How the unstoppable Melita Cyril, a self-described Mompreneur with an MBA, sells six-figures worth of socks for families.
A recovering banker and management consultant, Melita Cyril had her eyes (and ears) open for different entrepreneurial ideas during her maternity leave. When her baby boy suffered from eczema and she struggled to find the right socks for his sensitive feet, she started Q for Quinn - a company that sells gentle, comfortable socks for the entire family.
We talk through:
Melita is a mom of two kids and in addition to running Q for Quinn, she is also a children’s book author. Melita holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and a BSc (Hons) Economics from the London School of Economics.
Kurt Elster: Today on The Unofficial Shopify Podcast, we are talking to a self-described mompreneur of a six-figure family apparel brand with a social mission tied to their brand and marketing strategies. She is a brilliant businesswoman. She’s gonna walk us through her journey and give us I’m sure loads of absolutely mind-blowing advice. We’re gonna hear lots of sound drops, and surely, she is a recovering banker, a former management consultant, and she had her eyes and ears open for different entrepreneurial ideas during her maternity leave. When her baby boy suffered from eczema, which is no joke, eczema is a real nightmare if you have it, she struggled to find the right socks for his sensitive feet.
At that time, she started Q for Quinn, a company that sells gentle, comfortable socks for the entire family. Oh, I am a sock connoisseur. I have sock opinions. Q for Quinn’s collection of mix and match socks also means you never have to scramble for a matching pair of socks again. We slipped that plug in there. Melita is a mom of two kids, and in addition to running Q for Quinn, she is also a children’s book author. Wow. Okay, this is about to blow you away. She has done everything, and she keeps going, the list of things, of accomplishments here. Melita holds an MBA from the University of Toronto and a BSc in economics from the London School of Economics. Oh, my God. What have you not done? Traveled lately? That’s a good-
Melita Cyril: Yeah. That’s a good one.
Kurt Elster: So, tell me about Q for Quinn. I hear you sell socks.
Melita Cyril: We do. We do. And tights. Yeah, so I started Q for Quinn, as you said, when my son was a few months old. He was about eight months when I had the idea for it, because he had eczema on his feet, so he would constantly get flare ups with the socks he would wear, so I couldn’t really find anything that was perfect for him, and so I had this idea to start this sock company, and at the time, I guess I really wanted to be an entrepreneur at some point, and I was on maternity leave, but wasn’t quite a paid maternity leave, because I didn’t have a job to go back to.
And so, I had my eyes and ears open, and so when I had this idea for socks, I started to think about all those issues I had with his socks, and even my socks. I mean, I kept losing them, for one. So, I had this idea of starting a collection where it was mix and match, so if you lost a single sock, you always had something to pair it with, and it was just fun to wear mismatched socks. So, every collection of our socks comes with three pairs, but nine possible combinations, so you never have to struggle for matching pair again.
Kurt Elster: Oh, cool.
Melita Cyril: And that’s sort of how the idea started, and as I was kind of developing the idea further, I guess I was really big on trying to create a brand, and I wanted kids, because it would be a kids’ sock company, it had to be fun, it had to be something that kids could relate to, and I always wanted an educational component to whatever I was doing. And so, I started by writing this children’s book about socks, and I kind of got carried, because I really enjoyed the process. I started writing, I started editing it, got a professional editor to actually look at it, and it sort of came together one step at a time, and in the end, before I launched this company, I had this book, which had the sock patterns. It was a fun story about Quinn’s Socks, and I had three collections that came with the book, and that’s how Q for Quinn sort of launched, with this book and matching socks.
Kurt Elster: I already have several things I need to unpack there. You said you knew you wanted to be an entrepreneur, but you didn’t have the business idea yet, and I certainly… I sympathize with that. I feel like somewhere around age 18, I said… When people asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I want to be an entrepreneur. “Oh, what are you gonna do?” I don’t know yet. That was really a thing I had to deal with, and often I would be like, “Well, probably something with cars.” I just kind of knew a general interest, but it really was… I had so many false starts I can’t count of trying to start a business. How long did you have that yearning to be an entrepreneur and own your own business?
Melita Cyril: Well, I was always inspired by my dad. He’s an entrepreneur. And he started with nothing. He started his company at 27 years, and through the years, he was able to make enough money to send us, my two sisters and I, to the U.K. for education, and afford a good lifestyle and formal education for us. So, I was very much inspired by him growing up, and I always wanted to be a bit more like him, so that’s kind of where the drive for becoming an entrepreneur sort of came from, because I guess I went to the LSE, where 99% of graduates go into investment banking or something ridiculous like that. So, I was always influenced by what’s the hot thing to do, or what everyone else is doing, and so I followed that path, but I always knew in the back of my head, maybe I’m just gonna try this and see if it’s sort of fulfilling for me, and if not, that’s when I would become an entrepreneur.
So, I kept pushing it for the longest time. One, because I didn’t have that business idea, and second, because I always had this shiny job, I guess, that was promising a great salary and prestige in a way, so I got caught up in that a lot, so I did banking for three years. Actually, worked for Lehman Brothers, they went bankrupt, and even then I got another job offer after that. So, it came to me fairly easily, and so there was always that option, so I felt like I was always kind of dragged in a way into it. And same with the MBA. When I moved to Canada, I found that all the jobs I was getting was in either banking, mostly in banking, because I didn’t have that experience, so I decided to do an MBA, and then there too, there was that strong influence. There wasn’t so much of an entrepreneurial influence at the school, and I always felt, “Oh, I need more experience to be an entrepreneur, so I’m going to-“
Kurt Elster: That’s what I felt, too. In retrospect, you realize it’s not true.
Melita Cyril: It is so not true.
Kurt Elster: But at the time, essentially it’s permission setting. You’re looking for someone to give you permission to go start a business, and business, like my undergrad was business degree, and I took a bunch of entrepreneurship courses, and then I went and did an MBA and studied entrepreneurship and sustainability. And really, the whole time I was just looking for permission. I was looking for the time that someone goes, “Well, here’s your entrepreneur card. You can now go do it.” And of course, it doesn’t happen.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. It doesn’t. And so, I had to almost force myself to not have those options, and that’s when it kind of happened where I jumped on it. So, just going back a little bit, so after the MBA, I worked as a management consultant. Too much travel. Again, not really satisfying. Not really what I wanted. And personally, as well, my husband and I were trying to start a family and we couldn’t, because my body was under so much stress, and so we did take a sabbatical, go back to Sri Lanka, help out with the family business there, came back and I thought, “I’m not doing this anymore.”
And so, I quit, and I just took time off, and then got pregnant with my son and had my son, and I didn’t have an option to go back to and everything else seemed… Didn’t seem as attractive at the time, because I felt like I would have had to start again and things like that. So, like my dad, I almost… It wasn’t so much of a choice for him when he started his business, but I felt at that point that I didn’t have too many options but to carve my own path in a way.
Kurt Elster: Certainly, necessity is the mother of invention. We’re seeing that here. And you can intentionally remove your own options to force yourself down the path that you know will be harder, but probably better, and it sounds like that what you did. But just to clarify, and I think I know the answer here, would you ever go back to a proper, traditional, corporate job?
Melita Cyril: No. Never.
Kurt Elster: I figured. I would have been surprised if you said anything else.
Melita Cyril: Option Z.
Kurt Elster: So, you talked a lot about starting a family, and that being traditionally employed was counterproductive to that. My wife gets this question and it always drives her crazy, because people are like, “How do you manage being a mom and owning a business?” Or some variation on that, and it offends her because no one has ever asked me, like, “Kurt, how are you a dad and own an eCommerce business?” What do you say to that?
Melita Cyril: Physically, the woman carries the child, so you’re going through these 9 months of pregnancy, you’re going through childbirth, and you’re going through postpartum, so at least in my case, it did impact me more than it impacted my husband in terms of being functional-
Kurt Elster: Certainly.
Melita Cyril: And being able to run a business. So, it is what it is, and so I don’t personally get offended, but as the kids grow up, I think there is that… There continues to be that little bit of a stigma or perception that, “Okay, a woman does more in the household and does more with taking care of the children and all of that.” And certainly, in my culture that is the case. And I’m fortunate, because my husband is quite understanding of the situation, and we have almost like a 50-50 split, even though he’s got a stable income and mine’s kind of a little bit up in the air at times.
But the point being I think there is, there’s definitely still that perception, and it’s changing, but I think there still needs to be more recognition for women, or mom entrepreneurs, especially in the early stages, when you’re having the kids, and you’re expected to either fulfill a role in a top corporate job or own your own business. It is hard and the husband can only do so much, but the baby relies on you. The baby, like I nursed my kids, and so they relied on me. I did have some help, so we did have some part-time help and things like that, and-
Kurt Elster: And that really does make all the difference in the world. If you’re lucky enough to have a support network available or are able to afford a nanny or a sitter, just even… like when we started with a nanny, and we don’t do it now because of the pandemic, but previously even just one day was just this just incredible breath of fresh air, because previously everything has to be packed into this very regimented schedule of like, “Okay, get the kids up. Breakfast. Get the day started.” And all right, now I have to choose… My wife had to choose between work on my business or work on self-care, go take a shower, go work out.
And so, just even having one day of a nanny, tremendously helpful for her, where she could plan around that and that rapidly went… It went from like one day, to two days, to three days, then pandemic.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. Actually, we had three-day support, so our nanny was coming in three days a week before the pandemic hit. She’s a little bit older, so she was also very uncomfortable coming in, so right now we don’t have childcare, and it’s hard, but we take… Like I said, I take turns with my husband, so I work in the mornings and he does the afternoons, and so we’ve been trying to split up our time and manage that way. But I think the key is just to try to figure it out with your situation, and yes, we were very fortunate to have that childcare, and especially so since my parents don’t live here, so they weren’t able to come as often, so that made a huge difference.
Kurt Elster: Absolutely. Like, for people without kids, they’re like, “Why are they not talking about eCommerce?” But when you’re a couple, and especially a married couple with kids, where both people are entrepreneurs, there needs to be a… You need to overcommunicate on schedules, and expectations, and what you need, and how you’re feeling, or things will go off the rails rapidly.
Melita Cyril: Very.
Kurt Elster: And it’s very easy… It’s an easy thing to work around and fix if you overcommunicate and you’re actively working on the situation, on your household, and on your marriage and relationship.
Melita Cyril: Yeah.
Kurt Elster: Okay, so one of the early things you said, if I go back to like 10 minutes ago, before we went totally off the rails You said you had a realistic pain in your own life in finding the right socks, and then even like once you have purchased the socks, you have found and purchased socks, then literally finding them in your house, because kid socks and baby socks end up everywhere and mismatched. So, you knew you had these very literal pains. I love that nearly every entrepreneurial journey on the store starts with someone finding this pain in their own life and going, “Well, why can’t I fix that?”
So, talk me through that. How did you come to the realization? Now it seems very obvious, like socks, and okay, we’re gonna sell these organic cotton socks. But at the time, it’s like socks, who cares? Everybody sells socks. What did that look like?
Melita Cyril: So, I didn’t do extensive market research or anything like that, if that’s kind of what you’re asking. So, I kind of a little bit followed my gut. I did do some Google research to figure out what were the search terms like and things like that, but I think I was… Putting my MBA hat on, I was a little bit adamant on creating some sort of differentiator. Not only did it have to be the best product out there, because like you said, socks are very competitive. You can buy socks at Walmart. It’s almost like a convenience play with socks. It’s like you go in, you go to the grocery store, sometimes even like gas stations sell socks, so-
Kurt Elster: Oh, geez.
Melita Cyril: So, it’s-
Kurt Elster: I don’t own any truck stop socks, but I’m sure they’re very nice. But you’re right, like socks are… Some apparel basics, like socks, are very much a commodity.
Melita Cyril: Yes. Yes. Exactly. And so, I set out to create something that solved multiple pain points when it came to socks. So, yeah, the mitch and max, when you lose socks, but also the grips. I found the socks in the market didn’t quite have proper grips. And I think eventually, so after I guess I fell into that trap that almost probably every entrepreneur does, like you create a great product and you expect people to come. But that isn’t the case, and that wasn’t the case with my experience. So, very much after I launched, I noticed that a lot of people were buying my socks. One, because they had kids with sensitive feet, but also because they were made from organic cotton, and that wasn’t as prevalent as regular cotton socks.
So, I made the decision sort of early on, just kind of listening to what my customers were saying, why they were coming back and buying, and I found while the book was such a cute concept, and it’s a nice gift, it was the socks that was the consumable. That was why people were coming back and buying from me. And so, I decided to double down on socks, and so continued to sort of work on the features, introduce adult socks, so that the matching daddy-and-me, mommy-and-me socks are a little bit unique in the market again, and also they… Around Father’s Day, around Christmas, they’re very, very popular. They’re actually my best-selling item. Just because you can’t really get them at a Walmart or anywhere else.
Kurt Elster: Let’s back up. What did that conversation look like where you turned to your husband and said, “I think I’m gonna start a sore that sells socks.”
Melita Cyril: I think by this time, I had talked so much about being an entrepreneur, he was all like, “Sure. Just do it.”
Kurt Elster: Okay, good. Well, you need that buy-in-
Melita Cyril: You do.
Kurt Elster: … from your spouse or your immediate family, and it’s very difficult and demoralizing to not have that buy-in, and you very much need their support. Especially early on. But like for the life of the business, they, just as they’re married to you, they end up being married to your work, as well.
Melita Cyril: Oh, yes. Yes. And you know, it’s not always been perfect in terms of… Okay, I’ve always felt that I had that support and vice versa, as well, and he’s got a pretty intense job, as well. He does work for a company, but he heads the Toronto office of a U.S. company, so he manages a team of 15 people, so between the two of us, it’s almost like having two entrepreneurs and the two young kids, so we’ve, over the last two years, we’ve had a lot of conversations and we got to a place where it’s working. But it’s taken us some time.
Kurt Elster: I know I wouldn’t be here without my wife’s support, and so that’s why I kind of hammer on it when I can in these episodes. So, the… Once you had said, “All right, I know the problem we’re gonna solve. I know the product we’re gonna make. I know what’s gonna be different about it. And I’m gonna be an entrepreneur. We’re gonna start this.” How do you go about developing a product? Selling a physical good scares the hell out of me. It really does! And so, I’m always fascinated by people who’ve been able to do it and what that path looks like. And as many times as I’ve heard people talk me through it and make it sound so easy, I’m like, “This is so hard. This is terrifying.”
Melita Cyril: Yeah. And you know what? You’re right. Because I get, just in my… sort of the communities that I’m part of, a lot of entrepreneurs, they’re starting off, they’re like… If they’re a children’s book, “How do I go about printing this? How do I go about…” And they’re very lost when it comes to that, and I did… I was lost at first, but Google’s your best friend. I just Googled the hell out of Google in terms of sock manufacturing, trying to figure out what’s the best place, or where to manufacture the socks, and it was quite a big learning, because obviously to be mindful about minimums, and I didn’t have a company yet, so I didn’t want to take on too much risk. But with socks, and with apparel, what you would find is that every color, every size, it has a minimum quantity attached to it, so it adds up very quickly.
So, trying to find a manufacturer who would work with a smaller company while still being good and has all those certifications I was looking for was a challenge. It took me… I think it was two, three months of scouring the internet to find. I ended up getting lucky, because I found a manufacturer in Sri Lanka, where I grew up, and my dad, he lives there, so he was able… He’s retired now. He sold his company. He was able to sit down with them and he was my righthand person, and he still is when it comes to my supplier. So, he visits them, with every sort of purchase order, he sort of… If anything needs to be sent in terms of samples and things like that, he’s very involved with that process. So, I think it is a challenge to find, and it continues to still be a challenge to really manage these suppliers. And when they’re halfway across the world, so right now I’m working with suppliers in Portugal, India, and Sri Lanka, which is a lot, and every manufacturer works a bit differently, and so… But it presents a challenge, but it’s also kind of exciting in developing a new relationship with them and seeing what they’re capable of, and so far we’ve been fortunate to have had good relationships, and maybe that’s because we’re really strict about who we choose for the supplier.
I mean, as a small company, you don’t have a lot of bargaining power, but it gets very… You can narrow it down very quickly because only a few suppliers really have the GOTS certification, which we care about, which is the organic standard for apparel. A few, and when you even look at countries… Sorry, excuse me if I’m going on and rambling about this, but the point is that we… I’m very particular with where the goods come from and that’s part of our story, and that’s why people also buy from me, because they sort of know that, the level of transparency that I offer.
Kurt Elster: Well, all right, so a few follow ups there. What’s one thing, one piece of advice you would give to someone looking for their first manufacturer, they’re new to this, just to dealing with manufacturers, or what’s one thing you wish you knew when you had first started working with manufacturers.
Melita Cyril: Try to get as much as possible in writing. Contract terms would be the most important in my… Just the whole idea of even coming out with a contract with a supplier just means that you kind of force both parties to be on the same page. In terms of finding the supplier, I think the consumer today… I mean, obviously every product is different, and there might be only… Depending on your product, you might only have a handful of suppliers to choose from, but the consumer these days is becoming very educated on where things are coming from, what’s in their stuff, and so it is so important to really be able to share that with the consumer and be comfortable sharing that, which means that when you’re sourcing, you really have to have strict standards, because it is a big space out there, and so many different parties, and this is the approach that I took, but I think that is what is going to create that sort of sustainable business because of the fact that consumers are asking these questions, and being able to answer them is what’s gonna really differentiate yourself from a bigger company.
Kurt Elster: And tell me about… Transparency has come up several times, where you have a very… You are very clear in what you’re looking for in your product and your manufacturer, and then you’re also very clear in communicating that to the customer, so essentially you have a promise you have to fulfill, so I understand the importance of staying on top of and managing your vendors. What does that… For you, what does that transparency look like? What are you communicating to your customers? Why and how? Why do they care?
Melita Cyril: So, over the last 12 months, what I also uncovered through my journey is the amount of chemicals in a lot of the baby and kids’ clothing. There’s been lots of studies on various clothing items, like bibs, socks as well. There was a study out of Spain that came out last year that found that 90% of the sample studies had BPA and parabens.
Kurt Elster: Oh, God.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. It’s really shocking, but when you… Just my experience of sourcing and talking to manufacturers, I’m not so surprised, because… And the amount of tests that they need to do in order to qualify for GOTS, for example. So, it’s because all these chemicals are so prevalent in our clothing, and so the consumer doesn’t… is not quite there yet. They’re not as educated yet. And I feel like that is part of my sort of value and business proposition, to educate the consumer. And on what’s out there in the market and how my offering is different. Did that answer your question?
Kurt Elster: Yes. Well, and scrolling through, if someone’s curious, they could scroll through your homepage. QforQuinn.com, two Ns, and I will link to that in the show notes. We’ll also have a special offer later, but we’ll save that. But if you scroll through the Q for Quinn homepage, the first time… It’s laid out very nicely, it’s very pretty, there’s a great animated background I think is so cool, but then you get down to what I would describe as an about section, but it’s a few lines. It says, “We create happy and healthy products that are gentle on our skin and our planet.” I think the phrase happy and healthy products is brilliant. I think that should be the tagline in the logo. Like you’ve got this beautiful centered logo at the top, Q for Quinn. What if right under that it said happy and healthy products? And you could even do the ampersand, so you’ve just got a quick four words that immediately, if like that… If healthy products, if manufacturing, if sustainability are concerns of you, or concerns of yours I should say… Me talk pretty. Concerns of yours. Then this will immediately grab your attention.
And if it’s not, well, you probably weren’t gonna buy with this brand anyway, you go get your pack of Hanes tube socks and not worry about it. Like those people just flatly aren’t your customers. And then as you scroll down, the Q for Quinn difference, and you had said it was important for you early on to have a differentiating factor. And then you start talking about it. First one, safe and toxin free. Every pair of our socks is made from GOTS certified organic cotton and produced in-
Melita Cyril: OEKO-TEX.
Kurt Elster: OEKO-TEX 100 certified facilities. Ensures the absence of harmful chemicals and toxins found in a shocking 90% of baby and kid socks. And what I love about this is yeah, you through some buzzwords at me, and you cited a statistic, but all three… The only links in that statement are the two acronyms, GOTS, and it goes to an entire page about it, and the certification, and then the statistic. Do these all go to the same page?
Melita Cyril: No, they go to different-
Kurt Elster: Yeah. They go to like a long article about it.
Melita Cyril: Yeah, so I think the GOTS and OEKO-TEX might go to the same page, but there’s another blog post on the study that came out recently about the 90% of socks having BPA and parabens, or at least the samples that they studied. Yeah, so going back to what I was saying about educating the customer, I think when you look at the food industry, obviously being more mature in terms of organic food and why it’s important to eat organic food, free from pesticides, and not only is it sustainable, but also it’s healthier. Same with the idea of clean beauty. But clean fashion is not really a big thing yet, and so I guess we’re taking a bit of a bet here on it becoming a much bigger thing. Especially for babies, who are putting their socks in their mouth.
Kurt Elster: Yes. Everything goes in the mouth.
Melita Cyril: Yeah, exactly, and so the whole… We sell socks right now, but very soon we’re gonna be launching new products, so we’re actually expanding quite quickly into… And the vision is to become more of an apparel basics company focused on creating happy and healthy products that are gentle on the skin and on our planet. So, what I learned from the last two years and what I found resonating with my consumer demographic is this idea of having healthier alternatives to what’s in the market. And so, that’s become the mission of the company, to create these healthier products that are also fun and good for you.
Kurt Elster: How do people find out about you? Are they actively looking for this or is it word of mouth referral?
Melita Cyril: So, we do do some SEO for people looking for organic cotton socks, but it is not a huge market at the moment compared to clothing, for example. Do a lot of Facebook and Instagram ads, so that’s where we get a lot of traffic from, and then there is word of mouth, especially when it comes to little kids, who have very sensitive feet, if they’re bothered by the seam in their toes, so there’s a lot more referrals when it comes to eczema and other skin conditions. So, we’re proud to say that we even have kids who have had surgery early on and have to wear a cast for multiple hours a day wear our socks because it’s breathable and it doesn’t leave them with marks and more rashes and irritate their skin.
Kurt Elster: This is fabulous. We started to touch on the social mission here, and I see that in the site, where you talk about the Q for Quinn difference. It says socks that feed children. Every pair of socks we sell, we donate a school meal to a child in need. And you’ve mentioned social mission a few times. Did you always, from day one, did you know, “Hey, I’m going to have some kind of social aspect here. There’ll be some kind of cause marketing or charitable giving.”
Melita Cyril: Absolutely, and it’s really what motivates me on a day-to-day basis, just knowing I’m able to do it through Q for Quinn. So, I think very early on, like through my childhood, we were very, very, very fortunate. I was very fortunate to be born into the family that I was. In Sri Lanka, maybe not as bad as a lot of other countries, poverty was a big deal. There were a lot of kids who didn’t have food to eat, and even where my dad grew up, he would go to school hungry. And so, it was always kind of part of me in terms of I would always try to give back in whatever ways, so when I was working, donated part of my salary to charitable activities, and I always thought if I started a company, there would always be a charitable component. I just didn’t know what it was or what the organization was, and in what way I could have the most impact.
So, actually when we started, I was doing more of the one-for-one, like the Toms model. That is not very sustainable, especially when you start and your product cost is still pretty high, to donate a pair of socks with every pair you sell, it doesn’t make as much sense and I didn’t feel I was having a lot of impact, that the socks wouldn’t really reach the children who needed it most. And so, Mary’s Meals came up because there was actually another organization doing a very similar thing, and I love the organization just because of the way they run it, and the millions of children that they impact, but also the fact that 93 cents of every dollar actually goes to charitable activities, which is quite high compared to some of the other charitable organizations.
These children, and what I specifically love about Mary’s Meals is they provide the meal at a place of education or at the school, which encourages these children who don’t often even eat daily to go to the school for the meal, and in turn also get educated. And it’s so impactful, the work that they’re doing, and from a brand perspective as well, we’re able to quantify it, because they’ve quantified how much a meal costs, so we can track how many meals we’re actually donating, which is harder to do… When your donations aren’t that big at the beginning, you don’t really know where it goes to. I still can’t trace it to the actual child yet, but we can count how many meals, and so it’s very… When you translate it into the number of meals, it just makes it that much more meaningful, clearer to communicate with our consumers the impact that they’re having with their purchase, and also, like I said before, it really motivates me because this journey is hard, and with the two kids, sometimes I feel like… Is this all serving this bigger purpose? And through this, I feel like I’m that much more motivated to keep hustling and to keep going.
Kurt Elster: Interesting. I’ve never heard anyone phrase it that way. One of the things I thought was interesting there that I relate to is you said that your childhood partly inspired this, and it reminds me of my mom, who grew up in Mexico, and really talked a lot about just the abject poverty that she witnessed at times growing up there. It clearly had a lifelong impact on her.
All right, the one thing I totally skipped over, and this is so important. When you first start the business, getting that first sale is a thrill, but it’s hard, and then you get 10 sales, and then you get to 100, and suddenly you have… You’re like, “All right, the ball’s rolling. This business is starting.” But getting those first 100 sales is probably the hardest part of the business. How did you get early traction for your business?
Melita Cyril: So, when I first launched, I think I launched… yeah, I did Wix before Shopify and very quickly migrated to Shopify. But-
Kurt Elster: Well, let’s unpack that a little bit. Wix was limited but easy, I’m sure. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Melita Cyril: Yes.
Kurt Elster: And then how long did that last before you’re like, “I gotta go to an actual eCommerce platform.”
Melita Cyril: Yeah, two to three months. Yeah.
Kurt Elster: So, it was pretty quick.
Melita Cyril: Very quick. Yeah, so I used precisely Wix because it was easy. I had built a website for my dad’s company with Wix, and so I was familiar with it, so I just thought, “Okay, let’s put it out there with Wix.” And then I knew I’d have to seriously consider Shopify, but at the time it was like, “Let’s get this website up and running.” The first, I guess the first bit of traction really came from friends and family. I would say that I was very happy to see a stranger order the socks when I first launched, but the momentum… I couldn’t keep the momentum high because I was still very new to Facebook, Instagram ads. I didn’t really know where to find my target demographic beyond those initial sales, so I would say that I think it was in August I started listing my products on Amazon. And that’s where kind of the initial momentum came, just because of the size of the Amazon marketplace.
And so, if people were searching for organic cotton socks, I would rank pretty high, because there just wasn’t as much competition. So, the first I guess little bit of momentum really came from Amazon, beyond that initial launch hype. And Amazon is still a little bit of a part… is a little part of our business, but since then I was strategic in how I kind of used Amazon. I never wanted to build an Amazon business. I wanted to build my own brand, but I felt like that was a very good source of traffic and way to move my inventory in those early days as I figured out Facebook, Instagram ads.
Kurt Elster: No, absolutely. No, I think that’s a good strategy a lot of people used. Because initially, when you’ve never sold anything online, you don’t have experience with it, trying to find your audience on the internet is way harder than it sounds. The analogy someone used on the show, I wish I could remember who, because it was brilliant, they said you’re in a cave with a candle when you start.
Melita Cyril: Right.
Kurt Elster: Like you… It’s just massive and you can go every which direction and get lost so deep into it, but you can barely see just around you, and then as you start to get traction, and you start to talk to people, and you start to see where they come from, you start to figure it out. Like, all right, now you get a flashlight, and it stats getting better and you start figuring it out. The advantage to that early simultaneously saying, “Okay, I’m gonna have an owned channel. I’m gonna own my brand.” And having a website, and then also putting yourself on marketplaces, Amazon, eBay, Etsy, those marketplaces are a shortcut, because the value is you don’t own the customer, but they bring that customer to you. And you give up a bigger cut of the profit and the revenue, but they’re bringing that customer to you. You’re not spending on Facebook ads.
So, I think it’s a good, easy shortcut, especially early on without experience, to use a marketplace simultaneously. And then ideally, like that’s your customer acquisition strategy, and I’m sure as you saw people start Googling you and they start finding the website, or you’ve got pack-ins, or ah, and now you start building the email list and it starts to snowball and things get easier.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. Those early days of figuring out where your customers are gonna come from are definitely a challenge and it’s really a puzzle, and it sometimes just takes time. You know, you gotta give some different channels time in order to see what makes sense for your product.
Kurt Elster: Another thing I want to talk to you about is your average order value. If you’re willing to discuss it with us. So, socks are not particularly expensive. What have you been doing about it? Is it a problem? What kind of average order values are you seeing? What do you do about it?
Melita Cyril: Yeah, my average order value is around $60, which surprises people-
Kurt Elster: On socks?
Melita Cyril: On socks. Because socks are a commodity and they’re typically lower priced. Even when it comes to adult socks, unless you’re ultra-premium, it’s about… I don’t know, 10, 12 U.S. dollars, maybe a little bit more. And especially that first order, you’re getting somebody to try out a product, so it tends to skew that lower. But I guess I was a little bit strategic just with the whole three pairs, nine possibilities concept of bundling and selling… They’re packaged in threes, so you kind of have to buy the three or you don’t buy any at all. And, I mean, it works also better for kids’ socks, because people are used to buying packs for kid socks. But what I’ve found is bundling products, and lately we even created a mystery bundle that does really, really well. Even though it is sold at a discount because it’s a bit of a surprise, I have just found with bundling products I’m able to increase the average order value as well as even the customer lifetime value.
But the other thing, the other two things that have worked well, and every product’s a little bit different, but we played around a bit with our free shipping threshold, and this one’s interesting, because you’ve gotta really test it. What we found, it was previously 75 Canadian dollars. That’s pretty high, but shipping in Canada is relatively high, so that made sense, but recently, because of COVID-19, we actually lowered it to 50 and what we found is there were far fewer orders of just one three pack of socks, and so most would buy two to even start off with, which actually ended up increasing our average order value. So, just kind of playing around with the shipping threshold I think has been good for us in terms of trying to figure out what that sweet spot is.
And the free gift with purchase. We’ve done promotions. We have one right now, as well, where we offer a free pair of socks on purchases over a hundred dollars, and we find a lot more takers on that, as well. So, there are a few other strategies that I want to try, as well, like the payment plan, which we still haven’t done, but I know that’s meant to increase average order value, but those are the three that have worked for us. The bundling, the playing around with the free shipping threshold, and the free gift with purchase.
Kurt Elster: I love the bundles. It’s just such an easy way to reduce a couple of purchase decisions for people. It’s like, “Look, here’s the three pack. These go together. They look great. You’ll save eight bucks by buying three at a time. Just go.” It really reduces a lot of decision fatigue. For someone who’s like, “Look, I like these socks, I like your brand, I like the transparency, and I’m into space.” Oh, look. Here’s the out of this world three pairs of socks. Like I got one kid who’s really into space stuff, so immediately I’m like, “Okay, that’s for him. That would work.” So, bundling them that way is very smart for conversion rate as well as average order value.
Having a $60 average order value on an inexpensive commodity product is quite extraordinary. The other advantage to having a $60 average order value is it’s like right in this perfect sweet spot, where it’s still gonna be… It’s still in impulse purchase territory, but it’s very much profitable for you, as far as customer lifetime value goes. Especially since socks are a wear item. And so, people have to… Once I found a good pair of socks, I found… I discovered Stance socks like 12 years ago and then I’ve spent hundreds of dollars with them. So, having that higher average order value, or that… An average order value in like the $50 to $100 range is absolutely fabulous, because it doesn’t eat into your conversion rate, where like a $200-$300 might, but still keeps the business very healthy cashflow wise. So, I like that a lot.
The other thing I noticed you’re doing is free gift with purchase, so there’s an ad, there’s a ribbon banner ad that I think looks nice in the… I’m in the adult collection and it says, “Free pair of sock, adult large, on orders over $100 automatically added to checkout.” Does that… My experience with our clients is that free gift with purchase for… In general, but especially for apparel brands, does extraordinarily well. Have you seen a similar thing?
Melita Cyril: Yes, like the months that we run it, we notice a higher order value and also more conversions, as well. So, it does work really well, and we try… I’ve had it for a long time, I’ve had those on and off promotions for over a year and a half now, because it does work.
Kurt Elster: There’s a lot of brands that do it, and it seems to be apparel brands. One that’s really into it is Chubbies Shorts. Their drawer cart has like six free gift offers in it, and they’re all grayed out until you start… Cart value starts going up, and this whole thing’s custom. I once tried to build it for someone ourselves. It was a nightmare. It did not… It was so difficult to manage. Don’t even attempt this. But it was very clever, and so I think my point is if you’ve considered free gift with purchase, absolutely try it. They seem to work really well. Because people are loss averse, right? If you tell me… If I’m ordering socks from you and I’m spending… Like all right, I spend… Really what you’re doing here is walking me up a product ladder.
So, I show up and I’m like, “Oh, a pair of socks is like 13 bucks. Oh. Well, if I buy a bundle, they’re 25. I get them for eight bucks. Oh wait, I can get free shipping at 50. All right, so now I’m at… All right, I’ll get another pair. I got my pack for me; I’ll get a pack for my wife. Now I’m at 50. Oh, but if I get to 100 I get a free gift.” So, if I don’t get the free gift, it feels like I’m losing something, right? And so… Ah, now you have talked me into going through and going up over 100 bucks.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. And you know what? It’s such a great way to move inventory that is slower moving, as well. Because obviously we would be strategic in what we give away as gifts. They’re still good quality socks, but maybe the designs aren’t as popular as some of our other designs, so it’s a great way to keep that inventory moving.
Kurt Elster: Well, and same with the mystery bundle.
Melita Cyril: Mystery bundle. Exactly.
Kurt Elster: I’ve had several clients do variations on mystery bundle. Like Hoonigan has done it as the mystery bag. That thing always sells out. Jay Leno’s Garage really, that was part of how they launched their brand, was, “Hey, buy the mystery box.”
Melita Cyril: Right.
Kurt Elster: And it was like a monthly box and it was a limited thing. That stuff works incredibly well. The other thing I love that you do, you have an incredibly coherent and nice size chart. In all apparel, sizing is going to be the biggest objection from people. It’s how do I know this thing’s gonna fit me? There’s my toddler yelling at me. And yours looks really nice. For something as simple as socks. So, did you find this was a problem, and then you’re like, “All right, we gotta make a nice size chart here?”
Melita Cyril: Yeah. You know what? That’s been the biggest challenge, especially when you work with multiple suppliers and they have different machines, and so there’s always a little bit of a difference in terms of the size. But obviously consumers expect that consistency. They’re buying from Q for Quinn, so one pair of socks should fit exactly the same as the other. So, it’s been a bit of a learning, especially when you’re onboarding new suppliers, and there was one stock where all the socks shrunk a lot more and they wouldn’t fit even roughly the same way, so-
Kurt Elster: Oh no!
Melita Cyril: Yeah. Been there, done that, and I know now what not to do. But yeah, so thank you for that feedback, because I’m glad that it’s working a bit better now, but that’s been a bit of a challenge for us, and we’ve… I really want to strive for as much consistency as possible, so that when a customer comes back, they know exactly what size to buy. When we launch this other apparel too, and this is the challenge with apparel, it’s the sizing. Everybody comes in different sizes, body types, and being able to create a product that has… I mean, with socks as well, I’ve been a bit more lucky, because they’re more forgiving. They have more stretch. Whereas with some other forms of apparel, it’s going to be a bit more of a challenge.
But yeah, I just… What we strive for is consistency across the board in terms of sizing and offering clear size guidelines so that customers pick the right size.
Kurt Elster: Even with this very clear sizing guide, do you still see getting a lot of questions on sizing?
Melita Cyril: Lately no, because we actually did this recently, but before, when we had that shipment where they kind of ran a bit small, it wasn’t so much before, it was after. Being like, “What happened to these socks?” But once that was fixed and that was communicated and all that kind of improved, we are fortunate not to have too many sort of sizing issues or people picking the wrong size and coming back to us being like, “It really doesn’t fit.” And it ends up being very expensive, especially in Canada. We don’t really offer a free return policy, so of course if it was damaged or anything like that, we’ll take the hit on that, but exchange and returns, it’s kind of like a little bit on a case by case. And I know it’s one of those objection busters, and so I… It’s to be honest, something that we’re figuring out, but it does end up being very expensive to do free exchange and returns if they don’t like the product and things like that.
So, something that we’re learning about, but yeah. I’m sure, Kurt, you have more insight into that for the apparel brands that you work in.
Kurt Elster: Oh, absolutely. The returns and exchanges with apparel is a real nightmare. I mean, they have a very high return and exchange rate in general. I know in… I’ve read statistics. I’ve not experienced this, but I’ve read statistics like some retail stores will have a 50% return and exchange rate. Absolutely insane. But yeah, it’s because you can’t try it on, and to your point, everybody really is shaped different. For me, I’m six feet tall and I have this absurd 44-inch barrel chest that drives me crazy, because trying to get a shirt that fits right is a complete nightmare. So, once I find a brand that works, like probably… Maybe I’ll go back and buy two more shirts from them. And you then experience that with these socks, where someone said, “Oh, wow. These socks fit. This is perfect and I know this is the size.” And then they reorder, and it doesn’t fit exactly the same and it’s just this wild disappointment.
And so, often the solution is, “Hey, we’ll do free returns and exchanges.” But one, that becomes very expensive, and it represents waste, because what are you supposed to do with returned worn socks? I don’t know what the solution is beyond like overcommunicating on sizing, which you did. Maybe rather than doing the returns, you do, “Hey, we’ll send you… If they’re too small, we’ll send you a size up free.” That could be a lower cost way out of it. I don’t know, but it is 100%, if you’re considering apparel or you’re in apparel, it’s something you have to think through.
And that’s one of the other things that scares me with apparel. What I love is when sites do like… Like socks, it doesn’t apply. But when they go like, “Here are the models’ height and weight and this is the size they’re wearing.” That combined with a size chart, I think that really helps.
Melita Cyril: Yeah, that’s a good point, because it helps people kind of visualize it so that-
Kurt Elster: Yes. Yeah, because I can’t try it on. And then the other issue we get into, especially, and it’s probably less of an issue with you, but more like with fast fashion stuff. Take three shirts all size large and all three will fit a little differently. That’s just a common thing that happens when you’re manufacturing stuff at scale like this. Tolerances on clothes turn out they’re not that good.
Melita Cyril: Yeah. And with multiple suppliers, too. Just going back before, just kind of maintaining consistency, that is definitely an ongoing challenge.
Kurt Elster: We gotta wrap this up. It’s very interesting and I like you a lot. That’s why we’ve gone long. If you could go back in time, what’s one thing you would do differently?
Melita Cyril: I think I would sort of keep an open mind and launch a product or a version of a product faster, and sort of in the pre-launch, really think about how I’m gonna really get those first 100 sales. Because like I said before, I was a bit naïve thinking, “Okay, you launched this great product, and everybody will come.” But that’s certainly not the case, so I think it’s getting to market faster and maybe paying more attention to detail on where your first customers are going to come from and how you’re going to sort of iterate from there. I paid a lot… I wrote a children’s book. I had this great product, which is still a great product, but most of my customers come to me for socks, and the book is extra, and it’s great, but at the time, I didn’t realize that it's more of a gifting item. People aren’t gonna come back necessarily for the book and socks, but they’ll come back for socks.
But the point is to go to market faster and to really think hard about where you’re gonna get your first 100 to 200 customers, and then you go from there.
Kurt Elster: That’s an excellent point. I’ve seen people where they’re like, “The site has to be absolutely perfect before we launch it.” And it’s like launch just means remove the password and there’s no one there. No one cares.”
Melita Cyril: Exactly.
Kurt Elster: And that is 100% the norm, so it’s… Yeah, if early on you accept like, “Okay, we… I’m just trying to get that first sale.” Have sane goals. Just trying to get that first sale. And then once you have that, “Okay, where’d they come from? Can I double down on that? Can I do more of that?” And so, really like the one thing I always want to be knowing from customers and new customers particularly is how’d you hear about us? Because if I know that, then I could just keep investing in where I know I’m getting my income from.
Melita Cyril: Yes.
Kurt Elster: It’s not the customer, it’s where those customers are referred from. That’s my income source. And so, I can double down on that. But yeah, those early days are both… I mean, it’s a lot of fun, like I have a lot of nostalgia for it, but at the same time, I don’t miss the heartburn, the lost sleep. It’s tough. But no, that is excellent advice.
Lastly, before we wrap it up, you have a special offer for us, because everyone can use more comfortable socks. I’m a sock connoisseur. I wish I could put on a fresh pair of socks every day. I mean, I wash my socks.
Melita Cyril: That’s not very sustainable.
Kurt Elster: Every day just throw the socks out? Get out of here!
Melita Cyril: Good for me, but… Yeah, 15% off, because everyone, like you said, can use more comfortable socks, with code KURTSPECIAL, and I think it will be in the show notes, right Kurt?
Kurt Elster: Yes. Yeah. Under links mentioned, Q for Quinn, use code KURTSPECIAL to save 15% on socks. I have included that.
Melita Cyril: And don’t forget you get a free gift if you buy over $100.
Kurt Elster: Yeah. All right, first go for the bundle, and then you probably want to get the free shipping, so do two or three bundles. All right, you don’t want to miss out on the free gift, so get some for everybody.
Melita Cyril: It’s a trap.
Kurt Elster: Very good. No, I got nothing else. This is fantastic. I need to go shop for some socks. Melita, thank you so much.
Melita Cyril: Thank you, Kurt, for having me on the show. It’s a real honor. I love your podcast and the community you’ve created, and yeah, it is really an honor to be part of this show.