‘There’s a lot of noise’: The importance of first-mover advantage in the DTC space
by Jill Manoff
In 2013, Jake Kassan and Kramer LaPlante launched MVMT, which Kassan calls a direct-to-consumer line of “great-looking watches at an accessible price point.”
“There weren’t any other DTC brands offering the same thing, so we saw a huge opportunity,” he said. “We were able to make a lot of noise and build our brand in the early years with limited competition.”
Today, the direct-to-consumer model is becoming increasingly popular, as brands across categories are getting hip to its perks — namely, direct access to customers and the data they provide, plus control over brand messaging and product, which can be sold at a lower price.
Those, like MVMT, that got in early did the dirty work in terms of navigating the business model and what flies — but the payoff has often proven worth-it in the form of consistent growth.
“You’re bearing the cost of reinventing the wheel,” said Eric Best, CEO and founder of brand advisory firm SoundCommerce. “The value is acquiring the target customer and having a white space for brand development, and you establish a reputation as an innovator that you can build on.”
But simply being first is not enough. Here’s the playbook that has proven effective for original players in the direct-to-consumer market.
Firmly establish a distinct brand
“There’s a lot of noise,” said Kassan. “It’s increasingly becoming harder to differentiate from competitors.”
In fact, he said, he wakes up to announcements of new affordably priced, minimalist, direct-to-consumer watch brands almost daily. Many times, they’re direct replicas, featuring imagery and copy plucked from MVMT’s digital ads.
“We don’t lose sleep over it,” he said. “It just motivates us to keep innovating.”
By starting MVMT years prior, he and LaPlante have an advantage, said Best. At this point, they know who their customer is and how to reach them. Had they launched at the same time as the lookalikes, they’d be in the typical race of “who can spend more in the right channels to reach the target market first.”
The DTC lingerie market is one that’s getting crowded, with brands including Lively, ThirdLove and Negative Underwear in the mix. But Michelle Lam — co-founder and CEO of lingerie startup True&Co, which launched in 2012 — echoed Kassan: She doesn’t worry about new companies entering the space.
“Customers deserve better choices” than what had been offered for decades prior to her company’s launch, she said. Many brands are looking to revamp traditional lingerie shopping — though, often, when they launch with a “fresh” concept, True&Co. did it first: “We were the first to present a fit quiz, we were the first to introduce breast shape as being a [fit factor], and we were the first to pioneer home try-on and to welcome returns to better understand our consumer’s needs,” she said.
Disrupting the space means being creative, and it will earn you customers, said Best. Glomming onto an idea or getting hung up on how brands have traditionally operated won’t get you there.
Form a community
Today, establishing close connections is crucial to earning customers’ business in most every space — the crowded DTC market is no exception.
“New direct-to-consumer brands entering the market have to think like technology and media companies,” said Syama Meagher, chief retail strategist at Scaling Retail. “Aside from a focus on product, greater emphasis should be placed on how they are using content and technology to drive customer engagement.”
For MVMT, that started with engaging with customers on available platforms as they emerged. Kassan and LaPlante launched their brand on crowdsourcing platform Indiegogo, raising rounds totaling $272,000. Watch forums provided further connectivity with customers, before Instagram became the brand’s platform of choice.
Similarly, Lam says True&Co. was built entirely on customer feedback. “Brands who understand what [the customer] is looking for and why have the best shot at survival,” she said.
Take it slow
Growth is a good thing, but brands shouldn’t get ahead of themselves if they want to stay in it for the long haul.
Four years in, MVMT has been slowly growing its product assortment with accessories reflective of its signature, minimal style. On top of its original men’s watches, it’s added women’s watches, sunglasses and, within the last week, a collection of bracelets.
As for other areas of growth, in the last year, it’s doubled its team to 30 full-time employees and has upgraded its headquarters to a 9,000 square foot space in California’s Playa Vista. It’s on track to see revenue totaling $80 million for 2017, up from $60 million in 2016.
It’s got the right idea, said Best.
“Brands need to be looking at this as the path forward,” he said, of finding a niche in the direct-to-consumer space. “If not, they’re going to be disrupted and left behind by more innovative competitors.”