Audacious goals is what Sophia Amoruso is after.
The Nasty Gal founder and former chief executive officer and now head of her Silver Lake start-up Girlboss is looking to build something perhaps even more ambitious than the e-tailer that seemed to speak to a whole generation of consumers. Amoruso has greased the wheel with $1.2 million in seed funding and on Nov. 11 will hold Girlboss’ second Girlboss Rally after the first Los Angeles event earlier this year, this time bringing the one-day career-building, confidence-building think tank to Manhattan. Last month saw the release of her third authored title, “The Girlboss Workbook: An Interactive Journal for Winning at Life.”
Amoruso, less than a year into building this company she said will not be just a media company, is confident in the power of her voice and the brand she’s building to help scale.
“The brands that have been built by the publishers that be aren’t brands,” she said. “They’re platforms and they provide content, but the power of a brand is something that I spent the last 10, 11 years of my life doing and thinking about,” Amoruso said. “We’re a brand that’s talking to our audience. We’re not just a vehicle or some kind of lubrication for stories.”
At less than a year old, Girlboss has an Instagram following of more than 500,000. It’s obviously smaller by that measure than competitors in the marketplace who have been building their platforms for at least a decade now. These include players such as Clique Media Group’s WhoWhatWear with a 2.6 million Instagram following (and just one of several brands owned by the media company) and some $27.6 million raised to date, or Refinery29, which has raised $125.4 million, with 1.7 million Instagram followers.
Amoruso points to her podcast alone with some 450,000 monthly downloads sounding almost amazed herself at the figure and hints at the potential in audio along with video or tapping local talent coming from the entertainment industry. In other words, she’s open to the possibilities.
“I’m eight months into building a media company slash, slash, slash. It’s not just media,” she said. “From where I sit, starting at a place where everyone’s skeptical of media is exciting and interesting. It’s fun to have a business at this stage where we can sit and survey the market and what’s worked and hasn’t worked for other people and not be burdened by the choices they made and spent millions of dollars on building out whatever it may be — whether it’s video teams or editorial teams — and really think about what we want to do. Not just chase what’s trending or do what’s been done before.”
Here, an edited version of a conversation with Amoruso on what’s coming next for Girlboss.
WWD: What did you take from the L.A. rally in terms of learnings that you’ll apply moving forward?
Sophia Amoruso: The L.A. rally was surprisingly good. It was me and three other people at that time and we worked with an outside producer to build the event. That we pulled that off in March of this year I still can’t believe. There are some learnings…but a lot of it had to do with functions and operations of the event.
It definitely feels good to have around 500 women. I think we’re going to have maybe closer to 600 in New York. I thought about making it bigger and we may at some point, but there’s still a feeling of intimacy with that number of women.
If you curate the right speakers, people are not staring at their phones. They’re taking notes and asking really engaged questions and that’s what we want to keep doing with this.
WWD: What do you see as being the greatest revenue driver for Girlboss in the longer term?
S.A.: It’s kind of like what we’re doing now when we work with brands.
We are partnering with brands to have conversations that we want to have anyway and that they want to have anyway, and we’re bringing their product to an audience for whom their product makes sense. We’re going deep with very few brands and that pretty much lives across every channel. We’re platform agnostic.
As our audience grows digitally, the rally will become less of a thing that we center partnerships around, but the timing has been that the partnerships we’re doing line up with the rally.
I think there’s an opportunity at some point in merchandise, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re going to have a few little things at the rally that are Girlboss-branded or stuff that we’ve created that doesn’t have our name on it that we just really love, but it’s going to be a very, very tight selection. Right now we’re not building a product business. It’s beautiful not having physical inventory. I’m not in a rush to have physical inventory anytime soon.
S.A.: My, God, because I did it for 11 years. Because of turn and flow and discounts. It is never ending and you have to put it somewhere. What we’re doing today is the voice that built Nasty Gal without the burden of physical inventory.
The product that built Nasty Gal I would say was at least as important — it was maybe equally important to the brand itself. The voice that was very much mine is growing through Girlboss and through the voice of our editor. It’s not the Sophia show.
WWD: What do you ultimately hope to achieve with Girlboss?
S.A.: I want to entertain, educate and inform women to have conversations with us and with one another about redefining success. Yes, that means work, money and productivity, but it also means health, personal care, mental health, relationships, sex and other topics that maybe historically weren’t what the dudes who built the paradigm of success that we all live in talk about.
Having that holistic view is the next chapter of reframing this world that sees people who end up on the cover of Forbes as some kind of hero. As someone who’s been there, I can say you wake up the next day and it’s not really that different. Your mom’s proud, but there’s so much to do in life.
The answer’s Oprah. Where is it? [Motions to a wall of Post-it notes]. What do you want to be? How does this become a $100 million company? Oprah.
WWD: When you look at the landscape of traditional media companies, what do you see as being the problems associated with those traditional players that could be your opportunity?
S.A.: They were built at a time when you could hack Facebook and bloat your numbers and buy impressions. We’re in a world where people are skeptical of programmatic advertising. They want something more personal. Experiential is on the rise.
We’re all stuck on our phones. We have a President that is causing all kinds of mistrust with the media and people are looking for authentic one-on-one relationships or experiences. Brands can be experienced in a way that’s so much more rich and tactile. The content that we create can be experienced in a way that’s so much less fleeting than “Guess what so-and-so said about this. You won’t believe it,” you know?
Media companies that were built over the last five, 10 years were built on a certain amount of sensationalism that people are really tired of. People want to go deep with things now. It doesn’t mean everything that we do is going to be as deep as something that Lenny Letter does, for example, but the content that built brands like Buzzfeed and Refinery29 to a certain extent, that’s not where we’re playing. We’re not chasing trending news. So much of what we do is evergreen content.
WWD: Are there media players, other than Oprah, who you think are doing really cool things?
S.A.: I think Vice is amazing. Vice has scaled a voice and with credibility beyond anything I could have imagined doing. The amount of content they spit out into the world and the consistency of the lens that it’s created through, regardless of what you think about Vice. As someone who tried to blast just three e-mails a week with Nasty Gal, it is hard to scale a voice.
Disney’s interesting, too.
Entertainment companies are really interesting. We’re in Los Angeles. How can we take advantage of that?.…I have a lot to learn, but it’s really fun to play with something new at that scale and be as nimble as we are today because I get to learn. At the end of Nasty Gal, that’s where I put myself. I was basically doing business development. I was getting us international licensing deals and trying to market the business through the Netflix series. It was awesome. Nasty Gal’s going to be in 95 million households and 195 countries and that show every episode is Nasty Gal, Nasty Gal, Nasty Gal. I have no equity in Nasty Gal. That will never benefit me, but to me that was a marketing coup.
WWD: Have you thought about picking up where the Netflix story ended and trying to take that on yourself?
S.A.: No. I mean, I loved the Netflix series, but it’s definitely challenging to have a story about who you were at 22 years old being marketed to the world literally at the exact moment when you’re picking up and starting over and trying to tell a new story.
I think Girlboss will do video. What that looks like I don’t know yet, but there are no plans to make another scripted series about my life anytime soon.
WWD: You mentioned experiential. Have you thought about getting into the physical game, not retail stores, but, say, a social club or something similar?
S.A.: It comes up. I think what [New York social club] The Wing is doing is really interesting. Real estate is a gnarly business to be in and I don’t envy it.
I wouldn’t say it’s a “never,” but I like being nimble right now. Signing a bunch of 10-year leases sounds like the most terrifying thing I could do after the last year of my life and having 40,000 square feet in downtown L.A. and two 10-year leases on retail spaces [for Nasty Gal].
I want to stay nimble and capital light.
WWD: Every other headline asks what do we do about retail and what’s wrong with retail. Based on your experience, what’s wrong at retail right now?
S.A.: I think people’s values have changed. Retail has to be immersive and social media ready. You have to be superdifferentiated, whether it be with your quality and price or there’s so much noise and it is so easy to knock someone off. You’ve seen like Casper shows up and there’s 1,000 Caspers. Nasty Gal shows up and every last web site looks Nasty Gal-like. It’s hard to compete in a world where anyone can invent any e-commerce site that looks just like what you’re doing.
It’s not like that hasn’t happened with Girlboss to a certain extent. I can’t take full credit for the cottage industry of stuff that’s happening with Girlboss-looking things.
In the end, we’re all better for it. Fashion’s a little different.
That’s part of why I’m not building a fashion brand right now because it really felt like there was a shift somewhere in the middle of our [Nasty Gal’s] growth.
What you see with Kylie [Jenner] and Glossier and Supreme and these drops, it’s very wired for social media. It feels like the grassroots version of what flash sales were long ago where exclusivity and scarcity is a big driver because people seem to take for granted what’s readily available at this point.
That, and everything just kind of looks the same.
WWD: With Girlboss, you’ve raised capital. Were you apprehensive about doing that or did you feel it necessary in order to scale?
S.A.: In a perfect world I wouldn’t have. The way Nasty Gal was I bought some stuff, sold it and then I had more money.
It’s a very different business [Girlboss]. We do a partnership and we have to put together creative, basically put on a conference, and there’s months that pass where we’re putting up money to make something happen before we might even get paid. It’s a receivables business. Because of that, it was important to fund this.
I think had we not raised it it would have taken a lot longer to get to where we are, but I’m cautious. And I’m hoping I find more active investors who can help guide the company and who may have deep experience in media to take us to the next level.
WWD: Would you ever put your content on the web site behind a paywall?
S.A.: I think it’s interesting. I don’t think we’ll ever put it all behind a paywall. But I think the era of a publishing company being solely supported by ads is a thing of the past and we’re exploring a variety of revenue streams beyond what we’ve done to date, which is ticket sales and partnerships with brands.
WWD: Any other projects you’ve got going on?
S.A.: The rally and the book are what’s coming up in the next few weeks, and that’s enough.
WWD: You look tired when you say that.
S.A.: Well, it’s just weird. I’m promoting so many things at once. It’s like “Preorder my book and you’ll get this” and “Swipe up for tickets” and “Check out this thing we’re doing with Pinterest” and “Oh yeah, I’ve got a new episode of the podcast.” My Instagram looks insane. People are engaging less and less with my posts just in the last week. I need to go on vacation again or buy a new outfit.
Talking to investors has been so exhausting. I’ve never worked harder for $250,000 in my life. I’ve never done this before because with Nasty Gal — well, I did later on — but with Nasty Gal in the beginning it was five years in when I talked to investors and it was like, “Cool, you want in? I did something.”
It’s different being “This is what we’re going to do” and they ask, “How’s this going to be a $100 million company? How does this scale? When does margin improve? What are your primary KPIs? Where are you investing resources? What’s the video strategy? How are you differentiated?”
It’s fair, but it’s exhausting.
WWD: You’ve referenced $100 million a few times. Is that your…
S.A.: No that’s what [investors] ask you. Because they want to [multiply their money 10 or 100 times], they’re like, “How are you going to 100X my money?” and you’re like [shrugs] “I don’t know.” It would be really cool if we did $100 million in revenue. That takes a long time and I think for this business we will have to have multiple revenue streams to do that, but we’re just taking it $1 million at a time.