This month, Mashable announced Sevenly as the winner of America's Most Social Small Business. The three-year-old social good apparel company has gone from a closet office with four employees to a 33-person operation that's raised more than $3 million for charities around the world. Read on to learn how Sevenly harnessed the power of social media to change the way people think about — and wear — charity.
Sevenly co-founder Aaron Chavez isn’t your typical entrepreneur.
At the age of 17, Chavez paid for part of his junior college by creating a social media consulting business — one that eventually paid him a six-figure salary. (To put that feat into context, convincing a small business owner in 2010 — when Twitter was more of a buzzword than a ubiquitous marketing tool — that they should pay a teenager to tell them how to use a website was, at best, a tough sell and, at worst, a Sisyphean task.)
Undeterred, Chavez gained customers and strong reviews, as well as a following in the nascent social media influencer scene. As his star-status rose in California, Chavez caught the eye of his future co-founder and de facto mentor, Dale Partridge, a local entrepreneur, author and social media aficionado.
The two met online and then connected in-person in 2011 at the Identity Conference, a faith-based entrepreneurship event run by Partridge. Though seven years Chavez's senior, Partridge was instantly impressed with Chavez's precocious digital insights and entrepreneurial zeal.
"Aaron was an entrepreneur in the making who was just waiting for it all to click," Partridge tells Mashable. As their partnership grew, the pair realized they had something else in common besides their shared enthusiasm for social media -– they both were enthralled with the work of non-profits and appalled that philanthropic organizations had such a difficult time receiving publicity and funding. "We recognized that there was a massive unawareness of causes and charities that were changing the world," says Partridge.
Inspired in part by social good companies like TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker, both of which were making major waves in the startup community at the time, Chavez and Partridge set out to create a charitable apparel business that not only gave money to causes it cared about, but also explained why those causes mattered.
"We wanted to figure out how we could build a company that blends purpose and profit together,"
"We wanted to figure out how we could build a company that blends purpose and profit together," says Partridge.
The duo was wary of iterative spin-offs, though; they wanted their idea to be original. After a bit of handwringing, they arrived on the number seven and the name Sevenly in the summer of 2011.
The plan was this: Every seven days, the company would feature a new cause, which would fall into one of seven categories: Clean water access, medical aid, human trafficking prevention, hunger assistance, disaster relief, poverty abatement and general aid. To support the weekly causes, Sevenly would hand-design and sell t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts with inspirational messages. Finally, the company would donate $7 from each sale to the weekly cause.
In the beginning, the founders recall working out of a closet inside of another company's office and shipping shirts out of Partridge's living room. Though they struggled operationally, Chavez and Partridge had one major advantage: They both came from social media backgrounds, which meant that they knew how to market a small business online. Immediately, Chavez and Partridge zeroed in on marketing Sevenly through faith-based social platforms with millions of followers.
"The Christian community is very dedicated to supporting causes, so we launched Sevenly on there and it just took off," says Partridge. "This was pre-Facebook algorithm adjustments, so if you posted something in the group, all million people would see it. It was a rare time and an outlier moment where we able to drive that much traffic — a half-million to one million visitors — to the Sevenly site every month.
For a good while, almost 97% of our site traffic came from Facebook.
For a good while, almost 97% of our site traffic came from Facebook.”
“I would reach out to YouTubers who had a million subscribers, and I'd explain our story to them and pull at their heartstrings, and they'd do videos for us and mention Sevenly because they thought it was cool," Chavez says. “It was a huge help in the beginning –- some of those videos had 300,000 views and drove 50,000 people to our website.”
The results of Chavez and Partridge's initial social marketing blitzkrieg were staggering. Despite tempered expectations for Sevenly’s first campaign, the company sold a whopping 864 shirts in its first week, raising $6,125 for the International Justice Mission.
“We would have been happy selling 100 shirts,” says Partridge.
For the next six months or so, Sevenly was limited in its ability to scale. But as it solicited more designers and fleshed out its production and distribution methods, the company was able to offer more styles, colors and products, which in turn attracted more customers.
At the same time, the company was fortifying what it knew best: Social media marketing. Before the practice was de rigueur for both small and large companies, Sevenly had compiled a stocked database of social media influencers who were interested in the company and could get buzz going on the Internet.
Chavez and Partridge, always on the cutting edge of social media, also realized that new, emerging platforms could give the company a leg up. While services like Tumblr, Pinterestand Instagram were relatively unknown at the time, Chavez and Partridge saw promise in them.
"We built social media properties with an influencer strategy and then diversified into Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram," says Partridge, who personally has over 700,000 followers on Pinterest. "We realized we had great conversions with Pinterest, where we could reach a very powerful, feminine buyer."
Chavez and Partridge have made “People Matter” the company's mantra, and they've extended that motto to Sevenly's customers and social media followers, going as far as to create videos for every campaign explaining the mission behind each charity the company donates to. They take pride in responding to individual queries from customers and personally engaging users on social media. They even crowdsource ideas for charities to feature from Sevenly's social followers.
"We want people to know that their money helped a child fighting hunger, or went to building a well in Brazil," Partridge says. "Ultimately, we want to connect our customers to the cause."
Today, Sevenly has expanded from 15 employees (in its first year) to 33 employees, and all of its art design and video production is done in-house. While Sevenly started out offering just shirts, it now sells wall prints, jewelry and bags. Soon, the company will open its first brick-and-mortar storefront in Fullerton, Calif. as part of its new office. The company has raised more than $3,380,000 — no easy feat considering the company does so in $7 increments — and partnered with 89 charities.
What do you think of Sevenly's social media strategy? Tell us in the comments.