grew as well. It was just a really, really interesting time to go through. I was so stressed and worried, but then it turned out that it was a perfect storm for online sales. Granted, I feel so horrible for brick-and-mortar stores that have lost everything. It's been heartbreaking for so many stores. The people I talked to now I'm like, "Do you have an online store? Because if you don't, you need to."

Felix: You mentioned Facebook as a marketing avenue. Is this how you focus on getting new customers today? What works well for your business? 

Candice: Facebook, we still use it. I still really enjoy it. I have a private group on Facebook called the Buttercream Clothing Try-On Group. You can just search it on Facebook if you want to find it, it's been so amazing for us. This is where our core customers are and this is really where the community shines through. Our customers will get their products, they'll open them, try them on, take pictures of them. Then they’ll post in the group. It's a cool place for people to come together and to share the love of the brand. It's also a really great resource because people will say, "Hey, do you have a picture of yourself wearing a size 1X dress or a size extra small pants?" It takes a lot of work off my plate because my customers will then say, "Oh, here I am. I'm usually a size, whatever. Here I am in these pants."

The try on group on Facebook has been really awesome. We're really focusing on Instagram right now because our Instagram following is growing. To grow the business and to bring in new customers, finding influencers has been really amazing for us. Influencers that we send garments out to or pay for promotions. I'm finding that is getting us a lot of traction on Instagram. We market everywhere. We do the newsletter, we do Facebook, we do Instagram. That's been really powerful to keep the brand growing. We have an app on the site called Smile. It's a rewards app. That helps bring in new referrals because you get points for referring new customers to the site.

Real talk about influencers

Felix: How do you select the influencers you want to work with? What have you noticed is a good sign for indicating brand compatibility? 

Candice: I've worked with a lot of influencers and there's always pluses and minuses. Seeing an influencer working with a brand similar to yours or a brand that you emulate to be like, that's a really positive sign. Seeing an influencer working with a bigger brand or a brand that has the same core values as yours and seeing them do a good job at it. That is a really good thing to watch for. The thing that I struggle with is when an influencer contacts us and they don't follow us. They've never ordered from us, they don't know us. It doesn't feel authentic. Finding someone that's already a part of your community or someone that you connect with, is really important. 

"Seeing an influencer working with a bigger brand or a brand that has the same core values as yours and seeing them do a good job at it. That is a really good thing to watch for."

Secondly, setting your expectations right from the get-go. If you work with an influencer, figure out what you're sending them, figure out what you expect from it. Figure out a timeline and talk with them about this openly. I like to say I'd like this featured by this exact date. Giving a timeline is really good because you'll just never get any feedback from the gift you've sent. If you're going to pay them–this is also a topic on Instagram influencer payment versus free product. I do like to pay our influencers. It’ll be either a percentage of sales, if they're sharing a coupon code with their followers, or just paying them for a feature, like a certain set amount. I do believe it's nice to honor your influencers time and pay them in some way.

Some influencers only want clothing and that's fine, that's their choice. I think being really transparent with each other, setting expectations as far as date of delivery and then payment or reciprocation. That's so important to get that all out in the open. You can do a contract if you want to create a contract, but I feel like most of the successful relationships we've had is just that communication, and making sure that expectations are met both ways. Finding influencers can be hard. Look at the people that you admire and who they’re using as influencers.

A model on a porch wearing a shirt and shorts from Buttercream Clothing.
Finding the right influencer to work with for Buttercream Clothing is all about alignment of values and being a part of the same community. Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: You mention instagram influencers because your instagram is growing. What kind of content are you posting? What’s your instagram marketing strategy? 

Candice: We post once or twice a day. I'm trying to post less. I used to post so much, so I'm trying to be a bit more conservative. Instagram stories are so powerful right now. Showing behind the scenes. Our customer base really enjoys seeing what's happening behind the scenes. In stories, we'll post the ladies from the fulfillment center in Calgary. Our warehouse will send me pictures like, "Oh, we just got all these garments in. We're going to ship, have them on the site next week." I can post behind the scenes of the garments on the table or our team packing up people's orders. That type of stuff that's really exciting to people in the background. Being present on your Instagram stories is a good strategy.

Engaging with people on your Instagram posts and then also showing them what you do. As an owner, what do you do, or as the production manager, what do you do. Maybe you're making the garments. Showing that process is really neat for them. One of my friends in Calgary that I love, her brand is called Salty Sea Dog. She does the coolest thing where she's making pottery on her stories and she's showing every step of the production process. I love watching them because I don't know how to make mugs. I don't know how to make pottery. That's really cool to show your followers. We try to do that. Sometimes I'll do sewing videos or I can show my seamstresses working. It's a bit hard being remote, but that's really important. Letting people in on what you think is boring, but what they would find exciting behind the scenes moments. 

Creating a self-sustaining Facebook community 

Felix: Tell us more about the Facebook group. It’s fascinating how the community has come together to create this self-sustaining forum. How big has the group grown to now? 

Candice: Yeah, it started out with nothing. It started with a friend of mine Nicole was saying, "Hey, you should start a group." I'm in this other group and we talk about clothing all the time. I'm like, "I don't know if it's going to work for me. I did start that one with just a couple of people. I think we're almost at 3000 people now. The cool thing about it is that they're very active. A lot of them are very active and a lot of them are real shoppers. When I say real shoppers, I mean, when you have a social media following, not every one of your 45,000 followers are actually customers, right? The group has been really valuable in the sense that they're really present and they're really engaged. It's been so cool to see, and it's super positive because social media can be negative sometimes.

The group is always delightful and so supportive. It started from nothing. It's been a few years now and I do special things there. The group will get special discount codes no one else would get, to make that VIP experience real. They might get products no one else would get or access to inventory that we have that no one else can see. Catering to that special core group is super valuable and it's a fun place for me to go because I know that everyone's really happy to be there.

Felix: How do you promote a group like that? How do you consistently get new members into the group?

Candice: That was all word of mouth. Like I said, it started from a couple of people and they invited more people. I don't do anything really to advertise that. I've spoken about it on my social media a couple of times, saying on Instagram, "If you want to join the group, here's the link swipe up." I'm trying to also keep it quite small. I don't want to have thousands and thousands of people in that group. I don't want it to lose it's special feeling. I've done a couple of contests in the group saying, invite a friend and you'll get entered in a draw, but basically very organically it's just grown on its own.

Felix: It’s hard to keep up with all the messages in a group of 3000. Have there been any growing pains? How have you dealt with the growth of the group? 

Candice: Communication has always been time consuming. It's funny, when people email me, it's always me. They'll email or send a message on Facebook or send a message on Instagram or chat through the TDO. We have a TDO chat on the website. All the communications always come to me. Whether one person is contacting one or two different avenues, it's always coming to the one person here. Managing your time, I've been trying to do more like batch work. I'll sit down, do an hour of emails, clear out Instagram messages. It's more about using your time really efficiently rather than when a message comes in or an email comes in answering one at a time and doing that all day. It can take eight or 10 hours of your day easily.

That's my advice. Try to be more efficient with your time and sitting down for batch work. The group is pretty awesome for management. They are self-sufficient. They like to talk with each other. There's a few real key players on there that post every day. I don't have to do a ton there. I do like to engage though, just to be present and I'll also show my appreciation because they are amazing for me and the business. Every different sales avenue, every day you have to take care of it and nurture it, but try to be wise with your time. If you can sit down and if you cannot let customers wait for 12 or 24 hours for a reply, but every few hours try and get through messages and emails. That's much more efficient than answering them every single moment as they come in during the day.

A small but mighty tech stack

Felix: What other apps do you use, besides Katana, ShipStation, Smile?

Candice: That's about all we're using right now. Our team just communicates over texts and email. We used to use Slack and we used to have some communications, but I find most people just don't want another app. Katana has been amazing for us like I said. The Smile app people do love as well. We call our points, “butter points” and people love their butter points. Every order they get, we get a point per dollar. When you hit 2000 points you get $25 off. It's a nice little reward. What else do we like? TDO, we do the TDO chat on the website. It's nice to have people able to access us. That's about it. We try to keep our app down to a minimum on the site just because I don't like getting too cluttered up, but I think Katana has made a really big difference for the whole team. 

A group of five models wearing clothing from Buttercream Clothing backdropped by cliffs and ocean.
Buttercream Clothing 

Felix: Aside from the model stats page, which is an awesome addition, what are the most important elements of the website? 

Candice: Certainly the size chart. Every single piece that we have on a site has its own size chart. That size chart tells you the garment measurements. It's saying this tank top in a size small measures, X, Y, Z. That's really cool for people to see that size chart per garment. I know people really enjoy that. We get a lot of people asking about returns. So we do have a Returns Center app. What else do we have people asking about? The FAQ page is great, but when it comes down to it, people are shopping for products that have as much information about the product and fit information as they can, right there on the product page. That's probably where I spend most of my time–giving fit advice inside the site.

Felix: You also have a lot of reviews with photos. How did you get so many people to submit photos with their reviews? 

Candice: I forgot about that app. That's a book app, called Loox. It's connected to Smile. If you leave a photo review in Loox, you get more butter points and it's easy to do. That's very enticing for people. It's easy enough to do, and a lot of these people are from the Buttercream Clothing Try On Group. They're already posting photos in the groups. We've got photos to post that they'll review. We’ve gotten a really high rate of reviews and beautiful reviews too. I love that part of it. It's great for people to go and read. I know myself when I'm shopping online, I read reviews like crazy if I'm buying something important. It's a great resource for people to come on and see how a garment fits or get a review from real customers.

Felix: What is something that you are focused on this year that's different from maybe a goal from previous years?

Candice: This year it's more ready to ship. This collection with Kaitlin that we're doing has been very unique for us. We started in August of last year. I can't believe it's been August. That's been a real focus, having this ready to ship collection. This year we're also expanding besides 4X, which is exciting. Next year, we're trying to launch a size 5X, which should be quite achievable. Just more ready to ship. We're working on better pieces that we've done in the past and including more styles, more variations of pieces that people love. There's one garment that we make called the Henley long-sleeve top. We're bringing that back in the Henley short-sleeve and the Henley tank top. Taking our favorites and then making more or making better pieces off of those.

So just more ready to ship. We're doing more of the same just on bigger scales. It's interesting when I talk to my factories too, our production, we used to make three, 400 pieces at a time, and now we're making seven or 800 pieces of any style at a time. They say everyone that they are working–with other brands–they've all doubled their numbers. That's an interesting stat to see, all of us brands are doubling our numbers because the demand is high. That for us has been a big thing, is the growth and projection of our sales numbers to accommodate people without making too much. Trying to find that balance.

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