Welcome to BYOB: Be Your Own Boss, a feature series highlighting the stylish self-starters we love.
In today’s world of instant gratification and overnight fame, it’s rare that you’ll find someone who is detail-oriented enough to work on a product for years before launching it for public consumption – but that’s exactly what Chicago-based entreprenuer Farissa Knox did.
Farissa is no stranger to starting a company from the ground up, but her most recent venture, a fashion-focused social media platform, is new territory for her. What R U Wearing is a space for what Farissa describes as a specific “conversation” about personal style. I caught up with Farissa at her office to talk about the challenges that come with starting a digital company, her vision WRUW’s future and her completely relatable penchant for people-watching on public transportation.
Statement Scene: First of all, give me a bit of background. What were you doing before starting What R U Wearing?
Farissa Knox: My degree is in Communications and Marketing and when I finished school I was selling advertising. I did that for a number of years before the company I was working with went bankrupt. I’m from New York but they had moved me out here to Chicago with my then boyfriend, now husband.
I decided I didn’t want to just sit and wait with this bankrupt company and see who would come buy us or if I had to just find a job – so I decided to text a couple of my clients and see if they would keep using me if I kept servicing them from my house. They said yes; that was 2008 when I started my own company – it’s called RLM Media and we’re a media buying company. I think that was the spark that got me started in terms of being an entrepreneur and starting companies.
My passion has always been style and fashion, dressing up and really letting your outfit reflect how you feel that day. A couple of years after starting RLM, I decided ‘why isn’t there a web site that you can go to and see what everyone is wearing that day?’ Back then there weren’t so many personal style blogs; it was more like the Perez Hiltons of the world. You could see what Beyonce was wearing that day – that’s cool but it isn’t really attainable. I don’t have Beyoncé’s money or Beyonce’s stylist or any of those things. That’s really where the conception happened. I decided to put a site together where I could have people adding to it. I want to see what girls in Paris are wearing, what girls in New York are wearing; what girls in LA are wearing. Ohio, all over the place. I can just use that as inspiration. This was before Instagram was even alive. Twitter was just getting off the ground and Facebook was the place where everyone was.
SS: What was the process of getting started like?
FK: Being self-funded, it took me some time to get it off the ground and then get it to look attractive enough for people to use. Now people aren’t on their laptops posting pictures on Facebook, they’re on their phones. Now we’re at the place where we have our app, we have our site, we have really cool functions on both. We’re in a perfect spot right now to just let as many people know that we exist.
SS: When Twitter and Instagram came up were you thrown for a loop? Did you feel like you needed to do something different?
FK: It did influence the structure and the functionality of the site. It allowed me to structure the site in a way that users are able to like posts and comment and do all the things that we’re used to doing on social media. The difference is we’re having a specific conversation on what you’re wearing. On Facebook people are posting about everything, but with What R U Wearing we’re having a conversation about style and we’re saying ‘please join in.’
SS: What was the biggest difference between starting your first company and starting this one, which is so socially focused?
FK: The difference is so immense. It’s crazy. My first company’s clients are other businesses. My job was to get in there, figure out who makes the decision and impress one person. For What R U Wearing we need to attract the masses. It’s a much more difficult process of attracting users and potential investors. It’s a different methodology and thought process when you are relying on the consumers to like your product, use your product and continue to use and share your product.
SS: What was the most surprising thing about getting this business off the ground?
FK: I learned a ton – well, when I say I learned a ton I mean I don’t know how to program websites or write code or anything – but figuring out how difficult that process was, how much work goes into building a good web site. It’s not about just looking good, it also has to function well. I also learned how expensive that can be and how expensive it is to build an app and have it to be on par with what people are used to downloading on their iPhones. Just figuring out how to build a brand that focuses on building something that is totally based on the Internet is where our biggest surprises came from. The rest of it is good, it’s like running a company and I feel like I’m good at that.
SS: Now that you have things off the ground do you finally feel like you can relax a bit or are you always thinking of growth?
FK: We’re always thinking growth. Not from a greed point of view – it honestly is because today’s consumer gets bored really quickly. We want to keep the users that we have interested so we have to add new things and keep them excited about coming to What R U Wearing every day. We’re thinking about adding more functions to the site, adding a retail page – our sweatshirts have taken off like crazy on Instagram. People love them. What I would like to do is just listen to what the users want.
SS: So it seems like you’re almost trying to make a cultural statement, especially with the #WRUW hashtag.
FK: Yeah. That question “what are you wearing?” is the number one question girls ask each other in all types of relationships. Your mother is going to ask that, you’re going to ask your girlfriend that, your sister is going to ask you that. For any event that you’re going to – whether it’s a wedding, a first date, meeting a boyfriend’s parents – the question is “what am I going to wear?” I think it’s already part of our culture and now we’re creating a space where people can ask that question.
SS: Do you think Chicago will always be WRUW’s hub? Do you hope you reach a point where you have offices all over?
FK: Chicago will always be our headquarters. Like I said, I’m from New York originally but Chicago has definitely become my home. I love it here. There’s really no reason to take What R U Wearing anywhere else from a headquarters point of view. If we do get so big that we need physical people in other cities, those will be the sub-sister offices to the main Chicago offices. But that would be a great problem to have one day.
SS: Where do you look for inspiration?
FK: I personally love to people watch. Some days when I take the bus I sit in that front row and pretend I’m at the front row of a fashion show and just watch people walk by. That sounds crazy when I say it out loud but it’s true, especially in the morning. Coming from Lakeview into the city, I love watching the girls in their outfits. When it gets nice out they really put effort into their outfits for the office. I love to see how people are taking what they see in magazines or on blogs and doing it in their own lives. Also just stuff that I find. I find pieces and just sort of build around them. And now Instagram. Instagram is like people watching online and I hope What R U Wearing becomes like that.
SS: It’s great because with What R U Wearing you won’t have to sift though all the food pictures and selfies to find outfit inspiration.
FK: Exactly. I think that might the future of social media – we started with these mega-platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where everyone goes to talk about everything. This next level will be places for people to go to have specific conversations. We’ll be the fashion/style hub that’s normal, not the high-end version. There will be a place for a conversation about the latest Louis Vuitton bag but that’s not What R U Wearing.
SS: What’s been the most rewarding thing about starting this particular company?
FK: I think that just seeing the influence that we could have one day. What inspires me the most about What R U Wearing is where it could be one day, if that makes sense. I see where it started – a pen and piece of paper in my bedroom, to where we were a year ago, to where we are today. What inspires me to keep going is that it hasn’t even come to a standstill.
SS: Did you always see yourself as a person who would start something or did you just decide to go for it one day?
FK: I never knew that I was going to own my own companies. That was never the dream. I think the dream was to be successful doing something I really loved and enjoyed. I figured out along the way what I love and enjoy. The ideas come to me from trying my best to tap into what the majority of people want. And who knows how long it would have taken me to make this professional leap if I felt like I had a stable job? It was the fear of other people having control over my career vs and me me having control over my career and I chose me.
SS: It’s so true. Sometimes a tough situation is exactly what you need to push you to do something else.
FK: Exactly. You learn a lesson and you make a leap and sometimes it’s worth it and sometimes it’s not. It’s worth taking a risk.
SS: You said that it took you three years to get you business off the ground. How did you stay patient?
FK: It’s very hard. I’ll just be honest. You come across setbacks and not just financial setbacks. We got hacked really early on. One day I went on the site just to see if we had any new activity and there was just a black screen that said ‘you have been hacked’ with all this crazy music playing in the background. People are out there all across the world who are doing that just for fun. I had already paid for a web site and while it wasn’t the perfect version, it was close. You just have to brush yourself off and say ‘okay, we’re better off for it because imagine if we had already had thousands of users and then we got hacked and lost the confidence of all the people we had to work so hard to gain.’
It’s hard but I would just say don’t give up. The difference between successful people and those who want to be successful is this: The successful people don’t stop. We just keep going and we remove the roadblocks. There’s no roadblock that’s completely unmovable. You just have to figure out how to do it and who you need help from. Don’t give up. That’s the key.