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How Eight DTC Brands Are Preparing to Scale Their Teams

Founders gave Retail Brew a look at their recruiting roadmaps and the roles they're most eager to fill.
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Francis Scialabba

· 14 min read

Behind many successful DTC brands are teams with members we can count on two hands—max. Many brands riding 2020’s consumer trend tailwinds have fewer than ten full-time employees, but work with a cadre of freelance or contracted specialists.

Small but mighty, but stretched thin

Retail Brew spoke with eight brands that are 1) on upward growth trajectories and 2) operating with the leanest of headcounts. In 2021, they face choices more critical than picking a logo font: when and where to staff up their teams.

Eight founders told us how they ID the positions that need filling first after periods of rapid growth, and about their go-to recruiting strategies.Read on for direct-to-company insights on building and scaling a team. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Andrew Goble, cofounder of Jambys

Courtesy of Jambys

How the team’s structured: I manage product design, marketing, and a lot of our digital ops. Jack Ambrose [my cofounder] manages production, physical ops, finances, and pretty much everything else that doesn't fall into those containers.

  • For apparel production, we work with a production partner and two part-time employees. They have decades of experience, much of it working together at places like Outdoor Voices, Lululemon, and Nike.
  • On the marketing side, we work with a lot of freelancers and a few agencies. I write and produce most of our creative, but work with freelancers on just about everything else. My brother, Corban, edits our magazine, Downtime.
  • Rather than having full-time employees who have to act as production generalists, it's been great to lay down the proper foundations with the actual experts who've done it before.

The growth trajectory: We launched on October 1, 2019, and we grew 818% Q4 to Q4. We wanted to stay really close to every part of the business in the first year. Jack still somehow wakes up at 6am to knock out some customer service emails. It's not a unique concept, but it's hard to hire for roles if you don't have at least some experience working the role yourself.

There are pains to working with a lot of freelancers and agencies, but the benefit is that you can change course really quickly. We'd rather work some late nights or pay the agency tax than bring on employees with unclear or constantly changing roles.

The recruiting roadmap: We're looking to hire in production and marketing first. As the company grows and the product line grows, there are just too many opportunities for two full-time employees to cover. There are a few roles we'd also bring in-house if the perfect candidate came our way, mostly on the creative or brand side.

There's only so much you can do in a day sustainably, and we felt the strain pretty bad during the holidays. So we're already at the point where we know adding members to the team will make an immediate impact.

Karen Young, CEO and founder of Oui the People

Courtesy of Oui the People

How the team’s structured: My intention has always been to grow a small, deliberate team. Number one, because it is important when you're early on to have that really good culture. Then also deliberate from a capital perspective: thinking about what we have the ability to do.

  • The two full-time folks are myself and my design director. We've worked together for many, many years [including] at Estée Lauder. Where we really dig in and work well together is on the execution and the strategy and the vision of the brand in and of itself.
  • Then around us, as we thought about paid acquisition and email, I found where the holes were and brought in freelance specialists.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that even though we are two full-time people, we actually do have freelancers and contractors who we work with as well. But when people are only giving a certain amount of their time, the burden definitely still falls on the folks who are there full-time to figure out how to pull it all together.

The growth (and hiring) trajectory: We saw about 2x growth between 2019 and 2020. Managing that as a small brand was pretty insane to figure out.

We had to be incredibly ruthless about what we could say yes or no to. We had to say we only have the bandwidth to handle e-commerce and direct to consumer right now. Even though we have a great amount of interest from retailers, we're not going there until we actually have the capacity and the team to manage that in a more seamless way.

I have always had this theory: We don't fix anything until it breaks. That was very easy for me to do as a sole founder and as the team was super small. But in the case of 2020, breaking for us looked like incredible opportunity and incredible growth. While prior to that, breaking was, “Oh, shucks, this platform that I'm using isn't quite right—let me scale up into the next thing, or let me move into the next thing.” Now, breaking is we have all of these opportunities flooding us.

The recruiting roadmap: It's one of the more difficult things that we've encountered. We started looking for a marketing manager a couple of months ago. I was very quickly like, okay, time to bring in a recruiter.

What I'm learning is that it is really all about your network, because that has proven for us to be even more worthwhile than the blanket open searches on LinkedIn and all of that. Especially with putting people into more managerial positions, to be able to talk to someone who knows them personally, or someone who has worked with them, has been really powerful for us.

Renaldo Webb, founder of PetPlate

Dog owner feeding dog a bowl of PetPlate food

Courtesy of Pet Plate

How the team’s structured: PetPlate has always had a pretty lean team relative to our DTC competitors.

  • Up until mid-2020, PetPlate had under 10 full-time members on staff.
  • We prioritized hiring people who directly helped improve the customer experience and retention. At PetPlate, this meant focusing on our product (physical and digital), operations, and customer experience hires.

As a nimble DTC company, retention was one of our most important metrics, and we learned early on that had to be managed in-house. We leveraged outsourced technology and marketing agencies to support our core team, and our management team worked hard to make sure these outsourced agencies were integrated into our business as seamlessly as possible.

  • Now, over 80% of our revenue comes from repeat customers. That’s helped PetPlate grow at almost 100% YoY since its founding in 2017.

The recruiting roadmap: In 2020, PetPlate doubled the size of its consumer base, and after closing its Series A we slowly started increasing our team size. First, focusing on bringing in marketing and finance, and finally technology. This became important to bring those functions in house, as the agencies are not a cost effective solution if you have the capital to hire employees.

Priyanka Ganjoo, founder of Kulfi Beauty

Courtesy of Kulfi Beauty

How the team’s structured: Kulfi Beauty has been my full-time job for the past two years. We launched three weeks ago with strong early traction.

  • We are one of the highest traffic stores on Shopify compared to the stores that launched in the same week as us.
  • Our team prior to launch included our creative director, content lead, and operations specialist, who are all freelance consultants, as well as a team of interns who are working on various projects.

As an early stage pre-revenue startup, keeping our burn rate low and having the flexibility to adjust it as needed was important to me. There is an entire ecosystem of fractional resources and consultants that has emerged to support early-stage DTC brands, which has made this model feasible.

The recruiting roadmap: With the strong traction and product-market fit we’ve experienced post-launch, my priority is to build the core team. These are in areas where building in-house capabilities will differentiate us in the long term. For our brand, these are product development and operations, content, and community-driven marketing.

  • We will continue to use fractional resources and consultants for specialized projects and functions such as finance or PR for the foreseeable future. Many of these resources can scale with our growth plan.
  • As experts in their niche working with multiple clients at the same time, they bring value by always being aware of what’s happening in the space.

Our next big milestone for hiring could be when we are ready for retail expansion. We are part of Sephora’s Accelerate program. As part of that program, we are in discussions with Sephora about potentially partnering with them. There would be very clear goals attached to this expansion which make me confident in this approach.

Matt Mullenax, CEO and cofounder of Huron

Courtesy of Huron

How the team’s structured: When we launched in July of 2019, it was just myself and my cofounder Matt. We eventually hired our first employee in March of 2020. We still haven't worked in an office together, which is crazy.

  • We do work with a few folks who are contractors on the design side, on the development side, on the fulfillment side, but from a core Huron team, there's four of us.
  • The rationale behind that is I never really believed in investing ahead of growth from a team perspective. We always wanted to spend a lot of time evaluating people, making sure that these first few hires were really good fits from several perspectives.
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The growth trajectory: In early Q4 of last year, we hit an inflection point and the growth trajectory fundamentally changed. We had so many things going on: We launched an entire new category, it was our first Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

We're expecting our growth curve to be pretty steep. Given some of the tailwinds we had coming out of last year, coupled with some of new initiatives we want to tackle, now's when we should build a team a bit.

The recruiting roadmap: We've etched out one or two roles that we're currently missing from the team.

  • There are some functions that will fundamentally live in house, like customer service. With one-to-one customer interaction, there's so many data points you can get.
  • Opportunities like a fulfillment center for us or outside development help are best suited not in-house at this stage, because Shopify is largely plug and play.

What I've struggled with, given that we're such a small team, is unfortunately recruiting and meeting people. Recruiting has been one of those things that occupies a time slot on my calendar every day and all the time it gets pushed.

I could be doing other things, but I need to be out there to be meeting people to be having conversations so that a few months from now, we have that A+ team who is going to catapult us to a crazy year over year multiple or whatever our internal goals are.

Nell Diamond, CEO and founder of Hill House Home

Courtesy of Hill House Home

How the team’s structured: As of last Monday, for the whole year, we were six people including me as CEO. We also have a COO, a director of product development, a design director, a chief product officer, and [an employee] who was running customer service and has just been promoted to associate marketing manager.

That's not a totally exhaustive list because a huge number of brands who have teams under 10 really rely on freelancers and consultants. So we often call those people part of the team, but they might not be full-time employees.

The recruiting roadmap: We think about growing our team really as it relates to the growth of the company. So from a budget perspective, we tend to do it on an annual basis and we lay out our budget for the year ahead and the sales goals we’re trying to move toward.

We're really more slow and careful to hire. I'm sure there are plenty of moments when we could have benefited from a different team structure, but it's not quite cut and dried. It really depends on internal workflow.

  • If people who manage certain verticals of the business, it's not tenable or sustainable anymore for them to be doing it on their own. That's really how we do it, where we think we need support based on inability to manage things completely on our own.

We have a diversity and inclusion board and one of the key things that they were tasked with this year was our hiring practices. That's one of the reasons that we post every job in the same places every time. Every set of interviews is completely uniform. And we worked with an outsourced expert, Dr. Akilah Cadet, to be sure that we were hiring and promoting at all stages of the company in a way that aligns with anti-racist company values.

Sam Lewkowict, CEO and cofounder of Black Wolf

Courtesy of Black Wolf

How the team’s structured: The team is my brother and me, a content manager, and a project manager. That's it. There was a thousand percent growth in year one. Then from year two to year three, there was 400% growth.

I wish I had a team that was bigger. But the realities are that I don't want to onboard a huge overhead. It becomes challenging when [things] needs to be done immediately and there's no one around to do it.

  • You can picture rowing in a row boat and there's a few holes here and there. You can plug them yourself with your feet and hands, but eventually there's too many of them and it starts to fill up the boat.
  • You start to forget things, you start to miss key points of the business that you shouldn't, because you're focused on too many things. When that happens, you know you need to add somebody.

The recruiting roadmap: What I'm looking to do is more and more Amazon and retail. Amazon and retail are so profitable in our space that we can support an overhead—but direct to consumer is like a drug. You paid for Facebook or Google ads, you get sales, you rely on reorders for this to work. It's a balancing act for cash flow. You really need that retail and Amazon, the wholesale profits, to pay for overhead. So that's what we're waiting for.

  • As we grow, we probably will have to go hire a recruiter. Honestly, in the last six months or so I've been finding a ton more success by just tweeting that I'm looking for something.

The growth trajectory: Going from a seven figure business to an eight figure business, which is the transition we're going through now, you can no longer rely on just doing things yourself or you and your core team. At our scale, if someone can come in and increase something’s performance by half a percent, that’s hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of value.

  • Back when we were doing $85,000 in our first year, it wouldn't have made sense to hire anybody because there was no change you could have brought to the business that would have had any impact.
  • If you're looking at ROI on people, you have to see what possible impact can they even have on revenue. And if the revenue is not high enough, it can't possibly make up for it.

Connie Lo, cofounder of Three Ships

Courtesy of Three Ships

How the team’s structured: When my cofounder, Laura Burget, and I started Three Ships, we split our roles in the simplest way: front-end and back-end. I managed anything customer-facing, aka marketing and sales, and Laura managed product development and cash flow. As we've grown, it was crucial for us to bring on people to assist in growth marketing and social/community management first and foremost, as these were areas we did not have as much experience in and that have huge impact on the business's ability to scale.

The recruiting roadmap: As a small team, we constantly feel like every team member is taking on the roles of three to five people. When it was just Laura and me, I managed all PR, social, email marketing, blog, retail outreach, brand partnerships, and much more.

  • When it came time to hiring our first employee, we looked carefully at the areas we were both less interested and also less qualified in, to hire out.
  • As a result, our first hires were in social media and growth marketing. Moving forward, we will continue to use this method for hiring, by hiring more qualified candidates for our areas of weaknesses, so we can focus on our own zones of genius.

I remember once hearing a rule of thumb that for each additional $1M in revenue, you can bring on a $65-80K salaried hire. We don't hold ourselves to these rules because we believe that hiring and team expansion is more of an art, and a strategic decision, rather than purely a numbers game. For us, we think in terms of added value (including time saved and redirected to higher-value areas of the business) compared to the cost of the new hire.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.