Megan Quinn dropped out of university twice, refused to learn how to design on a computer, and felt the ecommerce space in the late 90’s was ugly. Interestingly, it’s the thinking behind these decisions which contributed to Megan’s success in co-founding the ecommerce juggernaut Net-a-Porter. She spoke to us about her career to date as a disruptive thinker.
I’ve always moved to the beat of my own drum. Once an interviewer said to me ‘gosh you must get really lonely because you think so differently’. I said ‘no, that’s the way I think. If I thought like everyone else then you wouldn’t be speaking to me in the first place’. I’m the sort of person who is motivated by someone throwing down the gauntlet. I started my first business, Partners in Grime because of a dare. In 1991, I was made redundant in the recession from my job at Mojo Advertising Agency. I went out to drinks with my Australian expat friends after that happened and all the boys were asking ‘what do you wanna be Quinney? You could be a prima ballerina, or a bikini model!’ I was laughing and then I started getting sick of the banter. Then one of the boys said you could be a char (a cleaning lady) and I replied that I could do anything. So the next day I registered the business name and paid someone £300 to teach me how to clean. I ended up employing a lot of those friends who also lost their jobs. I think starting a business in a recession is really smart. It makes you very keen with your burn rate, with how you utilise money and how you communicate your concept to new clients. You’re much more focused because there is much less money to go around. My goal was to be the best cleaning company in London. It wasn’t until Goldman Sachs offered me the commercial account for their building in Fleet Street that I realised everyone had gone back to their jobs and I was still cleaning. I should have stayed in the industry because it’s incredibly lucrative, but I didn’t want to be doing 24/7 cleaning, I’m a bit too creative for that.
In 1999, everyone was so excited about the potential of the internet, but I’m someone who has a high aesthetic and to me sites like eBay and Amazon looked butt ugly. At that time I was working at Vogue and we’d stop the print run if a diamond wasn’t looking luminescent enough or if the skin tone of a model wasn’t right. It was that dedication to perfection, and those elements of control available in advertising and publishing that you certainly didn’t have on the internet then. Everyone had different operating systems, there was no control over colour, there was a cacophony of fonts and it looked as though it was designed by skateboarding male teens which it was by and large because women didn’t work in technology at that stage. It was all so fluid and uncontrolled. I’ve never been interested in computers and designing on computers. I still sketch, I much prefer that. When I left Conde Nast, the CEO said to me ‘Angel, promise me you’ll learn how to use a computer, because your career will never go anywhere otherwise.’ I said no because I knew I’d end up behind a computer designing and that’s not where I wanted to be. The next thing I did was to co-found Net-a-Porter.
I came to realise that those sites didn’t resonate with me because they’re designed by men for men, and our site needed to be designed by women for women. When Natalie (Massenet, co-founder of Net-a-Porter) approached me about establishing an ecommerce platform, I went to a big internet cafe searching for good looking sites to draw inspiration from and I couldn’t find any. Then Natalie, myself, and (Megan’s now ex-husband) Mark were together trying to think of a name for the company. I was sitting opposite them watching them work on their computers and Natalie’s baby daughter was asleep in a basket on the floor. With the baby sleeping, I was cognisant of all the noise Mark was making clicking and typing on his computer. I wondered why Mark was making noise whilst Natalie was not. I realised then that men and women use the internet differently. Mark’s eyes were jumping across the screen and then his mouse was following afterwards, whilst Natalie’s eyes were gliding across the screen and the mouse was gliding at the same time. Men are quite erratic, they’re happy to jump all over the shop and love pulling things in from everywhere. So when I was designing Net-a-Porter I kept pulling everything off the site, cleaning it and paring it back. I took inspiration for the site from the sparseness of Japanese haiku because I couldn’t find any sites that I really loved, they were all very cluttered. It wasn’t possible to control colour (due to screen resolution) at the time so the site had to be black and white. This was a new medium so we needed to make it easy and intuitive. I wanted to design in a way that would respect the time of the women who would be using the site. I think that’s why it worked so well. It was so easy to navigate, It was so clear and calm and peaceful and chic that they felt at home and comfortable with it. It was the first ecommerce website to really go upmarket.
“All the boys were asking ‘what do you wanna be Quinney? You could be a prima ballerina, or a bikini model!’ I was laughing and then I started getting sick of the banter. Then one of the boys said you could be a char (a cleaning lady) and I replied that I could do anything. So the next day I registered the business name and paid someone £300 to teach me how to clean.”
Natalie was about to have a baby when we started Net-a-Porter and I fell pregnant not long afterwards. I had chronic morning sickness, so I was vomiting up to 24 times a day and Mark and I got married at that time as well, although we forgot to turn up to our first wedding. We were so busy and I was so pregnant and so sick during this frenetic internet boom and bust period which we had to capitalise on with the new site. We were trying to get designers, we were trying to build the site, we were trying to hire staff. I woke up one day and said to Mark ‘it’s somebody’s birthday today’, ‘it’s somebody’s wedding’ I must have said it ten times in that office that morning. Then I got a call from the Chelsea Registry office saying ‘you were meant to get married half an hour ago’ Natalie and (her now ex husband) Arnaud were our only guests because we had to go back to work. We didn’t even tell anyone that the wedding was planned, I didn’t have time to get a new outfit. Natalie got me flowers. My hairdresser came the night before and washed my hair in the kitchen sink, then we styled it with fake tan because I didn’t have anything else on hand to style it with. It was so frenetic because we were working until 10pm every night. We were just like ‘lets just do this and then get back to the office and launch the business’.
The four of us (Natalie and her ex-husband Arnaud, Megan and her ex-husband Mark) were very close. It was great for a long time, it was fantastic. But obviously with all of these exes..it wasn’t a great experience. I’d hasten to add that There are so many couples who work well together. For all the failures, it can work. Mark was the CFO and CTO, his job was cutting costs and everything I did as creative director, as chief of staff and as one of the senior buyers, cost money. He hated it, but I’d say it was necessary. For example, the packaging I designed was hugely expensive. That’s where my different thinking came in because if I had been thinking sensibly and commercially, we would have had flat packaging. It was a huge risk for a nascent business to have handmade rigid boxes and Japanese mokuba ribbon as well as Petersham bows and rosettes for every bag. However, I knew that we needed to stand out because we were expecting women to shop via their computers rather than having a gorgeous doorman at Gucci to welcome them or champagne in the Prada change room. We needed to give our clients something tangible. I also wanted customers to keep the boxes and have them as a subliminal reminder of the brand.
The challenging thing is as a female I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job at Net-a-Porter and I felt I wasn’t doing a good enough job as a mum. With hindsight I realised I was doing great at both. The time I wasn’t spending with them didn’t matter, it was the quality time I gave them. I’d get home between six and seven every night and I was on, ready for reading and bedtime. I was very much involved but there was still that guilt and the nagging question of ‘why am I having children if I can’t be with them?’ That was one of the reasons I chose to leave Net-a-Porter 2003. By then we’d proven the concept not only to ourselves but to our investors, the naysayers, the market. And most importantly all of the jobs were safe. My marriage was starting to crumble at the time and we weren’t together. There were also cracks showing in the business partnership. It was really a cacophony of factors which influenced my decision to leave the company.
“I wanted to design in a way that would respect the time of the women who would be using the site. I think that’s why it worked so well. It was so easy to navigate, It was so clear and calm and peaceful and chic that they felt at home and comfortable with it. It was the first ecommerce website to really go upmarket.”
Though I could have made a hell of a lot more money if I’d stayed, I’ve always chosen to protect my well-being and my children. It’s so much more important. Unfortunately I lost quite a bit of equity on my way out. People often ask me if regret my decision, but I have never lost any sleep over it. I’ve got my girls and we’ve made a beautiful life for ourselves. I was the first major shareholder to sell my shares in 2010. I thought enough! and I decided to draw a line. We had our beautiful home and I’d taken 8 years off to take care of my girls which was a privilege. It’s tough being a mum and I feel so privileged to have had the choice to do that and equally, I feel very grateful for the option to start working again. I think I’m a better mum, a better partner and I contribute more when I’m working and busy. I love quotes, but at the moment my favourite is an anecdote from Joseph Heller (the author of Catch-22). He was at a dinner party and a banker he was talking with pointed out another guest and said ‘see that guy over there? He’s made more money in the last 18 months than you have with all of your novels, how do you feel about that?’ Heller replied ‘I have something he’ll never have.’ and the banker asked ‘what is that?’ Heller said ‘I have enough.’