Featured Story

The Ecommerce Issue September 2023

Building a customer-oriented ecommerce business through better human interaction

Building a customer-oriented ecommerce business through better human interaction

Makelane hero
Feature Story

Empowering a new generation of ecommerce founders

We spoke to the founder of Makelane about how she’s creating a space for women to learn, share, and support one another as they build their businesses.

    When Dulma Altan started her first business in 2017 — an all-natural fragrance brand called Potion — she spent two years in what she dubbed “a crash course in running a business,” fulfilling orders by hand out of her closet in Los Angeles.

    Through trial and error, along with some “good old-fashioned Googling,” she dove headfirst into learning about profit margins, Facebook advertising, budgeting, branding, and more. She often found herself wishing for two things: a better playbook for getting started in ecommerce and a community of other founders to connect with through the growth process.

    So she decided to try and fill these gaps — not just for herself, but for other women founding ecommerce businesses of their own, too.

    From Commerce Club to Makelane

    Dulma started small by simply reaching out to other founders and nurturing her small community one by one. Having just moved to Los Angeles, it was also a good way to build new friendships in the area.

    Eventually, she connected with enough other founders to start a dinner series, which led to a founder-focused Facebook group. That group ultimately transformed into a robust knowledge-sharing community.

    “I cared so much about what these women were working on,” Dulma said. “I was so inspired by what they were doing that I was putting in hours and hours every day meeting people for coffee, making phone calls, trying to understand what they needed out of a community, learning their backstories, and connecting them to each other. It was really motivating and energizing for me.”

    Dulma didn’t know exactly where her new community would lead, but she knew she had to keep cultivating it. By June of 2019, the Facebook group (called Commerce Club) had grown to 600 ecommerce founders. Their events included workshops and guest presentations on supply chains, warehousing, advertising, and more from industry pros who had worked with companies like Allbirds, Sephora, Stitch Fix, and other top direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands.

    Securing guest speakers was surprisingly easy, Dulma found. (At this point, she’s pitched more than 70 people to run workshops, and only one has said no.)

    What started as a seed of an idea grew rapidly. Today, Commerce Club continues to thrive as a free and open Facebook community for thousands of ecommerce founders. And Dulma has expanded her efforts to support women founders by creating Makelane, a community and education platform for women building DTC businesses.

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    “Are that many women really starting businesses?”

    Since launching the platform in 2019, Dulma has developed Makelane into a hub for ecommerce founders to learn and connect. Members can join multi-week or one-day courses led by experienced experts on a variety of topics. Upcoming courses cover all the ins and outs of launching and scaling a Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) brand, breaking into the retail space, and using paid ads effectively. With an All-Access Pass, members can access more than 45 hours of video content on everything from branding and logistics to hiring and cash flow management.

    Marketing and fundraising are among the most popular topics covered. Dulma said many members have discussed their struggles with funding — and have faced unconscious (and conscious) bias their male counterparts experience on a far smaller scale.

    She shared similar anecdotes from her own experience as a founder: “Sometimes when I talk to investors and I tell them about Makelane’s business model, they'll say: ‘Are that many women really starting businesses?’”

    Not only are they starting businesses — they’re supporting one another in the growth process. Beyond the practical and tactical advice shared in Commerce Club and Makelane, members benefit from engaging with a community of peers with whom they can be honest and vulnerable about the challenges of founding a company.

    Members who have met via Makelane have become co-founders, hired one another, formed strategic partnerships, and forged meaningful connections to navigate the pressures of being a founder.

    “You really need to treat yourself — mind and body — like an instrument,” Dulma said. “You need to take care of yourself so you can perform at your best. And to do that requires community.”

    Dulma is building the ecommerce playbook and community she wishes she had in her earlier days as a founder. And even as Makelane continues to grow, the pillar of community remains front and center, reflecting the mantra on Makelane’s homepage: “We believe that when women thrive, we all do.”

    The art and science of community building

    Building a community from scratch — and crafting and guiding the culture of that community — is hard, intentional work. According to Dulma, it’s work that takes a deep level of personal commitment.

    “There’s a real art and science to building and cultivating an engaged, valuable community, and it requires really caring about the members,” she said. “Putting in that legwork in the beginning pays off exponentially. It takes a lot of effort, but to harness the power of community to build loyalty and engagement — you really need to put in that work.”

    Dulma’s commitment to fostering engagement is reflected in the desire of Makelane community members to pay their experience forward, too. One such member, Davina Kaonohi, founder of Element Apothec, feels that it’s part of her role as a member to be engaged, involved, and supportive.

    “As members, we’re constantly asking ourselves: ‘How do we collaborate and share to empower each other?’” Davina said. She joined the community early on, before she launched her first product. Now, even after her business has grown considerably, she still interacts with other members daily.

    “To me, Makelane represents a new kind of thinking — a new ecosystem where women can empower each other on all levels of growing a business,” Davina said. “That community of support has been invaluable, from the knowledge Dulma shares to the experts she brings in, to the growing community of women who are involved.”

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    Because Commerce Club is still open for newer companies and founders to join, it serves as a launching point for many women before they’re ready to make a bigger commitment on Makelane’s platform. Deepa Reddy, a cardiologist, mom, and first-time founder, said she’s learned from the mission-driven women she’s met who are further along in their journeys.

    “As an entrepreneur, the journey is very exciting and enthralling, but it’s also very lonely and long,” Deepa shared. “I had all these questions, and until now, there was no guidance.”

    Deepa’s company, Swell Pantry, a sustainable and healthy recipe and meal kit for busy parents and families, is still early-stage. She’s connected with other members to learn more about branding and marketing, manufacturing, warehousing, and food and spice suppliers. And she hasn’t missed a single webinar or virtual event since she joined the community.

    Next up: Replicating the playbook

    Although the specificity of Makelane’s community — with its sole focus on ecommerce founders — is a factor Dulma credits as a powerful differentiator, her next move may be to replicate that success in other verticals.

    “We began with ecommerce, but I want to figure out that model for creating a highly engaged, useful community that really moves the needle for women founders in other industries, too,” she said.

    After testing paid courses and workshops and getting the validation she needed, Dulma’s looking ahead to establishing longer programs, hiring an in-house team, and eventually raising capital: “We’ve tested and tested, and now… let’s go big.”

    Photography by Huy Doan

    Further reading

    For women founders and funders, there's power in community

    For women founders and funders, there's power in community

    Written, recorded, and designed by doers & makers © 2023 In the Works