The first thing you notice about e-commerce pioneer Julie Wainwright is that her voice is full of laughter. Apparently, she doesn’t just reserve this unbridled enthusiasm for conversations with the press. As one of her staff will attest, each day at Wainwright’s startup TheRealReal, "Julie looks like she’s having the time of her life."
She’s got a good reason to be happy. In the three years since The RealReal's launch, Wainwright’s presided over the steady growth of the online consignment platform for users to buy and sell luxury and high-end designer apparel and accessories. In a crowded market competing with the likes of SnobSwap, Malleries, and Yoogi's Closet, among others, that’s partly because of TheRealReal’s model—which is a combination of consignment and flash sale, backed by a sales force that heads to a seller’s home to help them unload unwanted designer goods, as well a team of experts that authenticate each piece to rid the site of unwanted fakes. So far TheRealReal has amassed 2.4 million members, receives and ships about 40,000 items per month, and anticipates it will nearly double last year’s revenue of $55 million with an estimated $100 million.
"My life hasn’t been so rosy," Wainwright admits. Here’s where you expect she’ll launch into the saga of the rapid rise and fall of Pets.com; it’s now-infamous sock puppet dog a mascot for the dotcom bust. Instead, she tells Fast Company about the "built-in resilience" that came from witnessing her mother’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis. "She was diagnosed when I was eight years old," says Wainwright. "By the time she was my age [now] she was in a nursing home, so let’s just put this in perspective."
Though she lived to be 62, Wainwright contends that MS took her mother’s life at least 20 years before, rendering her incapable of walking and other basic functions. Through the indignity of leaving her Pets.com office amid a frenzy so big she once had to call the police to get the press off her property, as the demise of the company was being splashed across the media, and though she was also going through a divorce at that time, Wainwright maintains that her mother’s suffering and the lack of a cure for MS is the real "horrific" tragedy. "There’s a bigger story that plays out in everyone’s life," she adds.
Wainwright insists she closed that particular chapter after writing a book ReBoot. The slim volume aimed to discuss lessons learned, but after 30 years in multiple roles including marketing, sales, and executive leadership, Wainwright says she has a few more tricks up her designer sleeve.
Here’s what she told us about starting over from scratch and getting to success.
Four months before she founded TheRealReal, Wainwright was carefully observing a good friend drop a handsome sum on a few used designer goods. When she pressed her companion for the reason, the response was: "Are you kidding? It’s a great deal, and it’s a beautiful store."
Wainwright’s wheels started turning, and she immediately set out to see what she could consign online and in a physical store. The former on eBay was "hard, hard, hard," she says, referring to the photo taking and the other logistics of setting up a sales page and then shipping directly to the buyer. An experiment with a brick-and-mortar establishment was "like a bad used car dealer."
For the next few months, Wainwright dedicated her time to studying the flow of high-end brands in the U.S., and came up with a plan to "get people’s luxury goods out of their closets." She insisted on baking in a way to have the items authenticated and the entire process to be easy.
"This isn’t my first rodeo," Wainwright says. From her first job as assistant brand manager at Clorox, Wainwright learned how to complete market assessments and product differentiation, as well as how to put together a solid profit and loss statement.
"My goal is to take the top off eBay and the bottom out of Sotheby’s and Christie’s," she asserts.
But sorting metrics and revenue models on paper doesn’t always guarantee success. "Even Pets.com had a sound biz plan and we had a big strategic investor in Amazon," Wainwright points out. While she thought Amazon would eventually acquire Pets, Wainwright says the e-commerce giant was having hiccups of its own back in 2000. And she’s since learned early investments by Amazon are often primarily for learning purposes, not acquisition. "The key there is that when you take strategic investment, make sure your goals are aligned," she says.
TheRealReal is also aligning itself with the market. "This isn’t a bunch of geeky guys," she says of her team. "It is started by business people who want to leverage tech to do really cool things in a market with huge fragmentation and segmentation."
Wainwright contends that TheRealReal tackles an unmet consumer need, unlike some of its competitors who are focused on building better technology. Not aligning with a market need comes at a price, she says. "You have all the low-end peer-to-peer guys fighting it out, and then it comes down to who can get an audience most efficiently because they are all the same."
Wainwright cites an advantage of starting a business later in life is that "you have a big playbook when you know something is really a win." She insists she wasn’t interested in starting something that didn’t generate revenue immediately. "Something like Pinterest would scare the hell out of me," she says. "With $5 billion valuation—regardless how sound those numbers are—wouldn’t be one that I would start given what I would consider the risk of failure."
"This business was so clear," Wainwright says about TheRealReal. "I knew if we executed properly and we did it quickly, it would be ours to lose." Though she admits its got a complicated structure with multiple categories and a big sales force, Wainwright’s mitigated the risk with her experience as CEO, general manager, and in international sales to work out the metrics for success.
That’s not to say she doesn’t get her share of unsolicited advice. Recently, a certain gentleman wanted to come on board as an advisor and opened with some career advice for Wainwright. She laughed hard recalling how she told him, "My book’s been written. This [is] about building a world-class billion-dollar business; I’m not worried about my career."
"That is the beauty of doing something when you’re older," Wainwright continues. "It doesn’t matter what anyone else says because you’re not doing it to build credibility." She then uncorks another stream of bubbly laughter. "Every single day is a blast," she says. "It’s hard work and heavy lifting, but most men don’t get [e-commerce because] they never change their shoes."
Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Wainwright was escorted out of her Pets.com office by the police. Wainwright called the police to escort the press away. We regret the error.