Real TechStars of New York City

Tech & Fashion: Really? Can’t We All Just Fucking Get Along?

tvf post mortem pic Tech & Fashion: Really? Can’t We All Just Fucking Get Along?This is a guest post from “Hurricane Melanie” Moore, co-founder of Elizabeth & Clarke, a stealth fashion/tech startup in New York. This is a post-mortem on Ms. Moore’s first startup, the high fashion deal site ToVieFor, which was part of the first TechStars class in New York.

As you all know by now, the grim reaper has paid ToVieFor a visit. Sad face. I want to talk a little about the root cause of the closure, in the hopes that others who might be starting a new business do not make the same mistake. Also, some broader industry thoughts below–as I’m sure no one wants to hear me keep yapping about my failed startup for weeks on end.

Wither ToVieFor

The reason ToVieFor failed is the same reason almost all businesses fail: we did not build something that people wanted. I know it sounds like a *facepalm* moment, but following the steps of the Lean Startup method in order to discover what people want is so easily said, but so hard to actually do.

While we all worship at the altar that is Steve Blank and the Lean Startup Movement, I have noticed that it is somewhat rare to find entrepreneurs truly applying the principles of Customer Development. I know we didn’t do this at ToVieFor, not even close. In fact, in the beginning, I had never even heard of Steve Blank or Eric Ries. What? Blasphemy you say? Yes, I know it is a little shocking to those in startup land, but for many aspiring entrepreneurs, recent MBA graduates, or those leaving industry to start their own thing, there may not be anyone around to enlighten one of the wisdom of The Four Steps to the Epiphany and the beautifully simple formula to starting a business.

In addition, as much as those in the startup world pay lip service to these ideas, and as much as we *thought* we were implementing them at ToVieFor–we were not–in fact, by the time I had even heard of a Lean Startup it was already too late. We had passed that golden time period that every startup has: the time when nobody knows your name, when you have almost no users, no press, no investor will give you the time of day, it’s the perfect time when you can massively fuck up over and over and over again, and no one will be the wiser. It won’t affect your branding, your user acquisition targets, or your next board meeting because you do not have any of those yet. We squandered this time away winning a business plan competition, when we should have been trying to find out what our users actually wanted.

Every time I thought: “Oh, we need to raise money” or “We need to get more press” or “We need whatever-the-fuck-we-do-not-actually-need”–I should have been focused on the product. Lesson learned for company no. 2. We thought we were doing Customer Development. We were looking at our own “vanity metrics” as per the industry vernacular. But the reality is that we were afraid to ask our customers the tough questions and get the hard answers: we don’t like your product (or worse, who are you? what do you do again?). That fear of your own customer is more common than one might think. Many times, when I speak with other first-time entrepreneurs–clearly more in tune with startup land and its golden principles than I was–there is a lot of lip service paid to Customer Development, but not a lot of action. But in the hopes your startup does not receive the next visit from the grim reaper, please please please, get over it.

We did do one thing right though, one thing that I see so many other fashion Internet startups get wrong, which was to build a balanced team of technology talent and apparel industry experience. That included my co-founder Eric Jennings, an enormously talented engineer who spent the previous four years hacking on the e-commerce company MyShape and Lily Kwong, who has worked at every fashion house from Dior to Altuzarra, is a model, a Vogue contributor, and just a general Conde fav.

Fashionably late

Over the past two years, after probably a couple hundred meetings with people involved in either tech or fashion in some way, I have noticed a distinct and divisive cultural attitude of one towards the other. I have found it enormously common to sit with a first-time fashion entrepreneur who constantly complains about her outsourced tech team, “I asked them to do this a million times, why don’t they get it?” “I don’t know what’s wrong with them, I told them they need to add Facebook Connect, why is this taking so long?” “It’s just an e-commerce website, I don’t know why they can’t build it faster” ad infinitum. There is a clear lack of respect for the technology and the (typically outsourced) developers who are building it.

Luxury brands are among the worst offenders. I challenge you to find a luxury website without (1) a black or dark “sexy” background color, (2) a crazy-long, unnecessary Flash-intro, (3) infinitesimally small font everywhere, (4) and impossible-to-click, three-level drop-down menus. It’s no wonder brands like Calvin Klein, which generate about $6 billion in revenue annually, only produce about $60 million through e-commerce.

However, technologists do not escape scrutiny either. I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to a previously successful entrepreneur in gaming, video, social media–or maybe a recent alumni of Google or Twitter–that is now starting something that is going to “revolutionize shopping on the web.” The distinct attitude is “I worked at Facebook and sold my last company to Google, how hard can this fashion thing be? This will be cake.” Ha. Talk to anyone who has spent a day of their life in apparel, and I’m pretty sure the last word used to describe the industry would be “easy.”

In fact, to quote a wonderfully eloquent commenter on my last post:

Instead of listening to this writer’s advice, any company going into fashion should look at how backward thinking most people in the industry are, how little they understand technology, and how they are unwilling to admit the core purpose of fashion. The easiest entry is discoverability and influence and that’s also the most powerful element of the fashion ecosystem. If you become the discovery engine and the decision engine then it’s game over for everyone else. If you become the decision engine (something Google and Bing are trying to do with there [sic] Flight Search and other initiatives in various verticals), then you can easily take over the entire business. If people are coming to you and you help them decide what to buy – then you can start selling them that stuff. You start off as the starting point and then you start taking over more and more until you start producing the products you were originaly [sic] only linking to.

The Internet is destroying entire industres [sic] – yet she thinks fashion internet startups should instead compete in the real world. That makes no sense. We should all play to our strenghts [sic]. While she’s trying to do backend stuff and help existing Fashion [sic – again] companies, some ‘only 3 to 8%’ earning Internet startup is going to disrupt the entire industry. A hacker, in my opinion, is not meant to figure out how to solve the problems the existing industry power players created or want solved. A hacker, again in my opinion, should solve the most elegent [sic] things and solve things for actual people.

While it is difficult to defend an argument that is not rational, in this case, I do not need to. The words speak for themselves.

There are very few companies that have been able to conquer the cultural divide of apparel and technology and, instead, bring together top fashion industry execs and talented technology entrepreneurs. Ironically, the company that has been so far ahead of this curve, is also over a decade old: Net-a-Porter, the Platonic Ideal of the fashion internet company–and also the one that has paved the way for every flash sale website in existence. Typically, new apparel startups fall distinctly on one side of the other: Moda Operandi has very deep connections and industry experience, but no engineering talent. Inporia has incredibly successful technology entrepreneurs behind it, but couldn’t pronounce “Rodarte” if their life depended on it. The problem is that both think the other’s job is easy or unimportant: ‘the technology is not core to the product and can be outsourced’ or ‘fashion is so simple anyone who is a consumer can understand it.’

If we (we being the collective ecosystem of fashion entrepreneurs and investors) have any hope of solving the difficult supply chain and remnant inventory problems in apparel, disrupting a 100+ year old industry and building amazing companies, we have to realize that each function–both engineering talent and apparel expertise–is equally important and necessary. The ability of your company to build a brand and an emotional connection with your consumer is just as important as your engineers who churn out lines of node.js each night so your site can handle concurrency issues and RACE conditions after Style.com runs a fabulous piece on your new brand.

With all this said, there are a few startups I am super excited about, and believe can cross this divide: Edition 01 (deep fashion expertise + some excellent East Coast technology investors), The Lookk (one of Carmen Busquets’s first investments since the sale of Net-a-Porter), and The Runthrough (a way for stylists to request samples for shoots without having to send interns running all over town to physically hunt them down) are a few. In addition to the more established fashion startups like Warby Parker and Bonobos, I am incredibly excited to see how they change the industry, and hope that many others will follow suit.

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Comments

  1. Hopefully last night’s #raisecache helped solve some of this disconnect!

  2. Hopefully last night’s #raisecache helped solve some of this disconnect!