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How Tracy Sun Went From Studying Neuroscience to Launching Poshmark

The fashion-tech entrepreneur discusses the challenges of switching careers and growing her company in the competitive online resale space.
Tracy Sun. Photo: Jen Kay

Tracy Sun. Photo: Jen Kay

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

Tracy Sun's career path couldn't have started much further from the fashion space. "I wanted to be a neurosurgeon," Sun tells Fashionista. In college, she studied biology and psychology, then went on to work with Alzheimer and Parkinson's patients in New York City. And while Sun enjoyed working with people — and learning about behavior and why people do the things they do — the day-to-day duties weren't quite fulfilling. Eventually, she left neuroscience to enroll in business school, working from the ground up to build her second career.

Sun's early professional journey in the fashion industry had its ups, downs, failures and big breaks. Her first job was at Brooklyn Industries, a small fashion brand that was run by a husband-and-wife team at the time, which allowed Sun to quickly climb the ranks and grow with the business. "In small companies, if you're curious and interested, there's so much room to grow," says Sun. "I got my hands in everything." Her role in merchandising expanded into planning, which then turned into overseeing the fashion design department, followed by graphic design, production and sourcing.

Before founding Poshmark, Sun launched another startup e-commerce business in the midst of the financial crisis, only to have it crash and fold. "We were so successful in marketing the idea that the technology couldn't support it," explains Sun. "Our site crashed and we couldn't get it back online. It was the biggest nightmare." Because of the state of the economy at the time, her business couldn't raise money to get back up and running again. "One of the things that I learned there is, I was so caught up in building and marketing the brand, I had forgotten about the other side, which was the technology," says Sun. "That's when I said, 'Okay, I really do want to build a technology business and I need to partner with engineers, not other business people.'"

Sun then moved to San Francisco's Silicon Valley, building a small team of what would eventually be the four co-founders of Poshmark, including two engineers and a CEO. "I'm more of the fashion consumer," says Sun. (Though, she's officially a co-founder and vice-president of merchandising.) Since launching in 2011, Poshmark's humble team of four has grown into a massive force of 200. Nearly three million sellers and tens of millions of users buy, sell and trade fashion products on Poshmark, and the peer-to-peer online marketplace has raised over $70 million in funding. 

While Sun was in New York City for a public speaking appearance this fall, we caught up with her to chat about how she grows her company and sets it apart in a rapidly expanding online resale space. Read on for the highlights.

What was it like switching from science-focused work to business?

Switching industries or making big changes in your career is really, really scary. I went from a world where I was at the top of my game and knew everything to a world where I knew nothing.

What I learned throughout all of that is if you're smart and curious and you ask questions, you'll be fine. There will be a period of time where you have to work your way back up to get to where you were before, but you can learn anything — as long as you ask questions and you open your mind to it.

When you launched Poshmark back in 2011, what was the internet, fashion and technology landscape like?

When we launched Poshmark six years ago, Instagram had just started to get traction. The iPhone 4 had just launched so we finally saw a device powerful enough not only to take amazing photos but that you could also consume amazing photos. That was the environment we were growing up in. People were just getting attracted to mobile.

In fact, when we started Poshmark we told everyone we were going be a mobile-only site. That sounds totally fine and normal today, but back then, most people were like, 'You guys are crazy. You need to build a website. Mobile commerce is not proven yet.' It was a very different world; we stuck to our guns and we launched mobile-only. We didn't launch our website until three or four years into the business.

What were some career challenges that you can recall and how did you overcome them?

Sometimes when you look at people who are ahead of you and are what you deem to be successful, it looks like their lives are perfect. And that, 'Oh, how did they do that?' They just went from nothing to everything, especially where social media is playing such a large role in shaping our image. I think it's really important to remember that life is never that simple and easy and glorious. Everyone has had challenges, everyone struggles.

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I've had lots of times where I was really unsure about the business. When you're doing something new all the time, sometimes you wake up like, 'Am I crazy to want to do this?' It's hard to get back on track and we've definitely had lots of those moments. I'm fortunate in that I have a really good team around me so sometimes when I wake up and I'm unsure, I check in with the team and we're like, 'No, we're still gonna do this. It's all good.' We help each other stay on track.

When you're expanding Poshmark in general, is there a philosophy that guides your decisions?

We have this mantra called, 'It's all about the people.' What that means is, first of all, when it comes to our team, we want to make sure that we treat them like people. They're people with needs that are different from one another and we have to make sure that we take care of them. It also applies to our seller community. We want to serve them all of the time. Any feature we're launching or any expansion we're doing, we have to be able to state, how is it helping our seller community. How will it help them thrive? If we can't answer that question, that means we might be doing it because we want to do it or we're feeling pressure. 

What do you look for when you're hiring someone new to Poshmark?

We value culture first and experience second. So we're looking for people who want to join us who, they don't have to be like us, but they have to be good people. Curious, willing to put their own needs aside and put the team's needs first. Only after we get that in a candidate do we look for the amazing A-plus skill set. Oftentimes, we find both.

Something may change on one side of the marketplace that will affect something on the other, so we need people who are big-picture thinkers who can work on teams and don't have any personal agenda that they're trying to achieve. We do weed out for that specifically and they're better-suited at a different company.

What career advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business? 

I think most first-time entrepreneurs don't realize how hard it will be on you emotionally, so set up a support network as you go. You will hit so many speed bumps along the way that you'll need people to reach out to you so that they can get you back on your feet and you can keep going.

Where do you see Poshmark in five years?

What we're working on that should be manifested in five years is expanding our geographies. We're only in the U.S., so in five years I hope to be in Asia and in Europe for sure. The second thing we're working on is expanding the types of categories you can sell on Poshmark, which is mostly women's fashion. We're working on expanding to men’s and today, one in five users that join Poshmark are men. We'll also be launching more communities, so plus-size, for example, is a community that people have asked about for the longest time. How can we give the plus-size community a way to connect with one another and buy and sell clothing from one another? That's something we need in today's fashion landscape.

The last thing we're working on is for those who want to have the ability to professionalize. Today, Poshmark has about three million seller-stylists, so they would go from selling stuff out of their closet to selling merchandise on behalf of brands. We already have 10 percent of our sellers already doing this. They're connected to brands and they're selling brand new merchandise that comes from brands, so more and more of our sellers, as they get bigger, will start to take on this opportunity and will become a larger and larger sales force for fashion brands today.

The online marketplace space is growing more than ever. How do you look at your competitors?

We think of ourselves as very different from a lot of the resale marketplaces out there. The main difference is that we don't focus on merchandise, we focus on people. For example, we don't editorialize; we don't push certain trends. What we obsess over at Poshmark is how to connect people to one another. So in that way, who I do see as competitors or people to learn from is more like an Instagram or Facebook. Those sites are doing such a good job connecting people to one another and that's who we emulate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Note: This story has been updated from its original version to include Poshmark's most up-to-date number of sellers and users.

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