There is a certain irony in listening to Megan Quinn speak about how she co-founded online retail powerhouse Net-A-Porter in the setting of traditional retailer Myer’s historic mural hall.
SmartCompany was in the audience yesterday as Quinn addressed the Victorian Employers’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Women in Business Lunch about life as a pioneer in the online retail industry which is now threatening Australia’s retail giants.
Net-A-Porter started off with a turnover of £18,000 in its first month of sales and doubled turnover each year until it was sold in 2010 for £350 million.
Quinn was there from the start, approached by Natalie Massenet in 1999 to assist in the founding and launch of Net-A-Porter and she directed the brand development of what is now the world’s premier online luxury fashion retailer until 2003.
Quinn was perhaps not the obvious person to be involved in an internet start-up as in 1999 she had just finished working at ad agency Mojo, founded a cleaning company called Partners in Grime and had never even used the internet.
But Quinn says that in the late 1990s in London, the internet became the topic of conversation everywhere from dinner parties to the tube.
“Everywhere you went everyone was talking about the internet… it was like a gold rush.”
So when Massenet came up with the idea for Net-A-Porter after discovering the American online fashion store called Girl Shop, Quinn decided to team up with Massenet and both their husbands to found the online retailer.
Here are seven lessons Quinn learned in setting up Net-A-Porter.
1. Have a clear idea of your unique attributes
Quinn says the secret to Net-A-Porter’s success has been recognising the different ways men and women use the internet.
When they were first trying to start the business, Quinn noticed Massenet’s husband, Arnaud, clicking furiously with his mouse while his eyes darted everywhere across the screen while Massenet’s eyes glided across the screen.
“I realised this needed to be a site for women designed by women”, says Quinn. “Women and men use the internet so differently.”
“There is enormous power in truly understanding the customer. I truly believe this is one of the keys to our success.
“Most importantly, I was a consumer. So it was fantastic to turn this guilty pleasure into a business.
“It is best if you and your team are your customers.”
2. Have a business-wide mantra of excellence
When she was initially approached by Massenet, Quinn said she would only be involved “if we could be the best in the world”.
Net-A-Porter nearly had a very different name and image, as Quinn says Massenet had a “penchant” for the name ‘What’s New Pussy Cat?’ and wanted all pink packaging to reflect the name.
“I was thrilled when we could not get the name” she says.
It’s hard to imagine Net-A-Porter now without its distinctive black and white packaging but, at its most expensive, the packaging cost £25 a box and was a significant additional cost that Quinn and Massenet had to fight to get.
Quinn says the high quality packaging enticed designers to get on board, as it was the only thing they could show them while the site was still in development stage.
“Everything that we did needed to exude quality, and the only literal touch-point was the packaging,” she says.
“In 1999 the internet was associated with mediocrity and the high street, not high end.
“The packaging is now iconic and has set new levels for the internet.”
This mantra of excellence is also reflected in the service offered by Net-A-Porter which provides free returns for customers.
“Right from the beginning we subsidised returns so it took all the pain and angst out of things,” says Quinn.
3. Transport customers outside a transaction-focused environment
Quinn says it is important for businesses to offer something different to what everyone else is doing.
“In Australia we need to take a big deep breath and look at the internet with fresh eyes,” she says.
“Having a web presence is clearly not enough… we have to give them something unique.”
Quinn wanted Net-A-Porter to replicate the experience of shopping at Chanel and Gucci, with hatted door men opening the door and champagne in the dressing room.
“Our target market was initially cash rich and time poor. We wanted them to experience an online version of Vogue,” she says.
Quinn says Net-a-Porter aimed to offer a “haven” where “you didn’t have to wax your legs or have a manicure to go shopping”.
“We not only wanted flexibility, but also access and inclusivity.
“We wanted to democratise shopping; everyone would get the same level of service.”