"The first thing I ever sold online was stolen," admits Sophia Amoruso, who in seven years went from having a string of dead-end jobs to being CEO of Nasty Gal, the online clothing retailer with an impossibly cool rep and $100 million–plus in revenue.
In 2006, while working the security desk at an art school, Amoruso opened an eBay store to sell vintage clothes, after noticing that similar stores were friending girls like her on Myspace. Directionless as she was at the time, she had an eye for style, photography, and thrift stores, and knew she could make cast-off pieces look irresistible by using her cute friends as models. The brand she built, named Nasty Gal after funk singer Betty Davis's 1975 album, earned such a following that it spun off to its own site and, in 2012, attracted nearly $50 million in backing from Index Ventures. In addition to vintage, Nasty Gal now sells daring designer pieces as well as its own exclusive line.
Without a college degree or prior business experience, Amoruso, 29, made Nasty Gal profitable from day one because she had the instincts, discipline, and confidence to focus on the successful and ditch what didn't work. She has now collected those lessons in #GIRLBOSS, forthcoming from Portfolio/Putnam May 6, a book detailing the good (and terrible) choices that got her where she is today. The book is aimed at the young women who buy her clothes, and, despite the title, is much less about running a company than about taking charge of your own life.
The world of online retail is so crowded. Did you see a big opening when you started Nasty Gal?
I was never trained. I never thought, "Oh, here's the big opportunity!" Now I'm in a place where I have that big opportunity, but only because I've built this thing from small pockets of opportunity that I followed. It was very iterative, I guess. If one thing worked, I did more of it. If it didn't work, I didn't beat my head against the wall to make something happen. It all centered around what my customers were responding to.
Would I have ever started a website selling vintage clothing and just hoped people would show up at my URL? No. EBay gave me the framework to discover I was an e-commerce entrepreneur. I touched everything, from shipping to logistics. E-commerce means that anyone can have an online store, but it's become a much more crowded space. Being as early as I was is a big advantage. Lots of people are going to sell clothes online. But not a lot of people have built a brand, a living, breathing brand that people feel like they're part of.
You write about the grueling process of digging through old vintage clothing when you were starting out. How did you have the patience for that? And how did you know when you found the right thing?
It was fun for me. It was like finding a penny on the street. At a certain point, I could hold something up on a hanger and know exactly how it would look on a girl, how I could style it, and how it related to what's going on in fashion today. It became a treasure hunt.
And for me, it was finding my future. Being able to turn something that has no inherent value, like a vintage blouse, into something that some girl feels is total gold—and is willing to pay the price of gold for—just felt really great.
Nothing will teach you more about perceived value than taking something with literally no value and selling it in the auction format. It teaches you the beauty and power of presentation, and how you can make magic out of nothing.
You've tapped into a young, female culture that can't get enough of your stuff. As you get a little bit older—and richer—how do you stay connected to that?
It gets harder less because of the way my life is changing than due to the fact that I'm not managing all the social media. I'm not on the phone or in the email inbox all the time, which is where I learned the most.
We have a really talented team of buyers. My first employee, Christina, is now the buying director. She's been with me for five and a half years. One of my best friends is running social media. That's the kind of team that keeps Nasty Gal relevant. And aesthetically and culturally, I feel like I'll never lose that youthful spirit.
Let's talk about the book. Who's it for?
I have something like 70,000 Instagram followers beating down my door every day for a job, like, "Oh, my God, I wanna model for you, I wanna intern for you." They say, "Oh, my god, you had shitty jobs too. That makes me hopeful." Or I meet women at conferences who tell me, "I have a 20-year-old daughter who's totally flailing, but you give me hope for my child."
I'm sure when you're a parent, you don't think, "Oh, my child just needs to go through this phase where they scare the shit out of me." But that's what made me capable of taking on what I did at 22. I tried so many things that didn't work, and I put my mom through total hell. But most writers don't really talk about that. No one who's talking to women and girls has a story that's as approachable as mine.
As Nasty Gal grows, I want to reinforce what's at the core of our success and tell my story on my own terms, to come out and say, "Hey, the first thing I ever sold online was stolen." I'm not glamorizing that lifestyle, but you know: Don't make my mistakes, or go make your own mistakes—it's okay.
Look, I was dumb. Half the people in this office wouldn't have taken me seriously seven years ago. To my surprise and everyone else's, I've come out the other side more self-aware, self-critical, and able to appreciate what I have.
Why the title? You're explicit that it's a feminist book in certain ways. Why is that important to you?
Someone tweeted me today that they were put off by #GIRLBOSS because women should be called women. I just thought, 'You don't get it. Broad Boss? Do you prefer Matron Boss?' That's what I tweeted back.
My story of female empowerment, if you can call it that, comes from rejecting everything that the feminist who works at the bookstore on Portlandia would believe in. That's like living less of a life. I think it's more of a challenge to wear a skirt and makeup and be a wife and be a mom and have a job and feel sexy, while also keeping your boyfriend in check and making sure you don't get treated like shit in the workplace. There's a difference between making compromises and being compromised, which a lot of women do let happen.
The title itself comes from this unknown Japanese film from the '70s called Girl Boss Guerilla. It's about these ransom-gathering Japanese girls who ride motorcycles, look amazing, and fight in puddles. It's really campy, cool, glamorous, and totally lowbrow. The genre's called Pinky Violence. There are these DVD box sets, the Pinky Violence collections. They're all female revenge. I just love revenge films for some reason.
A big chunk of the book is about staying on top of your finances. But I bet that some of your best customers are girls who overspend on their credit cards on your site.
I know. I know. "Money looks better in the bank than on your feet" [one of the chapter titles]. I want our customers to be responsible. I mean, if they're responsible, if they don't splurge today, they'll be customers long-term. That part is for a girl who would never buy a book on finance: Maybe this can be the gateway drug to that for her.
What do you look for when you're hiring?
I hire people who are self-aware and excited for the right reasons. A lot of people want to work at a venture-backed company. That's fine, but I want people excited about this opportunity, who can unleash big-time experience to augment the business, and who don't try to cookie-cutter anything. I want people who are self-led and self-motivated, who take things personally. There's no "that's not my job" here.
What's next? What are your growth strategies now?
We're going to open some stores over the next year. I think we'll start in L.A. I've created a very human brand online and our customers really want to engage with us and our product in real life. Also, building out exclusive product is really exciting. And we need to create an amazing experience on the website. Right now, you can shop and check out the blog, but you can't even leave reviews! We're leagues behind where we should be. Being able to tell our story and engage our community better online is big. Our customer doesn't really differentiate between consuming content, shopping for something, and hanging out with her friends online. I just want to give her all kinds of reasons to hang out on Nasty Gal.
As Nasty Gal grows, do you think about possibly getting acquired, signing on with anyone bigger?
No. No. No. I wanna take this as far as I can. If being under the wing of someone else seems like a good idea at some point, I'd consider it. But I'm not a very good employee, so it would have to be someone pretty special. I'm having fun with my autonomy.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.