by Hannah Jennings-Voykovich

Quit Your Job, Break the Rules, Go Wild

Emma Mcilroy wanted to find a way for the tomboys of the world to dress well. When she did, she helped create Wildfang, a nexus of gender expression, politics, and fashion. We talk to the self-made CEO about what it takes to quit your day job, and create a community while you’re at it.
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Back in 2012, something was keeping Emma Mcilroy up at night. Emma, along with her workmate and best friend Julia Parsley, were having conversations with women like them—the tomboys of the world, who wanted the aesthetic provided by menswear, but reinvented, retailored, and modernized. Tomboys were showing up everywhere—in music, on TV shows, in the sporting world, and even on the odd runway—but there was no one-stop-shop for people wanting to get the look. Emma’s mind whirred with ideas.

Emma says, “I think most entrepreneurs have a similar story where they can’t sleep at night because they are thinking about their idea, and it gets so juicy. After months of conversations, customer insight and interviews in people’s homes, we just said, ‘This thing has to exist. Someone has to create this home for these bold women, and give them clothing choices that they don’t have’. That was it.”

Both Emma and Julia were employed in brand and marketing at Nike at the time, which meant working on the idea that would become Wildfang at night and on weekends. Emma and Julia spent the better part of a year conducting insight interviews with would-be customers, and began to put together a picture of what a loyal customer would look like. To encapsulate this attitude in the name of the business, Emma and Julia initially landed on Tomboy, but were told by a trademark lawyer that they’d need tens of thousands of dollars to defend it. Undeterred, Emma researched how to say tomboy in other languages.

“I was speaking to a friend who speaks old German and asked, ‘What’s the word for the kid who’s disheveled and they come in from play-fights with the boys, and climbing a tree, and they’re all over the place?’ She said, ‘Oh, that’s a wildfang!’, and it was settled.”

WILDFANG: WELCOME TO THE FAMILY from WILDFANG on Vimeo.

The big bang

Wildfang launched as an online-only store in April 2013, and things began to move very quickly. Tomboys from all over the world were starting to hear about this online haven for blazers, bow ties and all things dapper. Some heard about Wildfang from word-of-mouth, others from an all-star celebrity endorsement video that featured world champion soccer star Megan Rapinoe, Hannah Blilie, from indie band The Gossip, and Kate Moennig, who played TV’s original grown-up tomboy Shane on The L Word.

It didn’t take long for Wildfang to outgrow its online-only presence, and by August 2013, what had been the company’s office, photo studio, fulfillment center and more was converted into a retail space. By 2015, the company had opened up another retail spot, and just two months ago, fulfillment outgrew its surroundings and had to be moved to another location.

This rapid growth presented challenges to Emma and the team, who quickly learned that their growth could be hampered by how far in advance orders need to be placed.

“When we ordered product initially, we weren’t planning on opening stores,” says Emma. “You have to buy six months out from release, so we ended up with stock allocation problems. With online and the stores both needing stock, we had to decide where things were going to live, because stock was too limited to have them live in all channels.”

Emma says that despite the teething problems, building an offline presence has been invaluable to the business. “The stores allow us the ability to get a very quick read on new products, because we don’t even need to photograph them. We can put something in front of the consumer and get an initial read off them immediately, which is a huge benefit. Our stores are a great customer acquisition tool for us, and they’re profitable, too.”

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For love and money

Turning a profit is important to any business, but from the outset, Wildfang wanted to be more than just a money-maker. The flagship store plays host to a number of regular events, including “Meet the Maker”, where customers can meet the person behind brands stocked in store, and “Free Speech”, a monthly themed event where women speak on topics such as rule-breaking, pride, and entrepreneurship. A portion of proceeds from the events go to organizations such as Planned Parenthood and I Am That Girl.

Politics permeates everything Wildfang does, but it’s an easy fit for a brand that has been built by and for women who co-opt and subvert clothing traditionally made for men. For Emma, Wildfang was built to provide a brand to a community desperate to live life louder, prouder and more comfortably.

“We are entirely consumer driven, and I know so many organizations say that, but we only exist because of them,” says Emma. “If we don’t serve them and speak on behalf of them, we shouldn’t exist. It’s not that the world needed another retailer, it really didn’t. There’s a lot of people who can probably ship you stuff faster or slightly cheaper than we can. That’s not what we are here to do.”

Emma says, “We’re here to create a place in which you feel fearless to self-express. Whether it’s style choices, sexuality, gender or whatever that’s been holding you back, we’re here telling our girl to get out there and do whatever you want to do in this world. Our mission is to fuel our girl and to allow her to be herself. We have to care about what she cares about. This is a really unique time in America—and in the world—where our girl’s rights are being challenged. We can’t stay silent, because she cares too much.”

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Getting the girl

When Emma talks about Wildfang’s “Girl”, she’s talking about the type of person that comes into their stores, or buys online.

Emma says, “We talk about her to the point where we give her a name, career and life, because unless you humanize your target, it’s very hard to relate to them and understand them. But we never talk about our consumer or consumer target, those aren’t words we use.”

The real-life incarnations of Wildfang’s girl materialize regularly, both in store and online. One such girl sent a custom-made guitar to the store, while others make special trips to visit the store when they’re in the area.

“We had a girl from New Zealand change her flight to come here,” says Emma. “She was in LA for a developers’ conference, and after realizing that she was never going to be on the West Coast again, came all the way up to see us. This is why our girl is so special to us. When she does things like this for us, the least we can do is return the favor by being welcoming and encouraging to her.”

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Advice for entrepreneurs

It’s been three years since Wildfang launched to customers, and in this time Emma’s learned a lot of lessons about spending, saving, and being accountable. But with Wildfang’s girl in mind, she’s got a few pieces of advice for folks looking to get their start in business, and in adult life.

Sell yourself

“Our first approach with the business was to ask, ‘How many people can we find that want to be a part of this?’. I always recommend entrepreneurs to do this. An investor once said to me, ‘If you can’t convince someone to quit their job and come work for you or to give up some of their time to work on this, how are you gonna sell it to me or to a consumer?’”

Use the right tools

“At the start, we didn’t have any financial tools, which made it hard to track and to figure out what was going on. Now I have tools in place to track budgets, expenses and receipts carefully.”

“Tools go beyond programs, though. People and expertise are also important tools for any business. We just hired a VP of Finance, and already we can see a shift in how organized that part of the business is. We’re so much more on top of things now, and really understand our cash position at any time.”

Be accountable

“I feel like I learned the opposite of being accountable at my past job, where I learned to make everything I did look amazing. We were never taught to discuss failure, and were instead expected to focus on the good side and sell it. Selling anything, even failure, is a skill in itself, and it’s obviously one that’s helped me raise money, but it’s not good for campaign activation in the long run. I recommend that if you’re going to run a campaign, rip it to shreds when you’re finished. Tear it apart, figure out what worked and what didn’t, and take personal responsibility for failures; you’ll start to get a ton of learning.”

“We make a habit of having these rich discussions, with no risk of firing or reprimand, because we want to never make the same mistake twice. I make sure that those conversations are driven from the top, because if I admit my faults publicly, people feel like they can be honest. Also, speaking out means there are going to be three other people that remember you saying what didn’t work. I think we have a culture where we publicly own, discuss, and appreciate failure. And it leads to never wasting money again, so it drives the bottom line, too.”

Learn your financial baseline

“I left a six figure job to make no money for 16 months. I put 50 grand of my own savings into the business. These days, with my income and the money my girlfriend makes running a bar, our combined wage is much less than I was making at Nike. But we’re great and have an amazing life, and I feel like every day I’m coming to work and doing something I love. And that’s not meant to be all ‘sprinkle roses over it.’ It’s an incredibly powerful thing when you learn how much money you can get by on. When you’ve figured this out, there’s nothing to ever be scared of.”

Get ready for financial sacrifice

“I’ve never worked so hard my entire life. A minimum week for me is 70 hours and a bad week is 85, and it’s been this way for four years. Be prepared to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. The responsibility of other people’s livelihoods depending on you is something you can never be ready for.”

Do it your way

“If you’re starting a business, I guess my advice isn’t really advice, because I know what it’s like to get started with an idea and want to go for it. If our girl is going out there and getting her idea off the ground, she’s already a strong, confident woman. And if she’s anything like me, that strong, confident woman wouldn’t take my advice anyway.”

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