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.
Though Finery co-founder and CEO Whitney Casey studied pre-med in college, her two-decade career — comprised of hard news reporting, on-air journalism, a spokesperson gig for Match.com and a published book — is far from the medical field.
"I was tall and blonde, and I got categorized in many fields of not being smart; that was really tough on me because I was sort of nerdy and I wanted to be taken seriously," says Casey. "I thought the only way I was going to be taken seriously is if I [had] a hardcore degree that's really hard to get. If I were to say that to me now, I'd be like, 'That's so dumb. Who cares what anybody thinks?'"
STITCH FIX CEO KATRINA LAKE WANTED TO WORK AT THE 'APPAREL RETAILER OF THE FUTURE,' SO SHE FOUNDED IT
During a gap year after graduating college, Casey landed her first job in Macon, Ga. as a television news reporter while shopping around an interview she managed to nab with then-New York Jets wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. (Alumni connections, tips Casey.) "That was the only time that I had anything on the air, and then I took that one piece and I went to all these markets and said, 'I can do this,'" she says. "They were like, 'Are you crazy? These people have seven years of experience and they're all journalism majors.'"
Eventually, she moved to bigger news markets, like Miami and then New York City, where she had the unfortunate first-day-on-the-job assignment covering the devastating 9/11 attacks. "That is a news event that everyone will remember for the rest of their lives," says Casey, who was 26 years old at the time. "It is nothing to do with you. It is everything to do with you needing to get information to help the most amount of people you can. That's the first time I actually felt like news was really doing what news is supposed to do."
By 2006, Casey decided to get out of hard news and move to Houston to cover more lighthearted content geared toward women on her own talk show, which initially inspired her to come up with an idea like Finery. "All I want to do is make women's lives better, cheaper, faster," says Casey. "We need all of the edge that we can get, so whatever I can make or give to make women's lives better was such a driving force in that."
Dubbed The Wardrobe Operating System™ (yes, trademark included), Finery combs through its users' emails to collect every shopping order from the past decade (!) to catalog and recreate their closet online. Users also have the ability to manually add items to their Finery wardrobe if they purchased a fashion item IRL. Since its launch last March, the company boasts more than 100,000 users and has raised $5 million in funding from within the tech, fashion and media spaces, including Farfetch and the founders of Retail Me Not and The Skimm.
According to Casey, switching from on-air journalist to leading a tech startup wasn't so different when it came to work duties. "What you have to do first thing is discover and research — try to figure out if this is my idea, and then how to execute it," she says. "As a journalist, you're out asking questions and doing research. You can't make a good product without users and without really being in touch with what they want." In fact, Casey admits to making her team go out and do their own on-the-street reporting. "It is so painful for engineers to interview anyone," she recalls. "But I wanted them to see how hard it is to get a user, and so when they're coding, I need them to be precious with that user and understand that they have needs and [that] we should adhere to them."
Over the past year, Casey and Brooklyn Decker, who is a Finery co-founder and one of its first investors, have been determined to make Finery the best version it can be. On Tuesday, the app is debuting a major overhaul with a stylish rebrand and added features for users to keep better track of their wardrobe and gain personal style inspiration, such as street style looks inspired by your clothes; personalized wish list recommendations; outfit ideas based on local weather reports; and the ability combine all of your email addresses and accounts so Finery is always up-to-date with your wardrobe.
During a media preview of Finery's relaunch, hosted by Casey at her Soho apartment, we sat down with her to learn more about how she transitioned careers, her tips for navigating a male-dominated industry and her best advice for those with budding business ideas.
Were you always interested in fashion?
I was a television journalist most of my career. Sadly enough, people would write in to the studio and would let me know that they recognize my outfit from a previous segment. Yes, I was an outfit repeater! That definitely made me pretty aware of — and more invested in — every outfit I wore on air, and of fashion in general. I would write the details down and take a polaroid to avoid repetition.
What was it like making the career switch from media to launching a tech startup?
I think I saw the writing on the wall. I'm 43, and if you've ever watched television news, you see the 43-year-old anchorman with the 30-year-old anchorwoman. That 43-year-old man continues to be older and yet that woman is not getting any older because she's being switched out, so you're going to make yourself obsolete and I had to be innovative. I've been using all this technology while I was at CNN, like Trip It, which is a thing that parses through your email and puts all of your trips together; why don't we do that for clothes? So that's where the idea came from, using the existing technology that is out there — Mint and Trip It — and then seeing how we could apply that to something that women are doing. Any journalist can do that because they're going to investigate. Journalists are curious and being a journalist really does lend itself to being a good tech entrepreneur.
During the early days of Finery, what was a big challenge and how did you overcome it?
We really believe in hiring as many women as possible — not only because they understand our product on a personal level, but because we think it's so important to support women in tech so more of them see it as a viable career path. This turned out to be such a challenge because of that very issue: Female talent is just hard to come by in the tech space. We searched for female developers and data scientists for months before finding just one. The more women there are in tech, the better technology will be able to serve them because women will be in positions that allow them to make decisions about what problems technology should solve and how.
And with the women in tech who you know, how have you maintained those relationships while navigating through such a male-dominated space?
It's so rewarding because there's such a few amount of you that everybody kind of knows each other. It's also harder because you're having to prove something so much bigger; if you're looking at venture funds that look at how to back startups, they look for patterns because they're not going to experts on everything. They have to look for big overarching patterns to have companies to invest in. 'White Male Drops Out of School From Harvard' is a great person to invest in because Mark Zuckerberg, all of Twitter, Google — look at all of these guys. They're going to just keep investing in them because it's like playing the lottery. Play the numbers that are winning. To show them a different form of an entrepreneur is a lot of pressure because now we've been invested in a big venture fund and now our pattern needs to be that success.
They see Brooklyn [Decker] and I — two white women who have no tech background. Can they build a tech company? If they can't, then it was this abhorrent thing that we tried and now we're never going to try it again. You have a responsibility that's bigger than just your employees, your company, your idea and your users. You have a responsibility of leading a different thought process in the venture world. Being a success does exist, like Katrina Lake being the first female to IPO in a fashion tech company. That is huge. But now she has to be successful because otherwise, that was a mistake. And that's so much pressure. But that's what bonds us all in this community because we really understand that this is not a moment. We need to make this a movement. 'Let's invest in women' is a moment. 'Women are successful at tech' is a movement.
Mentioning Brooklyn, how do you manage a healthy working relationship together?
You have to have a lot of trust and respect as your base, and you can't just be friends because friendships will be destroyed by companies. Some friends you have aren't the people that you want to go into business [with]. That person is very special and unique and you need to hold that precious, too, because the honest feedback that you can get from a friend is not necessarily the best feedback for a business. You have to choose the person who's really good at both, and Brooklyn is that. She can take a massive amount of data and synthesize it so quickly and that is one of the things that I love about her. I get a little bit granular because I'm in all of the day-to-day and she can sort of step back. She's big picture, so we work really well together.
What advice would you have for someone who wants to move forward with a business idea?
People confuse passion with loving to talk about the idea that they have. If you're going to create a company around a passion or an idea, it needs to be an obsession because there are going to be such hard, terrible, bad, rough, all-night things, and if it's just a passion, you're not going to make it. You're not going to convince people to invest in you. You're not going to be able to get through the tough lows of having a startup if it's not an obsession.
That first part needs to be an obsession, but you can't have that obsession without data. You may be obsessed with this idea and you think it's going to be the best thing ever, but you need to back it up by learning what is out there and what people want. Make sure there's enough data there that you can understand whether it could work. You'll never know for sure, but just get enough to know that it could work.
Fashion and retail are going through an interesting evolution right now, especially through tech. How do you keep up and stay informed on the demands and changes?
The fashion and retail industries are constantly evolving — and yes, it is a lot to keep up with. Finery was born out of a desire to solve a problem that I, personally, was facing: Loving my wardrobe, but not wanting to spend hours per week on it. I guess the biggest way I kept up was by working on a solution for that problem and starting Finery. Now I turn to those around me and my go-to news resources to know what's happening in the space. Curiosity keeps me informed.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.