Today, a new generation of disruptive brands are shaking up retail — direct-to-consumer e-commerce companies that build, market, sell, and ship their products themselves, without middlemen.
An explosion of new direct-to-consumer companies is transforming how people shop. In the process, these brands, spanning everything from detergent to sneakers, are radically changing consumer preferences and expectations.
The 9 companies we’ll look at were born on the platforms that have dominated the post-dot-com internet—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Instagram, Kickstarter.
They’ve used that infrastructure to grow fast and connect directly to their customers.
They’ve built dominant presences in Google’s search results, turned their Instagram followers into micro-influencers, and used highly targeted Facebook ads to grow their audiences.
These direct-to-consumer, or D2C companies, are able to manufacture and ship their products at much lower costs than traditional consumer brands because they own all of their customers’ data and maintain end-to-end control over the making, marketing, and distribution of products.
Unlike their traditional retail competitors, D2C brands can experiment with different distribution models, from shipping directly to consumers, to partnerships with physical retailers, to opening pop-up shops. They don’t need to rely on traditional retail stores for exposure.
These well-positioned startups are not just competing with some of the biggest retail brands in mattresses, razors, shoes, and more, by launching their own brands. They’re competing more efficiently by rethinking not just the product, but also the retail model.
Casper is taking on the mattress industry; Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s are taking on the razor industry; and The Honest Company is upending the cleaning and baby products segment. Some of these D2C companies, like Soylent, are building entirely new categories of product.
Of course, in this space, no e-commerce company stands taller than Amazon, and every e-commerce company must factor Amazon into their growth strategy. These companies have figured out how to use Amazon for (partial) distribution of their products or carved out niches away from Amazon’s marketplace.
In this analysis, we examine how these once-tiny startups have made it big. We identified four larger areas where these companies set themselves apart — in design, how they launch, the customer experience they build, and how they market themselves — and found that they had stories to tell in all of these categories.
Below, we’ll show you how the best D2C companies:
- Design their products: How to turn simplicity in a product line into luxury
- Launch their products: How to get mass mindshare quickly
- Casper’s media-company strategy for redefining the mattress brand
- How Harry’s signed up 100,000 people to a new razor’s email waiting list
- The blog-first strategy that got Glossier 1.5 million potential customers at launch
- Why The Honest Company’s Jessica Alba is the best kind of celebrity founder
- How Soylent built a food replacement that sells like a SaaS product
- Build a better customer experience: How to build an end-to-end brand
- Why Bonobos aims for (and hits) 90%+ “great” ratings on all their customer service emails
- The 28,000+ subscriber community of obsessives that has fueled Soylent’s growth
- Why Casper makes it $100-$200 cheaper to return their mattresses
- The mechanic that drives Dollar Shave Club’s industry-best two-year 30%+ retention rate
- Warby Parker’s plan to disrupt the $5 billion eye exam market
- How Glossier’s skin tone matcher drives online conversions
- Go viral: How to bake ubiquity and virality into a physical product
- Casper’s aggressive SEO strategy that drives 378,000 site visits a month
- The strategy behind Dollar Shave Club’s million-view viral video
- How one CTA drove 56,500+ user-generated videos that all linked back to Warby Parker
- Glossier’s pool of 800,000 micro-influencers and how they drive 70% of the company’s growth
- The single infographic that got Everlane 20,000 customers and helped them sell out of t-shirts
- The Honest Company’s content marketing strategy that drives 151,000 visits from pre-qualified customers
For each company, we combed through CB Insights data, public interviews, product sites, financial documents, news articles, and user reviews to understand just how these companies have built million-dollar, loyalty-inspiring brands in 10 years or less.
What follows are the results of our analysis — the best practices to building a highly successful direct-to-consumer retail company.
1. Design their products: How to turn simplicity into luxury in a product line
Before the internet, the majority of retailers (aside from mail-order companies) were limited in what they could sell by the amount of shelf space they had. That incentivized them to stock the most popular items and cut those that underperformed.
In 2004, Wired editor Chris Anderson first began writing about how the internet would change this. Since e-commerce companies didn’t have to think about “conserving shelf space,” Anderson argued, they wouldn’t have to make such decisions about what to stock. More importantly, they didn’t have to limit themselves to what was trendy or what sold the most.
They could instead mine the “long tail” of products that didn’t normally get placed in brick-and-mortar locations. Music stores could sell millions of artists’ CDs. Bookstores could sell millions of different books. And doing so would, in the end, be far more profitable than the brick-and-mortar approach.
Today, the world’s dominant retailers are all online. The long-tail playbook has won. But the fastest-growing D2C brands aren’t following it.
Most of the D2C companies that we studied focus on selling only a handful of different products, and many started out with just one. Casper began by selling what they thought was the one “perfect” bed. Bonobos started with one pair of men’s pants. Harry’s started with one type of razor — 5 blades, plus one for trimming.
It’s a way to cut through the noise and get people’s attention, to brand your product as “the best.” With so many options available on a site like Amazon, selling just one is a prestige move that establishes that “no alternatives will do.”
It’s also a prudent move: only selling one product lets you pivot back to the drawing board and make adjustments as you get feedback from your early adopters. You don’t have to burn all that inventory and eat the costs. You can more easily make tweaks and get V2, V3, V4, and so on out there.
To succeed, startups have to use speed and data as an advantage. They have to be willing to fail quickly and change the direction of the entire organization if necessary. Selling just one product — and focusing maniacally on making it great — is how CPG companies accomplish that.
The success they’re having suggests many consumers agree with their ethos — that sometimes, less is more.
Casper — How to sell $100M of mattresses by limiting choice
The bed-in-a-box startup Casper launched in 2014 with five co-founders and one fundamental observation about the mattress industry: that buying a mattress is an “awful consumer experience.” The sales people are pushy, the prices are too high, and all the different options are confusing.
Their goal was to build a mattress company that was different in every way:
- Just one model of bed
- At an affordable price
- Delivered straight to your house
In less than two years, Casper had done $100M in sales.
The promise that shaped the Casper brand in the early days and grew the company was simple — it made one mattress, and it’s the best. No need to choose.
With just one mattress, Casper had to find the level of firmness that would be the most comfortable to the largest possible market.
Some of this meant revisiting conventional wisdom around how we sleep. One example was the idea of “sleep positions.” As co-founder and COO Neil Parikh told Architectural Digest, “busting this myth” helped reinforce the idea of selling just the one mattress.
“For a long time we’ve been told that everyone is either a side sleeper, a back sleeper, a stomach sleeper, that’s it… But we were watching a lot of people sleep, [and] it turns out that most people shift positions throughout the course of the night.”
In other words, companies had sold consumers different products for different preferences that didn’t really exist. “It turns out that [just] one product works for most people,” he said.
Choice is built into how consumers think about many types of products, but companies like Casper endear themselves to their customers by actually eliminating “unnecessary” choices.
In contrast to Casper, the Raymour & Flanigan website offers you 33 different menu items when you select “Mattresses.”
In 2014, the New York Times published a 2200-word piece about the “Kafkaesque” process of trying to buy a mattress. In it, they place the blame directly on this notion of “choice”— if you can call it that. While trying to understand the difference between mattresses sold at different brick-and-mortar mattress retailers, the writer is told by a salesperson that even differently named mattresses may be identical from store to store. There’s no way to know:
“It’s difficult to comparison shop because many manufacturers sell exclusive lines to retailers. So the mattress you like at Costco may not be carried at Sleepy’s — or if it is, it’s called something else. After she found a mattress she liked in one store, Ms. Judelson said: “I’d go into store B and say, ‘Do you have the Serta blah, blah, blah?’ And the salesperson would say: ‘I don’t know. We may. But ours have different names.’ ”
When you search for mattresses on the Sleepy’s website (bought for $780M by MattressFirm) you have a total of 681 options.
While the traditional mattress brands and physical retailers were playing a game of confusing choices and high prices, Casper set out to fight the idea that multiple types of mattresses are even necessary.
To do this, they did their research.
They found out that there are two mattress materials that consumers tend to prefer above others — foam and latex — and when combined, they produce a solid all-around mattress.
Some people would still prefer air, or innerspring, but losing those potential customers would be worth the logistical simplicity of only selling one kind of mattress.
From Sleep Like The Dead, user rankings for various types of mattress materials.
It was a strategy that helped get Casper to $1M in sales their first month and $100M within their first two years.
A similar strategy was followed by another back-to-basics company, Harry’s Razors. Just as Casper had hundreds of years of mattress evolution to learn from in coming up with the “one perfect mattress,” Harry’s knew razors had gotten unnecessarily complicated over the years. The company’s goal wasn’t, however, to roll all that evolution back — it was simply to revert back to the model that had gotten it the most right for the most people possible.
Harry’s — How rolling back the razor got Harry’s a million customers in 2 years
Harry’s started out of the same kind of frustration that fueled the birth of Casper: founder Andy Katz-Mayfield went to the grocery store to stock up on blades and mulled over the absurdity of the process:
- He had to find the razor section in the store, and then request an employee to come and open up the locked case
- From that case, he had to choose from among dozens of seemingly undifferentiated models with names like “Turbo” and “Mach”
- He wound up paying a total of $25 — for four blades and some shaving cream
He called his friend Jeff Raider (who’d previously co-founded Warby Parker: more on them later) and the two decided to start a razor company with a simple model:
- One great razor
- With cheap blades
- Delivered straight to your door
They started out with an inventory of 10,000 razor handles in March of 2013 and sold out within a few days. Two years later, their company was worth $750M, and today they do about $200M a year in sales. And all of this was built, in large part, on the idea that consumers don’t really need as much choice as they’re being offered when it comes to razors.
The idea of having a wide range of choices is central to the traditional razor shopping experience, but Harry’s proves this isn’t what people want.
The strategy stood in contrast to the earlier marketing practices of razor giant Gillette, which was acquired by P&G for $57B in 2005. The company was known for a long time for launching new product after new product and hyperbolically calling each one “the best.”
It was also known in the past for the practice of steadily increasing its prices. Since launching in the early twentieth century, prices on Gillette blades went from pennies a piece to as much as $6 a blade (though recently Gillette has lowered its prices and created new distribution models). It’s a strategy that has been so effective at helping Gillette build dominance that it has become well-known to MBA students everywhere, as the “razor and blades” business model.
According to power law, “the 14-bladed razor should arrive in 2100,” The Economist wrote.
Harry’s instead cultivated a brand that embraces simplicity. It only sells one type of blade, and refills come in at about $1.87 a cartridge. You can get a rubber handle to put those blades in for $9, or upgrade to a metal one for $20. That’s pretty much it. It’s relatively narrow compared to the product line of a company like Gillette, which is exactly the point.
The top two reviews on blade refills for the “Chill” subset of the “Proshield” subset of the Gillette Fusion line evince customer frustration.
The single razor option that Harry’s offers, however, actually borrows something very crucial from Gillette — it uses the same “optimal” number of blades.
Every Harry’s razor has five blades, plus an extra one on the back for trimming in tighter spaces — the same blade quantity and layout as that of the Gillette Fusion5 first released in 2006.
Where Harry’s sets itself apart is in all the new models and new features it chose not to layer on top of that basic five-blade model.
While Dollar Shave Club (more on them later too) tells you its blades are “fu**ing great” and Gillette brands its razors with names like “Mach” and “Turbo,” Harry’s uses a more subtle, affable kind of brand voice:
“Unlike the big brands that overdesign and overcharge, we make a high-quality shave that’s made by real guys for real guys… We’ve built Harry’s to reflect our passions and values: affinity for simple design, appreciation of well-made things, and a belief that companies should make the world a better place.“
This “guy’s guy” branding is key to the ultimate success of the Harry’s model. It’s not enough to just make only one razor. You need to convince people that the one razor is actually preferable to the other company’s razors. By offering fewer options, Harry’s was able to convince customers that they need look no further for the best razor.
Allbirds is another great example of a startup successfully putting out a simple product in a field dominated by larger, better established brands. Here, however, the lesson has more to do with branding and signaling than anything else.
Allbirds — How cutting sneaker feature creep let Allbirds 4x its first year sales projections
Before Phil Knight started Nike, he was importing Onitsuka Tigers sneakers from Japan and selling them to collegiate sprinters. He was a runner, and he knew from experience that they were a much better running shoe than what was available in the US at the time.
As time went on, Nike started selling shoes meant for all sorts of different contexts — basketball, football, skateboarding, golf, wrestling, etc. By contrast, Allbirds, which was founded in 2014, started off selling one type of shoe (and has since added one slipper).
That’s by design, as Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown explains:
“The insight that kicked this whole journey off was, ‘Could you make a very, very simple sneaker that wasn’t adorned with branding?’ It felt like it was very, very hard to find.”
There are 13 different activity-based shoe categories on the Nike site, 6 brand-based categories, 10 icon-based categories, and 12 sport-based categories.
Nike began by reselling a single type of sneaker to a specific market, but it gradually started broadening its line as well as iterating on each one with new features.
Currently, there are 681 different pairs of Men’s shoes available on the Nike website.
Allbirds built its brand around the design of the shoe itself and its nonbranding. The centerpiece of the product is the shape, look, and feel of the shoe.
This ethos helped the company raise its $17.5 million Series B in September 2017. Now the company is on track in 2017 to do more than $50M in revenue, according to Campfire Capital.
Allbirds’ one-shoe approach found a launchpad in uniform-happy Silicon Valley. Bonobos, the men’s wear brand that launched with one better pair of pants, did too — but it reached far outside the SV bubble by solving a more general problem faced by men in nearly every walk of life.
Bonobos — The $310M brand launched by a single pair of good pants
Founded in 2007, Bonobos is the oldest company on our list of direct-to-consumer success stories. It launched with a very simple premise: make a better pair of pants. Succeeding on that premise gave Bonobos clout with its customer base and kickstarted its growth.
Six months after the company launched, it was doing a million dollars a year in annual run rate. Eventually, Bonbos would expand to sell formalwear, swimwear, shirts and many other accessories, focusing on pieces where men traditionally had problems with fit. The company that built its name only selling a single pair of corduroys initially had revenues of $9.5M in 2010 and nearly $70M in 2013.
Andy Dunn and his co-founder started Bonobos with two simple axioms in mind:
- Men do not particularly like going out and physically shopping for pants
- The majority of men have difficulty finding well-fitting pants
In their research, they found that European pants were typically too high-rise and too tight in the thighs for most men, while most American pants were boxy, ill-fitting and had a lot of extra fabric in the thigh area. That fabric had a tendency to bunch up in the back and give men the appearance of so-called “diaper butt.”
They saw that they could build a pair of pants that fit somewhere in between the European and American extremes, and if they did so, they would have a product worth selling. There are echoes of this model in those of Casper (foam + latex mattresses = a middle ground of firmness) and Harry’s (five-blade razors = a middle ground of closeness).
If they sold just that one product, furthermore, then they could sell and distribute their product entirely online. They wouldn’t need a brick-and-mortar location at all, and so they could immediately sell at virtually global scale.
The only problem with this was getting over the hesitancy many people felt about ordering clothes online, especially when — as is true with pants — fit can be so fickle.
Bonobos’ revenue ramp over its first year of sales.
To solve that, they copied Zappos and introduced free, no-questions-asked returns. They encouraged their customers to order multiple pairs and return the ones that didn’t fit.
Early customers raved about the fit and the quality of the pants and eventually it helped them build up trust as the company built a wider product line. “Bonobos Stretch Cotton Pants just blew my mind,” read one early forum review:
“I was recently trying to find a pair of grey chinos to wear casually and thought about Bonobos which is mentioned on Dappered fairly often. I asked the ninjas there and told them my complaints with regular pants: mostly that I have a large ass and thighs thanks to squats and deadlifts. I told them the pants I buy usually feel too tight in the crotch area and end up being very uncomfortable. I also told them I wasn’t looking for a super skinny look and wanted something like the Levi’s 501. They recommended the Bonobos Robber Barons which were a straight fit pant in their stretch cotton fabric… Holy crap these pants are amazing.”
“[Succeeding] earns you the right to go from product one to product two. Take as much time as you need to get product one right, and to prove it — because if you don’t, no one is going to be waiting on pins and needles for product two,” said co-founder Andy Dunn.
Pants allowed Bonobos to tell what Dunn calls a “narrow and deep story” to an audience of early adopters who it could sell further products to down the line. He says that pants got people to care about Bonobos the way ties got people to care about Ralph Lauren and wrap dresses got people to care about Diane von Furstenberg. Pants got people’s attention — and built their company into what it became.
2. Launch their products: How to get mass mindshare quickly and cheaply
When you sell something like a mattress, or a shaving razor, or cosmetics, your total addressable market is huge. There’s no one out there who doesn’t need a bed. Millions of people need to shave.
Because these markets are huge, the brands that dominate them are usually well-entrenched and hard to disrupt.
Successfully entering these markets, therefore, means getting a lot of mindshare very quickly. It means going for “shock and awe” launch storytelling over your more subtle, slow growth strategy. And most of the top D2C companies that we studied for this piece did just that when they got started.
Casper’s launch party in Los Angeles, featuring a performance by rapper Warren G.
Their competition was well-known. They were not. Their competitors spent millions of dollars on advertising every year. They could not. They needed to change this state of play quite rapidly and get at least some semblance of traction — otherwise, they would not be able to survive.
In some cases, these companies pursued traditional means like physical advertising but with a more contemporary spin. In others, they got attention in purely unconventional ways. In every case, they got their names out early and started building up a reputation with both their early adopters and their potential future customers.
Casper — How Casper broke into the $15B US mattress market by pretending to be a tastemaker
The mattress market in the US alone is worth an estimated $15B. Despite this, few people relish the experience of visiting a mattress store or actually buying a new mattress. At the International Sleep Products Conference in 2015, it was professed by one speaker that “buying a mattress is a treacherous affair, not unlike purchasing a kidney on the black market.”
Casper, in some ways, has broken into that $15B market and taken its own share of it by consciously choosing not to be seen as a typical mattress company.
This strategy goes back to the company’s origins. Casper’s founders set out to build a “digital-first brand around sleep” from the start. It was never just about a mattress.
To build that kind of brand quickly, the company decided to short-circuit the process of mindshare-acquisition by going straight for the American tastemaking jugular. It focused its marketing efforts on just two cities:
- New York City: The cultural and financial capital of the world
- Los Angeles: The arts capital of the world
Casper’s headquarters were in NYC. Every time it “dominated” an underground MTA station with its cheerily-designed ads, it was to reinforce the message that its brand was cool —and urban. Casper also reached out to various Instagram and Twitter influencers, leveraging its Hollywood connections to get some high-level buzz going around its mattresses. The company opened a satellite office in LA with the main objective of getting more influencers on board.
When Kylie Jenner posted a picture of her new Casper mattress in March of 2015, it got 800,000+ likes and immediately doubled Casper’s net mattress sales.
All over Instagram and Twitter, you can find heavily retweeted and liked images, GIFs, and videos of influencers sitting and smiling with their blue and white-striped Casper deliveries.
Casper pays “influencers” with large follower counts large sums of money to promote its mattresses on Instagram and Twitter.
This NYC and LA-focused strategy stands in striking contrast to the geographical distribution of your average mattress company.
Serta, Tempur-Pedic, and Sealy, which accounted for about half of the entire mattress market as of 2016 according to Statistic Brain, are headquartered in Hoffman Estates, IL, Lexington, KY, and Trinity, NC respectively.
Much of Casper’s early growth had to do with turning something quotidian into something cool and desirable. The company built a culture around sleep — something that could transcend mere foam and latex.
Casper did that by moving out to the coasts and calling upon the tastemakers and socialites to help the company build its brand. Harry’s, on the other hand, did it purely online. It didn’t use influencers. It simply used the psychology of the waiting list to drive demand.
Harry’s — Why 100,000 people lined up for a Harry’s razor subscription
When you think of the things people wait in line for, you might think of the new iPhone. The new Yeezys. You probably don’t think “the new razor.”
And yet Harry’s was able to get 100,000 potential customers to give the company their email addresses in just one week through their pre-launch campaign, according to an interview with the Tim Ferriss blog.
Harry’s was co-founded by Jeff Raider — one of the co-founders of Warby Parker — so he started off with a good understanding of what worked as far as D2C products go. Find something people overpay for, relative to the cost to manufacture: then make it cheaper.
“We saw a situation in which people were paying lots of money and they didn’t have to—sometimes the cost of making something is quite detached from the cost of purchasing that thing. I think about disruption as being a way to innovate and so blatantly change things for the better that you become an industry standard. That’s what we’re after.”
But where Warby Parker was very much a soft launch, Raider decided Harry’s would launch with more of a bang. The basic idea was simple: a waitlist. Users who wanted Harry’s, with its promise of better razors at lower prices, could sign up for the list, but those who shared the campaign with their friends and social networks would get all kinds of prizes for doing so, from free handles to razor blades and pre-shave gel.
The main landing page for Harry’s, pre-launch.
100,000 people wound up signing up, which generated a huge list of potential customers for Harry’s. It also gave the company a chance to start doing some customer development work, as sending out free handles and razors to the most prolific referrers allowed the company to get a sense for how people felt about its product before releasing it to a wider audience. Harry’s made various tweaks to its handles and razors based on what it learned from those freebie winners early on.
After signing up, the Harry’s campaign prompted you to share the waiting list with your friends in exchange for various prizes.
The campaign had some simple but effective incentives to encourage people on the waiting list to send links to their friends. The more people you invited, the more prizes you could get:
- 5 friends: free shave cream
- 10 friends: free handle with blade
- 25 friends: Winston shave set
- 50 friends: a year supply of free blades
The results showed that the incentives were powerful at encouraging people to share Harry’s with their friends.
More than 1,300 people shared Harry’s with five of their friends. Almost 1,000 shared it with 10 of their friends.
Getting that many potential customers’ email addresses is a coup for a startup— not only do you have a list of potential future customers on hand, but you also have some indication that those people really want to give you money.
In a sense, Glossier was able to engineer a similar formula — get engagement first, then launch the product.
Glossier — How Glossier turned 1.5M blog readers into $35M in funding
Glossier founder Emily Weiss started her blog Into the Gloss in 2010 while still an intern at Vogue. The idea was to talk to celebrities and various moguls about their makeup rituals, trying to write about them in a more casual, authentic way.
The blog got popular, grew, and eventually hit 1.5 million unique views every month. It was then that Weiss took the leap into product by launching Glossier — “A total evolution of the same mission, but with tactile content,” as she told Buzzfeed.
From a makeup blog to makeup products; from “Into the Gloss” to Glossier. Weiss’ blog has been invaluable in helping Weiss’ product line grow its revenue 600% year-on-year.
Traffic histories of intothegloss.com and glossier.com illustrate how traffic from the former could be funneled into the latter.
When first launching a product called the Milky Jelly Cleanser, for example, CTO Bryan Mahoney recounts extensive product research going on the Into the Gloss blog. Weiss posted in January 2015 asking her readers, “What’s your dream face wash?” As they got answers, they classified the responses that they got by ingredients and concepts. Over the course of analyzing those 400+ comments, they came to a formulation they believed would be a hit with their audience.
The blog isn’t just a valuable vector of product research — it’s a source of more prepared and enthusiastic consumers in and of itself. Mahoney told Digiday that people who read Into the Gloss are about 40% more likely to buy products from Glossier than other customers.
Glossier’s branding reinforces the idea that beauty and makeup are everyday things. You don’t have to spend hundreds to look good — it’s something that ordinary people can accomplish.
You might not assume that the same message would resonate for a company like The Honest Company. After all, their founder has about 11M followers on Instagram and appeared in the film Sin City. But The Honest Company founder Jessica Alba came to the company she founded by way of a very human dilemma — one relatable enough to turn The Honest Company into a company once valued at $1.6B.
The Honest Company — How it helps to have a founder with 11,000,000 Instagram followers
Celebrity founders can be purely ceremonial — percentage points on a cap table who get paid because of the exposure they bring to the company. That is not the role Jessica Alba played starting up The Honest Company. But she was able to use her celebrity status to textbook perfection in getting the company started and evangelizing its story.
Today, The Honest Company is facing an uphill battle to restore its reputation (and valuation) amidst class action lawsuits over its products’ claims and forced recalls.
At one point, however, The Honest Company was a CPG darling. Within a year of launching, it hit $10M in revenue. By 2014, it hit $150M.
One powerful method of getting the word out about your company — having a celebrity founder who’s more than a figurehead (Jessica Alba for The Honest Company).
The Honest Company got started while Alba was pregnant with her first child. Aware of how sickly she’d been as a child — how many allergic reactions she’d had to everyday household items — Alba set off furiously Googling all of the ingredients in the soaps and detergents she’d be using to clean the baby and her clothes. The Kafkaesque process of trying to find safe and verifiable cleaning products for her unborn child set her off on a quest that led to the founding of The Honest Company.
Part of what sets The Honest Company apart from many of the others that we studied is the relative scale of its product line. Rather than starting with just one or a handful of products, it launched with 17. Many of Alba’s advisors warned against this, but for the specific market they were addressing, it was an important, calculated manuever.
Any mom who needed to buy chemical- and irritant-free diapers was also going to need chemical- and irritant-free baby wipes, and chemical- and irritant-free shampoos, and so on. If they couldn’t get most everything from one place, then they weren’t likely to go hunting around different stores — they were likely to go to a brick-and-mortar retailer or Amazon. In the words of co-founder Christopher Gavigan, it needed to sell “more than just falafel” to prove people cared:
“If we’re going to create a health food restaurant, then we can’t just sell falafel. Then we’re proving falafels are what people want or don’t want. We actually have to have a wider menu to see whether people care about healthy food.”
Like falafel, every one of those 17 products would be quickly consumed. A product that is used up and must be replaced relatively quickly is also a good product to sell through a subscription model, especially to busy new parents. The subscription model gave The Honest Company a further asset — a built-in incentive to stick with the brand:
“You’re cycling in and out of these products, especially with a new baby–diapers, wipes, shampoos, lotions, cleaning products around your home, laundry detergent. You’re powering through these things and you’re doing it unknowingly exposing yourself and your baby to certain things that could and may and have shown to be risky.”
The company wound up doing $10M total in revenue in its first year.
Kirsten Green of Forerunner Ventures holds Alba up as a shining example of the kind of amplification that is possible with a celebrity founder, telling Vanity Fair that “when someone asks if there’s a company that I didn’t invest in that I wish I had, I always say Honest.”
“Alba has redefined the celebrity business model, distancing it from a famous person’s unattainable aspiration and replacing it with a real connection to consumers,” she added. “Celebrities need to do more than just pose with a product.”
When you hear about a celebrity co-founder starting a company, it’s usually something like MSNBC’s Greta van Susteren’s apology app “Sorry,” MC Hammer’s ill-fated search engine (WireDoo), or Ryan Seacrest’s “Typo Keyboard.” They’re not products people are using long after they launch.
Jessica Alba, on the other hand, has both proven her public dedication to the mission of The Honest Company and she has 11.7M followers on Instagram. There are founders out there who can’t get magazines to pick up their PR stories. Alba can blast more than 11 million people in one second by picking up her phone. That’s the kind of reach that Honest used to hit a $1.7B valuation in just four years after being founded.
Celebrity isn’t enough to launch a product, but it can certainly be a powerful megaphone. It can also help create a community — having a central, known figure to rally around can make it easier to reach people and build a conversation. If successful, that community can eventually take off and be self-sufficient, as we can see in the case of food replacement company Rosa Labs and its first product Soylent.
Soylent — Soylent sold $10M+ of meal replacements by making them more like software
Soylent may only sell one real product — its eponymous meal replacement drink — but the company turned a product that’s fundamentally food into something that looks more like a software platform with continuous updates and an open-source ethos.
A screenshot of a machine learning-based tool that will help you build your own meal replacement just like Soylent—all you have to do is enter your ingredients. (Source: Laverty)
That lets Soylent get the benefits of launching (hype, new learnings from your customers) on an ongoing basis.
Of course, this doesn’t always work out — in 2016, the ill-fated release of the “Soylent Bar” resulted in a vomiting epidemic that ended in the company halting production. A year later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency banned the startup from operating in Canada due to it not meeting certain nutritional standards required for it to be a meal replacement. And yet these are the kinds of issues that are easier to surmount when you are constantly reinventing yourself. Soylent Bars need not be an albatross if you can just shed them from your product line a week later.
This squares with the long-term strategy behind Soylent as an ever-evolving product. Co-founder Rob Rhinehart started off his experiments with Soylent by posting recipes he was trying on his personal blog and sharing them with others in the biohacking space. “Soylent” itself has come to refer more to the idea of “food replacement” than any specific company or product in the space, and that’s because of this ethos of continual improvement.
It’s a message that resonated loudly with the backers of Soylent’s original crowdfunding campaign, which got them $755,000 (its original goal had been $100,00), and helped them raise $50M more this past May.
Those are software company numbers, which makes sense given the affinity between the business models of Soylent and software.
One of the engines of the tech industry’s rebirth after the dot-com crash was cloud technology and the “as-a-service” revolution. Suddenly, consumers could access software over the web— and developers could push updates continuously. This allowed software to improve gradually over time. You no longer had to wait for a new version to be physically pressed to CD and released.
Soylent’s release notes look more like something from a developer blog than a food blog.
Soylent takes the same agile methodology and applies it to food. Each new version gets a new decimal-point version number (i.e. 1.2, 1.3, 1.4) and a set of release notes on the blog. Each new version also addresses shortcomings in the previous product and iterates based on testing and customer feedback (from the 1.7 release notes):
“In an effort to address customer appeals for a more neutral flavor profile, Powder 1.7 reduced the sweetness found in Powder 1.6 by lowering both the natural and artificial flavors (1g to 0.6g), decreasing the level of sucralose (0.023g to 0.015g), and adding a small amount of sodium (1500mg to 1600mg). Xanthan gum was reduced to 1g from 1.15g to create the thinner consistency our customers had requested.”
Soylent’s customers are eager and enthusiastic about updates to the formula and changes to the way the powder tastes. 28,795 Reddit users are subscribed to the main Soylent subreddit, /r/soylent. Hundreds are reading about and reviewing different Soylent shipments at any given time, asking questions about which versions taste best and what other food items to mix Soylent with.
Each update, however, is merely about bringing small incremental improvements to the core idea behind Soylent. As with Casper and Harry’s, Soylent is meant to be “the one product” that you need in this space. Forget all the other options — this is the maximally good solution for most people. In other words, Soylent is more or less nutritionally complete.
3. Build a better customer experience: How to build an end-to-end brand
A key focus for these D2C companies is “quality.” We’ve talked about how they market themselves and how slim, tailored product lines create a kind of prestige around their offerings. But more important to the idea of “quality” here is the overall experience of buying the product, rather than the product itself.
When you go on Amazon to buy a pair of speakers, you’re confronted with a simple selection of choices designed to psychologically propel you towards checkout as quickly as possible. It’s called the “Compare to similar items” section.
On Amazon, quality is delivered through a tailored selection of choices — each one right for a different kind of shopper.
Depending on whether you just need a basic set of speakers for a party or are looking to invest in a decent pair of woofers for your home office, you should be able to get what you want no matter what product you click on initially. There will always be tradeoffs — a cheaper product won’t be as good, a more expensive one costs more—but Amazon’s model is based on you eventually choosing one.
The successful D2C companies we looked at, for the most part, approach quality from an entirely different direction. Rather than catering to different levels of interest and motivation — here’s a cheaper bed with [X, Y] features and a more expensive one with [X, Y, Z] features — they cater to the desire for simplicity. They cater to the desire to avoid choosing, and the desire for something that is just fine.
You can see this if you read critical reviews for many of these products on the internet. A fair number of mattress critics say Casper beds are overhyped. The Honest Company has been in plenty of hot water over the quality of its products. And as for Glossier, as one commenter wrote on MakeUp Alley:
“I don’t rly get the glossier hype its like, they took all the most raved about products on intothegloss and just duped them… in cute packaging.”
What they do rave about is the process of actually getting a Casper mattress delivered. What they love is how easy it is to always have fresh blades on hand with Dollar Shave Club, and how simple it is to buy The Honest Company soap. And they have to hand it to Glossier’s choice of packaging.
“The thing to understand is that Good Enough products aren’t purely commodities racing to the bottom. They are a class of products where the end-to-end experience of selection, purchasing and customer service is more important than the product itself.”
Make no mistake, sometimes choice is not the virtue it seems to be. If you’re an expectant mother looking to stock up on soap for when your new baby arrives and you search the word “soap” on Amazon, you get 57,325 results. If you’re especially ingredient-conscious, then you may have to comb through pages of results to find something sufficiently chemical-free that you actually feel comfortable using.
On the other hand, there are only 5 search results when you search for soap on The Honest Company’s site. This greatly simplifies the process of buying something baby-appropriate, and so it’s actually faster and easier than going through Amazon.
These companies aren’t necessarily raising the bar on quality or selection (though that may be part of their appeal). They’re raising the bar on the customer experience. They’re delivering a far better razor buying process and a better mattress buying experience. They’re delivering the soap you need in a fraction of the time it would take to find it on Amazon. Their products may be just Good Enough in most cases. The end-to-end user experience, however, is so much better that it elevates them above their traditional competitors.
That’s central to their D2C nature. Because these brands can truly own the customer experience and delivery, they can create an end-to-end customer experience that is better than anything Amazon or a traditional retailer can deliver.
Bonobos — Why Bonobos aims for 90%+ “Great” ratings on its support emails
As a previously unknown brand, Bonobos saw early on that providing a differentiated customer experience was going to be important.
It needed men to feel confident ordering relatively pricey pants online, and it needed those men to recommend those pants to their friends. This was 2007, so buying clothes online wasn’t new — but there was still friction there. There was one shining model in the e-commerce space to imitate, and that was Zappos.
Bonobos founder Andy Dunn saw the exponential growth of Zappos and realized that its growth had little to do with the products they sold (which you could get anywhere) and everything to do with this dedication to “insanely great” service. He saw that “the best way to convince people to regularly buy clothes from a new online company,” as Business Insider wrote, “was to primarily focus on a level of customer service other businesses didn’t offer.”
For Bonobos, that meant cultivating a culture of ultra-responsivity on its support team — a culture which resulted in:
- 90%+ rate of responding to all phone calls within 30 minutes
- 90%+ rate of “great” email ratings
- Sub-24 hour average email response time
Central to the Bonobos idea was great pants. But the brand needed to embody this idea of overwhelmingly-great service too. The company didn’t just make great pants, it made shopping for them easy.
That branding created an early impact. A good metric for measuring the success of branding is direct traffic rate—how many people come to your site simply by typing it into their browser vs. through referral or other means.
According to SimilarWeb, Bonobos has a direct traffic rate of 53.5%. That’s an industry best.
The level of the Bonobos customer experience has remained high over time. In both 2015 and 2016, Bonobos won Multichannel Merchant’s Customer Experience Leader award, beating out companies like Fossil, Lowe’s and Coach. Today, many of the ideas that Bonobos helped popularize — like calling your support staff “ninjas”— have become commonplace in e-commerce.
Among the companies that have taken the Bonobos ideology to the next level, Soylent stands out. The Soylent team is actively involved in the community, almost treating its customer base as an extension of the company. That communal ideology has not only helped it attract high-profile funding but powered its hypergrowth.
Soylent — The subreddit that convinced a16z to invest in Soylent
With some products, investors are just as interested, if not more interested, in the community than they are in the core product’s features and capabilities. A group of engaged and sincere customers is something far more rare, and potentially more powerful, than a good product alone.
With meal replacement startup Soylent, the Reddit community that emerged in the wake of the product’s launch was strong enough that it convinced Andreessen Horowitz to lead a $20M round in the company. From Chris Dixon’s blog post announcing the close of the investment:
“Soylent is a community of people who are enthusiastic about using science to improve food and nutrition. The company makes money selling one version of that improved food (some users buy ‘official Soylent,’ others buy ingredients to make their own DIY Soylent recipe). If you look at Soylent as just a food company, you misjudge the core of the company, the same way you would if you looked at GoPro as just a camera company.”
The key point here is that Soylent was never just a product—it started life as an experiment into “biohacking” that CEO and founder Rob Rhinehart posted about on his personal blog.
In the post, “How I Stopped Eating Food,” the then-software-developer Rhinehart talked about the nutritional meal replacement he had developed to save himself time during the day. He wrote up the complete list of ingredients and the exact steps he took to develop it so people could tweak it themselves. The Soylent subreddit was born a month later.
The early subreddit was a place for these experimenters to discuss ingredients, dosages, warnings, and help everyone craft a better “anti-food” nutritional supplement.
A safety warning posted by one /r/soylent user early in 2013.
The growth of the Soylent subreddit over time, pegged to important milestones in the history of the Soylent corporation.
Today, the official Soylent subreddit at /r/soylent has almost 29,000 subscribers. They share different Soylent-featured recipes, ask each other questions, and share pictures of shelves and refrigerators bulging with Soylent:
a16z bet that this community around Soylent was potentially a much bigger opportunity than the product alone. That’s because never before had there been such effective mobilization of people around the idea of bringing science to bear on food and nutrition.
A few crucial early decisions laid the groundwork for this community taking shape:
- Open sourcing the product: By listing all of the ingredients inside Soylent, and encouraging people to experiment with making their own “versions” of the product, Soylent created a product its customers could help define from Day 1.
- Active participation in the Reddit community: Soylent’s founders and team post regularly on the subreddit, doing AMAs (Ask Me Anythings) and answering customer questions about the company.
Today, Rob Rhinehart posts on the Soylent subreddit as a means of connecting with the community and providing support.
Part of the power of Soylent is that it’s both a product and an idea. You can buy Soylent from the Soylent website, or you can just print out the recipe, buy the ingredients, and make your own. Add in communities like the one on Reddit, and the product can almost distribute itself.
Meal replacement drinks and mattresses may seem like two consumer goods that couldn’t possibly be any more different, but Casper had to be equally novel with their distribution strategy to get attention in their space. Rather than breaking down the idea of food into its constituent nutrient parts, Casper broke down the idea of a bed until it was something they could easily ship through FedEx so it would arrive at your house—wrapped up in a box—overnight and with no hassle.
Casper — Why Casper makes it $100-$200 cheaper to return one of their mattresses
As Casper was just getting started, co-founder and COO Neil Parikh asked chief creative officer Luke Sherwin a question that would define how the company thought about distribution and ultimately fuel their rapid growth trajectory: “What if we could compress a mattress to fit into a box the size of a dorm refrigerator?”
The two founders and friends, who lived together in a fourth-floor walkup in Manhattan, had been wondering how they would ever get a bed up to their apartment. But the implications of that question would affect more than just apartment-dwellers.
As of June 2016, Freakonomics Radio reported that there were approximately 9,200 mattress stores across the United States. Why so many?
- High profits: The high markup that stores apply to mattresses makes selling them quite profitable
- Favorable logistics: Mattress stores don’t have to hold excess inventory because they can rely on ordering more mattresses from their local distributor when they run low
- Complicated alternative: Delivering large and unwieldy mattresses straight to consumers is complicated and expensive
The end result of all of this is that you are basically within a few miles of a mattress store virtually no matter where you are in the continental United States. Tens of thousands of stores, manufacturers, and distributors make up the supply chain in this $15B domestic industry—and those same tens of thousands became threatened the moment Casper started to figure out the “bed-in-a-box” distribution mechanism.
One of the core premises behind Casper was that the way mattresses were moved across the country was wasteful and inefficient. Thousands of stores and tens of thousands of salespeople weren’t needed to distribute something if you could find a way to have USPS deliver it. Put a bed in a box, and you can ship it. No store or square footage necessary.
The company also delivers through white-labeled versions of existing on-demand delivery services like Postmates and Stuart. According to Parikh, that means that if you’re in New York City or San Francisco or LA, “you can get Casper delivered to you faster than you can get a slice of pizza delivered to you.”
Crucially, the company also offers free returns. Returns have been a problematic part of mattress purchasing for years. The Better Business Bureau pages of shops like Ashley Homestores are filled with screeds from consumers unhappy that they can’t return their $2,000 mattresses.
Many stores—although there are fewer of these today than ever before—refuse entirely to offer returns on mattresses. Many allow you to return your mattress after 30 but within 120 days, or some permutation. And many offer returns on the condition that you pay shipping & handling, which can run well into the hundreds of dollars:
Casper, on the other hand, will come pick up your mattress for you if you don’t like it within your first 100 days of sleeping on it. It’s a gamble designed to set the company apart from your traditional mattress store.
Mattress returns are a dicy proposition no matter who is selling them. You never know what kind of condition the bed will be coming back in, and no piece of furniture depreciates faster than a bed. It makes sense to levy a large fee to disincentivize the return. At the same time, offering free returns allows people to be comfortable with the idea of buying a bed sight unseen from a totally new and unproven startup—it gave people confidence.
Casper in effect had to bet that there would be so few returns that it would be worth it. Due to people liking the beds, or at least not disliking them enough to actually return something they need every night to sleep, the bet seems to have paid off.
As Aaron Bata, the head of customer experience at competing bed-in-a-box manufacturer Tuft & Needle, puts it: “Returns are obviously a cost, but that’s something that has to be built in … We think it’s going to be perfect for so many people—for the vast majority of people out there.”
Overall, the “bed-in-a-box” concept isn’t just about making shipping easier or cheaper for Casper—it also improves the experience for the customer, who can order without anxiety thanks to the promise of free, easy returns.
Reducing the pain in a routine consumer transaction is one surefire way to find a potential business opportunity. For Casper, however, you may only buy a bed once in a decade. When it comes to Dollar Shave Club, the innovation lies in disrupting a good that men have to go to the store to buy once a week—razor blades.
Dollar Shave Club — How Dollar Shave Club used the subscription model to achieve 25% 2 year retention
Dollar Shave Club didn’t just decide to sell cheaper razors than what you could buy at the store. It sold its customers a subscription package that would save them time, money, and effort.
The success of this package created a best-in-class customer retention rate for a consumer-facing product and helped propel Dollar Shave Club’s growth to a billion-dollar business. It did that both by finding a solid customer base and by giving them the fuel to spend even more than its biggest competitor, Gillette, on expensive customer acquisition.
There’s a clear incentive to sign up for Dollar Shave Club’s subscription shaving plan. The razors are already cheap, and because they’re a routine purchase, over time the cost savings you get by using Dollar Shave Club compound.
The success of this model is borne out in Dollar Shave Club’s 4-year retention numbers, which are well above average for a consumer-facing subscription product. After 12 months, about 50% of customers still use the service. After 48 months, nearly 25% of all signups are still paying money to Dollar Shave Club.
(Source: Second Measure)
In contrast to that, only about 22% of Blue Apron and 12% of HelloFresh customers are still active after 12 months.
Between launching in 2012 and selling to Unilever for $1B in 2017, Dollar Shave Club had nailed the recurring revenue model through high retention.
And recurring revenue with high retention means faster growth. You keep more of your existing customers around, they refer more new customers to you because they’re happy, and you can increase revenue faster because you’re not churning through so many people each month.
The more you’re making off each customer, the higher your customer lifetime value, and the more you can spend acquiring more customers as fast as humanly possible. From late 2014 through fall 2015, Dollar Shave Club outspent Gillette on TV ads, $64.5M to $43.4M according to iSpot.tv. That same year, they took a commanding lead in the online razor market.
Saving DSC’s customers future trips to the store or even to the Dollar Shave Club site with subscription packages helped turn the company into one of the first and biggest D2C success stories. It showed that the power of online convenience could infiltrate even the most guarded and opaque markets. It was a lesson that was also being learned, around the same time, by eyeglass maker and seller Warby Parker.
Optometrists’ offices aren’t quite like grocery store razor aisles, but they do share some similarities. Most importantly—consumers tend to dislike both. And just as there was an opportunity for Dollar Shave Club in saving consumers a trip to the store, Warby Parker has carved an opportunity by saving its customers a trip to the doctor.
Warby Parker — The $5B eye exam market Warby Parker launched a new startup to take on
Glasses, like mattresses, have historically been purchased in brick-and-mortar outlets. You want to test out the bed you’ll be sleeping on the same way that you want to try out the glasses you’ll be wearing—and show them to your friends and significant others.
Warby Parker has grown where other similar D2C glasses startups couldn’t by using technology to change that in-person obstacle. The company managed to eliminate virtually all of the objections that people normally have about buying something like glasses online through ingenious customer experience design and homebrew tools.
First, the home try-on.
Warby Parker knew people didn’t want to get glasses sight unseen, so it started out by shipping 5 pairs of your choice to new customers so they could try each one on and figure out which they liked best.
Then came various experiments with virtual try-on, using webcams and imaging software to try and make the home try-on redundant.
Early in 2017, a small, startup-like team inside Warby Parker was assembled to make the company’s biggest move towards disrupting the distribution of glasses yet. The idea was to break the company into the $5B eye exam market. According David Rose, Warby Parker’s VP of vision technology, speaking to Fast Company, about 110M Americans get an eye exam every year for about $50 for each test. Optometrists get approximately 59% of their total revenue from selling all those Luxxotica-made frames to their newly-examined patients.
It makes sense. When people get eye exams, they’re used to just getting a set of glasses at the office. You’re getting them right at the point of sale. You can try them on. It’s convenient and easy, if undoubtedly overpriced.
Getting your prescription handed to you, walking out, and uploading the details to a startup’s website is not a process that feels as natural or easy to most people—even if you can try on at home.
We realized that we could use tech to make the experience newer, better, and faster.
Warby Parker, as a D2C eyewear brand, cannot have floor space at the optometrist’s office. They’re never going to be at the POS the way Luxxotica brands are. So this team inside Warby Parker didn’t try to fight there—instead of trying to muscle into the traditional eye exam flow, they created their own—an eye exam doesn’t even require a visit to an office.
Using the Prescription Check app (iOS), users can (using a credit card for scale) measure their prescription and pupillary distance completely digitally. Their results are sent to a Warby Parker-contracted doctor who checks the results.
It’s a simple and easy way to get your prescription at home—without traveling to a doctor’s office and paying to get your eyes looked at there.
It feeds directly into Warby Parker’s funnel because as soon as it has your prescription information, you’re ready to go pick out a new pair of glasses within an adjacent app.
And it’s key to Warby Parker’s business model of disrupting as much of the traditional eyewear value chain as possible—the better Warby does it, the more customers it can strip away.
“One advantage of Warby Parker having a direct relationship with customers is that we get feedback and can move quickly,” co-CEO Dave Gilboa told Fast Company, “They’ve told us that it’s inconvenient and annoying to get a new prescription to get a new pair of glasses … We realized that we could use tech to make the experience newer, better, and faster.”
Using tech to make the buying experience better is one of the most powerful ways that online D2C brands can disrupt big incumbent competitors. It’s a way to bet both on the model and on the future—assuming that technology will get better and more accessible over time, a digitally-enabled distribution model is going to have a more obvious upside than a traditional, lower-tech model.
It’s a strategy that has been used to great effect by another company in the business of changing how you look—Glossier. The company had to deal with a similar set of biases and inclinations in consumer behavior, and it’s also changed those through technology.
Glossier — How a skin tone matcher fuels checkout at Glossier
Online, D2C companies can promote new technology to their users with incredible ease. All they have to do is write a blog post. And that’s all that Glossier did when they first launched their online skin tone matcher tool, which promised to help Glossier’s potential customers identify exactly the right shade of makeup for them.
In 2015, makeup sales overall jumped 13%—the largest increase of any product in the beauty category. Yet during the same timeframe, people reported buying fewer makeup products online than they did the year before.
While they may be doing their research online and talking to their friends for recommendations, most are still doing the actual purchasing at brick-and-mortar locations like Sephora.
Because they want to see how something looks on them before they commit to investing real money into a full supply of something, according to analyst Karen Grant at The NPD Group.
That’s the driving premise behind both subscription services like Birchbox and the simple, quick skin tone matcher on the Glossier website.
Click on a product like Glossier’s Perfecting Skin Tint, and if you don’t know which shade you should be buying for your skin color, you can open the matcher. Upload a picture of yourself, place the digital wand over a patch of your face that’s not obscured or covered in shadow, and Glossier’s tool will tell you exactly which shade will best match your skin color:
When Glossier released this tool on the blog Into the Gloss, it didn’t just get positive comments from women that appreciated the tool and found it useful for identifing new Glossier products to try—it got reviews from people who wrote that the skin tone matcher was why people were trying Glossier for the first time:
(Source: Into the Gloss)
“I’ll be 100% honest and say that having my skin matched is why I’m now willing to try Glossier. I was really excited about the products when the brand first launched, but when I saw that there was nothing there for dark-skinned women like me? I couldn’t bring myself to spend *anything* on Glossier.”
“This is a really cool concept. I always find myself baffled as to how I can get a perfect match for my skin tone. Baffled no more, thank modern science!”
“This was so helpful. I’m a light, but thought I was a medium. Now I’ll definitely have it as a next purchase.”
While Glossier does run nationwide brick-and-mortar pop-up stores to expose itself to an offline audience here and there, the skin tone matcher is an essential part of the company’s business, just as the makeup counter is for a company like Macy’s.
The reason that it makes Glossier such a high-growth startup is simple—an online skin tone matcher is far easier and cheaper to create and maintain than a retail counter inside a massive department store.
4. Go viral: How to bake ubiquity and virality into a physical product
Perhaps the greatest inherent advantage that D2C startups have over their incumbent competitors is a better grasp on the inherent dynamics of the internet. That means everything from how the power of SEO compounds over time to how to create an organic, viral infographic. The D2C companies that we studied understand how these channels work and they’ve been able to bend them to their will in order to grow.
Using the internet as an advantage can be a challenge when dealing with physical products, of course—which is why so many traditional retailers are bad at it. But when it’s done right, it can be a huge boon to growth.
On the one hand, you have the kind of top-down strategy that’s heavy on search and social. Casper’s referral program, according to Extole, generates as many as 5 new Casper customers with each share. In addition, the company works on creating referrals from various third-party sites—but most critically (at least for the mattress industry) Casper invests in SEO.
This chart shows the sites that send the most traffic to Casper, as well as the top sites people visit after they go to Casper’s website.
On the other hand, you have a strategy that’s more bottom-up, focused on getting “micro-influencers” or ambassadors to spread the word for you. Glossier, for instance, doesn’t want you to go visit their store in SoHo because they think you’ll buy makeup. They want you to go so you’ll take pictures of the store, post them on Instagram, and share them so that other people all around the world will buy makeup.
A sign outside Glossier’s Soho NYC HQ.
Regardless of which tactic they take, the best D2C companies don’t just tack on social referral and sharing—they make it into a core part of the product experience.
Casper — How Casper engineered their way to sky-high search ratings
Search engine optimization (SEO) is a great way for D2C brands to short-circuit their incumbents’ widespread recognition. Get up front in Google, and you get both clicks and the authority that comes with being #1. But the mattress industry is especially cut-throat when it comes to figuring out who’s going to rank first in Google’s search results.
“The war to sell you a mattress is an internet nightmare,” reads a recent headline in Fast Company.
Casper has done a lot of work setting up search-specific landing pages and funneling AdWords money into the site to elevate itself above its rivals and get its critical share of 550,000+ monthly mattress Google searches. In fact, the company appears at the top of the results for so many mattress-related terms that some of Casper’s competitors argue that it amounts to anticompetitive behavior.
To track Casper’s prevalence in Google, we can use Ahrefs’ URL rating (UR). This is a type of proxy for Google’s PageRank—it measures how visible your site is generally in search. Casper’s is 81, tied with Bonobos, and more than double that of the D2C company with the next highest UR, Everlane.
UR is a metric designed by Ahrefs to act as a proxy for PageRank, which Google has used to rank search results. The higher your UR, the higher up your site generally appears in search results.
The key to Casper’s Google strategy has been creating customized landing pages for every conceivable keyword people could be using to search for and buy a bed.
There are a ton of mattress companies trying to buy their way into Google’s search results, so being comprehensive is important to being seen.
Say you want to buy a mattress and you live in New York City. Casper knows this is a great market because the company can deliver in hours, not weeks. So it put a landing page up just for NYC and made sure that anyone searching for terms like “buy mattress NYC” would see it at the top of the search results:
The ad is customized very specifically for NYC in a way that none of the other resulting ads are. Casper tells you that you can get your “NYC mattress” today, that you can get it within a one-hour window, that they will help you set it up and that they will take the packaging away. The Mattress Firm ad underneath gives you a bunch of generic information about the brand while appending the word “New York” to the headline, and the Raymour Flanigan ad under that is not customized at all.
From a “reviews” landing page to a “duvet inserts” landing page, the company’s built a similar kind of customized SEO flytrap page for virtually every keyword that could be typed in by someone preparing to buy a mattress.
“Casper’s dumping so much money into Google Adwords that it’s not sustainable for the up-and-coming … A lot of chatter among new entrants is, how do you guys sustain yourself,” Daehee Park, a cofounder of (competitor) Tuft & Needle said in Wired last year. (Wired also notes that Casper is the first result when you search for Tuft & Needle on Google, which is still true today).
There is a 1:1 relationship between many of the most searched keywords and many of the most trafficked landing pages out there.
It’s very expensive building traffic this way—with dozens of individually customized landing pages tailored to hyper-specific search keywords. But in the insanely competitive world of mattress SEO, it’s been Casper’s powerful trump card. It’s fair to say a good amount of the $240M the company’s raised has gone back to Google over the last few years.
At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have Dollar Shave Club. It didn’t spend years grinding to build its PageRank juice, and yet it’s been able to drive 25M views off its viral explainer video that the company spent just a few afternoons and $4,500 to make.
Dollar Shave Club — The science behind a 25M view viral video
The famous “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” video made to promote the launch of Dollar Shave Club has now been viewed over 25M times. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a great example of the kind of marketing that can launch a business, both through the number of eyeballs it reached and the number or conversations and referrals that it created for the company.
And while it may sound somewhat difficult to replicate—”Just make a viral video!”—the truth is that the legendary Dollar Shave Club launch video was much more planned out than it seems.
The video cost $4,500 to make and it was shot entirely in one day. Founder and CEO Michael Dubin’s friend, director Lucia Aniello, helped—the two studied improv together at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in NYC. On March 6, 2012, Dubin uploaded it to YouTube and hit “Publish.” It was 6:30 am.
It’s a way to look like an earned media groundswell, but in fact it’s paid media.
At 9:30 am, dollarshaveclub.com had crashed. A day later, when he finally got the site back online, 12,000 orders came in almost immediately.
The success of “Our Blades Are F***ing Great” was sudden, but it was no accident. Dollar Shave Club took several very intentional steps to ensure the video would have the greatest chance possible to become a hit:
- The company let various tech publications know when the video would be going up.
- It sent many of those same publications early access to the video
- It picked sites and blogs considered tastemakers for the male demographic it was after—Thrillist and Uncrate, for example.
- It edited a shorter, second version and got it to run on late-night TV
- It spent $10,000+ promoting the video on social media
- It paid for mentions on shows like Howard Stern
- It launched the video in March, away from most major sporting or other TV events, and right before South by Southwest
Behind this viral hit was a whole framework of preparation designed to amplify and power the video’s signal. And yet if you were just watching along with everyone else, it looked totally organic—the video was funny, Dubin was funny, and it felt like the company earned the coverage and hype.
As a source told The Information, “It’s a way to look like an earned media groundswell, but in fact it’s paid media.” The key to success here, however, is actually producing something of value. It needs to be credible that it actually earned its media.
It pulled that off. The production quality of the piece, while high, gave the sense of a scrappy, bootstrapped startup. The place of publication—YouTube—gave it an inherent way to go viral. It was sent from person to person, acquiring an “organic” buzz that wasn’t dampened by the fact that some of that organic-ness had been purchased.
Dollar Shave Club got a ton of traction out of a single video that was made to explain how their business was different than that of Gillette or Schick. Warby Parker also used the power of video to expand its brand, but it didn’t rely upon just a handful of viral clips it produced. Instead, the company encouraged its customers to make videos themselves—videos that would drive leads, for free, through social media.
Warby Parker — The CTA that drove 56,500 user-generated videos
Viral videos can be a powerful marketing tool, but no one can reliably go viral. Warby Parker took a bit of a different approach to spreading the word through video, and what it did is ultimately far more repeatable and scalable than the single-viral-video approach.
The company asked all of its customers to make content promoting the brand, to take pictures and videos of their different home try-on kit glasses as they test-drove them.
When looking at customers who never created this kind of content versus people who do share images or videos of their home try-ons, Warby Parker found that those who shared content were 50% more likely to actually make a purchase. That made clear this was a serious channel and one it needed to pursue over the long-term.
It isn’t just pitched as free advertising, of course—the key to the Warby Parker strategy is that people had an inherent desire to share their photos already. They wanted to share with their friends and get feedback on how the different glasses looked. Warby Parker was just asking people to take it one step further and share with strangers and the wider world.
Inside the home try-on, Warby Parker encourages its potential customers to share images of their new glasses on various social media sites.
The help section on Warby Parker’s site also suggests users upload their photos and videos to social media to get feedback on their look and fit.
While the company’s physical packaging and help site say that the idea here is to give people an idea of which glasses they should buy, there’s been a clear marketing benefit to encouraging thousands of people to take videos of themselves wearing Warby Parker products.
There are currently 56,500 results on YouTube for the search term “warby parker try on.”
Top results for the search phrase “warby parker try on” on YouTube.
Of course, many of these top results are influencers, people who have been sponsored by Warby Parker:
There are thousands of videos like this on YouTube made to help prospective customers get a sense of a particular set of glasses. Not all are influencer-made, though many of the most-trafficked are.
The more videos that are out there, the more people will feel empowered to make their own videos, and the more glasses sets that Warby Parker will end up sending out. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle. And Warby Parker started to integrate that cycle even deeper into the core product in 2015, when they added a video capture and sharing option to their app on iOS.
“Our customers are already actively sharing photos on social channels to get real-time feedback from friends and family, so we thought we’d take that one step further,” Warby Parker co-founder David Gilboa told The New York Post.
Warby Parker was able to drive a lot of social sharing of user-generated content (UGC) using simple packaging CTAs and some influencer marketing. It’s a great example of how brands can leverage the specific physics of social media to grow their businesses faster. Few, however, have done it better than the D2C makeup brand Glossier.
Glossier — How Glossier uses 800,000 micro-influencers to drive sales
With 500M daily active users, Instagram is much more than a way to promote or advertise your brand—it is a market that can drive the growth of a brand all on its own.
Glossier is a digital-first cosmetics brand that has used Instagram as a growth vector better than most other brands out there. CEO and founder Emily Weiss started the company as an Instagram handle—@glossier—and began the product development process by simply posting photos in a wide assortment of styles and aesthetics, gauging what her followers did and didn’t like.
Today, the Glossier community is 800,000 strong and crucial to encouraging the kind of repeat and referral business that Glossier needs to grow. “70 percent of online sales and traffic comes through peer-to-peer referrals,” Weiss told Entrepreneur. By the summer of 2017, Glossier’s Instagram ambassador program alone was responsible for 8% of that.
Instagram has always been an important part of the Glossier business. Early on, it was mostly a way to get product feedback. Then, Glossier realized that people liked posting pictures of their deliveries on the platform, and the company saw a behavior that it wanted to encourage more of.
Glossier started packaging sets of stickers with each Glossier delivery, encouraging its customers to customize their deliveries and share an image to Instagram:
The stickers that come with your standard Glossier delivery.
An example of the kind of UGC that Glossier customers create and upload after customizing their deliveries with their Glossier stickers.
Just about every Glossier product comes loaded with both whitespace and stickers—the perfect combination for a product that can be easily customized in different ways.
Today, if you create a high-enough-quality piece of content out of your Glossier order, you may get reposted to the main @glossier feed and exposed to the company’s 800,000+ followers.
An example of UGC reposted to the main @glossier feed (25,277 likes in sixteen hours).
Reposting images that fans create makes the Glossier feed feel more like a community and encourages even more people to create content. That increase in demand and engagement also allows them to raise the bar on the quality of that content, allowing the feed to get better over time as more and more of Glossier’s fans get involved in making content.
It is a simple yet powerful flywheel strategy:
- Build customizable products that people want to create content around + share
- Share and repost the content that their customers make
- Encourage even more, and better, UGC
High-quality and prolific Glossier content creators are invited to become ambassadors for the brand online. They get a specialized coupon code that they can use to promote Glossier products, and then they receive a cut of all the sales that go through that code.
The profile of one Glossier rep on Instagram.
It’s a strategy that allows Glossier to take that high-quality UGC and turn it into something that can directly drive sales, not just branding—the more content that’s out there, the more surface area for people to be exposed to Glossier products. And by engaging with these ambassadors, the company incentivizes “micro-influencers” to work hard in spreading the Glossier brand.
It’s a relatively strenuous kind of program to set up and maintain, but it’s worth it for Glossier as referrals overall represent such a huge part of their revenues.
Everlane, on the other hand, took a much lighter touch in trying to spread the word about their company. Rather than groom influencers and reps to promote the brand to their friends, Everlane used the reliable mechanics of social media to get the company’s name to reverberate without much effort and went viral.
Everlane — The one infographic that got Everlane 20,000 new fans and helped sell out the company’s first products
In a 2012 Tumblr post tagged “It’s a Fact,” Everlane put out an infographic detailing the “real cost” of producing a designer t-shirt.
The infographic, which quickly went viral, both established the “radically transparent” Everlane brand and fueled the instantly-sold-out sale of the company’s very first product.
From cotton to cutting to finishing and transport, the infographic laid out all of the actual expenses needed to make a shirt. Below that, Everlane illustrated how the markup added by the wholesaler and retail store eventually got added on top. Below that, the graphic showed the total cost to the consumer: $50, for a shirt that cost only $6.70 to produce.
The post got almost 20,000 notes on Tumblr and elicited some contentious responses from other players in the fashion and beauty industries.
The post was part of a viral campaign that started on Twitter. Everlane followed up its Tumblr post by posting the infographic on Facebook, along with their response to the controversy. And according to Business Insider, all of these separate social media campaigns (all with the same basic content) got Everlane 200,000 organic users in a year.
The company launched its site shortly after launching this viral campaign, and sold out its first product almost immediately—a simple $15 t-shirt.
PR coverage followed in the aftermath of this product launch and used the infographic to ground people’s understanding of the Everlane business, giving the message it was trying to amplify even further reach:
Everlane took one core idea—that fashion consumers are getting bilked—and created collateral around it that could be shared on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other places. As it spread, Everlane’s reputation grew, and its customer base grew in its wake. That’s the social approach.
It’s not the only approach, though. As The Honest Company shows, leveraging search can make for just as powerful an opportunity as leveraging social. Millions of people use Google everyday to find answers to questions and solve problems. If you can turn your company into the internet’s best answer to a frequently asked question, or be the salve for a routine pain point, then you may have a huge growth vector on your hands—and The Honest Company has proved that millions of qualified clickthroughs over.
Honest Company — How ranking #1 for chemicals found in home goods helps Honest Company grow
The impetus for The Honest Company came to co-founder Jessica Alba while she was researching what products—detergents, baby powder, etc.—would be safe to use on her unborn child.
What she found was that all manner of household products contained ingredients that might be dangerous. As the list of chemicals she couldn’t identify grew longer and longer, she found herself spending late nights Googling them, desperately trying to understand what they were for and whether they were safe.
Today, if you’re curious about whether these everyday chemicals are safe to put near your son or daughter, then the odds are good that you’re going to land on one of The Honest Company’s highly-trafficked blog posts about them.
On their blog, The Honest Company picks apart common chemical ingredients in household items and talks about what they are, why they’re used, and whether or not they’re actually safe to use around your child. It serves both as educational content and, naturally, as lead gen for The Honest Company’s line of natural, transparently-made health products—and it drives 100,000+ visitors to their site every month.
Tocopherol, “a form of Vitamin E typically derived from vegetable oils,” is searched almost 50,000 times a month. The Honest Company’s #2 result receives 10,000+ of those clickthroughs.
The Honest Company’s blog has written explainer pieces on dozens of the most often used chemicals in everyday household products, including phenoxyethanol; sodium lauryl sarcosinate; tocopherol; potassium sorbate; cholecalciferol; and behentrimonium chloride.
The corresponding pages are some of the most highly-trafficked pages on the site apart from their main brand landing pages (traffic estimations from Ahrefs):
- What is Tocopherol: 14,000 views a month
- What is Phenoxyethanol: 15,000 views a month
- What is Potassium Sorbate: 18,000 views a month
- What is Cholecalciferol: 26,000 views a month
- What is Behentrimonium Chloride: 2,100 views a month
- What is Polyvinyl Alcohol: 9,500 views a month
- What is Magnesium Stearate: 18,000 views a month
Keep in mind this isn’t necessarily about spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Their popular post on tocopherol, for instance, cites the naturally-occurring compound’s ability to fight inflammation in the skin and reduce damage from free radicals:
These kinds of posts also function more effectively as marketing—because the ingredient being talked about is safe, it’s easier to embed internal links to relevant products:
The same way that Nerdwallet has built a resource for people who want to understand finance, The Honest Company has built a resource for parents who want to understand the chemicals that are in the products they use everyday.
A huge number of the clicks to their blog come from what are essentially pre-qualified Honest Company customers, making this a powerful strategy both for generating interested customers and for promoting the Honest brand.
The future of retail
There’s very little evidence that Amazon, Facebook and Google’s dominance over traditional retail isn’t going to slow down at any time in the future. But there’s also a ton of evidence that it is more than possible to build new, powerful retail brands today.
From Bonobos to Allbirds, the playing field is as open as ever for entrepreneurs with ideas for products that people actually want to use. The playbook may look different today—and the route to success may be a little more direct—but that essential fact remains unchanged.