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From a Tiny Pet Project to a Serious Startup: the Story of the Virtual Stylist Marla

What stages must an idea go through? Let’s talk about the transformation from a cozy little get-together to a working startup.

Marla Virtual Consultant is a time-saving project about clothes and responsible consumption. We’re talking to our guest Natalya Kotlyarevskaya, CEO and founder of online stylist service Marla.Style.

Project History

About 10 years ago I visited my sister in Holland. During a shopping trip, she put together a folder for me with looks that would fit me. After that, when visiting any boutique, I would think of clothes exclusively as pieces of sets. It was as if someone rewired my brain. I thought I needed to share it with people. 

And although I had no experience working as a stylist, I was a pretty good customer service manager and knew a lot about digital marketing. So I decided to start my own project.

What Marla Does & How It Works 

We collect a complete capsule for a person, i.e. a mini-wardrobe, taking into account all parameters: size, preferences, budget, everything up to the height of the heel and the size of the bag. Then we bring our client a box with beautiful steamed clothes for fitting. The things come in two sizes. There is also a print-out containing information on how the pieces of clothes go together. 

The client has 24 hours to try on a capsule and make a decision. The next day, a courier arrives and picks up what was rejected. The client can pay for the rest and keep it for themself.

Selecting Clothes

At first, we were using a neural network, or rather a certain algorithm for selecting clothes, but this solution didn’t stand long. Now we have an actual stylist: in our field, it’s impossible to replace a person completely. But there might be some kind of synchronization in the future.

The process itself looks like this: 

  • At the very beginning, the client fills out a detailed questionnaire, looking at ready-made samples and evaluating their likes and dislikes.
  • The stylist views the questionnaire and the client’s photos, assessing their tastes and preferences. Then the stylist selects clothes, shoes, and accessories that would fit the client and, most importantly, go together.
  • The assembled capsule is packed in a box and delivered to the client by courier. There are 10 pieces in the capsule, but some of them come in two sizes, so a customer gets, in fact, 15–20 things to try on.

This is the main feature of a capsule wardrobe: you can create many looks with a small set of clothing.

Women’s Wardrobe Specifics

Women’s clothing needs often have strong emotional ties. It is connected with their image of themself, their inner feeling of self-confidence. This is all about vibes that you communicate to others, what relationships you want to build, how you want to feel. Clothes can back it all up.

People buy clothes to dress. To satisfy this need, a huge global industry was built: its estimated volume is around $ 1.5 trillion. At the same time, there is a colossal gap: buying clothes no longer helps people get dressed. It rather gets in the way. 

When a person opens their wardrobe, they don’t see three-quarters of their wardrobe. They forget that some clothes exist and stop wearing them. When a new season starts, this person realizes they’ve got nothing to wear, so they buy something new, making their wardrobe less and less functional. Things simply do not go together, so every next purchase requires a new item to complete the set. 

The gap between buying clothes and having to get dressed gets bigger and bigger. Yes, we make money on clothes, but we sell satisfaction of the need to dress. Finally, it comes along with responsible consumption. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sell in Russia very actively. Or rather, we sell mostly compatibility and personal benefit. Our product is not clothing, but a loose leaf that we print on glossy paper with beautiful pictures, showing how all these pieces go together. We show how you should unbutton the jacket, roll up the sleeves, and adjust the T-shirt. This is our core value and our product.

Men’s Wardrobe Specifics

Men’s wardrobe is much more functional than women’s. It is easier to combine men’s clothes, and the color palette is much more restricted. Most often, men have problems with how the clothes fit: sleeve length, collar width, body proportions, etc. One brand fits well, the other does not. 

Our vision of the product’s future is as follows: the client receives a large set of things from different brands. Based on the results of fitting, a stylist writes down what the customer liked, what brands and patterns they preferred. After that, once every three or four months, the client receives another set of clothing from those brands. Just like in the movie The Great Gatsby! The sizes fit well, and the pieces are well combined. 

Working with Admitad Projects Startup Studio

Before joining ADP, I could not devote much time to calculations and analysis, since I had a full load of operational tasks. It was very important for us to do our best for every new customer, to meet any need. 

Basically, it was a boutique agency with very low prices and a thorough approach. Every time we needed to reconsider something, the business kept growing and required my attention. It needed structure, and it needed data tracking. I just didn’t have enough resources for it.

In 2013, I joined the Admitad network (not a studio, but a CPA model). At first, the idea was that a person would fill out a questionnaire and receive a set of suitable looks. All these things could be bought online. 

Taking the test was entertaining, but in the end, people looked at the capsule without making any purchases. It was just a fun time for them. If they wanted to buy something, they would go to the online store and place an order there. 

It wasn’t a working business, since the conversion was low. For example, a person liked something from the leaflet but was not accustomed to perceiving clothes in sets. Or they liked something, followed the link, but there was no fitting size, so the page was immediately closed. 

There was no chance at all. It seemed nothing would come of it, and we had to close. But I wanted to keep going and started offering targeted services to see how customers react, what they buy. I built a new team. There were no investments, but this service was providing for me and a few other people. Substantially, it was a small shop for women on maternity leave. 

But then a year ago, on August 19, 2019, I saw the competition for a grant, applied... and here we are!

During the first weeks of working with the studio, something was constantly rewired in my brain. Originally, I was a small entrepreneur doing half of my tasks by hand like a self-employed person. But I had to change my ways of thinking and learn how to delegate. We ran dozens, if not hundreds of experiments. We kept reinventing the model, rethinking our unit economy and revenue at different stages. 

In the studio, you have to keep your eye on indicators all the time. This is a completely different logic that you exist in and run your business. Whatever was going on before ADP cannot be called a business. It was rather a project. Early on, it was bringing in some coins, then it was paying for our food, but it was still small and no-scale. And one day, it was time to make a transition from self-employment to a full-fledged business.

Project Indicators: Orders per Month

Since July 31, about 30 orders have been delivered and about 45 are work in progress. We are operating in test mode, changing the roadmap and business model as we go. That’s because, from the start, we were building a system very dependent on suppliers and retailers. Now we finally saw it. 

It’s wrong to build a system so dependent on external companies and third parties. The task is to build an independent business and earn decent money because otherwise, 50–60% of the cost remains with retailers. Therefore, we switched to making money on clothes and keep testing this model. It shows very good results. 

Last-Mile Delivery & Retention

Previously, our boxes were delivered by another company. There were lots of couriers (sometimes they were rude to customers), things got crumpled, the time for fitting was limited, and so on. That’s how we introduced our beautiful boxes and printouts. We decided to make the customer experience customizable even in the last mile, so we launched a new offer a month ago. Along with the general revival of Marla in late August, it played a significant role in increasing orders after the pandemic restrictions.

Regarding retention, this is one of the key indicators for us, and we based the entire unit economy on it. We didn’t use this model long enough to draw any conclusions, but there are customers already who come back for our service. There’s no use in counting the share, it might be somewhere around 10%, but the results are very inspiring both in terms of the check and buy-back. Later, of course, we will make a loyalty campaign and recommendations. And we have fantastic marketing plans as well: cross-marketing with other delivery services (i.e. meal subscriptions), cross-promotions, and promocodes. 

Bottom Line: How to Find an Idea and Develop It

Before that, I had no idea I would be engaged in a business related to fashion, style, and clothing. Then I suddenly found myself immersed in it shoulder-deep. Never say never, it seems. Anything is possible and can bring both pleasure and money. Although the profit will be small at first, everything can change if you come to a startup studio.

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