Gentle Giants: Ivory Ella Capitalizes on the World’s Fascination With Elephants

John Allen
CEO, Ivory Ella

John Allen, CEO of Ivory Ella, built two businesses from scratch before he and his friends launched the socially-conscious social media e-tailer in 2015. The company sells elephant-themed t-shirts and other products and targets young women aged 13-24. The story of Ivory Ella highlights the importance of innovation in business as well as corporate philanthropy.

With 60 million followers across social media channels, its marketing success comes primarily through the use of social media “parody accounts” — accounts that focus on a particular theme and provide regular content on that theme, rather than simply acting as a conduit for product marketing. The company now has more than $10 million in annual sales and donates a portion of its profits to Save the Elephants and other charities.

It was while analyzing social media trends in my previous business, Boho Outfitters (a social media-based jewelry reseller that focused on the millennial market) that Ivory Ella was born. We saw this overwhelming support and love for elephants, and people loved those products — whether it was a ring or a necklace with an elephant on it. And we would see these viral posts about elephants. Right around the same time, HBO released a documentary called ‘An Apology To Elephants’ that really resonated with our audience. So it was kind of like this lightning in a bottle, this perfect storm brewing.

“If we sell these in a month, that would be great. If we sell them in a week, that will be life changing.”

My partners and I had wanted to develop our own brand. And now we had a theme that we wanted to build around — the elephant. We did some more research, and we spoke with the people behind Save the Elephants (the charity), and it really clicked for us — that this would be an incredible cause to support, and to tie our brand to.

So we committed to Save the Elephants and we started putting the works together — designing the logo, building the back-end systems and so on. Then we printed about 500 shirts, and we thought, “If we sell these in a month, that would be great. If we sell them in a week, that will be life changing.”

They actually sold out in about 17 minutes.

We were completely blown away. I remember it was 12:20 at night, we had just launched, sold out, and I got on a five-way call with my other partners. We were saying things like, “What do we do?” “No idea, this is amazing, this is crazy.” We decided to put our t-shirts on pre-order, and we just sold as many as we could.

I was in my second year at Temple University at the time. And within two weeks, I had made the very tough decision to leave school, move to Connecticut (where operations were being run from) and focus on this full time. (Allen has since graduated from Temple.)

That approach has given us the freedom to grow without any outside capital. We each invested a few thousand dollars into this business at the outset — to build the framework and make the first 500 shirts. By putting sales on pre-order after that initial outlay, we had the capital upfront to fulfill orders, and we used that model to keep growing from there.

There are a number of things that make Ivory Ella unique.

This is really important to millennials right now. If they are going to buy a $30 shirt, they want it to mean something.

First, we are entirely social media-driven — we have been able to build this unbelievable following on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. And that lets us be quite dynamic with our business. We can identify trends or communicate with our customers really quickly — and that has enabled us to really develop in this fast fashion space. For example, earlier this year, we identified a really hot trend on social media — PopSockets. We quickly reached out to our customers to see if it was something they would like. We got a great response, and within 10 days we had our own custom Ivory Ella PopSocket. I believe we were the first branded partner PopSocket ever had, and we were able to capitalize on that fast fashion approach.

Another differentiator is that there is a big charitable component to our business. We give 10 percent of all of our profits to Save the Elephants and other charity organizations. This is really important to millennials right now. If they are going to buy a $30 shirt, they want it to mean something. They want to wear clothes from companies that are focused on the greater good. Because it makes them feel happy and vibrant. And we don’t want to be a run-of-the-mill t-shirt company — we want to stand for something bigger.