Boutique success story Filly Flair embarks on new stage of growth

May 14, 2018

This piece is presented by the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.

The other day, Laura Benson did something stereotypically rare for a millennial on social media: She hesitated to post something.

The photo in question “wasn’t ‘aesthetically pleasing.’ And I look less than great,” she wrote in the post, which did ultimately happen.

But the image, and the story that accompanied it, sum up the unique life that Benson, 31, has built for herself.

“Yesterday, a $100 million+ shoe company came to visit me at my warehouse,” wrote the owner of Filly Flair, a boutique she founded earlier this decade that has made it big.

“Eight hours later, I was arms deep in a cow saving these two twins’ lives,” she finished the story, paired with a photo of the recently born calves.

Her life, concludes the woman who lives on a farm near Colton not far from where she grew up, doesn’t look like anyone else’s and doesn’t have to.

“You don’t have to have the perfect closet and hair to be good at selling clothes,” she said. “Just like you don’t have to compare anyone else’s life to your own.”

As hundreds liked the post, it created one more social media-driven snippet of inspiration for a business owner who, incidentally, is very good at selling clothes.

In less than a decade, Filly Flair has become an online leader in the boutique industry. With more than 1 million followers on Facebook, Benson has built her business from a sideline hobby to a company that’s creating jobs in everything from social media marketing to retail and warehousing.

“Honestly, there’s no time when I sit back and go, ‘Wow, look at this.’ I’m not wired that way,” she said. “I’m always looking at my next goal.”

Birth of a boutique

Benson grew up on a dairy farm near Crooks, where a work ethic was born that still carries her and where she began a business to earn extra money.

Starting from her basement in 2010, she began ordering and selling western “blingy belts” when she would compete at rodeos. At first, the goal was just to cover her fees. But without telling anyone, she set up a website.

“So the minute I was going out and letting people buy from me, I was giving them business cards so they could also buy online.”

Before Facebook had business pages, she used a personal page to market her products. She stepped away from the business briefly but got it going again in 2012 and watched things take off.

“We went from two employees to eight in about a year and had moved three times because we kept outgrowing our location,” she said.

She took photos of the merchandise herself. And then one August day, taking a break on the farm, she looked at her phone to find a dress she was selling had taken off.

“Thousands had shared this photo,” she said. “It was insane, and I had to go call and see if I could get more dresses.”

She has learned the industry along the way, basing buying decisions off the instant feedback and sales she was seeing online. At the forefront of the online boutique boom, Filly Flair capitalized on offering the right product on the right platform.

“It was just the beginning of my generation realizing they could purchase online from boutiques, small boutiques,” Benson said. “Social media was at a really great stage where you could put anything out there and reach all your customers. And it exploded. It was definitely a snowball effect, and it went crazy.”

 Scaling the business

Benson, a self-described tomboy, has never been enamored by the clothes and shoes that constantly surround her.

“The thing I think people don’t realize is when you’re talking retail, a storefront or a warehouse, it’s not super glamourous,” she said.

The team will try on merchandise when it arrives at her Sioux Falls storefront at 57th Street and Louise Avenue, but quickly learns as “anyone in retail knows, it is pretty crazy and very fast-paced,” she added.

As the business has evolved, she has been able to leverage relationships in the fashion industry to create merchandise privately labeled for Filly Flair. It has allowed her to further customize what she sells as she continually hones in her head who the boutique’s customer is and what she wants to buy.

Her team has grown to 20 people — it just happens to be all women right now — including paid models, photographers, social media marketers and customer-service staff.

Many of them work out of her warehouse, which is expanding with a new 20,000-square-foot space this summer in Baltic.

“If there’s ever been a time where I’ve been like, ‘Wow,’ this is really happening, it’s been the new warehouse,” she said. “I feel like every time I go there I cannot believe that building is mine. It’s really cool. I’ve been really excited to have a really awesome workplace for my girls.”

Social media has helped recruit staff, too.

While Facebook helped build Filly Flair, it also led to careers for people such as Nebraska native Clara Grace.

A few years ago, her husband saw a post that the business was looking for someone to help with social media marketing and suggested she apply.

At first, the job entailed posting merchandise up to 12 times per day on Facebook. But it has grown into more.

As creative and marketing director, Grace handles everything from Instagram strategy to coordinating models and photographing, crafting product descriptions and overseeing sales goals and activity.

“It’s a great place to work. It’s a tight-knit group. We all are there for one another, and if you ever need anything, someone is going to step up and help you,” she said.

“It’s great to have that feeling in a small town that you grow and you can have a job that reaches thousands of people a day. You don’t need to work in a big city to have that. We’ve had a great time and learned a lot and grown and started doing things and going places that we would have never dreamed of.”

Social media is still a huge method for reaching customers, she said.

“Good news travels fast and so does good fashion,” Grace said. “We aren’t solely dependent on it, but it is a good portion of how people hear about us, and we take pride in having those great online experiences and making sure our customers share their experience with Filly Flair with their friends.”

While the algorithms behind social media platforms have changed enormously since Facebook catapulted Filly Flair to a national audience, “I still believe today you could start from nothing and create a business,” Benson said.

She’s also quick to point out that her location in the Sioux Falls area helped bolster her success.

“Especially in a small town, my overhead was so low I think I could sell clothing cheaper than other places at the time that were doing it,” she said. “I did not have money. I didn’t come from money. If I had to invest tens of thousands in a storefront or large warehouse when I started, I would have never been able to accomplish what I have today.”

Here’s how Filly Flair has found the right fit in business and staffing:

  • Listen to the customer. Benson does all buying herself and started by watching what sold and ordering more. She has evolved into private labeling for Filly Flair that allows her to further customize merchandise.
  • Evolve with social media. When Benson started, Facebook didn’t have business pages. She has continually adapted to how social media platforms have changed, including significant marketing through Instagram and Snapchat.
  • Use social media to help in hiring. A Facebook group of loyal Filly Flair customers has led to employees.
  • Continued development. Benson began her company in her 20s and acknowledges she had to learn to be a business leader – and that she’s still learning.
  • Create a positive work environment. “We sell dresses,” she reminds herself. “Life is too short to not enjoy your job.”
  • Be adaptable. As a small business, what Filly Flair can’t offer in benefits, it offers in flexibility. If an employee is out of paid time off and has a sick child, Benson will allow that person to leave.
  • Build team camaraderie. The company culture embraces helping each other, Benson said. During the summer, she’ll rent a boat and hold a team day on the lake.
  • Recognize that working for a startup has benefits and challenges – and it’s not for everyone. “Things change so quickly, and to be able to ride that progression, positions have to change and morph into whatever is happening in the company,” Benson said.

To see more workforce development strategies, read the latest edition of WIN: Workforce Information Now from the Sioux Falls Development Foundation.

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Boutique success story Filly Flair embarks on new stage of growth

From her basement in Crooks, Laura Benson has built an industry-leading boutique.

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