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How Of a Kind's Founders Bootstrapped Their Way to Success

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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. This is Ladies Who Launch.

Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur of Of a Kind. Photos courtesy Of a Kind.

Founded by college friends Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, Of a Kind started with an idea that seems so simple, yet has stymied almost everyone in the fashion and e-commerce sphere: connecting online shopping and editorial. Each piece they sell is specially-commissioned for the site from up-and-coming, US-based designers and shares a common aesthetic that Mazur describes as, "something that you can wear every day and that almost anyone can relate to or understand, but it's exceptional in some way." In the beginning, the site offered one item or "edition" per week but has now expanded to four; each designer is highlighted, their backstory and hobbies explored. Racked stopped by the duo's beautiful Financial District offices to talk about what they've learned since launching in 2010 and what's up next.

It's been almost three years since you've launched. What has changed in that time, from your vision of the site to the business itself?
Erica: "When we started, we were working out of our apartments. We were doing all of the shipping, most of the inventory was at Claire's apartment on the Upper West Side and I was living in Dumbo."
Claire: "I had a coat closet with a shelf at the top and it was just completely filled with cardboard boxes. It's not just the inventory, you also have to have all the packing materials."

Designer Clare Vivier's two-tone crossbody bag for Of a Kind, $290.

Erica: "We had interns from the very beginning that were very good about that. They would come over to our apartments and sit at our kitchen tables with us and pack boxes and fill out certificates of authenticity. We'd give them handwriting tests to see who had pretty enough handwriting to fill out the certificates."
Claire: "I'd say, don't take the test if you're going to be offended if I say you don't have good handwriting. And stuff would go missing occasionally. You know, you'd have 20 necklaces and you'd sell 19 and the 20th order would come in and I'd be tearing apart my underwear drawer to see if a necklace fell in there."
Erica: "It was not the best inventory management system. But when we launched, we had no idea how people would respond to [the site]. One of the scary moments was after it launched and people responded reasonably well and we realized, oh, now we have to book product for January and February! We definitely hadn't planned that far out."
Claire: "I remember I missed my train home for Thanksgiving because there was a site glitch. And then got the bus home for Thanksgiving and was on the phone with Lyndsey Butler from Veda trying to see if she'd pull together a leather vest for us by January. Because we didn't have anything booked for January."
Erica: "And we were trying to do the booking during the holidays! I am so proud and shocked to say that we have never missed an edition release. We've never had something scheduled that fell through and haven't been able to fill the hole and resolve that."

Isabel Halley's three-stripe porcelain bowl for Of a Kind, $135.

How have you funded the business?
Claire: "We've taken a bit of friends-and-family money. A couple hundred thousand. We sure have gone to investors, though. We spent a lot of time fundraising."
Erica: "By the time that somebody finally said 'sure, we'll give you some money,' we didn't want it anymore. It's a lot like dating in that way. We don't want to give up our independence. [It means] a piece of the company, it means a lot of involvement. We started having fundraising meetings for the next phase of the business in September of last year and wrapped up those conversations in February/March. Over that period, we experienced the holidays and we had a really amazing holiday season. We were making money. At that point it became really clear that what was really important to us was to hire a person—at that time it was three of us full-time.

We had an epiphany at SXSW this year. We were basically chained to our computers the entire time and the whole premise of being there is to be seeing things, to be around people, to be going to panels and events, but we were releasing product and posting content and resizing photos and sending newsletters. We came back and felt very good about our decision to turn down the money and to hire a production assistant to give us the opportunity to think about the bigger-picture things that we just hadn't really had the opportunity to focus on—a couple weeks, a couple months ahead instead of what's happening tomorrow and Friday and Saturday."

Today's edition: Lauren Wolf's silver spikes necklace, $125.

How did the 10 things email come about?
Claire: "We do a big after-holiday sale every year. And this year, because of where Christmas and New Years fell, and the start of the new work week, it was a really long sale. The newsletter tends to be our primary function to get people to the site and to remind people that hey, we released a new edition today or we have a discount happening. So we had already sent out two emails saying we have a sale going on. But there was this big gap and no one had heard from us. I thought, we need to send out another email but I cannot bear saying something else about this sale."
Erica: "It just feels so gross after a point."
Claire: "Erica and I were in different cities because it was the break and I had taken a vacation and I was like, I feel like we need to do something more personal. What would we shop from the sale? And she said, since we haven't seen each other, what are we doing? What are you doing? So we each wrote five things like, my mom taught me to knit this winter vacation, I'm obsessed with this new beauty product and this new song."
Erica: "People responded really well to it. So I said let's just try doing it again. We did it again the next week and people seemed to be really engaged with it. Something we've struggled with since the beginning is how much of ourselves to put into [the site]. It became clear that people respond to the fact that it's personal and that we are also two friends that started a business."
Claire: "It's been a really lovely answer to that question."
Erica: "It's not like a personal blog but it's a nice way to, once a week, say yep, this is what's going on with our lives. These things are interesting to us. It's nice to remind people that there are humans behind it. The human part has been important to us since the very beginning. With the storytelling on the site in general we really try to focus on the fact that these [designers] are people. And they're not like these really fancy people that are so cool and you could never interact with. That's not the picture we're trying to paint. They are amazingly talented and they make very special things, but they're also just people."

Jennie Kwon Designs black diamond knuckle ring for Of a Kind, $195.

What's the next step for the business?
Erica: "The big next phase for us is enabling our designers to upload their entire collection to our site and letting our audience shop it. It's a very natural next chapter because what we're doing is essentially introducing designers to our audience and saying, don't just buy the piece, fall in love with the designer, fall in love with their story, feel like they're a good friend, at which point, up until now, we've been like, and scene."
Claire: "It's a chance to extend that relationship. That is so exciting for us and it answers some of our desires with the business: to support these designers in a bigger way and have significant business relationships with them."
Erica: "Part of the reason we came upon this model for the marketplace is by talking to designers and getting questions from them about all sorts of aspects of their business such as what showrooms do you like to who should be doing my pr to how do I set up an e-commerce store. It became very clear that that was something they all wanted to be doing, but it's a lot of work. It's really hard to get people to come to your site, it's really hard to get people to type in their credit card information. And if we were offering this platform and this opportunity, then designers could reap the benefits of having e-commerce without having to do everything themselves."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
· Of a Kind [Official Site]
· How Shop Jeen's Founder Dropped Out of College and Gained Half a Million Instagram Followers [Racked]
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