Through word-of-mouth marketing and successful Kickstarter campaigns, Kit's sales are increasing 50% year over year.

Shopping for women’s clothing can be frustrating. Sizes differ among retailers for similar items, the fabrics used in manufacturing can be low quality and, most importantly, every woman’s body is different.

Merin Guthrie, CEO and founder of Kit

Merin Guthrie (center), CEO and founder of Kit.

Kit founder and CEO Merin Guthrie spotted a vacancy in women’s retail: made-to-order, custom-fit clothing. So, she decided to fill it and launched KitMade.com in January 2015.

“It always struck me as the world’s dumbest problem no one had fixed. We can put people on the moon, but we can’t make clothes that fit,” Guthrie says.

Although Kit is not alone in the custom clothing world, Guthrie says the market is dominated by men’s custom tailoring, such as men’s custom dress shirt e-retailer Proper Cloth and men’s custom clothing e-retailer J.Hilburn, or manufactured somewhere other than the United States. For example, eShakti, targets the U.S. market and manufactures its custom women’s clothing in India. Kit manufactures everything in its Houston office.

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“In some ways, we compete with all retail spending dollars but in others, we don’t really have that many competitors,” Guthrie says. “There are some made-to-measure [e-retailers] out there, but they’re different than us. When customers find us, they basically didn’t know this was an option. It exists for men but not as much for women.”

Kit currently offers 34 items on KitMade.com, ranging from a $125 tank top to a $235 wrap dress to $375 for a tailored coat. The e-retailer also offers lower-priced accessories, such as a knit beanie, infinity scarf and satin bow belt, each for less than $100. Every product has some level of customization, such as fabric choice, hem length, neckline style and pocket removal.

When a shopper checks out, she fills out a “fit profile” that asks her to share her height, weight and bra size, as well as a body type profile that includes pear, apple, straight and hourglass shape. The fit profile also asks her to select where garments are generally too tight or too loose, her torso length and add any additional comments that can help the seamstresses complete the item to every shopper’s specifications. The item is then made-to-order in about two weeks and shipped to the customer, which can take about a week to arrive, according to its website. If the fit is not right, a shopper can send the garment back for free custom tailoring.

A service-focused company

Guthrie envisioned Kit to be a service-focused company rather than a product-based one, she says. “We exist to serve a specific customer who is busy, time is at a premium for her and she’s coming to us because she’s hoping she can have a better experience in terms of product and holistic retail experience than she’s getting elsewhere,” Guthrie says.

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She wants to know what customers are looking for in terms of style, fabric and specific clothing items, all of which goes into the company’s design process and fabric sourcing. “I don’t design in a bubble,” Guthrie says. The company sends out customer surveys and uses Kickstarter campaigns to collect feedback and estimate product demand. Guthrie credits listening to its customers as the key to Kit’s success.

Since its launch in January 2015, Kit has grown its online sales 50% year over year each year, says Guthrie, declining to provide a specific sales figure. The company also has grown from one to five employees and plans to add another seamstress to the team in late February or early March. And it plans to keep growing–but sustainably, says Guthrie, as scaling remains Kit’s biggest challenge.

Guthrie wants Kit to grow sales 35-75% every year. Although this is a wide range, she says the retailer is on track for that growth this coming year. This is faster than the 20% average sales growth rate of the 264 apparel and accessories e-retailers in the Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000.

“Because we make every piece to order, that growth rate allows us to grow while maintaining quality in terms of product and customer service and also allows us to scale our capacity at a reasonable rate,” Guthrie says. When Kit does add a new seamstress, Guthrie wants time to fully train that person to ensure the quality of its made-to-order garments remains.

“We have grown through our level of service and quality,” Guthrie says. “If that falls off, then we’ve sabotaged the whole model. I don’t want too much growth to come at the cost of the sustainability of Kit.”

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A lot of Kit’s growth will be technology driven, Guthrie says. For example, the company is too small for it to be financially worthwhile to purchase a large-scale paper pattern printer, so Kit works with a local pattern maker. When the company has enough volume so it makes sense to purchase the printer, then Guthrie will make that investment, and it will cut down pattern making time by 50%, she says.

“The good news is we are less efficient today than we will be tomorrow,” Guthrie says. “As we grow, there are efficiencies born of scale that we find. We can’t go from making 10 orders today to 100 tomorrow. We need to be mindful of growth targets we’re setting and what sustainable growth looks like. That is a trickier challenge than you would imagine–you don’t want to be too conservative and not grow and vice versa.”

Kick-starting new designs

Scalable growth was something Guthrie kept in mind when it launched a Kickstarter campaign on Oct. 3, 2017, for “Build Your Own Staple Tee.”

This wasn’t Kit’s first Kickstarter endeavor. Kit used the crowdfunding service in July 2016 to gauge demand for “The Perfect Lady Blouse.” Kit wanted to carry the silk button-down blouse in several colors but was unsure which colors to invest in.

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“Before we went out and spent thousands on silk, we wanted to make sure we had the right colors,” Guthrie says. “For example, we sold just as many button-downs in blush as off-white. Turns out, blush is really popular, and I would never have believed that. So, we ordered more of that than we originally thought we would.”

The campaign exceeded its $6,500 goal by 14.5% reaching $7,441, as 57 backers funded the Kickstarter blouse campaign.

For the staple tee Kickstarter, Kit wanted to assess an interest in knits. “We needed to see if that would be a popular item for people because we didn’t have the machines for it,” Guthrie says. The campaign allowed Kit to set aside money for the proper manufacturing machines, as well as gauge demand for fabric and colors.

With both Kickstarter campaigns, Guthrie wanted to hit the funding goal but didn’t want it to go “crazy overboardbecause the company is not yet equipped to handle an extreme increase in volume given its current 35-75% growth target rate. When the staple tee campaign raised about 40% of its goal on the first day, Guthrie says she was nervous. But as the campaign progressed, the numbers evened out. “We want to raise enough money so that we know there’s a demand, we can get the right machine and fabric and then grow from there,” she says.

The staple tee exceeded it’s $8,000 goal with 100 backers pledging $8,601. Guthrie says Kit is still on track to deliver all the backers’ T-shirts, as well as ensure the item is available for purchase on KitMade.com by April.

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Kit does not have plans to launch another Kickstarter campaign this year, but 2019 is a different story. “I love using Kickstarter as a tool,” says Guthrie. “I have all sorts of dreams about the perfect handbag that holds a laptop and everything else without looking like a tote or laptop bag. If we choose to make that, we will probably use Kickstarter to launch it.”

Wrap dress on KitMade.com.

Kit’s customer profile

Kit’s target customer is a busy woman in her early 30s to late 60s in the middle or toward the end of her career, Guthrie says. And that woman is probably not going to spend her time searching Instagram hashtags, she adds. So, Kit doesn’t do much in the way of paid marketing and works with very small marketing budget–just less than $1,000.

Although Kit does have Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, Guthrie says she doesn’t see value in investing time and money in social media–at least not right now. “We’ll grow [that budget] at a certain point in time when we can pull that lever, but we’re comfortable with our growth rate now,” Guthrie says.

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Kit grows most of its business through word of mouth, press and small events. But Guthrie says they have to be smart about the type of events and press they participate in. She would not want to feature Kit on The Today Show, for example. “That is not going to yield an additional $5,000-$10,000 in sales; that’s going to yield $500,000 in sales, and we get into the scale problem,” she says.

Kit does participate in small trunk shows, and Guthrie has a laundry list of considerations before participating in those. For example: What are the right events? Is Chicago a good location? Should Kit participate in one or two events in June? “That balance is still really granular,” Guthrie says. “I spend more time thinking about scaling and growth than anything else.”

About 2,200 consumers visit KitMade.com per month, Guthrie says. She’s “amazed” the website sees any traffic at all, given how little she spends on search engine optimization or online marketing. KitMade.com saw 79.2% of its overall traffic from the United States between December 2017 to February 2018 with 54.4% coming direct and 37.9% from referrals. Within organic search traffic, specific search terms,  such as “kit made online” (69.8%) and “kits clothing co” (30.2%), generated 7.6% of its overall traffic, according to SimilarWeb.

“While our overall traffic is low, it often yields some quality hits in terms of new customers, which is especially true of our custom business,” Guthrie says. “Many people find us because they’re looking for custom designs and custom garments.”

Why e-commerce

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Kit found a home in e-commerce because Guthrie did not want Kit to be location specific, she says. Geography was never a core part of Kit’s concept or model. Even though 20% of its business comes from Texas, Guthrie says that’s not enough to justify having a store component. Plus,  the barriers to entry for e-commerce are much lower and less costly than opening a store, she says.

Although she did not have an e-commerce background, Guthrie says she felt confident in her ability to run an e-commerce business. Prior to launching Kit, Guthrie worked as a consultant for nonprofit organizations, helping niche organizations grow their operations.

“I loved the idea of growing an organization around a mission, which is why we’re so mission-focused at Kit,” says Guthrie.

That mission, according to KitMade.com, is “to create clothing that perfectly suits your style, needs and figure.”


Upcoming projects

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While Guthrie’s focus will continue to be scalable growth, she has some other projects for Kit in the pipeline. Guthrie recently had a baby and, while she was pregnant, she struggled to find flattering maternity clothes. “It’s really easy to get a tent sundress, but I don’t want to wear that,” she says.

Kit is working on a service where it will use some of its existing styles and fabrics to be more maternity friendly. And after that customer has a baby, she can reach out to Kit to get the clothes tailored to her post-partum body. “It’s not a separate maternity line, but we’re producing them in a manner so they fit a pregnant body, and then we can tailor them back down,” says Guthrie. “Women don’t want to spend a lot of money on something you’re only going to wear for a limited time. Retailers realize this and think women are undervaluing this market, which is why there are so few options out there. But we want to empower women to want to wear maternity [clothes].”

Kit plans to launch the maternity options later this year.

Besides maternity wear, Guthrie says she intends to stay sane while growing Kit with a new baby. “I want to hit our growth targets and build out our custom projects,” Guthrie says. “We’re always thinking: how are we serving this customer? Is she pregnant? Is she getting married? Those are all things that we’re working on.”

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