Nasty Gal's Sophia Amoruso: 'Shoplifting saved my life'

Sophia Amoruso

The first thing Sophia Amoruso - chief executive of Nasty Gal, the fastest growing e-commerce site in the US - sold on the internet was something she had stolen.

A misfit who grew up hating school, Ms Amoruso left home at 17, intent on a life of anarchy and getting by for free in Olympia, Washington.

She says she received a rude wake-up call one day when she was caught shoplifting (but let off), which she had been doing in order to support her lifestyle.

"I learned the hard way that taking shortcuts and living for free is not really living free," she says.

Now 30, Ms Amoruso says that her early mistakes were crucial in helping her build Nasty Gal from a simple eBay store selling vintage items in 2006 to a $100m (£60m) business with more than 350 employees selling cool, quirky new and used clothing items to millions of women around the world.

Sophia Amoruso at 17 Sophia Amoruso left home at 17 to become a "freegan" and an anarchist

"It was like throwing myself at the wall the way you throw spaghetti - to see if it sticks," she says.

Cinderella story

It goes without saying that Ms Amoruso is not your typical entrepreneur, and certainly not cut from the same cloth as the legions of technology bosses who flock to Silicon Valley in search of funding and riches.

After the shoplifting incident in 2003, Ms Amoruso moved to San Francisco, California.

Start Quote

Every other fashion brand out there - including those that I call competitors - are run by mostly old white men, and the customer knows it”

End Quote

A community college drop-out, she developed a hernia and so started work as a security guard checking IDs at an art school - a job she took for the health insurance it provided.

Bored, she decided to open an eBay store re-selling vintage clothing after reading a book called Starting an eBay Business for Dummies.

She named her eBay store Nasty Gal Vintage, after a song and album by the jazz singer Betty Davis, second wife of the legendary Miles Davis.

In her memoir, #GIRLBOSS, she says eBay was a crucial platform because she learned to respond to every customer comment, to really understand who was buying her finds and what they wanted.

That helped her beat other vintage sellers because she knew how to style the pieces she found - using young models who were paid a salary of burgers at a local restaurant - to appeal to her demographic.

Nasty Gal's Sophia Amoruso speaks to the BBC's Samira Hussain

'Old white men'

After a spat with rival sellers ended with her getting kicked off the auction platform, she struck out on her own, buying the domain name NastyGalVintage.com (NastyGal.com was initially owned by a porn firm) and communicating with her customers through social media sites such as MySpace and eventually Facebook and Twitter.

Nasty Gal by the numbers

NastyGal Screenshot
  • Founded in 2006 as an eBay store
  • Named fastest growing e-retailer by Inc magazine in 2012
  • $100m in revenue in 2013
  • 1.2 million Instagram, and 300,000 Twitter followers
  • One million Facebook likes

"Using social media allowed me to have a conversation with our customers - I would say it was the number one reason we created awareness," she adds.

That put Ms Amoruso ahead of competitors who were just realising the power of social media to drive business.

"Every other fashion brand out there - including those that I call competitors - are run by mostly old white men, and the customer knows it," she says.

"This generation is super savvy - it doesn't matter who you hire to run your social media if the person behind the scenes pulling the strings is far from the customer."

Ms Amoruso says Nasty Gal amassed its 1.2 million Instagram followers and millions of Facebook likes by aggressively styling the firm's clothing in unique looks that "you can't find at the mall".

Lisa and Sophia Amoruso Ms Amoruso hired Paul Trapani and found models on MySpace to model her vintage finds in 2007

She pioneered the idea of styling outfits from head to toe and mixing old and new, expensive and cheap and made sure that Nasty Gal wasn't just a retail website, but a lifestyle that could appeal to a certain type of woman.

That has helped to build loyalty - most customers are women in their 20s who return again and again to the site, buying up 93% of Nasty Gal's inventory at full price. Half of the site's business comes from return customers - something almost unheard of in retail circles.

Sweat equity

Even after Nasty Gal started taking off - moving from a tiny office to a large space in Los Angeles - Ms Amoruso initially resisted taking outside investment, a rarity among tech firms, most of which aren't profitable in their early years.

"I had the luxury of a profitable business," she says.

Screenshot of Nasty Gal instagram Nasty Gal uses social media to communicate with customers and shape a lifestyle view

That allowed her to wait for the right investor - which took some time.

"When I decided to raise money, every guy was on to the fact that women like to shop as if it was the newest thing. They all had their theses and were ready to invest in any company that was making clothing for women, but there's no soul to that," she says.

Although she eventually found the right match in Danny Rimer, of Index Ventures, who pledged $9m in March 2012, she still retains a large amount of control, which has allowed her to hire smart people.

However, she does add: "It's only in the last six months that I can say my team has better ideas than I do - and how much of a relief that is."

Ms Amoruso has big plans for Nasty Gal - including opening physical retail stores later this year - and while she knows her rags-to-riches tale of a naive ingenue is appealing, she is careful to emphasise just how much hard work and what she calls "sweat equity" got her to where she is today.

As she counsels future "girlbosses" in her memoir: "Don't act like you've arrived when you're just receiving the invitation."

More Business stories

RSS

BBC Business Live

  1.  
    INTEREST RATES 09:20:

    At 09:30 the Bank of England publishes minutes from the interest rate policy meeting in September. In August's meeting two members of nine-strong monetary policy committee voted to raise interest rates. Will others have joined them in September? Watch this space.

     
  2.  
    Via Twitter Kevin Peachey Personal finance reporter, BBC News

    tweets: "Hold music among biggest consumer service irritations says @WhichUK survey - any views on the most annoying?"

     
  3.  
    TECH SHARES ARE UP 09:04:
    imagination technologies

    Shares in two of Britain's most successful technology companies are sharply higher this morning. Imagination Technologies, which designs chips for mobile devices, has seen its shares jump 6%. That's after the company forecast a strong performance in the second half of the year. Fellow chip designer, ARM Holdings is leading the FTSE 100 higher with a 1.9% gain.

     
  4.  
    HEADLINES
     
  5.  
    MARKET UPDATE 08:34:

    Shares in London are higher in early trading with the FTSE 100 up 16 points

    • Smiths Group slumps 5.4% after sales fall
    • JD Sports up 2.7% following half year results
    • Pound slightly higher at $1.6296
     
  6.  
    SCOTTISH REFERENDUM 08:26: BBC Radio 4

    Former Bank of England Deputy Governor, Sir John Gieve says the Bank is "a creature of Westminster" and will be an adviser in any currency negotiations. "I think it could work, " he says of currency union but adds it "relies on careful negotiation". A lot of policy decision would remain in London, he adds. If the economies of Scotland and the rest of the UK began to diverge more than they do at present that could be a problem.

     
  7.  
    INTERNET OF THINGS 08:17: BBC Radio 4

    The Internet of Things is a phrase bandied around. ARM Holdings boss, Simon Segars is fresh from a conference about it - but it all sounds a bit pedestrian. Mr Segars says one example is a coffee cup that has a microchip in it that could tell you if you're consuming too much coffee. There is already a fork that can tell you if you are eating too quickly. On Today he also mentions apps that help you find a parking space.

     
  8.  
    JD SPORTS 08:11: Radio 5 live

    We're not far off being saturated with sports shops in the UK says Peter Cowgill, executive chairman of JD Sports on Radio 5 live. But the company is having "significant success" competing in Spain, German, France and the Netherlands.

     
  9.  
    PHONES 4U RESCUE 07:57: BBC Radio 4

    It is "perhaps not surprising" that Vodafone and EE are looking at buying parts of Phones4U now that it is in administration, says Laura Lambie of Investec Wealth and Investment on Today. Both EE and Vodafone had been approached by Phones 4U which tried to interest them in buying the retailer, she says. After refusing that approach, Vodafone and EE are now looking "to pick up assets on the cheap", according to Ms Lambie.

     
  10.  
    SONY PROFIT WARNING 07:50:
    xperia phones

    The profit warning at Sony is the result of a review of its mobile phone business. It says there has been "a significant change in the market and competitive environment". As a result, it has taken a £1bn charge to reflect the loss of value of the mobile business. It is reducing the number of models it produces and is concentrating on a premium lineup.

     
  11.  
    JD SPORTS PROFITS 07:36: BBC Radio 4

    "The high street is alive and well," says Peter Cowgill, executive chairman of JD Sports on Today. The retailer has a strong presence in shopping malls and online but Mr Cowgill says a high street presence is "still very important to JD Sports". The retailer has a contingency plan if Scotland votes Yes to independence. But he adds: "We don't think there will be a major impact on our trade. We think there will be no change to prices [if Scotland votes Yes]."

     
  12.  
    SONY PROFIT WARNING 07:32: Breaking News
    Sony office

    Sony expects to report a much deeper loss this year than originally forecast. The firm now expects a loss of 230bn yen (£1.3bn) for the year which ends 31 March. Its previous forecast was for a 50bn yen loss.

     
  13.  
    JD SPORTS PROFITS 07:29:

    Profits at retailer JD Sports doubled in the first half of the year. Before exceptional items it made a pre-tax profit of £19.9m. Sales at stores open for more than a year rose 13% from the same period a year ago. But its fashion business which includes Scotts and Bank had a "disappointing" first half, the company said.

     
  14.  
    INDITEX RESULTS 07:10:
    Zara store

    The world's biggest clothing retailer, Inditex has posted a 2.4% fall in first half net profit. The owner of Zara, made 928m euros (£738m). That was not as bad as some analysts were expecting. The company also said that sales for the start of the third quarter rose 10%.

     
  15.  
    SPACESHIP CONTRACT 06:56: Radio 5 live
    Space X Capsule

    Nasa has awarded up to $6.2bn (£3.8bn) to Boeing and SpaceX to develop space vehicles that can take crew into space. The firms are aiming to have their spaceships ready by 2017. Since the space shuttles were retired in 2011, the Americans have relied on Russia and its Soyuz vehicles to get to the International Space Station.

     
  16.  
    SCOTTISH REFERENDUM 06:38: BBC Radio 4
    Scottish bank notes

    Former Bank of England deputy governor Sir John Gieve tells the Today programme he expects Bank staff to be at work very early on Friday morning to try to calm markets, whichever way Scotland votes in the independence referendum. In particular, the Bank will be busying itself with the possibility of "deposit flight" so that "we don't get the sort of panic that there was with Northern Rock". That means for starters making sure that cash machines remain fully stocked.

     
  17.  
    ARM CHIEF EXECUTIVE 06:27: Radio 5 live
    Arm processor

    It's arguably Britain's most successful technology company, but you may have never heard of it. ARM designs computer chips and is worth almost twice as much as Marks and Spencer. On Wake Up to Money chief executive Simon Segars says most of the firm's customers are in California, China, Taiwan and South Korea. "It's a shame" there are not more technology companies in the UK, he says. People have been keener to go into financial services, Mr Segars says.

     
  18.  
    SCOTTISH REFERENDUM 06:16: Radio 5 live

    Whichever way the Scottish independence vote goes, the business impact "remains unclear" says Nora Senior, chair at Scottish Chambers of Commerce on Wake Up to Money. Big questions over currency, Europe, debt, pensions and tax were raised in the run up to the vote, she says. "Business wants a decision that is clear and swiftly executed," Ms Senior says.

     
  19.  
    BEREAVEMENT AND WORK 06:10: Radio 5 live

    A third of employees who have suffered bereavement in the past five years felt that they had not been treated with compassion by their employer, according to a survey by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). It is launching guidance for companies. "Managers need appropriate training and support," said Sir Brendan Barber, ACAS chair on Wake Up to Money.

     
  20.  
    PHONES 4U RESCUE 06:00:
    Phones 4U sign

    The Financial Times is reporting that Vodafone and EE have approached the administrators of Phones 4U about buying parts of the failed business. Around 550 shops and 6,000 jobs are at risk. The private equity owners of Phones 4U and its founder, John Caudwell have blamed the aggressive tactics of EE and Vodafone for the collapse of the firm. Both network operators deny those accusations.

     
  21.  
    05:59: Matthew West Business Reporter

    Morning everyone. As always you can get in touch with us via email on bizlivepage@bbc.co.uk or twitter @bbcbusiness.

     
  22.  
    05:59: Ben Morris Business Reporter

    We'll get the latest unemployment figures and data on earnings at 09:30 this morning. Plus the Financial Times says that Vodafone and EE are looking to buy parts of their former customer, Phones 4U. Stay with us.

     

Features

From BBC Capital

Programmes

  • Three men solving a puzzleThe Travel Show Watch

    Why tourists are heading to Budapest for the chance to break out of a room

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.