Nadia Tucker and Stevie Angel are the neighbors turned business partners behind Active Truth. Having welcomed their children around the same time, Nadia and Stevie noticed a gap in the market for functional active wear that catered to women in different life stages. In this episode of Shopify Masters, we chat with Nadia and Stevie about building an inclusive brand that’s on its way to eight figures.
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Identifying a gap as a consumer—and creating a business to fill it
Felix: Tell us about where the idea behind the business came from.
Stevie: Back in 2015, Nadia and I were new mums. We both had a toddler and a new baby each, and we decided we needed to get back into exercising and going to the gym, so we started training for a Tough Mudder. We needed new activewear because our bodies had changed and our old tights didn’t cut it, so we were on the search for the perfect pair of tights, but we didn’t want to go to a mall.
We had kids in tow. We didn’t want to try on Lycra in a small change room–that was a nightmare–so we decided to shop online. We were finding brands through Instagram that had beautiful tights, beautiful prints, but when we received them in the post, they just weren’t performing. It wasn’t going to work on bodies without model proportions. They’d be sagging or see-through or rolling down as we went for our walk.
Nadia: There was that time that I took the boys for a walk in the pram, and I literally had to get you to hold the pram whilst I hoicked my pants up because they just couldn’t stay up.
Stevie: Exactly. It was this constant battle with finding the perfect pair of tights. We started talking to our friends thinking that they might have some brands that they could recommend. It turned out that other people we knew were having the same struggle, in particular, our friends who were a size US 12 and above really struggled to find activewear that fit well and performed. They’d either go into a regular-sized store where there’d be half a chance that the largest size would fit them, but they might leave feeling terrible about themselves because it didn’t or they would start shopping in the plus-size section of the department store, which is normally up in the back, covered in cobwebs, thrown in the corner as an afterthought. If they found themselves shopping there, the products were normally pretty bad quality, and didn’t have all the performance attributes that the regular activewear did.
We saw this gap in the market for a really great product that was size-inclusive. At the same time, when we were looking on Instagram, we weren’t seeing brands that resonated with us. It was all either your 20-year-old yogi’s
or high-performance athletes. It was all one body shape and size, so we thought there was room for a brand that celebrated a more diverse range of women who were getting out there, being active on their own terms, and not only celebrating them but showing them in the marketing as well. Once we saw the need for a brand like this, we thought, “Why not us?”
Why having no prior experience can be an advantage
Felix: Let’s talk about the technical side of designing the clothing. Did either of you have a background in clothing design?
Nadia: Absolutely not. I still can’t sew a button. My grandfather still darns my socks, and I still staple my hems when they come down. We were starting from the beginning. I think that actually helped, because we had no idea, we really had to start from the basics. What we quickly learned from talking to manufacturers and designers in the fashion industry was that everything was made from one garment and then they were sized up. Stevie and I are a very similar size and shape, but even the small discrepancies in our body shapes made each pair of tights that we were sampling fit us both completely differently. It took us 12 months to work with our pattern-maker to design what we believed was the perfect shape. Rather than selecting one shape and then grading up, every single one of our tights in every single size comes from a separate base pattern.
We’ve taken lots of comments, tested the product on all different shapes and sizes, and really tried to develop shapes and patterns that considered the female form, particularly as they change depending on body shape, height. Recently, some of the feedback that we’ve received from our customers was that no one was catering to women who were short, so we’ve introduced a petite range. That’s for the women 163 centimeters and below, and we’ve had great success with that. Because of that success, we’ve also introduced, and are about to launch in the coming weeks, a range for women that are 180 centimeters and above. We know we can’t cater to everything and everyone, but we’re really trying our best and listening to the customers in how the product actually fits.
Felix: Talk to us about what else was happening during these 12 months of iterating and product development.
Nadia: Stevie and I were both employed full-time in quite demanding professional roles and we both had young kids, so this was really a passion project during that period. Trying to fit in meeting with pattern-makers, meeting with different manufacturers–we met with many here in Australia–and also meeting with lots of different fabric suppliers. The pattern is obviously really important, but we very quickly learnt that as soon as you apply different types of fabric with different quantities of lycra, polyester, or nylon, it could make such a huge difference. We had our initial sample, where we thought we had this perfect pair of tights, but then we changed the fabric to something else and it changed the length of the tight by about 20 centimeters just with the stretch.
There was a lot of testing. We went overseas as well to speak to manufacturers and we went around and around in circles until we landed a local Australian manufacturer, who we still work and partner with today. She has been instrumental in taking Stevie and I through the process of developing products. Anyone that manufactures products–whether it’s in retail or somewhere else–is really difficult. It’s never perfect. It’s been a huge learning experience, and I’m forever grateful, particularly to our Australian manufacturer for the help that she’s provided us.
Leaning on your network while building your business from scratch
Felix: I think a lot of people listening might be in the same position, where they recognize a problem but don’t have the first hand experience to address it. How do you make sure that you’re staying on top of everything that needs to be addressed in the early days?
Stevie: There’s a lot of reading and researching and asking the right questions. Not having that experience shouldn’t be a barrier to entry. Neither of us had experience in manufacturing, but we had no experience in business or in e-commerce, so we just tried to meet with the right people and get the right advice.
Felix: What was the next step for your business, once you found your partner?
Nadia: We went into production. Our first run was 100 pairs of tights, and we had no funding. Stevie and I contributed $10,000 each to the initial business, which allowed us to set up business structures, purchase the websites, and pay for pattern-making–but we really did start small, and it literally was a box of 100 tights.
Stevie: And there was no marketing budget, so we had photos of us from the neck down on the website to showcase the product.
Nadia: Which we took on our iPhone.
Stevie: I made the logo in Illustrator–I am not a graphic designer–and it still haunts me to this day. We really bootstrapped it. We did the bare minimum to launch, but at the same time we got financial advice and really made sure that we had the business structure set, so we had those ducks in a row and ready to go.
Two simple ingredients for success
Felix: So you basically started from ground zero. What are some things you feel that you did that really contributed to the businesses success?
Stevie: It’s definitely a combination of product and brand. A great product, we say, is always the best marketing. We have great word-of-mouth referrals and a ton of reviews on our website. The brand really resonated. The growth of the brand so quickly with no paid marketing behind it was testament to the fact that women were ready to see a brand that celebrated them rather than making them feel bad about themselves or making them feel like they needed to go to the gym to look a certain way. We had a fast uptake there in terms of our social media following and sales.
“The brand really resonated. The growth of the brand so quickly with no paid marketing behind it was testament to the fact that women were ready to see a brand that celebrated them rather than making them feel bad about themselves.”
Felix: You mentioned social media and raising brand awareness was a key component to your success. How do you make sure that brand identity is communicated effectively and stays consistent?
Stevie: From a visual point of view, we never Photoshop our models and we do show a diverse range of women across our socials. We’re showing every bump, lump, wrinkle, and scar, and that was really different at the time. Visually, they would see Active Truth. In terms of tone of voice, we spoke to the community as if it was Nadia and I speaking to them. We didn’t try to pretend that we were a massive brand. We leveraged the fact that we were a small business. We try to be funny, relatable, and real.
We were self-deprecating and tried to get to know our community. Early on made really good relationships with a lot of influencers and bloggers, particularly locally, in Brisbane. We go for coffee or go and have breakfast with them, which they weren’t used to seeing people offline. That was a really great experience to build the relationships, and then they would spread the Active Truth message to their communities. It was also a really good learning experience for us. We didn’t have Instagram personally until we started the business, so we were learning to use social media at the same time as we were growing the business.
How this brand grew its instagram page from 500 to over 60,000 followers
Felix: Were you building your community on social media all throughout manufacturing?
Stevie: We did start early. Three or four months before the launch we started the account. We just posted some inspirational quotes and a few nice pictures that we found along the way. At the time we launched we had about 500 followers on Instagram, and we were pretty excited.
Felix: What changes did you make to your social strategy that really grew the community?
Stevie: Having a product to sell, and influencers, and customers starting to post photos wearing our tights and sharing the product started to grow the following pretty quickly. We had some really good wins in the first year or two with big influencers–one in particular for our maternity range. That’s another category–we have maternity activewear. She was just a customer and we didn’t even know that she was going to post. Her name’s Zoë Foster Blake, who’s quite a big celebrity here in Australia. But that was a really big game-changer for us. We were seeing growth already, but that was an overnight boost to the business.
Nadia: The other thing that was really exciting was we were doing something new and fresh, and we received a lot of free media from that. There was a story about us in our local newspaper, and one of the producers of a national TV show read that article. The next minute we were down in Sydney at 5:00 AM getting ready to go onto live TV to tell our story. We’ve been really lucky in that our messaging is consistent. It resonates with people, and people want to share that story. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of the media here in Australia.
How to keep your brand story strong, five years down the road
Felix: You just celebrated your fifth birthday as a business, do you think this momentum with the media and PR will continue to grow? Is the brand story still capturing new customers for you?
Stevie: We don’t use a PR agency at the moment–we do it all in-house. When we have interesting stories to tell, we do get a lot of media support. We recently did a collaboration with an Indigenous artist here in Australia on a print for one of our collections, and that got some really great media coverage. When there’s an interesting story to tell, we do continue to get support from the media, and it’s a really good channel for getting traffic to the website.
Felix: I see, because of the product that you produce, there’s a lot of room for collaboration. Is that typically a good tactic for producing media to keep telling your story?
Nadia: Yeah, definitely. One of our other really important partnerships is with a local charity called Share the Dignity, who provide sanitary items for homeless women and women in need. Every year, we partner with them and create a limited edition tight to support one of their initiatives–which is called Move the Dignity–where they encourage women to move for a month to raise awareness and funds for the charity. Every year there’s always a lot of excitement from both our community and theirs around the product, telling the story, and participating in the month of activities. That definitely gets a run every year because It’s a really good news story, and it’s something that we really like to celebrate.
Felix: Now that the business is on track to hitting eight figures, what are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced as the business has scaled?
Nadia: There’s been many challenges. We face challenges every day. Being a product-based business, inventory has always been a huge, huge issue for us. In the early days, we couldn’t produce enough. We didn’t have any funding so literally every pair of tights we sold went into purchasing more stock. Over the course of the five years, there’ve been periods where we’ve had an oversupply of stock. In the lead up to COVID, we were working hard on our cash flow and our inventory holdings and were working towards having 10 turns a year. Then COVID hit and–fortunately for us–there was a huge demand in activewear, but an issue that we immediately ran into was we didn’t have any inventory for a very long time, and our Australian factories were working as hard as they could. They were literally coming off the machines and onto the shelf and into a bag. Inventory management has been most definitely incredibly difficult, along with cash flow.
Felix: As the business has grown, how have your roles evolved over time?
Stevie: I’d love to say that we work on the business, but we’re very much still in the business day-to-day. We do a lot of work together. We work really well together bouncing ideas off each other and problem-solving. We do have a bit of a split. I generally sit more in the marketing, e-commerce side. Nadia is our numbers and inventory woman. However marketing is such a huge part of the business that a lot of the time we’re both involved there.
Approaching unconventional: Organic influencer marketing
Felix: You mentioned earlier that working with influencers really elevated your brand. Tell us a little bit more about that.
Nadia: We’re really lucky. A lot of the influencers–and the big ones that we’ve had huge successes with–we actually didn’t reach out to. They purchased the product because it had been recommended to them and they posted without our knowledge. I still remember one of the big ones was a lady called Mia Freedman who runs a media agency here in Australia, Mamamia. She posted about our tights on Stevie’s birthday. It was back in the day when we still had our notifications on our phones when we got sales, when it goes cha-ching. We were sitting at lunch for Stevie’s birthday, and the phone just started going cha-ching, cha-ching, and we were like, “What’s happening?” That was really exciting. We’ve been really fortunate with some of those influencers that they’ve actually believed in the product and purchased it themselves.
With some of the other influencers, we keep an eye on what people are doing, and we really try to partner with people that align with our values. Many of our influencers aren’t your traditional Instagram fitness influencers. A lot of them are women that are in fashion or they’re mummy bloggers or journalists. We’ve had a lot of success with some micro-influencers. We definitely see that they’re trusted and they really work hard within their communities. The influencers haven’t actually been a huge part of our growth. We are looking forward to doing that a little bit more at the moment, but it hasn’t been the biggest driver of our growth.
Felix: What would you say has been the biggest driver?
Stevie: Organic socials have been a big driver for us. SEO has started being a good driver of traffic for us as well–particularly in the maternity space–and word of mouth.
Nadia: Word of mouth really surprised us. Every year, we do a customer survey, which we normally time around our birthday, and so it went out yesterday for our birthday. It’s really exciting. We normally get about 5000 responses. One of the questions we ask is, “How did you hear about us?” I always assume that it’ll be through social media or paid ads, and every year, on average, 40 to 45% of people say that they heard about us through word of mouth. Despite being in such a digital world, we’re really conscious that word of mouth is still a huge driver.
Utilizing reviews as more than just social proof
Felix: Are there any other things you’ve done to help encourage word of mouth marketing?
Stevie: Pretty early on we realized that we needed to collect reviews. We were getting great emails from customers providing us with beautiful messages about how the tights were making them feel and giving them confidence while working out. We started collecting reviews quite early on asking every customer post-purchase for a review and leveraging that across the website, our socials, and EDMs now to really amplify that word of mouth.
Felix: When you get a positive review, what are some ways that you tactically spread that positive social proof?
Stevie: On the product page, you can see reviews for that product. We also highlight a couple of the top reviews on the homepage. On our social channels, we’ll show it on a tile or show it in the caption of our social posts and in our stories. And in our EDMs, we’ll often showcase reviews there as well about particular products.
Nadia: When the media do publish stories, they often rely on the quotes and the reviews on the website because–and I think what we also really like about the reviews–is that it’s using the language of our customers. When we’re planning our marketing strategy, we always look at our reviews and the language that our customers are using. One of the big things that came out of that was the word “confidence.” That is now really embedded in all of our marketing because that was a really strong theme that was coming through in all of our reviews, “These tights give me confidence to do X, Y, and Z.” That’s definitely been a really strong driver in our communications.
Felix: What have you been doing to increase or to encourage people to come and leave reviews?
Stevie: We’re using the app Okendo, which does an automatic email after a purchase requesting a review, and we give out a gift voucher as an incentive to leave us a review. It also gives a follow-up email as well a few days later if they haven’t done it. That’s been really helpful. We also respond to all of our reviews, so we not only read them but we make sure that everybody who leaves a review on our website gets a response from us. A lot of the time it’s, “Thanks so much for that wonderful feedback,” but if someone’s got a sizing issue or they didn’t love the product, then it’s an opportunity to re-engage with them, and potentially turn them to a different product on the website which might suit them better, or even if they return the product, it leaves them with a great impression of the brand at least.
The case for creating multiple social accounts under one brand
Felix: You mentioned that maternity products were a big hit with your customers. How has that realization caused you to adjust your approach and marketing?
Stevie: Maternity is a really big segment for us. We actually have separate Facebook and Instagram pages for our maternity customers of Active Truth Maternity. We’ve found that they are quite different audiences, and having those channels gives us a way to really talk to them. When you’re pregnant, that’s what you care about. You care about babies. You care about pregnancy. We weren’t able to talk to them directly all the time through our main accounts. Every sixth or ninth post was a maternity post. Having separate accounts really allows us to talk to them about our products. They’ll love a maternity meme as well. There’s a different conversation on both channels.
Felix: So basically you’re saying it might be valuable to create a different account entirely that could cater to a specific audience–such as pregnant women–so as not to detract from the non-pregnant customer’s experience?
Stevie: Yeah. They’re not necessarily going to see every single post that we put up as well, of course. If they’re following the Active Truth main account, even if we’re doing a maternity post every few posts, they’re not necessarily seeing that either. We found that essentially creating a sub-brand for maternity was a great way to directly communicate with those customers in the language that was important to them.
Nadia: We also segment out email marketing as well and our digital paid marketing. That really allows us to narrow down on that market.
Stevie: We also have strategies to re-engage them back into the main Active Truth account once they’ve gone through the initial motherhood stages. We have pregnancy, we also have postnatal, postpartum tights and nursing bras as well. Once they’ve moved through that stage, we try and re-engage them back into the regular activewear as well.
Felix: The maternity tights–for example–was that a line that you initially launched with, or is that something that came later?
Nadia: It came a little bit later, not too much later. Stevie and I had the great experience of having to wear our husbands’ shorts when we were pregnant, so it was definitely an issue for both of us. We went and spoke to our pattern-maker very early on and said, “Something has to be done here.” We worked with her really closely. We launched the maternity tights about six months after launch.
Allow your customers to guide product development
Felix: Your product lines have obviously increased since you first launched. Talk to us about how you decide what products to focus on and what to solve next for your customers?
Nadia: Going back to the survey that I mentioned, we really do listen to our customers. Part of the questions in the survey are around what products are you missing? If you could spend a day at Active Truth, what would be the first product that you would design? It wasn’t just the maternity tights that we were listening to our customers about. Swimwear was something that definitely came through very early on. Women were struggling with finding the perfect one-piece, so we released that about two years ago, to great success. It really is just listening to our customers. They come up with some great ideas, and it’s not just in terms of the actual product design. It also comes down to prints and colors. They really are a great source of inspiration for us.
Felix: How do you test out things like prints or something as large as a new product line, when you are thinking about expanding into it?
Nadia: We always start really small, and that’s the beauty of having local Australian manufacturing, is that we can start really small. One thing that we’re working on at the moment is a recreational cycling range. I’m not sure whether that will be successful or not, but we’ll definitely start small. We’ll road test it with some customers. We’ve done that a number of times over the past few years. We’ll contact our community saying, “We’re about to release this new product or this range, we’d love 10, 20 road testers to try out the product.” Then we send the product out, and hop on the phone with each person for about 10, 20 minutes, sometimes an hour, depending on what they want to talk about. I’ve found that really, really helpful.
We also often get customers to come in to star in our photo shoots, and that’s a really good opportunity. Not only do they get to come in and have fun, and our team is so great at making that day so special, but it is a really good opportunity just to talk to them and ask them, “What problems do we need to solve? What other brands do you look to that you find inspirational or you enjoy?” in terms of the products that they’re providing and marketing. It really is listening and asking the right questions, too.
Felix: Where do you begin when building a brand that resonates? How do you know if you’re resonating with the customers, and how do you evaluate if you are?
Stevie: It’s really important to understand what your point of difference is and leverage that. It’s important to look at what other brands are doing so you can see where you sit in the marketplace, but I think it’s a danger to spend too much time looking at what other people are doing, especially if you’re trying to create a brand that’s different.
Nadia: One thing that we always do, too, is we always go back to the 101. One thing that I often do is I go back and listen to the YouTube video, “It Starts with Why,” because sometimes we do get lost in the noise and the busyness and what’s happening in the marketplace. We really do go back to, “Okay, what is our purpose? Why are we doing this? Who are we servicing?” That’s an exercise that we do regularly. One of the best opportunities for us to revisit this is every time we onboard a new employee. Every time we have the opportunity to talk to them and make sure that we’re communicating that to our team.
Maintaining brand consistency at scale
Felix: Is this something that changes or evolves over time, or is it something that really should be established early on and held as an ultimate truth that you don’t diverge from?
Stevie: It depends on your brand, but, for us, we haven’t wavered from our initial vision and mission as we’ve grown. We’re still really focused on celebrating all women, on celebrating being active for all the right reasons–not just about aesthetics but for enjoyment, fun, community, health, and for mental health. That’s really stayed true as we’ve grown.
Nadia: We’ve been really consistent. We haven’t changed with different movements in the market or different entrants into the market. When we celebrated our fifth birthday, we went back and reminisced about what we’ve done. One of the things we always do is go back and have a look at our posts from 2016 on social media. It always amazes me how consistent we have been. We’ve really stayed true to that vision.
Felix: Now that the company is larger, you have a team that works on this. How do you make sure that everyone is staying on brand with your social messaging?
Stevie: It starts in the recruitment process. It’s really important to us that the people we bring onboard understand the brand. There’s lots of questions in the interview process around that to get some understanding. Also to gauge whether they have the same vision and outlook on being active and inclusive that we do. It’s continual conversations with the team. They know pretty well what our tone of voice is and how we want the brand to be presented to the world, so they’re doing a really great job of that.
Four game-changing elements to build into your website
Felix: How has the website evolved over time as you’ve grown?
Stevie: We had a big website refresh last year, which is really exciting. We had the same theme for the first three and a half years. It had become a little bit of a Frankenstein because we didn’t have developers, so we were hacks and add-ons, et cetera, et cetera. We had a developer come onboard and create a new website for us, and that really gave us the ability to add some extra features, like upsells, cross-sell, gift with purchase, and bundles. They also did a small brand refresh for us and updated the logo from my initial one that I designed back in the day, which I was very grateful for. That was fantastic. We saw an increase in conversion rate pretty much immediately once we released that website.
We’re also really excited that we now have a US website. That’s relatively new as well. We haven’t put any funds behind marketing to the US yet, but we do get some sales from over there at the moment. That’s an area of focus that we’re really looking at from this year onwards, is to tap into the US market.
Felix: You mentioned upsells, cross-sells, gifts with purchase, and bundles. These are all new things that you’ve been able to add to the website. How have you been strategic about how you use upsells or cross-sells or bundling?
Stevie: It’s really easy to think that all of your customers know every single product that’s on the website, but you’ve got to remember that they’re not seeing every single social post or email. They’re not necessarily clicking into every product that’s there. It’s a really great opportunity to show customers how they can wear different products together–to show them something else on the website that might appeal to them. The gift with purchase has been great for us to increase our basket size. We’ve had some smaller products like resistance bands, which were great when everyone was working out at home in 2020, just to tip that basket size a little bit higher.
Nadia: It also helps move some stock that’s been a little bit stale. It’s a different way than always discounting.
Felix: You’re almost bundling or gifting with purchases with products that might not sell as well on their own.
Stevie: Yep, absolutely. Maternity’s a great area of bundles for us. If you’re buying a postnatal recovery tight, you’re looking at a feeding bra as well. We know a lot of women who, once they buy the first pregnancy tight, come back a week or two later when they realize how amazing they are to buy a second pair or they might buy a black short-length pair to wear under dresses and a full-length to wear on their own. Particularly in maternity, the bundles work really well for us.
Testing UX by watching customers interact with your site
Felix: Besides these cross-sells, upsells, gift with purchase, and the bundles, were there any other areas of the website that you worked on that helped increase sales?
Nadia: One of our biggest focuses was the mobile experience. 90% of our traffic–if not more–comes from mobile. We really recognized that user experience has to be top-notch. One of the most interesting things that we did–someone recommended that we do it–was we got a stranger at a conference called John and we said to John, “We want you to purchase, and we’ll use our credit card, to purchase a pair of mama maternity tights.” He hopped on his own device and he went through it. We sat there on our hands and zipped our mouth and we watched him go through that experience. It was such an eye-opening experience, and it’s something that we’ve done subsequently with our staff members, friends, family and also people after they’ve had a couple of drinks because we all like to shop online late at night after a few drinks.
It was just so interesting watching him–or anyone trying to navigate or change the value in the cart. We learned a lot. We still do that all of the time as well, that mobile experience. We were able to implement a few quick changes there in-house, but it was definitely something that we asked our developers to really focus on.
Felix: You mentioned Okendo, for getting reviews. Are there any other apps that you use to help run the website or the business?
Stevie: We’ve recently installed a returns app called Loop. That’s been really good for us as well, being able to automate the returns and exchange processes for our customers. We’ve had really great feedback from them. Previously, we had an old manual form that you sent back in, and it was a lot of work for the team to manage those exchanges. With the inventory, someone might send back a product wanting to exchange it, and by the time it comes back to us, we’ve sold out of that, and then it’s the manpower going back to the customer. That’s all automated now for us. It’s also got an opportunity to get the customer shopping again with a shop bonus. If they decide to return an item but shop again, it gives a $5 credit that they can put towards their order as well rather than getting a refund.
Felix: What do you think is the most important area of focus for your business over the next year?
Nadia: We’ve experienced such great and incredible growth over 2020 that we’re really focusing on being better rather than bigger, so really working with and investing in our team. They’ve done an incredible job, but really providing them with the support and the resources to continue to up-skill. The e-commerce world is such a fast-paced and ever-evolving world. Making sure that we’ve got the right processes and procedures in place; across the team, with our supply chains, our manufacturers, to really just make sure that we’re doing the best practice that we can. We love what we do, and we know our customers love what we do. We’re making a difference and really being that business that is there for the customer in the long-run.