Today we meet Fiona Rynne, co-owner of family-run business Waterlust. Waterlust is an apparel brand that is so much more than just clothing, it aims to use its platform to educate and inspire people to learn about marine science and environmental conservation. With many fascinating stories to tell, Waterlust has harnessed the power of email marketing to reach out to their community, including automated workflows and loyalty and referral programs. What kind of special challenges does running a business with family present? How does this special project continue to grow and create positive change? Let’s find out!
I’m a co-owner (along with my husband and sister) of Waterlust, an environmentally-responsible apparel brand that we use as a platform to educate about marine science and environmental conservation, and help fund research and outreach. My responsibilities generally fall in the realm of anything to do with our website, online infrastructure, tools and apps, and day-to-day operations. My background is in marine science, and I started working on Waterlust while getting my graduate degree in marine affairs and policy. At the time, it was a fun side project, but after finishing grad school we’ve been able to take it full time.
My husband, Patrick, started Waterlust around the time we met in grad school, as a creative media-focused project aimed at getting people in the general public excited about marine science and the ocean. I quickly got involved and those early years were spent learning how to shoot and edit video, and start building an online community. Media was a great start, and having people “like” and “share” our photos and videos across the interwebs inspired us to keep thinking outside the box. How could we bring science and a love for our watery world into more people’s lives? As much as our videos and photos were reaching millions of people, those digital interactions were fleeting and we knew we could do more.
With my sister, Laura, working in apparel sourcing and design, and with a background in fashion merchandising, things came together quite serendipitously. We hypothesized that clothing could be a canvas on which we tell science’s stories, and that every time you wear it, you’ll be a walking, talking advocate for the science it represents. We called the approach Advocate Apparel and overnight Waterlust evolved into a purpose-driven clothing brand. Laura moved down to Miami to work with us full time, and the apparel side of things quickly took off.
Fast forward to now, we have a full product line of vibrant, environmentally responsible apparel that visually represents 15 (and growing) conservation topics, empowering our customers to use what they wear as a fun and functional science communication tool. For each design, we donate 10% of profits to leading research & education organizations and use their expert knowledge to guide behavioral change recommendations.
Working on many things in parallel at the moment (as it always seems to be with owning your own business, we wear many hats!). One of our current initiatives we’re really excited about is re-shooting all of our product imagery for our website for better diversity, inclusion and representation. Our attitude from the very beginning has always been to bootstrap, learn and do everything ourselves, so naturally we’ve always shot our own product photography and done our own “modeling” as well. However, as our business has grown and we now have our own office space, it’s long overdue that we show our product on a much more diverse set of body types and sizes, ethnicities and ages. Modeling our products should be about more than just showing how a garment fits, and we’re looking at it as an opportunity to champion representation in the worlds of environmental science, education and conservation. For that reason, we’ll be showcasing our products on real people (our customers) of all body types, ages and ethnicities that live the Waterlust mission everyday, and including a short bio of their work and contributions in the conservation field.
We’re also working on how we can better communicate the science and actionable information to our customers, through a variety of creative ways. We’ve been working on a whole series of emails for each cause we support (currently 15 causes, including topics like whale shark conservation, abalone restoration, etc.) that helps educate our customers on the issues and what they can do to help, and are hoping to finally get those going soon. When a customer purchases a pair of whale shark leggings, for example, we’ll be able to follow that purchase up with a series of fun, educational emails about whale sharks, work being done to protect them, and how they can help.
A couple of other exciting initiatives include a new loyalty type program encouraging environmental action and advocacy and continuing to grow our product line to include more men’s gear as well as other new products.
In the near future, we’re looking to add a take back program, where we close the loop on our product lifecycle. We’ll be encouraging our customers to send back their old, used Waterlust clothing that’s at the end of it’s lifespan so that we can recycle it into something brand new.
One of our biggest challenges over the years has been work life balance. I’m incredibly fortunate to work with my husband, sister and mum every day (she’s since joined us to help with our shipping and fulfillment), however it’s always very easy for life to become work, and work to become life, the lines get very blurry. Finally moving into a separate office space last year for the first time and no longer working out of our home has made a big difference!
With a seemingly infinite list of to-do’s, and being passionate about what we do, it’s tough sometimes to draw the line and step away. We’re constantly reminding ourselves that burnout is real, and maybe one of our biggest threats. Keeping a solid work/life balance and making sure we’re working at a sustainable pace is important to us. We’re aiming for slow, steady, sustainable growth as we want Waterlust to be around for many, many years to come.
Paid social ads on Facebook and Instagram have always been really successful for us, but lately we’re putting more and more energy into email, while also adding a referral program and an affiliate program that’s going really well. Email, including automated flows (an email or series of emails triggered by something like a purchase, or newsletter sign up) has been well worth the effort. Email allows us to connect personally with our customers and continue to build a community around our brand.
There’s a quote by Henry Ford that goes “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” Believing in yourself and your team goes a long way. The best thing I think we’ve done over the years, and I think my experience in grad school set me up well for this, is throw ourselves into the process of learning, experimenting and just actively trying to figure out how to do things better and better, and believing that we’re absolutely capable of doing just that. We don’t have any training on business, building websites, selling things, marketing, social media, financials etc., but these days there are an incredible amount of resources and tools at our disposal. Learn by doing, actively seek out answers and advice from those that have experience, but also trust your gut and try things based on what makes sense to you. Business is really fun in that you can often get immediate feedback on things, so that process of creating, putting something out there, receiving feedback, tweaking, adjusting, trying again, etc. is really rewarding.
The Unofficial Shopify Podcast – I’ve been listening to this podcast here and there for the past couple of years and found it to be interesting and useful. How I Built This With Guy Raz is another great podcast. I’ve also joined some Facebook groups that I’ve really enjoyed…having a community of people that share similar challenges has been really helpful! As for books, I’d recommend Built To Last and Good To Great by Jim Collins, and Shoe Dog by Phil Knight.
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