After becoming a brand that so many fashion technology startups saw as an example to model, Sophia Amoruso’s edgy Ebay-cum-clothing business, Nasty Gal took an unexpected turn towards bankruptcy this past week.
The news, which was made public on 11/9, comes about a year after the announcement was made that Amoruso would step down from the helm of the company. She surrendered the top spot in 2015 to Lululemon alum, Sheree Waterson. In operation for 10 years, Nasty Gal had raised a total of $65 million to date. Index Ventures was the company’s primary backer, with a $49 million investment in 2012. In February of last year former Apple and JC Penney retail executive, Ron Johnson invested an additional $16 million, with the goal to grow the company’s retail footprint, comprised of two stand-alone outposts in LA and Santa Monica.
“Nasty Gal has been a company that I have looked up to for a long time now but the e-commerce world is changing. It’s not like other industries where it has been easier to create a long-term plan that will succeed. You have to constantly be recreating your plan and adapting to the ever-changing landscape that is the Internet. I think once a company grows larger, like Nasty Gal it can become more difficult to implement drastic change at the touch of a button when there are more key players and more corporate type of action that needs to take place.”
-Nicole Bandklayder, Co-Founder of Bijouxx Jewels
“The investment horizon, scale trajectory and realm of likely exit outcomes for tech- enabled brands differ significant from traditional tech companies and require a different capitalization and growth strategy ,” says Natalie Hwang, who manages Simon Venture Group, an early stage venture capital fund based in NYC that is exclusively focused on investing in next generation commerce and retail technology. “Brands that grow too quickly and expand too widely run the risk of trivialization of brand equity through overexposure. If you try to engineer a path to scale for a brand that resembles that of a Google or Facebook without placing some constraints on growth for the sake of maintaining brand desirability and cachet, you can very likely implode these companies.”
Another potential issue with these well-funded retail businesses, according to Hwang, is that they are actually very niche, which makes it hard for them to expand their customer pool.
“Brands can grow rapidly at first because they are able to reach customers with whom their message resonates really easily at first without constraints of geography," says Hwang. "But as the company scales, faces increasing competition and a diminishing pool of customers, the acquisition of each incremental customer becomes much more difficult and expensive to acquire. Brands will eventually reach a natural saturation point."
Hwang says that to continue stimulating growth, it is imperative not only to expand distribution, but to also build new geographic locations. Either way, warns Hwang, slope and velocity of growth will start to flatline. Additionally, most brands "disruptive" startups from the past decade are typically niche in size because a brand is the expression of a very particular opinion, other than those brands that are uniquely able to build a mass market culture around their point of view, like Apple.One venture investor in the consumer space agrees and says, “I think Nasty Gal was unable to handle its meteoric rise, growth-wise, as it wasn’t sure how to keep consistently responding to their customers. [I believe] also that Sophia was having difficulty personally handling that fast rise and while she made the right hires. It’s just hard to manage the niche the company carved out, product portfolio wise.”
Courtesy of MAC
Exactly how well Nasty Gal has been doing has been challenging to deduce, according to WWD, which last reported a company revenue of about $130 million in 2014. Meanwhile, Forbes valued the business last year at over $300 million. The brand’s outposts have been equally hard to gauge as Nasty Gal executives reportedly told WWD that “they were still learning from the two stores before determining next steps for the brand” when asked for a sales performance update over the past year.
“It's important to avoid inferring long-term growth from short term growth,” said Hwang, adding that until you can develop a better view for a brand's potential market reach and size, they are often times better off pricing themselves conservatively and raising capital consistent with most likely exits. "If these businesses run the risk of becoming overly financed, they will fail to yield a return to investors despite having generated hundreds of millions in a year and having built a very successful business."
"Most businesses that can build online, should build online, but people are in the process of figuring out best means to expand through a number distribution channels.”
Despite the growth of e-tail sales in the US, which Marketer Inc. estimates is increasing at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 14% over the next four years, topping out at $434.2 billion in 2017, there is clearly difficulty in the landscape. The challenge seems to be affecting those e-tailers who have been around for about a decade.
“Many of these brands that originated online about 10 years plus ago were focused on leveraging online distribution to grow their companies very rapidly with the broad reach of the Internet and to build a modern brand with the use of digital tools,” says Hwang. “When they started they weren’t even thinking about distribution expansion. What we're seeing these days is that the online and offline consumer are one and the same and what he or share cares about is the quality and ubiquity of seamless commerce. It will become increasingly important for brands to serve their customers through multiple touchpoints, create a compelling brand experience for consumers to buy into, and allow them to funnel their purchase intent depending upon their shopping need state through various channels and devices.”
Experts say that despite the vast opportunity that continues to exist in the e-tail industry, more saturation means there are stiffer benchmarks to proving success, and investors can get cold feet if profits aren’t high within the first year of business. For fashion e-commerce companies that have been in existence for a few years, reinvention is another challenge, as consumers are always moving to the next platform, in this case those with proprietary technology assets.
According to Hwang, companies like Uber and Etsy, which may spend a lot, but are also focused on re-investing it have the staying power she looks for when seeking the next investable idea. “The cost structure for how you scale up in e-commerce has proven every expensive because moth of the growth has been bought rather than organically acquired,” she says. “I like to see companies growing early almost by accident.” However, in a statement made in WWD, Nasty Gal executives say the move into bankruptcy will ultimately strengthen the company.
“Our decision to initiate a court-supervised restructuring will enable us to address our immediate liquidity issues, restructure our balance sheet and correct structural issues including reducing our high occupancy costs and restoring compliance with our debt covenants,” Nasty Gal chief executive officer Sheree Waterson told WWD. “We expect to maintain our high level of customer service and emerge stronger and even better able to deliver the product and experience that our customers expect and that we take pride in bringing to market.”
“The cost structure for scaling e-commerce can become prohibitively expensive if growth is bought. Paid acquisition is a necessary expense but can't be the only thing that a company is good at."
Additionally, the “Amazon effect” as it is known is also a factor in the new volatile e-commerce climate. According to recent industry figures, Amazon is the leading e-retailer in the United States with more than 107 billion U.S. dollars in 2015 net sales. While fashion is still not a main focus, it is reported, as of the fourth quarter of 2015, that the e-retailer claimed more than 304 million active customer accounts worldwide. "Due to Amazon’s global scope and reach, it is also considered one of the most valuable brands worldwide," according to Statista. Clearly e-tailers looking for staying power are challenged more than ever to deliver a unique product at a competitive price.
Either way, it seems one thing for sure, selling via the Internet is not going anywhere. Brands can no longer rest on their laurels of large audiences as a key to success and now must think multi-dimensionally in order to mimic the way consumers are actually shopping; which is everywhere.
“Five years ago, the online and offline worlds were seen as separate and distinct, but truth of it is that the line between the two is a very hard one to draw. We live in a connected world,” says Hwang. “What has shifted is that the concept of shopping has shifted from owning things to buying into new ideas or values. A product or service is powerful because of its ability to impactfully connect people to those ideas or values and represent something about ourselves."
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.