NEW YORK, United States — Two years ago (about two years after co-founding Moda Operandi) I was asked to write a column for BoF about my experience as the founder of a fashion start-up. “Finding Your M.O.” ran on the site for about a year. What with the demands of building a young business, keeping the column going was sometimes an anxiety-inducing experience that required late nights and cups of strong coffee. But I found the experience to be incredibly useful. Life is busy and we often forget to sit down and think about things. Writing a column forces you to think about the company you are trying to build. What’s working? What’s not? And where are things going in the broader industry?
Today, I think fashion is moving towards customisation. To date, fashion on the Internet has ridden three waves. The first was a promotional wave, where a website was a marketing tool to support a brand or a store. People went online to research products, but largely bought offline in physical stores.
When e-commerce started to pick up, fashion rode the next wave, which was all about product selection and pricing. Once people had become comfortable with entering their credit card numbers into websites, they started becoming choosey, looking to browse a wide array of options or find a deal. In this environment, flash sale sites blossomed and this is where many shoppers made their first online fashion purchases. At a steep discount, getting over that initial hump was a lot easier. Soon fashion e-commerce had became a regular part of life.
Next, it was about access and curation. Fashion surfed nimbly on this wave. When selection and deals were no longer enough, the opportunity shifted to providing hard to find things — even at full price. It was in this environment that Moda Operandi was born as a members-only, pre-tail site, offering customers early access to covetable runway looks from luxury fashion brands.
But now there is another wave upon us. This wave is about expression and self. It is about empowering people to put their personal stamp on things they care about. It is about helping people create items that cater specifically to who they are. This wave is about customisation. And it is on this wave that I have built my new luxury fashion start-up: Tinker Tailor.
Back in 2010, I remember reading a report that astounded me. It was about Nike iD — the sportswear giant’s online customisation tool that allows consumers to “create your own shoes” — and it noted that the service had generated over $100 million in revenue for Nike in 2009. At the time, this seemed like a pretty big number. Were that many people really making their own shoes? I had never made anything online.
I mentioned Nike iD to a couple of friends, who were unfazed. “Nike’s thing? Oh yeah. I made a couple of pairs. And my son makes designs all day long.”
Are his shoes any good?
“I don’t know. But he thinks so.”
He thinks so. That was the point — and the appeal — I realised: his shoes were all about what he likes. He is the designer. He is the shoe. It’s his identity.
After reading that report, I started seeing customisation sprouting up in lots of places. Personalise your phone. Create your own car. And, of course, customise your luxury clothing. Burberry. Ferragamo. Edie Parker. These companies were all dipping their toe into customisation with offerings that let consumers inject themselves into the design of trenches, shoes and bags, respectively. I tried my own hand and made a clutch with my name on it. I couldn’t believe how many people pulled me aside to tell me they wanted their own.
Then, when I left Moda Operandi, I had time to do something I hadn’t in a while: catch up with friends. Invariably, fashion would come up. And I started hearing a similar story over and over. Designer friends said they’d love to offer their clients a customisation service, but that they weren’t able to deploy this quickly or easily. While avid shoppers said they’d love to buy designer items that were customisable to meet their individual lifestyles, tastes or needs. Pieces that might hide “problem areas” or enhance elements of their physique. Things that were made just for them; that were exclusive. That was when I first knew that customisation was real and coming fast. So I started working on a business plan.
It’s not surprising that people want to customise things. Indeed, there’s no news in the idea that people want to have something “their way.” The surprise, in fact, is that — for many of us — we have such a hard time breaking out of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mindset. We accept that a designer dress only comes the way it was designed, because that’s the way things have always worked. But once these limitations are seen, not as immutable obstacles but opportunities, they can sometimes be turned on their head.
When we first started building Tinker Tailor, we were confident designers would embrace our customisation program as an opportunity. And when we made the rounds to chat with them, we were really pleased to discover that we were often right. After all, fashion designers are not only artists, but smart business people. They had been reading about how customisation had crept into other consumer industries. They had followed which fashion brands were experimenting with customisation. And they understood that our proposal was, in some small way, about forging a path back to the golden age of couture, where the shopper and the designer collaborated on creating something wonderful and exclusive together.
If Moda Operandi’s online trunkshow concept was about pre-ordering fashion straight off the runway, Tinker Tailor is about allowing customers to participate even earlier in the fashion value chain: in the design process itself.
But designers had plenty of questions. “Do you need physical samples?” No, just digital patterns. “Can our collections be comprised of whatever we want?” Sure, and — besides including designs inspired by a new collection or a best-selling silhouette — we hope you use this tool to experiment. Best of all, some even asked whether our platform might be integrated into their own websites.
Today, we are very lucky to have more than 80 designers on board. Each brand offers exclusive, customisable mini-collections on a rolling “seasonless” basis. And without their support, Tinker Tailor wouldn’t exist.
But the wave of self-expression isn’t limited to customisation alone. It’s also about creating things from scratch. From Instagram to YouTube, people are sharing themselves and their creations more than ever. Some have even built businesses around their personal creativity. In fashion, Pinterest and Polyvore let you curate. Etsy and others let you sell. But what about actually designing?
When we were developing Tinker Tailor, our conversations convinced us that there were lots of people out there who — if they had the means to do it easily, quickly and at zero additional cost — would love to try their hand at designing a fashion item from scratch. No, this is not everybody. There will always be people who prefer to simply shop designer brands or perhaps customise their items within certain parameters. But there are also who want to build their own dress and then wear it proudly, because it reflects exactly who they are. So we decided to include a “create your own” service on Tinker Tailor, where — using our design tool — consumers can create fashion items from the ground up. Our tailors and seamstresses then sew them with care in our in-house New York-based atelier and we ship them out in pretty personalised packaging. We are even launching a rush service, for those who need their own last minute dress for a special event.
One thing that cannot be rushed, however, is wisdom and judgment. Unlike previous columns, I required neither coffee nor a late night to write this. In fact, the experience was completely anxiety-free, because sometimes you don’t need to overthink things. Some ideas just make sense and come naturally — and I believe that customised fashion is just that. But as I build Tinker Tailor, I am trying my best to take time to reflect upon my experience running Moda Operandi and what I might do differently this time around.
Here's what I learned:
1. Fundraising is important, but approach it with care
Some start-ups do not have the luxury of being able to choose among multiple investors or having access to more cash than they need. But if you have a hot concept, a solid team and the right timing, you may find yourself lucky enough to be able to choose amongst a number of suitors. But be careful how you fund-raise.
First, remember that the more money you raise early on, the more likely you are to have to give up significant equity and control. Now, this may be a trade-off you are willing to accept because your primary goal is to grow the business fast. But the decision can have far-reaching consequences and you should consider them carefully. Remember that companies built lean at the get-go often become the strongest in the long run. Too much money in the bank can encourage needless spending and hiring instead of getting the most out of a small but productive team.
Second, be choosey about who you pick as investors. Some investors will say things you want to hear about your concept, team and the company's overall potential. But remember: a professional investor’s duty will always be to protect the interests of the partners who have invested in the firm's fund. If you take venture money, understand that no matter what was said and done during the courting period, after you have cashed that check, the only thing that matters for the firm is its return on investment. Keep this in mind during the fund raising period as you consider who might invest in you and sit on your board. A few tips on how to get this right:
a) Understand a prospective investor’s motives. Beyond financial returns, are there other motives at play? Does your company fit into the investor’s larger strategy? If yes, this investor might play a different role for you.
b) Choose investors (ideally) who have been founders or operators before. Investors who have been entrepreneurs themselves generally have a much better understanding of what your mindset, needs and concerns are as a founder.
c) Do your homework on any investor before committing to a deal. Talk to the companies they have invested in — both those that have succeeded and those that have failed. And, remember, regardless of the reputation or track record of the prospective venture capital firm, what really matters is the nature of the individual from that firm who will be sitting on your board.
d) Protect yourself contractually within the investment deal. This sounds obvious but it is often harder to do than said. Beware of agreeing to things simply because you are told they are “market” terms. And rigorously review vesting schedules you are being asked to agree to, as well as the rights you have if and when you are no longer an employee of the company.
2. Corporate hires are great, but not too early
If you are fortunate to have a promising start-up, one temptation you might have is to hire very senior people from large organisations. To be clear, these people are often polished veterans who bring expertise and a familiarity with corporate culture that can be attractive and useful to a nascent business. But timing of these hires is key. Despite their best intentions, not all people are suited to work at a start-up — maybe even most people — particularly when the company is in its infancy.
In the early innings, hire people who are very comfortable with ambiguity and change. A start-up requires team members to often take on different tasks each day, some of which are very mundane and outside of anyone’s official remit. And it often requires people to create their own processes and to be willing to change or adapt them as soon as the company grows. In my experience, people who join a start-up from a corporate background too early often have a tough time with these kinds of issues. So be prudent about if and when you bring on these hires.
3. Be optimistic, but not naive
Beyond being risk takers, if there is one thing that entrepreneurs have in common, it is that we are generally optimists. If we weren’t, we would never take that leap of faith to venture out and change the world. Optimism is our strength and our drive. But it can also be our weakness. Do not let it be your undoing. For example, do not be overly optimistic in business planning. Clearly, you need to set aggressive targets – it motivates your team to work hard and stretch themselves. But over-optimism when it comes to projecting revenue and cash is very dangerous. You will be held to your numbers by your investors, even if they represented the high end of your plan.
This is particularly important to keep in mind when you have raised significant sums of money. There is the sudden temptation to spend more, absorb costs and outsource services your team would otherwise take on. Shun this. Stay scrappy and frugal. Stash cash away for that rainy day. Plan your budget and cash needs like a skeptic. Build different scenarios that include a worst case scenario for your cost structure and cash use. You can always spend more if the business outperforms your plan. But you can’t get back money you have already spent.
4. Your gut remains your most important asset
Perhaps the most important lesson is this: have faith in your instincts. As a first time founder and CEO, I often found myself following suggestions simply because they came from my investors. The truth is, nobody knows your business better than you do. Nobody has access to the inside data and dynamics you have. So if something tells you that a plan or request is wrong, raise a flag. Yes, you need to listen to all sides of a debate and form an educated point of view. But if you feel strongly about something, fight it, or fight for it. Have no illusions: as CEO, the buck stops 100 percent with you. If you feel something doesn’t make sense, don’t do it. Your gut knows better than you do.
Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is the co-founder and CEO of Tinker Tailor.
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