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Q&A: Emma Watkinson
The CEO of SilkFred.com and former London Business Awards finalist speaks to WWB.

By Tom Bottomley

24 July 2016

Tom Bottomley: What is your background?
Emma Watkinson: I have always had a keen interest in fashion; while studying English at the University of Liverpool I grew my knowledge of retail through extensive experience on the shopfloor at Whistles. Following graduation, I moved to Spain to work in buying, merchandising and management at a boutique luxury retail chain called Alta Moda, overseeing a team of 20 sales staff at the age of 24, before heading to New York for editorial experience interning at fashion magazines. 
 
It was during my time in New York that the desire to return to retail became apparent. I moved back to the UK and joined luxury online boutique my-wardrobe.com, working with the buying and merchandising teams. Here I developed specialist accuracy in identifying product trends, noticing that smaller independent brands had no clear route to market, and in late 2011 left to start SilkFred.com.
 
TB: Where did the SilkFred name come from and when did you launch?
EW: Our initial idea was to call it ‘SilkThread’, because it related to fashion and also ‘thread’ connoted a like-minded community. We then decided to change it to SilkFred because it sounded quirkier, unique and also it gave us flexibility to define our brand culture as we grew. We launched in January 2012.
 
TB: How have you seen the business grow and what have you done to advance this?
EW: We started with 10 brands selling through the SilkFred marketplace. Today there are over 290, of which 60 signed up between November 2015 and the end of February 2016. We have independent brands including Dancing Leopard, Oh My Love, Quontum and Never Fully Dressed just to give a taste, but all in all it’s an unrivalled choice of unique designs in one place. Brands are carefully selected for their distinctive designs, their independent approach to retail and desirable price point. We would eventually like to scale up to a couple of thousand brands. 
 
TB: What is an average consumer spend?
EW: Our typical spend by a shopper on the site is between £20 and £80. In 2015 we turned over £2.65m which was 500 per cent growth from 2014. In January 2016, which is traditionally a slow month, we managed to beat the previous month. Our shoppers are very active on social media and how we communicate with our shoppers is core to how we operate. I think our honest, engaging approach, along with our constantly refreshed product lines, has fuelled a lot of our growth.
 
TB: How would you best describe your business model?
EW: Brands can list their products to sell on SilkFred. It does not cost a retailer to list, but SilkFred will take a 25 per cent cut of the price of each item sold. About 80 per cent of our business is done this way because partnerships with brands are at the core of the business. The other 20 per cent of what is sold we buy in at wholesale.
 
TB: Have you brought any real innovations to the marketplace?
EW: Our partnership approach with brands is very distinctive. We are supportive, share data and empower the brands we work with to create truly sustainable businesses. As a result of this, we are able to provide shoppers with clothes that are fashion forward yet commercial and different to what’s on the high street. 
 
TB: Did the business initially have a large investment or have you sought one since? If so, how and who from?
EW: We started to build a business plan in early 2011. We were funded £150,000 seed money from three investors in May 2011, and I handed in my notice at my-wardrobe the day we received confirmation the investment was going through. The second fundraise was via online crowdfunding platform Crowdcube. We had built the technology, brought some brands on board and we raised £145,000 to invest in marketing and growing the business. We have since raised further funding and continue to grow the business. 
 
TB: How do you manage to stand out from all the other big online players?
EW: Our approach is fun, accessible and we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We have a demand driven approach to selling, which means we test, test and test and it’s the shoppers who decide what we buy. Top performing categories at the moment are dresses and jumpsuits.
 
TB: What is your unique selling point that keeps customers coming back for more?
EW: SilkFred.com cuts through the noise of online shopping, standing out from the crowd and providing a central destination for shoppers to find original yet affordable pieces that their friends won’t have. 
 
TB: How do you stay one step ahead of the competition?
EW: We’re constantly challenging ourselves. On the wall at SilkFred HQ is the motto: ‘If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.’ We’re a young company, but growing quickly. We ask questions and encourage the entire team to contribute to every aspect of the business. I want people to question what they’re doing every single day. 
 
TB: Where is the business based and what is the set-up in terms of staff, offices and warehousing?
EW: We currently employ 30 staff. In early 2014 there were just six of us, so it’s exciting to see the team grow. We have awesome offices in the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane which is such a cool area for a business like ours. We’ve been in the Brewery since early 2014, and we’ve had to upgrade to bigger offices three times since. We also have a warehouse in Essex. 
 
TB: How are you planning to further grow your business over this year and the next?
EW: Online fashion retail is still only a very young market. It’s easy to forget that because so much has changed rapidly in a short period of time. The market is exploding and the opportunity for SilkFred to expand into new territories, and leverage new and innovative retail channels is huge.


 
 
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