The Entrepreneur: Emma Watkinson, SilkFred

CEO of the site which gives independent brands a platform to sell their wares, Watkinson explains why she's trying to spend more time 'on' not 'in' the business

Founder and CEO: Emma Watkinson
Company: SilkFred LTD
Description in one line: SilkFred is a platform for the best independent fashion brands to sell their products online and for shoppers who love cool, unique clothes to discover them.
Previous companies: Worked at,, Whistles
Turnover: £2.7m (last 12 months)
12-month target: £8m

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • SilkFred cuts through the noise of online shopping.
  • It provides a central destination for shoppers to find original yet affordable pieces that their friends won’t have.
  • It is a retail space for the discerning customer and fashion savvy in search of some of the most exciting independent brands around.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Being featured in the Evening Standard as the online business to watch!

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

  • Total transactions through the marketplace
  • Marketing spend
  • Sales by brand
  • Returns rate

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

SilkFred delivery is available world-wide, offering a 24-hour delivery window for UK customers. We plan to continue to build on our growth in the UK and take the company international by 2017.

Describe your growth funding path:

We started to build a business plan early 2011. We raised £150,00 seed money from three investors in May 2011 and I handed in my notice at my-wardrobe the day we got confirmation that the investment was going through.

The second fundraise was via online crowdfunding platform Crowdcube; we had built the technology, brought some brands on board and we raised £145,000 to invest in marketing and growing the business. We have since raised further funding and continue to grow the business.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

Our technology is proprietary and we’ve built the SilkFred platform with our in-house tech team who have been with us since day one. We are a fashion business first and it’s our tech that allows us to do business every day. It empowers us to provide a great experience for brands and customers.

As well as our tech, social media and advancements in online advertising that allow us to reach more customers and get a better return on investment. In addition, cloud server technology allows us to effectively scale as our traffic increases.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We would eventually like to scale up to “a couple of thousand brands”. We are developing technology to personalise the experience so customers will only see what’s relevant for them based on their last visit or shop.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

This changes as the business grows and new challenges present themselves. I’ve found that raising money at the same time as sustaining high growth to be particularly difficult.

There are moments though that stand out as the “most challenging” and one of thes was when we had closed our crowdfunding campaign in 2013 and our largest single investor pulled their investment, dragging us 30% underneath our target. After two months of hard work, we had to rally quite hard to get that over the line.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Taking no for an answer when I should have pushed harder. When we first started, I missed a few useful opportunities because I was too nervous to approach people I felt were too “high level”.

I pushed through that personal insecurity and now it’s a team motto! Do not take no for an answer. It’s surprising what you get when you push for it. We’re more capable than we realise.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

Lack of UK manufacturing and incentives for companies to produce locally. Many young fashion brands who are trying to scale cannot afford to manufacture here in the UK, it’s too expensive. As well as it being great to support the UK economy, it is actually better for retail businesses to be able to produce and replenish stock more quickly rather than wait for long lead times from China or India.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Not having enough focus. You have to be so disciplined in how your prioritise what you do and what the people in your business do.

This is still something I have to remind myself of from time to time. Entrepreneurs are naturally impatient to do everything which can throw your time into a constant state of chaos and it also doesn’t allow opportunity to really focus on results of the things you do.

How will your market look in three years?

Online fashion retail is only still a very young market and it’s easy to forget that because so much has changed rapidly in a short period of time. The market is exploding and the opportunity to expand into new territories, leverage new and innovative retail channels is huge.

We will see more brands sell on independent channels, more people will set up their own brands, and factories will even start to focus on creating their own brands.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Cultivate resilience. I always try and talk to experienced, successful entrepreneurs – the ability to keep going, stay motivated and push through comfort zones seems to be the trait they all have in common.

I’ve also found this to be the case at the different junctures of growing SilkFred and seeing the results.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

I love to travel whenever I can. That said, I don’t get to do it as much as I want to so I would definitely say shopping…

Executive education or learn it on the job?

It depends on the person. I learnt on the job and it was incredibly challenging but I’m not convinced an MBA would have given me the same insights.

What would make you a better leader?

I would like to spend more time developing my team, setting clear goals and talking through strategy in more detail. A great deal of my time has been spent “in the business” rather than “on the business”, which I think is a tension any young fast growing business would deal with.

As our team grows, I’m finding more time “to lead” and developing my skills as a leader to support my team more.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

Not to underestimate myself and listen to my instincts, allowing myself to be more confident in my decision making.

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

Business: SilkFred app. It’s an in house app that pulls in all the KPI’s real time that I use to make daily decisions. I check it obsessively!

Personal: Podcasts. I love podcasts and listen to them everyday. I like GirlBoss from the founder of – it has great interviews with inspiring female entrepreneurs, The Tim Ferriss Show also has awesome interviews. I love to learn and listening to people talk through business experiences on my morning/evening commute is awesome.

Business book:

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. He is both an entrepreneur and an investor – so has sat on both sides of the table. His story of building a business is so honest. Honest about failures, disasters, the impact on personal lives of entrepreneurs.


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