Last year, Wanelo, the social shopping platform for young females everywhere, announced that they entered into a strategic partnership with the 100 year-old high-end department store chain Nordstrom. As part of the partnership, Nordstrom began integrating Wanelo trending products onto wall displays in select physical locations nationwide, as well as in a dedicated section of its corporate website.
Wanelo, which currently hosts over 350,000 stores and over 20 million products for a thriving young audience, is the perfect example of how an innovative corporation can partner with a quickly growing startup to create a better mutual solution for both parties' customers.
At RocketSpace, we help corporate brands and startups bring the future to market. Wanelo and Nordstrom is a prime example of an open innovation partnership, so we got in touch with Whitney Sales, the head of partnerships at Wanelo, to chat about their partnership story and experience working with corporate partners like Nordstrom.
RocketSpace's Interview with Whitney Sales
Patrick Liu: How did the idea behind this partnership happen? Can you describe how your relationship came to be?
Whitney Sales: Wanelo has been in a rapid growth state for a while, and as users are growing, the traffic that our top brands are seeing is growing too. In late 2013, Wanelo popped up on Nordstrom’s radar due to the noticeable amount of traffic and sales we were driving to their site. At the time, they had around 600,000 followers on the platform and they now have over 1.4 million followers, which is Nordstrom’s fastest growing social media presence.
Nordstrom is a brand that has always been innovative in how they’ve approached the retail experience. When we first sat down with their team to discuss how Wanelo worked and the problems we were looking to solve in the retail space, they immediately recognized the opportunity. We’ve been working closely with their team ever since.
PL: Can you briefly describe the nature of your partnership with Nordstrom?
WS: Nordstrom is a model citizen on the platform. They continue to come up with new ways to provide value to their followers on Wanelo, and their team is fantastic at bringing new ideas to the table and then trying them out with us.
We started meeting bi-weekly with their team to discuss upcoming strategic initiatives and how we can help each other, and the partnership has allowed me to build a friendship with the Nordstrom team. We know each other as people, and we are able to get a lot done because of this. Building trust is super important.
PL: What opportunity was available in the market, and why did it make sense to partner?
WS: As more and more people are starting to shop online and on mobile, there is a major transformation happening in retail. The millennial generation spends over an hour on social networks every day, but traditional social networks haven’t succeeded in driving meaningful conversions for brands. Wanelo bridges the gap between social and ecommerce.
Another thing is that retailers are great at retail, but their technology-adoption hasn’t caught up with how the consumer wants to shop. This is where Wanelo excels. We help our partners capture an audience that has become uninterested in the traditional ways of shopping, which is one of the reasons why we’ve become the most meaningful social network for retailers.
When you look at how important Wanelo has become for retailers big and small, it’s clear there was a niche that needed to be filled. I talk to some of our small and medium-sized retailers, and I’ve heard repeatedly that we are their largest traffic drivers and that they wouldn’t be where they are today without us. That means a lot to us and validates that we’re onto something big.
PL: What attracted Wanelo to working with a corporate like Nordstrom?
WS: As a startup, we are very focused on how we invest our resources. When our goal is to innovate and evangelize a market, brands like Nordstrom lend a lot of credibility to our brand. However, agility as a startup is one of our greatest assets, and we believe the right partner for us is one who can do this on their end as well. Nordstrom, Urban Outfitters and other similar brands are great examples of more established companies who are eager to strategize and try new approaches with us that others might even call “unproven.” They care about their customer and how they shop, so in this way, the relationship is very much two-sided. We are always thinking about how we can help each other.
PL: How has the partnership gone up to this point, and were there any roadblocks along the way?
WS: It’s important to recognize that even as partners, we’re not always able to capitalize on every opportunity presented. However, there is an ongoing mutual understanding that we want to work together, so everything else grows organically from there.
PL: Ultimately, what did you learn in working with a corporate partner like Nordstrom?
WS: We have many corporate partners in addition to Nordstrom, such as Amazon and Ebay, who are pretty large players with millions of SKUs. Working with these corporations teaches you a lot about the motivations and thought processes that got these companies to where they are today. It gives a smaller company like ourselves the opportunity to understand the perspective of the innovators in the traditional retail space and build on their learnings.
Whitney's Advice on Startup-corporate Partnerships
PL: From your experience, what would make a good corporate partner? How about a bad one?
WS: For Wanelo, a good corporate partner is a brand who realizes what it’s like to be a startup and can think like a startup, while still maintaining the resources and stability of a large corporation. Partners must be willing to teach, share and learn from one another. They need to be advocates for each other - get behind each other and stand in each other’s corner. Our brands recognize the opportunity Wanelo offers and are willing to put their names behind us. They are worth their weight in gold.
Partners like Nordstrom and Urban Outfitters are phenomenal to work with. They are our early adopters and openly provide feedback and data with us about what’s working and what’s not. This has allowed us to validate who we are and how we play in the market, which has in turn helped us grow and innovate at a rapid pace.
As far as bad corporate partners go, our founder and CEO Deena Varshavskaya has a saying “We don’t engage in terrorists” (meaning large corporations that tend to bully smaller, “unproven” companies like us). Brands who are stuck in their ways or want to use their size as reasoning for holding power in a situation are not the corporate partners we work with. The brands who aren’t willing to try something new and don’t participate in mutual growth will be left behind.
Something similar actually happened in the publishing space with Twitter. The large publishing houses that weren’t willing to get involved really missed out on a large opportunity and had to play catch up - they’re on defense instead of offense in creating their future. Whether retailers admit it or not, the same thing is happening in the retail space.
Even now, I have large retailers trying to get involved with Wanelo who are resistant to change and shifting resources. Because of that, we won’t prioritize working with them and for them, it’s a missed opportunity. So much could be gained by doing things differently and trying something new.
PL: What is the benefit of a startup partnering with a corporate? Vice-Versa?
WS: Our partnerships are very much a two way street.
We are incredibly agile as a startup and we have a lot of opportunity to innovate in a space that is slow moving. If we look at the mobile world, the average lifespan of a mobile app is 23 days, and 90 per cent of most apps are used once and then deleted. Most retailers we speak with are on 30-day sprints or longer. They can’t actually develop and iterate fast enough to change their app before consumers delete it.
There is a big opportunity for retailers to learn how startups like Wanelo innovate and engage their users. Like large companies, Wanelo makes changes to the platform based on A/B tests and data, but we can design and innovate a lot faster because we don’t have legacy technology we are building on top of. We can teach brands a lot about front-end and back-end design, user experience and the types of things that will engage their users.
Though a large part of the Wanelo team’s DNA is in retail, there are still a lot of us who are technologists with no retail background. Looking at that, we have a lot to learn from leading retailers who have excelled in driving commerce. These brands have taught us a tremendous amount about how to think about their consumers and what motivates the retail market.
PL: Given your successful experience, what is the one thing both corporates and startups should remember when pursuing a potential partnership with each other?
WS: For startups like us, it’s about thinking big when you’re still small. We’re still a growing brand, so the partners we choose are helping us shape and define who we are both to the public and as a product.
As a startup, your large partners become your legacy and brand. The categories and terms used to define your partners will be associated with you. The speed at which your partners adopt new technology and innovate may be the speed at which you can feed your technology to the market. It’s amazing when your first big partner says ‘yes,’ but when you believe in what you’re doing, you know that won’t be the only ‘yes’ you receive.
Whether you work for a corporation or a startup, it’s important to be thoughtful about who you take on as partners. Your partners reflect your company. They are your advocates. They take time, nurturing and resources to build and grow. If you choose the wrong partners, that’s a lot of missed time and opportunity you could’ve been spending elsewhere.
A partnership also needs to be a two-way street, where both parties recognize the opportunity to learn and grow together. But as a startup, it’s always important to recognize what we can do for large corporations who can’t necessarily move at our pace.
PL: Is there anything else you would like to share?
WS: I have a hard time talking about key partners without talking about Urban Outfitters. They were one of the first brands on the platform and are consistently launch partners with us. They were one of the first brands to launch the Wanelo Button and the first to launch it on mobile. Since adding the Wanelo button, Urban Outfitters has seen a 40 per cent increase in product saves and 20 per cent increase in Wanelo-driven sales, and traffic from Wanelo converts four times higher than any other social network.
Urban Outfitters also was one of our early launch partners for “Buy on Wanelo” in November 2014, where we started allowing users to purchase items directly on Wanelo without being redirected to the retailer’s site. Last summer when Urban Outfitters found out we were running a beta test for “Buy on Wanelo,” we received an email from their team asking how they could be included. They are innovators and thought-leaders in the retail space and have been fantastic to work with.
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