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.
Amber Venz Box, a Dallas-bred redhead with a bright, entrepreneurial spirit, and her husband, Baxter Box, revolutionized the fashion world when they figured out to how do the near impossible: easily monetize the content of fashion blogs. In 2011, they built RewardStyle, a platform that collects commissions from retailers on behalf of bloggers and more-traditional publishers. In seven years, the company has grown to include 250 employees in seven offices around the world and boasts a network of 4,500 retailers. Last year, it drove $1 billion in retail sales.
Box also launched LIKEtoKNOW.it in 2014 and the LIKEtoKNOW.it mobile app in 2017, both of which enable retailers to generate and track sales across channels globally, help influencers to monetize their social media posts and allow customers to shop content they discover through social via screenshots. In only 12 months, the app already has 1.3 million registered users and more than $300 million in sales coming from its shoppers.
But before Box was a billion-dollar tech businesswoman, she held a laundry list of fashion jobs, including jewelry designer, freelance stylist, wholesale intern, luxury boutique buyer, personal shopper and blogger. In fact it was her personal shopping gig and blog, VENZedits.com — which she launched in 2010 and still runs today – that led to the creation of RewardStyle.
"I loved creating on this website and I loved blogging, but I needed to be able to find a way to support myself," she explained. "I knew I wanted to take personal shopping, which was traditionally an offline business, and take it online, all while keeping the same compensation structure."
With persistence, an early understanding of the marketing power of online content creators, a willingness to adapt to digital trends and a passion for celebrating the unique styles of others, Box was able to take her business idea and with it, transform the fashion industry.
I hopped on the phone with the Texas-based entrepreneur, where she opened up about the early days of blogging, what it was like starting a company with her then-boyfriend, how she single-handedly recruited retailers for the first two years and how her side hustle helped her create a hugely-successful tech company. Read on for the highlights.
Were you always interested in fashion?
As long as I can remember, I've always wanted to work in the fashion industry. Even as far back as elementary school, I would call my best friend and tell her what to wear so we could match on the playground the next day. I totally blame an obsession with Mary-Kate and Ashley [Olsen] on that. They were like my initial influencers.
What were some of your first jobs in fashion?
By the time I started my freshman year of college, I had launched my own jewelry line and had started selling that in retail stores, but I was still exploring how I fit into the fashion world. I was working during the year as a retail buyer at a local luxury store — it was like a mini-Barneys — and interning in the summer. I drove out to Los Angeles because I thought I wanted to be a celebrity stylist, and was working for different stylists. That was in 2007, and then in 2008, I came to New York with my best friend and I interned at Thakoon on the wholesale side of the business.
Tell me about starting your blog and how you came up with the idea for RewardStyle.
When I came back to Dallas, I graduated and took on a full-time roll at the store I had been working at. I ended up meeting Baxter, who's now my husband. He helped me to really ramp the jewelry business up and to launch my own e-commerce site and to increase my distribution. I started personal shopping as a way to supplement my jewelry business. I launched my own website in April 2010 to market this offline service. I wanted to create a site, where I could document all the work that I was doing for clients and where I could share my point-of-view, so people would book personal shopping appointments with me.
Within six months, I had gotten my key customers and they were using me as a personal shopper because they had no time. It turns out the blog saved them even more time because they didn't have to book appointments; they could just go to my website and see my recommendations and purchase the things that I suggested. They thought they were being patrons of my new business, not understanding how all the economics work. So, it turned into a disaster because this was a side hustle trying to help me run my other business, but then it started costing me money; that's where RewardStyle really came about. Baxter has a background in engineering, and he was working in tech investments. We went on a walk to set out to find a solution for this. I wanted to allow these new digital entrepreneurs to take care of themselves by the content they were creating and distributing online.
Once you came up with this idea, how did act on it? What were your first steps?
We had gone on this walk to Starbucks to talk about what this could be and had quickly decided that it would be a commission on sales that could be paid online. I started by drawing what the interface would look like that we would use. I knew PowerPoint at the time, so I would sit at night with a designer friend we had, and he would translate my PowerPoint screens to file to the developer to then design through wireframes. We spent months doing this, and then we pulled personal funds together — we paid an engineer that we knew to build a super-simple version of it. He built that over a couple of months, and then I went back to some of the stores I had worked with in Dallas and asked them if they'd be willing to continue our relationship online. Most of them said no. At the time, Net-a-Porter was only a few years old and most stores didn't have an online presence. I finally got Shopbop to agree to work with us. I would write content about Shopbop, and when it sold, they would pay me a commission at the end of the month.
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How did you establish relationships with more retailers, and how has the network of retailers grown to what it is today?
I recruited these brands one-by-one for the first two years. We had the most success with digitally native e-commerce companies, mainly because they were looking to drive online sales, were the most tech-savvy and were willing to take a risk. We would use one to get to the next. It took a while to get in these people's doors. While LinkedIn existed, it wasn't really a thing people were using, so I would ask everyone I knew if they knew people at various companies. I think how we got into Net-a-Porter was because we had an intern whose boyfriend's sister had a friend that worked in its design department. We recruited all these retailers by really selling them on the value of what, at the time, were called bloggers. We used these case studies from other brands and said, "Isn't this fantastic? It's a small group of us; it's invitation-only and you only pay when a sale happens, and worst case, you just have beautiful original content written about you."
We started at zero. Today we have 4,500 brands worldwide that use RewardStyle. We had a thousand brands apply to RewardStyle in the first quarter of this year and we have 5,500 brands in the queue waiting to be on-boarded. This is something that I would have never dreamed of because I was just trying to get one person to say yes.
How have you dealt with all the changes in the digital space?
We learned to expect new platforms because from 2011 to 2017, all of these major social platforms popped up. In 2010, I had a blog and I was using Twitter and Facebook to drive traffic to my blog. Then, in 2012, Pinterest in the U.S. became a big thing, and in that same year, Facebook bought Instagram. All of the sudden, Instagram blew up and by 2013, all our influencers were talking about it.
We've seen this evolution from the influencer side, from mobile publishing and also from the consumer. Consumers are spending about six hours on their phone and 90 percent of that time inside a social platform. Because of that, they're not really going to blogs anymore; they're discovering and finding within these aggregated social platforms, and they just really expect convenience, accessibility and personalization from the tools they use. LIKEtoKNOW.it. has been a really great resource for that.
And how did LIKEtoKNOW.it. come about?
There used to be no linking out on Instagram anywhere, so for our business, that made it really hard because how are you as an influencer going to expand your business from your blog to Instagram when you can't give people any information? We launched the LIKEtoKNOW.it service in 2014, and the whole idea behind it is that you could register for an account as a consumer and whenever you liked photos on Instagram, we were able to read your likes, since we were technically integrated into their app. We would then send you an email, with the content that you had liked that was created by our clients, and you could shop that via email.
We wanted to expand LIKEtoKNOW.it beyond Instagram and in a way that it would be ready for whatever platform came next. Therefore, we launched the LIKEtoKNOW.it app in early 2017. The app allows you take a screenshot of the content you saw from our influencers anywhere across the web, whether that was on Pinterest, Snapchat or Instagram.
What were some of the challenges you faced early on in your career?
I didn't have a lot of experience in the corporate world. While I always worked and had these entrepreneurial endeavors and was addicted to creating and working, I didn't have a lot of great mentors or coaching or time in a corporate or strategic environment. When we started the business, that was fine because it was just me and an intern, but then all of the sudden, there's 12, then 60, then 90 people, and then suddenly, career paths matter and motivating people matters, as well as retention and morale and culture and all these things that had never been modeled for me. The number-one thing I struggled with, and still do, is managing and motivating people. While you can read all the books and go to all the training, you learn a lot from modeling — and to not have had that modeled for myself was one of the biggest struggles.
Another was starting a business with my then-boyfriend. RewardStyle started because I wanted to support myself, but my aspirations were: I want my own cute apartment and I want to wear cute clothes. The goal was never to build a 250-person company and have seven offices. That was really straining on my relationship. I had this guy that I had fallen in love with, that I saw a future with, but yet, I was sleeping on the futon in the office every night, so that was, emotionally, very taxing for me. When we were pitching at the very beginning, brands would say, "Well, what happens if you guys break up?" But it worked out and after six and half years of dating, we finally got married and now have two kids and one on the way.
What do look for when you're hiring new people?
There are three key qualities we're looking for in people, and it's that they're hungry — people that have that hustle to them — humble — there's no room for being an "I" at RewardStyle — and having people smarts. It's a really tough combination to find. We're a growing company and there's more and more expectations for mentorship, and as we hire leaders, we're looking for people who love mentorship and love developing others and for people that get along really well with others. They say that emotional intelligence is a better predictor of success than IQ; we definitely believe that.
What's next for RewardStyle?
We're going through the next chapter of the company. We hit a billion dollars in sales last year, which was a big milestone that we'd been working toward. We've hired a new CFO, about seven new VPs and have grown our team quite a bit, especially our leadership team. We're investing in the strategic growth of the company, and we're coming up with new technology to make monetizing influence as easy as turning a key.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.