How two friends built Revolve into a fashion empire with Instagram influencers

How two friends built Revolve into a fashion empire with Instagram influencers

Two young tech co-workers named Michael, who knew absolutely nothing about fashion, unexpectedly found themselves in the rag bin of the dot-com bust at the beginning of the century.

Now they’re running one of the fastest-growing e-commerce clothing companies in the nation: Revolve Group. It was valued at nearly $. billion when it recently went public and, despite a snag here and there, is headed to more than $ million in sales this year.

Michael Mente, , and Mike Karanikolas, , are co-chief executives of Revolve, whose initial public offering in June was one of the year’s most successful. Shares opened on the New York Stock Exchange at $., almost % higher than the $ asking price. The Cerritos company raised $. million.

Revolve is only one of the fashion e-tailers harnessing the social media marketing juggernaut to sell to young and urban customers, but it’s the first to pull back the dressing room curtain to give the world a look at its financial underpinnings.

In lieu of traditional advertising, Revolve uses much of its marketing budget to pamper a revolving group of about , influencers — including Kendall Jenner, for a time — for wearing its brands as well as the designer names it carries. Revolve, which has . million followers on its primary account alone, focuses on selling apparel, shoes and accessories to millennial and Generation Z women and men, adding beauty products nearly three years ago.

Influencer Alyssa Lynch, top right, appears on an post with friends at a Revolve trip to the Mexican resort of Cuixmala this summer.

None of that seemed likely in , when the company was founded.

E-commerce was in its infancy. , and the iPhone hadn’t made an appearance yet. The term influencer didn’t come into widespread use until .

“It was a new world and a new opportunity with the internet and online commerce starting to change things,” Karanikolas recalled of those early days.

“There was a large and growing interest in apparel online. But there weren’t really that many players doing it or doing it well. We felt like we could come out of the gates with a better approach and then continue to build on that.”

Karanikolas and Mente had planned to ride the tech industry dot-com boom that had begun in .

Mente was in an entrepreneurship program at USC when he dropped out to join software company NextStrat in Los Angeles. Karanikolas was hired by the same company in , after earning a degree in computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

As the youngest employees at the company, the two -somethings quickly bonded. But the stock market downturn that began in turned the boom into a bust. NextStrat was part of the carnage.

Mente and Karanikolas were out of a job, but had gained valuable insight about themselves and how well they worked together.

“We were both very analytical,” Mente said, which helped them home in on an idea for a new business.

“Technology was something we’d just grown up with. Data was something we were comfortable with,” Karanikolas said. “And it really helped us spot opportunities consistently, I think, before a lot of the rest of the marketplace.”

The pair’s deep dive into keyword searches and online behavior divulged something they hadn’t considered before, well before some longtime fashionistas and clothing industry veterans noticed it. Even in , fashion shoppers were growing weary of having to trek to bricks-and-mortar stores to shop for clothing, unsure of whether they would find what they were looking for, Karanikolas said.

Neither said they were worried about their lack of fashion experience. In a sense they considered it an asset.

Data and analytics would drive their choices, becoming part of their “trend forecasting algorithms” that incorporate “data from analysis of thousands of styles, dozens of attributes per style” and the constant accumulation of customer interactions, Mente said.

“For us, there’s no such thing as fear of failure with experimentation,” he said, “because the data that we gain from this failure also ultimately helps us improve and assess, then ultimately make the algorithms better.”

A plan was hatched for Revolve as an online sales platform for a broad lineup of existing fashion brands. The nascent firm got a boost from another key change, the “shift from fashion magazines to blogs,” which were the influencers of their day, Mente said.

“Those early bloggers were perfectly positioned to take advantage of a long-term social media wave,” he said. “We were working with influencers when they were still called bloggers, before . That strategy revolutionized our business.”

Rumi Neely of Fashion Toast “had one of the bigger audiences in the early days. It was a natural fit for us to work with her first,” Mente said. The timing was also crucial. Revolve began working with Neely and other bloggers in , amid the worst economic downturn the nation had seen since .

Revolve survived in part because the fashion blogger network kept shoving business its way, Karanikolas said.

“We were profitable in ,” he said. “We came out stronger than we entered it because a lot of our competition didn’t make it through the recession. And that – time period is when the smartphones began gaining more share of the online search traffic and where the interest in bloggers starting picking up.”

Revolve continued to evolve as Mente and Karanikolas kept a close eye on what was trending.

“In this day and age with the democratization of content production, we can create imagery that really connects with the consumer on an emotional level, delivers our core message of aspiration and a great, happy lifestyle, and ultimately do it in a way that’s more authentic,” Mente said.

Beginning in , the company started holding events for its bloggers and early influencers.

Experts say that Revolve, by developing relationships with a huge number of influencers, some with , or fewer followers, is insulating itself from the harm that might be caused by any one of them suddenly becoming an embarrassment.

“Big celebrity influencers aren’t necessary. Companies don’t need to rely on them,” said Stacy Jones, chief executive of Hollywood Branded, an agency that helps clients negotiate the often tricky choices of which influencers to use.

“The new advent,” Jones said, “is the nano-influencer, anyone that has from to , followers. Their followers are part of their social circle. They know who they are. They’re friends. They went to college with them. They’re family members, co-workers. When you go down that funnel, to the smaller levels of influencers, you get higher consumer engagement.”

Revolve cultivates and rewards its influencers in a variety of ways. Influencers can get cash or credit to help them purchase Revolve merchandise, or gifts of clothing, which they can then use on their social media pages, according to the company’s securities filings.

The company hosts more than social events annually — one of its biggest and most exclusive that is, celeb-laden parties happens every year at the same time as the Coachella music festival. It also sends influencers on trips to enviable vacation spots around the world, all designed to maximize -worthy moments in clothing sold by Revolve.

In , Revolve began hosting an annual awards ceremony to help convince influencers that they were part of a larger business family. The awards included YouTube Channel of the Year, BFFs of the Year, Best Influencer Brand and Best Beauty Influencer.

It’s been working. Revolve has been profitable for the last three years and revenue has increased consistently, reaching $. million in net income on $. million in net sales in .

“The business has been around for a long time. It’s one of the few e-commerce companies that is actually profitable,” said Aaron Kessler, senior research analyst at the San Francisco office of Raymond James & Associates.

One of its bigger problems might be trying to find the next big idea.

“The combination of fashion and technology gives Revolve a unique business model and investor proposition as a public company,” said Denise Lee Yohn, brand leadership expert and author of “What Great Brands Do.” “Revolve’s strategy has been a smart one so far, but it needs to be looking for the next wave to ride if it wants to offset these risks and retain its position as a pioneer.”

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