Since launching in 2019 Immaculate Vegan has grown to carrying over 100+ vegan, ethical and sustainable independent brands and thousands of products, and its monthly sales have trebled year on year.
The online marketplace – based in the UK but servicing a global audience – recently landed £400,000 in its first funding round from investors and an angel fund.
Co-founder Annick Ireland tells VIVAS about her startup journey to date, including the business model she uses, how she grew the brand without much paid advertising and more.
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How and why did you come up with the idea for Immaculate Vegan?
I became vegan a few years ago and initially found it difficult to find beautiful, high-quality fashion that was also vegan and sustainable.
After a lot of time spent researching brands on the internet and social media, I found that there were actually many fashion-forward vegan brands out there, but they were hard to find – so I started Immaculate Vegan as an Instagram blog in order to curate and share the best vegan fashion I could find, to help others looking for ethical and sustainable alternatives – and to elevate the profile of vegan fashion and show people you can be vegan and stylish too!
Developing this into a retail platform was a natural next step.
How is it different to other online vegan/eco retailers?
There are quite a few sustainable marketplaces out there but the vast majority aren’t vegan, and are selling items made of leather, wool and silk, which we don’t think is very sustainable!
Not only are we 100% vegan, but we also really focus on carrying classically designed, high-quality and fashion-forward brands and collections that we carefully select and curate ourselves.
We have a quite specific aesthetic and quality standard. We also look at sustainability and ethics across the board, focusing on the four key criteria of materials, manufacturing processes, packaging and ethical labour.
No brand or retailer is perfect but we try to be as comprehensive as possible.
What business and sales model do you use?
We are a drop-shipping marketplace, which means that we don’t hold stock, so when a customer orders a product from us, the item gets shipped from the brand itself.
However we do everything up to that point, including managing all customer payments, and we manage all customer communications and customer services.
Why did you choose this approach over the others?
Firstly we believe it’s the most sustainable approach, as it eliminates needless carbon emissions and use of resources from not having to have the item packaged and shipped to us, and then repackaged and shipped out again to the customer.
We also don’t have to run major warehouse operations in addition to those of our brands.
Plus we don’t end up with unsold stock, so it reduces waste.
It also means we can carry very large numbers of brands and products as we aren’t limited by the upfront costs and space needed to house stock.
What were some of the key challenges starting out and how did you handle them?
There are so many challenges to running a business, from operational ones like making sure we have the technology to sell multiple brands from around the world, to customers around the world, with different shipping, and cross border taxes, to constantly working to find the best vegan brands out there are getting them onto our site, to raising our first round of investment.
I don’t think it’s one thing, but it’s juggling all these things, and the thing that has helped me the most is having a brilliant co-founder and supporting team to support me, including freelancers we work with in areas like SEO, digital advertising, PR, accounting and legal.
Working with people who are experts in their field and can help you solve problems you can’t manage by yourself is critical.
You’ve trebled your turnover since you launched in 2019. How did you do this?
We’ve been self-funded until very recently so we had hardly any money to spend on marketing.
So it’s been largely through organic work like SEO and organic social, plus returning customers and word of mouth.
We have also had some good PR coverage that has helped for sure, including being featured on BBC News and in Vogue and Marie Claire.
What was the most successful marketing strategies?
We have primarily focused on unpaid activities, such as growing our social profiles. We post every day on all the key channels.
We focus a lot on content – our Immaculate Magazine is all about informing and inspiring people who want to learn more about everything to do with ethical and sustainable fashion and living.
We’ve also had such great results in our SEO work, and we’re now on the first page for search for many of our categories.
I see you have a strong background in marketing: How has this helped you grow the business?
I’ve spent twenty years working in marketing leadership positions in large businesses and that has hugely helped, both in terms of having a strong strategic marketing focus, and also understanding how all the marketing channels work together across the marketing funnel.
My co-founder also has a very strong marketing and eCommerce background, so we have found that very helpful.
Having also run large departments and – in the case of my co-founder, his own business – also means we are very comfortable in business strategy and running a P&L.
How do you decide what brands to carry?
We look for brands that share our values. We set high standards, and every product we sell has to pass our test of both aesthetics and ethics. We look for products that are beautifully designed and well made, but that also meet the following criteria:
Materials – is the brand using 100% vegan materials, and also the most sustainable materials possible? Are their vegan leathers PVC free and ideally either bio-based or using recycled materials?
They don’t need to be a vegan brand, but they do need to demonstrate to us that the products they want to sell through our store are 100% vegan and cruelty-free.
Manufacturing – is the brand using the most sustainable manufacturing processes it can?
Ethical labour – do they work with their suppliers to ensure their workers are paid a living wage, are treated fairly and ethically, and work in a safe and hygienic environment? If they use factories, do they have any fair or ethical labour accreditations?
Packaging – do they use the most sustainable packaging available, such as recycled, recycable, zero waste, or plastic free?
What are the most popular items?
Our shoe categories are the most popular, including trainers all year round and either boots or sandals depending on the season.
Our most popular brands are Allkind, Watson & Wolfe and LUXTRA. They all focus on beautifully classic collections using very high quality and sustainable vegan leathers, and I’m a huge fan of all three of them.
And the WEEK/END Crossbody bag by Frida Rome is our bestselling item. It’s such a unique style, and it’s handmade in the UK using the most gorgeous cactus leather. All of us in the Immaculate Vegan team have bought it!
How was the business funded before you got your recent investment?
It was self-funded equally between me and my co-founder Simon Bell.
How did you go about getting your recent investment?
Primarily through doing a lot of research ourselves and reaching out to people and funds directly.
Building that network is super important, not just for this round but for our future rounds.
Who runs Immaculate Vegan besides you?
We have one permanent member of staff who is our eCommerce manager. She manages all our brand onboarding, product management, and customer services.
I manage all the marketing, including all our social media and email programme.
Simon my co-founder is in charge of operations and technology.
We have a brilliant team of freelancers who provide part-time expertise and support in PR, SEO, book-keeping, accounting and legal, and we have recently appointed a great new digital advertising agency.
What lessons have you learned, either personally or professionally or both from launching and running IV?
Firstly how beneficial it is to do it with someone else, preferably someone that has different, complementary skillsets to you.
Launching a new business is really challenging in so many ways, as well as exciting and motivatin), and you need so many different skills to run all aspects of the business, covering marketing, content, sales, design, finance, legal, operations. You can’t cover it all yourself.
The other benefits of partnering up is that each of you can give perspective to the other when they need it, and help each other through the lows, which occur as least as often as the highs!
And secondly how important it to be to be flexible and be willing to pivot when it makes sense – don’t cling on to a vision of how you thought it would be, or your long-term business plan, if things have changed and they’re no longer relevant. Keep adapting.
What’s next for Immaculate Vegan?
We started with vegan women’s shoes and bags, so this is the area we are strongest in, but we now really expanding our clothing categories too.
We will also grow our men’s offering, which is currently pretty small, and we plan to launch Immaculate Kids soon.
Ultimately we want to make sure we have a strong offering in every key category in every region around the world, so that customers have a great choice of vegan and sustainable products that they can also buy locally.