Entrepreneurs start businesses for many reasons. A passion for something is often the driving force. Ella Gorgla has a passion for fashion. She also has a canny business sense — built on education, experience, and a good gut feel — to turn her passion into a viable business.
Born in Liberia and raised in Ohio, she studied engineering and has degrees from Columbia Business School and the London Business School; she’s worked for companies like Accenture, Ernst & Young, and IBM, specializing in business and growth strategy, and entrepreneurship. Nothing there that screams high-end fashion maven.
But Gorgla knows opportunity when she sees it: the lower costs and easier start-up for e-commerce businesses and the rise in online shopping, especially by women. (Those are opportunities open to everyone now). Add to that her observation that women who want to make a fashion statement need that fantastic bag only for a moment; they can rent as well as buy.
She created a curated marketplace, I-ELLA, where women can Buy, Borrow, Swap + Sell designer apparel, shoes, accessories, handbags, and more. She has carved her own niche in the multi-billion dollar resale fashion industry. I-ELLA’s 65,000 members shop for pre-owned luxury brands including Marc Jacobs, Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Valentino. Items can be borrowed at a weekly or monthly rate, or purchased at a discounted price. The average sale is $140.
To build interest in I-ELLA, Gorgla partners with celebrities such as John Legend, Estelle, La La Vasquez Anthony, Veronica Webb, Whitney Port, and celebrity stylist Mary Alice Stephenson who open their closets to benefit the charity of their choice. Three quarters of the purchase price of those sales goes to the charity but the PR for I-ELLA … priceless. For general purchases, 10% of each sale is donated to three featured charities of the month. I-ELLA is a good business in every sense of the word.
I-ELLA.com was named one of the “Top 10 NYC Startups to Watch” by Time Inc. in 2011, and was deemed “2011 Best of the Web” by InStyle Magazine. In addition, Gorgla was named one of Inc. Magazine’s “11 Leaders to watch in 2011.”
Gorgla lists five keys to her success:
1. Have grit — it’s the “must have” quality for all entrepreneurs. Gorgla has a passion for fashion and strong business skills but, as many entrepreneurs know, the key to success is persistence. You will hear “no,” but that doesn’t mean you stop educating potential investors and asking, asking, asking.
Raising money hasn’t been easy. “It’s a daunting process,” said Gorgla. She can spend as much as 80% of her time doing it. Having never raised capital before, she didn’t know the tricks. Gorgla met with about 75 potential investors over a 2 year period raising $1 million. One potential investor verbally committed to investing, then declined via email. It was a real shocker but not a show stopper. She just kept asking.
Alan Meckler, CEO, Mediabistro, became one of her investors because he recognized that online fashion retailers are a fast-growing segment of the internet.
2. Build a large and diverse network. She’s learned to rely on her network to introduce her to people who have an interest in her sector. Relationships aren’t just about money, as every good networker knows. Connections provide advice, referrals to people who may join the I-ELLA team, and access to celebrities: All resources Gorglao needs for I-ELLA to grow.
3. Be ready to pivot. In the beginning I-ELLA only sold pre-owned fashion. However, a new focus for the company is its monthly subscription gift bag called The List. A network of stylists, fashion insiders, and fashionistas handpick a sampling of brand new accessories, shoes, handbags, and clothing individualized to the member’s specific tastes.
4. Accept that there is no silver bullet. A placement on a morning show, in a top fashion magazine or a celebrity endorsement (she’s had all three) does not lead to instant success. Gorgla has learned to temper her enthusiasm about such things. While they are important, good, steady work and good, steady growth are more important.
5. Have people with the right skill set from the get-go. One of Gorgla’s regrets is not hiring a full-time tech person in the beginning. Yes, I-ELLA is a fashion company, but it is a tech-based fashion company. E-commerce requires a techie on board. I’ve heard this from other e-commerce entrepreneurs.
It was the first big hire Alice Wang and Pegah Ebrahimi of Spark Box Toys made. They brought a CTO onboard a little less than a year after launch. They’re constantly tweaking the site, having a CTO is enabling us to build a more sophisticated site that better meets the needs of our customers on a more timely basis.
What are your keys to success?
Read Geri Stengel’s stories on women entrepreneurs’ success factors sooner by following her on Forbes.