April 29, 2013 Leave a Comment
Tricia took a little convincing (she didn’t think she’d be geeky enough), but we got her hooked with our January dinner, and in the end we convinced her. Her presentation about the technical side of Mabel’s Labels, from founding to today, was fantastic and funny (and plenty geeky).
The room was standing-room-only, the slides were pink, and the presentation was titled: Mabel’s Labels:
Who knew selling labels could be so nerdy? (I had an inkling, but no idea of the scope.) The presentation ranged from the tech involved with the website and ecommerce to actual production to social media and analytics.
Mabel’s Labels was founded 10 years ago by Tricia and three co-founders and family members: Julie Cole, Julie Ellis, and Cynthia Esp. They all had busy lives and young families and wanted to do something that would fit their lifestyles a bit better. They also realized it was an unserved niche lacking competition. Little did they know how the biz would take over. These days they no longer work out of Cynthia’s basement, and have a dedicated facility and offshore production capabilities. They sell online, over the phone, via affiliates, and at Walmart and Target.
Some of their biggest challenges have been:
- creating and growing a market need
- learning to manage unpredictability
- coming to terms with the amount of work and managing it (and its cyclical nature)
- protecting the brand
- building and maintaining buzz and word of mouth and keeping them positive
- manageably scaling growth
- hiring great people
- trusting necessary outsiders (accounting, advertising, etc.)
- getting scientific.
As much tech as Tricia rolled out, she mentioned several times that when they started X, Y, or Z initiative, they often had no idea what they were doing and learned on the job. And the speed of technical change is something they work hard to keep up with even now, from the cyclical nature of sales and production to the constantly changing social tools and analytics landscape.
Probably their most important focus and investment is in knowing their customers. Tricia used an awesome comparison of Mr. Hooper‘s store and amazon.com. Buying from Mr. Hooper might have been a pleasant neighbourhood experience, but Amazon knows what was bought, by whom, when, and how often. They know shopping patterns and coupon usage and shopping behaviours of new vs. returning customers. They know about cart sizes based on where you entered the website vs. where you live. And retailers like Mabel’s Label’s need to (and do) know all of these things, too.
Tricia and the others at Mabel’s Labels realized the immense potential of social media early on, and Tricia (as VP of Sales and Marketing and Product Development, aka “VP of Pretty”) was their most enthusiastic adopter. She recognizes that there were, and are, far more social sites, apps, etc. than anyone can embrace and use well, so she started narrowing her scope using “DILI?” (Do I Like It?) And over time they’ve developed a solid platform of social, retail, and in-person engagement that works with their audience.
Mabel’s Label’s has an affiliate and advisory group, known as Mabel’s BuzzMamas, who test products, give feedback, and provide word of mouth. They have used coupon partnerships, and taken part in many, many fundraisers. They benefit from mainstream media coverage and celebrity exposure, and also embrace the old standbys of Twitter, Facebook, blogging (which covers plenty of family-related topics, not just preventing kids from losing stuff), and the phone. Yup, they handle a large and wide variety of telephone interactions.
The value of all of these activities and interactions gets tracked and analyzed to ensure that’s it’s both benefitting the business and their customer community. They can slice and dice all of their data as needed, whether it relates to people, products, sales, markets, or other areas of interest.
On the surface their social properties tend to just look like fun community places, and they are, but they also provide a great deal of demographic data, like Facebook Insights. Their hard work on these properties shows, like being named one of Inc. magazine’s “20 awesome fan pages” in online retail in 2011. Twitter, meanwhile, is one of their main vehicles for sharing info with customers, media, and partners. Tricia commented on the many opportunities that have arisen from Twitter, which is a story I’ve heard from many sources over the years. Twitter is also apparently a great way to get access and introductions to people when traditional methods fail (lookin’ at you, mail room).
Even trade shows (that’s right, face to face) need to be nerdy. What are the shopping patterns of those who buy in-person, and how likely are they to be repeat customers? How often and how much do they shop? How often do they become online customers as well? Listening a lot is the key in these environments.
Speaking of online, the website is all tech, all the time. From testing targeted keywords and PPC to granular analytics and finding the right affiliate partners for Mabel’s audience. Not to mention trying to keep up with ever-changing algorithms. Beyond their own site, it’s an endless challenge to maintain search rankings and ad positions, as well as fight off sneaky types who try and horn in on results using their brand name and keywords.
Moving back into the bricks and mortar world, investing in technology has become essential to their manufacturing operations. They’ve come a long way from manually stuffing labels into bags at 2am. The team needs to ensure the quality of their product as much as the accuracy of their order fulfillment and their ability to scale production in line with annual cyclical purchasing patterns. They’ve built (and are constantly tweaking) a system to run smoothly and with optimal efficiency (no matter who’s at the helm) both here and offshore (which took a LOT of visiting, testing, and investigating).
And to wind up on a lighter note, Tricia even shared a secret about how tech helps their founder photos and head shots look their best. Hey, if you’ve got it, why not use it?
One of the key themes throughout the talk was the openness to opportunity. Realizing that tech could help them, and not letting initial ignorance hold them back. Trying and testing and trying again until they found what seemed to work, and then measuring to be sure. And then starting all over again. Starting with those who could help (and work for an air hockey table) and then building on their people, expertise, and systems as needed.
Each of the founders (and, since, their staff) found their niche in the business — a combination of experience, expertise, and interest — and ran with it, adopting and employing technology along the way to help them learn, fix problems, provide great products and customer experiences, and grow the business. While much of what they do is essential to business today, especially online retail, it wasn’t necessarily so outside of retail giants when they got started a decade ago. But their curiosity, passion, and tenacity for the business (Tricia described the company as a child with four mothers) and technology’s opportunities has led to tremendous success, and four moms proudly wearing the moniker of “geek”.