Lolly Wolly Doodle Makes Friends with Facebook

1/6/2014
One of the most dramatic success stories in the apparel industry, Lolly Wolly Doodle escalated in a few short years from a hobby to a thriving business with 230 employees. The company rode a social media wave that may no longer be possible today — but the lessons learned along the way have become guiding principles as LWD prepares for further growth.

In 2008, Brandi Temple was a full-time mother in North Carolina who enjoyed sewing clothes for her two young daughters. “I wasn’t meaning to start a business,” she explains, but one day, finding herself with leftover fabric, she used the extra material to sew more children’s clothes and posted pictures of them on eBay. The items sold quickly, so she bought more fabric and repeated the experiment.

Over the next year and a half, Temple continued to sew, using the proceeds of her sales to buy more fabric. In addition to selling clothes on eBay, she attended craft fairs, where she had what she calls an “overwhelming response.” By the end of 2009, she had turned her home into a small-scale factory, with three people cutting, sewing and monogramming. She tried outsourcing some smocking to an offshore vendor and — despite not being entirely happy with the results — posted the lot of smocked goods on the Facebook page she had just set up. Within 30 seconds, every item was sold. “That was the Aha! moment,” she says.

Her Facebook followers doubled and tripled daily (today they number 786,000), and all of them wanted to buy her clothes. Temple began working furiously to satisfy them. “I was frantically hiring more seamstresses,” she recalls, “and my husband learned how to monogram. My whole family would come over to help, and my dad would cook dinner for us. By March or April, I wasn’t sleeping. I was even selling clothes I’d made for my daughters!”

In June 2010, an exhausted Temple was looking for a buyer to take over the business when her husband was laid off from his job. Instead of selling Lolly Wolly Doodle, they decided to reverse roles and transform the business into one that could support the family. Temple moved the sewing machines off the dining room table and into a factory location, and began hiring friends and neighbors to work there. Unemployment was still high in central North Carolina, and Temple was delighted to help put people back to work, but the textile industry had been gone from the area long enough that cutting and sewing skills were in short supply. “We were so desperate, we just sat people down at the machine and started training them,” she says.

At about the same time, LWD received its first outside investment from Shana Fisher, managing partner of High Line Venture Partners, a New York-based venture fund. Fisher helped start the company on what Temple calls its “journey toward becoming a technology platform;” the first major step was to automate all the business processing behind the Facebook page so fulfilling orders would become less onerous. Fisher also recommended hiring tech-industry veteran Emily Hickey as COO. Hickey works from New York City, as does the engineering, marketing and website development staff; production and customer service are still located in North Carolina.

A Facebook romance
In 2010, LWD was still transacting all of its business through Facebook — in fact, it accounted for more Facebook sales than any other company. “Back then, it was very easy to be on Facebook,” Temple explains. “We were in people’s news feeds all the time.”

Easy or not, Temple made the most of the Facebook opportunity through constant engagement with customers and real-time responses to their requests. Some conversations on the Facebook page involve typical customer service issues; customers also post a lot of pictures of children wearing Lolly Wolly Doodle clothes. (Someone from LWD always responds to admire the cute kids and thank the parent for shopping.) Customers also answer one another’s questions on the Facebook page. In addition, two customer-managed boards handle swaps and resales.

The most unusual feature of LWD’s Facebook page, however, is how it inspires product development and design. Parents talk about what they’d like to buy from LWD, and Temple accommodates them as quickly as possible.
Essentially, instead of developing a product line and then figuring out how to market it, Temple built a community and makes the clothes they ask for. “It’s the reverse of what most companies set out to do,” she says. A customer may see an item posted on the Facebook page or “Wonderwall” (LWD’s Facebook sales app) and request some variation on it — a different color or size, perhaps, or an extra ruffle, sash or bow.

LWD’s “fast fashion” approach allows the company to respond with breathtaking speed to these requests for new styles. The development team includes four designers, three assistants and several seamstresses and cutters, along with staff photographers and a group of children who come in to model every day. “We’re developing 10 to 15 new styles every day,” Temple says. “We carry a lot of fabric in stock. We go out and look at the fabrics and compare them to what people told us they like. Then we draw it, cut and sew.” The photographers snap pictures, and the items are posted on Facebook. If a customer requests a new style in the morning, the style may be posted on Facebook by the end of the same day and sold immediately. Many items sold on Facebook never appear again because fabrics are purchased in limited quantities — another reason for customers to act quickly.

Though the base collection has a longer, more orderly planning and production cycle, “fast fashion” helps LWD stay on top of seasonal demand by producing just enough items at just the right times. As of late November 2013, design of Christmas items was still underway; according to Temple, it would continue “till our customers say they’re onto something else.”

LWD’s phenomenal success was not lost on Facebook, which helped nurture it and bring it to investors’ attention. Nevertheless, the two companies’ paths are diverging. First, some potential customers prefer not to shop on Facebook, and LWD needs to reach them through other channels. Second, when Facebook implemented its Timeline feature and changed its selection algorithms in 2011, LWD posts became less likely to show up in customers’ news feeds. “It’s hard to scale, because the algorithms are changing constantly, and we need to know how to stay first and foremost in the customer’s news feed,” Temple says. “I can go for days without any LWD posts in my news feed. … We knew we wanted to stay on Facebook — and we owed so much to them — yet we don’t want to see 100 percent dependence on a channel we can’t manage every day.”

While keeping Facebook “front and center,” as Temple puts it, LWD launched its own website, lollywollydoodle.com, in fall 2012. The website, which includes many community-building features (such as a Facebook-like news feed and a photo gallery of customers’ children) in addition to e-commerce, took off rapidly and now accounts for about 50 percent of sales.

What’s next?
The past few years have been a wild ride for LWD, with investments by several high-profile VC firms (including  Stephen Case’s Revolution), multiple moves to ever-larger production facilities in North Carolina, offshoring of functions such as knit-goods manufacturing, the addition of new lines such as “Mom and me” (matching mother-and-child outfits) and doll clothes, and the acquisition of an ERP system. Despite its rapid growth, however, the business remains very much a family enterprise, with Temple as CEO and family members, including her husband, son, brother and parents, playing a variety of roles. In fact, Temple says she feels as though her family has expanded to include all 230 employees — and she is keenly aware of the effects her business decisions have on so many lives.

For now, LWD plans to focus on the direct-to-consumer channels that it knows so well rather than expanding into retail stores. In the past few months, Temple has begun to explore social media sites beyond Facebook, including Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. All of these seem promising, she says, but each one requires a lot of experimentation to determine how to use it to best effect.
New product lines are in the offing, too — 2014 should see the addition of a home line that includes such items as pillows, pillowcases and shower curtains, as well as more clothing for adults.

Temple is most excited about an innovative project called “LWD Designed by Me.” Slated to launch this month, this user-friendly, interactive web-based program will allow parents and children to design and order their own clothes on the Lolly Wolly Doodle website. “It’s truly taking the next step toward mass customization,” Temple explains. The offering will start out with six dress bases, several sleeve options, 70 fabrics, and a wide variety of accents such as ruffles and sashes.

“It’s a blank canvas, on which you can design a masterpiece of a dress,” Temple says.

Masha Zager is a New-York based Apparel contributing writer specializing in business and retail technology.
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