This Founder Shares What's Led To The Sustainable Growth Of Her Multimillion-Dollar Intimates Brand
This article was written by Alison Gilbert and originally published on Forbes.com
Joanna Griffiths is the CEO and founder of intimate apparel brand Knix.
Founded in and bootstrapped since 2012, Griffiths set out to build a company to “change the way women feel about themselves,” she says.
In 2013, Griffiths went on to raise over $60,000 through an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, validating the customer need for Knix’s flagship product, leakproof panties. Since then the company has expanded its product-line to include everyday bras, underwear, sports bras, bodysuits and tops, and has launched an additional brand called Knixteen offering leakproof panties and training bras for teens.
As dozens of other companies have been growing alongside Knix and carving out their piece of the market-share in the $12 billion dollar lingerie industry, Griffiths has been doubling-down on her brand's core mission to empower women to live unapologetically free with its emboldening brand strategy.
When she started the company, Griffiths made a strategic decision to feature only its real-customers in marketing materials. To date over 600 of Knix’s own customers have been photographed and featured on the brand's Instagram feed, in marketing campaigns and throughout the website. The photos of the women strike that fine balance of a celebratory aesthetic and one that captures the essence of each woman in her imperfect glory making her appear perfect actually--from her stretch marks, to her mastectomy scars, to the special features of her body shape.
As Knix goes into its seventh year and eases into an era of even faster growth—the company currently sells an item every 10 seconds and last year shipped half a million orders—Griffiths is considering outside capital and is evolving its brand voice to take on the vulnerable topic of fertility.
Below Griffiths shares the advantages and challenges of self-funding, talks about the difficult decision to move from wholesale to direct-to-consumer, how her role as CEO has changed as the company has grown, and more.
You’ve been self-funded from the start how has that been helpful for growth?
We’ve really been able to follow our own path which has allowed us to make some of these tough moves. We pulled out of wholesale which was a risk, but because we owned our destiny, we could make that call. The same with our marketing and the decision to use real women, our customers, in our photoshoots I’ve had potential investor meetings where they just didn’t get it. They thought our images were “raw” or “unpolished” which was code for them being uncomfortable seeing stretch marks, cellulite and bodies of all different ages. That authenticity has become a part of our brand DNA and something I received a lot of push back on in the beginning.
It’s also meant that we can take our time to get products right. We don’t rush things to market because we have a quarterly goal that we need to hit, we take our time and make sure that we get it right. In the end I think that we are stronger for that as we make decisions for the long run.
And in what ways has self-funding been challenging?
The biggest challenge is that you have to be very smart about your resources, especially with a product-based business that requires working capital to grow.
We would often fly in 20% of an order so that we could sell through the inventory and use the funds to pay for the remaining 80% before it came due. We built a team of generalists...jack of all trades that wore many different hats. I remember in 2014 we actually made money off our rent as I hosted three other companies in our office, using the weekends to go on IKEA runs and set up new workstations so we could bring in even more cash.
It definitely adds some grey hairs to your head and isn’t for everyone.
What was something that worked for Knix for a while but as the company grew stopped working that you had to adjust for?
In the early days our growth, Knix was highly contingent on word of mouth. We were growing quite nicely just with press coverage, word of mouth and referrals from our customers but ultimately if we wanted to reach to a larger scale we had to start investing in marketing and sharing our products and brand with a larger audience. This was intimidating at first because it can be scary to start spending sizable amounts of money when you aren’t accustomed to it. But we were very disciplined. We started small, spending $30-50 dollars a day, running a bunch of experiments and then would scale the marketing tactics that worked. We failed a bunch, but in the end we were able to learn from our failures.
What’s a decision that you made that at the time you felt scared about but ended up being pivotal?
The decision to move away from wholesale and to be 100% e-commerce focused was a big one. I spent the first three years of Knix pounding the pavement at trade shows, trekking across the country doing trunk shows and meeting with retail buyers. We got to about 700 retail doors, but I realized that we could be selling so much more if we owned the relationship with our end consumers. As a brand we were very much at the forefront of inclusivity we have offered size 0-22 since day one. Our marketing was sending out one message, but our retailer partners weren’t interested in carrying our size range. I remember there was one week that we received multiple complaints from customers who had driven to 2-3 stores in their hometown looking to buy our product only to be turned away because the retail partner didn’t carry their size. We had a serious lack of brand alignment. So we made the difficult decision to pull out of wholesale. It was scary at first, saying no to orders and no revenue. Especially when after years of hard work some pretty great retailers wanted to work with us. There were nights when I wasn’t sure if we had made the right the call, and for two years, all I did was say no. But in the end it all paid off. We’ve been able to grow our team from 3 to 40 people, and grow our revenue by over 2000%.
How has your role as CEO evolved as the company has grown?
One of the benefits of being a small team for a prolonged amount of time is that you have the chance to do just about every role and in the earlier days I would churn out A LOT of work. Over the years as our team has grown I’ve gone from being a do-er to a facilitator. I set the strategy and the vision for the company and then help ensure that everyone else on the team has the resources to deliver. It’s been a shift and took some getting used to but I have come to really love it.
What keeps you up at night?
In all honesty, I sleep pretty well. I’ve learned that it’s a marathon, not a race, and that has helped. I think the biggest stress of being a founder always comes down to people. How do you get the best people possible to join you on your mission, and how do you ensure that you keep them motivated, challenged and delivering. At the end of the day, we are all just a bunch of humans who are trying to work together and as simple as that sounds, in theory it can be hard to get right in practice.
How have you grown the most personally from your early days as an entrepreneur?
Oh my goodness I have grown in so many ways. One way that I didn’t expect is that I have learned to love myself a whole lot more. I’ve spent the past six years on set with hundreds of our customers who have modeled for our brands. And every day on set I become a little less hard on myself and a little more loving. It’s a change that I wish that everyone could experience. When we stop spending time and energy on the things that don’t matter, it frees up so much space to work on the things that do.