I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Niu, Founder and CEO of Swaggle, a mobile marketplace that makes consignment shopping fun and easy for men. Prior to Swaggle, Eric was a management consultant at Deloitte Consulting LLP. He also served in President Obama’s Administration as a young political appointee.
Jean: 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 we decided to create a better solution solving the problem.
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.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What really makes Swaggle different is that our customers can search and buy quality menswear at low prices that they can’t find elsewhere because the inventory/supply doesn’t exist today in a centralized platform like Swaggle. 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.
As a team, we stand out because we 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.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now??
Swaggle is my full-time project and yes, it is exciting. Swaggle is a peer-to-peer closet sharing marketplace for men. We help men to turn their closets into cash and shop for quality menswear at a discounted price.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story??
One of my favorite books is Benjamin Franklin’s biography by Walter Isaacson. Ben is not only a founding father but also a scientist, inventor, politician, and a business man. He is a wise man with famous sayings such as “a penny saved is a penny earned,” and “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
What I admire Ben Franklin the most is his philosophy in networking. He gathered a group of prominent business men in his time called “Junto”. They met regularly and debated on important topics from politics to philosophy and commerce. His belief in networking engraved in me that I believe the success of every business is its people. I never have lunch alone and I always try to connect like-minded people and help in any capacity that I can.
Jean: What are some myths and facts about being a 20-something founder?
“I should’ve died in my 20s. I became successful in my 40s. I became a dad in my 50s. I feel like I’ve stolen a car –a really nice car– and I keep looking in the rearview mirror for flashing lights. But there’s been nothing yet.” — Anthony Bourdain, one of the most beloved celebrity chefs and travel experts, took his own life. Who would know? How many people including myself have fantasized of the “perfect life”? Yet, how little do we know what so called the “perfect life”?
We idolize entrepreneurs like heroes in today’s society. Generally, it is because some of the most iconic visionaries like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk who have actually invented things that have changed our lives. Behind closed-doors, many entrepreneurs struggle with depression, bipolar and suicidal thoughts. The idea that everything you have worked so hard for can easily crumble outside of your control is scary and stressful. However, it is an industry taboo that strong leaders don’t show vulnerabilities like that, and that had made it tougher to be a founder of a company.
In my opinion, one of the most important skills needed for an entrepreneur to succeed is to manage their own emotions. What are the myths and facts about being a 20-something founder?
Myth — “Nothing to Lose”
Fact — “Nothing to Lose except for Your Most Precious Time”
I had the idea of Swaggle in my early 20s and now I feel like my entire 20s are hustle, hustle and hustle. There is not one single moment that I don’t think about my business. When I eat, I think about Swaggle, when I date, I think about Swaggle, when I sleep I think about Swaggle. We often hear people say that “you should take risks when you are young, because you’ve got nothing to lose.”. Well, the reality is that when you are young, you’ve got nothing MUCH to lose, except for your precious time. When your 20-something friends are going out, you are hustling. When your 20-something friends are dating, you are single. When your 20-something friends are thinking about having kids, you are thinking about series A. There is no doubt that time is the most precious commodity in life and 75% ventured-backed startups fail. So, think twice when you assume that you’ve got nothing to lose.
Myth — “Founding a Company Gets You Rich”
Fact — “Founding a Company Gets You Rich If You Are Lucky”
I started Swaggle literally because I was “too poor for Prada”. I was this 22-year old young professional working in the Obama Administration who wanted a designer look that I couldn’t afford. I’ve met many 20-something founders who started companies because they want to be the new Mark Zuckerberg, who can turn his dorm room idea into a $72 billion+ net worth. The reality is that it is much harder for them to succeed because they are focusing on the wrong objective. Founding a company is about solving a problem with a solution that is better than anything else in the market. Those founders who are focusing more on raising money than improving the customer experience will not succeed ultimately. If you listen to the NPR Podcast “How I Built This”, which interviews successful entrepreneurs in our time. You would know that most of those entrepreneurs attribute their success to some sort of luck or the grace of God. That means you still need to be lucky even if you are doing everything right. Success is not guaranteed and it does not age discriminate. Don’t found a company in your 20s because you want to be rich, you will be broke far before you can afford to buy that Lambo.
Myth — “Prime Time for Entrepreneurship is in Your 20s”
Fact — “Prime Time for Entrepreneurship is Middle Age”
A recent working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that Successful entrepreneurs are much more likely to be middle-aged, not young. For the top 0.1 percent of fastest growing new businesses in the U.S., the average age of the founder in the business’ first year was 45. The study does not conclude any reason for the claim yet it reflects how tough can be for a 20-something founder to beat the odds and succeed.
It is not shameful to be stressed when you run a company. It is not a weakness when you share your feelings with others. No matter what your psychological makeup, big setbacks in your business can knock you flat. Moderate exercise, a dedicated sleep schedule and meditation will go a long way helping you manage your emotions as a 20-something founder.
Jean: 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 President Obama. I’ve seen him several times in close encounters while I was working in his administration yet I was just a young ambitious political appointee who could barely afford his work suit. But this time I will be better dressed, thanks to Swaggle.
- Published on June 27, 2018