Net-a-porter's massive London office has no walls. It's a good two bus-stop walk from the glossy black front door to get past the reception, editorial, marketing, PR, and other departments to the Perspex-cube executive offices on the other end, but your line of vision is unblocked throughout. A feng shui master might approve - "very good, your flow of luck is unhindered". Then again, maybe no walls just means no barriers. As in, no barriers to thought, ambition or success. And if founder-executive chairman Natalie Massenet can help it, there shall be no barrier between you and that cool pair of shoes you just saw going down the Paris runway five minutes ago.
The perpetually chic 47-year-old knows a thing or two about breaking barriers. When she built Net-a-Porter from dotcom startup to e-tailing juggernaut in the space of 12 years, she didn't do it by listening to people tell her that women would never buy clothes without trying them on first.
"Most people will talk you out of an idea because that idea doesn't exist and they can't imagine it," says the woman who was once told there was no money in coffee shops or luxury candles. This was just before Starbucks turned the world into a bunch of latte-sipping junkies. "I realised that people say 'no' out of fear, not knowledge."
So while she listened like a good girl to naysayers at the time about the coffee and candles, she was convinced about her third idea - that there were millions of women around the world with increasingly less time but more money, who would buy expensive designer clothes online if they were well curated and beautifully presented on an easy-to-navigate website. They just didn't know it at the time.
Of course they didn't. When Ms Massenet started with her computer at her kitchen table in 2000, people were still sending faxes. It was 2000, at the height of the dot-com bust, and investors were wary. There was barely any online shopping available, although Amazon was starting to grow legs. Google barely existed. Yahoo was the main search engine then. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school.
Ms Massenet remembers how, when she was first looking for funding, she was an anomaly in the sea of get-rich-quick Internet schemes. "Financial investors then, and they still do today, like the idea that somebody can make money for nothing. When we said we were going to buy the most beautiful clothes, hold the risk, and then sell them, they didn't like it. They said, 'Oh, that's a risky venture.' When we said we were going to build a long-term business that would make £1 million (S$1.94 million) the first year, £3 million in the second year, up to £100 million in the 10th year, they were like, 'Can't you go public in six months? Can you make billions?' Those were the businesses around at the time that got financed, but they all went under in six months because they were all built for a quick financial fix."
Even the fashion brands she approached didn't understand her concept. "It was like trying to slay a dragon. I would explain about what we were doing, which is a cross between a fashion magazine and a store, it's online, it's digital, it sells all over the world, blah blah blah. And they would nod and say yes and then they'd ask, 'Tell me where your store is again?'"
She can laugh now. When she first started, she worked from her kitchen in a little Chelsea studio flat. Now she presides over sprawling offices that take up the entire mezzanine floor of the Westfield shopping centre in London's Shepherd's Bush. Like its signature black box wrapped in grosgrain ribbon that you get with every purchase, the office is an exercise in upscale elegance with its sleek black-and-white interiors and cool fashion magazine vibe.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2000, she started out with £1.2 million, raised with the help of her former husband, investment banker Arnaud Massenet. In 2010, luxury group Richemont bought a majority share in Net-a-Porter that brought the company's value up to £350 million. Ms Massenet herself pocketed some £50 million, but re-invested £15 million and stayed on as executive chairman.
Not that she would have given up the business that she says still has a lot of upside. The Shepherd's Bush offices also house her other brands, Outnet and Mr Porter - a discount and men's store respectively. On top of that, there is a distribution centre across the River Thames, plus another one in New Jersey, New York, to cater to their US business. They've just opened an office in Manhattan and a distribution centre in Hong Kong to deal with its growing Asia-Pacific business. There are plans to open in China and a whole lot of other projects that she can't speak about because of the intense competition out there. "We hired over 1,000 people last year to accommodate the growth," she says.
Her office is fascinating in that there are screens that do live tracking of orders as they come in. You stare at it as you watch someone in Moscow snagging the latest Chloe handbag. Someone in the Ukraine buys a dress. In Hong Kong, it's crazy shoes by Charlotte Olympia. This is a store that never closes. Twenty-four hours a day, somebody around the world is buying something.
You can see it on the website too, but without the spending numbers. It's mind-boggling to see how many "cash-rich, time-poor women who work, travel, have families, and have other things to do than walk around in the shops all day and night" there are around the world. At last count, Net-a-Porter ships to 170 countries and sees around three million visitors a month, with 14,000 new customers being added each time. Men are hooked, too, which accounts for the phenomenal success of Mr Porter which turned a profit within the first year of its launch last February.
For all the hiccups, Ms Massenet never had a doubt that Net-a-Porter would make it. "People are always asking me what I'm most proud of and it's having delivered on the idea. It was never about the money. It was just that so many people said it would never work."
As for the Richemont deal, she says it was never a question of selling out. "One day in 2002, my finance director at the time turned around and said, 'We've got another five days and then we can't pay people. What are you going to do about it?' I looked at the shareholders we had at the time and one of them was a guy who worked at Richemont so I sent him a business plan - 10 per cent of the company for £2 million - and he said OK. I just needed the money then. It was just a supportive thing and it wasn't strategic at the time."
Two years ago, when Net-a-Porter came out of the recession with flying colours, there was a lot of interest in the company but Richemont had the first right of refusal and they decided to take up the majority share. The relationship has been a hands-off one and Ms Massenet continues as executive chairman with the same team she had before the transaction. "Apart from a change in the way we report our numbers, everything's the same."
Also, "It was great for my early shareholders who believed in it in the dark ages and were really really taking a risk. They were not institutional investors, they were friends and family, angel investors. In 10 years, we were able to turn around and say well done, thank you so much for supporting this business. You've made an amazing investment and here's your money back. And that was great."
Be it tenacity, optimism or plain blind obsession, Ms Massenet has it in spades. Plus a rolodex of designer contacts she built up in her years as a fashion journalist whose ultimate goal was to be the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine and is now doing exactly that, except that she owns it.
Ironically, she gave up such a job offer in 2000 in favour of Net-a-Porter. She wanted to combine both her loves - fashion and technology (she's a self-confessed technogeek) and was a pioneer in envisioning Net-a-Porter as a fashion magazine that you can also shop from. "There are still very few people who think about this cross between content and commerce. We want to be a media company that sells and we're creating a brand new business model. We want to help the (high-end) fashion consumer to decide what the trends are, what's good, what's bad. To build trust."
It stems from her days in the fashion world when she would come back from fashion shows and her well-heeled friends would ask her what they should buy. "As their friend I would say, 'OK guys, you don't know it yet but there's this new bag and it's coming out in six months' time that's called the Paddington and you have to get it. Don't run, don't walk, just teleport yourself to that store and put yourself on the waiting list - you'll thank me later.'"
That's exactly what she does now, except that she does it through her 2,000 employees. "We tell them very very early what's coming up, we help them navigate and then we get it to them." Yes, call her women's best friend and you can also say that being a woman has helped her in getting ahead in the business world with practically zero experience in running a company.
"In the early days when I didn't know anything I thought oh, it's a big mystery, very complex and unclear. But when you get into it, it's actually common sense. Since I didn't have any formal training, I just went on that and intuition."
Of course, she surrounded herself with business experts and all the other firepower she needed, but what kept her going was the ability to be flexible and not be afraid to admit that she didn't know something. "I'm a bit more confident in my ignorance!" she laughs.
Her common sense principles, she says, include "not spending more than you make, understanding your market, and being good to your brand partners". On top of that, expand when you can into new markets and "we believe in creating an amazing work environment because without our team, the business won't exist".
The mother of two young girls who "has tremendous empathy for women who work and also need to find a cute pair of shoes" attributes much of her outlook to her English fashion model mother and American journalist father. "My mother told me that when I was five, I told her I wanted pancakes. She said she didn't know how to make them but I said oh, it's easy, you just take flour, milk, and eggs, put it in the pan and there we had pancakes. I'd seen people do it in other kitchens, how hard could it be? And my Mom would say, Nattie, you're always saying 'Of course, it's easy!' I guess I'm still like that."
Tempering optimism with reality is the key to success, plus a good share of fearlessness. And the most important advice for any would-be entrepreneur: "Follow your heart and then apply your head to it. Don't follow your head and then kill your heart off. That's a huge lesson for everyone in life. I'm still learning it." We'll shop to that.
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Founder and Executive Chairman, NET-A-PORTER.COM
1993 Fashion Editor for Women's Wear Daily in Los Angeles
1999 Fashion Editor at Tatler UK
2000 NET-A-PORTER is launched
2001 Roland Mouret sells his first collection on NET-A-PORTER
2004 NET-A-PORTER becomes profitable and wins the award for Best Shop at the 2004 British Fashion Awards
2009 Bestowed the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire)
2009 Launches THE OUTNET.COM
2010 Luxury goods conglomerate, Richemont, buys out NET-A-PORTER for £350 million
2011 Launches MRPORTER.COM, the first global online menswear destination
2011 Ranked 20th in the 2011 WIRED 100 - a survey of Britain's digital power players, and No 32 in Vanity Fair's The 2011 New Establishment List
2012 THEOUTNET.CN is launched (for the Chinese-speaking market)
2012 Opens NET-A-PORTER's US headquarters in Manhattan, New York