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Using Awesome Design to Blow Up the Market with Emily Vaca - Honest Ecommerce Ep. 163

Emily Vaca has over 15 years of experience in the design and advertising industry. Prior to launching MINNIDIP, Emily worked on packaging, television commercials, and content for CPG brands including Kraft, Nike and more. 

Emily founded La Vaca Designhouse in 2012 and launched MINNIDIP in 2017 as the first modern inflatable “adult kiddie” pool on the market. 

In This Conversation We Discuss: 

  • [00:00] Intro
  • [01:03] Emily’s history and experience in design
  • [01:57] When Emily decided to go out on her own
  • [02:56] From agency work to launching a brand
  • [05:34] What is MINNIDIP?
  • [06:15] The confidence to go D2C
  • [09:04] From inception to first sales
  • [12:34] MINNIDIP’s customer acquisition strategy
  • [14:27] Sponsor: Electric Eye https://electriceye.io/
  • [14:47] Sponsor: Mesa https://apps.shopify.com/mesa
  • [15:31] Sponsor: Gorgias: https://gorgias.grsm.io/honest
  • [16:58] Sponsor: BeProfit https://beprofit.co/
  • [18:29] Sponsor: Klaviyo http://klaviyo.com/honest
  • [19:16] Influencer seeding can be challenging
  • [22:34] Relationships over transactions
  • [23:17] Dealing with the risk of your idea getting stolen
  • [26:05] The toy industry is very competitive
  • [26:42] Starting on Squarespace, moving to Shopify
  • [29:58] Where to find MINNIDIP

Resources:

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  Transcript:

Chase Clymer  

Before we get started, if you're enjoying this content, you can do us a favor by subscribing to our YouTube channel and ringing the bell.

That will let the algorithm know that you like this content and it will help us produce more.

Emily Vaca  

Word of mouth is always the best. You want to feel authentic.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Chase Clymer  

Hey, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

And today we've got an amazing woman joining us, Emily Vaca. She is the founder, CEO, and chief designer of product and pattern at La Vaca Design House. Welcome to the show.

Emily Vaca  

Thank you so much for having me.

Chase Clymer  

Awesome. All right. So before we dive into today's topic, MINNIDIP, --very, very fun brand-- take me back a bit. 

You've got a really awesome history in this world and I think it might help set the stage on what led you to  ideating and creating a brand.

Emily Vaca  

Yeah, absolutely. So way prior to starting MINNIDIP, I started in the advertising industry as an art director and designer. 

So I worked almost 15 years before, going full time with MINNIDIP in that field. And I worked on everything from art directing TV commercials, to designing packaging that would be on retail shelves, to doing websites and apps, social content... 

All of the things that are under the design and art direction industry. So I definitely got a lot of experience in the advertising world doing that. And that really set up La Vaca Design House, for sure.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So when did you decide to pack up being a professional and go out on your own? 

Emily Vaca  

Yeah. So honestly, from the day I graduated college, I started in advertising the next day but I always had the dream to have my own company one day. 

That took many different thoughts of where that might lead along those years but I always had an entrepreneurial mindset and had dreams of having whether it be my own agency one day, our own event design company... 

I definitely knew I wanted to work for myself. So even while I was working full-time in advertising, which I always joke is 2 full-time jobs themselves just because of the hours that you put in. 

I always had a side passion. And so I started in advertising in like 2017... 2007- 2008 and started my own company in 2012. And that company is what La Vaca Design House is today.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So with La Vaca Design House, was there... Were you doing a lot of brand work there? Or what led you to pivot from design houses and agencies for a more approachable term... 

From that world of being a service business and problem solving for people to the launching a product and going to what many agency owners would say "the other side of the fence" --where it seems a lot more fun-- to launching a brand? 

Emily Vaca  

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah I... When I started my La Vaca Design House, --it was called Sugar and Gold back in the day-- It was primarily a blog. 

A creative space for me to do the more hands-on projects that I missed when I was sitting at a computer and advertising all day long. 

So it started more in the event design space, interior design space, different DIYs, and projects I was doing more hands-on that developed into making wedding favors and table numbers for certain clients in the wedding industry or the local boutique down the street that I love that had more stationery and party supplies. 

They needed branding work. So it spread out to industries I was really interested in that maybe were a little bit more fun and playful than the clients I was working at. 

On the advertising side were spending more time in production or seeing a computer. So it started there. 

But because I had that background in the advertising agency, I had that skill set that I could build a brand as well. And it really came down to... 

I was working on all of this packaging and TV commercials for these brands that were sold at Target, at big retailers and I told my husband I really want my own product one day. That was my goal. 

And he reminded me of the idea of MINNIDIP which came a few years prior so it went into... I had all this experience and I want a tangible thing because I loved making things versus... 

Sometimes it was that all digital or TV commercials weren't as tactile as a physical product with packaging. So I had that love for that and I wanted to use all of this experience I had gotten over the years to create my own thing. 

Didn't know what that was at the time so I made a lot of things. And I always joked "If I could have handmade pools myself, that's probably where we would have started." But it definitely was the interest of having a physical product versus a more service-based industry.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And you spilled the beans there, but let everybody know that's unaware, what is a MINNIDIP? What are the products that you guys are bringing to market?

Emily Vaca  

Yes, so MINNIDIP is the first designer inflatable pool, launched in 2017. It was the first to market, basically a modern, trendy, adult-friendly inflatable pool. 

And since then, MINNIDIP brand has really expanded a little bit more into the fun, outdoor ,summer lifestyle space. 

So we have some products that really fill all of that experience. But the the primary flagship product is the MINNIDIP itself, which is our inflatable pool line.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, and everybody listening, please go check out the website, I can tell that you were fantastic at your job of art direction. The product photography here, the content is just amazing. 

Emily Vaca  

Thank you.

Chase Clymer  

And the products themselves are... You can definitely see your personality through it. It's very fun. It's a very cool site. 

So I highly recommend everyone to go and check it out with that. How do you go from creating a designer friendly inflatable pool to selling this thing online? 

I feel like there's some challenges there for a product that I don't think many people have tried to sell direct-to-consumer outside of more of the marketplaces like Amazon and Walmart. 

Emily Vaca  

Yes. So the idea for MINNIDIP came from when I was hosting a party for our friends on a rooftop in Chicago. And because I had this event and interior design background, along with advertising, I wanted all of the details to be perfect. And the thing that was missing was a pool and to cool off, dip our toes in. 

And I wanted this beautiful stock tank that I grew up with as my pool as a kid in St. Louis City. And I was trying to convince my husband --boyfriend at the time-- that that's what we needed for this party and a rooftop experience. 

And he said "Absolutely no way. It's metal. It's heavy. It's a roof. It's a rental. Go get an inflatable pool." And there was nothing out there in the market that I knew I wanted to see on my deck, let alone something that would be adult-friendly, not covered in cartoon fishes and dolphins. 

And so that's when the light bulb went off. But the reason that I felt like it was going to be a perfect thing to sell online is because of the reason I wanted it. I wanted that picture perfect moment and I wanted to create that image. 

That was a fun experience in person, but also photographed really beautifully because of my background in wanting that beautiful photo for Instagram or Pinterest or whatnot. 

So because of the nature of the product being photographable, I felt super confident that it would be easy to sell through imagery, through a website, through social channels. 

It just naturally was something that you didn't have to see on the shelves of retail or super functional looking for just a way to cool off on Amazon, where it's more of a transactional moment. 

I knew that we could create imagery that really spoke to the consumer and our followers through a website and create that vibe and bring that color that they want in their backyard. 

So I felt really confident that we would be able to have an online presence that that really communicated what we wanted, even if they weren't seeing it tactically in their hands and packaging, which is a whole another important step of it. 

But I definitely started out with just the.com knowing that a beautiful photo can go a very long way.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So I mean, there's definitely a few steps between having that light bulb moment of, "Hey, there's a hole in the market here. And I think that I can help solve this." to launching a site and getting those first sales and breaking the brand. 

So how long was it between that party and launching the brand? And what were some of the major milestones along the way?

Emily Vaca  

Yeah, it actually was about 4 years. So the lightbulb moment was in 2013. And there's always that idea sitting in the back of my mind that I wanted to pursue, but it was working so many hours, we were getting married and buying a place that it was always in the back of my mind that it couldn't prioritize. 

But then like I said, I had mentioned to my husband, I really want my own product. And he reminded me of the idea. Thank God because I was like, "Oh yeah, that was a really great idea." in those two years, no one had still entered the market with an option that was... But the problem was what was missing. So I got to work right away looking for manufacturers. 

It was a very long process to find the right manufacturer. Because it was first to market it was such an opportunity to create a designer pool, but it wasn't inventing anything. I couldn't protect it from a patent standpoint or anything like that. 

So we had to be so careful with the manufacturers I approached and the way I went about it. I reached out to dozens, but I wasn't going directly to a pool manufacturer because if I had told them the idea, all they had to do was find some really on trend patterns and start putting them on the pools that they already had. 

So the manufacturing process was definitely the longest because I was doing a lot of due diligence to make sure I was careful with who I shared the idea with. 

But besides the manufacturing process, taking a long time to get to market, I was able to do everything else myself because of my background, which I was very lucky I could. I came up with the name, I did the branding, the logo, the packaging, the websites, all of the photography... 

We shot our first campaign in our living room where I'm sitting right now. So I was... Building the brand was surprisingly quick, because I had... 

I had it sitting in my mind subconsciously for so many years, that by the time I was ready to start building the patterns and doing all of the design elements, that part was much easier than finding a manufacturer because that was such a new world to me. I had never done that before. 

So yeah, it was from 2013 until finally publicly launching in June of 2017, 4 years had passed and we were still first to market, which was crazy to me that nobody saw the opportunity from when I had the idea to when we got to launch it.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, it's funny you say that. When I got to the website and I was playing, I was like, "This is an amazing idea. How has no one done not done this before?"

Emily Vaca  

Exactly. Exactly. It kept gnawing on me. I'm like, "Why is nobody doing this? I have to do it." It is such a [great] opportunity for sure and fun... 

First to market, of course, was important because they wanted to create a new category to approach it completely differently in the very MINNIDIP way. But yeah, it's just a fun product --in general-- and space to be in.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. All right. So you've found some manufacturers that you trust, you've got your initial launch put together, how are you acquiring these customers? How are you getting... You're creating a new category. How are you getting the word out there about this product?

Emily Vaca  

Yes. Yeah. So luckily, our customer acquisition is not something we have to invest financially in because we use the social platforms to their full capacity. 

Our brand, like I said, it's such a photographable product that... And I created it for the Instagrams and Pinterests and all of those platforms that we went that direction immediately and started seeding it on Instagram. We created our own content. 

We started to have influencers reach out to us looking for a product to give them because they wanted it in their feed. So we really leveraged building the brand through Instagram at first. 

More recently, it's gone viral on TikTok and continues to grow rapidly on Instagram. But as far as where we get the people that come to our website, it's definitely…

I would say 75% of time they saw it on Instagram or TikTok first and then either that leads to a direct purchase -- the one we're linking to it on our own Instagram-- or they see it and then they do follow up later because they remember the brand and they're looking for it later. 

So we've definitely... Yeah, building that following it was... Naively we thought, Oh, this is gonna be huge on Instagram, it's gonna go viral immediately when we launch it. It's definitely a slow build. Nothing happens crazy overnight. 

But once we started getting that traction, right before the second season, it really (pun intended) blew up on the social channels. So we were able to build that following really quickly from there.

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Chase Clymer  

So I gotta ask some more tactical questions. I know a lot of influencer seeding is a huge thing these days. I don't even think the term influencer seeding was a thing last year, to be honest. And now it's like... 

So for a brand that is thinking that that might be a good opportunity for them, how do you get started? Do you just make a list of influencers and reach out to them?

Emily Vaca  

It is super tricky. Even [if] this is going to be our fifth year, we're still navigating it because yeah, like you said, it wasn't... There were bloggers I would say when I launched in 2017. 

Instagram was just starting to be more of a place where people aren't just posting what they ate that day. It was starting to be a spot for brands to have a conversation with people. 

So when we first started out, it was more reaching out to the influencers, or the people, the bloggers --I would say-- that had a Instagram presence, that I admired, and followed that I felt were similar from a brand perspective. 

They had colorful feeds, they cared about nicely designed elements, they were designers themselves. So we started to really... 

I was looking at people that felt like a similar brand presence, so that if someone's following them, obviously, it's a natural progression for them to want to follow us or know about MINNIDIP because it feels so similar. It has completely evolved. It's much more of a... 

You have to be so much more strategic versus just exploring and taking chances. It was really hard in the beginning to start seeding influencers because we had limited inventory, shipping, it was so expensive, that we couldn't dedicate an influencer budget or content creation budget. 

So we had to start out really small and organically. And then the larger our business got, we could be very... More streamlined and strategic with the type of influencers that we want to reach out to whether it be... 

They could create content that looks great and is like-minded with MINNIDIP, or we really want to reach their following because they have a really engaged following on their Instagram, so we really want to  activate that. 

But you have to be so careful, because now it is very, not lucrative... But influencers can make a lot of money that there's a lot of people trying to fake it. 

And so you have to really deep dive like "Do they truly have an engagement? Are they about buying their followers? Are they buying their likes?" 

Because we've partnered with some people that I'm like, "Oh, this would be a huge opportunity for so many followers." And you'd do a giveaway, and you get maybe 5 followers out of it, because then you realize... 

You start going through the feed, you're like, "Oh, these are all fake. These are all robots or bots." Whatever. (laughs) So yeah, it's definitely... You can't ignore it anymore. 

I think it's such an important strategy, if you are an Ecommerce site where you're trying to direct traffic directly. It's a great platform. 

And you can get scrappy and creative with the ways you do that without having a big budget, especially in the beginning. 

But you can't just take the word of someone that reaches out to you or that you reach out to. You gotta... You want to do your research, for sure.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, I've definitely heard some horror stories as well, on my end. Some people are approaching it very transactionally, which is not the way... Definitely need to build some relationships there. 

So you want to be in it for the long term, because if it works out, you're gonna want to do it again. 

Emily Vaca  

Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And it is... You can't be everywhere as a small brand. So it really opens up your network of, yeah, advocates. They love your brand. They're coming to you every season because they want the new pool, too. The way that our business operates. 

They want that design. So yeah, you want to build relationships, where you trust, and that they're gonna follow through, but also that they truly do love the brand, because that's... Word of mouth is always the best if you want to feel authentic.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So I got a question for you. And you alluded to this earlier that you can't copyright or trademark this thing. You're putting patterns on pools. 

And I know, there's been some competition that's come out. How do you handle that? And you have any advice for other people that are scared to get their ideas stolen?

Emily Vaca  

Yeah. Like I said, you want to be really careful before you take it to market. If you have something that is ripe to be copied, which I knew because of the opportunity, it was a no-brainer, 

I expected the competition to be directly behind us. I didn't think it'd be counterfeits so quickly and/or blatant copycat products hitting the market as fast as they did. But I definitely expected the bigger brands to be like, "Oh, why didn't we think of that." And then start introducing it as well. 

So the way to protect what you can, is definitely be careful with who you're sharing your idea with in the beginning. Have them signed NDAs just to protect that conversation until you're ready to go public with it. 

And then, I copyright all of our patterns so that the patterns themselves are protected. But yeah, we're applying it to a classic shape that's been around since the 50s. So we weren't inventing anything there. But I did... 

After we introduced that, I do have design patents in the shapes that I created since our scalloped pool is patented. I'm really proud of that. Because I created that from scratch and built something new and it's become our most iconic MINNIDIP to date. So IP is really... 

It's an investment and that was definitely part of the investment we had upfront: Trademarking your name... But that was so important because knowing people would copy the product itself, my focus was building the brand. 

So the brand name, the ethos of the brand, the way it looks, the way the packaging is,the web presence, all of those things were so important so that people want the actual brand. 

They don't want the copycat. They don't want the knockoff. They feel a connection to the brand itself. So definitely expect competitors are going to be right behind you because they're... 

Big businesses, they plan on following or watching smaller businesses create markets, do the legwork, do the proof of concept, because it's expensive to do that part. 

So if you have proof of concept, and it's working, and there's demand, they're going to be right behind you riding your coattails, so just expect it. 

But protect what you can in the beginning and really invest on innovating and defining your brand and what is different that the others can't copy. Because that's what people want. They want the full package, not just a specific product.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah, absolutely. The whole industry of R&D is all about, like coming up with ideas and half the thing... More than half of the stuff that people are working on they just never see the light of day. 

Emily Vaca  

Right. 

Chase Clymer  

And, you know, I've gone on a crazy YouTube rabbit hole lately of watching the history of toys and that that industry is wild. Ripe with theory.

Emily Vaca  

For sure. So competitive. Absolutely. Because the attention span... Yeah, you want to Tickle Me Elmo, right? You want that one viral product that everybody has to have that season? For sure.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So Emily, is there anything that I forgot to ask you about that you think would resonate with our audience?

Emily Vaca  

You talked about social importance. I'm trying to think of my notes... I guess, I don't know if there's anything... Because I know it's the Ecommerce side. 

Obviously, we have our retail and wholesale side. But I've developed our website today in Squarespace. I don't know if any of that type of information is helpful, but just how do you start? 

We fulfill all of our stuff ourselves, but I don't know [if it's] super actionable [for your audience].

Chase Clymer  

So people that are a little bit more technical savvy can notice that you're currently on Squarespace for your Ecommerce platform. 

And we talked a little bit beforehand, and you're looking to make a jump over to Shopify. What's driving that decision? That's a big... That's a big decision to make.

Emily Vaca  

Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. And it's a decision that we've been trying to switch over for a couple years, to be honest. 

So I started on Squarespace, because that was a platform that I was familiar with making art portfolios, service-based clientele... I was building their websites there. So I'm just super familiar with the platform. 

But switching over from my design blog and more service-based industry stuff to an Ecom element was tough, because it's not set up for Ecom. Squarespace was not intended to be an Ecommerce platform. 

So I've definitely done research and plan to switch to Shopify, because there's so many more plugins, so many more developers that if you want something super custom, you're able to do that in Shopify.

For example, I really want a bundling package where you get a discount if you take 3 different SKUs and purchase them all at one time. There's no way to do that in Squarespace. So there definitely are limitations. 

I would say the reason is because I need the flexibility to launch a product on the fly or update imagery immediately. That's because that's just what I'm most familiar with. That's been the hurdle of why we haven't transitioned yet. 

But for 2 years, we feel like there's definitely limitations. I will say Squarespace is trying. They're adding more Ecom elements that have made it able to grow with us. But not enough to have no limitations or challenges. 

So we definitely look to switch to Shopify as soon as possible.

Chase Clymer  

Yeah. I've had similar conversations with a lot of merchants and Squarespace is easy to get set up with and to get something it looks pretty good. You know what I mean? 

I'm not gonna knock them. Their design is top notch, and they have some really cool art direction over there. But you are absolutely right. 

It is lacking in features and functionality and at the end of the day Ecommerce was an afterthought for that product. 

Emily Vaca  

Yes. 

Chase Clymer  

And it starts to shine once you have a real business on it.

Emily Vaca  

Right. Yeah. Yeah. Once we're really trying to do, you know, inventory management and fulfillment directly through it, the way it can sync up with the other platforms that we're using on the back end, definitely. 

Everything works with Shopify. We have to find a lot of workarounds currently. So I'm hoping to transition as soon as possible.

Chase Clymer  

The new product, obviously, will come out... And it will probably still be cold, unfortunately. We were just complaining about both being in the Midwest and it's freezing today. 

Emily Vaca  

Yes.

Chase Clymer  

But if people are just starting to plan ahead for the summer, when's the new design going to come out and where should they go to check it out?

Emily Vaca  

Yeah, our spring collection launches at the beginning of March. And then we have different collections, capsule collections that will launch through to the beginning of summer. And you can see everything on our website, MINNIDIP.com. That's MINNIDIP with two N's. Super important. So M-I-N-N-I-D-I-P. Like skinny dip, if you need to remember. 

And then our Instagram. That's where we put all of our announcements, teasers, and any upcoming news. So definitely, you can follow us there.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Emily, thank you so much for coming on today.

Emily Vaca  

Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. It was great talking to you. 

Chase Clymer  

Alright. I can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. 

We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

Make sure you head over to honestecommerce.co to check out all the other amazing content that we have.

Make sure you subscribe, leave a review. And obviously if you're thinking about growing your business, check out our agency at electriceye.io. Until next time.