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The Data Dialogues: Melina Flabiano of Curious Commerce

J.D. Crabtree
August 26, 2020
Interviews

Here at Yaguara, we are interacting with commerce teams and leaders daily that are pushing the industry forward. One great mind we’ve had the pleasure getting to know (and learn from) is Melina Flabiano. Melina founded Keaton, a direct-to-consumer brand based out of New York City that creates the perfect work pant for professional women. She also is the voice behind Curious Commerce, a thorough newsletter that dives deep into what next-gen DTC and retail looks like. I had the opportunity to speak with Melina about all things eCommerce, consumer, and brand strategy. So buckle up…

Hey Melina, I'm too eager to kick this off. I think we've got an electric conversation on the horizon. But first, do you mind sharing more on your professional journey? And where does all this great curiosity and insight come from for your target industries??

J.D. Crabtree

Hi JD, I'm looking forward to chatting with you!

I've always been interested in consumer and retail. In college, I studied politics and it struck me how multifaceted human decision-making is. My first internship was at the UN in Geneva! When I started my career at McKinsey, I gravitated toward consumer and retail clients because I liked to have an end customer who I could really identify with. It was interesting work but I wanted to dive deeper into brand operations.

I joined Pandora Jewelry in strategy. This is not the world's sexiest brand, but we have a super-loyal customer and my role was figuring out how to keep growth strong as we entered new categories and geographies. As a mall-based retailer, there were significant headwinds. I learned not to underestimate the power of relationships. While growth was largely coming from online, there's something magical about facilitating a great interaction with a store associate. Building tech-enabled solutions that keep that personalization intact is where we saw our biggest wins, and that's where I became focused.

It was during my MBA at Wharton that I started kicking around the idea for Keaton. I saw many of my female colleagues spending time thinking about how to dress for recruiting engagements and realized that the question of professional dressing is much more straightforward for men than women. I saw a need for a modern workday uniform designed for early-career women. I was really focused on my customer and building for her. I developed the Perfect Pant after speaking with 300 women about their workwear needs. We did a soft launch via eCommerce during my second year of MBA and were building toward a full launch, but then COVID happened. The timing was pretty bad! But, in many ways the pandemic is making this industry more interesting than ever. I started writing about trends I was seeing in the industry and found it very rewarding--it was a way to make sense of what was happening with my startup, and to think through my next steps. That's how Curious Commerce was born.

If there's one thread that connects these experiences, it's an interest in how we think and make decisions. Consumption and brand preferences are so reflective of broader trends politically, socially, and culturally. It's cool to work in a space where all these factors come together!

Melina Flabiano

UN in Geneva. McKinsey. Pandora Jewelry. Wharton MBA. Keaton. What a fascinating journey with so many different vantage points. I am looking forward to the best-selling autobiography in a few years.

I like how your newsletter's origin (and name) came from a simple theme: curiosity. When I think of curiosity in this space I think about what drives my best friend and my mother towards a brand. Those are two wildly different paths by the way, mainly due to my mother, but that's the point. How does a brand speak wide and narrow at the same time, or should they even attempt that. That's my curiosity.

This quote really stood out to me: "While growth was largely coming from online, there's something magical about facilitating a great interaction with a store associate. Building tech-enabled solutions that keep that personalization intact is where we saw our biggest wins, and that's where I became focused."

So now that you have extensive experience in both retail and eCommerce strategy, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on how leading teams can keep that top-tier personalization with the increasing shift to digital interactions. Is this in-person magic going to fade away? Or do you believe it can be replicated during a full eCommerce interaction with modern technology?

J.D. Crabtree

In redards to "how does a brand speak wide and narrow at the same time, or should they even attempt that", brands have always struggled with this tension. I think the early DTC brands were focused on appealing to a large, more uniform audience. Any wealthy-ish urban millennial was a target customer for brands like Casper. We're seeing a new era of brands focused on specific niches. My friend Aja wrote about how branding is becoming more "human" and just plain weird as a reflection of this shift. I also recently wrote about how DTC brands are remixing "house of brands" structures to launch several more niche brands under the same corporate umbrella. This lets them access the best of both worlds--authentic-feeling communities, but with the resources of a larger brand.

And to answer "how leading teams can keep that top-tier personalization with the increasing shift to digital interactions", If anything, I think the magic of a truly personalized interaction is more important now than ever. Take fashion apparel for example. Contemporary and designer brands command pretty steep prices. In the store, in addition to my purchase, I can enjoy a complimentary glass of champagne, get styling tips from associates, and browse with my friends--it's a fun experience. Online, we're expected to pay the same price as in-store, but these components are largely missing. The convenience is obviously great, but shoppers now see this as tablestakes.

Most well-known DTC brands have gorgeous websites and do a great job with storytelling, but I think there's a lot of opportunity to build experience. It's been neat to see how brands responded to COVID by offering livestream events, virtual styling sessions, and tried out social shopping. One brand that's been doing a great job with this is Otherland (candles).

One reason I'm so excited about resale--companies like The RealReal and Depop--is that they build the feeling of a treasure hunt into the experience. Inventory turns over everyday, so there is a sense of urgency. I know I'll find something new every time I shop. In contrast, traditional department stores moved online and basically shifted their assortment into a completely sterile catalog format. It's not inspiring to see pages and pages of blue t-shirts. Whether it's manually curating a selection (serving an editorial function) or finding solutions to make searching and filtering products more seamless, I'm excited about how brands can leverage their assortment to build a great experience.

Melina Flabiano

As you thoroughly noted, seeing the evolution of DTC storytelling has been fascinating. It is probably a mix of saturation at the wealthy-ish urban millennial level and other consumer niches catching up to the greater shift, but almost anyone can find that best friend of a brand if they are looking for it.

We are close with the team at arfa, and they are doing an impressive job of rolling out the "house of brands" approach. Wide and narrow levers depending on what they are seeing.

Have you heard of Popshop? Technology and experiences such as their approach come to mind when I hear you talk about the current gap. Legacy brands and goliaths will need to quickly get more sophisticated in their DTC approach—everything from fulfillment and content strategy, to web presence and customer experience. Those that do will likely go on to establish substantial direct to consumer businesses. Those that won’t will have to stick to the traditional (very expensive) in-store retail channels to survive. And these digital streams are here to stay, so hopefully our favorite IRL teams take note!

Back to you for a moment, I'd love to discuss that Keaton experience. You had to simultaneously take on to two incredible obstacles: 1) building a bootstrapped startup and 2) a global pandemic

What was a valuable experience or lesson that made all the struggles and problem-solving worth it in the end?

J.D. Crabtree

I have heard of Popshop and look forward to seeing what they do next! Especially in light of the pandemic, I think a lot of brands big and small will be eager to partner with them. I'm also curious whether Instagram and Facebook will meaningfully move into commerce. With the launch of Shops, that is clearly the goal. It's too early to say whether brands are really driving transactions directly through IG, but it's definitely something I'm following.

Let's see, a valuable experience or lesson that made all the struggles and problem-solving worth it...My experience launching Keaton was not successful (at least for now). As a bootstrapped founder, launching a fashion brand was going to be an uphill battle no matter what. Then, the pandemic hit, which turned my category--professional attire for women--on its head. That said, I don't regret my first foray into entrepreneurship. The lessons really come in two areas: tactical business lessons that will enable me to build better next time, and learnings about my personal growth.

On the latter front, I learned to trust in my ability to figure things out. In my early career, I would practice a skill, master it, and then feel confident that I could do it repeatedly. As a founder, I had to trust that I could deliver (e.g. build a great product) before ever having done it before. I realized that asking questions, working hard, and being obsessed with your customer will get you pretty far. I developed much more confidence to put myself out there.

In terms of business lessons, I wrote about four levers that can help a DTC brand scale. I also like the book Traction for a clear framework on GTM strategy and developing an experimental approach to finding product-market fit. When I think about what excites me for my next chapter, it's less about WHAT people buy, and more about HOW people buy. There are thousands of cool apparel brands in existence and it's hard to know what products are right for us. We only see the ones spending lots of VC dollars on social media ads (or alternatively, the really strong brands succeeding with word-of-mouth). We as consumers have an appetite for discovering something new. I'm really interested in how the future of discovery will look. .

Melina Flabiano

Instagram and Facebook will meaningfully move into anything if the price is right. I joke, I joke.

Thank you for sharing all those thoughts on Keaton. It takes a certain person to take that leap and operate in unknowns.

Forgive me for not finding the most progressive example, but everything you said resonates with the "Man in the Arena" concept. Whether or not Roosevelt intentionally titled it that way, I'm going to fix some of those quotes for him: "It is not the critic who counts; not the man or woman who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena...."

There are a lot of people out there writing and critiquing what founders of brands should do in this space. But you are living it. You are ultimately learning the most and pushing the industry forward. I think that is much more notable than writing a big teardown or industry report. So kudos to you Melina, not that you need kudos from anyone though!

Alright to close us out, any parting thoughts for the crowd? Anything or any brand really catching your eye that we should know about?

And thank you for working with me on this piece - it has been a blast.

J.D. Crabtree

In terms of brands I'm loving, there's too many to choose from! I stay on top of new launches through Thingtesting's emails. Two "treat myself" brands I've enjoyed during quarantine are Ghia (a new non-alcoholic apertif) and Behave (low-sugar candies). Both have gorgeous online experiences that are really best-in-class. And I'm very intrigued by arfa's new brand, State Of, which is tackling menopause with a comprehensive set of products.

Thanks for this great conversation! If you enjoyed following along, please check out Curious Commerce. I write biweekly about consumer and retail topics like this, and have some exciting stuff in the pipeline. Lots on the future of brand discovery, including some interviews with amazing founders.

Melina Flabiano

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