LONDON, United Kingdom — Started in a tiny kitchen in Paris, deals-focused marketplace PriceMinister grew to become France’s largest online shopping site. In 2010, the company was sold to Japan’s Rakuten for €200 million in what was one of the biggest consumer web exits in Europe, making co-founder Nathalie Gaveau one of the world’s most successful female e-commerce entrepreneurs.
But rather than rest on her laurels, the following year, Gaveau took the plunge once again, launching Shopcade, a social commerce app focused on fashion and accessories that blends content powered by magazines, celebrities, bloggers and its community of users with e-commerce and personalised deal alerts.
The company has raised £2.5 million (about $4.2 million) to date. And though Shopcade has yet to cross over into profitability (Gaveau declined to disclose current turnover), the app attracts more than 100,000 monthly active users and generates revenue through a mix of direct sales, promoted content and affiliate commissions.
BoF sat down with Nathalie Gaveau, who now resides in London, to talk about the lessons she learned while building PriceMinister, her vision for Shopcade, tapping social commerce and her advice for women entrepreneurs aiming to start tech-driven companies of their own.
BoF: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you begin your career and what were you doing before Shopcade?
NG: To be honest, my family was not an entrepreneurial family. My grandmother was a model and worked in fashion, so I was always interested in fashion. But the rest of my family worked in more traditional industries. I went to business school at HEC and, not really knowing what I wanted to do, I decided to major in entrepreneurship. That’s when I first started to work with Pierre Kosciusko-Morizet, who would become my business partner in PriceMinister.
After HEC, I went into M&A and worked for Lazard and Pierre worked in the US for Capital One, but we stayed in touch, we were very close, and one day he said, “Look at this company Half.com in the US. They’ve just been acquired by eBay for $350 million.” So I started to look at the site and essentially it was a marketplace for fixed-price trading and eBay had acquired the business to launch their fixed-price activity.
There was nothing like that in France and I thought, “We have to do this; we are going to use the web to connect supply and demand, and we’re going to focus on deals,” because the web was still in its early stages and people were essentially searching for the best price.
We launched [PriceMinister] in August 2000. But it was very hard, because we were super young and also the bubble had just burst, so nobody really wanted to hear about e-commerce businesses. We had to be pretty stubborn and quite convincing. But in a way [the climate] helped us, because it prevented us from making the mistakes of Boo.com and all the others. We simply couldn’t have big budgets.
This is how I discovered my love for the web. It was both very creative and very analytical. It was right brain and left brain combined. At PriceMinister, I worked mostly on the development of the site and the commercial side. I was the managing director for three years.
BoF: PriceMinister was a tremendous success. What’s the biggest lesson you learned from that experience?
NG: It was pretty challenging, because, at that time, Amazon was launching Amazon Marketplace and eBay was making aggressive moves. So we focused a lot on customer needs and becoming the number one marketplace in France by understanding the French market. But, for me, the biggest learning was that, at the end of the day, whether they are big or small, successful businesses need to constantly reinvent themselves, they need to innovate — and if you have a good team, you will always find a way. I think we had a tremendous team.
BoF: About a year after PriceMinister was acquired by Rakuten, you launched Shopcade. What drove you to take the plunge a second time? What was the opportunity you saw?
NG: When we sold, we were one of the biggest e-commerce exits in Europe. But I was too young to stop working. I needed to work. If you have the energy, I think you should definitely start again.
As for the specific opportunity, at the time I saw a lot of sites that were essentially utilities for e-commerce, but the content was not necessarily there and the quality of the curation was not there. Net-a-Porter was different, of course, but this was a very high-end business and not mass. The other thing I was looking at, of course, was Facebook and there was no site for e-commerce that was social. I could see what celebrities were wearing, but there was no connection between this and e-commerce. So I thought, “Okay, how do I bring Amazon and Facebook together?”
BoF: Social commerce has long held out tremendous potential, but it hasn’t boomed in the way some predicted. What makes you bullish on social commerce?
NG: You’re right. In a way, what happened is a lot of people started to build stores within Facebook. And there were also quite a lot of initiatives assuming that we were going to share everything — including what we purchased — and you were going to buy like your friends. But people actually want to control what they’re sharing and who they’re sharing with. So a lot of things failed. But that’s the rule with innovation. When you see new behaviours, it takes quite a lot of effort to understand how to position business activities around them.
I want Shopcade to be the global social fashion app. We’re a community and people upload their looks, just like on Facebook or Instagram. And we have a community of bloggers from around the world and we also have an editorial team looking at what celebrities are wearing and discovering what the hottest looks of the moment are — from the red carpet, but also from the streets, the clubs. But the main difference is, we are fully powering this content with e-commerce.
For example, you see what Rihanna was wearing at the concert yesterday and today you’ll see on Shopcade how to create the look, picking from a huge catalogue of styles. And when we see data indicating that some products or looks are very popular, we actually negotiate with retailers and send people personal alerts on deals.
My take on social commerce is that it needs to be curated based on what is hottest today. Consumers are not necessarily following their friends to be honest. They look to influencers or just people with whom they share interests or styles.
BoF: When building Shopcade, why did you choose to focus primarily on fashion and accessories?
NG: I looked at the data. Dresses, t-shirts, shoes, accessories, beauty — these were selling the most. We always look at our dashboards to understand what people like, because, as a community, we really need to get the content close to what the community wants.
BoF: I’m interested in how you’re using data.
NG: We have a lot of data. We’ve built a really good proprietary dashboard which allows us to see what is trending outside of Shopcade, and this is really interesting from a content perspective. As for what we see inside the app, we have brand dashboards, so we know straightaway when a brand is starting to trend and the engagement around a particular product, as well as sales. We also have very good channel reports, so we know where people are coming from, which is very important from a marketing perspective because we are able to identify influential channels, including partners that we need to work with.
It’s very, very rich and we’re already building a pretty good graph of how people connect and what brands are connected and what trends are connected. But I believe this is also an area where we’re going to be able to expand and grow because there is a lot of potential in using data to make the experience more tailored; to make the experience even more interesting, as well as to be a very cool marketing platform.
BoF: PriceMinister was founded in Paris, but you’ve since shifted your base to London. Why?
NG: I moved to Asia for a few years before starting Shopcade and I wanted my next company to be global. When I started to think about where I was going to base the company I knew I wanted to be closer to home [in France], but I also wanted to start Shopcade in English. The other reason was my husband, who is in banking — plus I lived here when I was a teenager and I’ve always loved it. It’s fashionable and international, and has that unique blend of innovation and tradition.
BoF: As a serial entrepreneur, what are the biggest lessons you have learned along the way?
NG: The team. At the end of the day, the team is going to make the difference in your ability to, not only have a vision, but execute. Having a smart team that gets along is the most important thing, because the team can also break a business for sure. If people start to not get along, usually the business dies. That is one of my key lessons. People make such a difference in a small business. You need to understand how to keep them proud every day and create a highly motivating environment.
You also need to make sure you have clear objectives and KPIs [key performance indicators]. It’s not just about intuition and creativity. It’s about market validation. Finding the right people to back you is also super important.
BoF: What are the qualities you look for in a good investor?
NG: My investors are great. They’re experienced, they’ve run businesses and they have an understanding of many areas that I don’t know at all. So they give me different perspectives. And sometimes they challenge me on stuff. But at the same time, they’re very supportive. If you have people that are just there to look at your dashboard and question why this is here and this there, it’s painful. But if they are really interested in what you do, they’re going to give you tremendous advice, they’re going to put you in touch with people and they’re going to help you execute.
BoF: In a predominantly male tech sector, you are a rare female entrepreneur. Do you have any advice for women who are passionate about building tech-driven companies?
NG: They just need to start. The biggest thing I can advise is stop talking about projects. If you have a project you should do it. Tech, the web —this is a fairly young industry and if you’re proving to be a good executor with good ideas, people don’t really care if you are a woman. It’s very open, young and meritocratic, so it’s a very good environment for women.
This interview has been edited and condensed.