“I looked into consignment shopping and quickly realized the space is extremely segmented towards women, both online and offline…and soon discovered the potential of Swaggle.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Niu, Founder and CEO of Swaggle, a peer-to-peer closet sharing marketplace for men. Swaggle was 1 of the 6 companies that recently graduated from the Accelerate Baltimore’s 2017 Program. Prior to Swaggle, Eric was a management consultant at one of the top management consulting firms, and he also served in President Obama’s Administration as a young political appointee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
Have you ever thought that you have so many clothes and yet 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 a 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 soon discovered the potential of Swaggle.
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.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
One idea we had at Swaggle was to engage with dry-cleaners and help them sell unclaimed inventory. It’s really a win-win for everyone. After numerous store visits and cold calling, I finally got the number of an owner from a major dry-cleaning chain.
I was thrilled and decided to give her a call. She picked up the call, and I was eager to pitch her the benefits of selling on Swaggle, and how that would add another revenue model to her business. She listened patiently for about 5 minutes. I finished my pitch and waited for her response. The only thing she said was, “No thanks.” Just as I started to speak again, she swiftly hung up on me.
I was shocked. As a veteran salesperson who is used to rejections, I had no clue what had happened. She let me speak for 5 minutes without asking a question. Did she really not understand the value that Swaggle would add to her business? I had to pick up the phone and call her again to find out why.
I then realized that she was a native Korean speaker and her English was very limited. I immediately called a friend who speaks Korean and trained the friend to pitch on my behalf. After my friend called her back, we learned that she wasn’t interested because her stores didn’t have as many unclaimed inventory as we thought they would have. Despite the outcome, I’m glad I didn’t give up. Otherwise, I would still be wondering to this day why she hung up on me.
So what does your company do?
Swaggle is a peer-to-peer closet sharing marketplace for men. We help you to turn your closet into cash and shop for quality menswear at a discounted price.
What makes your business stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Swaggle different is that we provide a unique platform where our customers can search and buy quality menswear at low prices that they can’t find elsewhere. 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.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The world is constantly evolving towards a more shared economy with global communities. 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.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my business,” and why?
- Reinvent yourself constantly. It takes a certain skill to recruit others to join you when you just have an idea. It takes another type of skill to create something tangible and raise money. You can’t be the same founder who leads a small startup and a CEO who manages a multi-million- or even billion-dollar company. I started Swaggle as a first-time cofounder with no prior startup experience. Today I am wearing many hats at the same time. From recruiting, sales, fundraising to product management, testing and machine learning, I oversee it all. If I could do it all over again, I wish I took more time to learn new skills at an earlier stage of the journey.
- Start with a problem. Swaggle was founded because I was “too poor for Prada”. I was a young professional who wanted a designer look that I couldn’t afford. I started to swap, buy, and sell clothes with my friends. As sharing economy platforms like Uber and Airbnb became the new normal, I realized the potential of a peer-to-peer fashion resale and closet-sharing platform. What can we do with the excess clothes in our closets? How might we create a better way to shop for quality menswear at discounted prices? Those are the questions that I asked myself. After some initial research on the market size, and after receiving validation from friends and even strangers, I decided to do something with the idea.
- Find the right people. Once I knew that I wanted to pursue my idea, the next challenge was to recruit a team. I needed technical coders that could create a tangible solution to solve the problem. I also knew the importance of building a team with a diverse set of skills and personalities. I started to pitch my ideas to the smartest people I knew and asked those people to recommend the smartest people they know. That led me to meet my other cofounders, who ultimately turned Swaggle into a functioning brand.
- Pursue opportunities relentlessly. One of the biggest challenges with getting Swaggle off the ground was ensuring that we had the supply (fashion resale) that would 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, but after pitching Swaggle to the owner, our offer was rejected. The platform was not fully developed, and we had no proof that we would be a valuable partner. However, a week after our call, the owner of the shop reached out and introduced me to her husband, who ultimately became our advisor and helped shape the direction of our company. Six months later the consignment shop became our first partner. As a founder, you can’t expect everything to happen according to plan. When things go south, you cannot afford to lose any opportunity that may turn your business around.
- It’s all mental. While I am proud of my accomplishments to date, it’s the losses and failures that have defined me as a person. In high school, I had my first taste of failure. I interviewed 13 times for various car salesman positions. Some managers simply refused to give me an interview, citing my age as an excuse. “Persistence is key,” may be cliché, but eventually my persistence was rewarded. I became the youngest salesman the dealership had ever hired.
In college, I ran for the student government Board of Directors. I lost. I applied to be the Chief Communication Officer. I lost. I ran for Inter-Fraternity Council Secretary. I lost. In my senior year, I won the student vote to become the Student Government President by a margin of six votes as an underdog.
When people ask me how my day is going, my response is often, “Every day is a grind.” Don’t get overly zealous when things are going well because that’s when bad things can happen, and don’t lose hope when things are bad. Pick yourself up and try to make the best judgement possible.
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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I’d love to meet Jeff Bezos, the mastermind behind Amazon. He quit a lucrative Wall Street job and turned Amazon from an online book store into the ultimate tech giant it is today. We share common values of viewing setbacks as lessons learned, thinking big, and chasing after our goals relentlessly. I’m sure he would enjoy my company.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
To learn more about Swaggle, visit them on Twitter.
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