When she founded Net-a-Porter in 2000, Natalie Massenet saw what no one else did: That customers would buy very high-end luxury products, sometimes straight off the runway, online. Now, she and business partner Nicholas Brown are hoping that same prescience will help them identify the ultimate winners in the burgeoning direct-to-consumer and modern luxury markets. 

Massenet and Brown don't actually use the words "global domination" to describe the mindset of the entrepreneurs they're looking to invest in. But founders who dream of mastering the U.S. market, for example, probably aren't quite ambitious enough for them.

Imaginary Ventures, the new venture firm launched by Massenet and Brown (formerly a partner at venture firm 14W Ventures), is based in both London and New York. That gives the pair an international perspective. "We believe if a brand resonates in one market, it is very likely to resonate in all markets in today's global age," says Massenet.

So the duo get excited when they see a startup registering its trademarks and other intellectual property globally, or when entrepreneurs engineer the composition of their products to meet compliance guidelines in multiple countries. "You do not have borders on Instagram," says Massenet. "You do not have borders on any of these [marketing] campaigns. And underneath is the voracious consumer desire for something new."

Massenet and Brown knew each other socially before deciding to become business partners. Brown says he had long admired Massenet's career, observing as she successfully guided Net-a-Porter through desktop, mobile, and social commerce, then launched Mr. Porter for men and merged with Yoox. In 2018, the combined company sold to Richemont in a deal valuing it at nearly $6 billion.

After Massenet left Net-a-Porter, Brown noticed she had registered the domain imaginary.co, and reached out to her. "I said, 'I don't know what you're working on next, but I'd like to talk to you about it,'" he recalled. Her response: "I'm not doing anything, that's why I called it Imaginary!"

Retail entrepreneurs, not surprisingly, were already seeking out Massenet for funding and advice; Brown, meanwhile, was already investing in direct-to-consumer brands and so-called modern luxury. The two started showing each other the pitches they were considering. "She would show me the opportunities that got sent to her, and it was helpful for me learn how she felt about investments I had made," says Brown.

In April, the two launched Imaginary Ventures, a $75 million fund with notable investors such as Tom and Ruth Chapman, the co-founders of U.K. luxury online retailer MatchesFashion. At launch, Imaginary announced it had already taken stakes in companies such as Glossier, Reformation, Farfetch (where Massenet had been non-executive chairman) and Everlane.

E-Commerce in the time of Amazon.

In addition to a global outlook, Massenet and Brown are looking for entrepreneurs who are expert storytellers. "If you can't tell us the story and get us excited in the first two minutes, then you're never going to be able to tell the consumer the story," says Massenet.

She says the great storytellers, and the people with the innovative marketing ideas, are leaking out of big companies and into the startup world. In the past, she says, big corporations hired recent graduates to join their marketing departments. Those new hires would come up with "a revolutionary idea and get a bigger job. Companies would thrive on the thinking of this new workforce," says Massenet. "Today, those people are starting their own brands."

Even in the age of Amazon, Massenet and Brown see plenty of opportunity for new e-commerce brands. "We encourage, as a starting point, every entrepreneur to think about Amazon," says Brown. Massenet allows that Amazon has "extraordinary reach," but that brands shouldn't sell on Amazon until they've already learned how to import and export, how to price, and how to provide stellar customer service, for starters.

As a brand grows, says Brown, it may want to work with Amazon, wholesalers, and other distribution channels. The exact timing of that switch depends upon many factors: the growth curve of the business, the category, the competitive landscape, and how good a deal the platform is offering.

No matter when a brand begins to work with larger distribution platforms, say Massenet, the first consideration should be ensuring the brand always owns the customer relationship. "If you choose to share that relationship, either for customer acquisition purposes or acceleration or growth, that's your decision," says Massenet. "But ultimately, if you wanted to turn that partnership off, you should be able to survive."

Or, as Brown puts it: "Today, Amazon is not a great platform on which to build a brand."

Published on: May 24, 2018