Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they start a company, what was the hardest part about being involved in ModCloth and how did you overcome this obstacle?
Eric: I think one of the hardest parts about getting ModCloth off the ground was getting the vision across to investors. ModCloth has been plagued by, “Oh, it’s like a husband and wife team. And it’s this vintage fashion business.” And really getting our foot in the door to say, “No, what we’re trying to do is really innovative and that we have great timing and there’s an opportunity to do something really unique here,” was one of the biggest challenges. And it took a lot of introductions, coffees, meeting people, working it before we finally got in the room with the right people who believed us and then made the right introductions that then led to the right introductions.
So, it was this very long chain that finally brought us to the capital that we needed to actually build the business. I’d say that one of the things that we benefited greatly from was all that practice on honing our pitch and how we tell the story of ModCloth. So, when we finally got in front of the right person, we knew what to say. We were articulate about it.
Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy. We know it can be very difficult. So my question for you is: what talent or skill comes intuitively or easily for you? What has been difficult and how have you managed that?
Susan: I can start here. I think that for me, understanding the customer has always been a very intuitive process. When I started out, I started buying clothing for myself and then finding other people that were like me to sell that clothing to. That’s always been something for me, I love the product and it’s something that’s very intuitive for me. I try to talk about what it’s like to go out to the market and look at a thousand different pieces and know that these five are the ones that are exactly right for our customer. It definitely is a very intuitive experience.
I think for me it’s definitely been an amazing personal development opportunity, and it’s definitely been more of a challenge for me to learn how to be a leader and how to be a manager as the team has continued to grow.
It’s really easy to lead by example when your team is very small, and you’re all working in the same room. When there’s eight of you and you’re working together every day and your team see you when you come in, they see when you leave, they see how passionate you are about it. I think it’s definitely been a challenge for me to learn what my role has become as our team has continued to grow. We now have over 240 people across three different locations and thinking about the leader that I need to be for those team members who maybe only get to see me a few times a year, that’s definitely been a challenge for. I wouldn’t say that it comes super naturally to me.
Eric: I would say, I would just add, Susan has an incredible visual memory. It’s amazing. She remembers dresses that were on the site in 2002. [laughs] So, she definitely makes that look easy.
I think that the organizational side of things is the hardest part like, figuring out how to rally a big group of people behind a common initiative and figuring out who’s going to do what and when. That whole aspect of orchestration, coordination, project management has been this fun and interesting challenge that gets more complex as we go from two to 240. I think that that’s still a fun challenge for me, and it’s getting ever more complex as we grow.
Susan: You make it look easy.
Eric: I don’t know if I’m able to do that. [laughs]
Eric: I don’t know, I think being a founder and growing this business has been incredibly stressful, and I think that I carry stress well. That’s something that I’ve been able to do.
Susan: Yeah, I think you make doing a lot of things and having your hands in a lot of different areas at the same time look easy. I wouldn’t be able to do it in the same way that you do.
Eric: Wearing a ton of responsibility and not wanting to kill yourself [laughter].
Matthew: That’s a good skill to have.
Eric: Yeah. Yeah.
Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching ModCloth?
Susan: I think for me, I had someone tell us sort of early on in the fundraising process, so this is back in 2007, 2008, once we had jumped into the business full time, I had someone tell me, “Never apologize for your age.” And that’s something that I really took to heart. It doesn’t mean that you should be boastful or that you should think that you know it all, but it means you shouldn’t be working with people who don’t think that your ideas are valid just because you don’t have the same amount of experience.
I think that’s definitely something that I have very much taken to heart and it really shaped my interactions with investors as we were going through our first Series A fundraising round. It’s definitely advice that I’ve taken to heart, and I always think about when I look at new team members that we’re bringing on the team at ModCloth that maybe, haven’t filled the role that we’re asking them to fill before. I think it’s really important to remember.
Eric: Yeah, I love that one, and I’ll just harp on it. I think we’ve learned this over time, too, that hiring people with great experience doesn’t necessarily mean great judgment or creativity. Those are very different things. Just because we’re young and new to what we’re doing, the fact that we have less experience than a lot of people doesn’t mean that we have worse judgment or less creativity. In fact, the open-mindedness that we bring to the problems that we face at ModCloth has really built ModCloth into what it is today.
I think that, we as founders and as hiring managers now have, while we have a great appreciation for experience, put much more emphasis on judgment and creativity. And we’ve found that over time where we were extraordinarily impressed by someone’s experience, but in the interviewing process and the process of getting to know them got the sense that they weren’t as creative or had insights into their judgment and had concerns there that those always went poorly.
Really trust your gut in the interviewing process and put much more emphasis on your face to face interactions and observations with individuals rather than their resume experiences and references.
Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your development?
Eric: My favorite is Josh Kopelman, at First Round Capital, former CEO of Half.com. Josh is one of our board members, he was kind of our second big investor. And he never holds anything back, so he says what he means and means what he says every time and asks really tough questions but always comes at it with the best of intent.
I’ve learned so much through those conversations, through those tough kind of Q&A as we’ve grown. So, I’ve grown through the process of having to explain myself to Josh over time or kind of clarify my thinking for Josh, make sure that Josh understands. That process of working with him has been extremely beneficial to ModCloth and to me.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup, being involved in a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?
Susan: I would start by saying that it’s really important to do something that you’re passionate about. I think as an entrepreneur you’re going to spend so many hours working, you’re going to be so involved with it. I think if it’s not something that you really love, if it’s just like, “Oh I see an opportunity and I can turn a dollar fast,” maybe for some people that does work out, but I think that percentage is pretty small. I think that doing something that you love and that you’re passionate about, your customers are going to see that, your teammates are going to see that, your potential investors are going to see that, and I think that’s really, really important.
Matthew: Before we close, I would love for you to give our audience your vision for ModCloth and how you hope it’s going to continue to change the world?
Eric: You want me to take that one? I think that ModCloth is approaching the fashion industry in a unique way and I think we have an opportunity to be an agent for positive change in fashion. I think that what we’re trying to do is really blur the lines between the community and the retailer or marketplace.
Part of that is doing a whole lot of work behind the scenes without customers noticing. So, delivering great service and fulfillment and helping to facilitate ethical production and bring products to market. So, if you do all those things well the customers don’t really notice. They just have a fun, great time. And they get to have this new influence over what items get made that hopefully, they’ll totally love.
I think that what we’re doing, that approach, that way of thinking about fashion and decor goes beyond the ModCloth vintage-inspired, indie aesthetic and community that we’re going after today. I think that ultimately ModCloth will be able to represent a business model that can be applied to other communities and that this is really a sea change in community oriented retail.
Matthew: Excellent. Well, Susan and Eric, it’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at ModCloth. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and join their community, you can visit their website at www.modcloth.com.
This is Matthew Wise with FounderLy. Thanks so much.
Susan: Thank you.