COLUMBIA — It took about 48 hours for serial entrepreneur Clay Bethune to realize his curated fashion website was a winner. On its second day, 9th & Elm sold $1,000 worth of clothing and other merchandise.
"It's been the funnest thing I've ever done and the hardest," Clay Bethune said. "I've never worried about users, but the hardest thing was scaling the business online."
Elly Bethune said she realized the online platform's potential after watching the growth of Elly's Couture, a fashion shop the couple founded in Columbia in 2006.
"I think the 'aha' moment was just when we did so well with independent designers in the store," Elly Bethune said.
The idea for 9th & Elm started with a problem: Thousands of independent and handmade designers want a place to sell their creations, but existing platforms such as Etsy bury their products among thousands of search results on the site. Independent designers rarely capture the attention of customers, and customers can't always find exactly what they want.
On Tuesday, 9th & Elm will mark one year of operation, and the Bethunes are making headway in their effort to resolve that problem. The site now has 56,000 users and features 400 to 500 handpicked designers.
"When people think of independent designers, we want not only Etsy but 9th & Elm to come to mind," Clay Bethune said. "There can be two players in the space."
The site looks a bit like Pinterest, but instead of pinning a product, you can buy it. Users register for a free account on the site and then shop by featured designer or category. Each week the site pushes a handful of designers, all chosen by the 9th & Elm team, on its homepage and offers "flash sales" on featured products. Users can also browse archived products, such as a few hundred tops or bracelets, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of search results found on Etsy.
The site promotes its products through social sharing, which Elly Bethune said is the best advertising in retail.
"I think your best marketing in any retail environment is word of mouth because all girls talk," she said.
9th & Elm targets women ages 25 to 45, and the more they talk, the more products the site sells. Each product featured on the site can be shared to Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, and sharing is rewarded. Any user whose social media post results in a new customer receives an amount equal to 10 percent of that customer's purchases for six months in the form of website credit.
The reward program is just one of the features the Bethunes recently added to increase traffic. In April, Elly Bethune started a blog for the site with photos and posts on how to pair their products. She models 9th & Elm clothing, jewelry and accessories and advises readers on style.
The Bethunes are enhancing the website and gearing up for expansions. Clay Bethune said the site has received seed funding and he will announce the details next month. He hopes the site will surpass 100,000 users by the end of the year and eventually have 10,000 handpicked designers.
For now, Elly Bethune said she enjoys helping designers find the right niche of people who will love their products.
"I just think it's really cool we have a platform for independent designers," she said. "They're so appreciative because some of them can't afford to have booths in huge markets. (I want to) continue to look for those designers who don't have a platform, those diamonds in the rough."