Megan Quinn would have a diverse autobiography, if she ever had time to write one.
Best known as one of the co-founders of one of luxury goods online retailer Net-a-Porter, few people are aware Quinn has spread her entrepreneurial wings across multiple businesses.
Prior to starting Net-a-Porter, Quinn had worked in advertising and started the cleaning company Partners in Grime and last year she founded the consultancy firm Q&Co.
Born to a father who was a hotelier, Quinn lived and breathed business from a young age. She founded Net-a-Porter alongside three others (her friend Natalie Massanet, Massanet’s husband Arnaud, and Quinn’s former husband Mark) in 1999 before online retailing had taken off. Net-a-Porter was one of the few companies to survive the dot com boom and bust.
Net-a-Porter raised £810,000 from investors at the outset, but by the time the business was sold in 2010 to current owners Richemont for £350 million, an original investment of £100,000 was worth just over £4 million.
SmartCompany spoke with Quinn about her experiences with Net-a-Porter (she left in 2003, before the company was sold), her new business Q&Co and the importance of maintaining a family-work-life balance.
When Quinn left Net-a-Porter in late 2003, it came as a shock to her co-founders. They were surprised by her decision, but Quinn wasn’t. She left when the business was self-supporting because she wanted to spend more time with her children.
Last year, just under eight years since she left Net-a-Porter, she re-entered working life, starting what she calls “the world’s smallest consultancy” in Q&Co. But this hasn’t changed her desire to spend time with her children and she structures each day so she can still drop her kids at school and pick them up as often as possible.
“I hate to say it but I don’t really have a routine. I’ve chosen to go down this path rather than work full-time so I can still engage with the children,” she says.
“Unless I’m giving a business breakfast speech (she often speaks to groups such as the Entrepreneur’s Organisation), the day starts at 6:15am, when I wake my eldest daughter and let the dogs out.”
“After dropping Imogen to the school bus, it’s back to turn music on throughout the house, wake my younger daughter and get her off to school. While it’s a nuisance having to do two school runs, I love being able to chat one on one with the girls at the start of every day,” she says.
Quinn says she finds music both “calming and uplifting”.
“Peter, my partner, gave me the SONOS sound system a few years ago, we have a music library of over 50,000 songs, but our current favourite is Radio Paradiso, an American listener funded station.”
As well as running Q&Co, Quinn is a board member of Speciality Fashion Group, UNICEF Australia and Fitted for Work and she liaises with other board members and employees each day.
Managing her multiple roles is no easy task and Quinn has recently enlisted the help of an executive coach to help her with time management.
“The days are filled with emailing, meetings, speeches or reading board papers, and the odd class rep duty or two. I’ve had to curb having coffees with people due to a combination of losing too much time in the day, getting way too many caffeine hits, and it impeding on my consulting.
“I absolutely love meeting people, and sharing my ideas, but I’ve had to get smarter with my time.”
Through Q&Co, Quinn helps businesses reform their front ends.
“It’s all to do with the customer experience. I’ve realised this is an area which is sorely wanting because there has been so much focus on efficiencies and the bottom line. I’m also one for championing staff, staff training and nurturing staff.
“We deal with everything from merchandising look and feel, customer service and engagement to making sure every channel of the business sticks logistically and everything needs to sing of the ethos of the brand,” she says.
Quinn says she’s gathered clients quickly because companies “are increasingly realising they’re not doing so well on the front end”.
Lessons in customer service, engagement and brand identity Quinn learnt while establishing Net-a-Porter, but her clients now extend beyond retailers to banks and law firms and she’s also been advising private equity companies on investments and viable business plans.
“Another thing I’m keen on doing is promoting Australian brands and taking them overseas. This is a great time for Australia – post GFC people are looking to us as leaders. There is so much potential to be better,” she says.
When establishing Net-a-Porter, Quinn focused on “exceeding customer expectations” from the outset, a mindset she’s now injecting into other businesses.
“People often ask me, ‘in two words, why was Net-a-Porter successful’. But there is no one reason, success has many parents and failure is an orphan.”
“The central tenant of Net-a-Porter was always to exceed expectations. The expectations of our customers, the expectations of our investors, the expectations of the brands we were dealing with and our own expectations of ourselves.”
Quinn says nowadays, businesses are becoming too consumed with the analytics and losing focus of what really drives a business – meeting and exceeding expectations.
“So many companies’ are now suffering from analysis paralysis. We have just so much information and we’re always looking what are competitors, thereby taking our eyes off the ball, off our reman, off our focus.
“The Net-a-Porter focus was to be the equivalent of Vogue, like reading a Vogue magazine, but with the ability to click and buy.”
In the late 1990s, the Internet was still developing and Quinn found it “disgusting and ugly”, so she set out to make it better for women and for all consumers by raising the benchmark.
“At the time I said ‘we’re only going to do this, if we’re going to be the best in the world’.”
Quinn and Massanet envisaged Net-a-Porter from the beginning as a “site for women, designed by women”, a replica of a Channel or Gucci store with champagne and hatted doorman, but in an online setting.
To establish this experience, Quinn invested time and money into the packaging of Net-a-Porter parcels to capture the experience of walking down Fifth Avenue in New York with swinging shopping bags. Each purchase was adorned with bows and rosettes and cost £25 to make. Creating this online experience allowed Net-a-Porter to exist, without having to engage in heavy discounting practices, which are now common place.
Market research and forward thinking was also essential. Quinn says in 1999, the market only had a 5% saturation of Mac computers, but research told her that 28% of Net-a-Porter customers were Mac users, so from the beginning its website was Mac compatible, automatically setting themselves ahead of the few other existing online retailers.
From the get go, Quinn also heavily subsidised shipping as a way to encourage people to “take this leap of faith and not go in-store and to trust us”.
“We wanted to take every possible sting out of the tail, so subsidised shipping was just part of this. Customers also automatically got free shipping, if they reached a certain level of custom. It’s all about catering to your clients and knowing your clients pricing elasticity and how to work within that and then still exceed expectations as well.”
Quinn says the problem with Australian retailers is their lack of customer focus.
“In Australia, the focus is not on creating happy customers, it’s on efficiencies and just being big and being there as a transactional site. But that doesn’t nurture a happy customer who is going to feel good about herself and her experience and thereby be a loyal customer and talk about it,” she says.
The success of Net-a-Porter can’t be attributed to any one thing, instead, it came down to establishing good business partnerships, an inherent understanding of the customer and perfect timing.
Now, Quinn says she draws on her own experiences and those of other successful businesses to teach her clients how best to run a business.
“When I’m talking to businesses I mention well-known businesses that people will understand such as Virgin Airlines. It’s been converted it into this chick business airline carrier and is now exceeded customers’ expectations with customer service, uniforms, lounges and services running on time.
“Apple is another example too, it’s designed gorgeous products with a sound regard for the bottom line. Apple is a sound example of marrying the too, creativity and business sensibility. It’s got all its channels working synergistically,” she says.
Quinn says Net-a-Porter had a “really well-balanced” management team which constructed a business plan which was “conservative and manageable” and most importantly, attainable. This allowed the business to exceed its growth projections on a monthly basis and keep investors happy.
“Our business projections were month on month, year on year, but they weren’t so conservative that they weren’t enticing to investors. There was also a projection five years out from the launch.”
Quinn says the secret is in “making an efficient business with a fantastic, healthy bottom like, all the while keeping dedication and focus on the happy customer”.
Because of her flexible working life, Quinn is usually home in time to do the afternoon school pick -ups.
“Peter works from home too. This was a conscious decision, as we wanted to be around for the children before and after school. If I can’t collect the children, Peter can normally work around that.”
“I just really love hanging out with the children. I don’t go out terribly much, although I did a lot when I was younger,” she says.
For Quinn, music, film, design and art are her passions.
“All are infinitely pleasing and relaxing. Challenging films and art please me too, as I admire the bravery and the subversive approach. I admire the pursuit of excellence in my creative and business life.”
In the future, Quinn says she’s like to see Australian businesses “punch at or above their weight”.
“We’re so clever technology-wise, we’re creative and we’re great workers. And I hope Q&Co can help to get us to a point where we’re global leaders.
“While I have no idea what’s coming next, the important thing is to be ready for it and to utilise it to your advantage. There is a whole lot of scope for retailers to do things better and to move out of that transactional only environment, but it’s going to take a long time for these businesses to retrain their customers to pay full price and trust them again,” she says.
Quinn says she also loves her charity roles and is also considering helping at a governmental level. She sees herself working for the next 15 years.
“I’m excited about working, I find it very energising, but I’m really just consolidating everything and making sure that we have enough money to live and die,” she says.
To aspiring business owners, Quinn says one of the best pieces of advice she was ever given was to “be proud of your actions in four minutes, four hours, four days, four years.”
“Consider, are you going to look back on what you’re doing in minutes, hours and years and be proud of what you’ve done.”