Lily Russo of Beach Flamingo

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Interviewed in London, January 2017

Beach Flamingo is a one-stop shop for swimwear and beach accessories

Lily: Myself, my sister Jessica and my mum Jacqueline set up Beach Flamingo in April 2012. Being half Italian, our family used to spend all summer on the beach in Italy and my [English] friends were always bemused; like – ‘why do you love the beach so much? I hate wearing bikinis!’ They felt uncomfortable wearing swimwear in public, not feeling their best. I realised people were buying cheap, ill-fitting swimwear  – almost as an afterthought. Whereas a lot of care goes into choosing a dress, when it comes to swimwear, which really needs to fit, it seemed to be a neglected purchase.

I was a fashion editor at Grazia for years (I’m now freelance) and I’d see lookbooks of the swimwear brands’ collections and noticed that stockists weren’t buying the fun pieces, but playing it safe. UK shops tended to stock very covered-up styles, although if you’re bigger, it’s not necessarily flattering to be covered in yards of fabric. A scooped style can actually look better.

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Another source of inspiration was my mum who always looks amazing on the beach with a kaftan, sandals and matching hair accessories – very Italian. We spotted a gap in the market for something high quality and FUN!  We decided not to stock anything we wouldn’t wear ourselves – between my mum, sister and I there’s a range of ages and body types.

We sell to women with high spending power and prices average £200 for a bikini. It costs a lot to make really good, well-fitting swimwear; a lot of work going into the design and fabrication. We also stock beach bags, towels, kaftans, robes and sunglasses hand-picked from brands like Hunza G, Mara Hoffman and Athena Procopiou.

We brainstormed the idea for our start-up in the summer of 2011. The difference between dreaming up a business idea on holiday and putting the plan into action was my mum. She’s such a practical, can-do person, with years of experience running a business, (my dad’s hair salon) – who helped and encouraged us to go for it.

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We re-mortgaged our flat to fund start-up costs. It’s a 100% family-owned business. Neither my sister or I have business qualifications so we’ve had to learn everything on the job. There is a lot of free information on the internet if you look for it, but it can be tricky knowing whose advice to follow especially when it comes to technical issues such as SEO and what platform to use for an e-commerce site. We are about to re-launch using Shopify software. We have also done pop-up shops with Appear Here. Doing a pop up in London can be costly but if you have a great product and choose the right area by doing market research, it can be worth the investment and a great way to target a specific customer base. Both Shopify and Appear Here also send out really good newsletters with tips and ideas on how to generate more traffic and business.

Buying stock for the first time was a big step. I think at the beginning we didn’t know what we were letting ourselves in for, otherwise we would have freaked out. My sister worked in retail for over 10 years so had a lot of business insight, like which sizes you need more and less of. Meanwhile I knew what would get press coverage. We had to take sizing into consideration as some brands come up quite small. To manage this we try everything on before we buy.  It’s important to create a plan and a budget when buying – and stick to it. With designer brands you have only got one chance per season to put the order in – most don’t do re-orders and if you order too much you’re stuck with it.

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When I go on buying appointments the sales agent says – ‘this is popular, this is our best seller’, but I ask not to know because I want a unique edit and to trust my own instincts. Our USP is playful, fun swimwear and when we haven’t followed our instinct, those items haven’t sold well for us. That proved our customers appreciate our taste.

A big milestone will be the launch of our own line in SS17. Having worked with swimwear for so long, we knew exactly what we wanted to create. Having ideas was easy, finding the right designer and pattern cutter came next. We asked all our contacts to recommend people. My cousin in Southern Italy linked us with a swimwear factory in Puglia.

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Highlights of running a business include the satisfaction of having something of your own. I also love seeing women enjoying their purchases. We get customers calling us asking for advice and we’ll happily try things on their behalf – with their measurements. We get great feedback, nice emails back from customers, and people tag us in their Instagrams. None of our family is a size 8 bikini model but if something fits you well and flatters, you’ll feel confident. Another benefit of having a business is getting to learn constantly. It’s a steep learning curve, like building our new site for instance, but it keeps things interesting.

Some of challenges we’ve faced have been tech-related. We had an issue with an SEO guy who billed us a large amount but didn’t complete the work. Finally we threatened him with a county court injuction, and also discovered he had done the same to other clients. When it comes to developers and tech services there’s a huge range. Always get a few quotes and if possible get testimonials too. Never accept the first quote you get – there’s such a possibility for being ripped off. A good rule would be to outsource as little as possible. It’s important to be in control, know how your website works and have access to it and understand of how it works rather than being too reliant on an outside contractor. 

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Growing a business is harder than starting one! Particularly in retail, because as you get bigger your need more stock – but you also need to invest in staff, an office, marketing and PR . . . What do you prioritise? There’s no rule book. We invest the profits back into the business. If you don’t increase your buy, you won’t increase turnover.

Would I recommend having your sister as a business partner? Yes, because no matter what, you are family. You can argue and shout at each other but you’ll always be fine the next day. At least you can be honest with your sibling, which could be harder with a colleague you don’t know well. Anyone you go into business with you should know very well.

Social media is crucial for marketing. I researched the Instagram algorithm and the app favours brands with a big existing following or ones that spend on ads. The magic solution is to post 3x a day. I use images from our brands and from customers wearing their purchases. Bikini shots are a big feature of Instagram and certain girls are selling a lifestyle. I remember approaching a successful Instagram influencer two years ago offering to gift her a piece to wear on her feed. She very politely replied to us with a price list! This much for a post, this much for a competition etc. . . My dream would be to have Giovanna Battaglia wear our swimwear.

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As well as Instagram, customers find us through Google.  When we first launched we decided not to have international payments on site, then luckily we changed our mind because we have a lot of international customers – USA, Europe and Middle East. I handle our press requests as we don’t have a PR agency.

A few lessons we’ve learned include;

Always follow your instincts.

Have a clear idea of your brand and USP.

Integrity is important. We’d never sell something for the sake of it. If something doesn’t fit it will come back. We respect our customers because we want them to come back, so we build that relationship.

Make it personal; an advantage small businesses have over bigger brands. There’s so much competition in fashion, people need a reason to buy from you.

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Running an online shop involves a lot of work. Even spread between three people it can be tricky dividing your time between uploading new stock; writing copy for the site; organising new product to be shot; accounts, and the weekly buying appointments. We are just about to launch our own line so we are busy designing the logo and labelling and will have to shoot new imagery for the website soon as well as a lookbook. 

I still enjoy a week or two in Puglia each summer, though ironically since starting the business we don’t go away as a family any more as someone always has to be here. Last summer we hired a part-timer to help run the site whilst we were away, just so we could hang out together. 

@beach_flamingo

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