The following is the 19th in the series in which branding expert Melanie Spring takes us along on her three-week road trip across the country to meet innovative entrepreneurs whose experiences offer lessons learned to businesses big and small.
With the tagline "Everything New Orleans," Fleurty Girl is the place to visit for those checking out The Big Easy. From T-shirts to gifts and full-on Mardi Gras outfits, this store has the New Orleans brand all over it. With five locations and 30 employees, many would view founder Lauren Thom's concept as a huge success. But what most fans don’t know is it all started with a $2,000 tax return and an almost lawsuit.
A single mom with three kids, Thom had a great job with a company car and phone plan, along with full benefits for her and her family. Although it seemed like she had it all, she knew she wanted to do something more with her life. With her 2009 tax-return money, she designed fun T-shirts for women, built a simple website and sold out almost immediately. She reinvested her earnings into more T-shirts, expanding designs and eventually opened a Fleurty Girl storefront.
Later that year the Saints got into the Super Bowl, so Thom created black and gold t-shirts with “Who Dat” on the front. The store had a line around the corner waiting to purchase these shirts. Then Thom received a cease-and-desist letter from the NFL saying she wasn't allowed to use the Saints phrase. When the New Orleans Times and Good Morning America showed up at her storefront, Thom left her job and her benefits. The story of the NFL scaring a single mom's T-shirt store got so much press that an apology letter from the NFL came shortly after. FleurtyGirl was on the map.
Six months after the first store had opened, she opened a second and then another every six months until she had five stores scattered across New Orleans. FleurtyGirl was branded NOLA and is now the place New Orleans goes to dress up for All Saints festivals, Mardi Gras, football and for custom-branded NOLA T-shirts.
Here is how Thom went from a one-woman shop to a big brand.
1. When you hit big, give back big. The Fleurty Girl brand celebrates New Orleans and because they make money through embracing the culture, they give back to the city to keep its own brand growing.
"Jazz in the park is part of the culture of New Orleans and the city just couldn't afford to keep it going. Fleurty Girl donated $10,000 to help pay the 10 bands for their opening concerts so the tradition didn't die," explains Thom.
The company even uses proceeds from T-shirt sales to support social enterprises like Evacuteer, which allows those without transportation to snag a bus seat during mandatory evacuations.
Also, when a local bakery burned down, Fleurty Girl made a T-shirt for them and raised $10,000 through the sales to give bonuses to the bakery employees while they went through the rebuild.
2. Hire for enthusiasm, teach the rest. Thom’s inbox is flooded with emails from locals wanting to work at her stores. Because each of her stores is almost like a museum, she hires people who love NOLA just as much as she does. The staff has to be knowledgeable about the city, its history and places to go to appease the tourists visiting the shop.
"I can teach the register to anyone, but I can't teach people enthusiasm. You just have to have it to work here," says Thom on her policy for hiring.
With benefits like free T-shirts and a 401(k), the Fleurty Girl staff takes pride in being flirty while also being very involved in the community. They want to help the city thrive and keep tourists coming back for more.
3. Use social media to educate, not sell. From day one, Thom rocked social media and built a following to preach the gospel of New Orleans. Her first true love being the city itself, she knows how to get you to fall in love with it too. Her passion fuels her fire for building Fleurty Girl, and it shows in her social-media presence. With more than 18,000 Twitter followers and 70,000 Facebook likes, Fleurty Girl reaches locals and tourists alike.
"I've made our social media a window into the world of New Orleans so that natives who have moved away, tourists who love NOLA and locals can see what's going on around the city."
She's not just documenting what happens at the store but is out and about all the time capturing NOLA-style.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances of Thom's job loss.