One Startup’s Marketing Secret Weapon: The Founder’s Personal Story

How one investment banker turned surfer turned startup founder leveraged her personal story — and social media — to drive sales. 

By Vivy Chao (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

This past week I had the opportunity to sit down with Anna Jerstrom, founder and CEO of Calavera Swimwear, a lifestyle sportswear company that produces high quality products for active women in water sports. A trained surfer herself, Jerstrom is part of the 25 million women who are serious about sports, but cannot not find the appropriate apparel that not only is fashionable, but also comfortable and form fitting. Developing Calavera Swimwear has had its own obstacles. Here is what Jerstrom had to say:

Describe your background and personal experiences that led up to the development of Calavera.

I was in investment banking-private equity for ten years. I went to Columbia Business School and during one vacation I went to Costa Rica for surfing. It was love at first sight. I went back to London and quit my job, moved to Costa Rica and trained to be a surfer for a year.  Then I realized there was a huge gap in the market for women’s water sports performance wear. The market mainly focuses on young teens in fashion, but not nearly enough people care about the 25 million women who are serious athletes. I decided to raise some seed money initially and then Calavera was born!

How did you initially market Calavera?  What sorts of obstacles did you encounter?

I started out marketing to surfer girls mainly through my own network. I also used surf-specific bloggers to reach out to people. These were my initial followers. My next step was to include other water sports athletes. I used Facebook to do so, targeting women who liked water sports. I had ads tweaked in order to speak to the women in specific sports. Facebook has been the best marketing method so far, along with the help of a PR company. All in all, there has been lots of trial and error.

How did you approach press to showcase your designs initially? What made the press decide to write about Calavera?

I used a staged approach. Early on I made the decision to work with a PR company. This PR company helped develop relationships. The first pitch that we conducted was my story —how I went from being an investment banker to a surfer. This captured a lot of attention. As time went on and we launched new products, we gave free products to media. This gave the press an incentive to write about Calavera.

Next we made the Water Warriors movie, which was launched at a film festival. This gave significant content and newsworthy materials for the press to write about. We also partnered up with Keep a Breast Foundation, which is personally important to me. It is always a good idea to align with a strong charity that is close to the heart.

We try to help the press with content and stories so the writers always have something to write about. For example, recently we hosted Wave Shape, a high-intensity workout challenge conducted by Adam Rosante, famed celebrity trainer.

What drives most of the online traffic to Calavera’s website?  How have you attempted to increase that traffic drive?

It is a combination of Facebook, word of mouth, and press. Facebook itself constitutes 35% of Calavera’s sales. These sources feed off one another and create an exponential growth. Right now we’re still a small company even though we’ve grown at a steady pace. We’re still pushing a rock up the hill. The ball is not rolling on its own yet. We are still exploring different avenues of online traffic. However, traffic by itself is meaningless if there are no sales. We mainly care about the sales metric.

We are in a bit of celebratory mode right now because it looks like we will be getting good news about a major partnership. In addition, we are set to partner up with a large apparel and household products company next year. It’s exciting because this company has a six million people e-mail list. Calavera is set to develop custom products for this company.

How do you test new products with consumers prior to release?

We always test our gear thoroughly. For example, we had an Olympic triathlete test, swimmers have tested, and yogis have tested. The testing phase usually lasts six months before products actually get out. Calavera also uses the fan base to test colors. We use surveys to decide which colors are most popular and how many colors to produce. This is also a good way to connect with consumers. We have a saying, “You don’t buy a Calavera; you join a Calavera.” For our shipments, we send out handwritten notes for all packages. Two weeks later I send an e-mail to check in with consumers. The most valuable feedback I have received was from people who were not happy with the product. Then we helped the consumers solve that problem.

We also have a Calavera Girl of the Day. Anyone who sends in a photo of herself in her Calavera suit will have a chance to be featured.

Could you put your personal story to better use?

VivyChaoPicAbout the blogger: Vivy Chao (@VivooshkaC) is the new CEO of Nanoogo, an education startup geared toward elementary school children; a 24/7 educator; and in between, a blogger for the Huffington Post on “Girls in STEM” and “Women” and for the Educational App Store.  Disclaimer: Ms. Chao’s fiancé is an angel investor in Calavera Swimwear.

Photo credit: Thomas Tolkien via Flickr

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