Janet Wu is the co-founder and CEO of SilkRoll, a points-based exchange marketplace for high-end women’s fashion. Prior to starting SilkRoll, she was an ex-investment banker who cut her entrepreneurial teeth as CFO of One Earth Designs, a cleantech startup backed by Mark Cuban where she learned the importance of financial discipline & team cohesion.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CEO?
When SilkRoll started, there were only me, and my co-founder Erin on the team. When it’s your own company, and you are the captain of your ship, creating your vision for the future, so we both thought we should give ourselves titles that match who we are for the business and how we want future team members to relate to us. Based on our skills and preferences, I ended up being the CEO, and she became COO.
What is your definition of success?
Our mission has made a huge, worldwide impact on the pollution problem. We are here to improve the way people shop through creating a new exchange network. By providing our customers with a service that lets them easily share and discover fashion, we unlock valuable resources that were previously inaccessible. We actively support and work with partners who repurpose and recycle fashion that otherwise were going to end in the landfill.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Given we are a startup and in the fundraising process, we needed to figure out a way to handle processing 1000’s of garment processing a week — without paid staff. We went to the local college & offered internships…the payment… PAID IN CLOTHES. Students are lining up around the block for this internship & we have a waiting list for people to get in!!
Just this last week we moved to a warehouse that is 10x bigger to manage the expansion. When we installed the racks the pipes that were installed couldn’t carry the weight of all the clothes and they were drooping in the middle so we had to urgently run to the store to brace the racks before they cracked!
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
I’m not a technical person, and heading up a tech company without an engineer as a co-founder was very challenging. In the first year I worked with 5 different developers until I found one that could help us deliver the product from prototype to launch. This experience taught me a lot in what to look for in engineers and how to more effectively product and project manage. I’m proud to say we have now a new CTO on board who has both the experience and skill set to take SilkRoll to the next level.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We had a client take a $200 dress to Buffalo Exchange. She was offer $15 cash for it. SilkRoll gave her 200Qs and she bought a $200 Coach purse with the points.
We are the only fashion resale company that does not screw you over when you try to resell your clothes.
We created a digital currency called Qs. These are similar to airline points that you earn when you recirculate clothes. The points, match what you paid originally — you essentially use these points to exchange out for new fashion.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Setting up the NEW warehouse to handle 10x growth — we just moved into the space this week.
Can you tell us about the initiatives that your company is doing to become be more sustainable? Can you give an example for each?
We think that if you’re selling new clothes, you should be responsible for the global waste problem that ultimately gets created with every sale & production.
We’re aiming to set up partnerships with major brands to help them facilitate their “recirculation” of their customers garments.
This is called the Purple Bag Project. When a customer buys something new, the receive a bag from the vendor to recirculate something old.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
STOP the action when their performance starts to dip. There 100% is something going on with them. Either their point of view about the company is off or something is going on in their life. Work has to have safe communication where people don’t feel threatened for speaking up or about what they are dealing with. If you STOP the action, you can find out what is going on and address it or support them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
“1 year before I started SilkRoll I moved to Silicon Valley. The day after moving, I went for Sushi in Menlo Park. I walked through the restaurant staring at the interesting carpet pattern and I walked into a man. I apologized profusely for being clumsy & distracted.
“Don’t worry about it.”
A second later I made eye contact with the lady sitting at a table who witnessed the collision and I processed what just happened.
Outloud I said, “Wait was that…”
Finishing my sentence she said, “Yes! That was Mark Zuckerberg.”
I was sweating like crazy but I knew I wanted to say thank him for being an inspiration.
It took all the courage in the world for me to walk up to him and have a conversation, but he was GREAT with me.
From that moment forward, I knew I had the courage to get what I wanted in life. So I want to say — thanks Mark Zuckerburg for having a Sushi craving that night and for being awesome with me.
When the time came to quit my job & start my company, I remembered that moment and knew I had the courage to take the risk.” — Erin Wold, COO & Co-Founder
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We donate 1000’s of nice women’s garments to local charities every month!!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why?
a. You have to be a hard ass — constantly. Get used to saying the word NO.
b. Listening is a better way to get the team to produce results than telling the team what to do.
c. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.
d. Hire people that know how to do the things that you do not know how to do.
e. Employee’s ability to perform at the highest level is correlated to the well-being of their personal lives. I spend 25% of my time coaching people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Fashion is the 2nd largest industrial polluter (Forbes). The movement we are on is to end fast fashion production by creating a fun fashion exchange — new clothes by trading instead of shopping.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Without integrity, nothing works.
Because we value doing what you said you would do and holding people to account when they do not honor their word, we are a company that is growing very fast. We have a big mission and to make it happen we 100% have to value integrity and the team has to take responsibility for the downstream impact that occurs when we do not honor their promises.
For example, this summer we grew MUCH FASTER than we had accounted for. The interns were promised to work on valuable projects to develop their skills in their desired industry. We did not honor our word having them spend time on projects and the team had to spend a lot more time on operations. As a result, some people did not find the internship valuable and won’t be returning in the fall. Taking responsibility for this lack of integrity, we learned how to better forecast the expected work volume and are implementing measure for the team to “declare breakdowns” in a group forum so we can get on top of issues before people are left with that we don’t care. We bring people on to the team because they are connected to the mission and making sure we meet our promises is integral to forwarding that.