On Thursday, November 17th, a tech party-cum-fashion show called "Raise Cache," helped raised more than $100,000 for Hack NY, a nonprofit organization geared towards helping promising young engineers engaged in tech projects in the city.
While the evening's fashion show -- which showcased looks from Bonobos, Rent the Runway, Of A Kind, BaubleBar, Warby Parker, and more -- was the main event, the night really celebrated a wave of New York start-ups, especially those with a focus on style. We asked some of the investors and entrepreneurs behind the event what made style such a tantalizing subject for tech -- and what, in return, made tech so suddenly appealing to the style set.
Mimi Nguyen is the founder of a new site called thre.ad, a street style site with a focus on sharing and commenting on others' personal style. "Fashion has always been behind technology," Nguyen told us. "With the proliferation of Web, it's now just something the fashion industry can't ignore."
In addition to providing a social platform for style watchers and fashionistas, the digital space offers new ways to develop a commerce platform and connect with customers. Jordan Cooper of Lerer Ventures, a company that has invested in brands like Warby Parker and BaubleBar, thinks this is at the core of the intersection between digital and fashion: "I think the boom has really been in new commerce and marketing paradigms that have made fashion and style-related start-ups grow and monetize in a way that they hadn't been able to do previously."
Laura Zapata is the community manager at a social marketplace called The Cools, where users can buy, sell, and discover new things online. For The Cools, the emphasis is on helping style-focused readers navigate an increasingly crowded online space when it comes to commerce.
For an online-only retailer like Bonobos, the Web offers the chance to employ new digital strategies and have direct contact with customers. "We're now getting almost half of our customer inquiries and requests from Facebook and Twitter," says Richard Mumby, VP of Marketing. "Our customer service people, we call 'ninjas.'"
Pamela Castillo, the co-founder of Market Publique (a new online marketplace exclusively for vintage fashion), agrees: "Knowing your customers, figuring out what they need and where they congregate, and letting them try our product early was the most important thing we did. By the time we launched, we already had a good group of sellers to help us seed the site. "
Perhaps our most interesting takeaway was the fact that few style and fashion sites are actually founded by those we'd consider fashion insiders; All it takes to start a new digital style platform is knowledge and drive -- not a resume that includes a stint at Vogue.
Interested in starting your own style property? Here are some tips:
1. Target a Need in the Marketplace, and Do Your Research
The Web is a big place, and the best move is going for specialized over all-encompassing. The need can be virtual (how to make a better vintage e-commerce platform) or physical (how to build a better pair of pants), but do thorough research on your competition and see what you can learn from them.
2. Talk to Anyone and Everyone to Get Feedback and Build Your Team
One would think that New York is teeming with innovative people, but some folks with whom we spoke found real talent to be a rare commodity. "Technology talent is even more scarce," insisted Nguyen.
You never know how you'll find the members of your team -- a guy that Nguyen's thre.ad co-founder met at jury duty ended up introducing them to their mobile engineer -- and spreading the word can also bolster your courage. "Get out there. Network. Tell people your idea. Get feedback," says Castillo. "Once you've put yourself out there, you will be more committed to executing."
3. Be Prepare to Commit Several Years, and Don't Expect Much Money to Start
Even if a site sells for millions down the road, it starts off with very little cash flow. "I don't pay anyone a dollar to start," says Mimi Nguyen. "They've got to believe in it and be self-motivated."
Says Cooper: "If someone thinks they have a big idea, we'd like to meet them at the point where they are certain that they want to spend the next five years of their life building it … The average company we invest in doesn't exit for three to seven years, so we really want entrepreneurs to be sure that this is the one."
4. Don't Go Out for Funding Without a Developed Product and Team in Place
While some start-up stories involve tales of "big ideas" swapped over drinks at a bar, most investors are looking for a whole lot more to sign up a new business. Even more than "new ideas," Cooper tells us that the venture capital community is "even more receptive to new products."
"Ideally, they will come to us with a core founding team in place, a prototype, and maybe even a product in market," he says. "But at a minimum they need to have answered all of the questions in their own head and developed a conviction and passion in the business they are pursuing."
Mimi Nguyen didn't get funding for thre.ad until she had her entire team in place. The Cools has been mostly financed by private investors, or "angels," who Zapata says mostly rely on their own common sense, which, she says, "can be hard to convince."
"You need a really solid business plan to get good funding. It's expensive to start a business, even online," stresses Mumby. "You need to have a really clear vision on where you're going."