Sarah LaFleur, CEO of M.M. LaFleur, on Leading Through Challenging Times
September 15, 2023
Image courtesy of the company
Sarah LaFleur is the Founder & CEO of M.M.LaFleur. Sarah founded M.M.LaFleur in 2013 with a mission to help women take the work out of getting dressed, so they can focus on the work that matters to them. Prior to founding M.M.LaFleur, she worked at Bain & Co. in New York and TechnoServe in South Africa.

Early 2020 was a really good time. Our business was on fire. February 2020 was one of the best months that the business had ever had. And of course, at this time, I know that there are some other people in the retail fashion space here, so we work with a lot of factories in China. We work with a lot with mills in Italy and in Germany. And I'm sure you all remember; those were the first places to get hurt. We were hearing, oh sorry, our mill is closed, so we're not going to be able to ship a fabric over. And I was like, oh, what a bummer, but you know, we'll get through this. And we kind of treated it the way, I think, Ebola happened, which is like, wow it's so horrible that that is happening somewhere else, but it's not going to affect us. And then at some point, when it became clear that it was going to affect us, we started running all of these scenarios. But I will tell you what happened in actuality surpassed every single worst case scenario we had planned for. 

The numbers were horrible. I think in 2020, our revenue was 50% of 2019. And it became, okay, how do we actually survive? 

We did all the things that I'm sure a lot of you did. We closed every single one of our stores, we had about 10 then. We furloughed our retail employees, furloughed some corporate employees, but held on to most of them. And then, remember when all the stores said like, we'll be back in two weeks. And then two weeks became a month, and then three months. So we did our first round of real layoffs in June of 2020, and then a second round in September 2020. 

2020 and 2021, were really just about like, okay, how do we survive. How do we make sure that this brand, which primarily caters to women going into a physical office, actually sees the light of day? 

And it was a difficult time. I think I could say that. But weirdly not as difficult as our previous corporate struggle had been in 2019. Partly, I think, because a lot of people were also going through it. Maybe that's the spirit of like, just going back to I think why this community is also so important. I have a competitor insights. Another company that started around the same time. They're primarily focused on men, but they do some women's. And they had a big article in The New York Times about how much their business was suffering. And I was so surprised by their honesty. They're talking to a New York Times reporter and they're sharing numbers. I ended up writing to them, and I was like, hey, I know technically we're competitors, but we should chat. I'm so inspired by what you wrote. And then he has actually ended up becoming one of my closest friends. And we've ended up sharing so much information. Like literally, I switched over to his debt provider, I switched over to his performance marketing agency. Our teams have literally come together to share information on multiple fronts. And I think I realized, okay, our competition is COVID, our competition is people not going outside, our competition is frankly Amazon. I think there's so many other things, but it's not each other. And that’s kind of the latest evolution that we ended up with.

I think it's pretty lonely to be CEO. And I think it takes one to know one. And I think when one of these friends calls me, and I'm like, mentally in a really bad place, my numbers are down, we've had a really bad week, is anybody shopping anymore? And I'm like, okay, of course we can talk about the tactical things, but I know what that person just wants to hear at that point in time is like, you're going to be okay, you've been through much worse, and you will see this through. And I think that support, I could not live without it. And I love, I'm so close to my college friends, and obviously, I talk to my husband about most things, but entrepreneurship is a very unique thing that again, you can only share it with a few people.


Things are better now. 

 DTC is still 85% of our revenue. And our goal, ultimately, is to get retail to around 30 to 45% of our revenue. And I think that's probably where the sweet spot is. It's been great, actually, for brand new customers. I think 60% of customers who come into our stores are brand new. 

I think a lot of the pain point that we're serving with stores is the same pain point that we were trying to solve with bento, which is the price point isn't cheap. So customers have heard about us, they're curious about us, but they need to be convinced that it actually is the right product for them. And they come into the store, and they're convinced. 

Again, I'm not saying anything new here. This has always been the role that stores have played, in any apparel company. So we're kind of leaning back into an old existing formula. But I think, again, if I had to go back to what makes us actually fundamentally different, it's the products that we sell. And it's the brands that we have, which is really about speaking directly to these women, about not being a slave to fashion, about making sure that all pieces that we make are of course, stylish, but also practical.

I think those are the things that actually different our business. And all these other things that are happening around it, whether it's e-commerce, retail, or wholesale, those are just tools in the arsenal. 


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