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August 31, 2016

Each week, we seek expert advice to help a small or medium-sized business overcome a key issue.

They are the yog-elebrities: teachers and star students in the yoga community, or at least during afternoon class in their local studios.

They likely have a following on Instagram. They look tanned and glowing and, come wintertime, they are off retreating in Hawaii or studying in India. If they have enough of a social media following, they may receive free yoga clothing from manufacturers

(Photo by Darryl Dyck for The Globe and Mail)

Leah Emmott can’t quite compete with that. Her small Vancouver company, Inner Fire Apparel, can afford to offer only $120 worth of free products, more if they contribute to her company’s blog or write reviews. Yet creating an online hub for teachers and studio owners has helped Inner Fire expand quickly.

The company is known for its colourful leggings and jokey yoga-themed tops. One of its big sellers has “I’m just here for the savasana” printed on the front. It’s been so successful that Ms. Emmott has trademarked the phrase. (Savasana is the resting pose at the end of yoga practice, the joke being that if you’re here only for the savasana, you’re just here for a lie-down.)

Beyond the clothing, Inner Fire’s website has a section devoted to Luminaries, as Ms. Emmott calls them. They are teachers and practitioners semi-endorsing the clothes, a little like the Elite Ambassadors at yoga and athletic wear giant Lululemon Athletica Inc.

Lululemon is also Vancouver-based, so it would seem tough to start a yoga wear company in what’s already the world epicentre for yoga pants.

“I think Lululemon has done a lot of great things that I’ve learned from. They’ve paved the way in building a brand culture. I don’t ever knock them, because I feel I owe everything to what they’ve done,” said Ms. Emmott, who is 30.

Her style, though, cultivates a more grassroots vibe.

Inner Fire’s clothing is locally made in Vancouver (as was Lululemon’s for many years) and uses eco-friendly material such as supple polyester recycled from plastic water bottles. It is made in small batches with little variation in the cut. It’s more about the colours and exuberant patterns. The company has a handful of full-time and part-time employees.

About one-third of Inner Fire’s sales are online, direct to customers. The remaining is wholesale to retailers, typically small boutiques. Some are as far afield as Australia and Europe, but most sales are made in North America, particularly in Toronto, Ms. Emmott said.

Yet Inner Fire isn’t selling just clothing, but a lifestyle. She explained that the Luminaries program “is probably our biggest asset. Word-of-mouth marketing is for sure the most powerful form.”

Ms. Emmott herself is undoubtedly her company’s biggest Luminary. Her personal story is central to the brand. With a business degree from B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, she graduated in the economic trough of 2008 and found herself in a series of entry-level marketing jobs. She left that treadmill to become a fitness and yoga instructor only to be derailed in late 2011 by an illness.

During her recovery, she began silk-screening her funny yoga tops. They were a hit, and she spent the following year seeing where the project would go.

The challenge now is managing Inner Fire’s rapid growth. She still wants to design the clothing as she has always done.

“Getting bigger is the challenge, and making sure that I’m able to be in a creative space,” she said. “I’m now managing people, I’m managing expectations. There are so many more customers now, and customer service is a really big part of it.

“At the same time, more customers means more people talking to you. And so growing the team is what I’m trying to do, and [for me] not to be so involved in the business, but work on the business more,” she said.

The Challenge: How can Ms. Emmott grow her company while maintaining its grassroots identity?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Christine Faulhaber, president and chief executive officer, Faulhaber Communications, Toronto

Leah has done a great job establishing brand advocates. But I would recommend that she use them further. Could these Luminaries host yoga events for consumers or even for media or bloggers and other influencers in their own individual markets? Could she use these Luminaries to do Instagram takeovers or Facebook live chats? I think there’s more to be done on the integrated social-media platforms.

And could they have these ambassadors work with the company on focus groups to truly understand more about what their target consumer is looking for?

Nicole Chetaud, consultant for yoga and fitness businesses, Larkspur, Calif.

She doesn’t have a yoga studio. She’s just creating yoga wear. So, in order to stay in touch with her consumers’ needs, what’s current and what they would want, I would recommend she do a number of events with local yoga community studios. Partnerships, if you will.

As the yoga industry becomes more corporate – every other person is creating T-shirts, leggings, there’s a lot of competition out there – where are consumers going to go? They are going to choose the company that they have an emotional attachment to. So the more she creates that story, “this is how we began, this is how we do it, these are our partners and people we care about,” that creates more intrigue. Every yoga brand out there has to do that.

Beth McTavish, owner and co-founder, Halfmoon Yoga Products Ltd.,Vancouver

Ethics are important for any business, but yoga in particular. All of our customers are very aware of that. I was actually at Wanderlust, a travelling yoga festival, a couple of weeks ago, and Inner Fire was there. Their booth was just swarmed with interest.

As the company grows, go back to the mission, vision and values of the company. Be honest with yourself from the get-go. We use those values to make every decision in the business. Should we hire this person? Does this person fit our values? Should we take this action, or what should we do at this fork in the road?

The quality of your product, your delivery, people see that. And people in our industry are considering all the eco-costs of it, where it came from. They are very, very conscious of it.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY COULD DO NOW

Broaden the use of brand advocates

The public conversation online between Inner Fire and its brand ambassadors could be more robust, particular on social media.

Host yoga events and tell the company’s story

There is so much competition for customers that creating an emotional attachment is necessary.

Keep ethics in mind

Keep your mission, vision and values top-of-mind when making business decisions.

Follow Report on Small Business on Twitter at @globesmallbiz.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Follow on Twitter: @Guy_Dixon



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