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Cleobella founder and designer Angela O’Brien built her strong, 15-year-old business from an idea she had while galavanting around the globe.
“My husband and I left our jobs in Southern California, and we did a trip around the world for a year — we lived in a camper van in Europe, and we traveled all through Southeast Asia, Africa, Australia and New Zealand. And we felt this freedom that we wanted more of,” O’Brien said on the latest Glossy Podcast. “So the idea became, ‘How do we create a business and keep this journey going?’”
Now, she splits her time between living in Bali and doing business in Los Angeles, the headquarters of her globally-inspired, ethically-made fashion brand produced by artisans around the world.
The brand has a story worth telling, too, O’Brien said. “The customer cares how her product is made. And having that openness, and telling the story of the people and the hands and the hearts that make our product, that’s what’s most important to me. And that’s what builds a legacy brand.”
Currently, the self-owned brand is in growth mode — for example, it’s grown its DTC business 100% year-over-year, O’Brien said. She also discussed what’s fueling the growth, why she still believes in wholesale and why she won’t be fundraising any time soon.
Below are additional highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.
DTC vs. wholesale
“We are now making better margins than we ever have before, because our DTC business has grown. It was 20% of our business prior to the pandemic, and now it’s 40% of our business, which is wonderful. Wholesale or DTC, it all helps support the health of the company overall. We need both. And I can say, too, that we’ve had this unbelievable, blended ROAS of 8X for the last year and a half, which I think is a real testament to the product and the messaging of what we’re doing at Cleobella, and that’s exciting. We only see that continuing to increase. So we’re putting more investment into our e-commerce experience, we’re renovating the website — we’re really trying to think about the customer first and meet her where she’s at… There are a lot more opportunities for us to continue to grow DTC while maintaining a healthy wholesale business and servicing those accounts in those local communities. Because, I have to say, our local community here on the West Coast, they’re supporting small businesses like ours, and they’re going into their local boutiques. That’s important, and that’s here to stay. And [that’s how we’ll continue] to share the message of Cleobella.”
A personal approach to influencer marketing
“Influencers have always been a part of our marketing strategy. We’ve never had a budget to pay influencers, and I know that’s a big part of our industry. It’s something that we’ll probably grow into in the next few years. But it’s important to us to build relationships with influencers who speak to the brand and see where their engagement is at: Do they have similar values to the brand? And we’ve done collaborations where we’ve designed product together. We’ve worked with Molly Sims, with Rocky Barnes — there are multiple collaborations that we’ve done over the years. And a lot of times, it’s personal relationships [that drive them]. We have a program called our Cleo Women feature, and it’s really an opportunity for us to meet and highlight incredible women. Most of them are founders of companies, they’ve written books, they’re in the spiritual wellness world, they are into building sustainably made goods. And I would say my favorite part about this industry is connecting with other women in leadership roles. And I’ve met so many incredible women over the years. And we have an opportunity to share them, share their story, send them Cleobella product, and have them photographed with our team or their team in their element. It’s just very relatable — and I love reading stories like that. My favorite thing to do on social media is girl-crush on all these amazing women’s lives and just celebrate each other. And that’s been a big gift.”
The perks of being self-funded
“We’ve never raised any money. We started this business with $12,000 that we had in our savings, and then everything we made, we put into it year over year. We do not plan on taking funding, as of yet. There could be a time when we get to that next level, that we would be open to the opportunity, but we’re not there yet. We’re building a healthy, sustainable business. And I have read a lot about brands who have these high growth strategies, and they’re not profitable, And that’s never been our message and never been our purpose. We want to build a healthy, slow business that’s sustainable and profitable. And we’ll see where the future takes us. We have a very clear, three- to five-year plan, and we’re working with experts who’ve been doing this a lot longer than us to help strategize that. And we’re really trying to be present and enjoy what we’re doing. Right now, I feel like we’re working smarter, not necessarily harder, because we’re hiring a team that can support the growth. And we just want to do good business, and we’ll see where that takes us.”