Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Arnaud de Montille and, with my wife Béatrice, we founded Merci Maman in 2007, a brand of personalized jewels, hand-engraved in our London & Paris ateliers, and sold online. The name Merci Maman, which means 'Thanks Mom' draws inspiration from the bond between mother and child, as well as our French roots.
Our company was founded on the bond between loved ones, and celebrating beautiful moments, through our personalized pieces. Our main target market is women, aged 25-45, but Merci Maman is for anyone really.
Our flagship products are our necklaces but in particular our ‘Duchess Necklace’ which was worn by Kate Middleton in 2014, and is still a best-seller. Today, we ship 75,000 orders a year all over the world and generate over $5m of sales.
Kate Middleton in 2014, Arnaud and Beatrice de Montille, The Duchess Necklace
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The company was started by my wife Beatrice de Montille in 2007. We had two children, and Beatrice wanted a better work/life balance. She applied to be part-time in her previous job, but this was rejected, so she quit.
Prior to starting the business, Béatrice worked in sales and marketing in the food industry (Danone and Del Monte) and I was in Banking. With these different backgrounds and skill sets, we are very complementary.
After 6 years in the background helping her during the evenings and weekends, I joined the company in 2013. We were only 6 employees at the time and it was a huge risk, which paid off in the end. We are 40 now and counting.
The idea for Merci Maman came about when Beatrice wanted to purchase a personalized gift for our daughter's first birthday. She could not find quality products at affordable prices online and realized there was a gap in the market.
She began hand-engraving jewelry and embroidered gifts, and two months later she was selling them at Xmas fairs and school fairs. Six months after that, we launched the business online.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Béatrice always liked DIY, whether it was sewing or decorating, and she was very keen on the idea not only of engraving but also embroidery. We started the business very quickly - we had the idea in September 2007 and within a month, and had found suppliers, equipment, branding, and samples. In November 2007 we started trading, just in time for the peak Christmas season.
Be ambitious. Aim to grow fast. Partner with brands bigger than yours. We have partnered with huge brands such as Emma Bridgewater, Cath Kidston, and Birchbox which has really helped brand awareness. Aim high.
Start-up costs amounted to approx $10,000, financed with our savings. All profits were completely re-invested back into the business to help it grow. All the legal side was easy with the UK sole trader & self-employed status. The legal entity Merci Maman Ltd was created in 2010 when Beatrice had her first employees.
A team image from 2014. All 6 employees are still with Merci Maman today
Describe the process of launching the business.
For the first 3 years, a majority of our customers came from knowing Beatrice, Christmas fairs, and word of mouth. We launched our website in 2008, and it’s come a long way since then.
We see lots of ‘mompreneurs’ but this is usually a hobby rather than starting a business and wanting to structure and grow it. It was not the case for Beatrice. She wanted to create a proper business, offer perfect customer experiences (quality products, great customer care, fast deliveries), and wanted to create jobs. She would always go on holiday with her stock and engraving machine to ensure perfect customer service was kept up and no deliveries were missed. There was no downtime.
The biggest lesson learned throughout this whole process is: Go for it. Do not wait to have the perfect product, perfect marketing, and perfect timing because it will never happen. Markets move fast, you test, learn, improve, and repeat.
The website from 2014
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, in 2007, social media didn’t exist like it does today, so we relied heavily on word of mouth. We also went to craft fairs to sell products.
PR has also been a big driver for us, through awards, celebrities, and in particular Kate Middleton. Having the Duchess of Cambridge wear our necklace sparked huge international interest and got us to where we are today. We had been tipped off previous to the media publishing this, which prepared us and gave us a huge advantage. In more recent years, influencers are also a large part of our PR strategy.
The Duchess Necklace was worn by Kate Middleton
Test your concept or products before making large investments or quitting your day job.
After expanding our offices in 2016 in Paris and in 2018 in Berlin, we also translated the website into both Spanish and Italian to expand into more countries. Innovation is at the core of our business and exporting strategy, with a focus on developing other markets through our website and marketing campaigns to build long term relationships with partners and work closer to local influencers and journalists. This has been a huge success with local teams in Paris and Berlin, doubling revenue within 18 months of opening.
We invest heavily in digital marketing, through Facebook and Instagram advertising and also Google Adwords. Each market differs with the spend, and what works for them. We use a strategic combination of re-targeting existing customers for repeat orders, and recruiting for peaks at Christmas, Black Friday, and also Mother’s Day.
We use our Social Media channels (mainly Instagram where we have over 200,000 followers globally) to share our company culture and inspire and entertain our audience. Each campaign is carefully planned, ensuring marketing messaging is right for our audience. All the markets then translate this or adapt it to suit their country.
We have many repeat customers, due to the high levels of customer service we provide. This is shown with our Feefo platinum awards for 5 years running. We have also won several other awards, including the Queen’s Award for Enterprise in the category of International Trade which is the highest accolade a business can receive in the UK. This is a great honor to Merci Maman.
Beatrice & Arnaud with the 2017 and 2020 Queen’s Award for Enterprise, Meeting the Queen at the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Reception
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In the current climate of Covid-19, we are hitting our targets pre-COVID, and we continue to grow year on year around 20-25%.
We have always been profitable, and our profits are partially shared with employees through Christmas bonuses and re-invested to grow the business. We have never needed external funding. Today, 80% of our sales are from our own website, with over 1 million unique visitors in the last year. The remaining 20% comes from platforms such as Neiman Marcus in the US, or John Lewis in the UK.
In the US, we have had great exposure and PR in the past, being featured in US Weekly, people.com, and CBS news. We also sold our products on Neiman Marcus’ website until March 2020, and we are increasingly growing on Etsy. Although US sales are shipped from London, we have a loyal customer base in the US and Canada and hope one day to open an office in the US.
At the moment we’re working on improving our products by innovating and differentiating ourselves even more, and working on a new version of our website for better customer experience, especially on mobile. Last but not least, and we are working on our Corporate Social Responsibility. This has always been at the heart of our family business, and it is even more important in the current Covid-19 crisis.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We are focused on a niche, but there is still a lot to do in that niche. We narrowed down our product offering a few years ago and stopped selling embroidery. We refocused from ‘Personalized gifts’ to ‘Personalized jewelry’.
Aim to grow fast. Partner with brands bigger than yours. We have partnered with huge brands such as Emma Bridgewater, Cath Kidston, and Birchbox which has really helped brand awareness. Aim high - we applied for the Queen’s Award, which is the highest accolade in the business and has now won two.
And finally - Be yourself. Be humble.
One thing we could have done differently as a business is that we opened to many new countries, without investing enough in marketing. We are now investing more in marketing, especially digital marketing to help grow these.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are currently migrating our website which is on OpenCart over to Magento 2, which will allow us to offer more personalization and improved check-out options, Mobile traffic is increasing year on year, it represents 80% of our traffic but conversion rates are much lower than on desktops. We need to ensure our customer journey on mobile is as smooth, if not better – on mobile.
For our emails, we use Ometria, which we also use to look into customer data. The platform
Integrates with our website, Facebook, and more to give us insight into who our customers are. Ometria allows us to build personalized email campaigns using their unique data.
For customer service reviews, we use Feefo. We recently won the Platinum trusted award, which helps improve our customer trust and recognizes the hard work our customer services team does.
We also use tools such as Slackwhich is used for all countries to communicate, Asana to log requests for graphics, and a growing one for everyone’s business at the moment – Zoom, to host weekly meetings with the teams.
For marketing, all teams use Planoly for Instagram to visually plan and schedule posts, and also Readly, which I’m not sure is available in the US but is an app to read all magazines for a small fee each month. This is really useful for finding PR which we may have missed otherwise.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I draw inspiration from a variety of people and things.
- First and foremost, my family, friends, and children are a source of inspiration everyday.
- The team at Merci Maman. For example, the brainstorming sessions we have around product innovations.
- Leaders such as Nelson Mandela. I love the quote ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together’.
- Other Mumpreneurs such as Emma Bridgewater and Chrissie Rucker (Founder of the White Company). Funnily enough, successful mumpreneurs have many children (3 to 5) like me.
- The American can-do attitude and positivity
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My top tip would be to test your concept or products before making large investments or quitting your day job. This can be done relatively easily. Your product will rarely be 100% perfect, and you will never be 100% sure that it’ll work, but by receiving feedback, you can make improvements and go for it. Entrepreneurship is tough but it is also extremely fulfilling.
Failure is intrinsic to entrepreneurship. You can make 100 decisions per day, and you obviously get some wrong. You also need to accept that your team will fail sometimes – see this as a learning curve. It proves they continue to try and innovate. Just make sure you and your team make more good decisions rather than bad ones, and you learn from your failures and share these. As the company grows, so will you.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Although we are currently in a pandemic, we are still recruiting. We have recently hired a Digital Marketing Manager, and also are looking to recruit more customer service team members to keep up with the growth of sales.
Later this year we plan to strengthen the e-commerce team further, looking into increasing conversion rates and more. We’re also looking to improve our content creation and do more video & photoshoots.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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