As a young girl, fashion was in Amber Venz's blood. Her mother would dress her up in stylish outfits that drew attention at school and she was already learning how to make her own clothes.
Both her grandmothers were seamstresses who taught her how to sew and knit. By fifth grade, Venz was knitting "all sorts of stuff" and selling her handmade wares to classmates.
"My teacher asked me to leave the classroom because I couldn't sell things in the back row of math class," Venz recalls.
It was her first taste of entrepreneurship, and she was hooked.
By the time she was in high school, she was designing and selling jewelry. And by the time she was 23, Venz was running a website that showcased her work as a personal shopper. "I posted three times a day, and it was like trend stories and sale alerts," she says.
Within a few months, the site was generating so much buzz around her hometown of Dallas that The Dallas Morning News ran a full-page story in the paper about her site. "It said 'Meet the Blogger... She is now doing all these services online for free.' My blog actually became quite famous," she says.
But the "for free" part irked her.
Baxter Box, who was her boyfriend at the time and is now her husband, got her thinking about how she could make money from the "free" fashion and style tips she was offering on her site. That's when they came up with RewardStyle, an invitation-only platform that allows fashion and lifestyle bloggers and influencers to make money from the content they post.
Here's how it works: Bloggers write a post or post a photo on social media and hyperlink to a particular brand or retailer's web site. If a person clicks on the link and purchases the featured product, then the blogger gets a commission.
Venz says the commissions vary depending on the brand, but are typically between 10% and 20%.
RewardStyle gets a cut as well, but Venz wouldn't disclose how much the company makes each time an influencer helps make a sale. "Everyone only gets paid when a consumer actually makes a purchase and the retailer is paid. It is all commission-based," she said.
As many as 25,000 influencers across the fashion, beauty, travel and lifestyle industries currently use RewardStyle.
"These are primarily women who love fashion or interiors or talking about their family or their fitness routines and they have attracted an audience that loves their point of view and comes to their content on a daily basis," says Venz. "We've given them a way to monetize that."
And 4,500 brands, including Walmart, CVS, Amazon and Gucci, also use the platform.
RewardStyle has 250 employees and says it has generated $3.8 billion in total sales for brands since it was founded in 2011. Venz says the business is profitable, but declined to disclose its revenue.
Getting to this point hasn't been easy.
Within a few months of launching RewardStyle, Venz nearly lost it all.
"We were in a very tiny office. We had one engineer, one assistant, and myself," she recalls. "For whatever reason, that engineer one day called and said, 'I'm not coming in anymore.... I'm going to charge you hundreds of dollars per hour to maintain the site. If not, the site's coming down.'"
Thinking about that moment gives her chills. "That could have been the end of RewardStyle," she says. "Luckily we found a guy who is phenomenal and has been with us since those very earliest days."
The startup has since raised $15 million from investors.
Maverick Capital Ventures is RewardStyle's largest investor so far, says David Singer, a managing partner at the firm. He declined to disclose the size of the investment, however.
Singer says RewardStyle caught the firm's attention for two reasons: "First, the business is about finding exceptional entrepreneurs and Amber herself is an exceptional entrepreneur...Amber is very clear that her core principle is always about celebrating her influencers and giving them the tools to achieve economic independence."
Despite the company's success, Venz wants to keep innovating.
"We are not low on ideas. So the thinking that we've peaked early is honestly not something that's crossed my mind," she says.
In 2017, for example, the business introduced a consumer shopping app called LIKEtoKNOW.it. The app lets users take a screenshot of content anywhere on the internet created by an influencer they follow. RewardStyle will then send them links to buy the products that appear in the screenshot. The app has 2 million users and has generated $210 million in sales for its retail partners so far.
"One of the things I love about RewardStyle is that it is empowering thousands of women to do the thing I always wanted to do, which was work in the fashion and media industry," says Venz.
For more on fashion and culture, watch the premiere of "American Style" on Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
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