We all know the feeling—the pure joy that comes from nabbing that killer one-of-a kind piece from an ubber chic boutique. Whether from the streets of New York, the hills of LA or (if you’re really lucky) directly from a stylish European hole-in-the-wall, this type of niche shopping is an activity coveted by most, but often enjoyed by few. Happily, where once boutique buying was restricted to those able to travel or live in exclusive neighborhoods, e-commerce website Shoptiques.com and its founder and CEO, Olga Vidisheva, have managed to change the game entirely—all by bringing the exclusive market of boutique wares to the convenience of an online platform.
It all started with a pair of shoes in the fashion capital of the world—Paris. Enamored with the unique charm of a French shop and elated with the purchase of “the most perfect pair of designer shoes,” Olga, 28, began to wonder why, in the 21st century, you couldn’t find similarly exclusive items online. Inspired and filled with new passion, Olga devised a plan that eventually gave way to the launch of Shoptiques.
Now, thanks to Olga, shoppers anywhere in the world can peruse and purchase hard-to-find pieces without the hassle and expense of actually visiting the shops in person. The site allows anyone access to the vibrant, ever-changing global fashion market, something Olga only dreamed about as a child growing up in the USSR. It all boils down to a vision, throwing nerves out the window and never once doubting success. Read the full story below
Her Starting Point
Many people find the transition between college and “real life” a bit daunting. Can you tell us about your journey between the two? What was your first job post-college?
For me, college always had an element of “real life.” Having moved here at the age of 17, I started supporting myself around the time I went to school and paid for college by modeling. This required my life to be pretty organized, so that I could balance school work at Wellesley and doing my modeling gigs. I do remember many fashion shows when I was getting my hair done while studying for my math tests. It prepared me really well to be able to balance many aspects of the “real world” upon graduation.
My first job post-college was as an Investment Banker at Goldman Sachs in the Technology, Media and Telecom group. Because I’d interned there the summer between my junior and senior years, I knew what I was getting myself into. I loved the experience working at Goldman Sachs. Despite the hours the job required, I was driven by the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount and the responsibility someone right out of college could take on. It was a bit of a wake up call though, going from college life where you do have free time and full control of your schedule to working long hours and having no time for your personal life. I pretty much worked 24/7, so it was then that I learned the ease and beauty of online shopping. I was buying everything online—suits for work, bath essentials and even food. I was a huge online shopper and was constantly frustrated that I wasn’t able to shop unique boutique clothing online as well. Hence, the creation of Shoptiques.com!
When did your passion for retail and shopping first begin, and what first steps did you take in order to establish yourself as a pro?
For me, clothing has always been about hope and represented the chance for both self-expression and a better economic situation. As a young girl in the USSR, I was drawn to fashion images abroad. This was in stark contrast to women who were forced to wear uniform-like clothes in Soviet Union.
Since I was a little girl, I would make new outfits by cutting and sewing old clothing, all the while hoping to one day express my personality through more individualized style. While the neighborhood boys had posters of sports heroes, such as Michael Jordan and Vladislav Tretyak, my room had small, faded pictures of designers like Coco Chanel and Vyacheslav Zaitsev. Then, during my college days, I was presented with an opportunity to model, which proved to be an incredible experience and enabled me to learn a lot about the industry.
After finishing my first year at Harvard Business School, I was still very interested in exploring a career in retail and was accepted to intern at Chanel in their Fragrance and Fashion divisions. This enabled me to learn the business over the course of 12 weeks, from marketing to strategy to operations. After finishing my internship at Chanel that summer, I spent the following year at HBS, exploring opportunities for Shoptiques and analyzing the market.
You interned at Chanel before starting Shoptiques.com! We’re dying to know—What was it like to work at Chanel?
It was incredible! I loved the people I worked with—they were very smart and great individuals! All of the employees love the brand and are working there because of their tremendous drive to make the company better and bigger. That created a wonderful culture to be a part of.
How has your college degree prepared you for your current endeavors? Do you recommend that people interested in starting a business embark on a streamlined path or explore a little more?
It's going to sound cliché, but ever since stepping foot on Wellesley grounds, I knew the school was for me. Everyone was supportive, encouraging and empowering. Wellesley makes you believe in yourself and your own abilities, whether you want to be the best mom, CEO or philanthropist.
So that belief in myself and my ability to shape an industry is what helped me found Shoptiques.com. Shoptiques came from a personal pain-point: I was surprised that in the 21st century after visiting a Parisian boutique (and getting the coolest pair of shoes there), I couldn't shop there again via the Internet.
To me, it is vital to graduate from college; it enables you to have worldly exposure, a baseline of knowledge and to develop analytical abilities that are required not only to be an entrepreneur, but for many other life decisions. This is not to say that if you have an incredible idea that you can’t pursue it during college or take a semester off. I don’t think there are rules anymore in what path you need to take to get anywhere. Sheryl Sandberg said it best: “Careers are a jungle gym, not a ladder.”
When did you first spark the idea for Shoptiques.com? How long did it take to make your vision a reality? What role did your education play?
It all started with a shoe in Paris…
Walking down the streets of Paris, you can’t help but be fascinated by the fashion, architecture, style and boutiques! That was really my first exposure—at a tiny boutique with the friendliest, most stylish owner. It was years ago, but I remember stumbling upon it as if it was yesterday—and once the owner pointed out a pair of shoes by Phoebe Cham Pour Schu, I knew I couldn’t leave empty-handed! Sitting in their beautiful box with a handcrafted bow, they became the perfect memory to take from Paris.
Upon my return, all of my friends wanted these shoes. Unfortunately, the boutique owner wasn’t receptive to commerce over the phone, insisting that my friends fly to Paris to get the shoes. I was shocked that, in the 21st century, my friends weren’t able to get shoes from Paris via long-distance shopping. I knew I needed to change that!
While attending Harvard Business School, my girlfriends and I would drive to New York almost every weekend to go boutique shopping in Soho or Lower East Side. Again, I was shocked that we had to drive four hours to find these items and couldn’t just purchase them online.
This is how the idea for Shoptiques.com came about—how could we grant women immediate access to the most stylish boutiques and bring them the same intimate experience and curated pieces online.
What was the process of starting your business like? How did you handle things like marketing, production, PR in the beginning? Have those things changed since starting the company?
The process was scary! You are starting something from scratch—there is absolutely nothing and you have to create something! But it was definitely fun. After I wrote my business plan at HBS, I had a pretty good idea of where to start and what I wanted to accomplish. I kept a strict calendar of what I wanted to accomplish each day, week and month prior to launch and I kept myself accountable.
When you are starting a company, and you are the one and only employee, you need to make sure you juggle everything. On one side, I needed to secure supply, which meant attracting the first 25 boutiques to join Shoptiques Private beta—I went store to store in NYC sharing my vision for the company with boutique owners. We launched the beta site with 25 incredible stores that I am so grateful to for taking the risk.
I also had to secure demand—to me that meant press. I met an incredible journalist from Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) a couple of months before the launch who loved the idea. Simultaneously, I needed to make sure we had a site built, so I employed a team abroad to work on that.
Things definitely evolved because I have an incredible team now and we work together to make Shoptiques a one-of-a-kind destination for the best local boutiques.
It must have been nerve-wracking to draw up that first business plan. What were the biggest challenges when you first started out?
Definitely nerve-wracking! I had the advantage of writing and
thinking through ideas during my second year at Business School. This allowed me to have time to really do my research, think through the idea and have advisors who were so helpful. I feel very lucky to have had that time and the research I’ve done speaking to over 800 stores that year is the basis for the success of Shoptiques today.
How did you approach looking for boutiques to partner with your site?
By literally walking door to door and sharing my vision for the idea! I didn’t even have a site to show them, so it was all about getting the boutiques excited and helping them see what it was going to be.
Her Big Break
Although everyone has heard the job title CEO, only a few know exactly what the position entails. Could you give us a brief overview?
I am sure many people define this differently, but here is what the position means to me. I usually break it down into three separate, yet very much connected, baskets:
1. Big Vision: CEO sets the vision and the overall strategy of the business. CEO is responsible for communicating that vision to the rest of the company and setting the culture to execute on the vision. CEO often communicates that vision to investors (public or private) and outside press. CEO is responsible for achieving the plan set by the vision.
2. Problem-Solver/Doer: To me, a CEO is a doer. CEO needs to be the change he/she wants to see in the organization. It is important that the CEO isn’t removed from the day to day. I often respond to customer calls, speak to our boutiques and work on merchandising the site. I understand each role in the company and how to hire for that role because I’ve done it myself before.
3. Set Culture & Hire Leaders: CEO cannot do it all himself/herself. If he/she tells you the opposite, don’t join that company. CEOs role is to find and inspire leaders who will want to take on the responsibility of building the company. Shoptiques wouldn’t exist without our incredible team. The right culture will attract the right team.
How did you learn the ins and outs of running an e-commerce website? How is running a digital site different from running a brick and mortar storefront?
All through questioning the status quo. The world is evolving every single day and running an e-commerce website two years ago was very different than it is today. You need to adapt to change and the number one way to do this is to listen to your customers and build what people want. I am also incredibly lucky to have mentors who have experience in the space and are always there with advice and guidance.
Running a brick and mortar store is such a different business. The products that sell best online might be different than the ones in store. You have so much data online that you absolutely need to utilize successfully, which you don’t get in a brick and mortar environment. The two businesses are very different and that is why it is so important that Shoptiques exists to help small retailers tackle the online world!
How do you stay organized? What tools/resources do you utilize (ie. iPhone, apps, etc.)? What skills are essential to do your job well?
I separate my week into days where I have internal meetings with my team, days when I just do work and some that are only for external calls/meetings. Those days are painful because they are back to back from 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., but this allows me to have other days of uninterrupted work when I get things done and can plan ahead to work on larger projects.
I also am a huge fan of meeting requests and making sure my calendar is up to date with what I need to get done. I love lists and utilize apps like Notability and old-fashioned pen and paper to organize my thoughts and to-dos.
Lastly, I spend two to three hours each night making sure my mailbox is up to date on urgent matters.
If we had the chance to peek at your schedule, what would an average day look like?
There’s definitely no typical day—It’s never boring! I am either in meetings/calls with potential stores, press, vendors, investors or potential candidates to hire, or in internal discussions with my team regarding new feature launches, the editorial calendar for the month ahead and new boutiques we would like to invite to join Shoptiques. I can also be just thinking—I always try to schedule time to think.
What are your strategies for remaining calm and focused in what can be a high-pressure position?
Staying focused is easy. Shoptiques is such an incredible company. We’re driving so much change to all of our incredible retailers (many say they would have gone out of business without us) and we help women look and feel beautiful—that enables us to stay focused. Shoptiques also has the most fascinating and wonderful people working together to achieve our vision, so I look forward to every single day coming to work—even weekends—to spend it with the incredible people I work with!
I also make sure that I exercise at least once a week—I do an intense workout called Barry’s Bootcamp and leave some time for just myself to think and relax.
Staying fresh and innovative in today’s fast-paced world can be a challenge. How do you stay creative and where do you look for inspiration?
My grandmother is definitely my inspiration. She always has been my hero in life and career. She went through World War II, has supported her whole family since she was 13 years old, ran all of the finances and accounting for the huge USSR bus company and, at 70, moved to the U.S. and learned English. She is one of the strongest people I know and, despite all of the hardship, is still the most positive and supportive person. She makes me believe everything is possible through hard work!
The way Shoptiquers stay innovative (including me) is by always questioning the status quo! Don’t assume that if something is done a certain way, it has to stay that same way. Question, wonder and create!
There has been a big increase in online boutique sites recently. How do you deal with comparisons and competition? What unique industry niche does Shoptiques.com fill?
For me, it would be hard to get excited about an industry where I am not making an impact or experiencing change. Shoptiques is innovative in its concept and execution. At the end of the day, we help small businesses have a global presence and bring their unique merchandise online—who else does that?
A great comparison to us is OpenTable and what they have done to enable customers to have access to an inventory of restaurant tables, or SeamlessWeb that enabled you to place orders in thousands of restaurants. This is what Shoptiques is doing—enabling customers to purchase unique goods from hundreds of small retailers all over the world! Before, you had to buy a plane ticket and fly to that city to buy—now you can ship it online straight from that Parisian boutique to your home.
Translating passion into a career is tough. What advice would you give to women trying to figure this out?
Dreaming takes discipline and hard work. You are the only one that can prioritize your dreams for yourself. Create your own path, be realistic about the path to get to your dream and go for it. You only have one life—what are you waiting for?
And finally, what do you wake up looking forward to? What’s next for your career?
I wake up every single day excited to go to work and be with my incredible team. They challenge me to be better, they teach me to be smarter and they share the passion I have for Shoptiques. What’s next? Bringing Shoptiques to millions of individuals all over the world!