Weatherford Democrat

July 22, 2013

ONLINE ONLY: Working with college girls to sell style

By Thomas Heath
The Washington Post

— Advertising executive Karen Zuckerman has assembled a small army of college women across the country to spread the word about her ambitious Rockville, Md.-based dorm-decorating company.

Aptly called Dormify, the start-up — funded with $2 million from a dozen investors and Zuckerman herself — is going head to head with big brands like Pottery Barn, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond as it tries to capture a slice of the collegiate-spending market.

Dormify sells stuff online, such as vinyl wall decals that make you believe a chandelier is hanging from the ceiling. The biggest chunk of its business is bedding, which includes sheets, duvets and decorative pillows under girly names like "California Girl" and "City Chic."

What interests me about the business are the 300 style advisers positioned across 150 colleges. The goal is to create a national network of Dormify ambassadors who will spread the brand through blog posts, photos and updates on social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Typical topics run the gamut from basic decorating tips to how to get into a sorority.

"If people like our content, then they are going to be interested in our products," Zuckerman said. "We try to touch on content that all college girls are interested in."

Zuckerman is betting she can blow out the Dormify student brigade into a national distribution channel that not only sells dorm stuff but one day helps young women and couples outfit their apartments after graduation — and maybe even decorate their first homes.

In return for volunteering — style advisers don't get paid, but they can receive a commission from sales — Zuckerman's employees learn to become young businesswomen. They learn how to communicate verbally and in writing. They make contacts. They learn how to market themselves on the Internet.

"We teach them what to do, how to be better social-media writers, how to pitch us stories, how to come up with ideas," said Zuckerman, 49, who with her husband has built a highly successful Rockville, Md.,-based integrated advertising firm called HZDG, which also has offices in New York.

Becoming a Dormify style adviser is no layup. Each one is interviewed and tested for writing skills, initiative, creativity, design and the ability to recruit other style advisers.

Each of the 300 style advisers sends two blog pitches a month to Dormify. The pitches are evaluated by a Dormify employee whose job is to work with the advisers full time. Out of 600 pitches per month, about 60 — or two a day — make it onto the Dormify website. Some blogs make it onto national media websites such as USA Today College and Seventeen magazine.

"It's competitive," said Jorie Walton, 21, a rising senior at Indiana University who hopes the internship propels her to a job after graduation. "It's opened a lot of doors."

Zuckerman sells the adviser program as professional development, although the women can earn money by hosting home or campus trunk shows for Dormify products. Each adviser also has her own code, which allows her to get credit when she spurs someone to buy a Dormify product.

All of this began in summer of 2009, when Zuckerman and her daughter, Amanda, were shopping for dorm-room decorations before Amanda's freshman year at Washington University in St. Louis.

As they went from store to store in their search for dorm chic, Amanda turned to her mother and said, "What if we created our own line of fashionable dorm decor ourselves?"

If only I had that gene.

Zuckerman suggested Amanda start a blog at school focused on decorating dorms and the challenges students face.

"I told her to do what she was interested in," Zuckerman said.

Mom then went to work on the business side. She did her research, which told her that college students and families spend an average of $907.22 on dorm decoration, which comes to $5.4 billion annually.

"My 25 years in design and marketing allowed me to be able to do this," said Zuckerman, who is chief creative officer of her firm. "I have a vast amount of knowledge producing anything. We figured it out."

She wrote a business plan. Built a marketing strategy. Used her creative staff at HZDG to put together brand ideas. She invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in a blog, a website, and designing and manufacturing a product line. She found a company in Boston to create posters that looked like bicycles, lampposts, big flowers that give rooms a sense of style. She launched the company on three product lines: posters, wall decals and bedding.

Dormify has a licensing agreement with 15 national sororities, which allows the company to produce apparel and accessories in the sororities' names.

In its first month of operation, July 2011, Dormify brought in $6,500. A year later, it had increased its revenue to 10 times that amount. The company is expecting to earn $200,000 this month alone and break even for the year, with around $1 million in revenue.

Dormify calls itself a "social commerce company" and rents warehouse space in Reading, Pa., where its products are packaged and mailed to customers.

Zuckerman estimates the company has sold to customers at more than 300 colleges.

Nearly all of Dormify's customers are young women and their mothers, although this week it is launching a new line of "performance sheets" for men's beds.

Dormify offers free consultation online and has an average sale of $125 per customer. Zuckerman said students can decorate a dorm room for about $500. A set of sheets, a duvet and pillows start around $150.

As the going-back-to-school days approach, Dormify has opened a pop-up stand in downtown Bethesda, Md. Next year, it plans to have pop-ups in major shopping areas around the country.