Network without an agenda. Networking has become a tainted word that I used to associate with shaking hands of people I only need to speak to because they may know someone I need to get in front of. Think of networking as building relationships and not about what you can get out of it. Instead, try to make a point to help someone fill their agenda at each networking event you attend. When the focus is not on you, you’re able to connect with individuals in a deeper sense and from that, build valuable relationships.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Phillips, the CEO and co-founder of the Boston-based retail technology startup, Qatch.
Nicole has her J.D./LL.M. in fashion law and practiced as a litigation attorney before studying the business and legal side of retail. Upon completion of her fashion law LL.M. from Fordham School of Law, Nicole deciding to start Qatch with her co-founder and sister, Raquel Phillips. Nicole is a member of the New York City Bar Fashion Law Committee and first-time founder.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was shopping for a wedding dress and called one boutique who asked me a few questions about my style preferences. I only had a 45 minute appointment and knew there was no way I would walk out with a dress because it takes me over an hour to browse for a white button down online. When I arrived, I was presented with a handful of options to choose from, so no browsing required. I picked the ones I liked, dismissed the ones I hated, and the associate brought out a few more options based on my favorites that I might like. In 45 minutes I walked out with a dress I loved and it was the best shopping experience I ever had. Why? Because I wasn’t overwhelmed and I felt that my opinion was heard, making my decision very easy. I told this story to my sister, Raquel, who told me about her recent frustration with online shopping and we both agreed that finding your wedding dress should not be a more convenient experience than shopping online for a blouse. So we set out to build that convenient experience for everyday clothing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There is no shortage of interesting stories when building a startup. One story that sticks out to me is when my sister and I were approached by an investor very early on who wanted to make an investment. We were so excited by the idea that we spent all of our time prepping for a pitch and practicing how to answer tough questions, that we forgot to think about what we wanted from an investor. Once we took a step back and started asking those questions, we quickly realized it was not a good fit for what we were looking for and we passed on the investment. It’s hard to turn down money, but at the end of the day, taking on investors is like a marriage and you want to be sure it’s a great match.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We decided to launch a rewards-based crowdfunding campaign to get our idea out there and raise some money. What my sister and I did not know, however, was that crowdfunding is a full-time job, it requires a lot of marketing strategy (and marketing dollars), and there is a lot of psychology behind when people are willing to donate to a campaign depending on how close you are to your goal. Our campaign fell extremely short to what we hoped to raise since we thought we could just put up a video and donors would come! It was a good lesson on understanding the importance of a marketing strategy and doing your research before jumping into a new marketing plan.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe there are two things that make Qatch stand out. The first is that we truly put the consumer first. Every feature we build is to enhance how our users shop online. We give them a voice to share their gut reactions to recommendations as they see them — similar to how you would interact with a post on Facebook or a picture on Instagram — in order to learn what that individual user wants without them having to expressly tell us. The second thing is that we are our target customer. My co-founder and I grew up with the same experiences as those who we are targeting, we shop alongside our own users and we understand what they want to see and what they will expect in the future. A lot of retail technology companies are being run by veterans who have decades of experience in the retail space, but that’s the problem… retail is not what it was and it will never be that again. We are in the trenches with our users while we build this and we are only looking forwards, not backwards.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be the role model. Don’t be afraid to show your team that you’ve made mistakes and if you expect something of your employees, be sure that it’s something you expect of yourself as well.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
As a female leader, your goal should be to inspire your team and create an atmosphere where everyone’s opinions are safe, heard, and expected. Instilling confidence in your workforce so that they feel comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas with you is so important because great ideas bloom when there are other great ideas in the room. You should also always remind your team why they are there — what that end goal is for your company and why everyone needs to participate in order to reach that goal.
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?
My co-founder and sister, Raquel. Raquel attended Babson College and was bred to be an entrepreneur so coming out of the legal profession, I really had no idea how to run a business. Raquel took a chance on this idea by quitting her corporate job at PwC to join me at Qatch and she has been there for me through all of the bad and all of the good. Having a co-founder is a great thing but it’s even better when they’re just as committed as you are.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Be aware of gender biases. Whether during a pitch to a group of all men or how you interact with a female employee, gender biases exist in everyone. We need to be conscious of those biases so as to not perpetuate them and to understand how they may affect us and our businesses.
- Fake it till you make it. Seriously. Confidence is one of the only things in life you can’t buy and if you don’t believe in what you’re building, how can you expect anyone else to?
- Find inspiration in a place that’s reliable. Whether it’s a favorite podcast about amazing entrepreneurial successes or visiting your favorite local museums, find inspiration in a place that you can always access when you need.
- Network without an agenda. Networking has become a tainted word that I used to associate with shaking hands of people I only need to speak to because they may know someone I need to get in front of. Think of networking as building relationships and not about what you can get out of it. Instead, try to make a point to help someone fill their agenda at each networking event you attend. When the focus is not on you, you’re able to connect with individuals in a deeper sense and from that, build valuable relationships.
- Go with your gut. As a leader, you will receive opinions from every direction and from individuals you trust and respect. At the end of the day, however, you have the final say and you know what is best for your business. Often times, you already know the answer. That’s why you are where you are!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Work smarter, not harder. In law school, my classmates would brag about arriving at the library before it opened and staying until close and working the whole time. Time equated knowledge in their minds. In my experience, however, the focus should be on getting to your goal in the most efficient way possible, which leaves some room (and time) each day to work towards your next goal. Afterall, as Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan, and not quite enough time.”
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Sara Blakley, who needs no introduction. I have been following Sara since before I even knew what an entrepreneur did because I was enamored by her transparency, kindness, and positive outlook on life. Understanding now just how hard being an entrepreneur is, I look up to Sara even more. She built an empire herself, without funding, without having attended a top business school, just by being gritting and not taking no for an answer. I hope to run Qatch with as much poise and tenacity as Sara has for Spanx!