Entrepreneur Amanda Curtis began as a fashion designer before spotting an opportunity to transform her industry with innovative technology. Co-founder and CEO of Nineteenth Amendment and Forbes 30 Under 30, Amanda talks about what it takes to “stiletto strap” a disruptive business in an old-fashioned industry.
Melinda Wittstock: Amanda, welcome to Wings.
Amanda Curtis: Well, thank you so much for having me.
Melinda Wittstock: I'm looking forward to this, of course, because fashion and technology are two of my most favorite things in the world and I love that you combine them. How awesome is that? Tell us about your company, Nineteenth Amendment.
Amanda Curtis: Sure, absolutely. Nineteenth Amendment is really the convergence of both fashion and technology. We are a platform for discovering the best emerging fashion designers from around the world and actually buying directly from them but without any inventory involved. All purchases are made on demand in the USA and we've made that possible through our technology, which facilitates manufacturing in four to six weeks sustainably, ethically, and on demand. You get to go through that entire process with the designer and manufacturer. Total transparency. Totally unique experiences and products and designers that you can't find anywhere else.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, that's amazing. How do these up and coming fashion designers discover you and how does that work from start to finish for them?
Amanda Curtis: Absolutely. The way that we've created, or recreated this business model using tech, is actually going back to how fashion used to be. You used to know Coco Chanel goes to her showroom, see the pieces, pre-order and have things made on demand. We just recreated that experience through our platform. For designers, it's fairly easy to find us. We're the only platform doing all of the manufacturing and giving them a different way to operate. We've worked with over 700 fashion brands from 30 countries to date.
The way that it works for them is there is an application process. We want to make sure that we're bringing the best of the best new designers to the public and they really go in and upload what are called tech packs. Our system gathers all the information for making a garment prior to anything going on sale. Then once this is up on the site, and there is a sale that's been made, the designer gets to see the manufacturing of it through the platform.
It's a lot of behind the scenes work but that's really the beauty of technology. It simplifies that entire process and streamlines it.
The beauty of being pretty much inventory-less is you get to understand what the demand is and make on demand and there is no excess. It’s truly one of the most sustainable business models out there. #WingsPodcast #WomeninBusiness #FashionTechStartup @Amanda_CurtisClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: How interesting. I think from the supply chain, too … I mean, do you manage to avoid all the kind of warehousing? Do you manage to avoid that whole buyer dilemma of buying too much or too little of something?
Amanda Curtis: Absolutely. That's the beauty of being pretty much inventory-less is you get to understand what the demand is and make on demand and there is no excess. It's truly one of the most sustainable business models out there. For designers, there's a lot of data that's gathered during their sale process. If they do want to place orders or inventory in the future, they have actual data from real sales that they can go off of to inform those decisions.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, that's amazing. I think of how much … You are a Forbes 30 Under 30, in 2016.
Amanda Curtis: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: So you're still pretty young, and yet you have also succeeded as a fashion designer yourself. You were designing for Richie Rich and DVF and a bunch of A List celebrities. Did …
Amanda Curtis: Yes.
Melinda Wittstock: Did you start fashion designing when you were a little kid? Tell me a little bit about this spark that got you so far in fashion design and now, in technology. Take me back a little bit.
Amanda Curtis: Sure. Sure, absolutely. So I was very much born into the industry, I like to say. My aunt was vice president of a bridal company called Chrisella's and I saw every aspect of the industry from Day 1 … the manufacturing, the retailing, the designing, and for me I really fell … just fell in love with the aspect of design. In my graduate studies I went to Parson's and became a designer and had some immediate success. Right off the bat I was designing for these amazing brands and even putting things on the runway, and had my own collection at one point. What I saw, was that the industry that I grew up in and loved, was rapidly changing.
This was in probably the early 2000's. A lot of things were being outsourced, design was being copied, and I just saw that the business model wasn't sustainable anymore. Yet, at the same time, I was watching all of these tech startups really succeed with the same amount of funding that one runway show, or less than one runway show would cost. To me, there was a total disconnect. There wasn't a lot of technology that was being applied in this industry that really hadn't changed in over a 100+ years.
At that point, I decided, “Okay, I love fashion, this is the industry I want to be in, this is something that I want to make better, and that I want to make sustainable. How can I do that?”
I decided to learn from the tech world. That's where I made the transition and joined as a first employee of a tech startup, and learned from the ground up all of those lean startup secrets, and how to do things differently and more creatively with the application of technology. That, to me was where it was clear that the fashion industry needed a change, and there could be a change brought to the table, a pretty drastic one. But we would have to be really creative about the approach. That's what I love about technology, it's just another tool to apply creativity to things.
For me, it was through a business model that really brought this new kind of retailing and industry way to life. That's really fulfilling to me, as both a creative person and as someone who loves the fashion industry.
Melinda Wittstock: Yes, it's wonderful. I think so much innovation happens when two seemingly unrelated disciplines are combined in a cross-disciplinary way. It's sort of this kind of “Eureka!” moment, like the chocolate meets peanut butter, or whatever.
What do you think took so long for people to really start thinking about applying inventory, supply chain, technology practices, that say Amazon perfected a long time ago, yet it took so long to apply to fashion, say?
Amanda Curtis: Yeah, absolutely, I think that fashion in one sense, is the most innovative industry, in that each season there's something new and unique and it's a reflection of culture, and so many things. But on the other hand, it's very resistant to change. I think that has a lot to do with how complex the industry truly is, and how well it was working. It really, truly was working for a long time, but nobody was really looking at how the rest of the world was changing with technology coming into other industries. Fashion is hesitant to change in that way.
I think, even for Nineteenth Amendment, in the beginning, it was very much a struggle to get people in the industry to understand exactly what we were doing and the possibilities of it, and how it would work, because it was complex. We actually had … I like to tell this story, one of our now-advisors, Simon Collins, Dean of Parson's while I was there, and when I came up with the concept, my co-founder and I went to him and we said, “What do you think?” He told us, “It's brilliant, if it works, it will change everything. But I don't know how it's going to possibly work, this is crazy.” We came back to him a year and a half later with proof of concepts and actual business, saying, “Hey, this is working”. He joined as an advisor.
It's like anything, when you're disrupting an industry, or bringing new innovation, people are resistant, but you really … once you show proof of concept and get buy-ins from people at a very high level, then it becomes a lot easier of a conversation and transition.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, it's difficult though, when you have to go and educate the market. What was that like?
Amanda Curtis: It's incredibly difficult.
I think that fashion in one sense, is the most innovative industry, in that each season there’s something new and unique and it’s a reflection of culture, and so many things. #WingsPodcast #FashionTechStartup @Amanda_CurtisClick to tweet
Melinda Wittstock: So how did you do that? What are your secrets? I see so many women with these amazing ideas that can disrupt whole industries by applying technology in new ways, and yet there's this huge educative thing, and it's difficult to find funding, and all that kind of stuff, so talk to me a little bit about your journey and how you made it through that first year and a half to proof of concept?
Amanda Curtis: There's a lot of educating. I feel like I've educated the east coast VC's on the entire fashion market, and the fashion market on the tech side. It's been a lot of back and forth in proving up, but honestly there's no easy answer. It's been more just dedication to the concept.
I think, in the very beginning, staying true to our mission, and saying, “Hey, even if people don't believe in this, we do, and we will figure out a way to make this work.” We bootstrapped the company. We applied for an entrepreneurship contest that was nationwide, and won 10k, and that's what fueled the company. For that first year and a half, we did what we could, we bootstrapped, we got people to join and help out, and create it, because the only way we were going to convince people of this brand new concept was by actually doing it, which is not easy, but I think has made my co-founder and I much better entrepreneurs.
Melinda Wittstock: Well it's nice too, when you don't take money to early. You stay in control of the company, and invariably there's going to be all kinds of fail-forwards, and pivots and learning moments, and, “Oh my god, that didn't work!” But once you take [crosstalk 00:11:01 money you're kind of beholden to it, you've got all these people with so many different opinions. In a way, not having money early can be a blessing, even though it doesn't feel like it sometimes.
Amanda Curtis: A hard blessing, yeah absolutely. I mean, there's so many times when we look back, and we actually did turn down some money that just wasn't a good fit for that reason. I'm glad that we did go down this road, it's made us a much better company overall. Our technology is in a great place, and the founders are much stronger, but there are definitely stories to be told, some day along the line, exactly what those days did look like. It was not easy at all.
Melinda Wittstock: Well we all have fail-moments. I think it's something that a lot of entrepreneurs don't necessarily talk about because I think we all want to look like, “Oh, yeah, I've got this.” But it's just not true, you know.
Amanda Curtis: No, not in the least.
Melinda Wittstock: I'm one of those serial entrepreneurs. I know like some companies that I've started get into flow really early, and they have that nice bootstrap aspect. Other ones have been like a boulder up a mountain, I don't know. They're all different, and they teach you something different about yourself too, that's something you didn't actually know about yourself as as person.
Have there been personal epiphanies and things that you've learned along the way? Sort of, unexpected discoveries about yourself as an entrepreneur?
Amanda Curtis: So funny. So, first of all, I feel like I have two MBAs, a law degree, and everything goes along with it. The learnings are invaluable, I feel that I could go into almost anything at this point and just adapt and learn. I think it taught me just how resilient I can be, and then just how much a belief in something can get you, how far it can get you. Before this, on a personal note, I was very introverted, and this has forced me to be very much extroverted, even in my personal life. I think that's something that, at least in my space as a founder, you can't get away from.
There's been a lot of moments where it's just challenged me on a personal level, to go above and beyond for a greater cause. Not normally, I probably wouldn't have.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, it helps so much to really have a vision, and be in alignment with that vision. It makes the … Because I think a lot of entrepreneurs are actually introverted people. So many people I know, founders and CEOs are actually introverts, or describe themselves that way, but they've had to learn. This resonates with me, too. You have to learn to be able to articulate your vision, to be able to keep going, and evangelize. It's so much easier if it's really true to you, and who you are.
And of course, the confidence-building part! When you have some sort of challenge that seems absolutely impossible, like, “How on earth are we going to get over this milestone” or hit this or do this, and then you find a way? That is true confidence. The other things, over time with entrepreneurs … Do you find this as well? Is that you get less freaked out about all the things that can go wrong, because you've dealt with it so many times before. Like, “Oh yeah, I remember when we almost didn't make payroll” or “Oh man I remember when … ” Right?
Amanda Curtis: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I'm cool as a cucumber now. Anything.
It's made me a lot more confident in my abilities, and also in the ability just to navigate situations. It's definitely been a growing experience for me.
Melinda Wittstock: How did it work out with … Excuse me, I'm just going to pick up there.
So you had this idea, and what did the founding team look like? Were you doing the coding and all that stuff yourself, or did you bring someone in? Is your co-founder a technical person?
Amanda Curtis: So my co-founder is not technical, but she is very much operations-driven, and has the exact opposite skill set as I do, which was, and still is, incredibly valuable. We like to say we're each other's left and right brain, respectively. What we did, we started the company in Boston. My co-founder and I met at the Harvard i-lab in 2012. The advantage to being in the Boston ecosystem is just the amount of talent here. There are so many brilliant minds, and brilliant students. We actually networked quite a bit, and found some amazing developers out of Harvard and Northeastern and a few other colleges in the area, and got them to work for us. Gemma and I are not coders, so we've learned a bit along the years.
In the very beginning, it was very much about selling the idea and concept to these people, which I think is a very good early validator of how successful your business might be. If you can convince people to work for sweat equity, and convince them of a concept and it's potential, I think that speaks volumes. In the beginning, it was very much late nights after work, weekends meeting all together. We usually meet over wine and oysters, which is just a silly kind of company culture that we had. Working on that first prototype, and [inaudible 00:17:04, and first data, and pushing it out the door, it's very much like a true startup story, only the Boston version, I guess.
Melinda Wittstock: Did you find any difference, or was this conscious to you, was it different being … Sorry, I had a pickup here again, ask this question a little bit more articulately, thank god for [inaudible 00:17:32
So, in the early stages, as female co-founders, did you find that it was more difficult, or were you conscious of the difference of being a female founder as opposed to the experiences that guys were having in the same ecosystem?
Amanda Curtis: I, and my co-founder, are so glad that we did not understand the challenges that we would face as female co-founders. I think if we truly grasped just how hard it would be, I'm not sure if we would've started. I think we would've waited. I think it would have inhibited us if we knew just what we would face on a funding perspective, a business perspective, everything … it has been harder. It's been a challenge on the funding side, we've seen companies that are semi-similar to us, maybe in the fashion space run by male, who don't have any experience in fashion, and limited experience in tech or startup get fully funded.
It's been frustrating, but I'm glad that we didn't know, and I'm glad that Gemma and I now have the opportunity to change some of these statistics and standards, and to lead the way for the next generation of female entrepreneurs. It kind of goes back to what we've been doing along, we've just had to keep going forward, once you start you really can't stop it, for better or worse, we're forging forward and paving the way, and hopefully changing some of those standards along the way.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, I think the famous last words of almost every entrepreneur I know, male or female, is, “How hard can this be?” [crosstalk 00:19:30 I feel like you have to have that attitude –
Amanda Curtis: That blissful naiveté.
Melinda Wittstock: Right? You kind of need a little bit, maybe that's part of the entrepreneurial genetic make-up or something, right? Because I was like that too, I was like, “Oh, this can't be that hard, right?” And I wasn't really conscious at all about some of those stats that women only get 2% or 3% of VC money, and I don't know how many times … I think in raising money for any of my tech startups, there was one meeting that I remember where we had [inaudible 00:20:04, we had 500,000 users for this iPhone app that really was transforming the news industry in 2010 and this VC said to me, “Well, yeah it's great Melinda, somebody's going to do it.” And I said …
Amanda Curtis: You're doing it!
Melinda Wittstock: “Yeah, no, it's great, somebody's going to do it.” And I couldn't believe it. I was like, “Wait a minute.” I think for a moment, it's easy, sometimes, to let some of that stuff, after banging your head against the wall for a really long time, start to get to you. How did you stay strong, walking through that gauntlet, if you will, and not let it get to you, or halt your progress, or discourage you?
Amanda Curtis: I think the great thing about having a co-founder is being able to lean on that co-founder. I know that Gemma and I do that quite often. We pull each other through things, we also have an amazing team, amazing advisors, and our investors are all fantastic. They definitely champion us as much as possible, help talk us through those moments. Ultimately, I think it comes down to a bit of just practicality. We look at each other and say, “Hey we've made it this far. We've gone through everything else. We can keep going, this isn't going to stop us.”
I think we had a moment, specifically that stands out with a VC who told us that women wouldn't purchase garments online, specifically, wouldn't purchase garments over $100 online. At that point we just looked at each other and said, “Let's take a moment, and let's go focus on the business.” In some ways we were spinning our wheels. When that happens, and it happens too often, that's when we decide to go back to the business and focus on that, and get to the next level.
Melinda Wittstock: I think a lot of us make the assumption that investors are smart, first of all … Did I just say that? … And know the industry, but I think with things like fashion, I think there are a lot of VCs and even angel investors don't understand the industry. So rather than actually getting to understand it, and you would assume you're bringing them an opportunity, you're bringing them an opportunity to make a lot of money, you think it'd be worth their while to actually get their heads around it. But often, it's like, “Oh, that's not an industry”, or they … or wait, sorry, I'm just going to pick up that question again, that kind of got away from me.
I think a lot of us, I know I did this, I assumed that all the investors that I was pitching over the years, were really smart, or smarter than me. I realized over time that that actually wasn't true. Really the founder knows about their industry. So when female entrepreneurs come to disrupt industries that are seen as sort of quote-unquote “female”, sometimes it's hard to persuade the VC or the angel investor to actually invest in an industry that they don't know much about. What confounds me, though, is when you're bringing them an opportunity where they could make a lot of money, why they wouldn't figure it out, or … right?
Amanda Curtis: Yeah, it confounds me as well.
Melinda Wittstock: You went through Springboard Venture … Springboard Enterprises, right? Did you do the boot camp?
Amanda Curtis: We did the first class of the New York Fashion tech lab.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, okay. So I'm just going to ask that question again, because I was trying to bring … because I'm a Springboard alum.
It's really exciting now that more women are showing up to help other women in this area. You went into Springboard's New York Fashion lab, right? What was that like?
Amanda Curtis: So the New York Fashion Tech Lab was an absolute game changer for us. We actually launched Nineteenth Amendment through the lab. It got us in front of stakeholders in the industry that understood what we were trying to do, understood the industry and it's challenges, and understood the potential. We actually became the first startup to partner with Macy's Inc] from the Fashion Tech Lab, which put us on the map, and validated our business on a much larger level, and really set the tone for the rest our trajectory to date.
Melinda Wittstock: That's wonderful. When you get a strategic like that very early on … it can be so difficult for startups to do that. I think a lot of these big companies look at you and you think, “Oh there's a couple people here, and they're kind of young, will they still be around in a couple of years?” That the Fashion Tech Lab was able to help you broker that is awesome.
Amanda Curtis: Yeah, it was fantastic.
Melinda Wittstock: Do you see more women helping women, now? I'm much older than you, and I remember being the only woman in the room for much of my career, and found it really difficult to find female mentors, or find women that were genuinely interested in supporting each other, and we’re more likely to be competing with other women. Is that culture changing, is it different with younger women?
Amanda Curtis: I believe it is changing, specifically with the younger generation. Again, it's something, and this may just have to do with my age, and the age of starting the company, that I was a bit naïve about, so it was a surprise when I did encounter some of that competitiveness, and kind of micro-aggression. I have seen more women reaching out to help, and to be mentors or advisors. I've seen it more so in my generation. Gemma and I really do try to give back as well, and to help other entrepreneurs. We never turn down a request for a meeting, or a coffee. I personally mentor with AOL's Built By Girls, and that's mentoring young women in high school and college, so the next generation.
I think it's very, very important that we change the standard, and that we create this environment of inclusiveness and just helping one another, because the stakes are higher, and it is harder for female entrepreneurs.
Melinda Wittstock: I love that you're doing that, and really walking your talk on giving forward. It really is the reason I started this podcast, because so many women are succeeding in silence. We don't look like we're not in the [inaudible 00:28:02, necessarily, maybe some, but not … But we're not eating too many ramen noodles. I like that you do wine and oysters, that's like, evolved.
Amanda Curtis: Yeah, dollar oysters, I will clarify they're, dollar oysters.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, okay, all the same, but better than ramen. Ramen, too many carbs, right? We don't really fit this kind of stereotype of the entrepreneur. I think by, the more we get out there and tell our stories, and really provide a hand up for other women coming up, or even just sharing our experiences, I think it's wonderful, and a real marker of success very early on, you found a co-founder, where you were the right brain, left brain, and that both of you could be in it together. That really is a big predictor of success.
When you look back, even now … how old is Nineteenth Amendment?
Amanda Curtis: We launched officially, about two and a half years ago. But we've had the concept since 2012, so it's been in incubation.
Melinda Wittstock: So when you look back, is there anything that you would've done differently?
Amanda Curtis: Oh gosh. There are probably a lot of things that we would've done differently. Hindsight is always 20/20 –
Melinda Wittstock: Exactly! I know; I hate that, right?
Amanda Curtis: I mean, if we're starting a company right now from scratch, there would probably be a lot of different things. I probably would have raised more money in the beginning. We raised … we capped it off and raised just under half a million. Not knowing how hard it would be to keep raising.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, this is the … oh, I'm so glad you said that, because it's all too often, and this is something that women do, I think. We think, and we generally can, do more with less. That's actually true: we do do more with less. But I think the other part of the entrepreneur is the inherent optimism we all have. We think that, “Yeah, we got the plan, we know that we can deliver.” But there's so many things beyond our control, so we always need whatever money … what I've learned now, is whatever money I think I need, double it, at least, because there is so much beyond your control.
But that's a good lesson.
Amanda Curtis: It is, and it's one that I tell other female founders who are just starting out, all the time.
Melinda Wittstock: What are some other ones? What sort of advice would you give other young women coming up?
Amanda Curtis: I think the biggest thing that we've learned is just to always ask, and to ask at a high level. That's basically how we got some of our bigger brand deals with Macy's, Microsoft, Lord & Taylor, et cetera. I think that women often don't ask or they don't feel prepared enough to go in and ask for what they want. I think that's something we've learned to be better at, just going in early, high-level concepts, trying to seek out the stakeholders in the beginning. You really have nothing to lose, and everything to gain. That's been a really great lesson for us, and one that I also try to pass on to other female entrepreneurs.
Melinda Wittstock: How does it work for you, in terms of your hours? Do you have time to do “stuff” outside of running the business? Do you make time for yourself? Self-care and all that?
Amanda Curtis: I've gotten a lot better at making time outside of the business. It truly is a part of me. At least as an entrepreneur, it's a creative endeavor and that has always been an aspect of my life that doesn't shut down at any point in the day. I have been better at trying to balance, and to make more time for reflection and for time away from the business. It has improved my overall workflow. Though I can't say that I've perfected that yet. It's something I definitely need to work on as a New Year's Resolution.
Melinda Wittstock: Well we often put ourselves last in these equations. You can end up burning out. I'm learning now that I have to put things in my schedule. I have to say, “Okay. On Friday morning” … I do, I have this thing, every Friday morning, I get a massage. I just do that; it's in my calendar.
Amanda Curtis: Oh, that's smart. I should do that.
Melinda Wittstock: I'm starting to calendarize self-care, because if I don't do it, I won't do it. I will end up just putting myself last. It's interesting that so many women, in particular, do that.
What's ahead for you now? What are the next big milestones for Nineteenth Amendment?
Amanda Curtis: We just announced a partnership with the CFDA, with is the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
Melinda Wittstock: Wow, congratulations!
Amanda Curtis: Pretty much every … thank you! It's a big milestone for us. We've been working with smaller independent brands and manufacturers across the US, and now we're really looking forward to taking this model to the next level, opening it up to larger brands, and really starting to work with manufacturers in a way that revives US manufacturing, and redefining retail.
For us, it's more of about scaling, and taking this to the next level, now that we've kind of proved-out with the smaller market.
Melinda Wittstock: That's fantastic. Where do you think you'll be in ten years? That's a long time, right?
Amanda Curtis: Oh gosh, that's a long time.
Melinda Wittstock: Okay, five years, maybe?
Amanda Curtis: Five years, five years. I mean, I think for Nineteenth Amendment, our whole approach is something we like to call “Designed globally, but made locally.” So you can buy a product that's made by a designer in Australia, and have it made locally to you in New Jersey, for example, really cutting down on the environmental impact. From a business perspective, it makes sense, from a timing perspective it makes sense, and then taking that concept to other markets. The UK, Japan, et cetera, how can we expand upon this and use technology to be smarter about the entire manufacturing process, and get new products, authentically made, sustainably made, and well made to the consumer in a palatable timeline without hurting the bottom line.
Melinda Wittstock: That sounds wonderful. Well I'm just so inspired with you, Amanda, congratulations on all your success.
Amanda Curtis: Thank you.
Melinda Wittstock: I can't wait to see where you take this next. Thank you so much for joining us on Wings.
Amanda Curtis: Well thank you very much for having me, I really appreciate it.