Wise people often say that to expect little from life is to be eternally surprised and delighted when life throws you the good oil. I was reminded of this last week when I attended a VECCI Women in Business Luncheon. As a veteran of the real estate industry, I’m quite used to industry/union events being a mix of ‘you can do it’ messages trumped by a speech about superannuation or life insurance. Reader, I had one of the BEST TIMES at a networking luncheon I can remember. Held at the ultra-luxe Myer Mural Hall, a wide cross-section of business women were plied with nifty bubbles, delicious food and treated to the dulcet tones of Megan Quinn, one of the co-creators of Net-a-porter. Today’s Ruby Assembly (Iolanthe pictured above with Kyra of Pybus PR) blog documents the highly charismatic Megan’s words of wisdom.

VECCI Women In Business Luncheon: Networking made surprisingly fun and deluxe.

Watching Megan Quinn take the stage reinforced to me that although leadership techniques can be taught, true charisma and leadership are innate qualities. Eloquent and captivating to look at (ooh, her hair, her skin, her understated-yet-chic attire!), Megan Quinn reminds me of the power that self-confidence and intelligence holds over an audience. As we’ve always surmised – confidence and magnetism are half of ‘the pitch’ in any business. Raised by a businessman, it appears that innovation and measured risk-taking are part of Megan’s DNA. Her VECCI talk was an overview of Net-a-porter’s conception, developmental challenges and core values which lie at the heart of the brand’s robust business model. After all, Net-a-porter survived the dotcom boom and bust and continues to grow – thanks to their unique brands, global logistics capability and agile business model.

Net-a-porter was founded by Quinn and business partner Natalie Massenet in 1999. Prior to this, Quinn was well-known for her work in advertising with Mojo and had also began a domestic cleaning business (humorously named Partners in Grime). Supported by Megan’s then-husband Mark who had the initial tech-know-how, Massenet and Quinn set about brainstorming the future Net-a-Porter. In the late 1990’s e-commerce was existent, but was always couched in sites that were designed in a ‘male’ way. Luxury and visual pleasure had nothing to do with the online experience. Quinn and Massenet wanted to create a site that acknowledged the way women enjoy online content, which is more in the style of reading a magazine than frantically looking for information.

Instagram Much? With Kyra of Pybus PR, Angeline from Harare Mbama and Phoebe from Lady Melbourne.

It took some brainstorming to come up with the now-eponymous name, which they future-proofed by registering multiple variations of. Quinn and Massenet understood luxury and understood women – two qualities that differentiated the design of their online portal and store content. Megan said that they wanted to capture the ambiance and ‘special feeling’ that going shopping at Marni or Chanel would bring to the consumer – and that accessibility and inclusivity were paramount to this experience. In a way, Net-a-porter democratised high-end retail consumption.

Of course, there were some doubting Thomases (a little like me before attending the VECCI event). Some said that women wouldn’t pay exorbitant prices for handbags or products sight unseen, and were concerned about how returns policies might operate. It was initially a challenge to get luxury retailers onboard, and to educate them to view Net-a-porter as a safe online extension of their brand rather than a dilution of their hard-earned capital. Net-a-porter countered their concerns by creating an ‘editorial interface’, complimenting the brands they represented online. Massenet and Quinn wanted customers and media editors to consult Net-a-porter’s detailed designer profiles as a trusted reference point for high-end luxury fashion. In this way,  brands such as Anya Hindmarch and Clements Ribeiro came onboard and gave Net-a-porter the cache they needed to really take off.

Presentation was important in communicating the quality and luxury of the Net-a-porter experience. It was the only ‘real world’ touchpoint of consumers to the brand. Quinn reinforced how delivery was to be exceptional – intially using Net-a-porter ‘bellhops’ to deliver the immaculately wrapped boxes with hand-stitched rosettes. Similarly, Quinn and Massenet wanted their customers to enjoy a special experience when shopping online. After some searching, they happened upon a web development company that would listen to their ideas and take direction, producing a simple and clean (non-flash) website which ensured customers were only ever three clicks away from purchase.

When it came to staffing Net-a-porter, Quinn said they looked less for qualifications and more for collaborative team players. In a start-up enterprise, the rigidity of downwards hierarchy has no place. Megan finished her talk mentioning respect – respect for investors, customers and staff. Coming away from Quinn’s discussion, one really felt that respect and quality were two things core to both Quinn and Net-a-porter. Creating a sense of occasion for the customer, regularly looking at online commerce with fresh eyes and understanding your unique business attributes appear to be some of the factors that allowed Net-a-porter to so nimbly dodge pitfalls other online brands fell victim to.

Quinn finished her talk with a quote from Harry S. Truman which intimates the values behind the Net-a-porter startup  – ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit’.