Are you a mom-entrepreneur trying to juggle it all? Or are you looking for some inspiration for transforming experience and passion into a business? This is the episode for you. Elisabeth Jones-Hennessy, Founder & CEO of Gift Me Chic – juggles life between New York City and Paris as a wife, mother, and businesswoman, which led her to the gift of giving. Gift Me Chic is inspired by both Elisabeth's passion for retail, as well as her travels around the world. Tune in to this week's episode to learn about customer service and how to blend your experience and passion into a successful business.
Mimi: Welcome back to The Badass CEO. This is Mimi, and today we have Elisabeth Jones-Hennessey, and she is the founder and CEO of GiftMeChic, a destination for one of a kind gifts, sourced from all around the world. So, Elisabeth, thank you so much for coming on today. I'm so excited to have you here and I'm so excited about your launch. So can you talk to us about the good news this week?
Elisabeth: Absolutely. First of all, thank you so much for having me, it's an honor to be on the show. And yes, I have exciting news. I officially launched my e-commerce platform yesterday, which is called GiftMeChic. The idea is to be the one-stop destination for elevated gift giving in all different forms, whether it's a product or it's an experience, or it could be a piece of art. We offer a broad assortment of products that people can discover and be excited about. Some brands you might know, and some you might not. So hopefully there're some discoveries along the way.
Table of Contents
- Professional Background Experience
- Transforming Experience Into Own Business
- Building Online Relationships
- Finance and Other Challenges
- Trial and Error
- Finding a Niche
- Tips To Step Into Entrepreneurship
- The Impact of COVID
Professional Background Experience
Mimi: That's awesome. How did you come up with this idea?
Elisabeth: So I was a buyer for the majority of my career. I was at Saks Fifth Avenue for six years and Bergdorf Goodman for four years. Then I went over to the wholesale side. I was the CEO, for North America, for Kilian perfumes. And when that company got bought, it was really my time to step back and say, "Okay, what do I want to do?" I always loved retail. When I looked at the landscape, I realized, even though my dream as a young child was to have my own store, obviously brick and mortar is much more difficult these days. So I said, "Okay, it has to be e-comm," which has definitely been new for me, but a great learning experience.
Although I love fashion and accessories, I think that market is really over saturated. You can go to NET-A-PORTER or any of the array of beautiful online destinations to accomplish that. What I felt was missing was one destination for gift giving, whether you're going to someone's house – not anymore – but in the past, and you want to bring a hostess gift; or it's your partner's birthday and you want something really special. I felt that there wasn't one place where you didn't have to weed through thousands of different product categories to know what to look for exactly what you want for gifting.
Mimi: Right Now, I was also a buyer, what department were you in?
Transforming Experience Into Own Business
Elisabeth: So I went through the executive training program at Saks and I started in St. John, and then I moved into advanced contemporary, you could call it. Then from there, I moved into beauty and that's where I became a buyer, moving through the ranks over the years. When I went over to Bergdorf's, I also was in beauty, I had about half the beauty floor.
Mimi: Oh, that's great. That's great. I started on the home side at Bloomingdale's.
Elisabeth: Oh. So that's kind of what I'm doing now because now I've segued into this sort of home lifestyle category.
Mimi: I know, that's right. I also did the Christmas department. So it was home and then the Christmas department. I think it's perfect for anybody who's listening, who's in college, and looking for a great entrepreneurial experience. I do think the buying programs are amazing for that. Right? It makes you feel like you're kind of running your own business and your own buck on somebody else's dollar.
Elisabeth: And also when you step into a real buying office, after coming out of a training program, you feel that much more prepared. I mean, that's the whole idea. You can really jump into the job and embrace it. And it's a fast paced job, everyone thinks it's so glamorous, you're going to all the fashion shows, but that's like 5% of the job, you know what I mean?
Mimi: I know.
Elisabeth: [inaudible 00:04:14] numbers and managing your vendors, and the fun part is actually going to the store and sort of seeing all your hard work there on the floor itself.
Mimi: Oh, that's great. Okay. So you have this idea and how long has it taken you to kind of implement it and launch?
Elisabeth: It's taken me a year. I started about a year ago. I didn't want to miss the holiday season last year. It was really small, I started with my 10 favorite brands that I got on board in time, very small assortment. Over the course of the year I've been building and building and rebranding and adding more and more brands, I have about 25 brands on the site and I have about 10 more in the pipeline.
It's been really exciting because as I've traveled or word of mouth or been to trade shows like Maison&Objet. I'm finding new brands and adding them on, which has led to this culmination of now. I've been able to really efficiently launch, with more of a marketing plan behind me, social media strategy. Also building up my database in terms of the newsletters to send out, the social following, and all of those things you need to really grow the business.
Over the year, I’ve really been watching customer trends. What are people gravitating to? What's really standing out on the site? And then what's not. I still like having a very wide assortment of products. But it's interesting, of course, to know what price point, what categories are people are interested in, so I can sort of build those categories as I move forward.
Building Online Relationships
Mimi: Right. You had mentioned you have 3000 emails for your email list, I think that was…
Elisabeth: Actually it's about 6,000 now.
Mimi: That's impressive. So where did you get that in such a short time?
Elisabeth: I have colleagues that I work with who have had their own networks that have been able to… We've supported each other, I've shared mine and they've shared theirs. Really also quite organically through social, through sponsored posts, boosted posts, trying to grab some of those customers over from Instagram. LinkedIn has been great. Facebook.
It's really about, again, businesses and friends of mine who have their own businesses, us supporting each other, just trying to help each other build our lists. And it's funny, I said to my team, "I can't believe we're going out to 6,000 people. I'm so excited." And then I said, "But one day we're going to look back when we're at a million and we're going to laugh at this day, our 6,000." But everything feels like an accomplishment.
Mimi: That's good. Now, how big is your team? I assume you're not doing all the social media management.
Elisabeth: I am not, I still have a very small team. I have an intern, who's amazing. It's as if she's full-time, I don't know how she does her schoolwork. And then I have three other team members. One is a financial expert, the other is a strategic branding and the other one is social and creative.
Finance and Other Challenges
Mimi: That's great. That's great. Have you financed this completely on your own or have you done a friends and family round?
Elisabeth: So right now I'm financing on my own. I've definitely dipped into savings, which has been the scariest part because it's the risk. But I really truly believe in the idea. I see the hole in the market and the landscape, so I really feel that I'm bringing something different. Then into the new year is when I'm going to sort of reassessing and look at, okay, how much do I really want to take from my savings? How much do I want to go out and raise, knowing that I see so much more potential in this business and things that I know I won't be able to do on my own? So there's really a lot of steps and I'm going to need outside support to get there.
Mimi: What have you found to be the hardest part at this point?
Elisabeth: Getting over my own fear.
Mimi: Yeah, right?
Elisabeth: I mean, the learning curve, I'm learning e-comm and so that's been a challenge because I've never considered myself the most savvy when it comes to technology, but I know how to run the business. I know what's needed to do this business. I really think it's confidence and the fear of the unknown and the fear of the risk. So I guess my challenges have been more mental than anything else.
Mimi: Right. Now, obviously, you don't know all the answers, right? Because you just said that, so you find outside people, has that been hard to find the right people? I mean, I have found that starting different companies, you hire people and then you found that like, "Wait, I just spend all this money and they weren't the right person," or how do you make sure that you're hiring the right SEO person or right advertising person?
Trial and Error
Elisabeth: I guess it's a bit of trial and error. The people that work with me have all come in word of mouth and I trust the people that I work with so much when they recommend someone, I really do know that this person coming in will be excellent and above and beyond. There have been a few instances.
The people I work with at this point are consultants, so I don't have a full-time payroll that I'm running. And so that helps because if there is someone that comes in and let's say, I don't think they're doing the most amazing job in SEO, it's not like they're a full-time employee or I have a specific contact that I can't get out of, and unfortunately, that does happen. I think it's about realizing it, working with that person to see if things can be improved, and if not, letting go of the relationship in a professional, graceful manner.
Mimi: That's true. Now, are you inventorying all these products as well?
Elisabeth: It's a mix. So I'm in my home office. If you look behind me, you'll see it's turned into somewhat of a warehouse because I have a lot of brands coming from Europe, and based on everything that's going on in the world today, it's really difficult to bring brands over one by one, as customers order things. So right now I'm holding consignment on a lot of my brands from Europe because the shipping will be much easier.
Then a lot of my vendors are also dropship, so they get the order, they put it in GiftMeChic wrapping or their own, with some GiftMeChic co-branding, and then they'll send it to the customer. So it's sort of a mixed model, which I've had to do just based on proximity for the most part.
Mimi: And what happens if someone orders and it's like two gifts that are from two different vendors?
Elisabeth: Then they'd receive two different shipments.
Mimi: Okay. Two different shipments. And then who is fulfilling it at this point?
Elisabeth: Fulfilling the orders?
Mimi: Yeah. No, no, the actual shipping, shipping out, like the stuff that you have on consignment.
Elisabeth: Oh, I am.
Mimi: You are? Okay. Because it gets too expensive too, right? I mean, I've found the companies I've had been involved in, I don't think people realize it, because we've all been accustomed to having free shipping because of Amazon, right? So the bar is so low, but people don't realize, it's a minimum of $10, $15 just touch it, package and send it out.
Elisabeth: It really adds up, and it was a big discussion with my team as to, do we offer free ground shipping or not? And although it's a big expense bucket that I have to take on, I did feel it was the right thing to do because customers have become so accustomed to free ground. Now, if they want it expedited, that's where the customer pays. But for now, right, that's something I have to really work into my budget as time goes on because it's just going to increase more and more if I want to be competitive.
Mimi: So you do offer free shipping for a ground?
Elisabeth: Free ground. Yeah.
Mimi: Yeah. That's amazing.
Elisabeth: Right now I'm small enough that it's manageable and because of starting this way, I can't imagine changing it. But again, as I move into the new year and look for outside support on the financing of the business, this is something that we're going to really need to look at and forecast and make sure we're budgeted for.
Finding a Niche
Mimi: And who would you say are your biggest competitors at this point, if you even have any?
Elisabeth: It's difficult because the competitors that are out there from a gift-giving standpoint, in terms of the product assortment on the offering, I'd say would be the retailers like Bergdorf's, Bloomingdale's, Neiman's, Saks, Nordstrom. You go there and you have every category of product … So it's a different customer experience.
When I look at smaller stores, the other sites that are dropship, let's say, or platforms like I am, they're really focused on fashion accessories. Then gifting themselves, the big websites that are out there, that are specifically gift giving, I find them much more mass in terms of the product offering. So I hope, knock on wood, this is the niche I found, that there's nothing that's really out there for gift giving that's more elevated and sophisticated, given my professional experience as a buyer for Saks and Bergdorf's in particular.
Mimi: Let's turn a little bit to entrepreneurship. Did you always know that you were going to start your own company?
Elisabeth: It's funny because when I think about that question, immediately I want to say, "No." But then when I think back to childhood, teenage years specifically, I know that I wanted to own my own store. And when I was in high school, I worked at a small shop in my town and I was a salesperson and I loved it. The owner of the store would take me with her on buying trips, and I knew that's what I want to do. So I've always said my dream was to have my own store, but for some reason I never considered that entrepreneurship until now.
Mimi: That's interesting.
Elisabeth: So I guess the answer is yes.
Tips To Step Into Entrepreneurship
Mimi: That's great. That's great. Now, what do you think it takes a person to be successful? Any tips that you would give to somebody?
Elisabeth: I think the number one thing, and I sort of touched on this before, was really believing in yourself and believing in your concept and putting your concepts out there. Then showing that there is a need for this concept, or product, or brand, or whatever it is you're creating. For me, it's really been about that, is overcoming the fear of it and just taking the risk. If you really believe in it, and if you believe in yourself, which takes years for a lot of people to actually get to that point.
Mimi: Important you think experience is? I mean, because you weren't in the home industry or the gift industry, you were more on the fashion side, which you could have fashion for gifts, but that obviously probably helped. Or do you think somebody… You graduated from college right now and you can't find a job because of COVID, but they have this idea. How important is it for somebody to have experience in an industry before they launch?
Elisabeth: It's really a two-fold question. I know for sure that I couldn't have done this if I didn't have the background of being a buyer because it's something you really do have to train for and understand how to run a business. A business is a business if you want it to be successful and profitable. On the flip side, if you have an amazing idea and again, you really believe in it; if you surround yourself with a team of people who can give you the expertise in each of their own fields that you need, then you could put all the pieces together. Then it's just a learning curve. It’s a transforming experience.
You dive into it and you learn everything there is to learn about that, and you work with the team that knows different aspects. So I definitely think it's possible, for sure. But again, in my situation, I think it would have been a very difficult learning curve with retail in particular.
The Impact of COVID
Mimi: Yeah. And I do think right now, I mean, I would love for you to talk a little bit about COVID, right? It's actually probably benefited you a little bit, I would think, versus…
Elisabeth: Well, because I'm new, I haven't quite gotten there yet, but in theory, yes, because it's e-comm number one and it's gifting. You want to be sending out the gift to your mom who you haven't seen in however long. A lot of what I'm trying to do are things you can do at home, or beautify your home, with home decor, or art, or these experiential things that I'm doing for people over Zoom calls. I would think that I'm on the right track in terms of that.
Now the thing that's more difficult for me is actually finding products because so much of what I love to do is to travel and to look for little artisanal brands or stores or people in different places all over the world. The other thing I've really enjoyed doing is the Maison&Objet trade show in Paris, January, and September, that's not happening.
So right now I'm relying more on word of mouth from friends who say, "Oh, I know this great brand." And then they connect me. Really, social media helps a lot. I find I get a lot of [inaudible 00:16:10], I'm like, "Oh, that's interesting. Let me dig deeper." And then I'll contact them through DM. Yeah. So I've had to pivot in terms of how I think about the business, what people will want right now from a gift-giving perspective. Then how I go about expanding the assortment based on the limitations of COVID.
Mimi: Right. Now, personally, how do you stay organized? I think you're, like most women, trying to cram everything in and balance it all. So are there any tips that you have for other entrepreneur women out there? If it's an app that you use, or a specific calendar, or meditation, or anything. I don't know, any kind of tips to how to keep yourself seen and organized?
Elisabeth: Well, I've always considered myself a pretty organized person, but if you look at my desk right now, you'll see, it's like organized chaos. I pull out different piles, but I know exactly what's in every pile, and I know exactly where to go to when people ask me for things. I'm very particular about my calendar, I have everything on there that I need reminders. I'm a little bit old school that I keep a notebook.
My team tried to convert me to monday.com to have all of my to-do lists digitalized and put into the right buckets, let's call them, but I just couldn't get there. I really just liked my notebook. And I carry my to-do's over every few days. So that's been on the work side, what I do.
Then on the personal side, it's things like meditation. I try to exercise every few days and just release that energy, especially when I'm not getting out of my apartment too much. Yoga. I do yoga at home. I have my mat. Yeah, and I have a child. So again, it's also spending quality time with my son and then doing Zoom calls or FaceTime's with friends. Or if we go out, we sit at a restaurant outside, I know we're shivering under the heat lamp, but it's better than nothing.
So I think it's really about work-life balance. Because the site is new, I've been working like crazy. I mean, I'm up super early, I'm working really late at night, but I know that's what it takes when you launch a new business. And I'm really trying to take the weekends and say, "Okay, sit back, relax," maybe I want to watch a new show on Netflix or something, and also let my team relax because we're texting all day and all night.
Mimi: I know, right? It's finding the team that can kind of keep pace too, right? That don't mind getting that text at 9:00 PM with a fire drill.
Elisabeth: Exactly. Yeah.
Surviving one fire drill
Mimi: Have there been any fire drills that you can speak of?
Elisabeth: There has been one, I will say, and this is before the site officially launched. So again, we were still figuring out some of the kinks, but I had an order from a customer, a fairly large order, which I was really excited about. And then I realized that the way we work is for some of our brands, we connect on the backend, that is Shopify to their platform, and they come together. So when we got an order, it generates to them automatically, or we're able to pull their products, imagery, and product descriptions from their website over to ours. And what we realize is they had a price discrepancy on their website, which transferred over to mine.
So an item that should have been $1,000 was $100. So I had to reach out to the customer and explain the situation. And then of course customer service is everything these days, so I made it very personal. I said, "I'm the founder and CEO, and I'm so thrilled about your order. Thank you so much." And I really apologized and I asked, did she want to buy it at the real price? Or I would be happy to give her site credit. So that one didn't make me very happy, but it was one of those kinks that… And as soon as that happened, I took the product off the site immediately, so it wouldn't happen again.
Mimi: Yeah, that's awful. But it sounds like you handled it perfectly. And then so far, have you had a pinch-me moment like, "Oh my gosh, I've launched," or, "I'm doing this. I can't believe it."
The excitement of launching
Elisabeth: You know what? I have to say today because one of the things we did in conjunction with the launch yesterday is we did a wild posting campaign in downtown Manhattan. So SoHo, Meatpacking, West Village, and then in Dumbo, which is in Brooklyn. And I worked with an artist, a street artist, and we did a collaboration of her persona on the street and GiftMeChic. And today we went out to find all of the locations and we did photos of me with various posters that went up, and they're all tagged GiftMeChic, And they have a QR code, so customers can go straight to the site.
Mimi: Oh, that's a good idea.
Elisabeth: Yeah. So I was with one of my colleagues, I said, "I think I'm going to cry," because it made it feel very real. And it was out there for people to see and people walking by, and so for me, that was really emotional and really exciting.
That's great. It reminds me of last year, I think it was last year, I was in London and we were outside of Selfridges, maybe. Is that what it's called, Selfridges?
Mimi: And we were walking past, and there was a girl standing there taking a picture in front of this big piece of art or maybe it was actually the window at Selfridges. And she was squealing, and I was like, "What's going on?" And she was like, "That's me." And it was the first time she saw herself. She was the model in the picture. And so I took a picture of her, in front of her model picture and she was so cute and so excited. She just couldn't believe that like… She's like, "This was my first job ever and here it is." And it was just so exciting.
So anything you want to end with? Any tips or advice or anything you're looking forward to in the future with your company?
Elisabeth: There's a lot do, as I mentioned, and again, customer service for me is of utmost importance. So I would love to implement the things that I see my bigger competition having, like same-day shipping, really guaranteed overnight shipping, having a personal shopper that someone can call and say, "I need a gift for my mother, what do you recommend?" Even having somewhat of a CMS system implemented into the site, where it can remind you, I'm using “your mother” as an example, but it can remind you that your mother's birthday is a month away and here are some recommendations based on a profile that we've set up on you in the system.
So I think it's exciting to have your idea and then have your steps. I like to walk before I run. And I feel like that's good advice because if you try to take on too much, all of a sudden it's overwhelming and you can't really get… Just start with the basics and then build from there. So again, I guess it goes back to organization, first in your mind, and then on paper, and then moving forward from there.
Mimi: It just made me think of this as you were mentioning that, are you targeting, at all, professionals? I'm just thinking of, you have the professional world where they have their list of all their clients and…
Elisabeth: Very much so. Men and women, right now I have more women-geared products on the site, but my goal is to add for men as well and baby. All those kinds of categories, absolutely. I think that working women who are busy and juggling a lot of things in their lives, like we all are, need assistance to find gifts, make their lives easier and have a little bit more disposable income where they're willing to spend, or are able to spend, I should say, $50, let's say for someone's birthday or a house warming gift, for example.
As I think about my marketing approach and really sort of strategically finding this segment of people, that I think would love the site, appreciate what I have to offer, appreciate my taste, and then be able to buy, be excited to buy.
Mimi: That's awesome. Thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it. I wish you the best and can't wait to have you back a year from now, to see where you are at next Christmas. And I hope you have a great Christmas season. I know that, as you know as well, that Christmas time, that's where a lot of the retail income comes in.
Everybody, please go to giftmechic.com to get your Christmas or holiday gifts for the season.