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.
When you think of Revolve, you might not immediately think of Michael Mente. You probably have visions of mega-influencers like Rocky Barnes, Chiara Ferragni or Aimee Song posted up on an exotic beach or sitting in VIP at a music festival.
That's exactly how Mente engineered it. Long before influencers were even called "influencers," Mente saw the potential in bloggers who were promoting the product sold on the website he co-founded, Revolve.
"These are people who are literally our customer, people that literally shop with us, but who were advocating us and building audiences to share their perspective and how their perspective was endorsed and integrated with our world," Mente says. "So it was a very, very natural fit from the very beginning."
Revolve was born from Mente's knack for predicting consumer needs before they officially became a trend. After he and his partner Mike Karanikolas lost their jobs when the first dot-com boom went bust, they saw that people were searching for fashion brands but that very few — if any — were available online. They had a hunch that e-commerce was going to be the next big wave.
"When using a lot of analytical search tools, we realized that fashion was one of the areas where we would be able to compete. Even though we were very, very small and didn't have a lot of money, it was an industry where we identified a lot of people were searching for fashion online," Mente explains. "We saw that people were searching for a lot of fashion brands, left and right, all across the board, and sometimes a lot of those brands would be billion-dollar revenue brands with literally zero product online."
Thus, with $50,000, the pair launched Revolve in 2003. From there, the company would go on to bring Forward by Elyse Walker into the fold, adding a luxury fashion component to the business, as well as start several in-house brands. And then, of course, there's the small matter of those influencer activations — from flying a group to Ibiza or Amangiri, to taking over a hotel and throwing a mini-festival at Coachella — which Revolve has single-handedly made one of the most popular advertising tools of recent years.
Mente has done all of this while maintaining a company so friendly, they refer to each other (and their go-to influencers) as "family." We grabbed some phone time with Mente in between those killer trips to ask him why he started working with bloggers before anyone else, what he looks for in people he hires and how he deals with the pressure of topping his own projects.
What first interested you in fashion?
Prior to starting Revolve, I always had a deep personal interest in fashion, but grew up in a more conservative environment. I thought that personal interest in that, whether it be fashion, whether it be music, or sports, these are just things you like, and not things for your professional career. So it was a little more business-oriented when we started Revolve. But when we identified the opportunity in fashion, it was really exciting. It was something that was very easy to dive in and explore, and enjoy the process of the learning and participating in the fashion industry.
Tell me about how the brand and the business has evolved, and how you decide how to branch out into new categories.
When we started Revolve, it was very boutique, contemporary-focused. At that time, 2003, was really when premium denim really came out of nowhere — 7 for All Mankind, J Brand, that kind of thing — and that was really exciting, so we really built around that core. Being in LA, Fred Segal was one of those iconic places we were influenced by and really helped me understand, both as a consumer at first and ultimately as a merchandiser, of that marketplace.
That was the core and the essence of where the Revolve brand started, and I think that's very, very much where we still are today — that kind of high curation of that very special boutique that you love, but also with big scale that could be reached everywhere, and of course, a very massive selection of products.
FWRD launched approximately five years later; we realized that fashion as a whole across the board was just ripe for opportunity. We realized that in the designer world, there were, of course, other retailers, but there was nothing from our West Coast perspective. We saw that there was an opportunity for us to take a little bit of the core DNA which people love about Revolve and apply that to the luxury and designer world.
The other aspect of the business is that now that we do have a lot of our own brands — maybe 15 or 16 or so — and we've learned by observing and listening to our customers. A lot of the time, our customers want certain types of products, and when you scour the marketplace, we don't find enough of it. We all shop the market from literally thousands of vendors, but sometimes, there is a product or a trend or these kind of niches and things that our consumer wants but we just can't supply it. That's what drove us into this zone of creating our own product and it gives us a little more control. It's really helped round out the business and taken everything to a new level.
When did partnering with influencers come into play, and what was attractive about that for you guys?
The first time we worked with an influencer was in 2009, and I think part of our success in the business is always just trying to stay on the cutting — I hate that word, 'cutting edge.'
When we first started, that was when Google was [becoming] the dominant search engine; we saw that people were splitting to Yahoo, but we thought that Google was where everything was going. That provided us a lot of opportunities. The rise of Facebook was another thing that provided us with a lot of opportunity and growth.
It was really the people with the personal blogs. Our first was in 2009 with Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast — who we still work with to this day, which is super awesome to me.
It continues to evolve where, first Facebook, then Instagram altered the way things work and we have been able to alter and evolve as the business in the world has.
What has it been like to pioneer in the influencer space?
Sometimes we do things and it's a complete fail, and we didn't get the outcome that we wanted, but we learned along the way. For us to work in the zone and have it work and then double down and have it work more, it's been really fulfilling. The first time we had an influencer activation at Coachella, five or six years ago, it was just going to Coachella with friends. We all just went to Coachella together because we wanted to go hang out and listen to music and have an awesome weekend.
We did that — this was all personal expense, this was all super fun — but we saw how there was opportunity; it was the authentic Revolve lifestyle. We thought there was an opportunity to elevate this and take it to another level.
I guess the only downside is that now, it's even hard for us to vacation; we'll never be able to go to Coachella to just hang with our friends again, because now it becomes work. [laughs] But I can't complain at all because it's always super, super fun.
Do you ever feel like you have to top yourself?
So [for example] Revolve Festival, which is put on every year: It's significant yearly, both from an investment level and from a success level, and then the experience level, where it's like, "Wow, that was the best party I've ever been to." How the heck are we going to do a better version next year? That's always a challenge. That's always stressful.
And there's a lot of other things, where some of the things that we do, everyone does now. Where there would be an influencer trip — that was quite radical at the time, where it was, "Let's just go have an amazing time doing beautiful things and document it."
Now it's done all the time. I guess it's clear that people are building from our business success, but also from the imitation that people are clearly watching us. We always have the pressure to figure out new strategies or new types of ways to approach things. It definitely keeps us on our toes. It's always a mindset thing, where it could be half empty or, wow, it's really stressful where everybody is trying to do what we do. But the half-full perspective, what we always try to maintain, is that there is more opportunity.
How did social media change your business?
There's elements that are the same and there are elements that are different. Maybe they weren't called influencers, but 2005, that was Nicole Richie's entrance into the world and Paris Hilton, and they were the big influencers of the time. At that time, US Weekly was really the place to be and if Nicole Richie was wearing something in US Weekly, we know that the market would move. There is the same parallel now, but it's no longer the US Weekly, it's Instagram.
We have to understand the core of the business and the consumer, but also understand the external aspects of it. It will continue to evolve and change all the time.
What do you look for in the people that you hire?
There's two aspects of that: Hard working is at the top of the list; roll your sleeves up and get dirty and gritty. The other aspect that is a little bit more specific to us is just genuinely nice [people]. When we started the business, there was a lot of these fundamental, simple things that my partner and I aligned on that were really basic and really didn't feel like they meant a lot at the time. But they really have become the foundation of how we approach things.
From the cultural perspective, we wanted a business where we truly enjoyed what we did, both from the intellectual and the professional side. We looked for people that we wanted to be around. We wanted to be in our own environment where we were excited to get up and go to work, excited to see the people that we work with, and foster an environment that is genuine happiness. I think that has really translated into how we approach things.
We have made mistakes of hiring people that we thought were the smartest people and that had the best experience, the best resume, but fundamentally there was a misalignment in that. We just didn't enjoy working with each other and ultimately that splintered and ended up being non-productive.
I think that applies to all of our achievements, really: Someone who is really going to enjoy what they do, work extremely hard, but also just treat everyone around them — not just their boss, but their peers, their subordinates, people in other departments, people outside of the company — genuinely well.
That totally is a lot of influencers that we work with as well. When we are doing things, whether it be going to Montenegro or going to Revolve festival or whatever it may be, we're spending a lot of time with people, and it genuinely has to be something that we really genuinely enjoy. There are influencers that we don't work with because it's just not necessarily a natural relationship, where we see the world differently and want to do different things. If we are not truly enjoying ourselves, not seeing the world the same way, the authenticity and the message ultimately get polluted to the consumer. When they see influencers with us and the ones that we work with on a regular basis, there is just a genuine authentic sense of joy and fun.
Ultimately, that is the essence of what our brand is and I think ultimately that is communicated to the end consumer; they see it and they also want to participate. Those are types of things that I think you can't fake.
What's something that you wish you'd known before starting out?
This is a mistake that we had — sometimes I still make this mistake — is that there's no right way to do things. There's definitely a list of talents and definitely learn as much as you can from other people you respect. But our mission, our business, our perspective and challenges are unique. The right path is not clearly obvious; what we're trying to do is something that other people haven't necessarily tried to do. I think we've made silly mistakes, like trying to understand: how did this company do that, or try to copy that, and ultimately [it] end[s] up being a miserable failure.
What do you think the key is to keep looking forward and not get mired down in your own success or your own bubble?
It's an interesting question. I think to some degree it's having a little bit of balance — not celebrating too hard, knowing that you can have a loss right away and it's definitely something that could be very, very fleeting. But also don't get too hard on yourself or losses as well. Again, a mistake can be made but a big win can happen right away. Don't believe your own hype too much, but also don't be too hard on yourself as well.
We've done incredible things. We also know that we have a big project coming up the following month and we could easily fail next month if we don't stay focused.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I've been thinking about that a lot lately. I've been doing this for a decade and a half, and I'm fortunate enough that opportunities just continue to get bigger and bigger. But I think I'm very, very close to the ultimate goal, to have a professional career that is rewarding in all aspects of life — of course financially rewarding but also professionally rewarding and challenging, where every day there's new challenges, there's new problems to figure out and there's new opportunity; there is always growth there. But equally important is that I'm doing it with people that I truly care about, people I'm truly vested in, and at the same, finding opportunity for them to have the same opportunities that I'm pursuing for myself.
I think that's something that's happening right now. And I think all the external layers on top of that is just icing, where we get to go on crazy trips to anywhere in the world. That's truly enjoyable and it's challenging, and of course we continue to get better at what we do.