My Unicorn born from the Yellow Pages and Lehman Brothers
by Massimo Sideri, July 24, 2019
Federico Marchetti, CEO of YNAP and founder of YOOX, says: "I went to an event to save the Indian elephants and they told me that they‘ve developed a hundred-year plan for the pachyderms. For our company, which lives immersed 50% in digital and 50 in fashion, going beyond three years is quite useless".
“I was recently with Prince Charles at a dinner to save the Indian elephants, and those in charge of the project told me that they were making a hundred-year plan for the pachyderms. A century. I told them that for those of us who live immersed 50 percent in digital and 50 percent in fashion to go beyond three is quite useless. Remaining a leader during this time is already a fairly ambitious plan". Federico Marchetti is perhaps the only entrepreneur in Italy who is truly aware of the distance that separates us from plans to save the Indian elephants. To save the Italian economy, we will have a few more years.
And yet he also has his skeletons in the closet: the yellow pages, the real ones of the past, made of paper, and Lehman Brothers. Every entrepreneur has his own personal toolbox with unique experiences. And as curious as it may seem, these are the two entrepreneurial screwdrivers - a crash, then solved, and a failed bank - with which Federico Marchetti founded YOOX, today YNAP, of which he is also the CEO, the only Italian digital leader, waiting for someone else capable of taming a unicorn. "I started my career," Marchetti said today, "as an intern at Lehman Brothers. The headquarters was in Piazza del Carmine in Milan. I had just graduated, it was 93-94, and I went to the bank not because I liked finance (in fact I never liked it) but as a deliberate choice to wake myself up. In fact after three years Ruggero Magnoni had woken me up. I worked 90 hours a week and started using the Internet, at the time a complete unknown to most people, to leave the office at midnight instead of 2 in the morning. I would do it again and recommend it: it was a kind of master's degree where I learned a lot, not about finance but about method ".
And the yellow pages?
It was Christmas of '99 and I had my business plan in hand that I had written after I left Bain'. I started looking for investors. The first venture capitalist told me: what a nice idea but who else has already invested? And one after another they repeated this phrase to me. I thought: but isn’t it your mission to arrive first? I was out of work and had the debt of my MBA. And then we arrive in February 2000, two months before the dot.com bubble burst. Reading in the newspapers of Elserino Piol, I looked in the Yellow Pages for the phone number of the Kiwi 1 fund in Piazza Duse. In the first meeting I spoke with one of his colleagues. In the second with him and in two weeks we signed the first contract. It was late February. That remained my model of doing things."
With how much did you launch YOOX?
I had a first tranche of 3 billion lire (about 1.5 million euros, editor's note) for 33 percent of the company. The second tranche, of which I do not remember the amount, was foreseen only if I had managed to get things started in three months. I went to Bologna and on 21 March 2000 I founded Yoox. On June 21st I had respected the deadlines and therefore Piol let me have the second tranche despite the fact that in the meantime the internet bubble had exploded and the doors of paradise had closed. My unconsciousness saved me.
Would it be possible to refound YOOX today? What is missing?
Elserino Piol once said that young peopole should have Marchetti and Balotelli as role models. To say that we have an ecosystem which works backwards, but cultural references are always important.
The New Yorker once called you The Geek of Chic. Do you feel more one or the other?
The New Yorker wanted to interview me. They sent John Seabrook to Milan to spend an entire week with me. I think that remains the best definition of me that a journalist has come up with: I am 50 percent geek and 50 percent chic. As for the 50% geek, I can say that I’m not Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk. I have never put my hands in the electric motor. But Steve Jobs knew what he wanted even though he had never developed it. I belong to that form of geek who understands what we want from technology as an end customer. I was 19-20 years old and I was one of the very first people in Bocconi University who had a mobile phone. I was fascinated even though it was huge. So I thought: if I have a phone in one hand and a camera in the other I can't do anything. Can't we come up with a single tool? I wasn't an engineer, but as a customer I wanted a free hand.
And 50 percent chic? Did you already like to dress elegantly before founding Yoox or was it a business-only intuition, a fashion platform in the country of fashion?
I used to go to Angelo in Lugo di Romagna where they sold vintage clothes from the USA with a hood. I still use them only now that they are from Brunello Cucinelli, while at the time they were from "Angelo’s Vintage"... I went to study a summer in England and ended up in a neighbourhood in London. Walking through the streets I saw a very ugly shoe store with crazy sales. In the window there were these hideous orange, thick soled shoes. But they cost so little that I bought them. I was 11, after 3-4 years the phenomenon of those shoes broke out, they were Timberland. I've always prided myself on having anticipated fashion. The same thing happened with a red ski down jacket I inherited from my brother. It was a Moncler. As a teenager I was interested in fashion as an element of differentiation compared to my friends.
Milan is experiencing a great cultural moment. Does a company like Yoox Net A Porter, that is half Milanese and half Londoner, feel this energy or are we far from the idea of ??a Milan Valley to rival Silicon Valley?
For us, Milan is the symbol of fashion and design and it was a great competitive advantage to be here. Today in addition to London we also have offices in Dubai, Los Angeles, Tokyo, New York. I work a lot from my smartphone. I even close deals on Whatsapp. So the roots are more important as a symbol than as a physical rooting. But in my opinion a Milan Valley already exists. People come from abroad to work here. It is no coincidence that we have just inaugurated our store of the future here in Milan, and in autumn we will open our doors to our largest automated warehouse, a jewel of cutting-edge technology, located just outside of Milan. Now Mr Porter also has a base in Italy and for me this is a source of pride: we bring the English here.
The most elegant man in the world?
Prince Charles. When he came to visit us at the London Tech hub he boasted about his very old shoes, which he had looked after very well.
Originally published in Corriere Innovazione.