Disrupting Marketing and a Mindset
When Chrissy Metz, star of This Is Us, appeared on the cover of People magazine, it was a strong indicator of a much larger trend. The article accounts how after years of struggling with diets and depression this breakout star could finally discuss her journey to self-acceptance, fame, and becoming a role model for body positivity.
In an era of stick-thin models and unrealistic ideas, Michelle Crawford and Jessica Kane are disrupting the status quo by designing, manufacturing and selling fashion-forward clothing directly to women like Metz. Society+ is a plus-size fashion brand breaking all the design rules and accruing a cult following around the world. Crawford and Kane have created an investor-backed it brand by leveraging a social media following of more than 300,000 women and dressing celebrities like Metz.
Nearly 60 percent of female consumers search for plus-size apparel, yet only 18 percent of clothes are marketed to this demographic. Furthermore, some department stores tend to relegate their plus-size sections and displays to the back corner, behind household appliances. Not only is this an overlooked business opportunity worth $10 billion, it sends a clear message to plus-size women about self-worth. Crawford and Kane joined forces to create jobs and wealth in Florida, meet a significant consumer need around the world, and uplift the discussion about women in our society.
Michelle Crawfords Early Career
Crawford grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida attending Northside Christian High School. She earned her undergraduate degree from George Mason University while living in Washington, D.C., and then her MBA from Florida State University.
I started working in the D.C. area, Crawford said. I worked for a small consulting firm when I finished school. After the consulting firm, I worked for one of the firms clients, which sold network-based voice messaging systems.
Crawford then moved to the fourth largest cable provider in the country at the time, Adelphia Communications.
It had a small telecom unit that it was starting, Crawford said. I was involved as a product development manager and worked my way up through the ranks, eventually becoming director of product development, before the company was acquired by Level 3. I stayed for a short time, but left to have my children.
For ten years, Crawford focused on raising a family. But she knew she wanted to get back in the workforce.
I did not want to go back to the job I thought the company would be putting me in, Crawford said. I wanted to create the job that I wanted.
Crawford considered all the things she had done, including sector analysis at Level 3.
At Level 3, I looked for inflection points within telecom, Crawford said. This told us what was changing, what was dying and what was coming up.
Crawford applied that same skill set and used it personally.
I looked at many industries and identified retail as a segment that was about to go under massive change, Crawford said.
At the time, big box retail earnings were beginning to slide. Now, many established brick and mortar retail icons have completely collapsed.
Revenue was declining, foot traffic was deteriorating, margins were weakening, Crawford noted. Obviously, there were problems with those specific retailers. I could also see other players were rising. I thought that was interesting. Companies like Bonobos, Stitch Fix and Warby Parker started on the Internet. Each had this connection with its customers that was a new and different thing. It was not transactional. It was emotional. It was a true kind of lifestyle relationship. These companies also worked directly with the factories to source products and each had great margins, unlike the big retailers.
A Concept is Born
Crawford decided to jump into that space and began an e-commerce business in womens apparel and while the business was doing well, she kept having customers ask, Do you carry it in plus-sizes? With a little research, Crawford learned that over 60 percent of women are plus-size, but only 18 percent of the product is plus-size.
It is the classic business school story of disconnect between supply and demand, Crawford said.
Within six months, Crawford recognized that she needed to pivot the business. She launched the proof of concept for the new business, Plus-size, in October of 2014.
Then the work began. With continued research, Crawford identified top fashion bloggers for plus-size women. She invited them to participate in selecting the products she would be offering.
Go to these wholesale websites where we can buy small amounts of clothes at low prices, Crawford told the bloggers. Choose styles that you like. I will buy the clothes. Take pictures of yourself in the outfits and market the products to your followers.
These bloggers often had large numbers of followers, so Crawford was tapping into an existing client base.
I chose bloggers who had a following that was not so big that they would be uninterested in me, Crawford said. But, the following had to be big enough that it could have a sales impact. I told the bloggers I would give each a percentage of revenue. And they loved it.
Crawford also wanted to address the way women associated value to dress size. She launched the company with the idea that she was selling more than dresses. She was selling confidence.
Enter Jessica Kane
With investors in place, it was time to get busy. As part of her marketing plan, Crawford advertised in a leading plus-size fashion and lifestyle publication, SKORCH Magazine. The founder and editor, Jessica Kane, sent Crawford a message reading, I know everybody, but I do not know who you are. Crawford responded by pounding out a big manifesto about using shopping to change womens lives with clothes, and how we could build a strong, hyper-growth company.
She was either going to run the other way, or she was going love it, Crawford said.
Thankfully, Kane reacted positively.
Kane grew up in southern Oregon.
I was plus-size my whole life, Kane said. I did not know fashion; I was a jock. I had to go to the mens department to find anything over a size 10. Even though I was an athlete, I just wore menswear. I was about 24 years old when I moved to Portland, Oregon. That was a great opportunity because I walked into the local mall and next door had a plus-size fashion shop. The sign read Sizes 14 to 22, and I thought What? This is a thing?
What Kane walked into was to be a life changing experience.
I wanted to share this feeling of belonging to other women, so I started a digital magazine for plus-size fashion, Kane explained.
It was 2008; Kane knew she could not afford to print a magazine, but knew how to use Macromedia Flash.
I could make pages float on the screen, Kane said.
So, she did. Using MySpace and my whole eight friends, she took her magazine online. Within a year, Kane soared to over a million readers. SKORCH was a top magazine in the world.
Ten years later, I reached almost 100 million women, Kane said. I have been covered by the Today Show, CNN and ABC News.
But there was one glaring problem. She was not making any money. That was when she wrote back to Michelle, and they decided to meet in person.
Something Disruptive in Retail
It was pretty remarkable to sit with Michelle and compare our strengths, Kane said. It was just a weekend. The two of us were together talking the entire time. It was just what we envisioned, something disruptive in retail that no one was doing but should be doing. Not only with style but with messaging and communities.
Crawford tried to play it cool and Kane was worried she was not interested. However, Crawford was all in and made Kane an equal partner. Three weeks later; Kane, her husband, son and cats drove across the country to Florida in a U-Haul.
Up to this point, the business had been re-selling wholesale, but now had its own brand established.
Stage One was wholesalers making Society+ finished goods, Kane said. Stage Two was identifying our brand voice, manufacturing our clothing and testing it out.
Society+ is ready for Stage Three, Crawford added. Wholesalers come to us for our brand now that we have established it.
In the first 12 months of operation, Society+ grew 23 percent month over month. In 2016, it saw a 400 percent growth rate compared to 2015.
Society+ wants to start manufacturing its clothes in Florida. The first step is to create its own sample house where it can efficiently manage the R&D process internally. And now that it has an established product/market fit on the business side of things, Crawford and Kane can super-charge their customer acquisition and retention efforts with technology.
It is an exciting time to be growing a consumer products and technology company in Florida.