Entrepreneur Emma Watkinson founded SilkFred, an online platform for affordable independent labels, in 2011. It's now home to more than 600 brands and is a multi-million pound business with a wide celebrity following. Watkinson tells her story to TheIndustry.fashion and reveals her ambitions for the future.
You started your career in fashion on the shop floor, tell us about that and the most valuable lessons you learned from that experience?
I loved meeting new people every day and helping them find outfits that made them feel special. I learned how to work with customers, how important it is to put them at the heart of what you’re doing. I think the best businesses today are succeeding because they have a relentless focus on the customer.
What made you decide to set up your online business?
I find e-commerce really interesting and having started out in a bricks and mortar shop, I could see the value an online businesses would bring to the customer experience. We have the flexibility to meet customer demand and learn more about what they want.
The actual opportunity came when my friend and now co-founder Stephen had a friend who had invested in an independent brand. He asked for my help and we quickly saw an opportunity to take all the independent brands out there to market. Stephen’s sister Kate also joined as a co-founder and it was a really exciting time!
How was the business funded at the startand were there challenges there?
We raised investment from three angel investors and with that we were able to hire a few people, build the SilkFred platform and sign up some brands. There are always challenges when you’re building a company from scratch. That never changes!
Why did you decide to focus on independent brands and did that make it more challenging to get exposure for SilkFred at the start?
It felt to us that there was an opportunity to work with other entrepreneurs like ourselves and build something new and exciting together, completely centred around the customer. We didn’t really focus on exposure in the traditional sense (we still don’t really), we started showing potential customers the products and then worked really hard to deliver a good experience. We’ve been building on that ever since.
Once word got out, the growth seems to have come very quickly and you have a number of high-profile celebrity followers, how did that come about?
It’s been a real grind. It didn’t come quickly, it was built up over years of iterating, trying new things, challenging ourselves and relentlessly pushing towards our goals. Some celebrities we approached directly because we thought they might like what we’re doing. Others we’ve partnered with as part of our marketing strategy. Others are customers - which is really cool!
How do you as a team go about selecting the brands for your site and is there a particular price point and customer that you target?
The brands we partner with are aligned with where we are all collectively trying to get to. It’s important to our customers that brands are at an accessible price point. We are mostly agnostic on style because we like to let the customer drive the demand.
You are an online-only brand but your pride yourself on giving a personal experience, can you explain how you go about achieving that?
Our customer experience team is amazing at this. They are super knowledgeable about the products we sell and passionate too. Some of them were customers prior to joining our team. There is also a lot that tech can do to make the experience feel personal but you need the balance of both for it to feel authentic.
Do your clients feed back to you on the kind of added value services they want to receive from you, and if so, what sort of things do they ask for?
Customers are great at giving feedback and we love it! Sometimes it’s outfits in new colours, a bestselling dress but in a maternity range, new features for the site, e.g. a change to our navigation or changes to our service proposition e.g. delivery on Sunday.
Have you ever considered a physical retail presence of any kind?
We’ve hosted pop up shops in the past and they are a lot of fun. Our team really enjoy meeting customers. It’s not something we’re looking at right now to invest in long term.
Could you point to one thing that was key in your business becoming a success?
Are there any exciting plans for the future you can share with us now?
We’re currently testing a few international territories which is really exciting for us. We’re getting some encouraging feedback so far and we’re looking forward to taking SilkFred global!
Emma Watkinson will be a panellist at TheIndustry.fashion's In Conversation Special Edition, along with Lea Cranfield of Matchesfashion.com and Klarna's Jonathan Sheard, on 23 May at W London – Leicester Square. Click here to learn more and buy tickets.