Welcome to Uprising. Today we welcome Olga Vidisheva, the Founder of Shoptiques – the very big, small shop movement. From global fashion model, to Harvard Business School, to Goldman Sachs and then…the leap.
Every idealist faces a critical moment when their movement can live or die. This is when everything they’ve done comes together with passion facing the proverbial fork in the road. To spark a movement that can change the world or not to spark a movement that is the question we asked Olga. And she passionately tells us about her movement, her challenges to get it started, her inspiration and her successes. Join Scott Goodson and Olga Vidisheva today on the Uprising Podcast. For more ideas on Uprising and movements, cultural movements and movement marketing, follow Uprising!!! on Facebook. We’ll continue to publish brand-new columns on a regular basis. Hey, do us a favor and please give Uprising!!! a review on iTunes. Scott Goodson is the author of best-selling book ‘Uprising: how to build a brand and change the world by sparking cultural movements,’ available on Amazon.com. Scott has helped create and build some of the world’s most iconic brands. He is founder of StrawberryFrog the world’s first movement marketing agency.
Uprising Interview transcript
Welcome to Uprising. Today we welcome Olga Vidisheva, the founder of Shoptiques—the very big, small shop movement. From global fashion model, to Harvard Business School, to Goldman Sachs and then…the leap. Every idealist faces a moment when their movement could live or die. This is when everything they’ve done comes together with passion, facing the proverbial fork in the road to spark a movement that can change the world, or not to spark a movement. That is the question we asked Olga. And she passionately tells us about her movement, her challenges to get it started, her inspiration and her successes. Join Scott Goodson and Olga Vidisheva today on the Uprising podcast.
Scott: Every idealist faces a critical moment when their movement can live or die. What was the moment you faced?
Olga: That’s a really, really interesting question. I think that we’re facing that every single day. I think that the first one was whether to start the idea or not, right? When you think about why I started Shoptiques, I was a big boutique-shopper already. I was working Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, and I was traveling the world and taking five minutes out of my time to go and discover something local, something interesting, something that I couldn’t find back home. And I obviously went to business school right after, and so my point was, I could’ve literally not started, right? And I think that was the biggest choice in the beginning. And if I didn’t start it, I don’t know if somebody else would’ve. They probably would’ve, but I really believe the shop small movement really, really early on, and then that first decision of, do I take the risk and actually go in pursue this or not? And that was a really, really difficult choice. And so starting that out was a big one. And then later on, when we had about 50 stores—and if you look at, kind of, any market places, Etsy or eBay, it takes about 2 years of slight growth before the network effect kind of kicks in. And so those first 2 years were definitely a moment where it could’ve died down if I really didn’t believe in the idea and the model and the business so, so much.
Scott: Was there a specific moment that you remember that was like, if you would’ve gone left that day it would never have happened, or you decided to go right and it did happen? Was there, sort of, that bridge over the Rubicon moment?
Olga: I think that it’s literally happening every single day! There’s so many challenges every single day that I’m like, oh my god. Do we take a right or do we take a left? I think it’s hiring your team. I have a first employee. Her name is Alison. And she’s been with me from the beginning. And I was so exhausted, just doing it on my own, and I think that her joining the company was that push that I really needed to keep going. And I think that definitely pushed it forward. And then partnering with amazing stores, you know? We partnered with Pinkyotto I remember. They were my first boutique. I brought them onboard and it felt like, okay. This is real. They’re onboard and they really see value in this.
Scott: So I suppose we should mention for those who aren’t familiar with Shoptiques what it is that you do.
Olga: Shoptiques lets you shop the world’s best local boutiques. So if you live in Dallas and you love traveling, you wanna go buy something in Paris or London, you literally have to buy a plane ticket, and fly there to find those unique one-of-a-kind mom-and-pop shops that carry unique products. So now you have shoptiques.com, you go on the site, you can shop the most unique dresses from local stores, you can shop by neighborhood, you can explore cities as if you were there. And really experience the world. Our tagline is “Shop the World”!
Scott: So, talk to me about “Shop the World”. You were born in a place quite far off the beaten path. Were you determined at an early age to create a better life for yourself?
Olga: So I was born in Kurdistan, which many people don’t even know. But it’s in Central Asia. It’s funny enough, I loved my life, I had the most incredible childhood. America felt like going to the moon. So I had never thought anything about my life that wasn’t already perfect. And I looked at it as I already love what I’m doing but kind of being more in the teenage years, yes. So I felt like I was really limited in what I could do as a women in Central Asia or in Russia. And I definitely felt that I needed to get out of that environment to go and pursue the American opportunity.
Scott: It’s quite an extraordinary story. You started there, you were a very successful high fashion model, you went to Harvard Business School, you worked at Goldman Sachs. So when did you start dreaming of creating a movement to reinvent global fashion?
Olga: I feel like I was always meant to do this. When I was living in Russia, everybody dressed the same because it was all about the uniforms and it was never about individuality, and it always bothered me. My mom would always make me clothing that I would kind of draw it out for her, because I want it to be different. I always thought, like, we as humans are all so, so different. Even our siblings, we are different of who we are. And what we put on every single day makes us who we are and makes us express to the world who we are. So when I went to Goldman, I would still go and shop at small boutiques. So Mainstream in New York or go travel and find local places there. And when I went to business year, my second year of business school, this was 2010 and the world was in a tough economy and a lot of small boutiques were closing down. And I’m a huge, kind of, American. I believe in this country so much and I believe that this country was built on small businesses, on entrepreneurs taking risks, starting local drycleaners, starting local shops, starting local restaurants. And so I wanted to push that forward, and I also believe that these boutiques can take big risks that a big retailer cannot. They can buy something in quantity of 6 that’s unique and different but that’ll really help you express who you are. And I spent my second year of business school just literally talking to 800 stores, asking them the same question. Why are you not online? Why are you not online? Why are you not online? But I never was born to think that I would start a company. I think that I was much less risk-taking than even I am now. But I kind of new that if I didn’t start this I would regret it for the rest of my life just because I believed in it so much and I was a customer and I knew that people around me wanted to shop those boutiques that this industry existed for. Thousands of years, if you think about queens and kings, they were buying custom. They were buying something unique and different that their tailors were making. So can I bring that to the rest of the world? And I remember really early in my life in school, I learned this concept of global village. And I just loved it. It is a global village and Shoptiques is able to allow you to go and buy plates from Morocco and a dress from Chicago and get it delivered to your doorstep and feel global and kind of worldly. And I think that’s what drives me forward every single day: Can I bring the stuff in my life that I was lucky enough to discover and experience to every single person? Why, in this day and age it’s the Internet, why can they not access Italy and Bali and again, all the places around the world that are so beautiful and fascinating.
Scott: I know that your grandmother was a very important person in your life. When you started Shoptiques, how did you explain your vision and your dream to her?
Olga: Oh my god, it was a really hard conversation because she’s Russian. So she was Russian, she didn’t understand how is it that I was starting something new. Like, she worked at the same company for 30 years and then she progressed in her career. And I remember telling her when we raised $2 million in San Francisco, she was like, Oh my god! They’re gonna go after you! What is going on? But one thing that my grandma did is she always believed in me. She instilled believing in yourself and getting anything done. Like, she was born during World War II. I mean, if she could get through World War II, I can get through anything. And I think that knowing that there’s so much love and support and that really meant so much. And it allowed me to go and take risks that I probably, you know, if I didn’t have that support system in my life, I don’t know if I would’ve taken those risks.
Scott: When did you actually start? Were you still modeling? Were you working at Goldman Sachs when you started this? When did this actually, you know, kick in?
Olga: So I kicked it off when I was an intern at Chanel between my first and second year at HBS. I started looking around, I would go into my office and everybody there—you know, we were obviously working in high fashion—everybody was complimenting me on my outfits. And I would buy them $100 on Mainstreet in New York. And they were like, oh my God, this is so cool. Where did you get it? I’m like, oh, you guys are complimenting me! You actually work at Chanel and that’s amazing. And so I realized that the fashion that I had, that I would discover that was unique, actually was appealing to so many people around me, and actually people were commenting on it. And so I started looking into it, then came back to business school my second year and I wrote a business plan with this incredible professor Noam Wasserman who tried to convince me actually not to do it. Because it was fascinating to me that this didn’t exist already. If you think about the space, right? Already there was Etsy that aggregated local designers, really like mom and pop individuals who had created different things. And then there was Net-a-Porter and Farfetch and all those guys who aggregated big brands. But there was nobody in the middle who was doing these unique products from local stores around the world. And I couldn’t understand why. And my first instinct was to think that the business model just didn’t make sense. And so I spent that year talking to stores and saying, why aren’t you online? Maybe there was some sort of operational issue or even psychological one where they didn’t wanna go online. And really quickly realized that they did wanna go online and that they just didn’t know how.
Scott: So, lemme make sure I got this straight. You spent a year trying to convince yourself not to start this business? Is that correct?
Olga: Exactly. And it was my business plan, so I still got credits at HBS. So even if I didn’t start it, it was still an amazing experience but I ended up learning that it’s actually a crazy incredible business and I have to do it.
Scott: So you came up with this incredible idea, you came up with this business plan that you thought was gonna be really unique and extraordinary, and there was a place that was open in the market. What was the process next? Did you register the idea? How did you sort of put thought into action?
Olga: I kept convincing myself not to do it, and I remember being in the backyard of my mentor. And she finally kind of was like, you have to go and pursue it. And I think, and obviously our friend in common, Pauline Brown, and she was like, no, you have to go and pursue this. So that was the first time that I had somebody I trusted so, so much who kind of endorsed the idea, if you will, and really helped me think that the idea has legs, even after all that analysis, I think I needed that help just taking that last leap of faith. And then after that, it was a roller coaster. So I was the maid of honor at my best friend’s wedding in Indonesia. And so before I thought I needed to start this business, I was like, I need a website! This is gonna be online. And I had no engineering contacts whatsoever, and I honestly didn’t have much money because I graduated and I paid for school myself, so I graduated with a lot of loans. And I had very little savings left. So I went to Indonesia to be a maid of honor, but as a side job, was also to find an engineering team that would be cheap to build this prototype. And I did find it in between all my maid of honor duties. And that was kind of the beginning, so I had kind of a team to start building. Then I incorporated and started signing boutiques. I remember going door to door to door and selling them on my dreaming and telling them how much I believe in small boutiques and that there’s so much opportunity to go and pursue this.
Scott: At this point in our story, you came up with the revolutionary idea. You created this business model. You started to develop the website. But you had to come up with the name. How did you do that?
Olga: I was trying to kind of come up with something that would stand for something. So Shoptiques made sense because it was shop boutiques, just the ending of the word “boutiques” and then “shop” because we wanted to signal to people that you could actually not only discover but actually shop on the site. I had so many conversations with my friends and I would tell everybody my idea. But I always believed that I’m just gonna tell everybody what I’m starting and get their feedback. I never was afraid that people would steal my idea or something like that. I really believe in kind of sharing and getting people’s feedback. And as you tell them things, they actually will probably come up with you even cooler ideas and tell you back and push your thinking forward. So Shoptiques was born! And I bought the URL for like, I think, 5 dollars. So, definitely nobody thought of it before and nobody kind of bought it so that I had to buy a big URL.
Scott: That’s great. So you have a name, you have this great idea, you’ve registered the company, you’re building the slate. How did you start selling it? How do you get your first customer?
Olga: So the boutique was door-to-door, and then the customers were making my boutiques, my ambassadors, and really telling them what we were about. And luckily all of the boutiques were in New York, and a lot of them—and all of them at the time—didn’t have any e-commerce. So as a tourist, you would come to New York, you would discover this amazing boutique and you would be like, hey! Do you have an online store I can buy at when I go back to LA or when I go back to Chicago? And now, boutiques would say, yes! We’re actually launching on Shoptiques, and Shoptiques is gonna feature all these amazing boutiques. And so they were my ambassadors, which was amazing. And I’m so, so grateful to them. And then the second piece was we secured an exclusive launch in Women’s Wear Daily, and at the time they were still in print. And they knew that it was gonna be big because everybody named us, we were reading it, and so when we launched, thanks to that Women’s Wear Daily article, we had 10,000 people on the waitlist literally the next day.
Scott: But when you took your idea to the first boutique and you said, hey. I’m Olga and I’ve got this idea. Who was the first customer who said, I wanna do this with you. I wanna get into this business. I wanna join.
Olga: There was a boutique named—there’s still one—called Babel Fair. They are located on Elizabeth Street in Nolita which is the heart of all the local shopping in New York.
Scott: And what did they say when you came in there with this idea? Because when you’re starting a movement, when you’re starting an idea that hasn’t been done before, there’s a lot of skepticism. So, what was their reaction when you presented your vision?
Olga: You had to make it a no-brainer. So we didn’t charge them, we were gonna do all the work for them, and I think I was really passionate. It was really hard to say no to me because I was like, how could you not do this? Together we are stronger. Working together, we have to compete with Amazon and Macy’s and all those guys because boutiques have the best clothing. And I also think that having Harvard on my résumé has also really helped a lot, because I wasn’t just a random person coming off the street. They kind of had that trust that I did my research because I was in Harvard Business School.
Scott: Are you thinking now that you’ve succeeded? You’ve made it?
Olga: (laughs) No. Every day. Every day, we still have more to do. Every single day, you know, we’re trying to figure it out. I think that the world is changing so, so quickly, you have to always stay on your toes. I think people who think they made it are the people that get distracted by somebody else. I think the best place is to distract yourself and to keep pushing yourself and growing and then challenging everything you’re doing. One of the core principles for Shoptiques—we have 5—one of them is always question the status quo. We don’t wanna stay still. We wanna be pushing ourselves and being better every single day.
Scott: It sounds like when you’ve gone through this process, it sounds incredibly time-consuming and probably required an enormous amount of mental space and effort. Is it a lot easier now for you? Is it just smooth sailing?
Olga: No, I think it’s just as hard. But I think, you know, I’m talking to people who have companies that are $5 billion companies, and they’re still saying it’s hard and it’s chaotic and it’s incredibly insane. But I think the reason it is is because every single day there are new challenges. And now, the stakes are so much higher. I actually think it was easier in the beginning, because it was just me, I knew what I was doing, you know? And I kind of knew that if I failed, nobody’s life was impacted outside of my own. And now we have employees and they have kids and there is, I think, a lot more at stake now and the business is so much bigger. So every decision you make, the opportunity cost is so much higher and the risk is so much higher. But I think it’s easier from the business perspective because I think you know what you’re doing a little bit more, and there’s infrastructure around it. In the beginning, you just had to hustle and try a bajillion different things because you didn’t know exactly which one will resonate with the customer. I think, I was part of Y Combinator and one of the best advices that they give, and it was literally, it said the core of their principles is, make what people want. Build what people want, right? But it’s really hard to know what they want at a big scale and so you have to try different iterations of different things to try to really figure out what is gonna be the winning strategy.
Scott: How did you get the word out? How did you create buzz?
Olga: Well, I’m glad you think that we have a lot of buzz. We do. It’s all stores. I mean, and we sign boutiques, we find, we curate the boutiques, we reject 80% of the stores that apply to be featured. And so for us, what’s important is can we partner with them? And bring in both of our sides, promoting our mission, our movement, right? It’s shop-small movement, so it’s just as much on us to create this buzz and this movement. So when the boutique joins Shoptiques, they’ve shared with all of their customers how excited they are to be part of this movement. And I think that that has been the biggest drive behind Shoptiques being where we are, because one boutique on their own really can’t compete in this world. Shoptiques on its own can’t compete in this world. But all of us boutiques, and now we have 5,000 stores featured on the site, 5,000, we are so much stronger together. You know? If every single one of them have 1,000 people that they tell about Shoptiques, that’s 5 million people that now know about the site and now know about what we are doing and kind of uniting behind this big force and driving it forward together. That’s the only way we can win.
Scott: Was success too much, too fast for you?
Olga: I think there’s always more success. I think that because especially in small businesses success comes with so many challenges that I don’t think you’re thinking, oh, is that success or is that a challenge? When I started, one of my closest friends—and he’s been so incredible—he told me the best advice on start-ups which is, if you got a good phone call, don’t pick up the next one because it’s gonna be bad news. And I think that’s so reflective of what start-ups are. It’s a rollercoaster. So I think that you really appreciate success and you really appreciate the highs, but you know that the lows are coming. And so it kind of smooths it out over time.
Scott: Did you need investors when you started, and what did they say? How did you figure that out?
Olga: We did need investors. I think that you know kind of starting out with, you know, with big idea, and really wanted to be a global business and bring all those boutiques together. We definitely needed amazing engineering team and build all of the technology in-house. I went to investors, I got into Y Combinator as I mentioned, as the first single non-technical founder. And that really helped my business. I mean, I think it really pushed Shoptiques into a completely different trajectory. And I think from day 1, I was really clear on the fact that I wanted to build a really big business. And I think they really appreciated that clarity and were really excited about the business.
Scott: Was it, like, your classic coffee and you writing up the business idea on a napkin and them saying, oh that makes sense? Or what was the process to get your first investor on board?
Olga: I met this incredible investor, Jonathan Teo, through a friend of mine, Steven Master, who gave me this advice about the phone calls. And he introduced me to him, and we just shared kind of a common vision of what the world is. He also was from Singapore and he lived all over the world. And he loved the idea that Shoptiques allows you to go and shop in Tokyo and shop in Hong Kong because you’ve had access to those kinds of experiences. And so he said to me, you know, if my firm doesn’t invest, I’ll personally invest. And that’s an investor that’s been with me from the beginning and I’m incredibly grateful to have his support on board. But I think that I got very, very lucky because I was meeting people that were kind of referred to me rather than just going and meeting, kind of cold-calling investors and maybe have gotten a lot more knows if I was doing it that way. But I was lucky to meet somebody who was excited and me, and go and execute on that.
Scott: I have one last question for you, and this has been such an extraordinary chance to hear how you started, your background and where you are today. So my last question is, where next?
Olga: The world! So we just launched in the Netherlands and Australia this summer, so really really excited. And we’re launching—stay tuned in October 10th—we’re launching in a really new country. And then we’re launching a couple of others. So really, global domination at this point. More and more boutiques from all over the world, enabling our customers to discover that local fashion from all over the world.
Scott: Olga, you are a true inspiration. If we wanna find out more about you and about Shoptiques, where do we go?
Olga: Shoptiques.com, and you can find About Us section. But most importantly it’s really about our boutiques, and so I hope people take the time to look at the small businesses. Not only on Shoptiques but around them every single day and be appreciative of everything that they’re doing.
Scott: Olga, thank you. The shop-small movement. Extraordinary. Great background. Very interesting. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been wonderful.
Olga: So great to speak with you, Scott. Thank you so much for having me!
Scott: Okay. Take care.
Olga: You too.