Fashion startups and venture capital don’t always see eye-to-eye, or wallet-to-wallet. Our new series, Ask a VC, seeks to get inside the minds of the partners who are doling out investment dollars in an attempt to find out what fashion and retail companies catch their attention.
Cheryl Cheng, a partner at venture capital firm BlueRun Ventures in San Francisco, doesn’t focus on fashion. Instead, she’s most interested in companies that are crowdsourcing real-time data and applying it to mobile. She was an early investor in transit app Waze, as well as BeautySpeaks, a community marketplace in China that serves as a place for women to give each other beauty advice.
In fashion, however, no data set or mobile app has disrupted the industry. People still shop, for the most part, in stores. As a result, venture capitalists have approached the category with trepidation.
“Fashion has been stubborn,” said Cheng. “If you have the best merchandise, people will still find a way to buy it.”
Still, a lot of retail startups land in front of Cheng — she’s the only female partner at BlueRun Ventures. To introduce our Ask a VC series, in which we ask investors where their dollars are going in the fashion industry, we asked Cheng what does excite her about the future of fashion, a sector she calls “squishy.”
What makes a fashion company worthy of your investment in 2017?
Fashion startups need to apply technology to changing how consumers and businesses interact with each other or make decisions. In fashion specifically, I think of the category in terms of commerce, content, community or materials (fabrics, raw materials), with respect to technology innovation. I invest in mobile software and technology enabled services. But in fashion today, a startup needs to think beyond the mobile phone. Mobile apps are commoditized and it is extremely difficult to break through.
Down the line, investors are going to start putting more money into tech-enabled fabrics and useful fabrics, like a jacket that can point you in the right direction if you’re lost. We’re also seeing the virtual reality space blow up like crazy. When the right company comes, you’ll see investors get excited. It hasn’t happened yet, though.
In terms of emerging industry trends, what are you most excited about?
Voice interfaces are interesting, and there’s still a lot for us to do there. I’m also excited about how machine learning can make services more customized.
What’s a retail trend you’re no longer investing in?
Subscription services. I invest in early-stage companies, so to me, the answer is no on subscriptions. The number-one existing subscription services haven’t reached market saturation themselves. They’re still growing. So a competitor would be taking a market that’s not fully realized and splitting it. My venture dollars would have to be used for marketing and land grab, and that’s not how I want to get the most leverage out of them.
What lessons have you learned, based on failed and less successful ventures?
Ideas are a dime a dozen, and it is the execution that matters.
Here’s an example: I looked at The RealReal in series A, and I was very nervous about that business. I wasn’t sure if there would be enough consignment out there, and it seemed very labor intensive. In venture, you see ideas come in clusters. Suddenly, there were a bunch of consignment services all pitching the same story: “Consignment is big, here’s how we’re going to get inventory.” It seemed very squishy to me at the time, and it was very difficult for me to say ‘Why you over someone else?’ I ultimately passed on it, but that company is doing quite well now, while others have fallen to the wayside. A large part of that is due to [founder] Julie [Wainwright], who is an absolute executor. She drilled that business down to a science. She executed on this online consignment idea the best, but it can be difficult to see that when you’re trying to parse out who has the best team and what they’ll do stage by stage.
What are some mistakes entrepreneurs have made when pitching you?
People have assumed that, because I’m a female investor, I will spark with fashion startups more. More seriously, entrepreneurs often do not work through the unit economics of their business clearly enough.
So as a female VC, do you find that a lot of fashion pitches land on your lap?
That’s par for the course, and I expect that. I can’t say that, just because I do see a lot of them, I’m excited by them. I don’t gravitate toward fashion — I actually tend to gravitate away from it.
Fashion is a large category, and I look at it no differently than a health or education startup: You have to think about the entire category and what a startup is going to do to disrupt it. What makes it more challenging is that fashion has not shown that it can be disrupted by technology. Look at Spring, and any e-commerce startup. At the end of the day, nothing beats merchandising.