Category Archives: Inspiring

The Need For Speed

Written by Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, co-founder and CEO of Moda Operandi for The Business of Fashion.

When founding a company, one of the most important decisions you will make is how and when your company grows. Growing a young company is not an involuntary, linear process, like how a baby grows. Growth tends to happen in sizeable, step-up increments, like a set of stairs, based upon deliberate decisions you and your team make. The key is to balance careful planning with speed of execution.

The implications of this tricky balance are multiple and very real. Do you “get it right first,” subordinate growth to perfecting your product or service, or do you “get big fast” and shun polishing the decks while it’s full speed ahead?

As you will hear me say often, there is no right solution to this kind of puzzle. But as co-founder of Moda Operandi (M’O), I mulled this balance carefully and decided I needed to “get big fast.” I saw an opportunity for M’O to be first to market with our unique “pre-order luxury goods” concept and I knew that meant aligning myself with key people and companies to help me do it quickly and cleverly. In short, I felt the need for speed was a critical competitive advantage that outweighed hoarding equity and control. This decision had significant implications for how I thought about taking on a partner, where to raise financing, and how much. And since, 16 months later, M’O remains the only store in the business with our dedicated pre-order model, this decision has turned out to be one of the most important I’ve made for the company to date.

TO PARTNER, OR NOT TO PARTNER

One of the first decisions to make when you come up with a business idea is whether to do it alone or with a partner. You have probably heard that entering into a partnership around a company is like entering into a marriage, and it is true. Partnerships, like marriages, are exciting because the whole is greater than the individual parts and together amazing offspring can be born. But also, like marriages, partnerships require work and compromises and they have real costs. Decision-making and control is shared; equity and wealth potential is diluted. So just like getting hitched on a whim in Vegas is not necessarily a great long term idea, you shouldn’t pick a partner unless you think you need to. And if you do need to, make sure that person is kick ass.

I knew Lauren Santo Domingo, my co-founder, would be the perfect partner. Why?

    • Lauren got it immediately (Warning: if you have to explain the concept twice, it’s probably not a good fit.)
    • She added to it immediately (i.e. “We should do this as well, we should call them as well,” etc. Her complementary experience was apparent from the get-go.)
    • She threw herself into it immediately (“When do we start?” No dilly-dallying, this was a partner who wanted in yesterday, already.)

After our first chat about it, I knew there was nobody else I wanted as a co-founder of the company. But we can’t all be this lucky. And taking on a bad co-founder can kill your business before it is born. So here are a few things you need to think about when making the decision about partnering-up or going solo:

    • Is there a sizeable hole in what you bring to the table (skills, relationships, experience, etc)? If yes, would that void be better filled via a partner, or a contractor, consultant or temporary hire? In short, do you need a partner?
    • Do you generally prefer to work in teams or alone? Put bluntly: can you have a partner? (What does your significant other think? Always a good reality check.)
    • Is the scope / complexity of your business idea robust / complicated enough that you need a partner during those crucial initial months? In other words, does the company need a partner?
    • Is the size of your business big enough to support an additional partner? Can all mouths be fed? Can your company support a partner?

Divorce is a mess, not least because it will really slow you down. So only pick a partner if you need to. And if you need to, pick someone who will help you get there faster and smarter. The last thing you need is the old ball and chain.

INVESTOR EXPECTATIONS

Investors are your friends. They give you money, you build cool things, consumers spend money, everyone is happy. However, there are different kinds of investors and each has pros and cons. Specific to speed to market, here are a few things to consider:

    • Angel investors are typically more flexible and hands-off, but often lack industry expertise. They are your rich uncle who ponies up cash and wishes you the best, but doesn’t really want or know how to help you do your thing. This is not always the case — some angels are brilliant and available — but this is what you should anticipate.
    • Venture capital investors (VCs) typically have deeper pockets, can provide good advice and resources, but require a lot of control and hand-holding. They’re professional money makers, so understandably, they want to know what the hell you’re doing. This can be a good thing but it also takes up valuable time. Again, there are exceptions, but this is a general rule.

The key point: if you believe you need to get your company to market now, make sure you match your expectations with those of your potential investors. You may not have the luxury of options. But you don’t want to take on an investor who wants you to get it right first, when you’re focused on getting big fast.

HOW MUCH MONEY IS ‘ENOUGH MONEY’?

Another common question I am often asked is, how much money should I raise and how quickly should I raise it? Fundraising is painful and time consuming. Some founders prefer to raise just enough to get something to market now. On the other hand, some founders prefer to go the extra mile and aim for a bigger raise so they won’t have to suffer through the process all over again in just a short while. There are pros and cons to each approach.

At M’O, we went the extra mile. While we were fortunate enough to have some seed money to get our proof of concept going, we parallel-tracked the fund raising process in full swing until we secured our first round of venture capital. Grabbing market share was critical. We had to build the car while driving it down the highway.

This may not always be the right decision. A young company might be better served in its early days focusing its attention on perfecting the product rather than on fundraising. And depending on the economic environment and the appetite of the investment community, raising more early on might mean giving up more equity to investors than if you wait. But you probably will need more money than you think. And it is always good to stash away cash today for a rainy day tomorrow, like a sudden downturn in the market or the unexpected arrival of a formidable competitor.

During our latest fund raising, I had a meeting with a Chinese businessman, one of the most successful retail tycoons in the world. He said, “You guys are hot. Everyone is talking about M’O. Raise as much money as you can now.”

The point? If capturing market share is of the essence, raise as much money as you can now. Having too much money is a good problem, even if it means dilution, giving up control and sharing the throne. But get to market. Raising all the money in the world means nothing if you aren’t open for business.

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From Big Idea To Launch

Written by Áslaug Magnúsdóttir, the co-founder and CEO of Moda Operandi for the Business of Fashion.

In February 2011, I launched an online store — Moda Operandi — with my business partner, Lauren Santo Domingo. Moda Operandi (M’O) was the first of its kind, offering the latest runway styles for immediate pre-order following their presentation at fashion shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris. The site was the result of an idea that I had back in the Fall of 2009 while I was running the premium division at Gilt Groupe: why not allow fashion lovers to buy anything off the runway, in any size offered by the designer, from the comfort and privacy of home? That idea became an obsession that I knew I had to see through to fruition. And I did: Friday last week, M’O announced a Series C round of financing in the amount of $36 million. Investors in the round included venture capital firms RRE, NEA and NAV, as well as strategic investors Condé Nast, LVMH and IMG. Champagne was uncorked. M’O was cemented as a real business.

While celebrating the closing of our latest round, I sat down for coffee with my friend and former McKinsey colleague, Imran Amed, founder of The Business of Fashion.  Imran suggested I write a column for BoF about my experience as a founder and CEO of a fashion startup. Our conversation got me thinking about my career, M’O and how it all came to be. Specifically, what are the key requirements for success as an entrepreneur? Why do some start-ups prosper while others fail? How much of it is a result of planning and skill, and how much is just dumb luck?

There is no perfect script for launching a business and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to these questions. But I do hope that sharing my thoughts and experience over the weeks to come can shed some light on the issues that fashion start-ups face and tease out some lessons learned. And, most important, I hope that my story might help others obsessed with an idea to take the plunge to see it through.

1. SOLVE A PROBLEM, EVEN IF OTHERS ARE ALSO PRESENT

You have heard it before and you will hear it again: a start-up that solves a problem, addresses a need and/or fills a void is one that is best positioned for success. The fact that M’O fills a gap in the market has been one of the key factors that has taken us this far. M’O also is unique in that it is the only business specializing in letting consumers pre-order the latest designer runway styles. But if solving a problem is critical to a company’s success, is uniqueness a requirement as well? Absolutely not. Many examples exist of successful companies that were not the first of their kind. In the online fashion space, Gilt Groupe is a good example of this. Gilt took its concept (selling exclusive fashion at a discounted price through limited-time “flash sales”) from a business previously launched in Europe, Vente-Privée, but shaped the concept to address the needs of a US customer base. And Gilt is not alone: flash sale sites have taken the US by storm, delivering discounted goods and services to customers who crave them. The bottom line is that while filling a void is key, being first to do it is not.

2. ACTUALLY, IT’S REALLY ALL ABOUT THE TEAM

When I started thinking about the concept for M’O, I immediately knew that Lauren was the perfect business partner. We had both worked in the fashion industry for a long time and we had complementary skills. My background was steeped in the business side of fashion, having worked as both an investor and consultant to fashion brands. Lauren’s expertise was in the creative side: a long time stylist and editor, she has an exceptional eye for fashion and deep relationships with designers around the world. We knew that technology was our weak spot, so we embarked on the notoriously difficult task of finding a qualified CTO in New York. Once this problem was solved, we knew we had the key skill sets covered. We could then move on to building our initial website with a small, but highly qualified team of passionate people.

The key take-away? Your initial team is everything. Nail down the key people at the get go who are critical to success and then get going with it. Don’t get bogged down with hiring in non-essentials at the early stages. Outsource other needs or just acknowledge to your investors and partners you aren’t wasting time on those areas now and will address them later.

3. PASSION WILL GET YOU FAR

People often ask me what it is like to be a founder and CEO of a start-up and whether this is a path I recommend. My answer is simple: don’t start and run a company unless there is nothing else in the world you want to do. Being the CEO of a start-up is all consuming. You no longer have weekends, holidays or a truly carefree drink after work. You are on constant alert, thinking about the people who work for you, planning out the future of your company, fussing over every small detail that might contribute to the success (or demise) of your business. The ups and downs are real and extreme. So the one thing you absolutely need to keep yourself and your team motivated is complete and utter conviction in and passion for what you are doing. Anything short of that and your team will smell it, your partners will smell it, your customers will smell it and you will fail.

Years ago, while living in London, a business partner and I spent several months researching and developing a concept for a healthy fast food chain. Despite it being a solid business concept that catered to a real need in the market, it just wasn’t my passion. And when things started to get tough, I didn’t have the conviction to keep myself going. M’O, on the other hand, has captivated me from the day I picked up the phone to call Lauren. With that kind of love for our company, I am motivated to wake up every day to nurture and grow the company.

4. LIKE IT OR NOT, CASH IS KING

At the risk of stating the obvious: you might have a wonderful business idea, but unless you are independently wealthy or able to convince someone else to fund your idea, it is unlikely to go much further than the drawing pad. Raising money is like most things in life, an acquired skill that requires practice and dedication. When I moved to New York in 2006, I started an investment company, TSM Capital, with retail legend Marvin Traub. TSM invested in fashion brands, such as Matthew Williamson and Rachel Roy, and I spent a good deal of time (and heartache) raising capital for early stage fashion companies. This was an extraordinarily difficult task, as many investors were not comfortable assessing the competitive advantage of individual fashion brands. I had to hone my fund raising skills by learning the do’s and don’ts of selling brands to investors: what motivates them, what scares them. That learning was critical during M’O’s fund raising process and we have been blessed with the ability to access capital to fund our growth and development, having raised nearly $50 million in under two years. Without this money — and without knowing how to raise money — the beautiful idea behind M’O would have stayed a sketch on the drawing pad.

5. LIFE IS ALL ABOUT TIMING

This lesson is may be the hardest. Timing is everything, too. Some ideas are great but they are just too far ahead of their time and they fail. Some ideas are great but they arrive at the party too late and they fail. This is as true in the online fashion world as anywhere else. Gilt got its timing completely right, launching just when the economy was experiencing a significant downturn and full price luxury sales were suffering heavily. As a result, Gilt’s business, selling discounted fashion merchandise from previous seasons, was an instant success.

At M’O, we knew our time was now. We saw the writing on the wall. Consumers were demanding online access not just to commodity products from Amazon but luxury goods from designers. With the economy rebounding, we worked hard to get to market fast — even at the expense of making mistakes along the way. As a result, M’O has been able to generate the sales and financing required to put the company in a unique place. In short, while you can’t time everything, do your homework to determine the right moment for your idea. Once you see that wave coming, paddle as hard as you can to catch it. There might not be another big one on the horizon for some time.

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Eye to Eye with Paul Smith

I stumbled upon a great interview with Paul Smith, courtesy of Bloomberg TV’s Eye to Eye program. In the interview he describes growing his business slowly, how he has remained independent through the clever management of his cash flow, and setting the old fashioned expectation of going into business to “just have a nice day.”

It might sound silly but with a growing empire and employees who have been with the brand in excess of 15 years he must be doing something right…

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/78248062/

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How Great Leaders & Companies Inspire Action

How do great leaders inspire action? How do companies inspire marketplaces to investigate and purchase their products, fashion or otherwise? The answers to these questions I discovered within a 18 minutes TEDx talk I found this morning by Simon Sinek.

The points within the this talk are simple, yet immensely profound for the world of fashion. People don’t need fashion. People only need clothing, and that depends where they are located in the world. People purchase the ‘why?’…

Check out Simon’s talk below. It may inspire you to re-think your communication of your ‘why?’.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

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