Defining moments interview series: Natalie Massenet DBE, founder of Net-a-Porter and co-founder of Imaginary Ventures
2 July 2021
Dame Natalie Massenet on being an optimist, embracing change and paying attention.
The day the world went into lockdown, Dame Natalie Massenet had two video conference calls. “That afternoon, I bought shares in Zoom,” she says.
It’s this ability to see into the future just that bit further or quicker than the rest of us that separates Massenet from the herd. She believes this professional insight is heavily intertwined with her personality. “I have always been an optimist,” she says. “I’m always thinking about what’s next. Some people see change as disruption; I see opportunity.” Her conversation is peppered with references to words such as change, positivity and magic, and she’s open and candid.
The 55-year-old pioneered luxury eCommerce when she founded the shopping site Net-A-Porter in 2000, turning it into one of one of the world’s most influential fashion businesses. She was made a dame in 2015 for her work in changing the face of retail.
Born in the US to a British mother and an American father, Massenet worked in journalism for Women’s Wear Daily, Tatler and W Magazine. Here, she honed her considerable skill of understanding what the consumer needs, often before they even know it themselves. At Women’s Wear Daily, she explains: “We were taught not to show up unless we had three new trends, so I learned quickly to observe what was going on and to recognise patterns.”
This skill, combined with her optimism, Massenet says, has stood her in good stead for embracing change: “As long as I can remember I have always been thinking about magic in life and how things can be transformed.”
Her family heritage meant that she grew up between Paris, LA, Japan and London. “The early move from Paris to LA really taught me that you can keep moving forward and that wonderful things can happen when you leap into the future,” Massenet says. “That was defining, I think. I have always felt like a citizen of the world, with a keen sense of what unites us. Had I never moved as a child, maybe I may not have been as entrepreneurial.”
After graduating, she moved to Tokyo with no network and no job – another defining moment: “My father raised me to not be afraid of what’s on the other side of the mountain.”
The other side of the mountain, for Massenet, eventually turned out to be a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, though she didn’t know it when she was working herself to the bone at the start. Everyone told her that Net-A-Porter would never catch on, despite the early endorsement of her friends, fashion designer Anya Hindmarch and Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon.
“I just never wavered in my belief,” she says. At the start, she adds: “I was a journalist. I had no business experience. But I did have innate people skills.” Her 15 years at Net-A-Porter, she says, “were my MBA. Very early on I realised that nobody was approaching the opportunity to serve consumers remotely and digitally in the way we were.”
In 2018, along with successful venture capitalist Nick Brown, Massenet launched Imaginary Ventures to help “new voices” in consumer goods and to support companies they believe in. “We are seeing businesses in areas where consumers have previously been ignored, such as inclusive sizing,” she says. Brands in this area backed by Imaginary Ventures include Universal Standard and Good American. “I came up with the name Imaginary when I left Net-A-Porter and I needed an email address, so I thought I’d better set up an LLC, though I didn’t know what it would be,” she says, as though that thought would occur to everyone.
Other businesses backed by Imaginary Ventures (with assets under management currently valued at more than $300m) include Glossier, SKIMS, the soon-to-launch Ami Colé (a brand for ‘melanin-rich’ skin), and GoodFair, which addresses landfill issues by offering a platform to purchase previously used and recycled goods. “In every sector consumer habits are changing, and the way consumers discover things are changing,” Massenet says. “We think a lot about what people want next and being able to be part of this change is great.”
Naturally, there have been lessons learned along the way. “It’s been a constant learning process,” Massenet says. “I’ve made 8,442 mistakes I won’t repeat but I can turn that into advice. I can pass on knowledge to my children and to entrepreneurs.” The key learning, she says, is “just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it can’t”. The other, a real zinger: “Whenever you want to achieve something, creating a win-win scenario is 100 per cent effective.”
For a futurist like Massenet, at the moment “every day is a mind explosion”. “The pace of change and amount of information is extraordinary,” she adds. “The sheer amount of data, inspiring content and access to what people are thinking in real time is incredible.”
You could view this with trepidation but, she says, like a true optimist: “Ultimately, all of this is going to lead to increased empathy and truth.”
First published on the FT.com and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.