Rosanne Jansen / Fashion Entrepreneur: "Don't be afraid to think big."
Her parents ran a travel agency, thus Rosanne Jansen grew up in a work-oriented environment. Her fascination with lookbooks gave rise to an interest in fashion. But it was when she met her business partner, Valerie, that everything fell into place, resulting in the webshop 9straatjesonline.com. Within five years, they’d outgrown the famous neighbourhood they represented. Growth is key for fashion entrepreneur Rosanne, who remains as humble as she ever was. "We’ve steadied the ship, but now need to plot our course. We’re not quite there yet."
Interview by Daphne van Langen / Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Where did you grow up and how would people have described you as a kid? I grew up in Baarn and was very sweet, cheerful and outgoing as a kid. A bit of a mummy’s girl, and more of a leader than a follower. I was so well behaved that towards the end of primary school, I deliberately got myself into trouble so I’d be sent out of class for once. I’ve got an older brother, and that had quite an influence on me; I mostly hung out with boys, climbed trees, always beating them at it.
What remains of that kid today? It occurs to me sometimes that I still play too much by the rules. I’m always kind, polite and considerate. I’m a Libra, so I lean towards harmony, whereas in running a business, it can’t hurt to be bitchy sometimes.
Your parents were entrepreneurs as well, and owned a travel business. Do you think this influenced you in any way? I grew up with the idea that there was always work to do. During holidays, for instance, we modelled for the travel brochures. They were almost like family albums. It’s been really helpful for me to have grown up in an environment where work and private life went hand in hand. Of course they weren’t strangers to work-related stress and tension, but at least it was from a position of autonomy: I never had to see them fuming because of a boss. So their freedom made a deep impression. They encouraged me to do what I wanted and showed me that the world was mine for the taking, which is great because it leaves you less afraid to take risks and do your own thing.
You did a European Studies degree at the University of Amsterdam. Why did you choose that? I wanted to travel and work in some sort of international position, but I had no idea what exactly. European Studies was fairly new at the time, and quite broad – it took in languages and international law and seemed like a safe choice: it left the possibilities open. I did a postgrad in International Relations after that, which was fascinating and superb fun; 25 nationalities in one class! I gave some thought then to working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Oh really? But your first job was in TV, right? Yes, I got a job at the Endemol Shine Group in a niche department known as Call TV. I was the voice in the presenter’s ear. I needed a job and figured: just get your foot in the door. I did try to get onto the graduate programme at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the fact that I needed to borrow my mum’s handbag and a pair of her shoes for the interview was a pretty clear sign that that wasn’t quite my world. I didn’t yearn for it.
What did you learn during your time in TV? I discovered that despite my fairly sheltered upbringing and having a mum always within arm’s reach, I actually had it in me to be independent. After Call TV I started working at Endemol’s headquarters in Hilversum, which was the hub for operations in 35 countries around the world. Because I spoke a bit of Spanish, South America became my territory. During on-location shoots, I took care of casting, put teams together and managed entire projects. It allowed me to become comfortable outside my comfort zone. These years were the absolute best.
So when did your interest in fashion begin? My mom used to buy my clothes at Oilily, but I preferred jeans and my Snoopy T-shirt. I’d have been much too easy to catch if I’d played tag with my Oililiy jacket flapping about behind me! I later developed what I consider a healthy appetite for fashion without becoming a fashionista. The fashion magazines did nothing for me – they made fashion look way too complicated. For me the fascination began when online shopping arrived. I remember the first time I clapped eyes on a lookbook at shopbop.com and saw their visual inspiration. Before I knew it I’d bought myself a green Diana von Furstenberg dress. And I was hooked!
7 years ago you launched 9straatjesonline.com, “the world's first online shopping area”. How did that come about? I lived in De 9-Straatjes, a micro-neighbourhood known for its boutique stores and cosy cafés. My next-door neighbour who ran a store didn’t have the time to set up an online store, which I’d suggested she do. At the time I was working at a media company run by two young guys. I learned about what it really meant to be an entrepreneur. I witnessed their struggles, saw how they bluffed their way through things, they were cowboys, to be honest. I was heavily pregnant when the company went bankrupt for the second time, and when the receivers came to collect my company car, I said to myself: that’s it. I can do better than that. I went on maternity leave and was financially supported by unemployment benefits, which gave me time to come up with a business plan.
What did the plan say? My years of experience in marrying content with technical possibilities at Endemol fed straight into my business plan: the stores had the content, which I planned to marry with the technical possibilities offered by a webshop. I copied the business model from my parents' travel agency: they sold package holidays designed by travel agencies, who paid them a commission. So, that became my model, too.
For your plan to work, you obviously needed the buy-in of all the shop-owners in the Nine Streets. How did you get this? That was easier said than done. I tried to get to know all the shopkeepers through my neighbour. I had my plan and presented them with a case explaining what they could expect, but of course my numbers were merely best guesses. There were times where I had to literally stick my foot in the door and refuse to take no for an answer. Eventually, I managed to persuade more and more shop owners, but it took an awful lot of selling, which was so not me!
What was your gravest rookie mistake? My Achilles heel is that I'm far too nice: I laid everything out like a red carpet for the shop owners without paying sufficient attention to things like my commission or taking into account the potential for a large number of returns. My business plan was not financially watertight and I had to fall back on my savings. We weren’t familiar with the inventory system that came with the webshop, on top of which I didn’t really have any retail experience. If I’d known what problems lay ahead before I began, I would never have started the business! But what was great about my idea was that I didn’t have to buy any stock myself. Without the pressure of unsold stock, I had time to develop the platform and keep learning.
How did you meet your business partner, Valerie van der Meer? We both used to work at the Grand Café Palladium and she was one of my brother’s friends. She designed her own wedding invitation, and I was so impressed when I saw it that she was the first person I thought of when I needed a designer for the platform. Personally, I wanted a no-nonsense straight-line design, like Net-A-Porter’s, but Valerie felt it needed to have sort of a handmade vibe to better reflect the authentic atmosphere of the boutiques. Her idea was totally at odds with mine, but she was right. We clicked and I asked her to become my business partner. She's the creative brain and I’m operations, so we complement each other: she's appearance, I'm voice.
Do such partnerships come with pitfalls? If you start with two, it means you need to make enough money for two. You both need to be realistic about the rough road ahead: when would it be wise to pinch pennies, and for how long could you both stand to do so; and what can you expect from one another? We quickly set out our points of agreement in a letter of intent, which was useful when it came time to make the business a Limited Company.
It’s important to have the right people around you. Who are yours? Within the company, it’s Valerie. Besides being business partners, we’re friends and each other’s confidants.
Outside the company, Thijs’s opinion is very important to me [Thijs Boon, her partner, founder and CEO of VICE Benelux]. He’s an entrepreneur, too, and now also my business partner. He inspires me strategically, keeps me entrepreneurially sharp, challenges me and forces me to broaden my horizons. Our business spills over into our home life, comes with us on holidays and is there at the weekend, all of which suits me, as it’s the pattern I’m familiar with from childhood.
Five years after starting 9straatjesonline.com, you rebranded as OU.Boutique Stories, “an international emporium that feels like a boutique”. Why? Thijs had always maintained that we needed to open our own stores, because all the time and effort we were investing in the business was earning us only 20% of the profits. Still, it took a while for us to take the step, and we did it gradually. The proposition of a stylish multi-brand store located outside the Nine Streets didn’t really fit within the current arrangement, as that precluded getting into bed with partners who weren’t situated in the Nine Streets. But as we weren’t entirely happy with what we were getting from the stores, we decided to open our own shop. We all of a sudden had direct contact with our audience, and the experience was encouraging. Then we realized shortly afterwards that we could expand our horizons if we dropped the 9-streets tag. And so we went from being local curators to global ones.
Anyone can start an online business, but not everyone can make it work. What’s your secret? We are not solely commercially driven. For instance, we’d never stock a jacket simply because a supplier says it’s going to be next season’s must-have. We’re not trying to capture the mass market and we trust our instincts. We spend nights online hunting for items to keep our selection fresh, imaginative and up to date, which is what makes us different. And we have to stay up to date as individuals, too. Of course we can’t help getting older, but we need to keep the conversation going with our younger audience as well, via Instagram, Snapchat, our Youtube channel and by vlogging. We have lots of young trainees to keep a close eye on this.
Besides being an entrepreneur, business partner and manager, you’re also a mother. How do you juggle the different roles? I often ask the same thing myself. I’m not sure if I’m a good manager, but I know I’m a people manager; I’m very empathetic and tend to instinctively think, “what can this person learn from this” rather than “what do I need this person to do”. I’m still learning to delegate – it was hard for me to even let other people answer the phone when we started. The roles are fun, but sometimes also hard to combine with having two kids; I think I’d need 8-day weeks to get it all done. So you just have to accept that you’ll sometimes fall short at home and at work. I’m just glad I’m not one of those parents who have to sit in traffic at the crack of dawn every day, nursing a cup of coffee to keep them from falling back asleep.
"A good story starts with an awesome outfit?”, says your website. The emphasis on appearance fits neatly with the era of selfies and social media where appearance seems valued more than inner worth. What’s your view on this? It’s an interesting subject that Valerie and I discuss a lot. Our primary audience is slightly older than the social media generation, and so not as swayed by it. They are women for whom appearance is important, but who aren’t defined by it. We’re very active on Instagram, and, like everyone else, post beautiful pictures. I only hope my daughters don’t grow up believing Instagram is a complete reflection of life and the zenith of human accomplishment or ambition: a champagne-sipping blogger with 2 million followers, stepping in and out of planes in a mini Gucci dress. Women are setting the bar very high for one another, and it’s not even real life. Then again, the same thing was said in the eighties about fashion models and Barbie, and we survived that era unscathed. Fashion is just a bit of fun; so let's not treat it like it’s rocket science.
What’s the most common misconception people have about running an online business? Marianne Zwagerman published a book called Een webshop is geen carrière (Owning a Webshop is Not a Career), so Valerie and I sometimes joke that “This isn’t work; it’s a hobby!” That, I think, is the most common misconception, but there’s more to making a good job of it than meets the eye. It’s also more expensive to set up a platform like this than you might imagine.
What would surprise someone who knew you as a teenager if they saw you now? I doubt they’d be surprised. They’d probably say something like, “Just as we thought: running your own business in Amsterdam.” And they’d probably assume I’m more successful than I actually am.
Don’t you consider yourself successful? I’m proud of what we’ve achieved, certainly, but also very critical. We’ve steadied the ship, but now need to plot our course. We’re not quite there yet.
What advice would you give aspiring online entrepreneurs? Online or off, you won’t make it without the internet and social media. Think across multiple channels and don’t be afraid to think big or raise whatever capital is necessary.
And what advice do you wish you’d been given yourself? I ignored a lot of the advice I received back then because it didn’t resonate with me. In retrospect, there are certain things I could have done sooner, but you only do things when they feel right.
What’s the future of online shopping? E-commerce is not environmentally sustainable – mountains of boxes and all those trucks and delivery vans... Suppliers can do so much more to lighten their carbon footprint. I envision a sort of “cloud shop”, with all your preferences and personal information, and which allows payment by fingerprint scanning. Whatever you order – flowers, recipe boxes, clothes, books – ends up in a single package in a warehouse, ready for delivery by the most sustainable means possible at a time of your choosing.
And how do you see your future as a business? What’s important is that it continues to be fun, and that we keep learning and being challenged. The next part of our dream is to launch our own label. It’s still just a wisp of a dream, but if you’d told us two years ago that we’d be running our own stores, I wouldn’t have believed you. And yet we’ve opened our fourth last August!