The experts

Finnegan Shepard (he/him), founder of trans-focused apparel brand Both&. Finnegan Shepard founded Both&, a brand that specializes in clothing for trans men, as a response to what he felt was missing in his own life. “It’s accidental entrepreneurship. I was just waiting for someone to make something,” he says. His approach to growing the company was simple: putting people and their needs first.

Kel Rakowski (she/her), founder of queer dating and community app Lex. Lex started as an Instagram account called Herstory, where founder Kel Rakowski posted vintage photos of queer people. She later launched Personals, an Instagram account for queer romance-seeking personal ads. “I came out later in life, and I felt very isolated from the queer community,” says Rakowski. She realized something was missing: an app where queer people could connect. She bootstrapped Lex and has found that people use it to create friendships as often as to find dates.

Gefen Skolnick (she/her), founder of inclusive coffee company Couplet Coffee. With Couplet Coffee, Gefen Skolnick wanted to create a funny, accessible, and inclusive coffee brand. Her work in tech, including at streaming service Hulu and electric-car brand Tesla, gave her insight into funding a business. She went full-time with Couplet in 2021 and the brand is now on 350 shelves across the US. Its success is a combination of factors. “The number 1 thing that I’m always trying to preach is: create the leverage that you weren’t born with,” says Skolnick.

Customer loyalty And retention

Turn your fans into ambassadors

Many LGBTQIA+ businesses are born from a personal need that connects them to their audience. Rakowski says that Lex wouldn’t exist without the followers of Herstory and Personals, who stepped up to raise money for the brand’s new iteration. Through Kickstarter fundraising parties, Lex raised £55,000. “We’re completely enmeshed in our community,” says Rakowski. 

While turning fans into ambassadors can be difficult, this organic community puts many LGBTQIA+ entrepreneurs in a unique position. “Consumers who are buying based on dopamine and targeting don’t become real ambassadors, because there isn’t a heartfelt connection to [the brand]. Start out creating something people actually need, and then treat people with dignity and respect,” says Shepard.

Where to start

Whatever your business does, find a way to connect with your fanbase and customers and turn them into true ambassadors. To do this, start by creating genuine relationships. 

1. Connect

Both Rakowski and Shepard speak to their customers on video calls every week to understand what they really want from their businesses. Whether it’s surveys, referral programs, or polls, find out who your fans are.

2. Reward

For Rakowski, the fastest way to build solid connections was to hire community builders in several US cities who organize parties and get the word out. These people are excited, engaged and, importantly, they’re paid for their time. It's important to recognize ambassadors for their brand loyalty and engagement. It has to be worthwhile for them too.

3. Influence

Rakowski has spent nothing on advertising for Lex, but she does work with fans of her product who post on Instagram and TikTok, offering them a referral program to invite their friends. Organic social media marketing and word of mouth are still unparalleled. 

Try this: treat everyone with respect and kindness

Rather than worrying about metrics or numbers, says Shepard, “you just need to be a human and get on Zoom calls with people.” That means listening if people aren’t happy. “Listen to their needs, adapt, apologize when you get something wrong, or improve designs when they need to be improved. Move with integrity as you build the business.” While you’re never going to make everyone happy, you need to build a good and stable foundation to grow successfully. “If you move with integrity, build a product people need and treat everyone with respect and kindness, you’ve got the golden ticket,” he says.

Customer engagement

Growing your social media presence

One of the key ways you can connect with your audience is through social media. It’s also one of the best platforms you have to see how many people are responding to what you’re doing. For Rakowski, it was a seamless transition to launching Lex because she had such an engaged audience for Herstory and Personals. “We started building the hype, and they were all part of the journey. They put their money in and they were there for us. There was this moment [when] the app launched and everyone had been waiting for it. They immediately went from Instagram to download Lex.” But how do you build that kind of commitment?

How to Do It

1. Find your voice

Skolnick cultivated her own brand on Twitter and transferred that authenticity to Couplet’s Instagram. “When you go on our Instagram and see what we represent, we’re queer-forward and we’re funny.” As the majority of the business’s staff are queer, that voice comes easy. “We have a baseline understanding of the same pop culture.”

2. Sometimes smaller is better

As a smaller brand, you can sometimes get jealous of companies with bigger followings. However, Skolnick says a smaller amount of engaged followers is better. “If you look at our comments section and our engagement rate, it’s super high. We don’t have that many followers, but they’re engaged, which I’m proud of.”

3. Be authentic

Avoid following generic advice if it doesn’t vibe with your company message. “When people talk about social media management, or community, or all these buzzwords in marketing, they make it far more complicated than it is,” says Shepard. “If you’re creating a product that people genuinely need, that’s step 1.” Your product and message should come first.

Consider this: sometimes social media might not work for you

There might be some hurdles when connecting with a marginalized community on social media, such as shadowbanning (when a platform hides or restricts a user’s content without informing them). Lex was blocked from Instagram for using certain words that related to its community and it wanted to stop depending on the social media platform and have its own space. It may pay to diversify your online presence so you’re not reliant on one particular platform’s algorithms.

Product development

Getting valuable feedback from your customers to improve and innovate

When it comes to developing and improving your product, there’s no one better to guide your decisions than your community. Once you’ve developed a genuine connection with them, you can innovate while knowing that you’re not alienating your core base. 

Where to Start

Go back to basics. Surveys are a tried, tested, and reliable way to take the temperature of groups of people. You don’t need to go knocking door to door—with an international audience, you can use the internet to your advantage.

1. In-app surveys

Within the Lex app, there’s an ad where users can sign up for research. Rakowski has a spreadsheet that she uses to email people if the brand is going to launch a certain feature or wants the audience’s perspective. That enables her to connect directly and keep her audience happy.

2. Social media polls

As Both& operates on a limited budget, it’s often unable to produce as many styles or colors as it wants. When it started doing denim, it put a poll up on social media with 3 color choices. The winner was made—everyone’s happy, there’s no waste, and you’re keeping it simple.

3. Interviews

Doing in-depth interviews with your most engaged customers is the best way to identify what can change. “Through research, we began to hone in on what would need to change in terms of fit, sizing, and developing our initial prototypes,” says Shepard. That means being open to criticism, especially as you grow.

Try this: stick to your intentions

As you grow, you might struggle to stick to your original mission or remember why you started. When serving your community, you always need to keep your actions aligned with your intent. “I didn’t feel like there was a brand that represented the nuance of younger generations’ relationship to language and visual representation when it comes to gender identity and presentation,” says Shepard. He wanted Both& to be a “thoughtful, intelligent brand that came across as having a philosophy or leading the conversation,” he says. As it grows, it continues to respond and adapt to the community. “By prioritizing our core values, it’s been a pretty organic and constant move upwards.”

Four things to consider

1. Be human

For Shepard, getting to know his customers intimately was an early learning. “At the beginning of ventures, you need to do things that don’t scale,” he says. The time you spend on customer satisfaction might not immediately supercharge your revenue, but it could create sustainable growth. “Early on, I’d get on a video call to help people figure out sizing,” says Shepard. Of course, if you’re doing this well, there’ll be growing pains. It’s no longer possible to connect with every single fan but, he says, the company wouldn’t be where it is now without those early connections. “It’ll teach you who your consumer is and what your business really wants to be.”

2. Do brand collaborations

Brand collaborations can be a game-changing way of gaining access to new audiences when you’re smaller. Skolnick says that Couplet is going all in on collabs: “It’s just so tough to acquire customers. We’re collaborating with everybody who we really jive with, who has brands that are similar and maybe overlapping audiences,” says Skolnick. “You can try reaching out to brands who you don’t have a lot of leverage with, but they’d throw you in to be nice—like, throw you into a giveaway.”

3. Take it IRL

When it’s time to grow your business, the best way to turn your customers into evangelists is to give them space to connect with you and other customers IRL. “We have a lot of people who are really proud to have bought our limited-edition drops in 2021 before we launched,” says Skolnick. Couplet puts on queer events in LA and says it gets 300 people through the door every time—some of whom are repeated. “People come up to me at the events and I make sure that they’ve all felt heard and welcomed,” says Skolnick. “I want to be intentional, speak to people, and be open if they want to tell me if anything needs to change.”

4. Hiring

A huge part of your growth journey will be hiring new employees and it’s key to maintain your integrity. She hires through her communities—friends, baristas, followers. It’s easy, she says, because anyone who doesn’t align with the brand’s mission won’t likely want to work with her. “It’s been pretty easy to find the right people when we’re already so embedded in our communities. It’s all embedded in the mission and the communities that we try to represent and create things for.”