Get to Know: Kelly Owens, the Founder of Marleylilly

Marleylilly is an e-commerce monogramming and personalized gift boutique. Established in 2010 and based in Greenville County, South Carolina, Marleylilly‘s product line features a multitude of monogrammed and personalized merchandise, as well as non-personalized boutique apparel from its sister site, Monday Dress. We are so excited to have had the opportunity to interview Kelly! Learn more about Marleylilly below.

What Inspired you to start your business?

“Like many 24 year olds, I experienced the summer of never ending weddings and bachelorette party invitations that became financially overwhelming back in 2010. My husband and I were newlyweds, and I was looking for a way to make gifts to celebrate our friends and not break our budget. Since I have been sewing since grade school, I decided that my love for monograms and being crafty was the answer to giving special gifts. We invested in an embroidery machine, and eventually I started selling the items I was making online that my friends were raving about. I have always pushed the limits with the type of items I wanted to monogram, and I think people were intrigued by seeing monogramming done a different way. Fast forward 8 years later, and the wedding invitations have slowed down, but the baby showers have been constant. The launch of Marleylilly Kids is something that is special to me, and it has been a fun way to get my own children involved in what my husband and I do every day!”

Describe your business with 3 words…

“To the consumer: Fun, Pink, Personalized!

To me: Blessing, Challenge, Passion!”

What advice would you give a student or aspiring entrepreneur?

“I love this question, but my answer is different depending on work history. Clearly, I can overanalyze a question 🙂

For a Student…

Start with a job working for someone else. In my opinion, in order to lead and manage others, you have to experience the other side. My husband and I worked full time jobs in addition to having 9 employees working out of our home for over two years during the day at the beginning of Marleylilly. We worked for corporations 40 hours a week, and worked for ourselves at night. At our day jobs, we were led by great managers and not so great managers. We watched ethical issues unfold within our companies and how they were handled, experienced a lay off and termination, received praise, and received criticism. God was preparing our hearts for some challenging and difficult days ahead with decisions we would be forced to make to grow Marleylilly. If we had skipped this step, I do not think we would be where we are today. You can stay at your job while starting a business successfully. Do not set yourself up for a financial disaster because it is just easier to not work while you are starting out. If you cannot tough it out during that time, you will not be able to tough it out in the long run. Find a way to get on your feet financially at the beginning even if it means you work 3 jobs so your decisions about your business can come from a place of discipline and ideal planning rather than financial desperation. Gosh, I sound harsh! I don’t want you to fail, and I don’t want you to be a bad boss, because you can be an amazing one!

For an aspiring entrepreneur: Oh my goodness.. the answer to this question is an entire book. I will try to go for the most important ones! Write down your goals. Ideas in your head are thoughts, not plans. Is your plan written down anywhere? Have you shared it with someone that knows more than you do? My husband and I learned quickly that our relevant degrees and our short work experience did not make us qualified to be a CEO and a CFO. One of the best decisions we ever made was to hire consultants and advisors that have been through the process of growing a business in the retail space. Ask an outside advisor that knows more than you for advice about the big picture.

Make sure your lifestyle is conducive to owning a business. This means that you are in a place in your life where you can manage stress without being miserable. If one more bad thing happened to you today would it send you over the edge? If yes, don’t start a business right now. Are you willing to spend your weekend cleaning and fixing your employee bathrooms because someone flushed a tampon? Do you think you could be an inspiring and positive leader when everything seems like it is going wrong? Can you handle tests where there isn’t only one right answer? In school, did that drive you crazy or could you handle that feeling and move on to the next question? Running and growing a business feels like that every day. You don’t usually know if you are making the best choice, but you have to trust your judgement and move on, and know when to revert and correct. You have to know when you are not the right person to even answer a tough question and how to ask for help. It’s a big puzzle and the pieces don’t always fit together. If that feeling aggravates you, you may not be happy running a business, even if your business is successful. For me, that feeling is a high, and it drives me. I love the thrill of solving a puzzle, figuring out how to fix a problem, and I can let things go and move on with my day when something doesn’t go right.

Finally, the most important one for me was trusting God’s plan and asking Him when you need guidance. Ask Him if your business plan is the right move for your family. Ask your spouse or parents if they support you. If you are married, your spouse has to be on board with your plan as much as you do, and you have to talk about it daily! If you are starting your business with another individual or partner, this also would hold true. My husband and I have been working together at Marleylilly and raising 3 kids every day since 2012. If your business is successful, what is the long term plan for your family? What if it is not successful? What are your dreams and goals? Have they changed since last year? These questions should be answered at the beginning, not in the middle. Whether you work together or not, if you are married, your business will affect your spouse so it is important that your dreams and plans make sense for your family. We don’t always know our next move, and sometimes it changes. Sometimes we don’t agree. God has asked us to do some bold things that we didn’t completely understand with our business. His plans are bigger than our plans. His plans for you are bigger than your plans.”

How has social media influenced or helped your business? You have an impressive following do you have an example of how this helped your business or some tips to grow a social media following?

“Social media is a huge part of our business! In the beginning, it was the main source of traffic and buzz we received. My first employee showed me how to use Pinterest, and my mind was blown! Social media over the last 10 years has changed our lives, and it gave Marleylilly a platform to speak in the early days. The landscape is very different now, and we have been navigating the changes and updates the best we know how. One suggestion I would have for a young business owner would be to focus on learning who your customer is and making sure you have a connection with them outside of social media. While social media is an amazing place to engage with your customer, it is not something you can control. We recognized early that it was difficult to engage only through social media, so we focused on email marketing prior to the algorithm changes. I would spend as much time learning about paid advertising on social media as I would general engagement. I have found that understanding the fundamentals of where your customer comes from and how to change that volume is something that you need to understand for yourself, you cannot rely on an ad agency to do it for you. Even if you end up delegating some management of your marketing services one day, a technical understanding of how it all works is important for you  to have! How else will you evaluate if your strategy needs to be adjusted or you need to consider a new plan?

In terms of growing your following, creating engaging and relevant content would be the lowest hanging fruit. A question I would ask most people is, how big of a part of your plan is social media? Is it the majority of your plan? If that is the case, you need a back up plan. Social media is not guaranteed to stay the same, and a bigger following can also come with suppression of posts if the entire audience is not engaged. Sometimes bigger isn’t better. Having enough man power to engage, respond, and talk to your customer on all forms of social media is more important in my opinion that doubling the following! The growth will happen organically if you can focus on the engagement!”

You do everything from marketing to packing orders in-house and have quite the team behind you, do you have any tips for managing people, the business and expectations? Are there tools or apps or routines that have been helpful?

“People are the hardest part! My best advice on managing people to someone that has never received management training would be to read books about leadership. Google “John Maxwell!” Read books about interviewing. Topgrading is my favorite interview technique! We paid someone to teach us how to do it, because no one is born knowing how to interview someone. Don’t wait until your business is growing faster than you can manage to hire more people! Because my husband and I had full time jobs when we began Marleylilly, we were forced to hire people to help us and delegate. That was God preparing us that for growth, we had to learn to let things go and depend on others. Are you good at delegating or are you a control freak? If you can find 8 people to do something almost as good as you can do yourself, you can get a lot more done in a day by delegating. Our staffing levels fluctuate between 100-350 people depending on the time of the year right now. If we were not open to trusting others to take things off our plates, we would not be able to focus on the larger plan.

One tool that we use is a SWOT analysis followed up by a written plan for ourselves every 90 days. This practice helps you stay accountable to your goals and remind you why you set out to pursue them in the first place. It also reminds you of deadlines you may have set for yourself 90 days ago. You may not be quite as far along as you thought you would be! We haven’t always used this in the past, but it is a tool I wish I started using sooner. An few free apps that we use internally that are helpful in running the business are Slack for internal communication and To-Doist for team checklists.

I am a big advocate of doing annual reviews for employees, and doing your best to provide them a job track so they know what they should be working towards. This is an extremely difficult thing to do in a small business, or a quickly growing business because your needs change faster than your plan. No one is there to remind you that you may need to spend your weekend making departmental flow charts! At Marleylilly, we work really hard to keep the environment as fun as possible with weekly treats, monogrammed birthday gifts, occasional food trucks, staff t-shirts, and holiday parties. We just finished a fall fashion show internally this morning to show our production staff the Fall 2018 line we designed! Free food or entertainment is something all employees love! We also have seen a positive response to community events like creating competition between departments for a food drive. Sometimes remembering to slow down and do something like this is hard when you have a million things in your head, so that is why you budget, and then delegate the organization of events like this to capable team members. Stop thinking about “We should do….” and just go find someone to help you get it done, give them a deadline, and remind yourself to follow up!”

What do you think has been your greatest accomplishment thus far?

“My kids! I think my first calling in life is to be a wife and a mother, and my second is to be an entrepreneur.”

Who do you admire and why?

“Sara Blakely! If you spend 10 minutes looking at her instagram account, you will know why! She is so relatable as a working mom running a company and raising young children. It’s kind of uncharted territory. I do not personally have social media, so it is not shared, but a normal day for me is drinking coffee, working, and then saving lives all evening (also known as being a mom to 3 kids under 5). I think Sara gets that. The company she has built sells a great quality product (also known as the SPANX leggings I am wearing in the picture above) and she supports other women who want to follow in her footsteps. During her early years, she faced a huge challenge starting a new product category in an established industry. It was a hard fought battle she won and dominated, which is exactly what I have set out to do with monogrammed apparel. I respect the fight she won! When Marleylilly started, most monogrammed apparel was reserved for men’s dress shirts or baby clothes. It just didn’t exist in women’s fashion in a trendy way. A lot of men I worked with told me I was completely crazy for leaving a job in medical device sales to monogram clothes for women and sell them on the internet. I think Sara Blakely would have told me that I wasn’t crazy, and she would have been right. My favorite quote she has ever posted is “Your ego is not your amigo.” Amen, Sara.”

What is next for your business?

“We actually just publicly announced our new online store for babies, toddlers, and youth which launches in August 2018 — Marleylilly Kids! Customers can soon shop their Marleylilly favorites in mini-me form! For eight years now, we’ve been able to learn from our Marleylilly customers through customer service feedback and social listening. Through that discovery process and the strong customer response we’ve seen with Marleylilly baby gifts, Marleylilly Kids seemed like the next logical step. There’s something special (and downright adorable) about personalized kids apparel and gifts, and our customers seem to be as excited as we are! We wanted to try to enter the monogrammed kids market in a different way, that was true to our core customer. We are focusing on value, consistent sizing, product safety and reliability for the customer. Over the last 18 months we invested a lot of our budget into the technical side of the apparel and working with stretchy fabrics that would allow more than one season of wear for children. They grow SO fast, and nothing is more frustrating than only getting one photograph out of a personalized outfit!”

What can people expect from the kid’s line?

“Everyday monogrammed apparel for kids is what is going to make Marleylilly Kids different! We focused on young women as much as toddlers, because sometimes clothes for middle school girls are hard to find! Our customers can expect to see a lot of Marleylilly best sellers — think monogrammed boyfriend sweaters, monogrammed duck boots, monogrammed sherpa vests. A lot of the pieces were designed to be paired with our existing women’s designs for a “mommy and me” looks. We’ve also have some exciting new arrivals in the pipeline for Marleylilly that were inspired by our new kid designs! We tried to think about what personalized apparel you would want your kids to wear for matching family christmas card photo outfits, but also just to school on a random Tuesday!”

What’s your favorite product right now you’re selling or one that people should keep their eye out for?

“We get this question a lot! It’s so hard to pick one favorite because every product has its own story, but one of our favorites is our Monogrammed Duck Boots. They’re preppy, personalized and can worn all year long! They also come with a boot topper which gives you more styling options. Also, we are excited to bring back Monogrammed Cowboy Boots this fall. Customers have been asking for them for a couple years now, so we are excited to bring back this oldie but goodie.

More of our staff favorites will launch in our new Fall 2018 collection featuring new outerwear pieces, shoe wear and accessories. We’re also rolling out our new styling guide for bridge and individual sizes with the collection so our customers can feel more confident selecting sizes online!”

Favorite quote?

“It’s not about me!”

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Established in 2013, Piqued PR is a full service boutique PR agency focusing on lifestyle clientele. We pique the interest of press and consumers to inform and excite them about your business, products and services.

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