Julie Wainwright helped pioneer e-commerce in 1997 as the CEO of Reel.com; then again two years later as CEO of Pets.com. But it wasn’t until 2011 that Wainwright struck out on her own for the first time. With less than $100,000 from savings and a few angel investors, she launched The RealReal, a website that lets shoppers buy expert-authenticated consignment luxury goods.
In its first year the site had $500,000 in sales. This year, The RealReal, which has raised $22 million in venture funding, is on track to reach sales of $100 million. It receives and ships 30,000 items a month to a member base of two million people; 80 percent of items sell within the first three days. The company has two warehouses in San Francisco and New York, and just signed leases on two more in New Jersey and Los Angeles.
The site has now expanded from clothes, shoes, and accessories to art as well, and is currently testing home items. Everything is authenticated by curators, brand authenticators, gemologists, horologists (watch experts) and other staff experts. Twenty percent of the items still have tags on them.
We spoke to Wainwright about what it’s been like to build a business of her own in her fifties, and how her company is changing the way people shop.
You told Businessweek you’re the only person over 50 to get funded in the last three years...
Actually I was just at the recode.net launch, founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, and Walt told me he’s 67. So I told him, you win oldest-person-getting-funded!
The people giving out capital are younger people; they tend to be just out of business school. Very few of the VCs have any operational experience and almost none of them have ever built their own business. Consequently they're pretty young and they tend to fund people that look like them because it's a comfort level. And when I say “looks like them,” that tends to be younger men.
Very few people, especially in the tech world...get funded over the age of 35. There are all kinds of inherent biases built in, but the truth is that's not going to change for a long time. It’s harder for women to get financed and it's harder for older women, in particular, to get financed; but it obviously can happen because I got funded.
How do you overcome those biases?
I think what you do is you build a really good business and you get turned down a lot. You don't take it personally and just keep going. If you're going to build a business you have to believe in what you're going to do more than anyone else, and you have to push and make it happen and be gracious when you get turned down. It could be anything. The guy's wife didn't like the site. Or, he made an investment in something else that failed so doesn’t have any street cred in his partnership right now. But maybe in eight years he's back. You never know what happens.
I would say your advantage if you're older is: you've done it before; you're not going to make the same mistakes someone else will. Hopefully you don’t take things personally. And when you've decided to do the business, you have more determination than you've ever had in your whole life. You're just like, `I'm going to make this happen come hell or high water, and that's it!’ And that force, ultimately, will make you successful.
I think it's a really fun time to start a business because you don't have other issues like when you're in your 20s or 30s. You're the person you are when you're in your 50s. You are the person you're going to become, and that's a very freeing, fun time to do some extraordinary things.