Jane Lu founded her retailer Showpo in 2010 when she was 24 years old. She started the business in secret, too scared to tell her parents she had dropped out of a cadetship with KPMG and failed at her first startup. In 2017, Showpo hit a run rate of $30 million. It has become known for its instantly recognisable fashion imagery across social platforms.
This week, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in the life of founder and chief executive Jane Lu to see what happens behind all those glamorous Instagram photos.
The seventh floor lobby of the Bathurst St building is lined with brightly coloured women’s clothes hanging on racks. The racks themselves are draped with hats and accessories. Visitors navigate around props and step over boxes as they come and go.
Couriers move around the clutter. While their high-vis t-shirts and broad shoulders look a little out of place among pink and pastel paraphernalia. But they move with ease around the obstacles. They’ve made deliveries here many times before.
The office is a converted penthouse apartment where the walls have been replaced with glass partitions, and doors have been taken off their hinges.
Three girls who look like they have just come off the runway scurry past and into a photography studio. One of them has come from her desk. All of them are about to be photographed.
This place is young and flamboyant, with a clear undercurrent of action, and more than a hint of managed chaos — all among instantly recognisable brand attributes of the business operating here.
Welcome to Showpo.
Walking down the hallway is Jane Lu. She’s juggling two conversations — phone in one hand, and directing office traffic with the other.
She’s dressed like she could be about to be photographed for a Showpo shoot herself, and she’s come from the first desk visible at the end of the hall.
“I’m literally the first person you see when you walk into the office,” she says. “I’m like the greeter.”
She wraps up what she’s doing and takes me for a tour of the Showpo HQ.
Lu is the founder and self-branded “TheLazyCEO” at Showpo, the Australian e-retailer which launched in 2010 and now has an online following that many in digital industries can only dream about.
In 2012, it had its first million dollar month with just four staff.
In 2014, it turned over $10 million in sales.
And in 2017, it hit a run rate of $30 million.
A huge part of the brand’s success can be attributed to Jane’s approach to marketing in the form of social media.
With more than 895,100 Likes on Facebook, and 1.1 million followers on Instagram, the social branding is what Jane calls her “biggest competitive advantage”.
No one photo on any account is the same. It’s all about it-girls, party clothes, beautiful places and fluffy animals.
The images are immaculate. The content is on trend. The captions are playful. Emojis are tactically deployed.
Even on Instagram images are grouped in colours so as you swipe from pink to blue to yellow tones there are no jarring contrasts.
Showpo is a brand millennial girls want to look like, be like and, apparently, work for.
Lu has created an ecosystem for women where they not only buy clothes, but enjoy the same lifestyle and connect with a community based on similar values.
Two of the walls of her office are glass and her computer is in the corner with the screen exposed for all to see.
“There’s no privacy, there’s no door… and it used to be the thoroughfare to the bathroom before Alex joined me and put her foot down. She’s the bad cop,” Jane laughs.
“Alex” is Alex Durkin, who joined as general manager in 2012 after Jane bought out her co-founder and streamlined the business.
When talking about Showpo’s operations Jane rarely says “I”. It’s always “we”, in reference to her partnership with Durkin.
We press on through the building. The following rooms are much the same, full of busy people.
“We have a creative team, they do all the graphics,” says Jane. “A marketing team, customer happiness, DEV, the buying team – that’s probably our biggest team – and we have now got a one-man HR team, our head of people and culture. We didn’t realise at first how important it was, and now she is constantly busy.”
The customer happiness team sits in an open-plan area in a space where the hallway widens.
May, who has been working in this department of Showpo for a month, is missing from her seat. She is the employee who rushed past earlier to be photographed. It’s her second shoot since being with the business.
She later tells me as part of her customer happiness role she gets 20 calls a day regarding queries about faulty items or returns. Along with that they answer Facebook messages and emails.
“Before I worked here I would watch the videos of the staff being involved,” May says. Now she is a part of it.
Another person says: “I’ve been here two weeks and I’ve already done a shoot. I knew it was involved when I was hired. Sometimes it’s just impromptu, depending on what someone is wearing.”
The tour continues into more rooms packed with people, product, or both.
“The cramped space is a blessing in disguise,” one employee tells me. “For new people, it lets them get to know everyone really quickly.”
Another tells me it’s not overwhelming because “no one really sits at their desk all day every day”.
“It’s pretty collaborative,” another says. “If someone needs help someone will jump in.”
Run sheets and schedules are plastered on the walls.
There are walls of shoes and rooms full of racks of clothes.
There’s even remnants of the party they had on Friday evening in the kitchen.
The last room, away from the hustle and bustle, is quiet and almost empty except for two men working on their computers at separate desks – developers.
When I say hello, they’re mildly startled. Perhaps they don’t get many visitors. Either way it’s like a different office entirely back here.
We make our way back to the studio where the models were rushing to earlier.
Jane attends to something in her office while I continue on.
Stepping into the sun-soaked room — the biggest in the office — the space is instantly recognisable: It’s the face of Showpo. Stark white walls, timber floors and girly props.
It’s the backdrop you see in all the photos on the Showpo website and across Facebook and Instagram.
The room backs onto a spacious rooftop balcony, also littered with hints of afternoon drinks: ice buckets and bottle caps.
I ask someone what these events are like and she replies: “They’re definitely not subdued.”
The deck extends into an exposed rooftop. With such a huge, open space, it’s hard to believe we’re in the middle of the CBD.
Two different shoots begin.
The models are shuffled from inside to outside and back again, then change behind a small bi-fold screen into their next outfit.
Photos are taken on digital cameras, and mobile phones. The equipment isn’t bulky or overly expensive.
Spotify’s Jeep Beats playlist – featuring the likes of Calvin Harris, Flume, and Drake – is playing from a computer on a side table in the middle of the room.
The models pose in front of mirrors, against walls and draped over beautifully decorated furniture.
The room has every accessory or prop at arm’s reach: watches, hats, sunglasses, jewellery, bags, shoes and extra clothes.
Another Showpo employee comes from the office to join in on a shoot.
Employees are given the opportunity to participate in shoots when Jane sends around an email the day before asking for volunteers. Then staff turn up the next day in the “look” that is being photographed.
There’s not a lot of chatting. Everyone knows what needs to be done and makes it happen.
At first glance it seems like chaos but standing back to observe the processes, everyone moves fluidly around one another and no one is frantic. In fact, everyone seems to be having a lot of fun.
These are photos for social media. A location shoot is longer, up to 2-3 hours. A product shoot for the site could take all day.
Alex arrives. She is preparing for the next shoot, working off a sheet of looks, and meticulously organising a rack of clothes so that when it is her turn, everything is ready to go.
I ask how long she expects her shoot to take. She has three looks to cover.
She says it should be done in 200 photos over 45 minutes.
As the earlier shoots wrap up, the room transitions. A screen here and a mirror there and the next shoot is ready to start.
Alex begins. Jane joins to get snaps for Instagram.
She is planning 10 minutes per look, and will upload two to three edited photos as the final product.
“Do we all just want to look at inspo?” Jane asks her team, pulling up a few photos on her phone before they begin.
Once started, Jane offers her guidance.
“Let’s get some movement like ‘I’m so hot’,” she says as she frolics around the room.
She’s fun and playful with the models but always cautious of the product, ensuring the models hold it the right way so it is displayed accurately.
“Oh, we should Snapchat!” Jane says excitedly as she rushes off to get her iPhone.
But then she’s back: “My phone’s dead, where’s the work one?”
A split second later she asks: “Can you quickly pop the jacket on and take a selfie on this phone?”
Alex asks Jane: “I thought you were filming a video?”
“Yeah but I just thought it looked perfect,” Jane says.
She finds inspiration and changes the plan on the go.
“Wait, I want to do one more twin pic,” Jane adds.
It’s this organised mayhem that feeds the Showpo marketing machine with the content it needs to keep its huge social following growing. But the machine didn’t really exist until mid-way through last year.
“We had a very ad hoc approach and now it is becoming more systematic,” Jane later tells me away from the office.
“Everyone is like, ‘Your marketing is great’, and we’re like ‘Oh, yeah’,” she says as she shrugs her shoulders.
“Now we have three people in it now, and we’re hiring more. Before that it was agencies and I was doing it.”
And while marketing involves a number of elements, Showpo’s strategy is driven by one aspect in particular: social media.
“[As for] social media, we look at it as a division in itself, whereas I think everyone else just puts it into marketing,” Jane says.
“Some companies may give it to a junior but for us understanding the importance of it has been crucial,” she says.
“There’s a methodology to it. It’s so much more than just pretty photos.”
Every social media network is unique, and therefore needs an individual strategy, says Jane.
“You need to understand every platform to make the most of it… there’s no point posting the same shit you’re posting [across all] platforms, especially as you’re only going to move your existing customers from one platform to another. There’s no value in that. You’re just going to have low engagement.
“If you’re not going to do it well, then we’re just like ‘let’s not even do it’.
“For us to have a proper strategy you need to sit there and become obsessed with it over a week and understand what makes a post good, and how to grow your followers.”
It is the direct means of interacting with your audience, and according to Jane “the most important thing for a business, especially for a startup”.
“So many people message me and ask questions about operations… but it’s the marketing you need to get,” she says.
“You should start an Instagram page, or put up a few Facebook ads with dummy websites and see if you get traction with it. Do all that before you start investing in inventory and product.
“People don’t realise how important marketing is. Yes, the product will speak for itself [if it’s good] but these days someone else will do a similar product but market it better.”
“We also did two months of PR at $5,000 a pop… but it just wasn’t right for the business.
Jane is happy to admit her first attempt at traditional marketing failed.
“[Social media] is a huge part of getting [your brand] out there in a way that’s going to be absorbed quickly… which traditional marketing doesn’t allow for because you have to go through all those processes.
“When we found a winning formula with Facebook we just doubled down. We just went harder.
“I’m just surprised what we were doing was working so well that not more people just did it. I remember at one point we had, our engagement was 130% of our following.”
In building the brand, she says Showpo has become more than experts at Facebook and Instagram. They have become “content creators.”
Since establishing the brand’s customer demographic, every post has been targeted to what the consumer likes, wants, thinks about and importantly, shares.
“I think so much of it, is to think about what would you like as a customer?” says Lu.
She admits that even now she still browses the Facebook page for funny posts to fill in time between meetings. Not having a game plan until now hasn’t worried Lu. Quite the opposite.
“While it helps, I think if you have a vision too early then you won’t be able to read the signs and you won’t be agile,” she says.
“I’m always like we don’t have a business plan, but I think now we know what we want to do. We have a vision.”
And it is communicating that vision across a growing team that led to the creation of the marketing department.
“This financial year we started hiring a bunch of people. That’s how we got these new processes,” she says.
“There’s constantly people emailing me: ‘We’ve got this app and we’ve got this software, blah-blah-blah’.
“I think it got to a point where it was pretty overwhelming for me to look into and respond to everything.
“Hiring a great CMO who has the experience, who gets it, really helps,” she says.
Jane has tasked Mark Baartse, formerly a director at a marketing company called First Rate, with moulding her freeform marketing systems into a structured operation.
“Our SEO has been traditionally quite weak. We had hired a terrible agency who did nothing, but our CMO is really good at SEO, so he’s just doing his own thing,” she says.
Measuring performance is a problem
Mark will help with the challenges of online marketing such as measuring performance – currently a difficult task for the business.
“One of the biggest challenges is how do you measure brand and how do you measure offline marketing?” she says.
“The only true way to do it is really to pause everything else and just play with one lever at a time… There’s no hard and fast answer.
“If you can truly measure ROI on things, then it’s just about testing everything and then just spending more money on what works.”
While bringing such departments in-house and growing the team is the way forward for the business, Lu says it’s a “constant challenge” finding the balance between growth and keeping the startup culture of the brand.
“It’s become one of those situations where there are a lot of team meetings which we traditionally never had to do,” she says.
“Now, you got to do a team meeting, you got to look at everyone’s schedules. It’s become a lot slower.
“[And] we’ve got the problem that when me and Alex change something, or we’ve got people on a team who’s like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us that?’ Well… this is business, you know,” she says. “But because now we’ve got these systems, it impacts on what we’re doing.
“You feel bad when you have to change something but before I was like the girl who was sitting across from me, ‘Hey, change of plans’.”
She has also realised that hiring more people doesn’t necessarily alleviate your workload as the founding CEO.
“I’ve come to learn that it takes much longer than you think. We’ll have to put in a lot of training to get this person to get it, and again, it comes to hiring the right person.
“Everyone talks about hiring the right people as the most important thing. It so is and one bad egg could just spoil the rest.”
That attitude is the fuel behind such hiring strategies as Showpo’s recruitment video.
Like Lu says in the video: “We’re looking for people who know how to think big because we’ve got big plans to grow.
“We’re not here to f**k spiders”, she says – the down-to-earth Australian slang expression for being here to get a job done.
Lu’s success has been undoubtedly helped by her vivacious personality. Candid and clever, she says she’s often confused when people thank her for being “real”.
“I’m like ‘OK, you’re welcome…’ Because that’s all I know.”
While she’s not quite sure yet whether her personal brand and the Showpo name are one and the same or separate things entirely, she thinks she has set herself up to be in a good position for whichever way it goes.
“There’s a lot of other business people who need to be seen as a voice of authority and an industry leader, whereas I’m just this like accidental entrepreneur.
“I’ve set myself up in a position where it’s quite easy for me to keep doing what I’m doing. If I pass out on the street – it’s not great – but it’s not the worst thing to happen, as opposed to people who have B2B businesses,” she joked.
“Like I’ve got ‘Like Minded Bitches Drinking Wine’, people can’t expect me to be (anything else), you know?”
She may be overly modest about her success but she is one of the drawcards for why people want to work for Showpo, and said there have been a few fan-girls who have applied to work with her.
“It’s only this year though,” she says, then laughs. “When we’re interviewing someone I’m like ‘Hi, I’m Jane’ and they’re like ‘I know’”.
Former office manager Brittany Villafane worked with Showpo back in 2013 when it was just a four-person team.
During her 18 months with the company, where everyone “did a bit of everything in the early days”, she says Lu has always been “the life of the party”. Of course, others wanted in on that.
“Everyone wanted to follow her passion, follow her drive,” she says.
“She’s always the life of the party and because she has created this company by girls for girls, she has always drawn a lot of people to want to work with her.”
The profile and success and general reality of business has come with complications. In January it was revealed that Showpo sued online clothing store Black Swallow, claiming a former Showpo employee passed Showpo’s customer database on to Black Swallow when she went to work there.
Showpo sued for reputational damage and loss of sales, claiming that the designer hadn’t finished her employment with Showpo when she exported a database that listed the information of more than 300,000 customers.
The case settled in April, with Black Swallow agreeing to pay $60,000 to Showpo in a series of instalments.
And business growth hasn’t quite met Lu’s ambitious targets.
“I remember saying that we want 50% of our growth to come from international but we haven’t quite reached that as of December,” Jane tells me.
“But we don’t have to have that because Australia is so strong.
“I really thought Australia wasn’t going to grow but it has grown so much this year. Like almost 80% in 2016.”
When it comes to updated numbers on the company’s success, Jane says she’ll wait for a bigger milestone before announcing any developments on that front.
“It’s definitely higher but I want to reach a bigger milestone before we announce anything.”
This story originally appeared on Business Insider.