Propelled to success through Instagram and outright tenacity, the story of this homegrown personalised gift store is both humbling and inspiring.
With three nominations for the upcoming ORIAS awards to keep her on her feet, Gemma Holt, the founder and creative director of Arlo & Co talks all things e-commerce in this tell-all interview.
On the surface, Holt looks just like any other woman – a teacher by trade, a mother of two – but she’s also an independent self-starter who spent her maternity leave searching for a creative outlet.
“I was on maternity leave with a 19-month-old and an eight-week-old, craving some creativity in my life. Wanting to contribute to the grocery bill, but not put my two small girls in care, I decided to take my small hobby-only interest and launch a very small range of products into the online marketplace,” she says.
Like the revolutionaries before her, Holt started out with nothing more than a makeshift garage studio – not dissimilar to the early days of Amazon when Jeff Bezos launched one of the world’s biggest online marketplaces from an old desk in his garage.
“Driven by a ‘can-do’ attitude, I was blissfully naïve but giddy with excitement.”
According to Holt, a large portion of her success can be attributed to the unique, personalised nature of her product offering. In her early days of research, she quickly discovered a lack of “industry-quality, personalised gifts and décor that was affordable”. With this in mind, she jumped at the opportunity to use her creative skills to form her own business, while also reinventing her family’s lifestyle.
“What’s particularly noteworthy, is that in the short 3.5 years since I started the business, our product range has significantly evolved from one-off personalised pieces people buy for themselves, to personalised, touching gifts they buy for others – in particular those who are dear to them,” she says.
This customer loyalty has been a driving force behind the Arlo & Co brand, with Holt citing a customer return rate of more than 30 percent. She’s also humbled by the feedback she regularly receives from customers.
“Thank you so so much! I absolutely love your products and I’m a huge fan of supporting family businesses. Your website is my ‘go to’ whenever we need to buy presents for someone!” – Arlo & Co customer, Ella.
Less than four years in, Holt has used this customer loyalty to build a collective social media following of 190,000, an email subscription list that is now well above 33,000, and an estimated 14,000 loyal customers.
Arlo & Co has built its brand around social media.
But, this success wasn’t without its challenges, as Holt says she has faced a number of hurdles along the way. Looking at everything from the development of her website, to the scalability of her business model and overarching digital strategy, Holt talks to Power Retail about her transition from stay at home mum to the face of what she believes is “Australia’s fastest growing bespoke interior and gift company”.
The Early Challenges
Developing the right website and an efficient, and manageable order fulfilment process were the two biggest hurdles Holt faced when Arlo & Co first started gaining traction.
“Planning for an unknown future was difficult and we were hit by a wave of reality checks. We could only guess what each month would bring and how the business would be impacted by seasonal, cyclical, or economic factors,” Holt says.
During this time, she started to feel her lack of business acumen, as the finer details of running a small business were completely foreign to her. This was particularly the case when the business started to grow much quicker than Holt had anticipated.
“Imagine this, for a moment… Two toddlers, three large crates of parcels, and a slow-moving queue at the Post Office – twice a day!”
This is when her husband Damian took a more hands-on role in the business, to help Holt invest in a customer-friendly, sophisticated e-commerce provider, a new location to work from, new machinery, new technology, and new staff to meet the businesses growing needs.
From a limited budget, no separate workspace and a BigCartel e-commerce platform that caused constant headaches, Arlo & Co moved across to Shopify, which Holt says has allowed the site and ordering process to “flow like clockwork”.
Arlo & Co’s founder talks all things e-commerce
To tackle the aforementioned shipping obstacle as order volumes started to become unmanageable, Arlo & Co chose cloud software, StarShipIT as its solution provider.
“They organised Australia Post parcel pickups, meaning we stopped double handling data and automated tracking status communication with customers.
“In a nutshell? Lifesaver.”
The Digital Strategy
The Arlo & Co brand has been built to “capitalise on the rise of the social media business”. Holt says that her business has “flipped traditional marketing on its head with an inbound approach”. By this, she means that the business has been moulded by, and developed around a growing online community.
“Our digital strategy is consistently focused on connecting personally with our customers to build strong relationships while also offering them a seamless and superior shopping experience.”
As such, ‘digital storytelling’ has been a key driver in the businesses success by facilitating two-way communication and reinforcing personal connections.
Like most online brands, the business also leverages customer data that’s collected through user testing, customer service feedback, Google Analytics, Shopify reviews and social media, as well as customer surveys and competitor analysis. All of this information is then used to improve business processes, implement product improvements or embark on product development, better plan and target marketing and communication strategies, and reinforce the brand’s positive workplace culture.
“These pillars for improvement are critical because Arlo & Co is an online store, with no retail presence for customers to see, touch, and feel our products. We are constantly upgrading our technology, reviewing our website and making it work overtime to showcase our products,” Holt says.
Social Media Marketing and its Role in the Businesses Development
Social media has always been a key market for Arlo & Co. When Holt first started the business, she had a $20 a month website, and a free Instagram account.
“We had no mailing list, no booked magazine ad space, and certainly no mass ATL exposure. Yet we reached hundreds – then quickly thousands – of people, expertly utilising just those two digital avenues,” Holt says.
Next came a Facebook and Pinterest account, a survey platform and an email management system. This combined with consistently strong Google search rankings for key phrases like ‘name plaque’ and ‘wood prints’ has reportedly helped the business secure more than 55,000 orders in 3.5 years.
Arlo & Co’s strong Google rankings have helped improve sales volume.
Influencer marketing has also played a big role in the company’s social media and marketing success.
“What’s particularly interesting about the way we’ve used Instagram to skyrocket our exposure and growth is the way we incorporated ‘influencers’ into our strategy. We researched key influencers with similar audiences to ours and reached out to these personalities in an effort to generate reviews, word-of-mouth, and regular sharing of our products by these people with their audiences,” Holt says.
According to Holt, the businesses competitive advantage with its influencer strategy was researching and engaging with up-and-coming Instagram personalities, rather than some of the heavier weight ones.
“In fact, some of our original Brand Reps later exploded into widely recognised personalities in the interior styling industry (e.g Tarina Lyell of @oh.eight.oh.nine) and Arlo & Co. benefited from having already established good relationships with them early on.”
Arlo & Co’s Plans for the Future
According to Holt, Arlo & Co currently has one over-arching focus – growth.
“Focusing on growth impacts our daily operations – and thinking – by challenging us to continually seek sound avenues for reinvestment,” she says.
“Our experience, so far, tells us that this comes from seeking solid and reputable industry, marketing and financial advice, knowing where and when to invest, and watching our profit margins to ensure our growth opportunity pathways are viable.
“We have a long list of ideas for expanding our brand across Australia, although we adopt a ‘one rung at a time’ approach, as we’re aware we need to be willing to change course in response to feedback from the market – which has been what’s helped us stay on a strong upwards course of growth so far.”
The Key Takeaways
In the early days of Arlo & Co, Holt wishes she had been better prepared for what was to come.
“Had I known just how demanding this process would be, I would have been better prepared to plan for larger premises and hiring additional staff earlier on,” she says.
Apart from implementing the right systems and processes, and thinking about the future, regardless of how far off it might seem, Holt’s final piece of advice for any e-commerce new-starters is to just do what you do best.
“Above all, just focus on doing what you do. Stay authentic, approachable, and humble. Encourage others; make connections, and keep your tone positive and genuine when speaking to your customers.
“And if your business is still little, and you’re just beginning, remember that ALL of us were there once, too. Keep going!”
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