Entrepreneurs the world over will testify that leading a start-up to break even in its first year of trading is no mean feat. A company turning a profit before its first anniversary is even rarer. But that’s precisely what online hosiery brand Snag has achieved.
The “every-size and every-shape” tights website, founded by Edinburgh-based entrepreneur Brie Read, has surged in popularity at home and overseas since its launch at the end of March. Snag crossed the £1 million turnover mark in the New Year after nine months of trading; it is now on track to exceed £2m by the time it completes its first financial year.
Read, former chief executive of meal delivery service Diet Chef, attributes the brand’s early success to a genuine product need combined with body-positive marketing which has led to a strong social media presence. “We think of it as a co-owned brand between the customers and ourselves,” she says. “We’ve had a huge response to the way that we talk to people.”
Despite only advertising in the UK, the company already serves customers in 25 countries and was set to launch international shipping to countries including the US and Australia last week.
Read launched the site after discovering that many of her friends shared the problem of finding tights that fit properly. She said: “Everybody was the same, it seemed that whatever size they were, tights didn’t fit. And then it was really working out why. That was the bit I found most curious, that actually tights weren’t different widths, they were just different lengths and expected to stretch to all sorts of different builds. So, in reality, an XXS pair of tights and an XXL pair were the same size, they were just different lengths.”
The Snag guide steers customers toward their correct size based on height, dress size and body shape (curvy versus smooth). Catering for customer needs and championing inclusivity are key values, personally and professionally for Read. Listening to Snag customers, primarily through the brand’s online channels, has led to simple but seemingly effective strategies, such as becoming email-free, with the exception of sending customer receipts.
“People are still completely shocked by that. But customers don’t want to see emails about tights all of the time. We communicate with customers in places where they want to hear from us, like Facebook and Instagram. We do it in a way that’s interesting, convenient and relevant for the customer rather than what’s easy for us. That’s the big difference in the way that we’ve approached all of this stuff: is this what the customer wants?”
Read is determined that this customer-first communication ethos filter through to all areas of the company, including alerting shoppers to potential problems. She cites a product recall where the firm uploaded a public Instagram post to inform customers who may have been affected and offer refunds. “Customers were incredibly understanding and appreciative of being informed. People are just used to putting up with bad service – especially in the plus-size category, even though I hate that word,” says Read.
“Using the term ‘plus-size’ I really find difficult because 60 per cent of women in the UK are size 16 and above. So what you mean is actually ‘normal size’, the majority of women. Being inclusive is so important – to be able to go out to customers and show them that they are absolutely perfect just the way they are.” She says this attitude permeates all boundaries, including gender, as the firm recently found 10 per cent of its customers are men.
As a psychology and computer science graduate from the University of Dundee, Read’s first role was at a company that designed personality tests included in applications for graduate schemes, where she was tasked with increasing the product‘s customer appeal. Marketing roles with Sainsbury’s, Seafish, ICS and the People’s Postcode Lottery followed. For Read, the major theme that has cropped up throughout her career is the feeling that “we’ve very much forgotten about the customer”. Businesses are losing focus of the person who buys their product.
Her time with Diet Chef began as marketing director, before she was promoted to chief executive a year later to drive growth. She says finding the balance between responsibly advertising an ideal and still supporting the customer was valuable experience. “Diet Chef is interesting for me because it’s a sector where you can make a big difference to people and it’s very emotional. But it’s also a challenging place to be because people are in a lot of psychological distress when losing weight. You have to handle the customer very carefully and try and put their best interests first, which is I think contradictory to what we want at the time.”
After leading the meal delivery firm until its sale in 2015, Read spent several years as chief executive of ForceTenDigital, a Facebook advertising agency, which closed last year after the controversy surrounding political consultancy and data mining firm Cambridge Analytica cast suspicions on data security.
She says: “It’s a big shock to understand how a platform like that has a lack of control around data, particularly where it’s been used for analytics at a very top-line level. Although when you think about the way that Facebook has been built, it’s had effectively no downtime since it was created in a Harvard bedroom, so I can understand why it’s difficult for them to keep control of these data elements. But it has had a knock-on for some advertisers.”
For businesses, this has meant concerns regarding adherence to data regulations. Whether the controversy will have a lasting impact on consumer attitudes is up for debate, says Read, given that it is so “baked in” as a free service to people’s lives. “Facebook is like what email used to be. It’s a key tool that you use for connection; you wouldn’t even know how to not have it anymore.”
Read has since branched out into two further ventures which have grown out of technology developed and utilised at Snag that has “allowed us to grow as quickly as we are doing”. Datasaur, an analytics software for ecommerce, and #Hashtag, a social conversation management tool, are at an early development stage but are scheduled to debut later this year as Read’s next two enterprises.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Read spent her childhood in numerous African and Asian countries as her father relocated for work. As a civil engineer he specialised in large infrastructure projects, including helping to build China’s first nuclear power station in the 1980s. The family moved to Greece in time for Read to attend high school and she subsequently came to Scotland to study, eventually settling here because the country “feels like home”.
When it comes to starting companies, she also finds the Scottish capital lives up to its burgeoning reputation, saying: “It’s been great for Snag, but for the two tech start-ups that we’ve got as well we’ve been able to recruit the best and the brightest. You’ve got a real hunger here from anyone who wants to work in data or tech or start-ups.”
Although based in Scotland, Snag’s tights are produced in Italy as part of a supply chain designed to be “as eco-friendly as possible”. The dye house is carbon neutral, recycling its water and generating power through solar panels, while deliveries use recycled paper instead of plastic packaging. Read does not advertise these green credentials as she just sees it as “part of being a responsible business”. Instead, she takes marketing direction, like product inspiration, directly from customers. “The big emphasis we’re doing this summer is on chub rub shorts,” she says. “We had all of these intense discussions about can you say the words ‘chub rub’? Is it offensive? Are we reclaiming it? We have these honest conversations in public with our customers.”
When it is impractical to seek direct feedback, Read relies on her data skills to provide practical solutions. As a self-confessed data geek, she says: “I’ve always had this ability to look at huge reams of numbers and see patterns in it and, for me, what the customer wants or needs is often sitting there in your data. If you can start to understand the behaviour of your customer, what works and what doesn’t, the answer to everything is there,” she says.
Snag is now in the process of launching a dedicated US site that will go live at the end of the month, as well as European and Australian domains scheduled to be up and running in March. “It has gone so much better than we could have possibly hoped. For us the future is just keeping our customers happy, getting new products that they love, really concentrating on making sure that we can continue to deliver the quality of product. That’s what we’re concentrating on right now but who knows where the next year will go, considering how the last year went?”