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Talking startups, fashion, and the death of the shopping mall with Wanelo founder Deena Varshavskaya

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

Some of the most insightful conversations come in the most casual settings. On The Ride we catch up with today's top personalities in technology and entertainment on their way to work, running errands, or checking out a new show. Along the way, we field questions sent live from The Verge readers via a tablet connected to the OnStar 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi® hotspot.

Deena Varshavskaya was born in Siberia. She moved to the United States when she was 16. She knew clothes and fashion mattered, but she didn't know how to navigate malls and brands and the whole shopping experience. (There weren't a lot of malls in her childhood.) That experience drove her, as an adult, to create Wanelo, a virtually unlimited online mall that lives as an app on your phone. Her startup is thriving, hugely popular with young females. But Deena is still devoting her life to building her business, the way startup people do. We caught up with her in San Francisco to learn about Wanelo, shopping, and startup culture.

Tell me a little about Wanelo. What do I need to know? I've never used it before.

Deena Varshavskaya: Probably because you're not like a college-aged girl. That probably explains why you haven't used it.

That might be some of it. Yeah.

DV: Yeah, so Wanelo comes from want, need, love, and it's the next-generation way of shopping. It's the generation that's into Instagram, and, mobile-first, Snapchat. They're used to their phones being their life. Wanelo is the place to shop.

It's how to shop on your mobile phone. Everything's there. I don't need to go in a store.

DV: It's all about you. It's very personalized, and obviously the people who are using Wanelo are not in the malls. That's a thing of the past.

Right, so going and actually having an in-person experience at a mall—

DV: Old school.

That's sort of an old way of doing it.

DV: Yeah, malls are shutting down.

Is Wanelo trying to like put malls out of business?

DV: Totally, we're very evil. It's all about killing the malls.

Yeah, right.

DV: We don't have to directly cause the death of the malls. It's happening. It's just, there's just so many advantages to having this mobile shopping experience, because you can have unlimited inventory, right? One of the things that makes Wanelo special is that it's millions of products in one place, and it's on your phone, so you can do it anywhere.

Like an infinite mall.

DV: It's an infinite mall. It's completely personalized, so it's all about you. We're really good at finding things that match your taste, so the more you use it, the more we learn about you. The more we can continue suggesting really amazing products for you.

What else, what kind of products? You said fashion is one.

DV: Phone cases, shoes, accessories.

Furniture?

DV: Furniture. It's really great for things that are visual, that you can look at, and just see whether or not it matches your taste. It's really a great tool for self-expression. In fact the reason that I started Wanelo was because I was always a very discerning shopper, and I found it really difficult to shop in traditional retail locations, like malls, for example, because I always wanted that hyper-specific thing that would be like of this color and still comfortable. And the choices that I found in regular stores, like physical stores, were just really underwhelming. So I wanted to create a place that would bring together all shopping, and make it possible for me to find the weirdest stuff around.

That's the thing I always found so weird about malls is that everyone's going to the same place to get kind of the same clothes. Fashion is so much about individual expression. Is Wanelo helping people find that individual expression?

DV: It helps because the number of choices within the Wanelo app is just so much greater than anything you'd ever find within a mall. The other thing that's real interesting is that we have kind of a unique situation in the US, with malls and retail, where, as you pointed out, a lot of our fashion shopping actually is filtered through these really giant brands that kind of own all of our shopping, and all of the selection. On the other hand, if you think about where those products actually come from, the majority of these products, like 98 percent of them, come from Asia, China, for example. If you look at something like China compared to the US, in China, mobile shopping is actually like far ahead in terms of being adopted, and just in terms of how evolved it is.

Is Wanelo helping us kind of catch up to China and Asia?

DV: We actually are connected to China. That's a big part of what we're doing right now is we're bringing products directly from China to the US consumer. That's part of what we're doing. That means you can connect to millions of choices, and a ton of innovation. Basically, I believe in cutting out the middleman.

How did you get into this? Were you always very fashion-conscious as a kid?

DV: Not really, no. I grew up in Siberia.

Not too many malls in Siberia?

DV: No, not that I know of. In Moscow there were malls. Yeah, we didn't have a lot of choices. I came to the US when I was 16, and I think what I was really concerned about was finding my passion. I knew that I wanted to do something really big with my life, something where my effort is not about just exchanging my time for money, but it goes towards me building something, and I really wanted to have a longer-term timeline to it. I got into Wanelo because it was the first problem that I came across that was interesting enough to me to really dig my teeth into.

What was that problem?

DV: Shopping was really disorganized, and as someone from another country who didn't fully understand the landscape of boutiques, and there is brands that are big or small, I found it very challenging to be navigating all of that. So I was thinking of it in an almost OCD way, where I wanted to take all of shopping and fit it into an organized platform.

It sounds like it came from your upbringing a little bit, that there wasn't any choice. So you wanted to sort of move into that.

DV: I think I knew that personal style was becoming more and more important to me as I was going through college, but I wasn't good at it. I didn't know how to actually express myself through those things. Part of building Wanelo has definitely been acquiring the tools for becoming a really discerning shopper. I'm pretty good at shopping now.

I want to take a second to take a couple questions from Verge readers. I think it's really interesting to think about you as an entrepreneur, and starting your own business, what it must take to be a leader. What do you think are some of the traits that make a good leader that you strive to have in yourself?

DV: For me, leadership is probably more of an outcome of what I'm doing. I don't wake up in the morning and think, "I'm going to be a good leader today." I think it really comes down to just being obsessed with pursuing the path that I'm pursuing, and maybe infecting others with that obsession. That's part of it. Another really important thing to me is empowering people. That's something that I get a lot of personal enjoyment from, and I think that's something that's probably really helpful from a leadership perspective as well, in that people on my team have room. They are empowered to solve the problem, to be pursuing their path.

Do you push them in a direction? Do you give them sort of direction?

DV: Yeah, absolutely. We have very, very focused goals, so there's pushing on that front. But I also push people to actually empower themselves, which is really interesting because I definitely see a pattern in people kind of coming into the company perhaps having fear of failure, or just fear in general, where people want to make sure their boss approves whatever they're doing. I try to take their focus away from being focused on my approval, to being focused on, "How do I best solve this problem?"

What is it that makes someone empowered, and how do you empower other people?

DV: For me, empowering myself is about putting myself in situations where things I'm afraid of are occurring, and I have to deal with them. That's a big part of being an entrepreneur, that you're basically in this endless chain of things you're afraid of that you have to be getting good at, like public speaking, or being interviewed by someone.

Tell me a little bit about startup culture. I think a lot of people are really curious about what it's like having a startup, startup culture.

DV: I think startups are not for everyone. It's definitely kind of a crazy thing to do. I don't recommend that everyone starts a company. I started out really just by wanting to solve something, and build a product, and so I actually did that on my own for a while. I got myself in kind of a little bit of a fortunate position where I had a consulting agency. We were a small group of about six, seven people, and the income from that allowed me to hire some consultants on the side, which I was then, I was using that to start building the product. It took a little while to ramp up, and by the time I decided to move to San Francisco, which was only four years ago, it feels like a decade—

Things move pretty fast around here.

DV: Things move really fast, and a lot has happened over the last four years, so by the time I decided to move to San Francisco, I already had a working prototype of a product, and a beginning of a community—so people were already using this thing, which was pretty awesome. It definitely was not easy to get to, even at that point.

What were some of your milestones?

DV: I worked on the product for so long without it having any users, or nobody being interested in using it, that at the time when someone started using it, I was actually surprised. That was pretty cool. When I moved to San Francisco, I think we had about maybe 30,000 monthly visitors, and then by the time we got to about a 100,000, I started raising money, because I had to at that point. I had no income, and I knew I wanted to move this thing forward, I had to get some money.

What were some of those pitch meetings like? You must have had some pretty intense stories from pitching to VCs.

DV: I really hated the concept of having to raise money. I was really into building the product. That was so much more fun than having to go out and convince other people that this was worth investing into. But I did it, and it was part of conquering my own fears. It was something I had to do. It ended up being really interesting, because as a process it took a long time. It was not easy. VCs look for a pattern. They want to see — I mean, there's some truth to the stereotype — they want to see a guy who hopefully has a technical background. They want to see a CTO. I was a solo-founder female with no technical background and no team. I wasn't exactly the thing that people wanted to jump into right away.

That's a lot of empty check boxes that they couldn't fill.

DV: At the end of the day, it took a while, and 40 rejections, for me to get to closing my first round.

Were you learning a lot from those rejections along the road, or were they pretty much just like, "Nope"?

DV: I learned that investors have really different styles, and they look for different things. At the end of the day, I don't think that any of those things are necessarily the most rational things to ask for of a young startup. It's a little bit hard to explain, but when you're especially a young stage as a startup, there's so much uncertainty, that really what you're going off of is what the founding team is bringing to the table, and what they're driving for. And investors might ask for something like financial projections, which in my case, for example at that point in time, were 100 percent irrelevant.

What was it like when you got your first break?

DV: That's a funny story. When I got my first investor telling me that they're ready to put in money, I had no idea what to do with it. Literally, I was so focused on getting people to that stage.

Do they just give you a giant check?

DV: No, the person who said he wanted to invest ended up not investing, because I literally didn't know what to do once he said that. I ended up waiting so long that by the time I came back to him, he was like, "Look, this has been like too long. I'm no longer putting in money." I think it's a funny story because it illustrates just how challenging it is that you really, like when you're going through it for the first time, you really have no idea what you're doing.

There's no handbook that says, "This is what's meant to happen now. This is what you do with your money."

DV: No. I was learning about term sheets for the first time. I was like, "Where do you get one?" I didn't have co-founders, which made things harder.

When did you go from being solo to then having partners? What was that like?

DV: After I closed the initial funding round, that was an interesting point in time, too, because I realized at that point that I had just gone through this full-body experience of having to raise money. And it was exhausting, but I was just on the other end of it, and I had to start a whole new exhausting process of building the team. That was an interesting come-to-Jesus moment, where I had to realize, "Well, if I'm doing this thing, it's actually going to be this continuous, full-body investment."

I have another question from a Verge reader that I want to pick up. I love this question. It's about disruption. "What does the term disruption mean to you? Is Wanelo disrupting anything? Is there anything to disrupt?"

DV: I think Wanelo is disrupting something, but disruption is not something I personally think about.

The Valley just seems so obsessed with this term disruption, as though that's the driving force.

DV: It's just, it seems like a marketing term. I think what I'm focused on is solving a problem. That's what's important to me, and disruption is something that is very focused on, I guess, "What are you attacking? What are you disrupting?" It just feels like the focus is wrong.

Another Verge question just came in about startups. "What would you tell someone who's about to start a startup?"

DV: I'd say, make sure it's a problem that you really love, because this problem is going to take up all of your existence. Make sure that you're willing to be solving this problem when things get really hard, and really painful.

Does it have to be a big problem, like health care, or—

DV: I think entrepreneurship is ridiculously personal, and what you're doing as an entrepreneur is you're going from A to Z, except there's no path in between, because the path does not exist. You have to make it, and that's why it's so personal — the path that you follow will be determined by who you are, and what types of things you are into, and what types of choices you make, and what kind of people you work with.

That's why, Wanelo maybe works so well for you, and why you could make that such a dedication, because it's a passion for you.

DV: It's extremely personal. There are entrepreneurs who choose to work on a company because, or build a company because it will make money, and maybe it's a company in EdTech, and they can sell it, and that's fine. That's totally legitimate. But again, it's really personal. I know that for me, I probably like simply could not, would not be able to do that, because I would not have enough motivation to pursue that particular problem.

Making it a real personal journey.

DV: Another thing that I think is really important if you're starting out as an entrepreneur is understanding and working on your relationship with success and failure. Most entrepreneurs are people who are very ambitious, unsurprisingly, and obviously they're after success. This is something that I actually knew for myself when I was starting out. I knew that I was one of those ambitious people who want success, but I also know that being dependent on success was not going to bring me personal happiness, and personal fulfillment. I've actually worked really hard to develop a healthy relationship with success and failure, and I don't think there's anything wrong in going after success, but I think it's really important to know how to not be dependent on it for your happiness.

How do you define success? What is success for you?

DV: What is success for me? Success for me is really just living an amazing, awesome life. That is very aligned with my values. Success in terms of a company is a completely different thing.

It's not just money. Some people might say, "Success is, I want to make as much money as this company can possibly make me."

DV: Yeah, I think that's silly. Money is important. It's an important enabler, but I think it's obvious that it does not make you happy.

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and OnStar. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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