Use high-quality product imagery, logo branding, and overall aesthetic. Your brand must radiate consistency and cohesion in every aspect. This point goes back to my theory of ‘building your brand universe’. Without overall uniformity, potential customers will be confused by your message and goal. I invested in quality designers, photographers, and software to build this systematic impact, and it pays off continuously. I went through dozens of logo designers and drafts before I finally committed to my final logo. Do not settle for anything less than perfection when it comes to such a crucial part of your brand’s representation.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Priscilla Von Sorella, a luxury fashion designer and e-commerce entrepreneur living in Houston, TX.
Priscilla graduated high school at the age of fifteen and thereafter pursued fashion school, later opting to train herself in the tradecraft. At the age of 25, she founded her label, VON SORELLA, in 2017 launching at Paris Fashion Week and later showing at New York Fashion Week. The brand is committed to making luxury fashion goods sustainably and ethically using rare textiles. While managing her business, Priscilla is also currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Affairs with King’s College London and works to integrate her passion for global focus into her brand.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I began sewing and designing at the age of fifteen. I remember watching Project Runway for the first time and thinking, “Hey, I want to do that.” I immediately began experimenting on my mother’s sewing machine and discovered I had a natural knack for garment design and construction. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I decided to build my brand and establish my private label, VON SORELLA. It was at this time that I learned that my passion for the creative side of fashion is equally matched with my love for the business facet of this competitive industry. I began building a large library of business books and memoirs of successful entrepreneurs, and I know this immersive learning experience helps me every day in building my business even now. After showing several private collections at salon exhibitions at various fashion week events, I decided to start making luxury designer fashion masks this year during the pandemic, and this escalated business opportunities for me far and wide. Through persistent promotion, authentic story-telling, and unequivocal determination, I am building a VON SORELLA community that I am so grateful for.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
My specialty has always been designing womenswear exclusively using rare European textiles. However, it was early this year that I realized people wanted a fashionable, expressive, and unique option for face masks. I knew immediately that people would seek a face mask that aligned with the style standards rhetoric. Hence, I named my products “fashion masks” and I am very explicit in describing why my masks are different. My fashion masks embody luxury, couture, and everything high fashion. From the research and development to the fitting, prototype testing, and branding that is involved with my creative process, I want every fiber of my products to exude chic utility. My “aha moment” came when I finally was able to hit the intersection between sophistication and functionality with my masks. I was soon-after when I was featured by The Washington Post’s top fashion critic for making masks that are “treated just like luxury garments”. This and other notorieties helped me build the perfect formula for connecting with my target audiences.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Absolutely. When I first launched my label back in 2017, nothing was harder than garnering the right traction and attention to my label. Being a self-funded entrepreneur can be difficult especially in fashion, where the initial costs of brand development are astronomical. Additionally, even when you do build a customer base, margins can be razor-thin for a while. I typically worked full-time jobs to build capital for my company. One time I even welded at my dad’s metal fabrication company for 12 hours over the weekend to put extra cash into my business. Not kidding! Sure, at times like I felt like I would never even finish laying the foundation for my one-day enterprise, but I was so committed that I didn’t let it stop me. I had thoughts of giving up, but truthfully speaking, I could never see myself doing anything else. Even then, my purpose and passion were aligned with my ultimate goal of bringing something beautiful into the world and making people feel deeply connected and stimulated by it, so I never lost sight. My internal voice reminded me how hard I had worked to even be where I was, so there no giving up. I think when something burns inside of you that strongly, it will hurt even more to stop pushing and wonder where you could have been.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things with VON SORELLA are thriving and going strong and we are developing a full collection for early 2021 release. The label has new doors open for new customers, community engagement, and recognition daily. I think back to every holiday and weekend I spent alone in my studio making patterns and samples until 3:00 am, researching the ins and outs of the industry, and sacrificing time with friends and family to ultimately build what I have today. If I didn’t make those choices, I would never have the opportunities I do today. They also serve as a reminder that hard work is never done, and it keeps me inspired for the future. Tomorrow, I will stand on the bricks I am laying down today. I faced a lot of professional and personal obstacles at the start of my career, and they served as adversity that tried me in the hardest of times. This resilience helped evolve my brand and personal DNA.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I’m sure there are plenty I could choose from, but I think the most obvious mistake I made in the very beginning was expecting to make organic sales by “simply putting things online”. I thought, “Okay, let me launch my eCommerce with a few limited products and I’ll make a few sales.” Crickets would be an understatement. I had no methodical plan or strategy being implemented, so it’s obvious where I went wrong (thankfully this only lasted for a short time). I am proud to have learned from having high (or any) expectations with little or no planning! Now I am well versed in the idea of having a marketing campaign, public relations, and community engagement strategy along with calculated advertising and collaboration efforts. I think this is a common mistake: many entrepreneurs initially rely on their immediate network to support their business, which they later find out will provide thinner results than hoped for.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Aside from our unique quality products, our brand is committed to customer satisfaction. As an avid online shopper, I know a crummy user experience when I see one. On different occasions, I have been unsatisfied with an online shopping experience. It could be a minor issue, but the company’s lack of personalized attention to my request has made me feel like another “order number”. My number one priority is personalized customer service response. I can attest it works. A few weeks ago, a potential customer emailed our customer service that she was very unhappy with her purchase. Shocked by this colorful complaint, I had our customer service team reach out right away. After much communication, it turned out that this customer never even purchased from us — it was an honest mistake on her end, and she apologized for confusing us with another company. Through all of this communication, we earned her future business and trust. If we had not spent the extra time to dive into what her negative experience encompassed, we would have never learned that it was another business that she meant to contact.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
In my opinion, this is the most integral part of reaching long-term productivity without plateauing. My tips for avoiding burnout include keeping things interesting, getting an educated outside input, finding an outlet for non-work-related fulfillment, and staying grounded in your convictions as to why you started in the first place. My biggest motivator for not reaching burn out is to look back at all the struggles I faced and remember that I am fortunate to have the opportunities I do. Mental health days and breaks are hypercritical to maintaining your momentum while exercising healthy daily regimens. Even with a team, being an entrepreneur (especially in today’s pandemic) can be extremely isolating. Find ways to connect with others that are on similar paths or at least be a cheerleader and support your journey. Lastly, practice gratitude. Okay, I know it sounds a little preachy, but taking a step back to be mindful of everything you have built is crucial to happiness and progress.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It certainly takes a village! There are so many people I am grateful for on my entrepreneurial journey. It’s serendipitous how relationships are coming to fruition with contacts I made over five years ago. People whom I never knew would be able to help me have played an instrumental role in my company’s success and development! It’s incredible. My advice is always, always following your gut. When you sense a certain positivity from someone, don’t let it go to waste. You never know when you will need them or vice versa. Triumph is one relationship away. I won’t mention names for confidentiality purposes, but I would certainly thank some of the people who answered my cold (and rather daring) emails! When I was put in touch with a member of a certain household name organization after a positive cold email response, he told me verbatim, “I respect your hustle” when referencing my act of emailing their President directly. This doesn’t always happen, and you must respect it if you are not responded to, but you never know how one email can change your company and your life.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
Sure! The user focus for eCommerce platforms has changed dramatically and is constantly evolving. Visual engagement is crucial, along with invigorating an unparalleled user experience. Variety, availability, and accessibility are the key operative words when it comes to online shopping. A seamless checkout experience is also imperative to customer conversion. Some new ideas introduced by fashion eCommerce businesses are virtual fashion week exhibitions, Gen-Z influencer takeovers (Instagram and/or TikTok), and adapting to mobile-specific web designs. I have also witnessed how marketing forces have been geared toward pandemic-specific scenarios. For example, advocating that your product is useful in a time when ‘going out’ is not an option for most.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Part of my mission in an industry like fashion is to constantly educate my community about the dangers of direct-to-consumer ‘fast fashion’ brands, which harm the economy, environment, and the industry as a whole. (These brands typically use low-paid worders in under-developed countries). To stay one step ahead of the competition, I am constantly seeking ways to demonstrate how ‘slow fashion’ luxury goods are more beneficial, for the consumer and the brand. My advice to US and European retail companies is to foster a strong message about the ethical and sustainable values that your company holds and convey it creatively and authentically. I share a lot about my creative process behind the scenes because it provides an intimate experience for my community that makes them feel like are a part of the process, which they are! Make your story relatable, emotional, and real. Customers are smart; they can spot a fake story when they see one.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see founders make is investing too much only in their products while not focusing on storytelling, brand identity, and a strong foundation. Let me explain. You want to build a world that your customer steps into when they purchase your product. Your brand experience should be unmistakable, unforgettable, and absolute, even on a cellular level. When someone peers into your ‘universe’, they should feel completely immersed in your brand’s personality, message, and purpose. If there is any question as to ‘who’ you are, this will not resonate with your user and will serve helpless in harboring a trusting relationship with that potential customer. Invest a lot of time, energy, and resources into laying the foundation to your brand and being authentic in what narrative your business follows and tells.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I can attest to the fact that when you’re launching an eCommerce business, you tend to stress over the big picture, and don’t estimate how much time, energy, and resources go into fine-tuning your platform to run like a well-oiled machine. In my experience, I did not realize how much labor goes into analyzing and perfecting every detail of an online business platform. From coding special hyperlinks into your footer branding to ensuring there is not one single hiccup in the product selection or checkout process, prepare for many hours of auditing every corner of your platform. This will pay off in the long run, however, because this kind of close examination synthesizes the essential smooth user experience mentioned earlier.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
Absolutely! I make sure to do a lot of research about any tools or software we consider for my eCommerce platform. When dealing with apps that serve as add-on’s to the platform, I analyze how many times it has been downloaded, what devices it supports, and most importantly, its reviews. We don’t use anything with an overall rating below 4.5 stars (out of 5) typically. To specifically give examples, I use Privy (an email marketing tool), Sticky Add to Cart Booster Pro (an app that makes the add-to-cart function easier and animated), and Kit (a virtual assistant that runs analytics, helps run ads, and serves as a medium to instantly communicate with shoppers).
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
The most useful strategies include using modern communication and reminder tools like SMS text, personalized abandoned cart email reminders, and a shopping virtual assistant. I can’t name the number of times we have secured sales because we were able to swiftly respond to shoppers via our personalized virtual shopping assistant, which mimics ‘chatting’ on social media with the other user. Also, when it comes to abandoned cart email reminders, it is important to include the user’s name, and a catchy phrase, like ‘this mask is waiting for you’, or something to that effect. Invite the user back in with personalized references and have your team as available as possible to answer time-critical questions.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Building a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand is an art and a science combined. Yes, you have to boast positive reviews, demonstrate unmatched customer service, be authentic, and reliable, but most of all, you have to value each customer. I have personally spent several hours handling a single inquiry or request just to make sure we are accommodating our community the best we can. Also, express the value you place on your community by voicing it and showing it. Just as important, give company updates, background stories, and behind-the-scenes information as much as possible. Your community wants to feel like they are a part of your journey, which as I said before, they are. Take advantage of this by showing you are more than just a company; you are a strong, defined, real community that values each individual. All of these things combined manifests a trusted brand.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Customer relationship building is an emotional and intimate process. As a brand, you must respect and value each dollar your shopper spends on your brand. Customer acquisition is a deep, complicated, and scientific process that does not come fast. To build that relationship, you must do your best to meet customer expectations (and go beyond). Of course, with all this said, there will be times that a customer expresses negative feedback. Whether it be what you consider large a small, you must treat every criticism with your utmost sharp attention. This has made your customer uncomfortable to the point of them taking their time to convey it to you. The best way to respond is to re-examine what their negative feedback entails and treat it with your strongest assertion of care and efficiency. Do your absolute best to mitigate the situation and offer a complimentary service/product in light of it if you feel it is appropriate. If a negative, unfair review is posted publicly, I would recommend publicly responding so that your potential shoppers can see you reached out and offered a resolution. Do your best to report it, if possible.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Make your platform trustworthy, user-friendly, and familiar. Use a trusted platform such as Shopify to make the website smooth, functional, and fast. When I first started, I was using another platform (which is widely used). However, I received a couple of complaints about the add-to-cart function not working. It was a minor error that rarely happened, but one time was too many. I immediately switched to my current platform and have never received another similar complaint. The best lesson from this experience is that even the smallest detail can leave a lasting permanent negative impression on a shopper, and it can (and probably will) cost your brand their business indefinitely. If a company doesn’t have its platform working seamlessly, what does that say about their operations and customer focus?
- Use high-quality product imagery, logo branding, and overall aesthetic. Your brand must radiate consistency and cohesion in every aspect. This point goes back to my theory of ‘building your brand universe’. Without overall uniformity, potential customers will be confused by your message and goal. I invested in quality designers, photographers, and software to build this systematic impact, and it pays off continuously. I went through dozens of logo designers and drafts before I finally committed to my final logo. Do not settle for anything less than perfection when it comes to such a crucial part of your brand’s representation.
- Offer various installment methods (Apple Pay, AfterPay, Amazon Pay, Paypal, etc.) to optimize customer conversion. Additionally, use add-ons to website platforms that help engage customers. One of the best decisions I made was to integrate Amazon Pay into my installment options. Using a popular and trusted installment option like this offers familiarity to users and also helps establish legitimacy.
- Use AI-based marketing and advertising rather than a private ‘marketing consultant’. Algorithm-based AI technologies help identify target audiences and potential customers better than paying someone a monthly fee to do it. While I am not against using a consultant to assist with marketing efforts, I made the decision early on to trust the data and numbers. I decided to research the best AI-based marketing software that determines best-selling products, target audiences, and even manages direct communications to my shoppers.
- Always research the market and your competition. Strive to look better and use larger competitors as inspiration for overall look and flow. I am an avid online shopper and would consider myself an expert. I know exactly what red flags to look for when shopping online. In today’s market, the majority of online shoppers do too. These would include inconsistent fonts, dated-looking aesthetics, incohesive platform design, no contact form or contact information, poor quality images and photography, just to name a few. However, these are basic attributes. To achieve the best results, list out your 5–10 top competitors or biggest inspirations for your brand. Think of companies that are currently performing at the tier where you would like to be in 3–5 years. Carefully evaluate their platforms and make detailed notes about what you like best. Make an action plan to begin incorporating similar (or better!) characteristics to your platform. Remember, this is an inspiration for your brand, not a direct path. I listed my favorite labels and went through every feature of their platforms. I notated which elements made their platforms look most trustworthy and luxury-focused. With this groundwork, I was able to illustrate exactly what I wanted my brand to represent.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Fashion allows us to connect with people of all backgrounds. I would love to promote inclusivity, understanding, and acceptance across cultures, backgrounds, and lifestyles. One of my favorite quotes is, “The greatest danger is the loss of curiosity to learn from each other and the loss of the desire to live together” by Tom Fletcher, a former British ambassador. If I can promote the desire to learn from and inspire others, I will feel a deep reward in this message.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!
You’re welcome and thank you so much! It has been my pleasure.