During its first year in 2011, Dallas-based rewardStyle drove more than $60 million worth of apparel sales, firing a warning shot over the existing fashion hierarchy. It did so by empowering a then-overlooked group: fashion bloggers.
The company gathered these bloggers into its invite-only network, and gave them the technology and relationships with retailers they would need to make money off their blogs. If a blogger’s post led to a sale, he or she got a portion of the profits.
The simple premise led to a multiplatform sales-driving company that serves not only bloggers but also celebrities, social media mavens, major retailers and traditional publications alike.
In 2014, rewardStyle generated $270 million in sales for its 4,000 retail partners. The top-performing bloggers earn at least $20,000 a month, and some earn up to $80,000. Together, they have dismantled the power structure of the fashion world. And the woman behind it all, Amber Venz, rewardStyle co-founder and president, is a mere 27 years old.
But when the startup launched four years ago, Venz, then 24, couldn’t afford to rent an apartment. So she secretly spent her nights in the company’s studio-size offices in Dallas, without tipping off the two other employees.
“No one knew that someone was living in that space,” Venz confesses. “I would just wake up early and be the first one in the office.”
Unable to earn a paycheck, she was grateful for a little freedom—her other option for housing was to live with her parents. As a recent college graduate, Venz was more than willing to sacrifice in order to become a successful entrepreneur.
“It makes you want it more and want it faster,” she says, adding, “It’s not a full-time job anymore—it’s a full-life job.”
Her advice to others: Identify what’s most important to you and be willing to invest the time necessary to make your business successful.
As for Venz, fashion has always been her life—and her job. Even while pursuing her degree in corporate communications and public affairs at Southern Methodist University, she managed to rack up four years of fashion experience.
“We all have the same amount of time in the day,” she says. “And you can make time to do what you want to do. It’s just figuring out how it’s going to work.”
When she wasn’t in class, the North Texas native logged hours at a luxury boutique that carried designers like Diane von Furstenberg and Tom Ford. The store began selling Venz’s handmade jewelry line after customers repeatedly asked about her items. And when school wasn’t in session, she was moving to Los Angeles to intern for a stylist, or to New York to intern for fashion label Thakoon.
Venz’s goal was simple: to learn the ins and outs of the fashion world, gaining the information she would use to disrupt the entire industry.
“No matter what industry [you want to go into], work on all sides of that industry so you can understand what everyone wants,” she says, speaking in a rapid-fire pace that makes her keen curiosity and quick intelligence apparent. Listening to her, you get the feeling that if you turn away for a second, you might miss something very important.
After graduation, Venz took a position as a buyer at the boutique that she worked at while in school, though it wasn’t long before she left that store to pursue a career as a personal stylist and jewelry designer. Her business plan included marketing herself through a blog, Venzedits, launched in 2010. Not in the plan, though, was her clients buying clothes featured on the blog, skipping the stylist appointment with Venz and her commission on the sale.
She wasn’t alone. Countless other bloggers, celebrities and even magazines were doling out fashion advice and driving sales—whether they realized it or not—for free.
“You have to make sure that you’re solving real problems,” Venz points out, noting something she’s observed in other digital launches. “We talk about tech for tech’s sake. People will come out with tools and projects that are not about something that enhances someone’s life…or solves a problem.”
Working with her then-boyfriend and co-founder Baxter Box (they married in the fall of 2014), the two crafted an affiliate-style solution aimed at bloggers like herself. “Affiliate programs were not a sexy industry at all,” says Venz. “And not something the fashion industry was alert to. In 2011, we were the first to apply the technology to the content space.”
From there, the rewardStyle team of publishers—the company’s term for bloggers—grew organically through referrals. “Nothing’s better than someone giving their honest opinion,” Venz says. Meanwhile, she had to persuade retailers to also join the program.
By 2011, the influence of blogging trendsetters had been felt throughout fashion. A handful, such as Tavi Genison, a 14-year-old from Chicago, and Bryanboy, a Filipino blogger, found themselves gaining exclusive access to magazines, top designers and runway shows. But the term blog influencers had yet to enter the lexicon of the marketing staff of most major retailers.
“There was a lot of education required because content marketing…wasn’t really a vocabulary word at the time,” Venz says. “I was getting passed around to different members of a marketing team, and they said things like, ‘We really don’t do blogger outreach.’ ” She employed an empathetic approach to these potential partners. “You have to think about, How do we frame this for them? How can I make this easy for them?”
It’s a strategy she carries into most of her business decisions. “You have to think about what your customer needs. Because if you can serve their needs, then you have a successful business.”
The persistence paid off. Within the first six months, the company signed website Net-A-Porter, a multibrand luxury retailer. Stores like Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Top Shop soon followed. Brands agreed to commission rates as high as 20 percent, though most averaged around 13 percent.
As the company grew, Venz had to grow along with it, learning as she went. Working side by side with Box provided its own set of lessons.
“We shared a desk at first, because there was no room, and I quickly realized I needed to be in a separate room,” she recalls, going on to describe how the two had to also divide their responsibilities. “We had to define those roles and who gets to make final decisions on those things.”
Today the company employs nearly 100 people—and as the staff grew, so did Venz’s learning curve. “Giving up ownership of projects—that was an early challenge for me.”
Following advice from her father, she read Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and applied its lessons at work. “It’s not something I’m going to say I’m an all-star at, but I am getting better as time goes on. Emotional intelligence is such a big piece of management.”
The company never took on outside investment, although Venz has observed the rise and fall of plenty of well-funded tech startups. “It’s not that easy to just get money thrown at you anymore,” she says of startup capital. “Investors are looking for established businesses and outside Silicon Valley. So think about your business model and your monetization plan. And think about that long and hard.”
Given the success of its blogging-based program, rewardStyle began to infiltrate even more of the fashion world through fashion magazines, beginning with Condé Nast’s properties in 2012. But they had unique needs that required rewardStyle to develop a new set of tools.
“We’ve always built things out to what our customer needs and what’s currently happening. We’re never trying to push them in a new platform or to use a service just to use it.”
Fortunately, innovation was something the young company was already adept at. “You always have to be ahead of what your customer will want,” Venz says. “I travel the world and I meet with our bloggers. I’m able to understand what’s going on in those areas and come back to Baxter and say, ‘This is what’s happening, and these are the challenges that they’re about to face,’ so we can build things for the future.”
Those conversations led to the launch of one of the company’s most ambitious products: LIKEtoKNOW.it, an email service that enables publishers to earn money off of Instagram posts. In 2013, the social media channel became the publishing platform of choice for rewardStyle clients, who were posting photos, captions and hashtags to the service multiple times a day, Venz says. Because Instagram doesn’t allow users to link out from their posts, there wasn’t a way to track—and then earn from—sales.
The program bridges that gap. When a LIKEtoKNOW.it user “likes” an enabled Instagram post, she will receive an email listing the products the post featured. Launched in March 2014, the service signed up more than half a million users that year, generating $10 million in sales and 75 million emails.
Given her experience, Venz is quick to warn small-business owners away from blogging as a marketing platform. “You want to use something scalable, and social media is the only thing that’s viral. So you should learn a lot about that system and, for lack of a better word, game that system.”
She learned as much as she could about online publishing and the fashion world. And as Venz made her way through the industry she loved, she upended it, making it possible for other style-setters to earn a living and have a say in the process.
“You have to do something that you love to be good at it,” she says. “I feel like I am living, eating, breathing what we’re doing here. If you’re not, then you’re going to be in second place.”