Fireside Chat With Marc van der Chijs: China’s UnitedStyles May Become Etsy of Fashion Design
Marc has been a valued friend of mine of many years since I was Director of 3i Venturelab INSEAD many years ago (his wife Grace is an INSEAD alumni as with Gary, founder of Tudou (also an INSEAD alumni) and Tudou was backed by Helen Wong formerly of GGV Capital (also of INSEAD). I have been observing his entrepreneurial accolades. Started with Tudou and now has a new promising venture named United Styles, which aims to turn fashion on its head. Cathy Tao (herself a talented entrepreneur), with her sharp and acute questions, explains more below. Yinglan
By Cathy Tao
What could be every woman’s worst nightmare? How about going to a cocktail party, private reception, or charity gala where you plan to network and impress and being one of two in the room wearing the exact same dress from probably the same mass retailer? This is not a far-fetched statement: Many women shun social gatherings important for them to attend because they don’t have anything suitable to wear. They can’t afford clothing with the exclusive, eye-catching flair befitting of the occasion, and they don’t have well-heeled, fashion conscious friends to borrow haute couture from.
One way of wearing something with a custom look and feel would be to make it yourself. But what if you haven’t enrolled in fashion design school yet, have never threaded a needle, and don’t know what a sewing machine looks like? Wouldn’t it be great if you could design your own flattering piece of clothing online with no prior training and have it custom made and shipped anywhere in the world at an affordable price? With talent, you could even build a business around this and sell your creations to friends and customers worldwide, leaving the fabric sourcing, cutting, and sewing to professionals. China’s UnitedStyles.com offers this online DIY fashion design approach, allowing women to buck the mass-produced clothing herd and unleash their inner fashionista.
I stumbled upon the relatively new UnitedStyles site some time ago and immediately noticed its market-changing potential, mentally bookmarking it for future reference. Apparently I am not alone as Fast Company magazine just named UnitedStyles to its Top 10 – China list, ranking it the third most innovative company from China (after Tencent and Greenbox). The Shanghai startup was founded by four forward-thinking Europeans, fashion industry veteran Xander Slager, serial Internet entrepreneur Marc van der Chijs, programmer-entrepreneur Joop Dorresteijn, and consumer psychologist Dick Lorré. Marc is better known for his role as the co-founder of Tudou.com, the popular Chinese online video site, which recently announced a $1 billion merger agreement with its larger rival Youku.com to form China’s leading online video company. I did the Fireside Chat below with Marc to find out more about UnitedStyles, his latest venture, and his experiences as a foreign entrepreneur (Marc is Dutch) building businesses in China.
CT: You co-founded the Chinese video sharing site Tudou.com. UnitedStyles.com is quite a different type of business from Tudou. What motivated you to start UnitedStyles, and how has your experience with Tudou helped you with creating and building UnitedStyles?
MVDC: I like to create a new business that can disrupt a whole industry. Tudou did that for the way people watch TV and films in China, and I think UnitedStyles might also be able to do this for the global fashion industry. I founded several companies over the past 10 years and that certainly helps when you start a new one. A lot of problems that you encounter you have seen already before, so it’s easier to deal with them (raising money, HR issues, bootstrapping a business or not etc.).
CT: In a nutshell, could you explain what UnitedStyles offers fashion consumers?
MVDC: UnitedStyles offers fashion consumers that chance to design their own fashion (without any prior design or fashion knowledge), see the result in 3D, and then buy the real garment. In the next step you can even sell your own designs to other customers. We plan to become the “Etsy of Fashion Design.”
CT: From viewing your site, it appears that garments are made one at a time. Can you explain the process of making the garment from the time a customer places an online order?
MVDC: Once the customer orders a product, our production department automatically gets the pattern of the product that was designed. They then get in touch with the customer to discuss the sizing, e.g. by asking what size she buys from H&M or Zara, and what she would like to change normally if that would be possible (like “my sleeves are always too long”). Then the pattern will be adjusted and at the same time the colors and prints that the customer ordered are being printed at a special inkjet printer. Once the printed fabric is ready, the patterns are cut out from the fabric and our employees then stitch the actual garment. After doing a quality check, the product is packaged nicely and sent to the customer by courier service.
CT: I see UnitedStyles as part of the growing DIY or Maker Movement. A new personal manufacturing industry is being born, and technology is rapidly empowering the physical manifestation of individual creative potential that was previously unfeasible. Can you tell us more about the type of printer that creates the prints and colors on fabric once a customer places an order? Is it a type of 3D printer? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using this printer versus pre-printed fabric? Is the printing technology green or environmentally friendly?
MVDC: It’s not a 3D printer but an inkjet printer. These printers can print every color you can imagine on all kinds of fabric (you may need to pre-treat the fabric in order to get a good result). It works similar to a normal inkjet printer, although the fabric ones are much bigger (about 2 meters wide) and use a roll of fabric instead of pieces of paper. The biggest advantage is that you don’t need an inventory of different materials anymore, so it’s a much more capital efficient business model. Next to that you can print every color and every combination. With pre-printed fabric that’s often impossible. And not unimportantly, the technology is much greener than any other fabric dyeing method. There is no waste of material nor of ink. We only use the exact volume of ink that we need and nothing ends up in waste water.
CT: I recently interviewed Vivek Wadhwa for a Fireside Chat. He mentioned 3D printing as one of the exponential technologies that would solve humanity’s grand challenges, and also that many of the next billion dollar businesses would be built around the intersection of these exponential technologies. What do you think is the potential of 3D printing within the next 5 to 10 years?
MVDC: I believe that 3D printing will change the world, because it lets people design their own products and make them themselves whenever they need or want to have the product. 3D printers are still quite expensive, but prices are coming down fast. I am not sure if this revolution will take place in the next 5 years but I can imagine that most people will have access to a 3D printer a decade from now. This kind of printing allows complete personalization and customization, something that would not have been possible just a few years ago.
CT: You are of Dutch origin. What made you decide to base the operations of UnitedStyles in China? Are all management decisions made out of the China office?
MVDC: I have been living in China for the past 12 years, and that’s why I started the company here. So far, all the co-founders work from our Shanghai office, so all decisions are made here.
CT: What are some of the advantages and pitfalls of running a business like UnitedStyles in China?
MVDC: The main advantage is the cost of labor in China, which is still quite low. But there are a lot of disadvantages as well, especially once you start growing or if you need specific talents that are hard to find in China (like fashion designers with experience outside China). We also see that it’s getting harder to get visas for foreign employees. But the biggest problem is the Internet in China. Because of the Great Firewall we often have problems reaching our servers that are located outside China. We also need to use VPNs constantly in order to work with unitedstyles.com because of our Facebook and YouTube integration: both sites are blocked in China, so they make us extremely slow in China. For that reason we do not focus on the Chinese market at all.
CT: You have become an extremely successful non-Chinese entrepreneur in China, where even many of the locally born and bred fail. Do you have any advice for all the entrepreneurs out there of non-Chinese origin who would like to experience entrepreneurial success in China?
MVDC: The main advice I always give is to get a good Chinese partner. As a non-Chinese it’s virtually impossible to become successful on your own. Next to that I advise everybody to first spend 2-3 years working in China to build your network and understand the market before setting up your own business. The market is extremely competitive, much more competitive than for example Silicon Valley or Europe, and that means you have to be that as well. You have no chance if you just want to work 50-60 hours per week and take weekends off, like I sometimes see around me. Your Chinese competitors will totally crush you.
CT: What are some of the future plans for UnitedStyles? I think many women would love to see more classically tailored work clothing using high quality textiles available from your site similar to the lines made by the hugely popular designers Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, and Giorgio Armani, which many women covet and find unaffordable. It would be great if we could buy custom-made clothing from Unitedstyles at affordable prices that looks and feels like the high-end designer career clothing found in department stores like Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman, and Neiman Marcus. Any chance this will happen?
MVDC: Yes, we will indeed add more high-end garments and more garments that are inspired by (but not copies of) lines made by popular designers. But we first need to build a bigger user base before we can do that. We will also expand beyond women’s wear, for example kids clothing or sportswear. But most important is that people can soon start designing their own garments and collections and sell these on the site to other customers. We will transform from a place where you can design and buy your own fashion, to a place where you can design and sell. I think once we get that off the ground we may be able to completely change the fashion industry.
Cathy Tao is a contributor to Chinnovate.com and editor of its “Fireside Chat” series of interviews with venture capitalists, startup founders, innovation leaders, and influential individuals. She is the co-founder of TourBoarding.com, the Shanghai based “Teach Language, Tour Free” travel barter site utilizing language fluency as a form of travel currency, and is regarded as a pioneer in the paradigm-altering sharing economy.
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