In today’s episode of “Laetitia talks to cool women“, I sat down with Samantha Kuntz, founder of Whurl and chatted about being a woman in tech, the vintage scene and political activism.
Let’s start from the beginning… How did you get started with Whurl?
I always really loved vintage and therefore became a collector at a certain point. I would often go to the flea markets, see something amazing but not in my size and think someone else might love it. A lot of my friends were also doing it. I had also toyed with the idea of one day opening a store or an Etsy shop, but it was too daunting to think about steaming, measuring, photographing everything… So I started wondering if it really needed to be this way. I started thinking about ways to bridge that gap and make the barrier lower for people to sell online. Thanks to Instagram and advancements in camera phones, you can now post one photo and sell something instantly. I wanted to take that idea and mix in an aspect of community and connection. I think that’s a big part of why vintage sellers collect. I also wanted people to be able to announce that they are looking for a specific piece they saw in a movie or even just a general trend. This way community members get to know each other – it becomes more than just a faceless transaction.
There’s such an emotional connection with vintage…
This idea of being able to say “I am looking for this for an event” and have someone who doesn’t even know you at all say “Oh I saw this and it reminded me of what you are looking for” is the building block of the Whurl community. It is just really great to see this amount of connection. As a seller it also helps you know your customers and helps with return business… A lot of vintage sellers check Whurl to see what people are looking for, so it can serve as a trend forecasting tool. If ten people in a row are looking for bell bottoms, you know there’s a trend brewing!
How much do you intervene on the app?
Not often. I mostly deal with customer service and crisis management, although there aren’t many crisis to manage! It is fairly straightforward and I am lucky to have great users on there. The community we are building attracts people who really care about vintage. It is interesting to sit back and see the idea I originally had taking a shape of its own.
Is it really different now from what you initially envisioned?
Yes and no! I definitely followed the mindset of creating an MVP (minimum viable product) and building on that… But I also created a giant list of a million features I wanted to build into the app! Some of them I was sure were going to be the most important things ever, but it turned out customers didn’t really care about that specific tool.
That’s the thing when you start a business: trial and error! Is this your first solo venture?
Yes! I’d just left my job as a buyer at Modcloth, where I’d been for 4 years and the idea for Whurl just happened upon my brain and I decided to run with it. A lot of people ask me what to do when you have an idea and I think the best thing to do is to test it in the cheapest way possible. We all tend to create barriers for ourselves. I still do it in other areas of my life and I keep having to correct myself.
Yes! Money can be a big barrier to start a business and also it has to do with vulnerability. You challenge yourself and put yourself in a position where you can fail.
For Whurl, I was crazy and decided to try it. Who knows what will happen, but if I don’t try, then you definitely don’t know. I think there is always a free way to test out an idea, especially now with the internet, you can pretty much test anything for free fairly easily.
There isn’t really an excuse to not start a business apart from fear of failure.
True! What I did is that I had the idea, sounded it off with a few people and then made a private Facebook group to test it out. I invited about a hundred girls who loved vintage and asked them to invite their friends. This is how we tested the idea, they were posting their stuff, saying what they were looking for and then conversation started. It was at the end of Mad Men, so a lot of people were looking for that style, they were also discussing the show and sales were happening. It was definitely an interesting and exciting thing for me to observe. From that, I validated some ideas and got rid of some others and then started looking for engineers!
How easy was it?
Not easy! It wasn’t fun for a lot of reasons. It is really hard to be a woman in tech, especially starting off. It is still hard for me now, but at the time I was very green. I ended up going for this really young male engineer who really thought he knew everything! I haven’t had any terrible experiences, but I’ve had people blowing me off, not wanting to listen to my ideas, not showing up to pre-arranged meetings… Almost all men. I’ve had meetings where Aaron (her fiancé) came with me and the person I was interviewing would just look at him the entire time instead of me. That has never left my mind. I know other women have it way worst in their professions. It is challenging for all women.
Sadly, being a woman in business there’s always going to be someone to make you feel small.
Yeah and I never really experienced that type of sexism in my previous jobs as I was mostly working in fashion. I didn’t feel super prepared for this.
How is it now?
I feel more comfortable and confident. But it is hard when these things happen, especially given our current political situations. It seems to be everywhere. It is more and more prevalent that people are more gender biased and gender inequality is rampant. It is not slowing down unfortunately.
I’ve noticed since moving here that the gender bias is so much stronger than in Europe. What’s next for Whurl?
I’m looking for more users. Trying to get some funding so I can grow bigger, build more technology within the app, streamlining some features, spend more on advertising and PR to reach more people.
At the moment it is all you?
Yeah… It’s a lot! The best thing you can hope for when you start a new business is to get referrals… If you know anyone that know someone that knows someone, talk to them! You have to reach out to people. And you have to be vulnerable!
If you don’t open yourself up to failure you never end up doing anything.
Sometimes I just calm myself down with the idea that everyone fails.
I like to ask myself “what’s the worse that’s going to happen and is it really that scary?”
Totally, that’s exactly it. Fear of failure is what drives a lot of people away from trying their own thing. Whurl has definitely been an exercise in moving against what feels comfortable for me. Before Whurl, I wouldn’t have taken that kind of chance!
Where do you shop for vintage?
I shop a lot on my app! I found some of my favourite dresses on there! I also go to a LOT of flea markets. I have a flea routine. I like the Rose Bowl, PCC, Long Beach. Sometimes I will venture out to Orange County for smaller markets. I love the store Painted Bird in Silver Lake. They have great picks and the pricing is nice too. Play Clothes in Burbank is also wonderful. I enjoy eclectic vintage stores rather than era specific ones.
Do you mix eras when you dress?
Definitely. I still also have a lot of contemporary things from my Modcloth years. I still shop contemporary every now and then but I try to buy vintage as much as possible.
How easy is getting dressed when styling vintage? What stopped me from wearing vintage is that unless I was wearing dresses, I would find it hard to mix and match stuff – and I like plain things too.
My usual uniform is either a vintage dress or vintage tee + jeans. That’s a very easy go to for me. Or a cute blouse with a skirt. I don’t have many skirts, but I make them work hard. I don’t find it too challenging. If anything at this point in my life, because I work from home I am mostly in a tee + jeans or workout clothes (laughs)… Then when I go out I have more fun dressing up.
How ridiculous is your wardrobe?
It is really insane. At the moment even the floor is covered in clothes because I ran out of hangers and I haven’t had time to go buy some! Whurl gets priority over my personal stuff so if I have two hours in a day to do stuff I’ll use them for Whurl rather than my own wardrobe.
How often do you rotate your wardrobe?
I try to do one in one out… My closet is so big that it isn’t too hard. Also, although I have so much stuff I love, I really find joy in giving my clothes away to people who I think will give them love. I am not super precious about anything in particular.
That’s how I feel about it too. I find clothing very transient. But I know some people like to collect.
I have maybe a couple pieces like that but even those I would give away to someone who fell in love with them.
It is like a library of clothing!
Clothes are meant to have fun in…
When did you decorate the studio?
We bought the house last July and this room was awful. Carpet on the floor, red brick walls, brown ceiling! It was so bad. I immediately gutted and redecorated. It was done by October.
How did you do the floor?
We painted the concrete purple, then did a poly layer over it and threw confetti in the air and varnished over it.
It looks great! And you host events here?
Yes – I’ve had a few… Political activism ones and Whurl events.
Tell me about the political events…
After the Women’s March there were emails going out about huddle groups taking place to keep the momentum going. There were no groups in my area so I offered to host one. It was a bunch of women, all on different levels of activism, discussing ideas like donating clothes or goods to LGBTQ centers, offering escorts to women going for abortions, staying updated on all the different marches going on, raising funds for Planned Parenthood etc. Some of that behavior is very contagious, so the more you talk about it with people the more you become accountable. Everyone has a different situation, but it is a hard time for women right now, so we have to stay active, involved and informed every day.