Growing Through Values, with Sarah LaFleur
Episode 112: Growing Through Values, with Sarah LaFleur
Sarah left what was once a dream job of going into management consulting to turn her dreams into product at MM.LaFleur. Though Sarah's mother worked in high fashion, Sarah had no experience in the field. However as a woman working in corporate America, she saw the need for change and disrupted the industry of women’s business clothing. In this episode, we talk with Sarah about how her business grew so drastically over the past few years, their “bento box” that tripled company revenue overnight, as well as the importance of company values and staying true them even as a start-up.
00:11 Kristy Wallace: Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host, Maricella Herrera. How's it going?
00:20 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy. I'm so excited about our guest today.
00:24 KW: I am so excited about our guest today, too. And I had a lot of fun chatting with her about MM.LaFleur, her business.
00:32 MH: Yes, our guest is Sarah LaFleur, by the way. Yeah, she's great and their clothing is great, and I love what her brand stands for, and I'm just a big fan, to be honest.
00:44 KW: Yeah, it's [00:44] ____ they actually dressed our speakers for last year's summit. Incredibly supportive, we had... If you watched the live stream or checked out some of the videos, we had some of the top minds in gender equality on stage, just talking about the ways that we can all take action and make action. [chuckle] We can take action towards creating a more equal and just world. And they very kindly dressed many of the speakers. But beyond that, it's not just about that, it's about just supporting gender equality in general and the work that MM.LaFleur has done around that, and particularly, Sarah. So Sarah will be joining us on stage this year at the Ellevate Summit, and on a panel of women CEOs which we are excited to see and to hear from because we don't talk enough about the women who are leading successful businesses, who are creating change, who are really at the top. We know part of the reason we don't hear enough about that is because when you look at major companies, women are grossly underrepresented in the C-Suite. And it's something like less than 4% of women are Fortune 500 CEOs. So, we're seeing a huge change in that in the entrepreneurial community and in other industries where women are really rising to the top, driving change and being our female role models.
02:15 MH: I am excited.
02:16 KW: I know, I am too. So do we have a stat for today, a poll?
02:19 MH: We do. So, as you heard us last week, we've been doing some research on how we spend our money, and how our community spends our money, and if buying from female-founded companies is something that they care about and something that drives them to buy more. Last week, the answer was yes. Knowing that a product what came from a female-founded company would make them more likely to buy that product. And today, we asked what most likely keeps you from choosing a product from a female-founded company? 47% said when choosing a product, I don't know which ones are female-founded.
02:54 KW: Okay.
02:55 MH: Which is very fair. It's not as easy to notice. 22% said quality and price outweigh any other factors, which is fair. 16% said whether a company is female-founded is less important to me than other aspects of the product or company. Majority women employees, environmental sustainability, etcetera. So they still do care about some of the things that the company stands for but not necessarily who their founder is. And 8% said, sometimes there aren't any female-founded products available to choose from.
03:31 KW: I sense an opportunity for disruption.
03:34 MH: Right. I'm looking at this and I'm like, "There are so many things we can do."
03:38 KW: Yes, yes, yes. But, well, that's a big part of it is having transparency in conversations around businesses that align with your values. Ellevate, we've talked in the past, were a B-Corp, and it's something very important to us to be a business that is driving social change and social good. But the conversation, the awareness, the consumer adoption of that is a little bit behind the businesses that are leading the way in terms of how they run their businesses. And I think that there'll definitely come a time in the not so distant future where consumers have the tools, the resources, and the knowledge to be much more intentional about where they spend their money, and we know that women wield the most power when it comes to purchasing decisions, and so women will be at the forefront of that change, and we're excited to see it happen.
04:33 MH: Yep, 86% of consumer decisions.
04:36 KW: There you go, there you go. Alright, well, I hope you enjoy my conversation with Sarah. She's phenomenal, inspirational. I had a great time chatting with her, and tell us what you think. Email us at email@example.com with your questions, and we'd love to hear from you.
04:55 MH: And check out the summit, June 21st.
04:58 KW: Check it out.
05:08 KW: Thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast.
05:13 Sarah LaFleur: Thank you for having me.
05:16 KW: Well, we're so excited, we're huge fans of you here and of MM.LaFleur.
05:21 SL: Thank you.
05:22 KW: You just are such an inspiration, not just as an entrepreneur and a business woman, but because you're making the world so much easier for working women.
05:34 SL: I just have to jump in there and say that that little tiny sigh that you heard is Kristy's daughter, Zoe.
05:40 KW: Yes.
05:41 SL: Three years old who's joining us for this podcast.
05:44 KW: She is joining us for the podcast today. This is what's called a work-life integration. Right, there's...
05:52 SL: Well said.
05:53 KW: There's no lines and there's no bounds.
05:55 SL: Well said.
05:56 KW: And sometimes when your kid comes to work with you, she jumps on the podcast, right?
06:00 SL: Love it. Right, Zoe?
06:02 KW: Zoe are you having fun at work today?
06:05 SL: She stares up knowingly. Yeah, she's having a blast.
06:10 KW: So Sarah, I wanna hear...
06:11 SL: Yes.
06:13 KW: How did this all begin?
06:14 SL: It began in the most unexpected of ways which is that I left a job that I had in private equity and it was my dream job that I had been pining for for what felt like years. And I finally got the job and I started it and about four months into the job, there were so many things that were glamorous about it. There was a trip where we were flying on a private jet to Paris.
06:49 KW: I think that's fun.
06:50 SL: Yeah, so fun, right? Can work get any more exciting? And we were getting to work with these really remarkable luxury brands. And it just hit me one moment that this wasn't the right job for me, that this wasn't where I wanted to be in the long run. And I probably could have stuck it out and found another job... Lined up another job, but it felt really hard to be there when I realized this wasn't the place for me. And so I turned in my two weeks notice pretty suddenly and I think my boss was surprised, my parents were surprised.
07:33 KW: You were surprised. [chuckle]
07:34 SL: I was surprised, exactly. They were all kind of like, "This is not how it's supposed to be done. You're supposed to spend at least a year at this company before you move on 'cause otherwise it looks terrible in your resume." But I think deep down I was just like, "I'm so unhappy." And sure, I could stick it out for a little bit longer, but I feel like I'm wasting all this precious time being unhappy. And so I left and, truth time, I cried for about a month after that because there was a real fear that started to set in, "What have I done? Why couldn't I just stick it out?" And it was in this moment of... Really the lowest point of professional confidence that I said to myself, "Okay, I've gotta go do something different and I think I wanna start my own thing." And so much of that really was coming from a place of fear, of, "Oh my gosh, I think I've really just permanently ruined my resume, I've become unemployable and I now have to go create my own opportunity." And of course, the other half of that was myself being really excited about this nascent idea that I had, that professional clothing for women could be done better. But it was really those two things coming together. A lot of fear mixed in with a lot of hope.
08:47 KW: Yeah. So it's funny when I hear your story. I started in investment banking, but I remember some of the first suits and workwear that I bought and it was terrible, terrible. The industry was so ripe for disruption.
09:03 SL: I know. Oh my gosh, yes, thank you. I think... It was really true, I... So my first job out of college was in management consulting and that's where I really got my first taste of professional clothing and my mother actually, she worked in high-end fashion, so when I was growing up, throughout my childhood, I would always watch her get ready for work in the morning. And it's so funny that Zoe's sitting here because I know she's taking in everything. I know she's watching her video right now on your iPhone, but she's absorbing everything. And I think it was very much like that for me watching my mother get ready for work in the morning. And I grew up in Tokyo, my mother's Japanese, where it was pretty rare for moms to be working. I just remember this kindergarten I went to. All the moms would come for pick-up time at 3:00 PM and I was the only person who had a nanny come pick me up. And that always really stuck out to me in my mind. But at the same time I knew my mom was doing something that she really enjoyed.
10:05 SL: She loved her career and she talked about it a lot and she was in the world of fashion and so she would show me these pieces that either were given to her or that she purchased and I think through her I got to touch and feel these beautiful things. And so in my mind I was like, "Well, when I grow up one day, I too I'm gonna wear a Chanel suit to work." [laughter] And basically... She wasn't buying these Chanel suits obviously, she was being gifted then, but that was totally my misconception. And so when I started my first job and I was, again, in management consulting, so getting paid a decent amount for someone fresh out of school who knows absolutely nothing. And yet I knew that I wasn't gonna be setting foot in Barneys or Bergdorfs or buying any of those pieces. I was going to your fast fashion retailers, you're kind of middle of the ground contemporary stores and picking up items that were gosh just really not made well. And I would wear them for a year, they would start to fall apart. Already the fit was terrible so I would have to get them taken in or let out at my Chinatown tailor. And I was like, "Gosh, I really think professional women deserve better than this." And so that was the beginning of it.
11:15 KW: Were you an artist by train, fashion? 'Cause we're talking business which you I'm sure learned a lot about that working in consulting and private equity, but this is an industry where I think you're really using the full brain and there's a lot to unpack there.
11:33 SL: Yes. So I am not the Creative Director, thank God. My co-founder and partner Miyako is. And she was the head designer at Zac Posen before joining MM and she had worked with Jason Wu, and she was a name that people knew in the fashion world unlike mine. So I remember in the very first conversations that we were having with factories, they were like, "You worked where at Bain & Company." Never heard of it, who cares? Whereas with Miyako, she had been at Zac Posen, she had really come up the food chain of fashion, which is this very narrow pyramid. And so I think she helped us gain a lot of credibility. I wouldn't had never been able to have the conversations with the factories and the fabric mills really were it not for her and what she had built. So much of the success I owe to her, I think, but I would like to think I'm a right brain person and left brain person. And so, there was a part of me that was very unfulfilled.
12:35 SL: Being in management consulting or private equity, I remember I would go into these fabric stores, there are bunch in the Garment District, Mood Fabrics, I think is really well-known now from Project Runway. But I would just go there and I would cut swatches and I would buy fabrics, because I loved touching the textiles and I would get so excited when I saw these fabrics and I thought, "I would really love to do something where my dreams actually turn into an actual physical product." As opposed to finance and consulting, in consulting your product is a bunch of slides and models, financial models, and not that they're any less of a product, but like, oh, if there's a mistake, you just go and change a number, and it's fixed. Tangible physical products are much more complex than that, but there's something so magical about them and I think that's what I fell in love with.
13:26 KW: What were some of your learnings from the early days? I've read the story of how the Bento Box came about, which is such a great story. But what did you learn during those early days?
13:39 SL: Yes, and so, the story that Kristy is referring to is basically for the first, I would say, year that we launched the business, we just could not find any attraction. And this was the year after we launched our e-commerce site, so initially we designed our products, made our products, and we sold them through trunk shows and we actually had really positive responses from the trunk shows, so that helped us gain some confidence that we were doing something different, our product was different. And so then we said, "Okay well, now we've sold them through trunk shows so let's just sell them through an e-commerce site. How hard can it be?" And this is really the heyday.
14:16 KW: The plan.
14:17 SL: Yeah, exactly, put together a website, throw it up there and let's see what happens. And Warby Parker was really taking off, same with Bonobos, Everlane, all these direct-to-consumer e-commerce brands were really flourishing. And so I kind of naively thought like, "Okay, I'll just launch a site, and we'll be an instant success, too." And it wasn't at all like that, it was crickets for the first... I would say, yeah, first year and what a slog. And then, so I think about a year into it, we said to ourselves, "Okay, something about this is not working." And we could try to raise the money and invest in marketing and just draw more customers to our site, but we probably need to just fix what's broken about our experience before we go and invest a ton of money into marketing." So I think the aha moment really came when... So this was the winter of 2014, if you remember one of the coldest winters, it was snow blizzard every week. I think there was Nemo or something, it was a terrible winter and we were sitting in our warehouse, about the size of this room, so like 100 square feet.
15:24 SL: We were looking at all this inventory and we were like, "Oh my gosh, we are gonna die, under a mountain of dresses." I remember thinking that and said to ourselves, "Okay, we just need to send these dresses to our customers and see if she wants to keep anything." And so, we emailed our customers, our very small number of customers saying, "We'd love to put together a box of our merchandise for you. You've shopped with us before, so we know you like our products. Would you be willing to try?" And I think it was 18%. It was a surprising number of customers responded to our email saying like, "Oh sure, I've been meaning to order from you awhile. I just haven't had the time. Send me a box." And so then we said, "Okay, something about this works. Let's see if we can try this with our new customers." So what we were calling in marketing speak, unconverted customers, so, customers who might be on your mailing list but have never actually shopped with you so we then emailed them saying, "We know you've never tried our brand, but if you tell us a few things about yourself, we think we can pick the right products for you and send it to you."
16:25 SL: And we ended up converting more customers off that one email than any other splashy marketing campaign we have done to date and that really was the lightbulb moment for us, realizing that our customers were essentially these women who were too busy to shop, they didn't have time to go on an e-commerce site and be like, "Hmm, am I a size 8 or a size 10? Do I wanna wear navy or black?" The thought that someone else was gonna do all these decision-making for you, I think that was a relief to them.
16:54 KW: Yeah.
16:54 SL: And maybe you see this in offering financial advice, too but I think a lot of women and professional women say to themselves like, "This is my area of expertise, this is what I'm really confident talking about and I wanna dress fashionably, but I don't actually care to learn more about fashions. So you are the person who knows about fashion. You tell me what I should be wearing." And that really was what kicked off our Bento Box and I would say... Well, actually it's funny, the day we launched our Bento Box our revenue tripled overnight and to this day, I've never really seen anything like that, but it's really what allowed us to scale our business. All of our scale as a company has really come from that point forward.
17:41 KW: You mentioned Warby Parker and I saw Neil speaking, the founder a few weeks ago and he was talking about this concept of what you hear with e-commerce or customer-facing brands, how there's one way you're projecting to your customer, there's a value prop that's important to them that resonates and then there's something else for your internal customer, which is your employees and different values that resonate and that really... They buy into. And it's not always... I know for Warby Parker, he's like, "Our customers want a great product that's easy to access, but our employees wanna have an impact, and they care more about the give back programs." And that's something that you've really driven a lot too at MM.Lafleur in terms of the values and the culture that you've created. Why has that been so important to you? And can you share a little bit about your thinking around that.
18:33 SL: Sure. I talked about my other co-founder here, Narie so she and I worked together at Bain and about a year into my working on MM I was getting to a place where I just could not scale myself, and so I was like, "You know what, I need to bring someone else who knows how to do what I do, but hopefully do it better." And Narie was kind of... We were talking about like I'm the ideas person, and this other person really knows how to operationalize it, and Narie was that person. And one of the things that I think she so fundamentally believed in was having strong company values, and so I remember in the early days when we still could barely pay rent. She came up to me and she was like, "You know, Sarah. This is probably the time where we should really put our values down on paper because this is what's gonna set the tone for the rest of our company's life." And she was really right and so she and Tory who writes our... She's our creative brand director but she... The two of them... We already had a working list of what our values were, but they spent probably two months really just making sure we got every single word right, we ended up with these 10 values and 10 might seem like a lot, but we talk about them so often as a company, I think you could talk to any employee and I would say, probably all of them could recite all 10.
20:02 SL: And it is really even through this period of scale, it has been our guiding post. And whenever I think like, "Ah, am I straying?" Those are the things that I turn to. So for so many reasons, I'm so glad that she insisted upon it. And now actually, when I meet with new entrepreneurs who were just getting their business started, I said I know this feels like the last thing you should be doing with your time right now, but just think about putting your values down on paper.
20:29 KW: Yeah, which value is your favorite?
20:33 SL: Okay, so I'll say the one that's everyone's favorite, I think, the company, if you pulled our company again, probably 90% of people would say that [20:41] ____ is their number one favorite value. So [20:45] ____ is a Japanese word and the closest translation I can think of is empathy and action and it's more than just empathy. So for example, if someone walks in the door and they're panting, an empathetic person might say, "Oh my gosh, I know it must be so hot out there, are you okay? Can I grab you a glass of water?" Whereas the person who exercises [21:08] ____ would just know to grab a glass of water and bring it to them. So Danny Meyer talks about this concept connecting the dots. Can you connect the dots for the customer but I think actually it's not really just for the customer, can you connect the dots for each other? If you're having a meeting, this happens often, but we run out of chairs around the conference room table and if you know more people are coming, then can you be that person who preempts and brings in conference chairs for that other person? So that other person isn't having to shuffling chairs at the last minute as the meeting is already started.
21:39 SL: And so I think we use this really in the way we interact with each other, but obviously with our customers as well, and also our suppliers and manufacturers. Fashion can be a really terrible place I would say just in the way it treats its vendors and partners and I think we've always tried to be the brand that does right by its suppliers, and so that's been a really important value. My personal favorite is nothing above you, nothing below you. And this really just goes to... I think the blurb we use is come up with a game-changing idea and then be willing to take out the trash at the end of the day. That is start-up mentality and it's heart and I really try to live and breathe that one 'cause I don't ever wanna be too big for anything. It's a constant challenge, 'cause you have to try to scale yourself, as the business scales and you have to bring in other people who know what they're doing better than you to do things. But I never want to say like, "Oh, that's below me." I feel like I am game for anything and I want everyone on my team to feel that way, too.
22:43 KW: So what's next for MM.Lafleur?
22:46 SL: It's been... So we've just scaled really, really rapidly from call at end of 2014, I mean 2015, 16, 17. Each year feels like its own chapter and so distinct. So right now we're in this process where we're trying to, for better, really stabilize. I think we grew so fast that our technology wasn't always keeping up and so we really invested in growing our engineering department. And they're trying to keep up with how far the business has come and I feel like that's going to be so important. So there's a lot of that kind of going back to the operationalizing, operationalizing, oh gosh, I can't believe I just said that. But operationalizing phase of the business that is so much of what needs to happen now. And so I try to bite my tongue, I have 100 ideas in my head, but I know that what needs to happen... For the companies that we need to stabilize a lot of parts of the business. But I'm obviously in my head, I'm thinking about like, "Okay, what's next and what's the growth that's going to come?" So we ended up opening a number of stores and that we weren't quite sure what we were gonna do with brick and mortar.
24:07 SL: It's been, I think, the big question with a lot of these direct-to-consumer businesses is what is the role of brick and mortar and I think some business... I remember Andy Dunn famously saying like, "We're never gonna do e-commerce." And then, I think he's very self-aware in that aspect, he's saying that was a mistake actually brick and mortar has become a big part of our strategy and we were always... We kind of have the benefit of being two to three years behind a lot of these businesses that started two to three years before us and so we were learning from them a lot, and so for us, we never knew... We were always unsure what brick and mortar was gonna be for us but we always saw that our customers loved interacting with their stylist and so for us in our stores, we actually don't have any merchandise on the floor. You book an appointment... You don't have to book and appointment but a lot of our customers do. And you spend 60 to 90 minutes with your stylist and you have a closet that's pre-pulled for you.
25:04 SL: So your stylist reads through your profile and she's thinking like, "Okay, she works in a business casual environment and she likes to wear mostly black and navy and grey," here are the outfits for her or, "Okay, she's... " A lot of our Atlanta customers actually like colors, like, "Okay, she's gonna want a more colorful wardrobe and she needs to travel a lot to Florida, so let's make sure we put some summer friendly pieces or hot weather friendly pieces," and it's a 60, 90 minute session where I think you're kind of receiving the royal treatment. You're welcomed with a glass of champagne and really you're just talking about what does your overall wardrobe need to look like and what are the pieces that you need to add into it? And so, it really for us, it wasn't just about opening more stores, it was really about being able to share this experience with more customers. And so we now have seven stores, two in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, DC, and I am forgetting one...
26:03 KW: Atlanta?
26:04 SL: Atlanta, thank you. Thank you, Kristy.
26:07 KW: I was listening.
26:08 SL: Oh, my gosh. And then we're opening up one in Philly and then also in Houston. And so this is a bigger part of our business now, and we're excited to see where this is going.
26:21 KW: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This is great. We had so much fun today.
26:24 SL: Thank you, thank you.
26:25 KW: Zoe, thanks for joining us today.
26:27 SL: Zoe, thanks for having me.
26:28 KW: Can you say thank you?
26:30 Zoe: Mm-mmm.
26:32 KW: Yeah, Sarah it was great.
26:34 SL: Thank you so much.
26:37 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars and share your review. Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNTWK, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-Enetwork.com and special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller, she rocks. And to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger, thanks so much, and join us next week.
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