The female CEO leading the growth of e-com retailer Silkfred: Emma Watkinson.
It's not everyday that a highly successful CEO of a leading e-commerce business agrees to sit down with you and share all of her wisdom! We were incredibly honoured to speak with Emma Watkinson, the CEO & Co-founder of Silkfred at Silkfred HQ located in a back street of trendy East London. Despite just having twins whilst simultaneously leading a growing team of 70 during Silkfred’s rapid expansion, Emma seemed completely unphased by it all. We can’t express how refreshing we found it to receive such honest answers from her. In our interview we talk all things business from the early stages of Silkfred in 2010 to Silkfred’s plans for global expansion.
Emma, thank you so much for joining us today. We’d love to know more about you and your company SilkFred.
Thanks for having me! Silkfred is a fast growing e-com retailer for womenswear that works with independent brands to get their product on as many of our customers as possible. We’ve got a team of 70 based in central London and we’re growing really quickly!
Can you tell us what a typical working day looks like for you?
I get up really early, I had twins in May. I normally wake up, give them a cuddle, get moving. I usually get here before the team so I can get through my emails. Most of my day is meetings with the team catching up with what our brands are doing, the marketing team about what we might be pushing that week or with my co-founder about different initiatives that we’re trying to push or with investors, it really varies!
Emma with one of her twins at Silkfred HQ
When did your idea come for Silkfred?
The idea came when I was working on the B&M team at a fashion e-tailer and my now co-founder came to me as his friend had invested in a small independent brand. He asked me to have a look at it to see if I could help. We then realised there were loads of really interesting brands like Pursuit wanting to get their product to market and customers crying out of for something a bit different from the rest of the high street. 6 years later here we are.
Can you describe how you built Silkfred into what it is today?
Put simply, little by little, as a company we’re big on testing. We’re very open minded and try not to make assumptions about things. We will try and if something works, if it does, we go with it. As a company, we are very curious, very relentless in terms of making it work. This was a big part of growing in the early days, where it was very tough in the beginning teaching ourselves how to sell online and we just didn’t give up and I think that speaks a lot to how we are today, we try to meet every challenge, collaborating across teams to confront every issue.
As you mentioned, there were many challenges along the way, what would you say is your biggest business challenge that you have faced?
That’s a very interesting question and they change all the time because as your business grows, what you focus on at any one point in time will evolve based on what you’re doing as a business. For example, in the beginning, it was about getting investment into the company so that we could spend money on marketing. Also, finding interesting products that our customers wanted and trying to stay alive during that period. We all really believed in what we were doing however the customers weren’t there yet. You have to keep refining the proposition. Overtime, as we gained more customers, you need more team, getting the right people was so so important. Making sure you have measures in place to understand how your team are performing as you grow which is an ongoing challenge. Logistics, because this business is delivering good service in line with customer expectations. Sometimes the challenges are quite personal ones, like having the motivation and resilience to keep pushing yourself, which is something I work quite closely with the team on. I feel it’s so important that people are honest and transparent with what those challenges are, especially with social media, where many people paint a picture of a perfect reality. It can drive you a bit mad. We have a lot of relationships with a lot of different brands which we try to work collaboratively with them on.
"I feel it’s so important that people are honest and transparent with what those challenges are, especially with social media, where many people paint a picture of a perfect reality. It can drive you a bit mad."
Portrait shot by @roccobizzarri
Moving on from the challenges, what would you say is your biggest highlight or memorable moment?
There are so many good ones. Something we’re trying to be better at is focusing on celebrating the wins. Black Friday is a good opportunity for us to do that as it shows how far you’ve come on the scale and how we’ve grown. Especially, because it’s the same date every year so it helps us to remember what it was like last year and the year before that. Something that stands out for me is our Christmas party 2 years ago, I remember walking into the room and seeing all of our team there and I thought ‘this is it, I can see how this is going to grow and how successful this is going to be’.
It’s clearly been quite a journey for you…
Quite! The conversation about the business with my co-founder was in winter 2010, we started building the platform in mid 2011, and then we took our business plan to investors to get going. We launched in 2012. Surprisingly, this was the least stressful time because the company was funded and it was all excitement, possibility and potential. The difficult bit is when you launch and you have to make it work and show performance. For example, the pressure of having dinner with my dad who would ask me why I quit my job and how much I’m selling.
You mentioned being able to really focus on marketing after Silkfred received it’s funding. What would you say is your best marketing technique?
Everything on social media. We were a company that no one had heard of. The good thing about social media is that you’re judged on the image, so if you create an interesting image with a cool product then people will respond to it. There are many forms of expensive advertising that are difficult to demonstrate the conversion. Anyone can have a social media account and it’s your blood sweat and tears that goes into making It what it is. We invested most heavily into social because we felt like we had a very strong products and the images would speak for themselves.
Apart from Pursuit, what are your favourite sustainable brands?
We have a few sustainable brands on SilkFred which are very strong. My favourite sustainable brand which isn't on Silkfred, Reformation, where I got my wedding dress was from. It was great, online and $400 which I was very happy with. Stella MCcartney does amazing designs and has a great ethical story behind the brand.
"I think the key to sustainable fashion is that it’s fashionable first and sustainable second."
Emma with Silkfred ambassador @naomimillbanksmith
Where do you see sustainable fashion scaling in the future?
I think that there’s a big opportunity for it. Customers are becoming more interested and concerned about where what their buying is coming from. I think the key to sustainable fashion is that it’s fashionable first and sustainable second. It’s not enough to just say that it’s sustainable, you have to create a product that is desirable and then ‘oh by the way, it’s sustainable’ and the best sustainable brands are doing that very very successfully.
Apart from your business, what is one thing that you couldn’t live without?
We've loved hearing about the peaks and challenges of your business. It truly is a testament to what we can all aspire to achieve. What is Silkfred’s future looking like?
We have a lot of exciting things going on, we are growing the team which is fantastic. We’re looking to expand internationally within the next 12 months which will be fantastic but tiring! We’re lucky to be able to work with brands like Pursuit that offer something that is unique and interesting. We just want to take this to more customers globally.
"We’re lucky to be able to work with brands like Pursuit that offer something that is unique and interesting. We just want to take this to more customers globally."
Finally, do you have any key words of advice for ambitious entrepreneurs wanting to develop in the fashion space?
Having a good network is invaluable. Surrounding yourselves with mentors that you can just pick up the phone to. Also being quite resilient, because this industry is tough but it’s so worth it.
To shop the latest independent brands, visit www.silkfred.com
Follow @silkfred_emma and the official @silkfred page on Instagram