Five minutes with…Julie Lavington, Joint CEO & Co-Founder of Sosandar
‘The British fashion brand everyone is talking about’
Julie and her business partner Ali Hall co-founded Wilmslow-based Sosandar in September 2016 and is a rapidly growing online womenswear brand, specifically targeted at a generation of women who have moved away from throwaway fashion and are looking for quality, affordable clothing with a premium, trend-led aesthetic. Listed on AIM, Sosandar has recently posted record net monthly revenues, resulting from reducing their return rates and achieving significant active customer base growth; no small feat in today’s retailing climate.
What motivated yourself and Ali to create Sosandar and ‘take the plunge’ into retail?
We saw an underserved and untapped market from both personal and professional experience. The untapped market is that of women who are graduating from fast-fashion due to wanting better quality fabrics and fit, but who want such items to be just as fashionable and on-trend as ever. Many women that were falling into this category were struggling to know where to shop next without having to spend considerably on premium or luxury brands.
From a professional perspective, we had witnessed the proof of this opportunity. Both Ali and I worked together for over 10 years at Time Inc. on Look magazine, which first hit the shelves in 2007. Over the course of our tenure, we were exposed to phenomenally detailed research and truly got ‘under the skin’ of understanding the emotional connection between customers and their clothing, receiving direct feedback on a weekly basis.
In the very early days of Sosandar we often heard, “You’re setting up a retail business? Now, in this climate?!” And yes, given the retailing landscape and the fact that we were coming from the publishing industry, it may have seemed ambitious, but our experience of building a fast-paced business from scratch has stood us in good stead. It wasn’t our first foray into fashion retail; during our time at Look we worked with several high street retailers to produce limited pieces or collections under the Look brand, which helped form our end-to-end understanding. The plunge has been worth it!
It has been a whirlwind three years and you have recently reported record monthly revenues – what are the top three things you would attribute your success to?
Understanding our customer is at the heart of everything we do.
Across the office, you can often hear “what would she think of this?”, “how would this make her feel?”, “how does she want to feel?” We are fiercely committed to understanding who our customers are and exactly what lifestyle they lead, not just how they shop. We want to be capable of truly being inside the head of our customer to make the best decisions for them. Listening is critical to this, and genuine customer feedback is something we have been mindful not to overlook as we have grown. We’ve ensured this by investing in excellent customer service from the very beginning – it is one of the most important functions in Sosandar. We have real people sat in the middle of the office, in the thick of it and able to action and resolve things in real-time.
Having a great team
Recruiting a strong team has been – and will continue to be – vital to our growth and success. Yes, Ali and I want to lead from a visionary perspective, however we simply cannot do anything without the right people around us. This refers to both skillset and an eclectic mix of personality and experience. We have been very careful with this in growing from six to 40 people – it is not something you want to get wrong. The common thread across all our team is out-and-out passion! Sosandar isn’t about ‘coming to work’, it’s a movement in the fashion space that people are excited and energised to be a part of. As an e-commerce business, we can see the impact of our efforts very quickly and as a start-up we are under no illusion; we know that we are only as good as yesterday’s sales. To balance this, we are always sure to celebrate the small wins, to ensure we all have the energy to continue to drive success!
Sheer determination and resilience
These two qualities have been critical. Absolutely critical. Both Ali and I worked within the media industry during a period of great change and digital evolution, which turned the industry and our roles within it on their heads. This experience had allowed us to build our resilience and our ability to enthuse a team to have a common goal and commitment to the cause; we are a community striving for the same thing. Equally, both Ali and I are – by nature – very self-critical and I have always believed this gives us a certain edge!
What has been your biggest lesson from creating a brand and building a business in such a volatile market?
My answer to this reverts to our customer obsession. Yes, we always knew that being able to turn our data into actionable insight would be vital. Understanding our customers is key. The minute a business stops listening to their customers, they become inward-focused, rather than outward-focused. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck and it is easier said than done – especially in large corporates – but that is the way to build a fundamentally successful business. Ultimately, customer behaviour changes more frequently than is often realised and speed of thought and response is required.
Having spent most of your career in the ever-evolving and challenging media industry, what benefits do you feel this has brought you whilst transitioning into the world of retail?
The speed you must work at in the media industry is relentless. Whilst fashion never sleeps, there is a much longer process involved in getting a product to market. Both Ali and I were accustomed to producing a 120-page magazine on a weekly basis – ultimately starting with blank paper that needed to be filled before the Friday deadline, without relenting on quality. This requires speed, agility and organisation – three things we have embedded into the culture of Sosandar.
Equally, our backgrounds have engineered Ali and I to be a very well-rounded and highly effective duo. Whilst at Look, Ali was responsible for all things creative and I was responsible for all things commercial. We knew how to align our skillsets and ensure they were complementary of each other. This allows us to tackle numerous challenges effectively; something that our investors bought into hugely!
Finally, where would you like to see Sosandar in five years and, as a leader, what challenges do you think you will need to overcome to get there?
The Sosandar vision is to become a global one-stop shop for women who are graduating from fast fashion and want on-trend, quality, affordable clothing, with great fit. Whilst our initial focus is on the UK market, we see a huge opportunity overseas and therefore global presence is the longer-term plan.
We aren’t naive enough to think people only shop in one place. In real terms, we want ‘one-stop shop’ to translate as being the very first place our customers look for all things fashion.
Our biggest challenge will undoubtably be managing growth, and this will cause multiple challenges every single day. Turnover in recent months has been equivalent to what our yearly turnover was two years ago and, whilst we have managed that growth effectively, dealing with growth is challenging.
On hectic days it can feel like there are never enough people and never enough hands, but that’s what rapid growth looks like! It is our job to manage this challenge and strike a balance by ‘growing into’ our success – a job that we absolutely love.
For more information please contact Kathryn Gill. Kathryn is a Consultant within the Retail and Leisure Practice, specialising in health, beauty, fashion and travel. With a UK-wide remit, she specialises in senior appointments across commercial, marketing, buying & merchandising, operations and general management roles.