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Nasty Gal's Unlikely Rise, Straight From Founder Sophia Amoruso

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Nasty Gal founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso sat down with Inc. senior writer Christine Lagorio-Chafkin at SXSW to discuss her company's skyrocket to success and, for the first time, Amoruso's forthcoming book GIRLBOSS. Dressed in pinstripes with Grimes bangs and a neck scarf that was very Prada fall 2014, Amoruso rehashed Nasty Gal's infamous eBay-to-$100 million business tale, dropping hilarious nuggets of personal stories and offbeat—but clearly effective—business advice along the way.

After the jump, Amoruso's path from anti-establishment youth ("It was my full intent as a teenager to smash capitalism and eat dumpstered food") to CEO, why she loved her first job at Subway, how customer service online works for introverts, and what to expect from their impending Los Angeles retail store.

The early stages of Nasty Gal

Nasty Gal's unconventional aesthetic and no-fucks-given ethos were born out of Amoruso's desire to circumvent and in some cases upset social norms. Amoruso described herself as angsty teen, unhappy in the suburban life she was born into. Anarchist book fairs filled her time and she left high school to home school herself, eventually receiving her diploma in the mail. Her first job was at Subway, where she held the esteemed position of Sandwich Artist—a role she actually enjoyed. "I got OCD on the BLT," she said, explaining that she became obsessed with making the sandwiches as efficiently and perfectly as possible.

Other odd jobs included selling stolen books on Amazon (where her book is available for presale now, in some twist of fate) and working retail, which, as a self-professed introvert, she hated. "God knows who's going to walk in the store with their weird energy." Once she started Nasty Gal's eBay shop, she used MySpace to promote the business (employing friend-adding robots to grow the fanbase) and found customer service from behind the computer screen to be much easier. It was here that Amoruso realized another major strength: she was as fluent online as her young customers.

Connecting with shoppers

Understanding the Nasty Gal customer and being in her life via social media seems to come easily to Amoruso and her team. "I try not to be a micromanager but I will be where I have to be because we have a really specific brand," she explained of her position at the top of a team of 300. There is no overarching social media strategy at Nasty Gal, they simply aim to "talk to the customer like the human that she is." But Amoruso clearly wants to be first in line when it comes to new social trends. The company is experimenting with Snapchat as a medium to engage with the shopper, which excites Amoruso because she's "basically texting the customer"—often times from her bed. Next steps for talking to—and hearing from—the shopper include reviews on the site and a plan to reign in some of the social media interaction for engagement "on our turf." A Nasty Gal forum? Amoruso wasn't ready to reveal much more on that front.

The CEO likes to say that what Nasty Gal is selling isn't necessarily sex, it's fashion and a lifestyle. Of the typical Nasty Gal shopper, Amoruso explains that "fashion is only one part of her life," with interests like music and art rounding out the customer's world. On the sometimes racy products the shop offers, Amoruso said, "Yes, we sell sexy clothing but we do that with a spirit that's different from a Bebe or a Guess." The objective is "not to get cat called," and their shopper is wearing these styles for herself because she "loves fashion or just loves getting dressed."

Growing the Company

It's been five years since that eBay shop, founded on a few hundred bucks, has grown to the empire that is now "When you're running a business, you have to imagine everything on fire all the time," Amoruso said with a laugh, saying it would have terrified her to know at 22 what she's doing now, and saying the growth they've experienced would have been impossible if she hadn't been there every day for the last five years.

Clearly Amoruso is doing a lot of things right, and one of those is surrounding herself with competent people. When asked what her management "superpower" would be, she said it's hiring. "I've had the luxury of managing people who don't need to be managed... It's an office full of girls and no one is bitchy... The one person who has permission to be bitchy is me and I'm not." This may be thanks to the company's no asshole policy (she did fire one person on the spot for breaking the policy). When it comes to interviewing, she says she feels people out pretty quickly. "You want to work at a company that's female-lead and venture capital-backed? What we're doing is so much cooler than that."

With her new book GIRLBOSS, Amoruso is speaking truth to power a la Sheryl Sandberg. Not only is she an accomplished businesswoman, she's also successfully dealt with investors and made her voice heard. With the buzz surrounding Nasty Gal's rapid growth, it was no surprise when venture capital firms started calling. This lead to Amoruso's first experience in a boardroom, and watching her company be viewed in a very different way. When it came to choosing an investor, she explained she went about it "the same way I do everything: I picked the person I wanted to be in the room with all the time." Nasty Gal was profitable when they did their first round of fundraising. At this point, she has no plans to sell the company: "I don't have an exit strategy—[the idea of selling] a scary thing. I have a will—that's weird, in your 20's."

Despite the massive amount of monetary success, Amoruso hasn't shed her frugal roots. She still doesn't splurge on business class flights or excessively expensive hotel rooms. In the office, she admits their snacks "could really improve." At the moment, she's living in her attorney's basement with her boyfriend and her poodle while her home—which she bought two years ago and still hasn't lived in—is in the final few weeks of being remodeled.

What's Next

The future of Nasty Gal is all about expansion. The company is growing its in-house line, adding categories including home, swim, and denim. A Los Angeles store will be the company's first retail presence and while Amoruso wouldn't go into much detail about store plans, expect something "pretty" offering a "luxury experience for everyone." When asked about how technology would be integrated into the store, Amoruso rejected the idea of an overly high-tech store, saying, "It's going to be very human. We are a brand that was born on the Internet that is still very human and I don't know if anyone else has done that."