“It takes a certain skill to recruit others to join you when you just have an idea; it takes another type of skill to create something tangible and raise money. You can’t be the same founder who leads a small startup and a CEO who manages a multi-million or even a billion dollar company. I started Swaggle as a first-time cofounder with no prior startup experience. Today I am wearing many hats at the same time from recruiting, sales, fundraising to product management, testing and machine learning. If I could do it all over again, I wish I took more time to learn new skills at an earlier stage of the journey. “
I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Niu, Founder and CEO of Swaggle, a peer-to-peer closet sharing marketplace for men. Swaggle was 1 of the 6 companies that recently graduated from the Accelerate Baltimore’s 2017 Program. Prior to Swaggle, Eric was a management consultant at one of the top management consulting firms and he also served in President Obama’s Administration as a young political appointee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your "backstory"?
Have you ever thought that you have so many clothes and still nothing to wear? That’s how I felt in 2012 when I moved from California to Washington DC and started my first job as a young political appointee in the Obama Administration. We are living in a society where how we are perceived is often more important to people than what we say, how we act and even who we truly are. I was this young professional who wanted a designer look that I couldn’t afford.
I looked into consignment shopping and quickly realized the space is extremely segmented towards women, both online and offline. As a stop gap solution, I started to trade and buy clothes with my friends and discovered the potential of Swaggle.
Many men are interested in high-end fashion, but can’t afford the retail price. Consignment shopping is fun, but most men don’t know where to start. At the same time, the majority of brick-and-mortar consignment shops don’t have an online presence because the cost of establishing and maintaining an online store is costly and time consuming. Swaggle is a mobile marketplace connecting high-end men’s fashion resellers with interested buyers for a curated and personalized shopping experience. It helps consumers easily find quality men’s wear at discounted prices while helping fashion resale sellers gain more customers.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
One idea we had at Swaggle was to engage with dry-cleaners and help them to sell unclaimed inventory. It’s really a win-win for everyone. After numerous store visits and cold calling, I finally get the number of an owner from a major dry-cleaning chain.
I was thrilled and decided to give her a call. She picked up the call, and I was eager to pitch her the benefits of selling on Swaggle and how that will add another revenue model to her business. She listened patiently for about 5 minutes. I finished my pitch and waited for her response. The only thing she said was “No, thanks.” Just as I started to speak again, she swiftly hung up on me.
I was shocked. As a veteran salesperson who is used to rejections; I had no clue what just happened. She let me speak for 5 minutes without asking a question. Did she really not understand the value that Swaggle would add to her business? I had to pick up the phone and call her again to find out why.
I then realized that she was a native Korean speaker and her English was very limited. I immediately thought all the Korean speakers that I know in my life and called a friend. I convinced and trained the friend to pitch on our behalf, called the owner and led my friend to do the magic. We learned that she wasn’t interested because her stores didn’t have as many unclaimed inventory as we thought they would have. Yet I’m glad I didn’t give up. Otherwise, I would still be wondering why she hung up on me to this date.
What makes your business stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Swaggle different is that our customers can search and buy quality menswear at low prices that they can't find elsewhere because there is no other platform like Swaggle today. Swaggle inspires men to sell designer looks from their closets and upgrade their wardrobe with the latest trends. We want men to become accustomed to fashion resale that is affordable and environmentally conscience. We aspire to set a new standard for the way men shop.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The world is constantly evolving towards a more shared economy with global communities. Swaggle inspires men to sell designer looks from their closets and upgrade their wardrobe with the latest trends. We want men to become accustomed to fashion resale that is affordable and environmentally conscience. We aspire to set a new standard for the way men shop.
What are your "5 things I wish someone told me before I Started my Business" and why.
1) Reinvent Yourself Constantly:
It takes a certain skill to recruit others to join you when you just have an idea; it takes another type of skill to create something tangible and raise money. You can’t be the same founder who leads a small startup and a CEO who manages a multi-million or even a billion dollar company. I started Swaggle as a first-time cofounder with no prior startup experience. Today I am wearing many hats at the same time from recruiting, sales, fundraising to product management, testing and machine learning. If I could do it all over again, I wish I took more time to learn new skills at an earlier stage of the journey.
2) Start with a Problem:
Swaggle was founded because I was “too poor for Prada”. I moved to Washington DC after college and worked in the Obama Administration. I was a young professional who wanted a designer look that I couldn’t afford. I started to swap, buy and sell clothes with my friends. As sharing economy platforms like Uber and Airbnb became the new norm, I realized the potential of a peer-to-peer fashion resale and closet-sharing platform. What can we do with the excess clothes in our closets? How might we create a better way to shop for quality menswear at discounted price? Those are the questions that I asked myself. After some initial research on the market size and validation from friends and even strangers, I decided to do something with the idea.
3) Find the Right People
Once I knew that I wanted to pursue the idea, my next challenge was to recruit a team. I needed technical coders that could create a tangible solution to solve the problem. I also knew the importance of building a team with a diverse set of skills and personalities. I started to pitch my ideas to the smartest people I knew and asked those people to recommend the smartest people they know. That led me to meet my other cofounders, which ultimately turned Swaggle from our imagination to a functional product. As a founder, you never stop selling; starting from pitching the idea to a potential partner.
4) Pursue Opportunities Relentlessly
One of the biggest challenges for Swaggle is ensuring that we have the supply (fashion resale) that will drive demand, and vice versa. To do this, we had to get consignment shops to sign up as suppliers. I remember there was a particular consignment shop that we desperately wanted to partner with. I was told by a team member that the owner of the shop was very private and did not want to be contacted. My team was also concerned that Swaggle was too early in the development stages to approach to a consignment shop. Regardless, I picked up the phone and pitched Swaggle to the owner. The truth was that we were too early, and as a result the owner rejected our offer to join as a partner. The platform was not fully developed and we had nothing to prove that we would be an invaluable partner to her business.
A week after our call, the owner of the shop reached out and introduced me to her husband who ultimately became our advisor. The advisor has helped shape the direction of the company. Six months later, the consignment shop became our first partner. I couldn’t imagine where we would be today if I hadn’t pick up the phone and called the shop out of the blue in the middle of a meeting.
As a founder, you can’t expect everything to happen according to the plan. When things go south, you cannot afford to lose any opportunity that may turn your business around.
5) It’s all Mental
While I am proud of my accomplishments to date, it is my losses and failures that have defined me as a person. In high school, I had my first taste of failure. I interviewed 13 times for car salesman positions. Some managers simply refused to give me an interview, citing my age as an excuse. “Persistence is key” may be cliché, but eventually my persistence was rewarded. I became the youngest salesman the dealership had ever hired.
In college, I ran for the student government Board of Directors. I lost. I applied to be the Chief Communication Officer. I lost. I ran for Inter-Fraternity Council Secretary. I lost. In my senior year, I won the student vote to become the Student Government President by a margin of six votes as an underdog.
When people ask me how is my day going. My response is often “every day is a grind.” Don’t get overly zealous when things are going well, because that’s when bad things will happen. Don’t lose hope when things are bad, pick yourself up and try to make the best judgement possible.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
I’d love to meet Jeff Bezos, the mastermind behind “the everything store” Amazon. He quit a lucrative Wall Street job and turned Amazon from an online book store to the ultimate tech giant it is today. We share common values of viewing setbacks as lessons learned, thinking big and chasing after our goals relentlessly. I’m sure he will enjoy my company =)
Yitzi: This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!