She Wears it Well

Martha Michelson, co-founder of shopbop.com, helms a huge business as creative director of a worldwide fashion e-tailer—all based in Madison

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Both business and fashion change so rapidly. How do you innovate to keep up and ahead?

I think our biggest influences were our “What’s New” section and our lookbooks. Those are two things that we couldn’t really brand as ours, but after we did them, those two areas started popping up on a lot of other sites. And we take that as very complimentary. But it just drove us to think “What can we do now? What’s the next thing? And how can ours remain better?”

The lookbooks are our fashion editorial pieces, telling our customer what we think is cool, showing them how to wear the clothing, how to mix and match it, what are the trends, and how you can add them to your wardrobe. “What’s New” really developed out of this need that our customer has to be presented with new items every day. And that came out of a customer comment back when I was taking all of the calls for the website (laughs). I was on the phone with a customer and she told me she went to our website every day.

It wasn’t like we were shooting new photography and putting it on the website every day—the website only changed every couple weeks! And Bob and Ray said, “If we have people going on the website every day, it should change every day.” And I thought, “Yes, it should, and we need to present those items to the customer.”

As you continued to grow, you received some interest from Amazon.com.

Yes, we sold the business outright to Amazon in February 2006. We were not looking to sell—it was owned by all three of us. But we were at a point where our growth had been so explosive those first years that we had started limiting our growth … As a privately owned company, Bob, Ray and I had decided that we didn’t want to leave the business in any kind of jeopardy or risk too much.

When we got the call from Amazon, we were just floored. They were looking to either start a business of their own or acquire one doing [what we were doing] already. In their research they said we were the “best in breed.” And so we thought, “OK, let’s hear them out.” We recognized the great success Amazon had in their business and their product type in selling books, movies and many other things and their online expertise fascinated us.

At the [same] time we were approached by a couple other big names, which I can’t disclose, but we were wondering, “Why are all of these people popping up?” It may have been we had reached a certain level in retail where you become desirable, and I don’t
really understand that. There’s a group of rankings for online shopping. So, that’s maybe how we got on the radar. I think it was our sales growth [and] how we were servicing the customer that enticed Amazon.

So we heard them out, how they valued our business, and Bob, Ray and I had to decide if we were to sell the business, whose hands would we want this to be in? Because this was our baby and it had grown so much and we really looked at it as this partnership, although we really were giving up authority in the end because it was a full-out sale. So we gave up full ownership. (Editor’s note: Michelson will not disclose the sum of the sale).

[However], Bob was still the CEO; I was still the creative director. Although they owned the business we still to this day act as an independent company and we are a subsidiary of Amazon. We make our own business and creative decisions, but we have to answer to Amazon as to how and why we are making these decisions. We have to work within the salary guidelines that are part of Amazon’s structure. And Amazon was able to help us “grow up” in our business and HR practices.

We do a yearly budget and monthly business reviews with Amazon. Day to day, though, really didn’t change at all. The monthly and annual reviews are the biggest changes since we’ve been acquired. No one looks over and approves any content or website features—that’s all done internally. (Editor’s note: Lamey and Zemon both eventually retired, making Michelson the only founder still with the company).

Why don’t a lot of people know that shopbop is based in Madison?

On the web, it doesn’t matter where you are. Because we don’t have other brick-and-mortar locations, [customers] don’t associate us with a physical store. Madison is serving us well and it’s where we want to be located now. And there hasn’t been any reason for us to move. We always try to look at our home base objectively. Are we able to fulfill our needs through our Madison location? Is there any reason that we should move? And to this point, there hasn’t been any reason. Through our systems, we have now started offering guaranteed three-day shipping internationally. So we can get a package to rural China in three days. Where we’re located is not causing any problems to us servicing the customers.

Since Michelson isn’t known for seeking out press (see sidebar, below) it’s no surprise when asked about her future plans, she’s, well, all business: “For the foreseeable future, my plan is to keep building shopbop.”

Quick Read: Shopper’s Secret

shopbop is notoriously media-shy about the business and financial side of the company. However, Michelson says this isn’t purposeful.

“No, it hasn’t been an objective to be media shy. But, we really focus on the business. I personally worked on the redesign of our website and I was so bogged down with what I was trying to produce for the company that I didn’t have time to take a phone call; it’s one of those things. I don’t think of myself as a PR person—[interviews are] not something I seek out. I’m more in the creative realm. We do give occasional interviews in Women’s Wear Daily and Lucky, and various magazines. But we haven’t done a lot of local PR I know.”

Speaking of PR, Michelson was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine’s “Spring’s Best, Most Wearable Trends” story in the March 2010 issue.

Quick Read: BOP BY THE NUMBERS

6: Stylists on staff. (Free wardrobe advice every day!)

10: Years shopbop.com has been around.

20: Employees who work at the buying office in New York.

50-150: Items added to the website every day, based on the season.

75: Brands the bop storefront sells (“They have a tightly edited collection for the customer,” notes Michelson.)

100s: Lines shopbop is approached about carrying every week.

225: Madison employees, including shopbop’s finance, creative (photographers, stylists, editors, merchandisers, graphic designers), IT, marketing, customer service and warehouse operations.

450: Brands sold on shopbop.com. Best-sellers include Marc by Marc Jacobs, Alice + Olivia, Elizabeth and James, Vince, Juicy CoutureJ Brand, 7 for All Mankind and Theory.

Shayna Miller is associate and style editor of Madison Magazine.

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