Top Women in Retail 2018: Sarah LaFleur, Founder and CEO, MM.LaFleur
To see the full list of this year's Top Women in Retail honorees, click here.
What do you enjoy most about working in the retail industry?
Working with creative people. I had never worked in fashion before I started MM.LaFleur. My co-founder and creative director, Miyako Nakamura, and I come from very different backgrounds. I worked in management consulting, and she was the former head designer at Zac Posen. Working with Miyako has been the easiest and greatest collaboration. I walk into her office and say, “Wouldn’t it be great if this happened?” And she filters that through her knowledge of the industry and what’s possible. Together, we’ve invented new clothing categories (the “jardigan” is our blending of a jacket and cardigan) that fit our customer’s specific lifestyle.
What’s the biggest challenge you've faced in your career, and how did you overcome it?
Having seen the success of hot e-commerce startups like Warby Parker and Bonobos, I thought that if I followed their formula of making beautiful products, pricing them reasonably, and selling them through an e-commerce site, we would see instant success. But when our site launched, we didn’t see any traction. It was a painful realization that our product was quite different from eyeglasses or men’s khakis. It didn’t work to just brand MM “the Bonobos for professional women!” Our product was different, our pricing was different, our market was different, and our customer was different. We had a great product, but we didn’t know how to sell it, and we struggled out of the gate. I remember literally thinking, “We’re going to die under a mountain of dresses.”
In an act of desperation, my team decided we needed to be more proactive about getting the customer to give us a try. We emailed them saying, “Can we send you a box of styles to try, and you can keep the ones you like and return the ones you don’t? You don’t have to pay anything upfront.” A surprising percentage of customers responded “yes” to that email, and we made more money in that one week than we ever had in one month. That experience led to an epiphany: Our customer is too busy to shop. A typical e-commerce website is overwhelming to her, and she wants to outsource that decision making to someone else. So rather than expecting her to browse online, we developed our Bento Box program: a styling service just for her. We also invested in content so that she could engage with our brand even when she wasn’t purchasing something, and so that she would immediately understand, “these people get me.”
How would you describe your leadership style?
I follow Danny Meyer’s philosophy outlined in his book, “Setting the Table”: employees first, customers second. As a businessperson, I feel like I’m always searching for that utopia where everyone feels his or her unique voice is heard. As a company, MM.LaFleur is very diverse, and I’d like to think we embrace the differences that exist from one employee to the next. Rather than solely focusing on improving their weaknesses, I want my employees to play to their strengths. We talk about “finding your superpower.” I also work to model our company value of “nothing above you, nothing below you,” the idea being that no matter your level, you pitch in. You could spend the morning mapping out a game-changing strategy and then spend the afternoon taking out the trash.
What's the best advice you ever received, and who gave you the advice?
Two mentors gave me the same piece of advice on two separate occasions: “Always show up.” For most of my 20s, I thought I could do everything stronger, better, faster, and — if I just had that extra cup of coffee — maybe a little bit longer. I once scheduled a conference call at 3:30 a.m. with a team in Paris because, well, why couldn’t I? This kind of behavior didn’t make me “good at my job”; it just made me inconsistent. Now that I manage a team, there’s nothing I appreciate more than someone who shows up and is consistent. That batter who gets on base 10 out of 10 times is more valuable than the occasional homerun hitter. I need team members I can rely on.
What one new retail technology or trend do you believe will have the biggest impact in 2018, and why?
Given the popularity of clothing rental services like Rent the Runway and Le Tote, I think we’ll see a trend towards partial ownership of clothing, where customers pay a monthly fee for a recurring delivery of garments. This model has the potential to revamp much of the traditional retail experience, where consumers purchase and fully own their clothing.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?
Hanging out with my puppy, Ruggles! I love classical music, so I try to go to the New York Philharmonic at least once a season. It’s the ultimate way for me to decompress.
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