The rise and fall of the women’s fashion e-commerce company Nasty Gal has always been of particular interest to me. The company was founded in 2006 by Sophia Amoruso, but the years of seemingly spectacular growth took place in 2012 – 2015. This was at the same time I was the COO of Thrillist Media Group, which owned JackThreads, a men’s focused e-commerce company.
Nasty Gal was the darling of the press for a few years. When you’re in a high growth, venture backed industry such as e-commerce in 2012 – 2015, and your revenue and valuation isn’t spiking like other companies in your space, you feel the pressure. From your board. From the press. From your employees. Such was our life during those years at JackThreads.
Nasty Gal went on to raise $65 million over three rounds. Sophia was an amazing designer and marketer, but an inexperienced founder. The VC money came in faster than a scalable business model could be developed. Some classic mistakes were made.
Nasty Gal moved into a 50,000-square-foot location in downtown Los Angeles in 2013. The offices — while a gorgeous showstopper visually — were far more space than the company needed. The company also opened a 500,000 square-foot fulfillment center in Kentucky to handle its own distribution and logistics.
The company grew too fast, Sophia stepped out as CEO and the leadership team failed to come together as a cohesive team.
By 2016, it all came crashing down, and the company filed for bankruptcy. The company name and some other assets were bought by the British-owned Boohoo Group for $20 million in 2017.
The story is fascinating, and if you’re interested in digging into it more, there are a lot of great lessons to learn.
But this isn’t really about Nasty Gal. It’s about Sophia.
While Sophia was building Nasty Gal, she was also building the brand of Sophia. In 2014 she wrote the book #GIRLBOSS, and Girlboss became an important part of her personal brand.
There is an argument to be made that if Sophia had focused more on Nasty Gal and less on building her personal brand, perhaps Nasty Gal would have been more successful. I don’t think that’s the case. That’s the subject for another post.
What Sophia was able to do with Girlboss was to start speaking to female founders about her journey. And while in 2014, that was all wrapped in the sheen of the perceived success of Nasty Gal, today when Sophia talks about that journey, she’s open and honest about that experience and what she’s learned along the way.
I think her experiences as a first time founder, as a female founder, and as a founder that went from extraordinarily highs to the complete failure of their company, are all incredibly valuable.
And Sophia doesn’t hide from those failures. She’s leaned into them and made them a part of her narrative. Which is incredibly powerful.
I was reminded of this in listening to her interview with Jason Calacanis on his podcast “This Week in Startups”.
Sophia talks about what it’s like being a female founder, particularly in 2012 when there were so few in her position. She talks about what it was like to raise funding for her company as a completely inexperienced CEO. She is open about what it was like to see it all come crashing down.
Sophia also goes into what it’s like to come out of that cycle and start building her new company, Girlboss, a professional network designed for women.
I think in listening to Sophia, it reinforces the idea that the company you are building right now, regardless of the outcome, is part of a much bigger journey you are on.
We define the ‘success’ or ‘failure’ of our company based upon investor valuations and a successful exit. And since most startups fail, it seems to set most founders up as feeling like failures.
That’s a mistake.
Because building a company from nothing is an incredible foundation for a lifetime of experiences.
Sophia has this great quote in the interview with Jason:
After a decade of building a massive business, I wound up with a rolodex. I’m harvesting my past for my future. That’s all we can do. Take what we have at our disposal and make as much as we can out of it.
Maybe Girlboss will work out, and be successful by whatever measure Sophia wants to use. We know that the journey will be hard, because building a company is hard.
But life is long, and ultimately what’s the point if we aren’t challenging ourselves, trying new things, making a ton of mistakes along the way, and then wrapping those lessons into whatever we do next.
It’s nice to have a founder that’s been through the peaks and troughs and is willing to speak openly and honestly about it.