When Amanda Zuckerman first visited Washington University at St. Louis, she noticed that near where all the freshmen and sophomores lived, there was a building with a bunch of student run businesses operating inside. There was a laundry service, t-shirt printing, water cooler renting, and even a store called UTrucking that delivered dorm sized refrigerators, microwaves, and safes.
Before she visited, she was planning to double major in graphic design and marketing, then graduate and work at her parents’ advertising agency, but seeing the businesses sparked something in her mind and opened up another possible career path. The inspiration for her own startup would materialize during a frustrating dorm shopping experience, paving the way for the years to come.
Before school started, one day was allotted for dorm shopping. As the oldest child in her family, the first problem she encountered was a lack of knowledge with the moving in process. She explained, “I really had no idea about anything having to do with a dorm room, going to college, or just any sort of advice or tips I might need going into this huge pivotal life moment.” Even worse, when she went out to shop, she couldn’t find any bedding in the twin XL size that was suitable for college students and dorm rooms. Sifting through bed-in-a-bag’s, all Amanda and her mom could find were children’s sheets or items that were not of the right price range and quality. Even when they did find something that looked like it could work, Amanda didn’t have any stylistic freedom with the product.
After a long day of shopping, she eventually put together a sophisticated aesthetic that attracted everybody on her floor. Mixing and matching different patterns and using subtle design techniques to rearrange items in the room, Amanda was able to turn a boring dorm into what was affectionately called “The Hotel Suite”. It could have been replicated, but to do so would have meant going through the same long and arduous process that she had experienced.
Even with the reactions of her classmates, she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there should have been an easier process for her and other university students in the world to design their own unique, stylish dorm.
With disbelief that there was such a big hole in the market, Amanda and her mom talked about the prospect of designing their own bedding line. It wouldn’t be infeasible to run it as a student either; quite a few classmates were working in the on campus businesses.
She let the idea marinate throughout her freshman year as she was getting into the flow of college life before, in 2010, setting up a blog and a brand ambassador program called Style Advisors. “We had friends of mine writing content for the blog and then they would get friends of theirs to write content, and the network just kind of grew organically,” she said.
Amanda explained that the blog was just a way to get the name out there and simultaneously generate content while she and her mom were figuring how to manufacture the textiles overseas and build a website. While her blog was gaining traction and turning into one of her biggest branding tools, Amanda was incubating the startup in her parents’ agency, using their developers and designers to help Dormify’s brand quickly establish a look and feel.
When drawing up the elements for Dormify, they wanted to be a lifestyle brand dedicated to dorm decor, providing commerce and content for the average university student to help make the process of transitioning to college more comfortable and fashionable. Unlike many large retailers, Dormify could afford to be more personal, acting as a big sister to many of their customers. Speaking authentically to college age students was their main branding strategy, and they could relate well to the demographics seeing as most of the business’s team were in their 20s and early 30s. Crucially, Dormify would treat commerce and content equally. For example, besides selling items for dorms, they’ve also released a comprehensive freshman guide that covers everything from moving into joining sororities.
In 2011, two years into Amanda’s college experience, they released their first product line, accentuated by on-demand printed posters to fill up inventory while their merchandise was being produced. That first selling season was incredibly useful in helping to establish what worked and what didn’t work for the company. Amanda pointed out that “we were a bunch of graphic designers creating textiles. We made the patterns very ‘designery’, and that’s just not what our aesthetic is now because that’s not what our audience wants.”
In the process of building their company from the ground up and figuring out how to navigate the complex world of textiles, Amanda had to learn a lot. For starters, she and her mom had to master the process of textiles manufacturing. Amanda tells the story,
We landed our first partner by going to one of the textile buildings in Manhattan and just knocking on the doors of every manufacturer in the building to try to get them to work with us. We didn’t have a website. We didn’t even have a business card. There was someone that actually believed in what we were trying to do, our vision, and us as people, so they said, “all right we’ll do some hand-holding, and we’ll help you get started.” They showed us the ropes.
Even after they learned the ins and outs of manufacturing, they still needed to account for some other factors. For example, holding inventory. As mentioned before, in their first selling season, they used posters as a low-cost method to boost inventory, but they also had to raise money to meet textile minimums so that they would have things to sell.
In order to use up the minimum purchase requirements, Amanda got creative. Instead of using the fabrics they purchased to make a couple hundred duvet covers, they repurposed them. For instance, if they had bought a few thousand yards of butterfly print, they would not only use that to make covers, but also sheets, shower curtains, bed skirts, window panels, or anything else that could suit that fabric and pattern. They also created reversible duvet covers to use more of the material as well.
Obtaining money to set up the inventory was a challenge in and of itself. In 2012 and 2013, they did their first two round of funding from friends and family. A lot of the people that invested were friends that had a kid who was either going to college or was around that age. Because the early investors could relate to the problem Dormify was trying to solve, they also believed in the cause much more.
Venture capitalists were a tougher sell. Amanda explained that the VCs would “challenge us on a lot of aspects of the business.” They were looking for the right time and the right person to run the company. But as she talked to more and more funds, she got to have a better understanding of what they were looking for, what to focus on, and what to not focus on. Every investor was different, so she said that “you kind of have to be smart about how you twist the story a little bit or focus on the things that might be most attractive to that investor.”
The rapid ups and downs from starting the company in college to obtaining large checks from venture capitalists were tough on Amanda Zuckerman. She mentioned that sometimes she thinks about how life would be much easier if she didn’t have to run her company. But the fundamental reason why she continues to do it and the rewarding aspects outweigh the hardships and frustration that she has to face.
As with an expanding brand, marketing is key to maintaining explosive growth. In the beginning, Amanda used her brand ambassador program as the main way to get the word about Dormify out there. While she was in school, she also had a focus group of college students at her fingertips that she could use to test out new ideas. Having a group of people around the demographic she was selling to was crucial to developing the brand and getting feedback on what did and didn’t work.
Something else Dormify did in the beginning a lot was reach out to the press. They would set up meetings and have appointments with magazines like Seventeen and Teen Vogue. Having the credit from a major publication helped increase their legitimacy. No amount of press beat Dormify’s content marketing. From the beginning, providing tips and relatable blog posts for college students was one of the best ways to drive revenue.
Now that it’s 2018, through learning manufacturing, getting funding, and making their brand a part of the mainstream, Dormify has matured a lot. More recently, in 2015, they designed a collection in a partnership with Macy’s. From 2016 to the present, they’ve been working with American Eagle where they create exclusive styles for them. This year, they’ve also launched three pop-up shops and are in the midst of a fundraising round.
Looking back, it’s been a crazy decade. And through building the business through college and now into a major competitor to companies like Urban Outfitter and Bed Bath and Beyond, Amanda has learned two key things.
First, you have to stay focused. When she started Dormify with her mom, she was getting so many suggestions from others about spinoff brands they could start like apartmentify or campify. But as time went on, she figured out that you need to establish how much time you are spending doing certain things and budget it appropriately. In the beginning, when you are building a company, you don’t have time to stretch yourself thin.
The second lesson that she learned was hiring the right people. She explained, “people who really believe in the brand and want to work for the brand are really the most important thing that I look for rather than listening to their skills first because there’s a lot that you can teach, but work ethic and attitude is not something that you could teach.”
Dormify is taking the world by storm. And seeing as school’s starting for millions of students around the world, the only direction to go is up.
Networking really is so important. And networking goes beyond putting yourself out there in the world whether it’s on campus, in college, or in your young Professional Network. You can go to events and meet people, but it’s really about how you maintain those relationships and make something of them that will really contribute to your future because you never know how someone that you meet can help you later on in life. I think that at a young age having a mentality like this is really important whether it’s people like resources on campus that could serve as mentors or even in my case just being proactive about meeting other founders and people in the e-commerce world because your friends and your family aren’t necessarily going to be able to help in the ways that you need. You never know how they’re going to come back into your life to help you. I’ve had plenty of people from high school or just people that I’ve met in random parts of my life just come in to be really instrumental in helping fuel my business initiative.
If you want to learn more about Dormify, you can find their website here. To read our last article about the business Wanderu, go to this link. If you’re interested in the most recent business secrets, check out our Business Knowledge page.
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