There’s something to be said about simplicity when it comes to clothes shopping.
In Montreal-based e-tailer Frank & Oak’s case, promoting simplicity through its vertically integrated online experience explains its meteoric rise to the top of the Canadian eCommerce pile since its February 2012 launch. After raising $5 million in funding from Lightbank with participation from BDMI, Rho Ventures Canada and Real Ventures in October 2012, the upstart e-tailer won best new Canadian start up last year, having earned $6 million in revenue and amassing nearly 400,000 users. The company currently sits at approximately 700,000 members, with 70% of its business coming from the U.S. and a third of that originating from California.
Growth for Frank & Oak has happened quickly thanks to its unique and innovative platform, which is successfully reinventing the way men in their twenties and early thirties shop. Described by founders Ethan Song and Hicham Ratnani as both a creative workshop and technology-driven lifestyle company, the fledgling Montreal-based e-clothier – which now boasts a staff of 90, up from six initially – was founded on the idea that its target demo craves simplicity when it comes to shopping for clothes. They most certainly do. And Frank & Oak delivers that by making its shopping experience as integrated as possible.
“We can actually become that advisor and by reducing the number of choices we actually make it easier.”
Integration and personalization
“We’re firm believers that the next level of disruption has to do with integrating the experience down to the last mile – having a unique experience for every single customer that’s designed for them,” Song tells the Dx3 Digest. “So, you want to tie that all the way back to the product that’s being designed.”
The Frank & Oak experience is delivered through an elegant, sleek, magazine-like platform that, by integrating design and technology, makes it easy and fun for men to shop for fashionable, yet affordable, clothing and accessories that intimately fit with their personal style. It helps that the company designs all of its stylish duds in-house and has direct relationships with the manufacturers. By effectively cutting out the middleman, it’s able to offer its wares at relatively low price points. New collections are released every month, ensuring fashion freshness and the company offers members the opportunity to join its Hunt Club, a free service that allows them to choose up to five items from the current collection that are then sent to them in a box with a handwritten note from one of the founders. Members can try the items on, purchase what they like (with no pressure) and send back what doesn’t fit or float their boat with free shipping both ways.
The company is diligent about making sure its community of members is always highly involved in all facets of the experience, constantly mining them for opinions on products and design and then incorporating the feedback. On top of its web portal, Frank & Oak is very active across social media platforms and has amassed sizeable fan bases on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, It also keeps the community engaged with relevant content, including monthly editorials on their collections, content on music, entrepreneurs and city life, as well as video trailers promoting their wares,
“Ultimately, we want to focus most of our time on the products.”
“Making clothing is one thing, but expressing our values as a company and sharing things that we find interesting with our community does matter to us,” says Song. “Ultimately, I believe that content becomes an important part of what we do because if you’re able to dress yourself in Frank & Oak we have a little bit of information that will help you better educate your decisions. We feel like that’s an important role for us to play.”
It is, however, the personalization portion of the online experience that’s really Frank & Oak’s bread and butter. It hyper-contextualizes the experience for its customers to encourage them to keep them coming back. Its a kind of elegant simplicity in shopping that’s really set its experience apart from other online clothing retailers out there. The company boasts a platoon of curators who act as personal style gurus for members. They offer personalized product suggestions and style advice based on member preferences and online activity. On top of that, the e-tailer recently launched a personalization platform called StyleScape, which uses information sourced from answers provided through a user questionnaire, user style preference choices, past purchases, site activity, styles trending in users’ home market, and customer-local seasonal climate changes monitored through geolocation to create for members a customizable personal shop, of sorts, that updates in real-time.
“The most important thing… is to have a very specific point of view; what does your commerce or product stand for.”
Personalization and choice
“Combining all the pieces of information, we’re basically able to recommend products that are pretty accurate to who the customer is as a person,” says Song. “What we’ve found from the feedback we’ve received is that when you think about men, a lot of times guys don’t look at fashion magazines or follow trends. A lot of times they depend on their girlfriends or wives for knowing what they should buy. By having all of this information we can actually become that advisor and by reducing the number of choices we actually make it easier for guys to shop by not overwhelming them with choices.”
The site also features The StyleBoard, which allow users to curate their own digital closet of clothing that can be shared with other members.
Despite its success it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the company. In fact it’s within that success that challenges have arisen, such as figuring out how to scale amidst torrid growth.
“We needed to put a little but more of a management structure in place,” says Song. “At first it was very free and so as a group we had to put a bit of structure. We started selling a lot and our shipping time was kind of slow with a lot of our customers at first. It took them a while to get their packages and we improved on that. So, a lot of the [challenges] have to do with the fact that we’re a bigger company than we used to be.”
As it continues to grow Song says that Frank & Oak’s focus will be to continue doing what it does best: offering customers great, contextual products through its integrated experience.
“What we’re looking at doing is working on products,” says Song. “People always think that’s a surprising answer because they expect us to be growing fast and doing things [to accommodate for that] but ultimately we want to focus most of our time on the products. What we’re actually working on is realigning a few product lines and giving our customers a better retail experience across the board.”
Song and Ratnani have known each other since their schooldays, both growing up in Montreal’s South Shore suburbs. They both had an early start in entrepreneurship, making money from online advertising at age 13. Song eventually went to UBC for engineering and art school, while Ratnani went to McGill and played for Redmen football team. They both found themselves back in Montreal working together at financial consulting firm Deloitte. They both eventually quit in 2010 and started Modasuite.com an online personalized made-to-measure retailer. Eventually shifted their supply chain to fit Frank & Oak model.
Advice to Canadian entrepreneurs:
“First of all, you need to make sure you understand what kind of products you want to create. I fond that a lot of startups, because they don’t know really know themselves, where they want to be, the product ends up being diluted. The most important thing right now when you have a start up, especially in the commerce business, is to have a very specific point of view; What does your commerce or product stand for.” – Ethan Song
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