When You Have Hundreds of Post-Its, 2 Entrepreneurs, and 4 MBAs…

Open Road — Week Two by Team WCKD Wolverines

Have you ever had a musty, mildewy bath towel that just won’t dry properly no matter where or how you hung it? Before this week, we didn’t know there was actually a solution to this. This was until we heard about waffle weave towels, one of the main products sold by Gilden Tree, an Omaha-based e-commerce company that specializes in waffle bath towels and foot and body care products that are responsibly sourced from Pakistan. We had the opportunity to work closely with Ann & Kumy Thariani, wife and husband co-owners and founders of Gilden Tree, to learn the ins and outs of the waffle weave towel industry.

“Woah…they sold how much?,” Kumy exclaimed in surprise about Onsen, a waffle weave creator who recently launched both Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns. “About $1.7 million,” I responded. Although they had been selling waffle weave towels for years, Kumy was dumbfounded that this type of appetite existed for a niche set of towels that mostly only Europeans and European travelers liked. With this type of market validation in place, Ann and Kumy had one main challenge for us: “Help us sell more waffle weave towels.”

Minutes later, after getting a stack of sticky notes and a set of markers together, our team sat with the entrepreneur couple in their 12,000 square foot warehouse and engaged in an hour-long collaborative brainstorming session. Even though Gilden Tree has existed for 27 years, we wanted to brainstorm a wide array of potential customers that they could expand to with their waffle weave towels. “How about people who live in tiny homes?,” one person threw out there. “Oh I love it! What about AirBnb hosts?”, another posited. The quantity and disparity of ideas was astounding and after an hour, we had over 200 sticky notes posted all over the walls of the warehouse. With this pile of customer ideas on the table, we knew that the next step was to talk to actual customers. And let me tell you, after speaking with seven Gilden Tree customers, I have never heard a group of customers so passionate about towels. Mold allergies, the humid Hawaii weather, being a design-minded New York City interior photographer. The reasons were endless as to why these customers loved these towels. These seven conversations, in addition to synthesizing the sticky notes from our brainstorming session, helped us to then drill down the target markets for the Gilden Tree waffle weave towels.

With these markets defined and better understanding of the towel industry from our own research, we then set out to make a marketing plan. 3C’s, STP, 4P’s. The business school marketing jargon naturally floated from our team’s collective lips. As we worked late into Wednesday evening laying out a strategic, long-term marketing plan about how to sell more towels, one of our team members had a sudden thought. “Wait, guys — should we check with Ann and Kumy to see if they want something strategic and high-level or a tactical plan that they can actually use right away?” Ohh, right. “Yeah, we would absolutely love something that we could use right now, especially with Onsen entering the market,” Ann informed us a few minutes later.

Alright, time for a change in direction. Luckily, because of all of the upfront research and customer interviews that we conducted, we could now (somewhat) easily go from a high-level plan to more immediate, short-term tactics for the Gilden Tree. Despite the severe time crunch, we realized that to help them sell more towels that this could be achieved through two avenues: increasing traffic from the target markets to the Gilden Tree website and improving the conversion rate. As a team, we burned the midnight oil through late Thursday night, conceiving a three-step tactical, growth hacking-style marketing plan that would ensure that Gilden Tree could increase awareness of its waffle weave towels and convert more new visitors to their site into customers.

On Friday, the final day where we present to our client partners, we sat down with Ann, Kumy, and the rest of the Gilden Tree team to lay out our marketing plan. As we presented the step-by-step ways that they could work with bloggers in the eco-friendly space to get new visitors to their site and the exact areas of how and where to improve the usability of their web site to reduce customer frustration and increase their conversion, we saw Ann and Kumy’s faces light up. They could directly see just how their team, despite size and resource constraints, could use our marketing plan, even in the next day or week to sell more waffle weave towels.

As entrepreneurs with 90 other things to do, they didn’t need an MBA-style strategic marketing plan that may take months or years to enact. They needed something tangible and tactical that they could use right away. They needed something that would help them make sure that even more people could know just why waffle weave towels were better than the musty, smelly towels that hang in most bathrooms across the US.