LONDON, United Kingdom — From humble beginnings in a small flat in the Chelsea district of London and just £800,000 in seed funding, Net-a-Porter defied the bursting ‘dot com’ bubble to launch one of the most successful luxury e-tailers in the world — known for its pioneering integration of content and commerce — and in the process became the poster-child for fashion-tech startups everywhere.
Fourteen years later, the company — which was acquired by Swiss luxury conglomerate Richemont in 2010, valuing the business at £350 million — has expanded to become The Net-a-Porter Group, comprised of Net-a-Porter, Mr Porter, The Outnet and Porter, the group’s newly launched global print title.
But even at this scale, true to its startup roots, The Net-a-Porter Group has not lost its desire to defy conventions and disrupt the industry. Quite the opposite. The company, still helmed by founder Natalie Massenet, is constantly challenging itself to stay at the sharp end of the technology innovation that helped make it the original fashion tech disruptor.
Current group HR director Naomi Hewitt explains why constant disruption sets the group apart.
BoF: Net-a-Porter was one of the first “fashion-tech” startups. What cultural traits has the group retained from those early days?
NH: In 2000, there was no one doing what we did, we have always been a pioneering business that leads and doesn’t follow — that constant need to disrupt has filtered into our DNA. What you will find now is that we have set about disrupting ourselves, internally.
Almost 14 years on and we are old hats at what we do, so we need to make sure that we are keeping ourselves fresh and challenged, not just following the set way of doing things. Luckily we are not coming from a place that is steeped in tradition.
We don’t say, ‘this is the way you are going to do it and don’t go outside these boundaries.’ We really believe in constant disruption, not just for the sake of it, but to be the best in terms of product, content and service. This applies to all we do, not only in tech.
BoF: In what way does The Net-a-Porter Group operate like a tech company?
NH: As a retail business, speed is paramount. We use an Agile methodology to constantly improve in terms of how we deliver products. It’s an approach that we have also rolled out into many other areas, HR for example. Agile is a tool to enable us to do things; add to this the non-conformist people we hire and you have a powerful way of maintaining the best elements of a startup culture that you traditionally associate with a tech company.
As you scale, you have to be careful that you aren’t totally wedded to your startup roots. We want to keep the special parts: agility, challenging the status quo, trying things and not being scared to upset the apple cart.
BoF: What single thing sets The Net-a-Porter Group apart from others?
NH: Quite simply, it is our attitude. That sense of, ‘if we are going to do this we are going to do this properly and not be afraid of making mistakes, or taking risks.’ We defy the stereotypes that you get in a lot of businesses, be it in traditional print media, or traditional luxury.
“BLESS,” which stands for “Be the Best, Lead not Follow, Exceed Expectations, Smart and Stylish, and Service Starts with You,” articulates the things that are really important to us. And no matter what you do in the organisation, whether you are the CEO or the receptionist, whether you are at the shows or behind the scenes back at base, it’s easy to apply to what you do. It forms a common language within the group from Shanghai to London to New York.
We are also good at laying out a clear vision while adapting along the way. Natalie [Massenet] talks about the business with great longevity in mind. When we are sitting in executive team meetings and are struggling to make a decision on something, we always remember that there is going to be a group of people like us sitting in a room like this in 20 years, looking back at the decision we make today. And that is a gift. Many other businesses, in the tech arena certainly, tend to fall prey to short-term goals and aspirations.
BoF: How does this all impact the kind of talent the company seeks?
NH: We are a wonderful blend of fashion, media, technology and logistics companies. We have something like 356 different role types, spread across three different time zones, with people from diverse backgrounds each adding different value and perspective, resulting in a highly energising environment.
People are flabbergasted that we employ over 2,500 people. It’s mostly because we don’t outsource a great deal. We prefer to build things ourselves. To deliver amazing service the only people we can really count on are ourselves.
We look for people who are going to come in and teach us stuff that we don’t know. We are not just looking for people who could technically do the job. We invest in people who show the right attitude and for whom BLESS comes naturally.
BoF: What are your specific talent priorities at the moment?
NH: We are lucky in that we are innately “digital”, so we focus on looking for other skills and attitudes. Naturally, with so many new ideas and tech at the heart of how we disrupt and deliver, technology development is a key area. However, crucially, we have set out to recruit people who see more than the job, people able to bring their contribution of technical skills and work collaboratively to make amazing things happen. We maintain a healthy balance of empathetic and systematic thinking, creativity and analysis, risk and perfection. Rather than look for a super human with all these, we find people with complementary skills and pair them up to create something special. I don’t know of any other organisation where really talented developers are so embedded in the business. You can see a bank of desks, where on the one side there are the buyers getting ready for NYFW, dressed in their splendour, and right next to them we have a team of developers. That is how interlinked technology is — and how closely we work together.
Everyone has enormous pride in what we do and wants to ‘Be the Best’. It’s amazing how much energy can be diverted into building a fantastic business when you are all headed in the same direction. That’s our secret sauce.
This post is sponsored by The Net-a-Porter Group. To explore career opportunities at this company, please visit the Net-a-Porter Group company page on BoF Careers, the global marketplace for fashion talent.