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Dallas-born entrepreneur Amber Venz Box is an influencer’s best friend. She, along with her husband Baxter Box, launched the website RewardStyle and its app offshoot LIKEtoKNOW.it, where fashion influencers can turn their social posts into dollar signs, not just 'likes.' “Our mission is really to empower influencers to be as economically successfully as possible,” Venz Box says. “We want to make monetizing influence as easy as turning a key.”
And it worked—to the tune of $1 billion. The business model? Influencers sign up for the app, retailers partner with it, and every time shoppers buy an item that they spotted in a registered influencer's images, everyone makes a buck.
The seeds of RewardStyle and the LIKEtoKNOW.it app were planted back before the age of Instagram, when Venz Box decided to compliment a fashion styling business she already ran in Dallas with a blog. When her clients started reading her content, and searching for and buying items she covered instead of booking appointments for in-person styling, Venz Box realized just how much money she was losing. “Instead of booking me for [styling] appointments, they would go to my blog, text me, and say, ‘I got that bag,’ or ‘You're right, those skinny jeans are amazing.’ And I'm sitting there looking at my phone, thinking, ‘Well that was a $100 commission, that was a $32 commission, that was $12,” she says. “As a 22-year-old living at home, that money really mattered.”
So Venz Box decided to change the game, innovating ahead of social media’s buy-in-app revolution. “That's really what propelled me to start RewardStyle with my then boyfriend, now husband, because I needed to charge retailers for the online sales I was driving.” Now, brands from Gucci to Duane Reade have put faith in Venz Box’s venture, based on her previous sales success—and the promise of more to come.
But first, some hurdles to jump over: For Venz Box’s idea to get off the ground, she needed to convince major retailers to get on board, which is about as difficult as it sounds. “It honestly took me throwing my body at cars in order for anybody in the building to talk to me,” Venz Box says. Once she got her foot in the door, the second obstacle was to convince marketers to actually funnel money into her business, all before the age of blogger stardom. “When I finally got into the marketing department and showed the woman there my blog, she said, ‘We don't really work with bloggers, we work with celebrities and magazines. I don't have a budget for this.’”
Oh, how times have changed. And with a little persistence, Venz Box finally convinced her first retail partner, Shopbop, to take a chance. “We started driving serious sales for Shopbop, and we were able to bring that back to Neiman [Marcus] and say, ‘Look at what we're doing.’” Fast forward to today and Venz Box is working with about 4,500 retailers from Gucci to Duane Reade that pay commissions on any of their products sold through RewardStyle. “Very much the same way that Airbnb has created a platform that monetizes bedrooms, and Uber has monetized the extra time people have in their cars, we have monetized content,” Venz Box explains. “We have created a whole generation of solo-preneurs who are now supporting themselves and their families through the content industry by leveraging that forum.”
The launch that got LIKEtoKNOW.it 1 million users faster than Facebook: In 2014, Venz Box, having cracked website monetization, set out to solve the mystery of social media monetization. “We created a system where you, as a consumer, could register your Instagram credentials and give us your email address and whenever you like photos that are created by our influencers, we send you an email with all the ready-to-shop information,” Venz Box explains. The now also includes a wish-making capability to store potential future purchases. “That service grew from driving $10 million in sales the first year to $50 million in sales the next year to $150 million.”
In order to keep up pace with other emerging fashion-tech companies, Venz Box acquired a tech team in NYC that developed a screenshot technology, allowing users to screenshot items even outside the LIKEtoKNOW.it app (which launched last March as the mobile spin on RewardStyle, upload that image to the system, and receive all the shoppable info LIKEtoKNOW.it usually provides. “By December, 2017, we had over a million users on the app, which is faster to a million than Pinterest, Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And that's with zero ads,” she says.
Net-a-Porter seals the deal: “When I moved out of my dad's house and into my own apartment because I had made enough money on my blog to pay rent, I was like, 'This is amazing,'” Venz Box remembers. But the real turning point for her business came the day Net-a-Porter signed on. “I had a Skype call with them, and I had been living and working out of our office,” Venz Box says. “I had on little Soffe shorts, a T-shirt, and wet hair, but when it was time for that call, I pulled my hair back in a slick bun, put on these big pearl earrings, a pretty shirt, and fixed everything behind me trying to act like this was a real business. When we signed Net-a-Porter, I thought we had made it.”
The toll it took on her relationship: Venz Box started RewardStyle in 2011 at age 23, just two years after she and her now husband started dating. The two are an inseparable business duo now, but starting out, things weren’t as smooth. “I immediately saw this change in our relationship within months of working together,” Venz Box remembers. “I was a young girl who fell in love with this guy that I wanted to marry, and I was seeing our relationship start to crumble over this business that we were building together.” Venz Box says that hiring more staff took some of the pressure off the relationship. And now that the two can actually start taking vacations together, the heat has subsided. “I think we've gotten much better at building in personal time, and now we say we love working together because my 30 minutes with him in the car in the morning and on the way home is probably some of the most valuable time that we have.”
Deep fashion roots: Venz Box has always loved fashion because, she says, it gave her a way to express herself when she was a shy kid. “Fashion is great for me because I don't have to be the loudest person in the room,” Venz Box explains. “I think that was something that made me feel much better about my personality and my place in the classroom or in the social world. It was okay that I was quiet.”
Her best advice: Jump in. “People used to think that in order to be in the tech space you need to be a coder, but I think one of the coolest things about being in tech is that jobs like marketing, event planning, and sales all exist within the space,” Venz Box says. “You can be what you're best at and still choose this industry.”
Going to bat for her influencers ... in court: RewardStyle has always been about supporting its influencers, so much so that they’re willing to stand up for them in court. This past spring, RewardStyle called out PopSugar for uploading photos from its influencers without consent and switching affiliate link codes to ones that would benefit PopSugar as opposed to the influencer. It developed into a legal battle that RewardStyle is still pursuing, so Venz Box couldn’t reveal much about the controversy, but she did say, “We are a company that has always been established to empower the influencer. And we are the advocates of the influencer. Our mission is 100 percent aligned with theirs, and so we will continue to be their protector as this industry emerges.”
Advantages for women in STEM: Women are still chipping away at STEM field glass ceilings, but Venz Box sees her inclusion in the tech space as an advantage. “I actually think being a woman in technology is the luckiest thing in the world,” she says. “Look, 80 percent of online purchases are made by females, and so in order to serve that market well, I think being your own customer gives you an advantage.”
The personal victory: Long-term, Venz Box wants to inspire other female entrepreneurs to achieve their goals, no matter the field they choose. “I had always wanted to run and own my own business but felt like I lacked the toolkit and the business acumen to be able to do that successfully on a grander scale,” Venz Box says. “I'm most excited that RewardStyle can create a platform that empowers these women across now 93 countries to run their own business. Many women are now the breadwinners in the family. That’s super exciting for me.”