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The Slow Startup: When Should You Keep Quiet About Your Business?

The founder and CEO of Stitch Fix explains why her company dodged the press, spent nothing on marketing and avoided hype in the initial phases of their startup.

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

Most startups would drool at the prospect of journalists knocking on their door desperate to hear about their business. Not StitchFix. When Fast Company came calling last year, CEO Katrina Lake was reluctant to be featured by the magazine.

“Stealth–not the hardly quiet ‘stealth mode’ we hear about so frequently–was a linchpin of her business plan,” explains a recent post dissecting this strategy and why it worked well for the San Francisco-personal shopping startup. Fast Company’s Lorraine Sanders writes:

The company, which has grown from a few hundred shipments per month in its early days to an average of 2,500 per week in April, has eschewed traditional marketing for word-of-mouth buzz-building, mostly among bloggers, and it’s bypassed opportunities to grow fast early on in order to collect data.

“We actually needed a lot of data and a lot of historical data…and we couldn’t have as accurate of buying and styling now if we didn’t collect that data over that course of time,” Lake says.

Though Lake admits that holding back was hard (“they were tough decisions”), the approach worked: Revenues more than doubled from December 2012 to the end of the first quarter this year.

“They’ve really let the business grown organically, there’s been no marketing dollars spent yet….The business is growing at a pace where [Lake] can make sure she can scale,” says Julie Bornstein, Sephora’s chief marketing officer and a Stitch Fix board member.

Instead of spending hefty sums to drive up the user base, Lake has preferred to collect customers slowly, with wait times for prospective members varying depending on a person’s size, style preferences, and the compatibility of those factors with current inventory.

This slow approach helped the company to keep quality up and customers happy (60% become repeat clients, Sanders reports), as well as allowing the team to build exactly the tools they need rather than those they predicted they might need in the future. But the tactic wasn’t without its critics. How did Lark respond to the naysayers and does she feel Stitch Fix has outgrown its ‘slow’ startup origins? Check out the complete post to find out.

Women 2.0: Have you ever worried that your startup is generating too much attention too soon?

Jessica Stillman is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @entrylevelrebel.

Photo credit: littleprincessdiaries via Flickr.