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Greenville Business Magazine

In just eight years, Kelly Owens has built Marleylilly into a money-making monogramming machine

Feb 01, 2019 11:32AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Emily Pietras

In 2010, Kelly Owens was a young newlywed on a budget, and when it came time to give friends gifts for their bachelorette parties and weddings, she turned to a practical solution to try to save money. 

Since grade school, Owens had enjoyed sewing, and she used her knack for monogramming and crafting to create handmade, personalized gifts. Soon after, she and her husband, Chad, invested in an embroidery machine so that Kelly could begin selling her customized items online. That venture ultimately blossomed into Marleylilly, an e-commerce business based in Greenville County that carries monogrammed apparel, gifts, jewelry, accessories, bags, and shoes, among other products. A new line for boys and girls, Marleylilly Kids, launched in fall 2018.

Owens credits much of Marleylilly’s early traffic to utilizing email marketing and establishing a strong social media presence. To date, the company has surpassed 470,000 followers on Instagram and 1 million likes on Facebook.

Given that sizeable following, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the course of eight years, Marleylilly’s growth has been exponential. 

“At first, we were selling market goods like scarves and hats that we were buying wholesale,” Owens says. “When that took over our entire living room, we knew it was the time to move into a commercial space. We moved or expanded every six months for almost three years. It was exhausting. Once we finally had the space, we were able to hire an entire design team to aid with custom manufacturing our own raw goods, which is our business model today.” 

But the moving didn’t stop after those initial three years. In July 2015, Marleylilly announced an expansion to their current processing, production, and distribution facility located at 300 W. Phillips Road in Greer, which represented a $10 million investment. The 72,000-square-foot facility, which also has 12,000 square feet of office space, began operations in 2016. 

As of December 2018, Marleylilly had 82 permanent employees, but that number is in flux, Chad Owens says, “as we on-board a number of our best-performing seasonal employees permanently.” The company planned to retain 30 to 40 of its seasonal staff, putting the total employee count at more than 100 by January 2019. 

“During our peak season (September through January), we have between 75 to 200 seasonal workers hired on, in addition to our permanent staff that we carry throughout the year,” Chad Owens says. 

Investing in both “people and technology” at the right time has been vital throughout Marleylilly’s growth, Kelly Owens says. 

“Someone asked me five years ago if our business grew 10 times, could the systems and processes sustain the growth? The answer was no. So, we fixed that. Now that we have grown so much, we are proud to say that we feel like we have stayed in front of the growth,” Owens says. 

“For example, last year we struggled to fulfill Cyber Monday orders as quickly as we would have liked, so this year we invested in 15 robots and a robotic fulfillment system for our completed items that have to be merged before they are shipped,” she adds. “Integrating a system into the custom backend we have built to run the manufacturing floor was complicated, but it has proved to be worth every penny this fall. We have been able to fulfill more orders faster with less temporary employees.”

That commitment to maximizing the efficiency of Marleylilly’s operations, an ever-evolving task as demand increases, is among the reasons why the company will remain an online-only entity. The Owenses say they have no plans to ever integrate a brick-and-mortar presence into the company.

“We think of ourselves as a manufacturer as much as a retailer. Because our focus from the beginning has been on technology related to customization and manufacturing, the idea of a retail space has never even been considered,” Kelly Owens says. “I am a firm believer in not putting too much on your plate. A retail space would be too much, and we would lose focus on the bigger picture. If we can increase our page load times by half a second, our conversion rate online will increase over the course of a year more than a storefront could physically produce in a year.”

And there’s a marketing advantage that comes with operating exclusively through e-commerce. 

“Marketing data is also more tangible in an online environment,” Owens says. “We don’t rely on outside agencies for marketing support, so understanding the data behind our customers’ behavior and patterns is a very big part of our business.”