April Foster is the founder and CEO of Inked Brands, a pioneer of influencer commerce, where she’s obsessed with combining relevant products and smart marketing with influencer brands. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, Greg, and four young children.
Tell me about your early career.
My very early career started at age four, when my sister and I designed greeting cards for my dad’s customers at the lumber mill and hardware store my dad owned in South Texas. We walked around selling these so-called greeting cards (aka typing paper with crayon drawings) for a quarter a piece so that we could spend massively at the Hello Kitty store in the Lake Jackson mall. We were big time entrepreneurs.
Later, I received a degree in speech therapy, but during my final internship, I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was an entrepreneur at heart and so I pivoted into pharmaceutical sales since I was a natural salesperson and knew how to read research papers. After gaining accolades and a promotion to manager, while I was on the road four nights a week, I decided to apply those skills to my own venture, StudioCalico.com. My husband, the risk-taker in the family, was so supportive of this subscription craft business I wanted to pursue. We grew organically until I quit my pharma job after two years in business.
How did the concept for Inked Brands come about?
Luck, and paying attention.
Studio Calico was growing and we worked with an increasing number of industry experts, who would now be labeled as influencers. One in particular, we partnered with to create an entire co-branded product line, which resulted in thousands of orders and generally drinking from the fire hose for about six months. As soon as we could come up for air, I said, “Let’s do it again!” That’s when we launched our first two influencer sites: AliEdwards.com and Shop.ABeautifulMess.com.
How was the first year in business?
Exciting growth, but filled with lots of failures. We would ship orders and label them too heavy, costing us thousands of dollars among many other operational errors.
What was your marketing strategy?
Studio Calico was built by micro-influencers, including myself, who had highly-passionate audiences. We focused on making high-quality products and wowing customers, and that spread the word organically. Since then, we’ve relied on our influencer partners to do the same.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
40-70% YOY, entirely bootstrapped.
How do you define success?
I haven’t figured that out yet, but I can say it feels awesome to deliver quality products our influencers love, on a site they’re proud of, and see their followers treasure it.
What is the key to success?
Honesty with yourself and your results, followed closely by discipline in making necessary changes to yourself or your organization.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Forgiveness of myself and others. As an entrepreneur, wife, and mother, I have to forgive often, and quickly, and hope for the same in return. I make mistakes every day.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“Well done is better than well said.” – Benjamin Franklin
“You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not mind who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman
“Trust, but verify.” – Ronald Reagan
“A players hire A players. B players hire B & C players.” – Steve Jobs
“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” – James C. Collins
“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The day my COO was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Ken Marshall, former executive at Camping World (reporting to Marcus Lemonis of CNBC’s The Profit), had left to work with me at Inked. We were in lockstep with one another; I trusted him implicitly. Together, we were laying the foundation for a Series A round and his maturity and experience were vital to our success. He was diagnosed in February 2015 and passed away only four months later, working with me to the end. I spent many days crying in the car on the way to the office, putting on a brave face, and having conversations that just days earlier didn’t seem as urgent, but now I was taking notes feverishly and trying to learn from every word. I am forever grateful to him for making the leap and for his family for sharing him with me so unselfishly.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
One of my advisors says my body manufactures its own crack. Joking aside, I require little sleep and the more I’m surrounded by smart people and the more I’m challenged, the more motivated and excited I become.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with smart people, and not “yes-men.” It’s good to have a multiplicity of opinions and people who aren’t afraid to challenge you.
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This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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