Archive for August, 2012

Nasty Gal: Content as Commerce is Blowing Up!

Excerpts from PandoDaily, by Sarah Lacy

 

In fact, that’s what turned her off most. “It was incredibly trendy to fund a female-focused ecommerce business then, and it was something I could have totally taken advantage of,” Amoruso says. “But I’d been growing this business for five years. I was scared to subject to the trendy whim of whatever investment thesis these guys happened to be excited about. I thought Danny [Rimer of Index Ventures] was really selective and had really good taste. That was something I wanted to be a part of.”

Also this: “He didn’t ask stupid questions.”

One meeting with a top-five firm was especially awkward. “They were all like ‘Data blah blah blah ERP software,’” Amoruso says. “What? That’s not how I grew this.”

Until now, Nasty Gal has done a clever job of curation that looks like it’s been designed from scratch, partly because the Nasty Gal aesthetic is so crisp, so defined, so– in its own words — badass. “This brand has been this digital thing that has moved things around but hasn’t actually produced anything,” Amoruso says.

The way Amoruso grew Nasty Gal has nothing to do with ERP systems and data. “It was very iterative,” she says. She realizes she’s slipped into a rare bit of Valley jargon and adds sheepishly, “I didn’t use that word then.”

Amoruso not only had an innate sense of her audience she had an innate sense of Web commerce. Again, it goes back to growing up on the Internet. She’d worked retail before, mostly “standing around” in a shoe store. It was part of a litany of shitty jobs she’s had, like working in a photo mat and the lobby of an art school checking student IDs. But she wasn’t trying to put a physical store online. She knew building a brand online was something different. “Can we sell a $100 cotton tank top online?” she says. “No, because no matter how you shoot it, it looks like it costs $30. That means it should cost $30.”

Let me say right now, I am not a Nasty Gal. I spoke with Amoruso about her company on a Sunday afternoon. I was sitting in my kitchen, and I couldn’t remember my last shower. Smashed, half-eaten Cheddar Bunnies were all around me. My 11-month-old son Eli — bribed by the bunnies — was giggling on my left knee as I typed with my right hand. I was swerving my knee around, trying in vain to keep both my phone and my laptop away from his grubby paws, orange with the Cheddar Bunny residue. At the point when I had to put the phone down to go change an absolutely rank diaper, I realized how far I was from the girl who wears a leather jacket with thigh-length fringe.

But when Amoruso described her customer, she could have been describing me in a younger, cooler time — or at least what I’d wanted to remember myself being. She didn’t give me demographics, age-ranges, income, or education parameters. “She’s cool but not too cool for school,” Amoruso says simply. “She’s pretty but not so pretty she looks like a bitch.”

That’s it. That’s exactly it.

It’s “My So Called Life”. It’s the freaks in “Freaks and Geeks”. It’s Rory in “Gilmore Girls”. It’s the good Diablo Cody (“Juno”) not the bad Diablo Cody (“Young Adult” — blech.) It’s the central characters of “Heathers” and “Mean Girls”. It’s roller derby. It’s that gap between total dork and together, rich cheerleader where the bulk of girls who want to think for themselves but also be cool and accepted live. And, good God, Amoruso’s description just nailed it: “She’s cool but not too cool for school. She’s pretty but not so pretty she looks like a bitch.” 

Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s what I wanted to be most of my life. And beneath the gold Cheddar Bunny dust and the torn Memphis State sweatshirt and dirty diaper sitting on my lap, that’s what part of me still wants to be.

This is what so many women who try to build apsirational brands — the would-be Martha Stewarts for the Internet generation — just miss. They try to be about perfection. Perfect job in a perfect city with the perfect hair and a perfect man. And that’s why they don’t catch on. No girl can relate to perfect — even the ones who seem to be from the outside. No part of me ever wanted to be the manicured, designer dress-wearing, coiffed Julia Allison clad in tutus with a little dog. And, as much as I like her personally, Brit Morin and her lifestyle brand Brit wouldn’t have been relatable to me either. She’s a pretty girl with a successful husband. That’s just not universal.

Nasty Gal isn’t the only commerce company to capture this thing, and not surprisingly it’s the one innovation (read: gimmick) of modern ecommerce that seems to be lasting. The blending of content — in a highly aspirational, authentic, personal voice — and sales. It’s the same reason that people who may not be a gay, 30-something Manhattanite just absolutely resonate with Bradford Shellhammer’s quirky swarovski-crystal-skull-meets-ascot style as curated on Fab. It’s the same reason that Thrillist has an army of “dudes” who swear by every dining and fashion tip that comes in to their inbox. The only difference is Thrillist came to the content monetizing as ecommerce model relatively late. Fab and Nasty Gal have nailed it from the get go.

The way Ben Lerer talked about “our guys” at last month’s PandoMonthly is identical to how Amoruso talks about “her girl.” ”There’s no division between who we are, who we say we are and who the customer is,” she says. “No layers. The customer isn’t some department store. Who has the privilege of designing stuff for a customer they’ve known for so long?”

It’s that same thing that made Diggnation such a hit — the burgeoning Web 2.0 geek chic movement found its mascot in Kevin Rose. Had he leveraged that into a content/commerce business, the company might have had a very different ending. It’s probably not coincidence that Revision3 — a content company anchored by Diggnation — wound up with a better ending than Digg.

Interestingly, the ones who’ve done it well — Fab, Nasty Gal, and Thrillist — are outgrowths of the founders’ je ne sais quoi, but none are as literal as to be named after the founder. Even when Fab launched with pictures of Shellhammer’s apartment, they weren’t actually pictures of Shellhammer. That’s what’s kept the Thrillist guy the same, even as Lerer and his co-founder Adam Rich have aged, gotten married (and engaged), and winded down their shameless partying ways. (Somewhat. Lerer did ask that his mediocre superpower be the ability to make his wife cool with his going to bachelor parties.)

None of these companies are exact outgrowths of the founders personalities. Rather, the brands have become their own living things inspired by them.

It’s a subtle but important distinction from many other more clumsy attempts to be the “Martha Stewart” of fill-in-the-blank demographic. The whole promise of building an online empire around a single personal brand has never really worked, although many have tried and are still trying. Perhaps the Web — with 1 billion people spread across the world — is just too broad to relate to a single person. 35 percent of Nasty Gal’s audience is international. Would they relate to her the way they relate to her aesthetic? It’s hard to know. These brands are about what the founders represent, curate and arrange that resonates and resonates powerfully with huge audiences no one else is reaching in this way. That’s why the Samwers can’t copy it. “I’ve become this brand more than it’s become me,” Amoruso says.

Amoruso has come a long way since she was taking community college classes and selling things on eBay, and that rags to riches story is what most reporters will fixate on. But what struck me is the same thing Rimer said, when he told me I had to meet her several months ago: Her instincts are some of the best he’s ever seen. And that’s what the future of Nasty Gal will ride on.

Do Great Things

We have a greater capacity to change the world today than the kings and presidents of just 50 years ago. Whether you’re a programming prodigy or the office manager holding it all together, technology empowers small groups of passionate people with an astonishing degree of leverage to make the world a better place. Yet I fear that our industry is squandering its opportunity and its talent. In companies large and small, great minds are devoting their lives to endeavors that, even if wildly successful, fail to do great things.

We who work in technology have nurtured an especially rare gift: the opportunity to effect change at an unprecedented scale and rate. Technology, community, and capitalism combine to make Silicon Valley the potential epicenter of vast positive change. We can tackle the world’s biggest problems and take on bold missions like fixing education, re-imagining energy distribution, connecting people, or even democratizing democracy. And with increasingly severe threats to our survival — rapid climate change, an unstable international economy, and unsustainable energy consumption — it is more important than ever that we use these gifts to change the world, foster happiness and alleviate suffering, for us and our fellow beings.

But we are falling far short of our potential.

Within many large companies, brilliant engineers are convinced to toil away at ultimately-unimportant features. When the company was one-tenth its size, they would have worked on projects with ten times the long-term impact, but now measure success by the number of users they touch rather than the value they create. But do millions of eyeballs really make the work more meaningful? Our brightest minds are recklessly allocated to turf wars where winning is paramount above all else. When did beating the competition or protecting your existing business become more important than serving users?

It’s time to wake up! We’re all in this together: when we stop worrying about egos and focus on helping each other, the world will get better for everyone. The opportunity cost of not doing so is staggering. Asked why they stay, my friends respond with a combination of inertia, complacency, and attachment to seeing projects through that often limp along interminably.  I definitely empathize: it’s easy to hope things will get better any day now, or fear giving up comfortable compensation. But I’ve never regretted following my heart — and, in our industry more than any other, doing so is less financially risky than ever.

The startup world suffers from less bureaucracy, yet, as Sean Parker, Michael Arrington, and Peter Thiel have observed, there’s a proliferation of companies with smaller, less-impactful ideas. An abundance of angel capital and increasing fetishization of entrepreneurship has led more people to start companies for the sake of starting a company. But the 100th engineer at Facebook had a greater positive impact on the world — and a much better personal financial outcome — than most of the startup founders we see heroized.

The result is a massive talent dilution, one so acute that both of Facebook’s founders are doubtful they could have started Facebook in this environment. It’s good that starting a business is easier than ever, but the pendulum has swung too far from Silicon Valley’s hey-day when a handful of great companies were able to gather a critical mass of great people to do great things.

I do not doubt that services like social games and coupons bring delight to people’s lives, and I mean no disrespect to the hard work that has made them possible. But in the face of threats to humanity’s future on the one hand and the extraordinary potential of mankind on the other, at some point we must ask: are we capable of more?

I wrote this post from my heart to remind you, my peers, to look regularly and honestly into yours and reflect on your deepest values. Life is short, youth is finite, and opportunities endless. Have you found the intersection of your passion and the potential for world-shaping positive impact? If you don’t have a great idea of your own, there are plenty of great teams that need you — unknown startups and established teams in giant companies alike.

Don’t lose the fire you started with. If you’re going to devote the best years of your life to your work, have enough love for yourself and the world around you to work on something that matters to you deeply. Something that’s beating out of your chest and compels you to throw yourself at it completely. No one knows whether you and your teammates will realize your audacious visions, but in order to do great things, we must attempt great things.

Justin works at Asana. Asana builds collaborative software to help teams be more effective in contributing to the world, one step at a time.

Steve Jobs on Branding

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmG9jzCHtSQ[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=No1MxAnHuJM[/youtube]