How Betabrand used crowdsourcing to build a $35 million business

There aren’t that many places you can buy a button-down shirt featuring different Sasquatch hairstyles or the poo emoji. Or, what if you want a sensible gray pencil skirt with invisible pockets, a pair of dressed-up yoga pants, or a Hawaiian shirt with clowns… in flagrante?

These are just some of the many unique designs currently featured on Betabrand. It may sound strange, but each one of these items works in its own way. And the best part, every item was designed and funded by their online community.

Betabrand has made a name for themselves over the past decade by using humor and levity to market their off-center clothing brand. This is a brand that once put out a video game in which Santa fights Dracula to the death, in lieu of usual happy-go-lucky holiday marketing messages, and they once aired a TV commercial for their yoga pants line in which a model proudly proclaims, “I love my butt.” In 2014, when they sought to hire a designer, they transformed their homepage into a nearly unusable web design atrocity in an attempt to curry sympathy from designers. Yet none of this feels out of place for Betabrand. They’re all about having fun with their products, their marketing, and even their hiring.

Here’s how eCommerce provocateur Betabrand has grown their fashion brand through meme humor, new technology, and crowdfunding.

I can haz crowdsourced fashion

Founded in 2009, Betabrand has raised $34.8 million in funding and grown their revenue to $35 million in the last year. With their tongue-in-cheek attitude toward fashion, Betabrand has positioned themselves as an eCommerce powerhouse for the internet generation.

Betabrand’s wholesale adoption of meme humor and the online community have helped them become a surprising up-and-comer in the fashion industry. That’s not to say that Gucci and Chanel are going to start featuring robots and Sasquatch in their lines, but they should be paying attention.

Purple Disco Hoodie via Pinterest.

By giving power to designers and their community, Betabrand creates products that may not fit traditional style guidelines—at least not those of the past 100 years. The community chooses which designs they prefer, and no matter how ridiculous they may seem, Betabrand figures out a way to make them a reality. That’s the beauty of Betabrand’s model; customers tell them whether or not it’s what they want before they commit to manufacturing and marketing them. They’re often surprised by what ideas go viral, but don’t have to worry about whether or not it will be successful, because they already know.

Their embrace of the community comes out in Betabrand’s marketing. Because the community often pushes Betabrand’s clothes in non-traditional directions, the company knows their core customers reacts well to humor. That playfulness comes out in their marketing. In 2016, for example, they hosted Silicon Valley Fashion Week. Rather than a rote reproduction of traditional fashion shows like New York, London, and Milan, Betabrand instead shined a spotlight on a community of risk-takers and technophiles who are pushing fashion ideas forward.

Silicon Valley Fashion Week via Facebook.

Democratizing the fashion world

This crowdsourcing model, pioneered by Threadless, caused a shift in how many eCommerce companies think about their grown. Threadless’ sustained success demonstrates that getting your community—both buyers and creators—involved in the design process early on can pay massive dividends. By taking the design process out from behind closed doors, Betabrand has the opportunity to take risks that traditional fashion companies can’t. Remember the clown shirt? There are few other eCommerce providers that would take a gamble on that kind of item.

Giving customers a choice in their own style and embracing meme humor has helped to position Betabrand as a trend-maker in retail fashion. This goes against many popular retail brands who historically follow trends as they filter down from the high-fashion world. Partly, this is because the rise of eCommerce has allowed brands like Betabrand to take bigger risks with less money on the line. Because they can sell directly to a global audience, which makes it easier to find the critical mass of people who want to wear a clown shirt, and without the overhead of a network of retails shops, retailers like Betabrand (and Shinesty) that push the envelope on design can more easily exist.

Available products via Betabrand.

With products like the Executive Hoodie and Dress Pant Yoga Pants, Betabrand is definitely poking fun at our preconceived notions of what makes a garment fashionable, but there’s more to it than that.

Traditionally, most popular fashion design trends are curated top-down by popular brands in-house. Think of Prada and Chanel. Each brand features a ‘visionary’ designer who comes up with ideas that filter through the brand into a network of high-end magazines and fashion shows until, finally, the products make their way to the general public. Betabrand is taking that model and flipping it upside-down. They start the process with the general public, and then go backwards up the chain.

“Giving the public the opportunity to design something they think should be public to everyone and facilitating that opportunity is what makes us different.”

Jessica Egbu, Betabrand community manager

As an eCommerce company, Betabrand is able to take designs that have been submitted through their website and take data like voting and comments to gauge popularity. A designer, who is really just a member of the community with an idea, submits their designs to Betabrand, which then puts it up on their site as a Design Idea. If the idea gains enough traction, Betabrand gives it the green light to move forward into crowdfunding.

This bottom-up style gives more power to independent designers and the community. The community can work together to shape how the products are made through comments on any idea. Anyone can suggest changes to fabric, color, length, etc., and make sure that the product being produced is exactly what the customer ultimately wants to buy.

Funding through community

Once an idea gets green lit by Betabrand, designs are placed into crowdfunding campaigns and members of the community can buy-in, comment, and follow each project. Betabrand works directly with the designer to create a prototype and photo gallery mock-ups, and then alerts anyone who voted for the idea that they have a chance to make the concept a reality by voting with their wallets. Designers are rewarded with a 10 percent cut of profits on any design that makes it to production and sale.

By tapping into the community for ideas as well as funding, Betabrand can put more of their energy into brand building. Freed from the usual challenges of design and product testing, which are done by their community, Betabrand can really be seen as community facilitator. That function is baked right into their business model: in addition to rewarding designers with a cut of proceeds, any community member who votes for a product during the idea stage gets a guaranteed 30 percent discount during crowdfunding.

Because designers and community members are all encouraged to share their favorite designs, the reach of Betabrand’s social accounts is pretty amazing. You can see jumps in 2014 and 2015 when the Dress Pant Yoga Pants and Poo Emoji Shirt went viral, for instance.

Betabrand reach per million via CB Insights.

These jumps in social media reach also show the power of Betabrand’s focus on meme humor and internet trends. By listening to their community and letting designers publish ideas that probably wouldn’t have worked anywhere else, Betabrand as a company saw massive bumps in their overall reach when they attached themselves to a meme or viral trend. In some ways, their marketing and social media budgets are bolstered by the community.

Fashion bloggers and influencers are also the kinds of people who want to be in the know as fast as possible. Betabrand’s community manager Jessica Egbu says, “We’re all about hype. Everyone wants the next best thing, and they want it now. Our company asks why, how, and what do you want in a product. Giving the public the opportunity to design something they think should be public to everyone and facilitating that opportunity is what makes us different.”

Being able to tap into the right kind of audience also amplifies the reach of Betabrand’s products.

Focusing on future technologies

Betabrand uses technology in a different way than many other eCommerce and fashion companies. They use 3D printing for rapid prototyping and CGI for mock-ups and modeling. When you tie this with their focus on crowdsourcing ideas and funding, it gives Betabrand a significant head start. They were even able to take a pair of heels from idea to presale in five days by using this approach.

Because they’re using the latest technology to move products to the market faster than their competitors, Betabrand is able to take the concept of community design to the next level. While this might be forward-thinking for the fashion industry, eCommerce providers as well as industrial manufacturers are starting to jump on the 3D printing train, as well.

3D printing funding trends via CB Insights.

Since 2015 the increase in funding for industrial 3D printing has skyrocketed, which is making it easier for companies like Betabrand to test their products even faster. Being free to design, fund, and prototype a product quickly, and with the backing of their community, Betabrand can ensure that the product their customers want is in their hands faster. They’re not beholden to any particular timeline that would usually delay the production of new clothing items.

This opens up the opportunity for testing not only new methods of production but different types of materials as well. One of the focuses of Betabrand’s 2016 Silicon Valley Fashion Week was the future of fashion and how it meshes with technology. 

Betabrand’s popular disco hoodie.

Key takeaways

Betabrand has experienced consistent growth over the past 10 years by helping their community design the kind of fashion that they can’t find anywhere else. By taking a gamble on meme humor and seeking out new production methods, Betabrand has been able to solidify their standing as a forward-thinking brand.

► Listen to the customer

Crowdfunding is a great way to alleviate some of the getting-started costs for a new project, but take it a step further by involving the crowd earlier. Engage with your customer and find out exactly what they think your product(s) should be. When you’re aligned with their needs, it’s easier to produce something that will be successful. You can do this even without crowdfunding by talking to your customers about what they want.

► Nurture your community

Thousands of designers have submitted ideas to Betabrand. At each step of the process, from idea to final product, Betabrand works with their community to help them be successful. When you partner with the community, it helps you build a better business.

► Take risks

Betabrand built their company on the idea that memes and internet trends could be fashionable. Not every new trend is going to be successful, but it’s important to consistently try new things to keep your brand relevant.

► Have fun

A shirt with Sasquatch hairstyles, bananas, flamingos, or the poo emoji, dress pant yoga pants, and a sequined gold hoodie. These are all products you can currently purchase from Betabrand. Don’t be afraid of showing your brand’s personality. When you find the right community, your company will be successful.

► Use new technology

3D printed shoes sound like something out of a Neal Stephenson novel, but they’re a reality in today’s high-tech manufacturing market. Being able to leverage new and emerging technologies can help your company stay ahead of your competitors.

Sam Hollis
Sam Hollis is a writer at Jilt. When he's not writing about high growth eCommerce startups, he likes to play the piano and cook. See more his writing at his Contently page.

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