This 24-year-old teen idol goes out of her way to shock investors. She could teach you a lot about starting a business.

Erin Yogasundrum ShopjeenInstagram/erinjeenErin Yogasundram.

“I’m doing meetings with VCs today, and I’m not wearing a bra. My nipple piercings are probably showing through this shirt.”
Meet Erin Yogasundram. She’s the 24-year-old behind teen retail phenomenon Shop Jeen
Shop Jeen is having a moment; its mix of racy, irreverent — and downright offensive — clothing, 90’s paraphernalia, and teenspeak (think: “sad AF“) have struck a chord with young, American girls.
Yogasundram is their idol. Her 77,000 Instagram followers  —  Shop Jeen has another 413,000  — call her “mum.” MTVdubbed her the “Queen Bee of the Internet.”

For those not in the target demographic, the site is baffling. 

Yogasundram is fine with this. Shop Jeen is a product of clever branding, social media prowess, and the force of her very strong personality — all of which are things she says she’s not willing to give up, even as she seeks backing from venture capital investors.

“If you don’t like the fact that I don’t have a bra on, then you probably don’t want to work with me anyway, because you don’t really get it,” she said during an interview in New York.

Rookie mistakes

But all this swagger belies some pretty rookie mistakes that the company has made as its growth has exploded. Yogasundram might not want to change who she is to please venture capitalists, but she needs help managing the business. 

There’s an entire Tumblr page dedicated to customer complaints — namely products not being delivered for “months,” and Jezebel recently highlighted allegations that the company has failed to pay some vendors. The Better Business Bureau rates Shop Jeen an “F” because of complaints like these.

Then there are the legal issues. Earlier this year, Chanel sued Shop Jeen for selling phone cases that were designed to look like Chanel perfume bottles, Racked reported. 

To her credit, Yogasundram acknowledges the problems  — the Chanel situation was “irresponsible of me,” she says. She also admits she didn’t anticipate the responsibilities of being a CEO.

“We had some financial issues a little bit ago and some vendors … had to wait a little bit longer, and we would never want to do that,” she said. “
At the age of 24, I don’t know everything, and I’ve got us as far as I can go, but I’m more of a strategy person, [a] creative mind.” 

How Shop Jeen began

Yogasundram grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in a $US1200 a month rent-controlled apartment that she resides in when she visits New York from her current home in Los Angeles.  

Her  first foray into online sales was when she sold pop-punk band Good Charlotte’s autographs on eBay. Soon, she was attending sample sales and selling her findings online. 

After internships at Alexander Wang (where she met her eventual creative director, Amelia Muqbel), Vogue, and Marie Claire, she earned a scholarship to George Washington University, and worked three retail jobs while she was at school.

Realising that she wanted to do more than just be a sales associate, she opened Shop Jeen in 2012. Her scrappy and entrepreneurial attitude helped get things off the ground: she funded the site by selling a Celine bag on eBay, taught herself basic programming (“pretty poorly,” as she puts it), and designed the first website on her own.

Yogasundram operated Shop Jeen out of her dorm room during college, but her passion for the site — and general apathy towards her studies — led her to drop out in her third year. 

The site started out small —  buying accessories from designers on Etsy and reselling them. Yogasundram, soon joined by Muqbel, started working with other vendors, and amassing a die-hard following. 

Even after they made several hires and moved to New York City, Yogasundram would purchase inventory using her father’s American Express card and pay it off each month.

“Suffering from success”


Just this year, Shop Jeen let go most of its employees, moved from New York to a Los Angeles office, and launched its own in-house brand called Netgear90. With apparel inspired by posts on Tumblr, it’s the stores most successfull line, accounting for 14% of sales, Yogasundram says.

“We’re really proving that we know our customer better than anybody else,” she said.

Yogasundram wouldn’t elaborate on Shop Jeen’s sales, other than saying they reach the “millions” annually. The site has drawn about 240,000 visitors a month for the last five months, data from SimilarWeb show. 

But even though she has legions of die hard fans, things haven’t been easy, Yogasundram says, pointing to one of her tattoos, a Latin phrase that means “suffering from success.”  

“You know, being an entrepreneur and a founder of a business, you’re thrust into the CEO position because its your business   — which is a difficult title to carry,” she said. “Amelia and I both are constantly sensing voids in the marketplace, coming up with really innovative things to do — putting that into action is a whole other story.” 

Where funding comes in


This is partly because Shop Jeen lacks the staff for basic jobs. Shop Jeen, for example, does not have a publicist. Yogasundram answers her own emails, which is something she gladly does — she wants to be the face of the brand.

When they have had to fill orders, Yogasundram and her co-workers have occasionally had to lug the products from outdoor storage units in California’s 100 degree heat, she said.

So she is looking to hire 10 more people, and most importantly, a director of operations. That means moving into a real office — currently, she and eight employees work out of a live-work duplex —  which is where the funding comes into the picture.

“A big reason we’re funding is to feel safe about the growth we’re experiencing,” she said. 

Yogasundram has big plans beyond the new hires. She wants to overhaul the website and open a brick and mortar location at one point, ideally in Las Vegas, she said.

“We’ve done so much with no resources and as soon as we started to tap into those, it’s a game changer.”

And that could come with strings attached. Going braless is one way to to ensure that investors know what they’re getting into, and that they’re ok with Shop Jeen’s sometimes polarising image.

Shop Jeen might offend you — and that’s a good thing


It’s not difficult to find clothing items that many would consider sexually charged and inappropriate, especially given that they’re marketed to teenagers. For example, on sale right now is a shirt that has a folder that says “hot dads I’d like to f***.”

(Not everything is like this — another t-shirt carries an image of a praying hands emoji with the words: “Dear God, Please give me 5 new followers when I wake up OK ty lol,” and there are plenty of “Game of Thrones” shirts to delight pop culture fiends).

Yogasundram admits some items have gone too far — like a line of clothes emblazoned with the phrase “Anal?” 

“It’s not kind of worth it, the trade of  in how much in revenue those items make compared to the shock value of it,” she said. “If I’m not even wearing it, maybe it’s not even that cool.”

But she’s also determined to stick to her guns, because she knows her brand’s image depends on that. 

“We have such die hard enthusiasts who will follow us off of a bridge — it’s amazing, the following, but in order to have that, you have to people who don’t get it,” she said.

The message, Yogasundram says, isn’t as provocative as the clothes in which its dressed.

“Be comfortable with yourself, work your butt off, don’t necessarily aspire to be a celebrity because they’re gorgeous, aspire to be who you want to be and do what you want to do.”

These are good words to preach now that investors are listening.  

 

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