LOS ANGELES — The Next Big Thing.
Most fashion tech start-ups want to be that, while investors are eager to get a piece of it. But a frothy funding environment that’s seen ballooning valuations and the implosion or stalls of once buzzed-about brands aces the new wave of upstarts looking to raise capital and become the next Gilt Groupe or Net-a-porter.
The question of who’s next to seal a deal with investors is less exact science and more a roll of the dice in an industry that’s still relatively young and figuring out what business models bear out in the most dollars.
“It’s an interesting time for fashion tech from an investment standpoint,” said Matthew Wong, a research analyst with New York-based angel and venture capital research firm CB Insights. “There have been companies that have raised quite a bit of money in the space…and yet there’s pressure to have a big hit. We saw companies like Fab disintegrate recently. That creates pressure for some of these companies, especially the ones that are well funded, to figure out their models faster.”
That’s one reason Lawrence Wisne, founder of the recently launched online shop Lyon + Post, chose to wait before raising more capital after an initial friends-and-family round that went to pay for the store’s first wave of inventory.
“One of the big benefits with e-commerce is that you can be making money early on in the process, so our challenge is to essentially bootstrap the company and then show the money that we have [to investors],” Wisne said. “With our business model, we could have raised early and said ‘Hey, we’ll figure out these big question marks as we go,’ but you pay for that in the longer term.”
Wisne’s San Francisco start-up sells apparel from contemporary lines such as Joie and Bec & Bridge, and carries inventory — unlike some e-commerce players that sell product held by the vendors themselves. The former is a model that gave some investors pause in the past, but the ones who missed out on getting in early with something like a Trunk Club, which Nordstrom bought for $350 million last year, or Stitch Fix, projected to see revenue of around $200 million this year, have a second chance with the endless crop of start-ups entering the fray. Wisne sees that as an opportunity for Lyon + Post, which intends to begin raising for its Series A round of financing this year.
“The e-commerce sector, in general, kind of goes through a lot of cycles, and I’d say in the last couple of years it’s been a little out of favor with the venture community,” said Dana Settle, cofounder and partner of Greycroft Partners, which has invested in Trunk Club, The Real Real and BaubleBar, among others. “It’s come back in a little bit in the last six months, partially driven by an IPO of Zulily. The venture market tends to be sort of finicky and when they see a company like [Zulily] that was able to grow quickly [and] go public, then all of a sudden it makes people see it as viable.”
Two-year-old Carbon38, an e-tailer selling high-end activewear lines such as Michi and Duskii, intends to raise a Series A round this year and both of the company’s founders are optimistic about the prospects. The Los Angeles-based firm has raised about $2 million to date.
“We have the data to prove that this concept is going to be huge, not just because of the concept, but based on conversion rate and based on the customers acquired and that helps us to be optimistic about [venture capitalists] or other institutional investors,” said Caroline Gogolak, Carbon38 cofounder, president and head buyer.
What investors want from young fashion tech companies varies though, pointed out Nava Brief-Fried, the founder of Israel-based ModLi, an online shop that aims to sell modest fashions.
“Not all investors see the value of an e-commerce company, which was hard,” she said of her own experience raising money. “They’d say ‘Oh, you’re not a tech company,’ but we’re just like eBay. We had to show a lot more sales to make it seem more worthwhile than a tech company. We really had to dig deep into our data and find stuff to impress. Sometimes the sales were what impressed. Sometimes it was who I am.”
ModLi is in the process of opening offices in New York following a $200,000 seed round raised in February, a process Brief-Fried said wasn’t as easy as she expected. In another six months she plans to look for Series A investors.
ModLi has already undergone a number of transformations in a bid to create a global business, including the site’s rebrand earlier this year to LeeLach, which previously sold a mix of products made by Israeli designers.
“Staying small wasn’t going to help it,” Brief-Fried said of the name change.
The companies that successfully raise funding are flexible and they know how to pivot, said Eunice Cho, founder of e-tailer Aella, which launched in October to sell the “ultimate women’s pants.”
“You have a start-up and you’re constantly pivoting something about the business,” Cho said, “whether that’s product offering, price point, sales channel or the way that you’re reaching your customer.”
Aella, to stand out from the competition, lets customers try on two pant sizes and then send one back for free. The store also sells a few blazer styles, with the end goal of offering a whole system of professional pieces for women.
The company is part of South Gate, Calif.-based Nextrade Inc., a company owned by Cho’s parents. Her original plan was to spin off into an independent operation at which time she would begin looking for seed funding. But she said she’s no longer looking to as aggressively raise money and is instead focused on a measured approach to growth without the pressure of outside investors seeking a quick return on their investment.
Aella recently opened a showroom in downtown Los Angeles that doubles as a meeting space and place for customers to shop by appointment. It also added a skirt and two tops to its offering as it tests expansion into new categories.
“Most investors are familiar now with the [e-commerce] territory that the proof point has definitely increased,” Cho said. “You can’t wave money on just an idea online. People want to see actual product. People want to see that you have a marketing plan. That just comes down to branding.”
Strong identities may be the one commonality running through the fashion tech companies that have managed to nab funding.
“In general, the venture community, I think, has been a little more leery of e-commerce companies largely because at the end of the day, they’re not a business you can scale in the same way you can [brick-and-mortar],” Greycroft’s Settle said. “You have to really invest in building a brand and ultimately acquire customers and continue to acquire customers all the time.”
Competition is fierce in e-commerce, said Michael Zerah, whose company The Daily Brands makes the accessories shopping app Daily Vice. The app, which counts about 5,000 users and features one accessory to buy daily, has been meeting with angel investors as it looks to raise seed funding.
“The more innovative you can be and the more you can appease and attract the Millennial demographic — that’s where it’s at,” Zerah said. “If you go in [to investors] trying to be like an Etsy, Fab or any of the other Web sites, it’s not going to work. You can’t be just another e-commerce platform.”
That’s why he, along with others, see mobile as the future.
“Mobile is where it’s going and that’s what we’re betting on,” Zerah said. “The consumer attention span is milliseconds. The days of Amazon and Gilt shopping, taking time to browse, are kind of archaic ways of shopping. The more curation we can provide to the user and [say] ‘This is what I’ve got for you, at this price point. Do you want it, yes or no?’ And that’s how we pitch it [to investors].”
Daily Vice hopes to add a swipe feature similar to dating app Tinder sometime in the summer.
The company, like many start-ups, isn’t disclosing revenue projections for the year, with Zerah saying, “We’re going to stay pretty private and keep it close to the chest.”
After all, no company wants to be the one that explodes out of the gate with mega-venture capital rounds and then trips over false starts.
The industry’s “littered with the carcasses of companies that have raised $20 million” and then gone away, pointed out Karn Saroya, cofounder of the Canada-based app Stylekick. The app showcases street style fashion one outfit at a time.
The company’s recently closed angel round totaled $1 million and that money’s since been funneled into improving the app’s shopping capabilities, with the recent debut of an update that landed the app on the homepage of Apple App Store. The company will gear up for its seed round in about six months, according to Saroya.
“The story up until now has been to release this quietly, get feedback and then iterate,” Saroya said. “The very first iteration of Stylekick was built in three days. All it did was it showed three outfits at a time. All you could do was double tap on any part of an outfit. We saw incredibly high levels of engagement. So we took a step back and built out the app for real and spent five or six months building out the shopping functionality. So when we did that and we started to show traction, we were getting millions of impressions a month.”
To ensure buzzy brands don’t get ahead of themselves and grow too quickly or only focus on top line growth, the business strategy for some has shifted to a focus on profitability right out of the gate. That’s particularly the case with e-commerce.
“E-commerce businesses are just lower margin businesses fundamentally, so I think for a while a lot of investors were thinking about that difference and thinking, like all start-ups, it was just about scale and that’s when we ran into those things like Fab that actually never had a business model that worked,” Settle said. “So we at Trunk Club did focus on profit over growth mostly because you really do want to understand the levers in the business.…At the end of the day, businesses have to run a profit at some point.”
That’s what all companies should be thinking about, said Carbon38 cofounder and chief executive officer Katie Warner Johnson. “I think that should be the strategy for any business, whether you’re getting institutional capital or not,” she said.
With a steady stream of funding announcements and swelling valuations — and few IPOs to show for it — there have been cries of another tech bubble. But industry watchers say the hysteria is overplayed and somewhat misguided.
“It’s definitely frothy right now for start-ups. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it a bubble,” CB Insight’s Wong said. “Adding nine figures of funding over just six months, it’s definitely worrying for some companies. There’s a worry that if companies are going to stay private this long and not even test the public markets, then there will be more companies like Fab — or at least some sort of normalization where there’s a disconnect in what they can raise in private and what they can raise from an IPO.”