Sophia Amoruso has just uploaded another selfie for her 62,000 (and counting) Instagram followers. In stream the comments: “OMG! You’re my idol, Sophia”; “I look up to you so much, how can I work for you?”; “I really love you. You’re so inspiring!”. Scroll on and there’s more of the same. Among 20-something American girls, Amoruso elicits the kind of response usually reserved for pop idols and Hollywood stars, but the 29-year-old from California is neither. She is the tech-savvy founder of the multi-million dollar online shopping site Nasty Gal.
The unusual name comes from an album by the singer Betty Davis (wife of Miles), but Amoruso never thought it would be with her for so many years: she did not expect to found a fashion empire. When she started selling vintage clothes on eBay in 2006, she was living in her aunt’s pool-house in Pleasant Hill and working at one in a string of dead-end jobs. But her eBay store took off and she went on to launch nastygal.com. Amoruso eventually built an in-house design team catering to her core customers’ desire for “fierce”, “sexy” clothes; she later struck a deal with the venture capitalist company Index Ventures, which had invested in e-commerce sites such as Net-a-Porter, Etsy and Asos. In 2012, the company reportedly turned over $100 million in clothing and accessories.
In seven years, Amoruso has gone from a dressing-gowned team of one, staring at her auction items on the computer screen, to employing a staff of more than 300. She long ago traded in the pool-house for a Berkeley office, then moved south to establish her huge 55,000-sq.ft. headquarters in downtown LA (not to mention a glossy new distribution centre in Kentucky).
Her Instagram account provides a clue to her rapid rise. She has courted her customers, listening to them without using marketing gimmicks – there was no strategy, just Amoruso and social media – and in return for their engagement she gives them much more than a slick shopping experience. She is offering them the complete Nasty Gal lifestyle, a private members’ club of sorts, for women with attitude.
Amoruso talked to us about the early days of Nasty Gal, the growth of the business and her new book #GirlBoss
Naomi Bikis Tell me about your background. Is there an entrepreneurial gene in the Amoruso clan?
Sophia Amoruso I was born in San Diego and grew up in Sacramento, so California through and through. My mother sold houses and my dad did loans for houses – they never worked together, believe it or not. They worked on commission pretty much my entire life; neither had a salary and they really were only as good as their next sale.
NB Could you expand on your own career history before founding Nasty Gal?
SA I’ve done pretty much everything, but the jobs only lasted about two weeks. I’ve worked in a dry cleaner’s, I’ve done landscaping, I’ve made sandwiches, I’ve sold shoes. I’ve worked in photography labs, record stores, book stores, and this is, like, all before I was 22.
NB You famously began your eBay page while in a job checking student IDs.
SA So, my last job was in the lobby of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, checking IDs for $13 an hour. There were certain shifts where there was nothing to do, and there was a computer there. Of course, I would be on MySpace, and I was getting friend requests from vintage sellers marketing their eBay stores – they were adding girls like me to make us aware of what they were doing. I remember noticing that, but it wasn’t until after I quit that job that I started Nasty Gal Vintage. It was something to do in between jobs. I bought a book like eBay for Dummies and figured out enough to get my auctions live.
NB How quickly did it gain momentum?
SA It was never really: “Oh my God, this is it, this is what I am going to do for the rest of my life” or “I am starting a business”. In a way, I never really started a business. I never intended to, but it just kind of hooked me. It was the gratification of finding a piece of vintage on the floor in some estate sale in some lady’s closet that had been forgotten about forever. Then putting it on a girl, making it look cool or modern again, writing a description, editing the photos and watching girls go crazy over it at auction. I learned what worked and what didn’t. I did eBay for a year and a half and I did everything: shipping, customer service, digging through pockets and getting rid of old Kleenex – that’s what you do when you have an eBay store. With Nasty Gal today, because I’ve done a little bit of almost every job there, it helps me make decisions: I know about shipping zones and how all that works.
NB You really tapped into social media and harnessed it to form this dialogue with customers who would go on to become hardcore fans of the company.
SA The eBay page and the MySpace page started at the same time. I was able to dive deeper on MySpace and post a photo of every item I sold and people could comment. They comment to this day on our Facebook and Instagram; I mean, I’ve always taken it with a grain of salt, as the model is always going to be too skinny or too fat, or the dress is going to be too short or too long. It’s always been a two-way street with Nasty Gal. The brand is a result not only of what has been successful in terms of sales but a very nuanced conversation through social media.
NB You spoke about not really realising you were building a business. Was there a moment when that changed?
SA I think it was when I launched the first Nasty Gal website. It was a big risk, because with eBay you have a built-in customer base, but luckily I had built a huge following on MySpace. I was lucky enough to have editors who were customers, so whowhatwear.com did a dedicated post when the website launched, which people usually pay upwards of 15 grand for, and the site sold out. And it sold out again and again. I ended up getting really sick, as I was working 15-hour days just trying to keep the store stocked. That was a moment where it was like: “Holy shit!”. It’s not like: “Oh, I happen to have great stuff on eBay”. It was: “This is a brand and people are excited about it and I need to take it as far as I can.”
NB What led to establishing your in-house design team?
SA From vintage, we started carrying other designers, and that’s been the largest part of the business for several years now. The way we sold other brands was never the way someone like Shopbop does. It was always the Nasty Gal stamp of approval, the Nasty Gal spin on it. We were looking for the crazy pieces and the really editorial things. Then it became natural to design things from beginning to end. There were so many things I wanted for our customers, or it was: “Oh God, I sold this amazing vintage and it’s gone forever”.
NB When did Index Ventures get involved and why did you choose to engage with them when you did?
SA In the spring of 2012. We’ve raised a total of around $50 million with Index. They had called me a year prior to that, and I just didn’t know what there would be to talk about. I was too busy with the business to even think about taking investment. I finally got to a point where I thought, right, let’s see what this venture capitalist thing is all about. At the end of the day, Danny Rimer at Index was the only person I liked and could see myself in business with for the long term. He instantly got that Nasty Gal is a community and there is way more here than just selling clothes.
NB That’s the backbone of your success, having this connection with the girls who shop at Nasty Gal. How can you hold onto that with such rapid growth?
SA The conversation that started Nasty Gal is alive and strong. I am still reading the comments to this day. I’ve like Snapchatted with our customers [laughs]. But as we grow, our biggest challenge is to stay cool. Big can be the enemy of cool, but I think there is a way we can do this really gracefully. I am interested in taking the conversation onto our own turf, onto our site, so it runs 24 hours a day as it does on the rest of our social media.
NB You’re writing a book about your journey so far…
SA It’s part business book, part life bible, part romp through the mistakes and learnings I’ve had along the way and all the stupid stuff I did before starting Nasty Gal. But there is solid advice on finance and on getting a job and keeping a job and managing people if you ever have to. I really want girls to question everything and understand what they are getting themselves into and try new things. I think my story gives people hope who are flailing – I did a lot of flailing along the way, and that’s OK if you really take stock of it, but there’s no one really talking about that. To some that goes without saying, but to a lot of people it doesn’t.
NB What are some of the mistakes and highlights you discuss in the book?
SA The mistakes… Trying to do as little work as possible for a pay cheque doesn’t get you very far – not that I was trying to get very far sitting in a shoe store in the outlet mall. But wasting my life thinking that what I was going to enjoy had nothing to do with working. It took me a really long time to figure out that work can be rewarding too and that my talent has something to do with it. I thought those two were separate, in a pure artist kind of sensibility. I guess the positives are waking up every day knowing what I am doing with my life. I still have question marks in my future and the business is always moving. But, for me, that question was agony, and to be put out of my misery by this loud, loud business is a great thing.
NB But you’re so young and you found your path so young!
SA [Laughs] Thanks for reminding me, I need it! §