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How Olivia Carr is turning her luxury silk brand Shhh Silk into a $50 million business (with the help of the Kardashians)

Olivia Carr admits she probably wouldn’t wander onto Kris Jenner’s property to hand-delivery a set of silk pillowcases if she had her time again.

Having founded her silk brand Shhh Silk in October 2015, the Australian entrepreneur made the bold play within a matter of months in a bid to get the word out about her products.

“I really was quite naive,” she says about the celebrity gift.

It was the first time Carr had come across the kinds of gated communities favoured by America’s rich and famous and unbeknown to her, Jenner’s famous daughter Kim Kardashian and her son-in-law Kanye West were also living at the property. She also only had queen-sized products in hand, when, of course, celebrities own king-sized beds.

“It was terrifying to be honest,” Carr tells SmartCompany.

“I’m a realist and when I started the business I gave myself six months to make it work. I knew I needed to do something big, as I didn’t have huge investments behind me.

“I decided to fly to America and make sure [the Kardashian family] found out about my products. I knew they already loved silk, and I believed my product was amazing — I just needed to literally get there.”

Carr managed to hand-deliver her parcel of pillowcases to the reality stars’ doorstep, along with a handwritten note about why she had flown all the way from Australia. She didn’t get a response for several months, but when she did, it was worth it.

The message came via Carr’s PR agency in the US: Kim Kardashian loved Carr’s pillowcases, even though she hadn’t been able to use them on her king-size bed.

Carr acted quickly: she introduced a range of king-size pillowcases, which in turn, kicked-off Shhh Silk’s customisable range. It wasn’t long before Kim Kardashian was placing an order for 30 customised sets to give away to some of her app followers.

Three years later, Carr says Shhh Silk has ongoing personal relationships with the teams that work with all of the Kardashians and Jenners — just three weeks ago Kylie Jenner’s assistant ordered some travel pillows — and the brand’s interaction with the family has become much more than a “transactional” one.

In turn, the Melbourne-based brand has been able to unlock rapid growth, in part thanks to the Kardashians’ and Jenners’ powerful endorsements on social media. Shhh Silk products are sold in more than 45 countries worldwide, the business employs a staff of 11, and it’s forecasting revenue this financial year of $3.3 million.

And it no longer only sells pillowcases; Shhh Silk now sells more than 120 products, including sleepwear, a haircare range and products to help customers take care of their silk goods.

Why silk?

Shhh Silk is not Carr’s first business, but it’s one born from personal experience as a shopper.

Twelve years ago, Carr founded a national touring, educational theatre company called SHOWS 4 KIDS, which she owned and operated for four years and which gave her the honour of winning a Young Entrepreneur of the Year award.

The venture fitted with her personality — “I’ve always loved doing my own thing” — but Carr admits as a young business owner in her 20s, she didn’t necessarily have the right mix of skills and experience needed to make it a success.

Over the next 10 years, Carr set about learning a lot of those skills by working in corporate roles, primarily in sales and marketing. She worked as a corporate partnerships executive at the National Breast Cancer Foundation and as general manager at Pacific Brands, which at the time was home to well-known consumer brands Bonds, Sheridan and Berlei.

“That’s where I had my first taste for the online space,” says Carr. Pacific Brands was just starting to look at developing its online presence and the “whole world” of e-commerce was an exciting prospect, she says.

Recognising that she’s also someone who’s full of ideas and “not easily managed” in the corporate space, the entrepreneur decided to walk away from corporate life and find a better way to use her creativity.

She took her children on a five-week-long holiday to the US, and on the trip, struck on the idea for Shhh Silk. A long-time user of silk pillowcases, Carr realised how difficult, and expensive, it was to replace them when the one she had brought with her to the US was accidentally taken away with the laundry at a hotel.

“When I got home I had a few other ideas in the tech space, which I’d seen over there, but at the same time, I was on the internet trying to replace my pillowcase,” says Carr.

“I literally had a light bulb moment and three days later, I launched the business.”

The value of relationships

From finding the best suppliers to work with in China, to fostering close ties with reality TV stars, Carr is a firm believer in investing time in building relationships.

The power of these relationships in driving Shhh Silk forward can be seen in Carr’s ongoing relationship with the manager of the gift store at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Shhh Silk has a wholesale deal with the store, and has supplied approximately 7000 pieces of silk sleepwear to the hotel’s guests, in a print designed especially for the venue.

Carr locked in the deal in early-2017 after a special visit to the hotel. At the time, Shhh Silk wasn’t in the wholesale game but she had a hunch the hotel was where the brand needed to be.

Carr says the hotel’s store receives hundreds of enquiries a day from brands wanting their products on its shelves, but she managed to convince the store manager to try one of Shhh Silk’s pillowcases for one night. All Carr asked for was a meeting the following day if the manager liked the product.

Like Kim Kardashian before her, the manager did like the product and she emailed Carr the next morning. The two have since become friends and are even planning to go shark diving together in March in Australia. And the deal itself has proved game-changing for Carr’s business.

“I think what is different about me is I do really form quite personal relationships with these people,” Carr says.

“I appreciate what they are doing for us so much.

“It really does need to be genuine … you need to really be careful about who you work with, they are relationships to cherish and nurture.”

Likewise, when working with celebrities, Carr says the interactions need to be “very personal”.

“Never put anything in a box and just send it off,” she says.

It means being creative and offering something unique, says Carr, who believes “every celebrity wants what no one else has”.

To this end, Shhh Silk has gone as far as creating custom pillowcases for Kim Kardashian’s makeup artist in his favourite shade of grey, which cannot be purchased by anyone else. The brand also spent months putting together a special birthday present for Kylie Jenner. While it only cost $126 to make, the pack was one of two gifts Jenner posted about on her personal Snapchat account, and “you can’t pay for that” kind of exposure, says Carr.

It’s also why Shhh Silk chooses not to pay social media influencers for posts.

“The whole space is quite ridiculous,” she says.

Whereas three years ago Carr says it would have been possible for brands to secure influencer posts on Instagram simply by gifting products to the influencer, now brands are paying “upwards of thousands for entry-level influencers”.

“It’s a very very competitive space to be in,” she says.

Conversely, Carr says most celebrities who are already wealthy are not necessarily looking for $10,000 payments for simple social media posts. They may take on multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, but there’s still the opportunity to “connect with them on a personal level by doing something truly amazing”.

“My advice is just to think outside the box,” she says.

The $50 million plan

Carr has ambitious goals for Shhh Silk and says her plan to turn the brand into a $50 million business will come from both expanding into new international markets and further developing the company’s wholesale accounts.

Since bedding down the deal with the Beverly Hills Hotel, Carr says Shhh Silk has been “inundated” with wholesale requests from international vendors also looking for custom designed silk products. And there are “multimillion-dollar talks” underway with potential partners in Europe and America.

“They are quite large-scale deals,” she says. “Obviously, it’s scary because at the start we have to take the risk, but that’s why you are in business.”

There’s also plenty of new products in the pipeline, says Carr, and the brand will soon be rolling out new projects designed to connect with its everyday customers, not just celebrities. The focus will be on “capturing our customers and making them our own internal celebrities,” she says.

Getting back to the basics is a theme that also comes through when Carr is asked about what she would do differently if she was founding Shhh Silk today, knowing what she now knows about running this type of business.

“In the first year I would have been more focused on numbers and the behind-the-scenes, the daily essentials of running a business,” she says.

She counts herself “really, really lucky” that big things happened early on for the brand, as it was the PR and branding opportunities that captured more of Carr’s attention, compared to profit and loss statements.

It’s a different story today, with Carr finely attuned to the brand’s financial performance and aware of the “fine balance” entrepreneurs need to strike between taking risks and ensuring the survival of their businesses.

She recalls one instance where a risk cost her $90,000 upfront, which was “a lot of cash that could have been invested elsewhere”. The experience prompted her to implement design-thinking frameworks in the business to ensure all new ideas are put through their paces first.

“You don’t lose the idea, but maybe you test it,” she says.

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