Minnidip CEO Emily Vaca: I make design choices very purposefully
It’s hot. You can’t go to the beach. You can’t go to the neighborhood swimming pool. You can’t post stylish photos of a Carribean vacation.
So what can you do? Bring the vacation to your own backyard.
That’s what thousands of customers did when they ordered Minnidip pools this summer. Minnidip, which has been in business and self-funded since 2017, saw an explosion of direct-to-consumer sales for its adult-sized kiddie pools, beach balls, coolers and more in 2020.
By August of 2019, Minnidip sold over 100,000 products online and through retailers like Target, Bloomingdales, and QVC, according to Fortune. But this summer, sales spiked: Target doubled their inventory from 2019 and sold-out by early August, Minnidip Founder Emily Vaca says. Online, through direct-to-consumer channels, the brand’s top sales day was 3,700 percent higher in 2020 than 2019.
“We could not keep Minnidip in stock anywhere,” Vaca says. “We had brand awareness and viral interest in the product from the years prior, but it became so much more functional and necessary.”
Drawing on 15 years of experience as a brand consultant at design agencies, Vaca launched the company with an Instagram-first strategy targeted at young women. For her, design is the ultimate differentiator for consumer brands.
I asked Vaca for her playbook on design strategy, brand building, and creating products with distinct messaging. Her answers have been lightly edited and condensed.
How did you get the idea for Minnidip?
I was hosting a party on our brand new rooftop in Chicago with my boyfriend （now husband） and I wanted to have a pool for everyone to dip their toes in. I wanted to get this thing called a stock tank, which is what I grew up swimming with in St. Louis, and he said no. He told me to just go get an inflatable pool.
We’re both designers and my heart sank — I knew there wasn’t going to be an inflatable pool out there that wasn’t hideous.
Everything I was doing was very design focused, and I just wanted it to be a beautiful party. That’s when the light bulb went off: Why is no one designing beautiful inflatable pools?
How did you launch the business?
A few years passed and I told my husband I really wanted a product on Target shelves. That was my goal. I’ve always had that entrepreneurial mindset even while I was working in advertising.
He reminded me of my idea about the inflatable pools, so then I started really tackling how we would produce it. Honestly, the design, the marketing, the website, all of that stuff was — not quite the easy part — but it was what I had experience in. That part was kind of natural to me.
The thing I had never done was manufacture a product. I had handmade products, but never reached out to a manufacturer. That was the toughest part. On top of that, it was going to be first to market, at that time nobody was making beautiful inflatable pools, so I had to be very careful with who I reached out to.
Once I found the manufacturer and got that ball rolling, the next steps were creating the patterns, the packaging, the brand, the logo, the website, the social. Those were all things I could make for myself. That just took sweat equity and time. So we were in a good position, being able to fund the inventory itself was really the hardest process.
We launched on Instagram. The reason our product works so well is because it’s so Instagramable, which is also the reason I created it: I was looking for that beautiful photo of a rooftop party back in 2013.
And Minnidip is self funded?
Yes, we self funded luckily because I was still working full time for the first year and a half from when we first reached out to manufacturers to when I quit my full time job as an Associate Creative Director in advertising.
I was in a good position that we could use my salary to help fund the business up until that point.
Who is Minnidip’s core customer? How do you balance marketing to both young, trendy millennials and parents in the suburbs?
I created it for the 20-something-year-old with limited outdoor space like a rooftop or balcony because that’s the reason I needed it. I had a rooftop and we were in our late twenties, early thirties.
So we always marketed it towards young women. But as traction increased, we also saw moms looking to buy something that their kids could use, but also something they didn’t mind looking at. That opened a different demographic.
We also have so many sorority girls using the Minnidip, we’ve seen pictures of them on small balconies in New York or on rooftops in Chicago, so our demographic really contains a little bit of everybody, surprisingly. We’ve even seen pictures of Minnidips in living rooms during quarantine. We’ve seen them half on a balcony, half in a living room filled with water. We’ve seen parties where everybody has their own pool in somebody’s backyard.
What is your advice to brands to avoid becoming bland in their design strategies? How do you avoid coalescing around the same designs as other brands?
I think that’s happening because brands are approaching design from a business standpoint. Everything starts to look the same because as trends emerge — what logos people are responding to, what packaging they like, what names work — brands take that data and try to mimic something that is already working.
As a designer, I came at it from a more artistic, conceptual side. I had data backing up the product and the market, but as far as the brand, I built that using my intuition. In order to avoid that, it’s important to find inspiration outside of what you are doing. I did this thing in the beginning to ask “What brand are we?” across completely different industries. Are we like Apple? Are we like Nike?
Those brands had nothing to do with the product we were developing, but it helped us articulate kind of like the design aesthetic and emotional gravity that people have towards those brands. If you look outside of your own industry, I think it helps. You just need more inspiration and more visual data to create something completely unique and fresh.
What’s the most important thing for emerging brands to focus on?
1. Having a conversation with your customers. If you’re direct-to-consumer and can have a conversation with your customers, and if you’re launching something that is relevant to their current conditions, really keep that in mind. Communicate from a functional standpoint what you can do for them right now.
2. Design. You can’t skimp on design. Everything is so visual right now, especially when people aren’t in the store as much, and they’re not interacting with your product on a shelf. You get more time to catch their attention online and then tell them more about your brand.
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