Important Advice for New Online Retailers

3 min read · 6 years ago


Our company, Ministry of Supply, started a couple of years ago out of MIT. We’re a collaboration between engineers and fashion designers, with an aim to change the role fashion plays in your life — removing barriers by responding to your body’s needs through technical manufacturing and highly advanced fabrics.

With low barriers to entry, we were anxious to take fashion by storm by starting online. But we quickly realized that the playbook that had worked so well for brands in the past might not be perfect for us. So we stumbled, and we stumbled often, trying to over-engineer parts of the business that just needed simple execution (such as our website) and skimming over some of the details that seemed (incorrectly, as it turned out) insignificant, such as which fulfillment partner to choose.

After overcoming a few speed bumps, and fueled by some exciting wins, we’ve come away with several lessons in what it’s going to take in this “new age” of retail – starting online, with an aim to grow quickly.

First, take advantage of being online by using what was never before available:

  • Get a handle on your data. Starting online, you’ll be flooded with data from day one. You can find out every single move and detail about your current or prospective customers. Figuring out what metrics to focus on and how to use the data, is critical.  For us, data is an input — we mix data with experience and gut feelings to make a decision. We also choose to ignore much of our data, since trying to optimize for a short, cohesive set of “leading indicators” is much more important than trying to optimize everything. For example, repeat customer rate is the best indication of traction.
  • Test, test, test. Starting online allows for quick, often inexpensive tests — what marketing channels work? Which landing page is more powerful? Which tagline do your customers respond to? When starting online, these answers are only a few clicks away.
  • Consider your partners carefully. As a young company online, you may end up with a rolodex full of partners you’re considering for small or specialized projects. First, outsource what’s not one of your core competencies. Next, evaluate for culture fit and make sure partners are fully bought in and ready to make an investment since your payoff (as a new company) may not be immediate.

But don’t forget what makes traditional businesses successful either — namely:

  • Every solution doesn’t have to be sustainable. In a business that starts online, scaling seems easy, and you’re constantly preparing for that moment. But too often startups skip out on great opportunities for fear that every initiative, every plan and every solution has to be scalable or sustainable so that when (or if) that exponential growth hits, you’re ready. That’s a huge misconception. Operating with some level of brute force and individual customer attention can be critical, just like traditional retailers who show individual attention to every single customer who walks through the door.
  • Steal the best of brick-and-mortar retail – and scrap the worst. When starting online, consider what brick-and-mortar, conventional retail has done right. For instance, we love how brick-and-mortar retailers provide easy access to service, with employees available at a moment’s notice to answer questions or explain details. From early on, we focused on a similar style of informing and servicing our customers as part of the experience.
  • DON’T ditch the playbook entirely. You don’t have to reinvent everything. Instead, use two criteria to decide what to reinvent: Is it broken and can you fix it? That is, is it within your DNA or core competencies to fix? You’re always at risk for trying to reinvent too many things when you should be focusing on the one or two things that actually differentiate your company.

To be sure, more challenges will arise for us just as they will for you. Most importantly, we’re at the critical stage in our development where transitioning our brand offline is the next logical step. Our goal is to seamlessly blend the channels so they’re not independent or disjointed experiences. So while we’ve learned so much about starting online, surely there will be a long list of lessons to learn from “transitioning offline.” If you have any advice, please do share in the comments.

Aman Advani is Co-Founder and President of Ministry of Supply, a menswear company focused on creating a new category of clothing, Performance Professional, through a collaboration between experienced engineers and seasoned fashion experts.

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