As part of our #BehindTheGram series, last year we ran a webinar with Conna Walker, founder of House Of CB. I first met Conna back in 2013 when I booked her as a speaker for a project I was working on with Virgin Media to inspire young entrepreneurs, among the esteemed panel Conna definitely stood out, she was smart, savvy and although she may have been the youngest, there was no question that this girl knew her stuff way beyond her years leaving the audience with fresh insights and perspectives of what it takes to start a fashion business and make it global!
So, when we decided to start the #BehindTheGram webinar I took the opportunity to reach out to Conna to discuss her ever growing brand House Of CB and how she has utilized Social Media, especially Instagram which is their fastest growing platform to build her business.
You can read an edited version of the transcript with key highlights below or listen back to the full webinar HERE.
MSMPA: How did you get started with House of CB, where did it all start?
Conna Walker: I started when I was 17 selling things on eBay, I’m 22 now, so that was about 5 years ago. I had a Blackberry at the time and it would send me information of when something sold, I’d answer questions before school, during school, and pack orders after school. It was getting to a point where I felt eBay was quite restricting, you couldn’t have your own sense of identity on there, there’s no shop fronts, and you’re kind of the same as everyone else. I felt that, if big brands could have a website, then why shouldn’t I? That was kind of my plan, to be more than just someone selling something on eBay, I wanted my own store, as such. When it started getting busy I figured that I don’t need to be giving away 30% or whatever it is that they take, I wanted more creative control, to be able to have more fun with it, so, within a few months I decided to start my own website. I did something a little bit naughty and I took all the emails from the eBay customers I had and emailed them all saying I had a website and that things on the website were a little bit cheaper and that I had other stuff on there as well, and from there it started to grow.
MSMPA: Outside of just emailing the customers that you already had off of eBay, how did you go about attracting people to your designs and your dresses when you first got started?
Conna Walker: Well, I never went to Uni at all, or did anything in marketing or branding and I haven’t got any fashion background so for me everything was quite new. At first I just based it off having a really cool product that other people didn’t have and putting it in a setting that is attractive, so a good clear photo, a good model, a good photographer, and from there I tried to make my site pretty, it sounds really silly, but things looking attractive are really important. And I tried to make somewhere, that I felt didn’t exist at the time, a store that didn’t exist for those kind of products at that kind of price. Although it’s not cheap, it’s not really high-end expensive, so I kind of did it very organically, I didn’t pay for adverts or anything at first and I found through social media, generally, that people would come to me and we’d have celebrities and clients, who would then have to tag us and all that kind of stuff, so we did it in a pretty kind of organic kind of way.
MSMPA: So did you set up a Twitter, Facebook and Instagram account at the time? Was Instagram around at the time?
Conna Walker: Instagram wasn’t around at the time, mainly Twitter and Facebook. At the time it was predominantly Facebook, and then Twitter kind of took the lead and then, now, Instagram is definitely the most powerful tool for us. Originally, I would just update throughout the day, and speak about things that maybe aren’t necessarily our products: I’d post Beyoncé videos and that kind of thing, to keep people interested, not just trying to sell the products. To keep the interest of the customers, I wanted the posts to reflect that the brand was cool, and that we were part of their lifestyle, rather than just trying to sell them something. Talking about new music videos kept people interested and paying attention, and it kind of just snowballed, literally, from there, it was just quite a natural progression really.
MSMPA: So I think that’s a already a key lesson that people can take note of, don’t just post about what you’re selling but try to engage customers in other things which they like as well, which is an important thing that a lot of people miss out on… most people think “Okay how can I sell my dress, or how can I sell my food, or their services or whatever…”?
Conna Walker: It’s kind of more personal… not generally corporately selling stuff…
MSMPA: Did you have to identify your customers in order to connect with them, or were they your ideal customers anyway?
Conna Walker: In a sense, I think it works more that you create something and you stay true to whatever you feel that is. And the customers who like that will come to that, rather than trying to base it on a specific type of person. With a brand, you’re constantly evolving, so, for example, we have customers who have shopped with us from day one, but four or five years along the line, they don’t want the same thing they wanted… So we have to evolve with them; social media is really good for that being able to speak to your customer in finding out what they like and what they don’t like, and sometimes silence speaks as much as words do… If your pictures aren’t getting likes, it means that people don’t like it. You have to kind of figure things out like that; but for us it’s like House Of CB is a person that’s constantly evolving. So for example; Abercrombie & Fitch keep the same style for a certain person; but for House of CB I see it that we grow with our customers, we prefer to evolve with them rather than targeting a set age group or style, or that kind of thing, we kind of evolve with the customer, rather than target specifically.
MSMPA: Has your perception of social media changed?
Conna Walker: Yes, definitely. At first, it was it was kind of about getting our name out there, so we would do a lot of competitions, we would work across other brands on giveaways and we were dependent on a lot of celebrities to tag us, and since then we developed a more brand-aware social presence, so all of our pages when you land on them, we want our customers to know what we are about immediately. About 90% of all our content is our own, so our videos and our pictures are all from us, which in the beginning we couldn’t afford to do, so we had to use customers’ pictures and “cool” lifestyle pictures to kind of build that. But we definitely changed in how we do things, now we want to tell the story of the brand: how things are made, the designers and behind-the-scenes photoshoots. We just want to tell our story more, with our social media, not just trying to get more customers. Of course, we want to do that aswell, but we really want to tell the story of the brand and develop that.
MSMPA: So how involved are you now still with the social media, do you oversee it?
Conna Walker: Yeah, definitely, I have a few girls that run it full-time for me, but we kind of go through everything, the kind of things we want to post, and have more of a schedule, which seems kind of commercial, which it is, but we have a more scheduled structure than we used to, because before, it would just be me posting things I thought were cool, or new products, but now if you look at our Instagram it has one line which has all the products, lifestyle pictures or celebrities, it’s a lot more structured, but everything that happens we sit down and we talk it through and we decide what is going to go out because the brand voice has to be consistent, the lingo and everything has to have a consistency to embody the whole brand, and I oversee that process.
MSMPA: What I’m getting from you is that as you’ve grown as a company, you’ve had to take a more strategic approach to your Social Media. How did you figure out what was working for you?
Conna Walker: It was mainly trial-and-error, as I said, I didn’t have any training in marketing or business so it was very much a case of try some things and see how they work, if people don’t respond well, then change it, but the one tricky thing with social media is that you always have to keep evolving as well, so what may have worked two years ago may not work now. It’s always good to listen to people as well, my friend Marianna once told me when I first came to L.A.: “Your Instagram page is so messy”, and I said “Why would people care about a messy Instagram page?” But these are all things you learn from other people and you really have to listen, and take note of what other people are doing. Take a secret look at all those those people and see what you can do to elevate yourself to that level. It’s constantly changing
MSMPA: Your images have evolved over time, you’ve said you used to use customer images and lifestyle images. At what point did you realize that you’d have to invest more in your imagery, are your sales driven by the images that you put out there? How important are images to your strategy?
Conna Walker: I think it was a progressive thing, at first I started with flat product shots: no model and white background. I didn’t want a model at first, because i thought it made it look messy, and I liked the clean pristine look, and eventually when I began to use models, it increased sales! People responded much better to a real person in clothes, rather than just a flat picture. Since then, look-books have evolved, our styling, the way we shoot, they types of locations we shoot. It has all been progressive, you learn more about your brand, you start to understand the types of things you want to photograph and don’t want to photograph. Imagery is very important for us, without it we would be a lot further behind, for example with a black leather shirt, you can style it certain ways, but if it was just flat you wouldn’t be able to show the customer how else it could look other than their own imagination, and when you’re selling online, you only have one chance to sell things to people through pictures, they can’t walk into a store and touch it, so you have to show that product in the best possible light.
MSMPA: I remember when your dresses were worn by the girls on TOWIE, and now you have J-LO, Beyonce, Kylie Jenner, how did you go about making your brand attractive to create these type of opportunities?
Conna Walker: I feel that for opportunities, opportunities don’t just land on your lap you have to go out and get them, I’m not particularly sociable or like public speaking, but, for me, I actually pushed myself to going to events, and go to speak to people and speak to them and sell myself and my brand; say for someone like the Kardashians, they have thousands of products delivered to them every day and if people don’t make them stand out, or if you don’t make a personal connection with either someone in their camp or them, then you’re just going to be another brand sending items and hoping that they like them. So for me you really have to put yourself out there, you have to go and meet people, you have to really work on your brand, you have to be passionate about your brand, of course opportunities can come, but only if you’re working for them. For me, networking is a key thing, I came out to L.A, maybe 6 or 7 months ago for the first time, it’s been amazing for me but at the same time you have to network, which I wasn’t very good at, you have to speak with people and work with people in a really positive way. They won’t just land on your lap, in my experience.
MSMPA: So you had to step out of your comfort zone in order to create these opportunities, and I suppose this is backed by having a good product…
Conna Walker: Yes, of course, if your product is no good, then people won’t like it so you have to work on your brand, how it’s represented and how you represent it through yourself. You are a part of your brand and you have to present yourself in the same manner, and it all has to come together to reach the likes of Jennifer Lopez and the Kardashians. It’s also progression, we’ve been here for 4 or 5 years, we’ve really been working at this for a long time and connect everything we do and understand what our customers want and understand what celebrities want, and working with an array of celebrities you and your brand have to be on point.
MSMPA: What would your advice be to someone starting an online business in this day and age, should they be investing in Social Media ads?
Conna Walker: If someone is giving you a huge investment, then do it… But if you are starting the same way I did and you don’t have any investors or anything like that, and you have to grow organically, then I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t pay for the Ads etc. But I would say, things like eBay, I mean, we don’t sell on eBay anymore, but at the time it was really good because it puts you in front of a lot of customers, at no cost… well, apart from the commission that they take, but you know, you don’t need to pay for advertising, as such. And that way you can sell your product without too much risk. But in the first place you don’t need a large investment, don’t go and spend 5K on a photoshoot, do things within your means, like use a cool photographer, who’s not expensive, use your girl that’s really hot. I mean, I remember on eBay, I would wear the things myself and my mum would take the picture and they still sold. So you can definitely do things that don’t really cost, and still get the job done for that stage. Of course, when you’ve grown, you can’t stand in front of the camera and have your mum take the pictures anymore, but as you’re setting up and you’re growing, it’s fine to do those things. You don’t need to spend huge amounts of money, you don’t need to find an investor, especially with social media, you can organically market your product yourself, without paying anybody, just dope pictures, dope product and you’re good.
MSMPA: What would you say has been your biggest mistake or lessen you’ve learned while building your business?
Conna Walker: My biggest mistake is that at one point, I stopped listening to my customers, so some of our products were not on-brand, they were not what we would get excited over and by losing our brand look for a second, we lost interest and our customers lost interest, and then it was really difficult and it took a very long time, to get back on-brand, and pull our customers back in and interest them again. Once you lose someone, it’s very difficult to pull them back in. You can’t knock on their door and ask them to look at our new stuff. You can email them and try, but, we changed our name to House of CB, we revamped our whole image, people had fallen out of love with us and I’m very fortunate that people have fallen back in love with us. Now it’s really important that in the weekly meetings with my designers we have a very strong look of where we want to go, we really listen to what people say on social media and their response. That was probably my biggest mistake, but at the same time it was the biggest learning curve and the most important, because if you’re not sure of where your brand is headed, it’ll be a total disaster.
MSMPA: So essentially are your customers on social media, helping to drive and mould where you’re taking the brand?
Conna Walker: Of course, that’s the only reason I’m here. If there were no customers then I wouldn’t be here. If they say they want green dresses with long sleeves and finger covers then cool, we’ll do it. It’s all about what the customer wants and we listen and we like to know our customer. Obviously as we design 8 months in advance, we have to guess what they want in 6-8 months time, but by seeing their response to current pieces we can gauge. It’s not just about designs, people are asking for next-day delivery options all the time and you need to find a way to give that to them, you need to stay upfront with all your competitors, if they offer next-day delivery, you need to offer next-day delivery; if people are offering free-shipping then you need to offer free-shipping. You have to listen, customers will tell you a lot even if you don’t want to hear it and it will grow your business in really good ways.
MSMPA: What 3 social media tips would you give to anyone who is trying to grow their businesses’ or online brands’ presence?
Conna Walker: I would really try and keep a strong brand image and voice, so don’t sway around too much, keep it very clear the type of brand that you are; listen to your customers and respond to your customers, not just complaints, but in general, as long as we see the post on Instagram, we will always like the post if they’ve tagged us, sometimes, we get a lot, so sometimes we miss them, but you have to really show appreciation to your customers and respond to them, it’s the only real chance you get to speak to the people that are appreciating and buying your things. And the third thing that I would say, is to try and separate yourself as much as you can from other people, try and create as much original content as possible. Whether it’s just doing pictures of your friends in your clothes or whatever, but try and keep it as original as possible and that way people will understand that you are your own brand and not just using what a tonne of other people are posting. You have to really make yourself different from everyone else.
Highlights From Live Audience Q&A:
Are there any disadvantages to having your social media presence, have you ever thought “Oh My gosh, I just want to pack it in?”
To an extent yes, it’s like a living breathing person, and it needs attention, and you have to respond quickly to your customers, there’s a lot of people on our pages all the time, so we try to make sure, we give quick responses. Sometimes it can just feel like a hassle in the sense that people are waiting for you to post something cool, and you’re like, “Well I haven’t got anything cool right now.” So it’s quite difficult to keep up with the demand of what you need to do to stay relevant, but most of the time it’s all good.
What areas of growth do you envisage your brand to incorporate? What’s your next move?
We really want it to be a lifestyle brand, so not just clothing, we’ve got a gym-range, swimwear, but around christmas time we will be releasing more homeware kind of things. We also want to be known internationally and open stores in the US (since this interview Conna has gone on to open a flagship store in LA).
Do you think hiring PR is beneficial to helping your brand?
PR is very much like hiring staff, if it’s the right fit then it works, however if you hire the wrong fit, then it’s very costly, for not the results you wanted. I’d say that the PR we have now is definitely helpful, I’ve spent a lot of time with the wrong PRs, I’d just say that if you want to, hire a PR when your business is running and the funds are available, but I wouldn’t stake money on it. Really do your research into who they are, what other brands they represent and what they’ve achieved so far.
How did you initially raise capital for your business?
I was very fortunate to loan £2,000 from my Dad, which I paid back, and grew naturally through re-investing. I would say it’s best to do things organically.
What business advice would you share with others that you wish someone had shared with you before starting?
Really, really watch your finances, it’s obviously a very basic thing, but sell for more than you buy and include all of your costs in that, your buying cost is not your only cost. Take calculated risks, keep reinvesting the profit back into the business. Once you get into the groove of things it’s really cool, but if you kind of fall off, then it’s difficult to get back on, so always watch your finances are correct, watch your numbers, your sales, even watch when it goes down. There are trends throughout the year that you should be aware of and prepare yourself for.
Thanks to Conna for taking the time out to be part of our #BehindTheGram series, we look forward to seeing this girl boss flourish. What is the key think you’ve taken from this interview? Let us know in the comments below.