How I Survived My First Year Without Any Venture Capital
Brooke Moreland launched her company, Fashism.com, an online community that provides real-time fashion and style advice, one year ago. As a first-time entrepreneur, she had no idea what to expect.
For a good portion of the year, she straddled two jobs, being a full-time reality TV show editor by day and a fashion entrepreneur by night.
Leaving a paycheck for a personal endeavor is terrifying, risky, and unpredictable. But it can be incredibly rewarding if your idea pans out.
Brooke Moreland shares how Fashism has grown to 40,000 users since it's inception in 2008, how she devised the idea and created a website with no technical background and discloses how her startup gained traction. She reflects on her first year as an entrepreneur, and shares what she would have done differently.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Fashism?
I got the idea in 2008. I was shopping with my husband and […] he wasn't there for me to ask him questions. There are always a few people around you can ask, like store clerks [about your outfits], but they're kind of biased.
And I'm very indecisive when I shop. I thought, "There's a lot of people in the world who give great advice and care about fashion, they want to help you and care about clothes."
When you buy a book on Amazon, you can read all these different reviews. I thought, "There must be a way to harness the wisdom of crowds to get advice personalized for you before you buy something." So Joe [my husband] and I started talking about that, and I did a lot of research online. I couldn't find anything like that that existed.
There are outfit blogger sites, like Cook Book, but it wasn't instant feedback. I thought, 'That's a shame, I wonder what we can do to make this [idea] happen.'
Q: How did you find a developer?
We had a friend who's a developer. I called him up that day and told him the idea. He said, 'that's awesome,' and we started working on a prototype.
We had never worked on any projects together before. And it was lucky. He was in college and had some spare time. He liked the idea and said, 'Yeah, let's get started on something right away.'
People who are really technically skilled are few and far between and, a lot of the time, they want to do their own thing. So it's hard to get someone who believes in your idea and will put forth the time, especially if you can't pay them.
We put together a prototype and had our friends play around with it for a little bit. We had some good responses. We took the feedback from friends and got some of our friends at Hard Candy Shell to help us out with the site design, all in the course of a year, from the end of 2008 to 2009.
Q: How did you pay for Fashism initially?
When I think of the past couple years, I owe so many favors. When I make it big I have a lot of people to help out.
In September 2009, we launched to the public. All of this is on basically no money. The little money we spent on server space and paying the Hard Candy Shell guys was just my money that I had from working.
I was still working a full-time job at this point. I was a [reality TV show] editor. [Fashism] is something we were doing on the side because I wasn't in a position to quit my job. I didn't see any money coming in for a while.
Q: What was your day like when you were doing both jobs?
When I was working full-time, I would wake up really early, write for the blog, answer e-mails, do all the marketing, plan all the events. I'd do all that before work -- 5:30 or 6 range.
I had to be at work at 10. If I had to have any meetings for Fashism, I'd try to plan them around my lunch hour and schedule them around my office.
In the evenings, I'd try to go to as many networking events as possible where I could talk to influential people so I could grow the users. I'd put my card and fliers out there, and talk to anyone I could. I tried to go out every night, spread the word, meet people and schmooze. So it's really intense having a full-time job and a company on the side.
Q: Do you think you waited too long to quit your full-time job?
Knowing everything I do now, I probably should have quit [much] sooner than I did, but yeah, it's really scary not having a paycheck.
I worked my entire life since I was in high school, so just the prospect of not having a paycheck scared me. I wasn't seeking investment, I didn't see any kind of money coming in the near future, so it was about taking that leap of faith.
Now I know I would have been OK, but at that time you know there are no guarantees. So it took a little while for me to feel totally confident and quit.
Q: Why didn't you seek out capital sooner?
I guess I just felt like there wasn't that much that we needed money for. I wanted to prove the product worked first. At the time, I didn't really understand what kind of value [outside capital] would add to me.
I also knew it would take a lot of time to pitch, and I wanted to spend that time working on the product and finding people to use it.
Q: At what point did you decide, 'It's time for me to go and find some money?'
A friend of a friend who has a strong marketing background [in the fashion industry] approached me and said, "Let's have drinks, I have some great ideas for you."
We went out and she said, 'I've been looking at Fashism and have some ideas about how we can work with brands. There are things you can do to monetize the site and I really want to help you.' I was intrigued.
We started working together and then I decided to hire her full-time to be my CMO. I [thought], 'I have an employee, I can't have this other job too.' She inspired me to really commit. I quit my job the next week.
The day that I quit my job, I got a call from someone at the New York Times for an interview. I went to meet her and she showed up to coffee with a tape recorder. 'We decided to do a story on you,' she said, and she interviewed me [on the spot]. I was totally taken aback. In a way it was confirmation that I was doing the right thing.
After the NY Times article came out, we got a ton of other publicity. We were on Good Morning America, The Early Show, and then investors started approaching us. That's when I started to understand that taking an investment [might make sense]. Then we could grow faster and do all the things we wanted to do.
Not only is [an investment] money, but a lot of investors bring other value -- connections, and advice. Once they started approaching us, I said, 'Yeah, this is definitely what we should be doing.'
Q: You didn't even have to go knocking on VC's doors? It sounds like the NYT article set everything in motion.
Yeah, that's pretty much what happened. I'm sure we would have had to [seek capital] around that time anyway, because we wanted to grow. Especially since we had quit our jobs.
We could have tried to monetize the site without raising money, but to scale and do what we wanted to do, it really was the smart thing to try to raise a little. I think we bootstrapped it for as long as we possibly could and took it as far as we could, but we needed funding to try and take Fashism to the next level.
Q: What were you able to accomplish without funding? And what will you able to accomplish now that you'll have it?
What we've accomplished is a nice working product, community, users, a lot of interest and a lot of press. We didn't have PR or anything, all the press is via word of mouth.
The NY Times mentioned Fashism. So did a ton of mainstream magazines and TV programs. All of that gave us a big audience.
Our average time on the site is 15 minutes, so our users are really engaged -- we tapped into something they really liked. We have about about 40,000 registered users now. And we have an iPhone app.
Q: How has having a mobile app changed your site?
We released an iPhone app on August 30th of this year, which was huge because it really contributed to the number of people who upload. It's very easy for people to comment, but it's always been a little challenging to get people to upload and create the photos. After we released the iPhone app, uploads went crazy. Our usership went from 10,000 to 20,000 in one week. The registered users doubled and the amount of content people created tripled.
We [formed] a team of moderators, mostly family members since we don't have any money. Now we have people watching the site around the clock. There's always new stuff, and you have to be careful because it's a user-generated community. You have to make sure trolls don't come and terrorize other people.
We always knew Fashism was going to be mobile, but having an app is just different. It reminds people, 'Hey this is something I could do when I'm out.' Having an app is critical. I think I underestimated how crucial it'd be to actually have the iPhone app.
Q: In retrospect, is there anything you would have done differently and anything you wish you had known when you started out?
Now I have a lot more confidence than I did when I first started out. I'd never started a before company. I'd never gone out on my own. I'd never pitched an investor. I'd never pitched myself to the press. I'd never done any of that stuff.
And as much as I knew I had a good idea, I guess I was missing a little bit of that cocky attitude. 'This is what I'm doing, listen to me.'
If I could go back, I would have quit my job sooner, [raised] more money, and just done it all instead of taking my time and testing the waters.
But you know, it was my first time, so there's a little bit of a learning curve in all this stuff.