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Between e-commerce, blogs, apps, and the vast world of social media, fashion is as much about technology these days as it is about style. In a new series, we sit down with some of the many women who are killing it in the fashion-tech industry and find out how they're kicking ass in their careers. Their worst mistakes, their best advice... it's all here. This is Ladies Who Launch.
Selfies like this helped Erin gain almost half a million Instagram followers. Photo via Shop Jeen/Instagram
At the age of 20, Erin Yogasundram walked away from a full college scholarship to go all-in on her side project, an online store called Shop Jeen.
The decision took balls, but balls are a pre-requisite for a successful fashion start-up—especially one as highly stylized as Shop Jeen. The aesthetic is colorful and cartooney (envision the kind of wackadoo apparel and kooky trinkets Nicki Minaj might wear) and the vibe is playful (they held a site-wide 30% off sale in honor of '90s rapper Li'l Kim's birthday earlier this month). And, if the shop's nearly half a million Instagram followers are to be believed, Shop Jeen is filling a gaping whole in e-commerce.
Erin was wearing electric blue lipstick and cheesebuger-printed leggings when she stopped by Racked offices earlier this week to talk about the whirlwind year she's had since launching the site. After the jump, see what she has to saying about dropping out of college, flipping merch on eBay, and the inspirational power of professional wrestling.
Racked: How did you originally become interested in launching an online shop?
Erin: I didn't get into fashion until highschool-ish. I would say it was gradual, like from Abercrombie to Tory Burch, and then I got to the point where I was interning at Vogue and Phillip Lim and had those more luxurious experiences. But I've always been pretty business savvy. I had a bunch of businesses when I was younger. I used to sell autographs when I was 12 through 15. I would go to David Letterman and TRL and hotels [to get celebrities autographs] and then I would sell them on eBay. I also started doing that with sample sales really early on. I would go to Tory Burch when not a lot of people knew about it, get the flats for like 40 bucks, and sell them for $120 on eBay when the retail prices were $125. It was merging that business and tech and fashion all together, and then as I grew my fashion knowledge I integrated those.
Racked: And you launched at a very young age, right?
Erin: I'm 21 and [Shop Jeen Creative Director Amelia Muqbel] is 24. We both left school early. I left school last year because I had started Shop Jeen in my junior year of school.
Racked: That sounds...crowded.
Erin: I was shipping out of my dorm room and my boyfriend was helping me pack the boxes. I was doing customer service and everything out of the dorms, and it just became too crazy. I'm on a leave of absence from George Washington University. I'm from New York so it wasn't like,"I'm packing up and moving to New York!" It was like, "I'm just going to move home."
Racked: So you decided to leave school before you finished your degree to pursue your business?
Erin: Yes. I actually had a full ride to George Washington. I can never get that back, and my mom was so upset. She didn't go to college, so to be able to send her daughter away with a full ride was exciting. She was upset at my decision to leave, but still supportive in that she knew that I had something going. But now I'm making way more than that.
Racked: So it turned out to be a good decision?
Erin: I wouldn't recommend everyone drop out of school. I just felt that I can always go back to school, but I had something that was buzzing. We were getting so many followers, I couldn't keep up with sales. For me, to lose that to go read a book that I could read next year or next month if I wanted to just didn't make sense. My leave of absence is going to be up in August and I don't think I'm going back right now, but hopefully in the future. The whole following your dreams, I really believe that. You have to trust yourself. It was a big decision, but it's paying off.
Racked: So you walked away from a college scholarship, and you invested your own money in your business. Was that scary, financially speaking?
Erin: I started the business with money I saved from my part-time jobs. I had three part-time jobs, and I had $3000 saved. First, I went out and bought a Celine bag with it. I come from a single-parent household and I never really had anything nice like that, but I decided pretty quickly that I wanted a business more than I wanted the bag, so I sold the bag on eBay for more money than I paid for it. It was a time when there was a waitlist and it was really really exclusive. That's how I funded the business. We've had no loans and no investments. It's been simply like buying and selling, buying and selling. It's been a really big struggle and we're very often frustrated and discouraged but what keeps us motivated is when we go through our customer's photos on Instagram and we see all of these people from all over the world with our stuff. That's what we really have at the end of the day to show for our blood sweat and tears. That makes it all worth it, but times are tough very often.
Racked: What's been your biggest challenge?
Erin: Keeping up. We've only been open for a little over a year, and we exploded out of nowhere. I don't really have the resources that bigger companies have, because we started out with such a small amount of money. We're dealing with troubles like getting lines of credit and things like that, when other companies can just call a friend. We still haven't tapped into that. Also, our team is extremely creative and has amazing ideas, but making them happen is not always as realistic as we would hope.
Racked: Yet you've managed to rack up more than 400,000 Instagram followers since you opened. How did you do that?
Erin: We adopted Instagram pretty early, and I just started off holding stuff in my hand and taking a photo of it. A lot of the other brand accounts were showing models who are perfect, while I'm literally showing the product on my table. The feed is just our really cool stuff. I think that's why people follow us. And then getting on Instagram's popular page was amazing. That's when we started to explode. Now, we're working on other methods. We're going to have model photography soon, so we're going to try and diversify our Instagram and ways that we utilize it. But so far, I would say that literally showing the product has been the most valuable for us. We're not sugar coating it, we're not saying this is how you should look like, this perfect girl. It's like, "This is a really cool iPhone case," and you can see that.
Racked: Do you think it's important for a brand to really own a certain niche on social media? Or should brand's be on as many platforms as possible?
Erin: We put all of our eggs in one basket. Social media is the only free marketing that you'll ever get, where you have free reign and control over how you decide to use it. That strategy worked for us, but it wouldn't necessarily work for Nasty Gal or ASOS. That worked for us for our product. I'd say to tailor it to your company, and try not to mimic what everyone else is doing.
Racked: What advice would you give to someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
Erin: Don't put your eggs in one basket. That's something we did a lot. Let's say for funding. We relied solely on one method, and when that method doesn't come through, it's like, "Oh no, what do we do." For example, Instagram blocked us from the popular page. They flagged us. That has taken a toll on how many people we're seeing come to the site and how much money we're making. We had to have other methods to maintain that. Other brands who have a way higher unique visitors per month have less Instagram followers than us, so obviously there's other ways to do it. Hiring, the same thing. Really trusting an employee and not having potential back up. You have to be aware of the best and worse case scenarios for everything and try to find a really good balance of backup plans.
Racked: Do you have a strategy for dealing emotionally when things get tough?
Erin: I'm really inspired by WWE [Ed note: That would stand for World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.] I'm a big wrestling fan. They run the most amazing and intricate business. Every time I get frustrated I think about how the WWE functions. Five nights a week they have a show, and it's so many people to coordinate. We're a small team in comparison, our operations aren't as intense in comparison. If the WWE can do it, we all can do it.