After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Better Than Belts had an aggressive retail strategy in place. But the pandemic forced it to stay online and tap into other ways to find new customers and grow web sales.

Better Than Belts, a web-only, direct-to-consumer retailer of men’s and women’s suspenders, had built up momentum going into 2020. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in September 2019, it was ready to talk to local retailers in New England about putting its products in stores. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing many retailers to close down and Better Than Belts to change its plans.

The idea behind Better Than Belts emerged when co-founder Tyler Farley was sick with mononucleosis in college and experienced a lot of weight fluctuations. His pants were too loose and belts were too uncomfortable to wear while he was ill. He thought suspenders might be a solution, but most of the ones he found were novelty Halloween products or too formal. Farley then had suspenders samples made to his specifications, in simple designs that matched his wardrobe, says Tyler Farley’s sister and co-founder Tori Farley. The samples used 100% durable elastic in the front and back and jumbo clips rather than traditional small clips.

Better Than Belts co-founders, Tyler Farley and Tori Farley

Better Than Belts sibling co-founders, Tyler Farley and Tori Farley

Tyler Farley then asked Tori Farley to join him in this venture to sell the products online in summer 2019. She left her job and, together, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in late August. Along with the launch, the siblings hosted an in-person launch party, where someone with an iPad took real-time pledges for the campaign. The campaign reached 64% of its $10,000 goal that day and was fully funded within two weeks. Overall, 225 backers pledged $11,400 once the campaign ended in September, according to Kickstarter.

Better Than Belts launched its ecommerce site, BetterThanBelts.com, as soon as the Kickstarter campaign ended and began fulfilling orders in November.

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“But we were grossly unprepared for a retail Q4 holiday,” Tori Farley says. “We were so focused on Kickstarter orders that we hadn’t done any prep, press outreach or paid ads for holidays, so we did some email campaigns to try to upsell the Kickstarter backers with a little success.”

Additionally, it promoted its products at marketing conferences where people could try the suspenders on. “I sold a pair to a woman off my back at a conference,” Farley says.

At the end of December, the Boston Globe published a feature story on Better Than Belts. The story, Farley says, “really launched our business” and drove sales to its site. But the demographic of buyers was mostly older men when its target was 25- to 45-year-old men and women.

In January, however, the retailer rethought its strategy. “Ecommerce was the original play because you have to have a website, regardless of what you’re doing, and the barrier to entry to ecommerce is the lowest,” Farley says. “We thought the cost of opening our own shop was too high, so we thought going after boutiques in New England would help us grow our brand.”

Better Than Belts made a list of 50 boutiques to visit in person in early spring with sell sheets and tags for its products. It had everything ready.

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And then COVID-19 hit

Its online sales completely halted when the pandemic swept the U.S. in mid-March. And with all the boutiques it planned to visit closed, Better Than Belts had to reevaluate its strategy. “Ecommerce had to be our play, but then how were we going to get new customers?” Farley says.

Tori Farley’s background is in digital advertising, specifically Facebook advertising. She says she wanted to try running digital ads for three months before finding a vendor to do it for them. “As a small retailer, I just didn’t want to spend $10,000 on an agency when I could try myself,” she says.

But before Farley tried to do it herself, she discovered Facebook marketing agency EmberTribe, which offers a self-service marketing program for about $1,500 per month. However, Better than Belts won a giveaway to use the program for free for a few months. The retailer launched Facebook ads in mid-May and ran them full steam in June and July.

“It helped us hone in on who was paying attention to our messaging,” she says. It also did website testing on usertesting.com and tested different price points, along with different suspenders designs.

Ultimately, it took two weeks of Facebook advertisements to get an order on BetterThanBelts.com from a Facebook ad. In June, however, it had a .56 return on ad spend (ROAS), which means the retailer made 56 cents for every dollar it spent on advertisements. This number beat its goal, Farley says, even if it was losing money. But then its ROAS tanked to .37 in July when its goal was .75 ROAS.

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“It was a combination of factors,” she says. “Not a lot of people are wearing suspenders in the summer. And big ad players were pulling out Facebook because of protests, which made algorithms weird.”

For its first anniversary in August, Better Than Belts ran a six-day sale in which it cut all its prices to $29 from $49-$79. It re-ran Facebook ads and contacted everyone on its email list before and during the sale to promote it. The retailer received a .88 ROAS this time and its retargeting ROAS was above 1. The retailer also was able to increase its returning customers to 20% from 10%.

“When that concluded, we were trying to figure out what revenue numbers would allow us to continue working on this full time and what we want a business to look like,” Farley says. “We are working 24/7 at this and we like what we’re doing, but it’s still hard to do that all the time.”

To stay motivated, Farley joined a digital community that supports female-led direct-to-consumer businesses. “I found a lot of comfort in that group and talking through challenges with the other female owners,” she says. “A lot of these digital communities have sprung up because of COVID.”

The sale, however, did exceed its goals and expectations, so Better Than Belts is “relatively” on track to hit its revenue goal for the year, Farley says. It can stay in business as long as the siblings, who run the entire operation themselves, have enough to cover rent, she says.

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From January through April, Better Than Belts made $3,000 in revenue; from May through July, it made $7,000; and its August sale brought in $3,500. The retailer needs to make $12,000 by the end of the year to cover costs and keep doing this full-time.

“We need to make more than companies typically would make because of the slowdown due to the pandemic,” Farley says. And it is brainstorming ways to achieve that goal.

Better Than Belts plans to continue leveraging different sales for short periods for the holidays, direct-mail advertisements, upselling and over-servicing its existing customers, and revamping its referral program. The retailer also plans to release additional products, such as keychains and long-sleeve T-shirts, to increase average order value.

“We need new customer acquisition to hit our revenue goal, and we’re trying to figure out ways to reach customers personally,” Farley says.

She adds that it’s unfortunate they could not sell their products in boutiques because of the pandemic. “The beauty of having a store and in-person presence is you can hear and see what people think of the product,” she says. “That’s so important for startups. “

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