Polyvore's secrets of start-up success


Jess Lee, a former Google employee, is the 33-year-old trailblazer who is Polyvore's honorary co-founder and CEO. She's a computer engineer, turned-product-manager, turned-entrepreneur, and last year she sold her company to Yahoo for a rumoured $US230 million. Polyvore is the classic Silicon Valley story, and it all started when Lee gambled away her job at Google for a corporate role at a struggling start-up.

If you take a look at the Polyvore website, you can see why it has an estimated 20 million monthly users. It's a fashion blog and global marketplace - a curated spread of 'looks' with a direct gateway to the online cash register.

While now a huge success story, it wasn't always peaches and cream for the company which has been around since 2008. Polyvore's user experience for example was so bad in the beginning that it prompted Lee, back then just a humble user, to email a complaint to the site's administrator. It turns out her complaint was the best thing she ever did. She soon got an email back from Polyvore's founder, which turned into a coffee date, and then a subsequent job offer.

Jess Lee Start Up

One of the biggest struggles Polyvore had to overcome was with venture capital (or as the pros call it, VC), which is a sore point for many start-ups. As a product with a primarily female target audience, Polyvore was unnatural territory for the big VC players in Silicon Valley.

"To explain the product in terms that a non-user could understand - to say 'hey, imagine a product where you could shop constantly all the time' to a VC that potentially hates shopping made it more difficult to raise money," says Lee.

Lee says that networking is fundamental to the success of a start-up because it can give companies the support they need to take more risks. Polyvore's success eventually came, and Lee says that it was all thanks to the strong support network she had. Since her university days at Stanford, Lee has been supported by her friend Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who worked with Lee at Google and then eventually offered to buy out Polyvore.

"Network with other entrepreneurs and founders so that you can have a support network of people who are experiencing the same issues, so you can help each other, cry on each other's shoulders and celebrate together," she says.

"Find those role models, those examples of people who are great, who share some characteristics that you want to emulate and then just observe and learn and copy the things that work for you."

"It's better to focus and figure out the few things that actually move the needle and be exceptional at those things."

Lee also stresses how critical her team were to the success of the website. She says entrepreneurs should always look for well-rounded people to include in their team and should focus on building a fun, collaborative and democratic work culture.

"The right people are super critical. Find the people that you want to be around, day-in and day-out, who are really good at their jobs, who are smart, fun and nice, and are a good fit for you - the people that you want to win with," she says.

"There's no point in hiring super smart people and telling them exactly what to do and being super prescriptive. All of that's resulted in Polyvore having a fairly 'bottom up' company culture, where we strive to be a meritocracy of ideas where every opinion matters."

What's interesting about Polyvore is that it has one very unique core value. It might sound limiting, but Lee says one of her rules of thumb is to simply "do a few things well", and not lose sight of the product's simplicity and purpose. Combined with good user-experience, focus is what helped Polyvore monetise their platform and trump its biggest competitor, Pinterest.

"When there were opportunities to do something that might have distracted us from the core mission and from delivering the right product - which was the most important thing - we tried really hard to say no, and just focus," she says.

"We believe the only thing to win is to build an amazing product that users really love. It's better to focus and figure out the few things that actually move the needle and be exceptional at those things."

For all bottom-up hopefuls, Lee imparts this gem of wisdom: always take the hard road. Leaving her comfortable and lucrative job at Google was a tough decision to make, but with a lot of hard work, it was all worth it in the end.

"When you have to make a tough decision between two things, pick the thing that's going to make you grow and learn more. Which probably means it's more challenging," she says.

"That's what made me go to Google as a PM instead of an engineer. That's what made me go to Polyvore - a crazy new start-up, when I was very happy at Google. It's what made me decide to take the CEO role even though I'd never done it before. It's a philosophy that's guided some of my best decisions."

Polyvore also recently announced a collaboration with Australia's Yahoo7, with the company rolling out the red carpet for Australian designers for the first time.


Steph Nash was a staff writer at Money until 2017.
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