Disrupting a Market and a Mindset: Society+ Michelle Crawford and Jessica Kane

 

When This Is Us star Chrissy Metz appeared on the cover of People magazine, it was a clear indicator of a much larger trend. The article chronicles how after years of struggling with diets and depression this breakout star was able to talk about her journey to self-acceptance, fame, and becoming a role model for body positivity.

In a world of stick-thin models and unrealistic ideas, Michelle Crawford and Jessica Kane are disrupting the status quo by designing, manufacturing and selling fashion-forward clothing directly to women like Metz. Their company, Society+, is a plus-size fashion brand breaking all the design rules and amassing a cult following around the world. They have created an investor-backed “It” brand by leveraging a social media following of over 300,000 women and dressing celebrities like Metz.

Nearly 60 percent of female consumers look for clothes in plus-sizes, yet only 18 percent of clothes are marketed to this demographic. Also, some department stores tend to relegate their plus-size sections and displays to a back corner, behind household appliances.

Not only is this a missed business opportunity worth $10 billion, it sends a clear message to plus-size women about their self-worth. Michelle Crawford and Jessica Kane joined forces to form Society+ to create jobs and wealth in Florida, meet a significant consumer need around the world, and seek to uplift the conversation about women in our society.

Michelle Crawford’s Early Career

Crawford grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida attending Northside Christian High School. She earned her undergraduate degree from George Mason University while living in the Washington, D.C. area, and then her MBA from Florida State University. “I started working in the D.C. area,” Crawford said. “I worked for a small consulting firm when I was done with school. After the consulting firm, I went to work for one of the firm’s clients which sold network-based voice messaging systems.” Crawford then moved to the fourth largest cable provider in the country at the time, Delfi Communications. “They had a small telecom unit that they were starting,” Crawford offered. “I was involved as a product development manager and worked my way up through the ranks, eventually becoming director of product development, before the company was acquired by Level 3. I stayed with them for a short time, but left to have my children.”

For 10 years, Crawford focused on raising a family. But she knew she wanted to get back in the workforce. Crawford said, “I didn’t want to go back into the job that I thought they’d be putting me in. I wanted to create the job that I wanted.” Crawford looked back at all the things that she’d done, including sector analysis at Level 3. “At Level 3, I would look for inflection points within telecom, which would tell us how things were changing, what’s dying, what’s coming up.” Crawford applied that same skill set and used it personally. “I looked at many industries, and I identified retail as one of those segments that was about to go through massive change.”

At the time, “big box” retail earnings were starting to slide. Now, many established brick and mortar retail icons have completely crashed and burned. “Revenue was declining, foot traffic was declining, margins were declining,” Crawford noted. “Obviously, there were problems with those specific retailers, but I could also see all these other players rising up that I thought were really interesting. They were companies like Bonobos, Stitch Fix and Warby Parker.”

“These were companies that started on the Internet. They had this connection with their customers that was a new and different thing. It was not transactional. It was emotional. It was a true kind of lifestyle relationship.” Crawford added, “They also worked directly with the factories to source their products…and they had great margins, unlike the big retailers.”

A Concept is Born
Crawford decided to jump into that space and started an e-commerce business in women’s apparel and while the business was doing well, she kept having customers ask, “Do you carry it in plus- sizes?” With a little research, Crawford discovered that over 60 percent of women are plus-size, but only 18 percent of the product is plus-size. “It’s the classic business school story of disconnect between supply and demand,” Crawford said. Within six months, she realized that she needed to pivot the business. She launched the proof of concept for the new business, ‘Plus-size,’ in October of 2014.

Then the work really began. With continued research, Crawford identified top fashion bloggers for plus-size women. She invited them to participate in selecting the products she’d be offering. Crawford told them, “You go to these wholesale websites where we can buy small amounts of clothes at low prices. Choose styles that you like. I’ll buy them. Take pictures of yourself in them. You market them to your followers.”

These bloggers often had large numbers of followers, so Crawford was tapping into an existing client base. Crawford added, “I chose bloggers who I thought had a following that wasn’t so big that they wouldn’t be uninterested in me but was big enough that it could actually have a sales impact. I told them I’d give them a percentage of revenue. And they loved it.”

Crawford also wanted to address the way women equate their value to their dress size. She decided to launch the company with the idea that she was selling more than just dresses. She was also selling confidence.

Enter Jessica Kane

With investors in place, it was time to get busy. As part of her marketing plan, Crawford advertised in a leading plus-size fashion and lifestyle publication, SKORCH Magazine. On short order, the founder and editor, Jessica Kane, sent Crawford a message reading, “I know everybody, but I don’t know who you are.” Crawford responded by “pounding out this big manifesto about using shopping to change women’s lives with clothes, and how we could build a strong, hyper-growth company.” Crawford thought, “She’s either going to run the other way, or she’s going love it.”

Thankfully, Kane responded positively.

Jessica Kane grew up in southern Oregon. “I was plus-size my whole life. I didn’t know fashion; I was a jock. I had to go to the men’s department to find anything over a size 10. Even though I was an athlete, I just wore menswear.” Kane continued, “I was about 24 years old and moved to Portland, Oregon. But that was a great opportunity because I walked into the local mall next door that had a plus-size fashion shop. Their sign read, ‘Sizes 14 to 22.’ I thought, ‘What? This is a thing?’”

What Kane walked into was to be a life-changing experience. “I wanted to share this feeling of belonging to other women, so I started a digital magazine for plus-size fashion,” Kane explained. It was 2008; Kane knew she couldn’t afford to print a magazine, “But I knew Macromedia Flash; I could make pages float on the screen.” So, she did. Using MySpace “and my whole eight friends,” she took her magazine online.

Within a year, Kane soared to over a million readers, and SKORCH was a top magazine in the world. “Ten years later, I reached almost 100 million women. I’ve been covered by the Today Show, CNN, ABC News.” But there was one glaring problem. She wasn’t making any money. That was when she wrote back to Michelle, and they decided to meet in person.

Something Disruptive in Retail

It was pretty phenomenal to sit with Michelle and compare our strengths,” Kane said. “It was just a weekend. The two of us were together talking the entire time. It was just what we envisioned, something disruptive in retail that no one’s doing but they should be. Not only with style, but with communities as well, with the message. Crawford says she was “trying to be cool,” but Kane was worried she wasn’t interested. Crawford said, “Oh no. I’m already in. We’re all in.” Crawford made Kane an equal partner. Three weeks later, Kane, her husband, son and cats were driving across the country to Florida in a U-Haul.

Up to this point, the business had been re-selling wholesale, but now they had their own brand established. Kane said, “Stage One was wholesalers that made Society+’s finished goods. Stage Two was when we identified our brand voice, manufactured our own clothing and tested it out.” Crawford added, “We’re ready now for Stage Three. Wholesalers are coming to us for our brand now that we’ve established it.”

In their first 12 months of operation, Society+ grew 23 percent month over month. 2016 saw 400 percent growth over 2015. “We did about $800,000 in revenue in our first year,” said Crawford. “This year we’ll hit $5.5M. Another three to four years, we should reach $85M in revenue. The marketplace is absolutely starving for what we do.”

“We’d like to start manufacturing in Florida,” Crawford said. Step one is to create their own sample house where they can efficiently manage the R&D process internally. And now that they’ve established product/ market fit on the business side of things, “we are super-charging our customer acquisition and retention efforts with technology. We’re looking for a VP of Technology to lead that effort,” says Kane. Their team should grow from 14 to 30 people this year, with a mix of technical, creative, warehouse, customer service, and other jobs. It’s an exciting time to be growing a consumer products and technology company in Florida.