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July 25, 2013

Working with college girls to sell style

Advertising executive Karen Zuckerman has assembled a small army of college women across the country to spread the word about her ambitious Rockville, Md.-based dorm-decorating company.

Aptly called Dormify, the start-up — funded with $2 million from a dozen investors and Zuckerman herself — is going head to head with big brands like Pottery Barn, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond as it tries to capture a slice of the collegiate-spending market.

Dormify sells stuff online, such as vinyl wall decals that make you believe a chandelier is hanging from the ceiling. The biggest chunk of its business is bedding, which includes sheets, duvets and decorative pillows under girly names like "California Girl" and "City Chic."

What interests me about the business are the 300 style advisers positioned across 150 colleges. The goal is to create a national network of Dormify ambassadors who will spread the brand through blog posts, photos and updates on social-media sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Typical topics run the gamut from basic decorating tips to how to get into a sorority.

"If people like our content, then they are going to be interested in our products," Zuckerman said. "We try to touch on content that all college girls are interested in."

Zuckerman is betting she can blow out the Dormify student brigade into a national distribution channel that not only sells dorm stuff but one day helps young women and couples outfit their apartments after graduation — and maybe even decorate their first homes.

In return for volunteering — style advisers don't get paid, but they can receive a commission from sales — Zuckerman's employees learn to become young businesswomen. They learn how to communicate verbally and in writing. They make contacts. They learn how to market themselves on the Internet.

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