Today’s Biz Ladies Profile features the retailer-extraordinaire Susan Gregg Koger of ModCloth. As a lover of vintage fashion, Susan began to curate her own vintage collections to sell online through her own site. Using social media in a way other retailers hadn’t thought of yet, Susan was able to expand her business and eventually turn it into the powerhouse ModCloth is today. I’m thrilled to have Susan with us today to share a bit about her business journey. Thanks for offering this glimpse into your world, Susan! —Stephanie
Read the full interview after the jump…
Why did you decide to start your own business?
I started ModCloth in 2002 as a hobby project during the summer between high school and college. I’d always loved thrifting and couldn’t help but buy the pieces I loved, even if they weren’t in my size. My husband, Eric, (who was then my boyfriend) had a web hosting business and helped me build a website so I could turn my passion for thrifting into a more lucrative hobby. This was the first iteration of ModCloth. At the time, there wasn’t anything like Etsy, so we coded the site using an open source shopping cart. It’s amazing to look back and see how much the market has changed.
When you first decided to start your own business, how did you define what your business would be?
I followed my intuition about what I loved and thought would work. The pieces I sourced weren’t just designer or even necessarily “true” vintage (more than 20 years old), but were things that I really liked.
As for customer interaction. I didn’t have a background in fashion or retail, so my approach was really instinctual. People entrenched in the fashion industry at the time didn’t think about social media as a way to authentically connect with your customers; they thought of it as a way to do marketing. To me, it felt natural to use MySpace (remember, we’re talking about 2002!) and Facebook to build a community around ModCloth rather than simply selling fashion, and this helped the brand grow organically.
What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you were starting off?
“Never apologize for your age.” Age doesn’t mean you know everything. Be aware of what you don’t know and be curious, but don’t look at your age or lack of experience as a negative; it can allow you to approach an industry from a different point of view.
What was the most difficult part of starting your business?
Learning how to balance business and personal time. When you do something you love and you’re self-employed, it’s important to keep that work-life balance. Since I was working with my boyfriend, now husband, it was really easy to get sucked into working all the time, especially since we worked out of our house for many years.
Can you name the biggest lesson you’ve learned in running a business?
I’ve had to learn to listen to myself and trust my point of view. I think it’s important in a creative business to trust your gut as you’re developing the look and feel of your brand. The easiest way for a brand to be authentic is to put some of your person and personality into it, and if you’re not in tune with your inner voice and instincts, that can get muddled.
Can you name a moment of failure in your business experiences?
When you start your own business, you have to expect good days and bad days. For instance, when we were first starting out, we had all of the merchandise stolen out of the back of our car. Another time, I deleted the entire product catalog accidentally (this was back when my husband and I were a two-person team). I really try to look at failures as learning opportunities.
Can you name your greatest success in your business experiences?
There’ve been so many amazing things that have happened, it’s hard to choose. I’d say it’s either the community experience we’re creating for our customers, giving them a voice in what we do, or the fact that we’re providing jobs for more than 400 people. When I started the business, I would have been happy just to support myself!
What business books/resources (if any) would you recommend to someone starting a creative business of their own?
Reach out to people you admire who are doing interesting things and ask them for advice. You’ll be amazed by how helpful people are when you build relationships with them.
As for business books, I honestly I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with them. They can be incredibly useful and insightful, but are often so poorly written! I’ve had to train myself to not feel forced into reading the entire book. That being said, the E-Myth is really useful when just starting out; it has particularly good insights around hiring for the first time and building job descriptions. Getting Things Done is key for personal productivity. Blink gave me insight into how my creative “hunches” work and is generally fascinating (well written, too!). I also love Paul Graham’s essay on How to Do What You Love. I read it for the first time a few years ago and find myself coming back to it every six months or so to make sure I’m on track.
In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?
1) What’s the problem you’re solving in the market or for your customers?
2) What would success look like for the business and for you personally? You’ll want to make sure that those two things align.
3) Is this something you can work on and it won’t feel like work?