How Monica + Andy built a community of care

Retail Gets Real episode 335: Monica Royer on founding and growing her organic baby clothing and accessories brand
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

Sometimes, opportunity can present itself before an entrepreneur or retailer is ready. Other times, opportunity presents itself at just the right time.

That was certainly the case with organic baby clothing and accessories company Monica + Andy. All the components to scale up had just fallen into place when co-founder and CEO Monica Royer got the call about a partnership with Walmart.

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Monica Royer, co-founder and CEO of Monica + Andy.
Monica Royer, co-founder and CEO of Monica + Andy

“It was scary because we're like, ‘Let's test it. We haven't done it at this scale.’ But we had just prepared ourselves to get to that next level of scale,” Royer says on this episode of Retail Gets Real, recorded live from the NRF Foundation’s Student Program held during NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show.

“The opportunity in this case presented itself at the right time. That said, it’s a tremendous amount of work for a small team … and no credit to myself, credit to my team that got the work done.”

Monica + Andy, which was founded in 2015, had a thriving online business, a brick-and-mortar store and some wholesale experience with companies like Nordstrom. But the “opportunity to bring an organic-first lifestyle to more families at the everyday low prices of Walmart was something we absolutely couldn't pass up,” Royer says.

The collection, called M+A by Monica + Andy, was rolled out in 1,100 Walmart locations and online in February of last year, and features baby clothing made without chemical dyes and pesticides.

Just as Royer never envisioned her partnership with Walmart, she also never had any aspirations at being an entrepreneur. In fact, her brother caught the entrepreneurial bug first, launching ecommerce men’s clothing business Bonobos in 2007.

“I had a front row seat to … direct-to-consumer, and everything that that would become,” she says. “I learned a lot along the way, seeing the decisions that he was making and what he was doing.”

In 2010, Royer had her first daughter — and the inspiration for her startup. “I was really passionate about organic,” she says. “There was something that I felt needed to be better for parents from a retail perspective.”

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The time was right; a new world of brands were building personal relationships with customers, and Royer saw an opportunity. “As a new mom at the time, I thought, ‘Parents deserve better. We deserve this same type of one-to-one relationship that brands can have with their consumer.’”

One of her biggest business lessons so far? Never say never. “I think the biggest part of an entrepreneurial journey is being open to the evolution,” she says. “As the world changes, so should your outlook on how you manage your business.”

Listen to the full episode to hear more about Royer’s entrepreneurial journey, how she felt the first time she saw Monica + Andy in Walmart, and the best career advice she’s gotten.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail’s most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I’m Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation recording live from the NRF Foundation Student Program in New York City.

On today’s episode, we’re talking to Monica Royer Dunn. She’s the founder and CEO of Monica and Andy. We’re going to talk to Monica about her incredible career journey, growing her brand and what the future of retail looks like.

Monica, welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Monica Royer: Thank you. I’m excited to be here. Thank you for having me.

Thorne: So, you have a great story to tell, and we are all about storytelling on Retail Gets Real. Tell us about the story of Monica and Andy. How did your entrepreneurial journey begin and what was your vision for the brand?

Royer: Yeah, I’ll take you back all the way to 2007. I did not want to become an entrepreneur. There was nothing entrepreneurial about me. I actually worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 10 years.

My brother graduated from Stanford Business School, and he decided he was, he had all these financial jobs, and he actually decided that he was going to sell pants in New York City. So, my brother started Bonobos, which is one of the first direct-to-consumer brands. My mom is an immigrant from India. She was very excited at the time about his financial jobs, and she said, ‘You know what? I’m excited that your brother’s decided to sell pants. But it’s kind of an unknown industry for us, something we don’t knows that much about.’ And so, my parents at the time said, ‘Don’t quit your day job. We think you actually may need to support your brother because he’s on this new and exciting journey and we don’t knows where it’s going to lead.’

What was interesting was, I had a front row seat to … direct-to-consumer and everything that that would become. And I was probably like, not my brother’s biggest business advisor, but you know, one of his biggest personal confidants. And so, I learned a lot along the way, seeing the decisions that he was making and what he was doing.

And then, fast forward to 2010, when I had my first daughter, I realized that I was really passionate about organic food, that there was something that I felt needed to be better for parents from a retail perspective. And so, like a complete fool, I decided to also start my own company, much to the chagrin of my parents.

Thorne: You saw what your brother was doing, you got excited about that, and you just decided, ‘I’m not going to let him win in this category. I’m going to get involved.’

Royer: Yeah, I saw that there was this opportunity where these new brands were building these one-to-one relationships with their consumers. And I thought, this is really exciting. There had been these storied, hundred-year-old brands and businesses to learn from, and in, 2010, 2015 was ushering in a whole new segment of brands that were building this one-to-one relationship with our consumer.

And I remember as a new mom at the time, I thought, ‘Parents deserve better. We deserve this same type of one-to-one relationship that brands can have with their consumer.’ And so, I decided to take a leap and I left my job, and I left everything that was like secure sort of behind me. And I leapt into the unknown.

Thorne: For the students here yesterday, I was here for the presentation from PetSmart, and one of the key takeaways there was taking risks. You don’t always have to end where you begin. If you want to do something, you should pursue it. You should pursue it smart. But you should pursue it. If your gut tells you, this is what you need to be doing, that’s what you should do. And being an entrepreneur is not easy and it’s kind of scary. Who said no, and who said yes, Monica? I mean, how, how did you work through that?

Royer: I remember at the time … well, first of all, we have the most supportive parents. So even though I think that they were concerned that neither of us had regular jobs by the time I decided to do that, I would say we come from an incredible family. Having a great support network if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, or really if you’re going to have, you know, any kind of job that you’re going to need support, I think is important.

I think the biggest two lessons that I got very early on is, I remember I was debating, ‘Do I go back to work or do I do this?’ And my brother said to me, ‘You know, it’s kind of a now-or-never moment. If you don’t take the leap now, you might never have another opportunity to take it.’

And so, he really supported me in in doing it. And the second thing he said to me is, ‘Monica, nobody really knows what they’re doing. Everybody’s kind of faking it, trying to figure it out. So don’t be intimidated. You know, when I started Bonobos,’ I remember him saying, he said, ‘I really had no idea what I was doing going into the New York Garment District,’ like all of the different things that he did. But he said, ‘If you just pretend long enough, like you know what you’re doing, you might actually figure out how to do it.’ That gave me a lot of courage.

Thorne: It’s a great life lesson, honestly, really is. Pretend like you know what you’re doing, long enough, and people will start believing you. That’s good. I like that.

Royer: I mean, I think that’s what I’m doing right now, to be honest.

Thorne: I guess that’s a good life lesson for y’all. Tell us about your approach to physical stores. How does it differ from other retailers?

Royer: I never knew how much fun retail could be because that wasn’t my background. And as I got into it, the products, the manufacturing of it, all of it, I was like, ‘This, this is so much fun to be able to do.’ And I don’t profess to be the designer, the creative … there’s so many talented people out there that I’ve had a chance to meet along the way.

But one of the things that I realized is that, you know, we wanted to have a business online. By the time we launched, we knew online was something exciting and we wanted to be a part of it. But having a community of new moms and new parents, I remember just feeling so out of the know. Could I go to a place, you know, to a store, to a physical location where I actually felt welcomed in with my kids’ tantrums and all of the other things that were going on? And so I felt very inspired to actually launch with physical retail. So, we launched with the store and we launched online at the same time.

And the crazy secret behind all of it was, for the first three years, we almost sold everything we had in-person because the physical retail medium was so strong and we were very experiential. I had a three-year-old at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘What am I going to do with her during the day, like I’m working and while she’s here with me?’ And so we had art, music, story time, classes for new parents. So, it became all about, how do we really get people to live in our space and to feel comfortable? And it wasn’t just about us. It was: What could we offer this community? What could we do that would bring this feeling of inclusivity to parenthood that I felt was lacking as I became a new mom.

Thorne: You know, there is a lesson there. At the National Retail Federation for a period of time, and this is a little bit of an aside, I think, but we were hearing and reading a lot about the death of physical retail, the death of brick-and-mortar, the death of stores, and we really pushed back hard on that. It took a lot of effort and a lot of support from our board of directors, because it really, if people started believing that, it becomes an existential threat to the business. We all knew, we knew very, very well that retail, physical retail was an important part of everybody’s journey.

You know, Monica, you have a new partnership. It’s with Walmart. What motivated that decision to partner with a major retailer? And what key considerations did your team have when going through the process of establishing that partnership?

Royer: Another lesson I learned is, never say never along the way. You know, you start out one way and you think, ‘Oh, I’ll never do that. We’ll never have wholesale. We’ll never do X, Y, Z.’

I think the biggest part of an entrepreneurial journey is being open to the evolution, because as the world changes, so should your outlook on how you manage your business. And so, every year at the top of the year, we think, ‘What are the things we should be investing in? How is this year different than last?’ And so, it was part of that journey.

You know, we had physical, brick-and-mortar spots. We had this growing online business. And when Walmart came to us with this wholesale opportunity, we dabbled, we’d been in Nordstrom, and a few other places. The opportunity to bring an organic-first lifestyle to more families at the everyday low prices of Walmart was something we absolutely couldn’t pass up.

And I think as direct-to-consumer businesses, one of the big learnings — you know, we thought for so long, we do such a great job curating for our customers. Well, one lesson I learned is, there’s brands and businesses like Walmart, and they do a heck of a great job curating for their consumers, right?

And so, to be able to be part of that type of a journey and to be in physical retail locations throughout America was such a new opportunity for us, because even if we had stores, it wasn’t going to be at the scale of how many stores Walmart had, and their team has been absolutely incredible to work with. They know their consumer so well, they know their price points so well. It’s been a really exciting opportunity for us.

Thorne: Have you been to Bentonville?

Royer: Oh my gosh, Bentonville, this … . OK, so we used to do all of our trips to New York. Love New York more than anything else. Wish I was there today. Bentonville was a really amazing surprise. Probably go to Bentonville once or twice a month now, and it is such an interesting, cool place to visit that I just never expected.

Thorne: I am a former Walmart-ian and I lived in Bentonville, and it’s amazing the evolution of that small town. It still maintains that small town feel, but the things that you can do, the things that you’re exposed to, the museum, the bike trails … it’s pretty astounding.

Royer: It is astounding. We have to buy a suitcase every time we’re there because we do all the Walmart visits because there’s so many in a short distance, and I got my 12-year-old that’s with me now. So we’re usually picking up quite a lot of stuff in our visits to Bentonville.

Thorne: It really is quite an experience.

Royer: Definitely, and for the students that are out there that are like listening and thinking about it … I think the dedication, the people that you meet there, they’ve been with Walmart 10, 15, 20 years. And they started out, they were working in one of the stores, and moved their way into the headquarters. It’s kind of exciting to see how well people know their customers from each touchpoint there.

And if we think about even the work we do at Monica and Andy, it’s so … I still look at customer service emails every day. I think it’s exciting to try to be [engaging with] as many touchpoints as possible as you’re designing the product and thinking about the customer.

Thorne: Part of the problem (problem, opportunity, problem-slash-opportunity) in partnering with a retailer like Walmart and the scale of Walmart — how do you navigate the increase in product demand for that partnership? I mean, there’s got to be some challenges and obviously some learnings.

Royer: Oh my gosh. You are homing in like the hardest part of the whole journey. What was interesting for us — and sometimes it’s interesting, how opportunity can present itself before you’re ready. How do you manage that? And then sometimes opportunity can present itself, just as you’re getting right there.

And so, for us, you know, COVID was the same for everybody else. It broke the supply chain — we were rebuilding from within. We actually brought top talent in from another top children’s brand that was, that had layoffs. We thought, ‘Oh, here’s opportunity. These are people that know children’s apparel at scale,’ and so we just have happened to have rebuilt our whole supply chain. We work with GOT-certified organic factories, we can source the cotton back to the fields where it’s grown. We had just been at the cusp of moving from smaller, GOT-certified factories to bigger factories, and so we just had built the relationship that would be able to scale with Walmart.

So, it was scary because we’re like, ‘Let’s test it. We haven’t done it at this scale, but we had just prepared ourselves to get to that next level of scale.’ So, the opportunity in this case presented itself at the right time. That said, it’s a tremendous amount of work for a small team to be able to, you know, and no credit to myself, credit to my team that got the work done.

And I will say the partnership with Walmart, they held our hand through every step of the way. And having that special attention or having people that are with the company that you would be working for, really focused on helping you, made it that much better for us.

Thorne: Have there been any real, like, surprising lessons that you have gained or insights that you’ve gained from entering into this partnership?

Royer: Yeah, I think, two things. One, Walmart can sell stuff real fast, so I feel like that was one lesson that we learned was: You take product there, it’s at the right price point and people like it. It blows your mind how quickly like stuff could come and go, and that wouldn’t necessarily surprise you.

I would say the other thing is, as you build a business, as you think about the product, we were really focused on quality from the very beginning. I think this idea of quality that can scale is something to really think about as you’re conceptualizing your product, because in children’s, there are no missteps. You’ve got to get safety right. You’ve got to get testing right. There’s all sorts of things to be considering, and so we were fortunate, I think, that we had a team that took that time from the very beginning, because if we had to fix all of that as we were trying to scale the business with Walmart, I think it would’ve been very hard to be able to do so.

I think sometimes … you don’t necessarily have to have the perfect product as you get into the market. You might want to learn some from your customers. But you never want to compromise the quality of what you’re doing, because the quality of what you’re doing is what you’re going to need as you really hit scale. I think testing product market fit is good, but really coming in with quality that you can believe in from the beginning, I think, is an important lesson that I learned because I don’t think we would’ve been able to fix that as we worked at the scale of Walmart.

So, I felt fortunate that we had taken that time to incubate the brands. You don’t have to get into Walmart day one of having a business. For us, it was really, like, it’s OK to start off small. You get to know your customer. You’ve got one store. You’re meeting them every day and you’re learning from them. Business is not like an overnight success. You really want to make sure that you’ve got those markers, and that you’re able to just slowly ease into what you’re doing because I think it helps when you really start to achieve that scale.

Thorne: Do you remember the first time you walked into a Walmart and saw your product?

Royer: It was unbelievably exciting to be able to see. I mean, I just didn’t even know what that would feel like. And there’s so many things that are exciting when you have a business. When you first walk into your own store, right? And you get to see that product come together. But I have to say, there was nothing like walking into Walmart.

And even now, sometimes as we’re driving somewhere, we’ll stop it at Walmart and we’ll be like, ‘Oh, let’s go check the baby section and see if it’s there.’ And sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. But it’s that same rush every time we have an opportunity to do it.

Thorne: I want to make sure that we leave time for questions. So, let me ask you this as we begin to wind up — what excites you most about the future of retail?

Royer: I think the thing that’s most exciting about the future of retail is this idea of real personalization for the customer. We’re moving, as I was saying, from these hundred-year-old brands and businesses to now, there’s a new fleet of brands and businesses that are coming in play. It doesn’t discount the people that have been doing it for a long time. But I think the innovation is forcing us all to think about, how can we message our customers, one-to-one. How can we know more about what you like and what you’re buying in order to be able to serve you up what serves you better as a consumer?

I think the really exciting thing about the future is this idea that we can start to personalize the journey. Whether it’s people walking in stores, whether it’s people that are coming to your ecommerce site, whether it’s people that are walking into big box retail. How can we do a better job of really knowing who we’re putting something in front of so we can do our very best to tailor our message to you? Because there’s so many messages we all get on a daily basis.

I think less about what our customer can do for us, but a lot about what we can do for our customers and our community. And beyond that, what value and expertise can brands serve in order to really inform consumers about different life events and the products that they’re buying.

Thorne: So, I guess we should go ahead and if you have a question, you’re more than welcome to line up. And while you’re doing that, let me ask this final question, Monica, the best piece of advice that you’ve ever gotten. Career advice.

Royer: I think the best piece of career advice that I ever got was what I started out with, which is sort of that now-or-never moment and taking the leap in what we were talking about at the beginning. I think sometimes it’s recognizing when that moment comes and being able to take the leap.

And I think — if there’s students that are sitting out there — I think that moment doesn’t have to be right away. I think the biggest life lesson that I’ve learned on this journey was the person that did that 10 years of other work, and the person that worked for lots of other folks, I think it was, it’s important to do all sorts of things as you grow in your career. And it’s OK to start off small as you start to grow to where you’re going to go.

And I don’t think I could be the person that I am today, had I not had all the other jobs I had leading into this, if I had just come straight out of school. And there’s lots of people that do. They come out of school, they start a company, they’re very successful. Everybody’s journey’s different. There’s no right or wrong way. But I think the life lessons that I had along the way that brought me to this point, like really being able to enjoy those and honor that. Sometimes you’re so ready to get to the next place that you don’t realize the lessons are right in front of you. And so, for me, that’s been the biggest life lesson. But when you get to that now-or-never moment, maybe know when to take the leap too.

Thorne: You know, it really is important to always remember when you’re taking this journey post-college, getting into the workforce, it’s really important to be patient. I think the problem is that people think, ‘you know, I should be in in this next step, and I don’t understand why I’m not there already.’ What you have to be is patient to learn to grow. And at some point in time, you will get that opportunity, but sometimes you just have to be patient.

 

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