Breaking down boundaries to create the future
by Federico Marchetti, September 26, 2017
For me, boundaries are a mysterious idea. Not setting myself boundaries has always been part of my DNA. Consequently, it has become part of my business, whose mission is to operate globally, using technology to break through cultural frontiers and geographical borders. To give you one example: sometimes Italian companies that decide to open their businesses abroad, put Italian managers in charge, but we think that is a cultural mistake. Experience and history teach us that you need to understand the culture of the country in which you’re working, trusting in diversity and investing in it. That’s why during the recruitment stage we looked for a mix of nationalities that might resemble the popular old joke about an Italian, an Englishman and a German, but that really is the best way to break down boundaries – in this case Italian business culture – and pave the way to a truly global approach. Another example: YOOX entered China in 2010, before any other fashion e-tailer. Doing so generated a “to do list” of 101 things that had to be dealt with one by one, each stemming from the differences between our culture and theirs. I believe that difference is what makes the difference, because it has always shifted limits – starting with the first ones we know about, built by the Romans.
In ancient Roman culture, the limes marked the border with the unknown – a shield against the danger of the end of civilisation. At the same time the limes was also the opposite: a thin line of communication with unknown lands, the means to understand cultures that did not speak the language of Rome – a two-way street. It marked an absolute point, but only because it was relative.
Throughout history, both science and religion have addressed this personal, rather than practical, need to overcome one’s own ‘Pillars of Hercules’ – the laws of the mind and soul rather than the body. That is really what makes up the DNA of homo sapiens, who began to expand their personal boundaries before their geographical ones over a million years ago. Since then we haven’t stopped pushing back our personal frontiers.
This is also the philosophy behind my entire professional and personal adventure. I really wanted to be an entrepreneur. I didn’t think of an entrepreneur as someone who built companies, but someone who pushed boundaries, creating value by sharing knowledge and overcoming stereotypes. Many years on, I remain convinced of that. An entrepreneur is above all someone who breaks down barriers, who brings together apparently opposing worlds. We do so with a lingua franca, which used to be Latin and today is the internet.
Way back in 1999 – before Wikipedia, Facebook and the iPhone – this hunch led me to create YOOX, an idea that was cultural before it was technological. I wanted to break down the boundaries between the internet and fashion: two worlds that everyone thought could not be bridged because they had never before communicated with one another.
Internet is the most powerful means ever invented to overcome boundaries. Before the internet, the Earth was enormous, closed off, divided into unknown and often incomprehensible cultures. The internet has forever changed human life because it has eliminated space and time – the two fundamental boundaries that have defined humans for millennia.
I like to think that this move towards a universal language is down to an Italian – one of the greatest minds in human history. In his ‘Codex Atlanticus’, Leonardo da Vinci wrote: “Men of the most distant countries shall speak to one another and shall respond and talk and touch and embrace from one hemisphere to the other, and they shall understand each other’s languages.” So it was Leonardo who was the first to conceive of the internet in terms of a single, simple language for future ages.
But reflecting on Leonardo’s role in the conception of the internet also led me to consider another aspect, which has much to do with technology and barriers. Leonardo was born and lived in Vinci but was often in Florence, pushing back his personal frontiers from when he was young, leading him to Milan, France, and many other places as well. I’ve always wondered what Leonardo thought about as he was travelling back and forth through Tuscany, what he saw, and how he felt. Then one day, walking in Silicon Valley, I found the answer. Although the setting and level of beauty is incomparable, back then in Tuscany Leonardo saw what we see today in California: an active ruling class, financial and cultural resources, and a lingua franca that breaks down barriers and brings together different approaches, cultures and people. Then it was art, now it is technology. Fifteenth century Tuscany broke down the barriers between people and places – and this continues today in Silicon Valley, the only place in the world right now where there are no limits and everything is possible.
Moreover, the greatest achievements of Italian thinkers and companies have always come when they have looked outwards: medieval traders, Renaissance artists, the Futurists and of course the post-war boom. Faced with this fact, it’s hard to understand why in the last twenty years the trend in our country has been reversed and the paradigm has turned on its head. Despite a few major exceptions, it is as if in recent decades the mental – even more than economic – confines of the Italian people have become ever narrower, contrary to what was happening in the rest of the world, but above all at odds with the best Italian tradition. That is why, right from day one, I wanted YOOX to look overseas, distributing throughout Europe and communicating from the first both in Italian and English. Thanks to this vision we received our first order from the Netherlands, which meant we could go into the second round of investment in better shape. If YOOX hadn’t had that support from abroad, if we had not pushed the boundaries of our Italian world, I would not be here writing this today. And now, we have three million active customers from Japan to Arkansas. That is the reason for our success: moving the boundaries and joining the dots, bringing together a possible universe of customers with the creativity of the best designers from around the world.
Some people now say that pushing boundaries means losing your identity. That is not true – and the facts prove it. Rather, expanding our boundaries means reviving the best of Italian traditions around the world. But there’s more. I firmly believe that expanding our boundaries will protect us by allowing us to maximise our competitive advantage, which above all is the advantage of imagination, spirit, vision and attitude. And what does that mean if not the ability to look beyond our borders, pushing our limits and barriers? I believe that is the true meaning of ‘Made in Italy’ – and it’s something we must understand before we can build upon it. At its core, but also in day-to-day practice, ‘Made in Italy’ is a brand that guarantees that the best things throughout the world are, indeed, made in Italy.
I have no doubt that what I have done in my life is because I have travelled a lot, especially when I was very young. I have a six-year-old daughter and I want to pass this on to her, because above all travel teaches you to open up the boundaries in your own mind. You can only get to know the “other” in their own habitat; otherwise, it’s like going to the zoo. My daughter is half English, so it pains me that she will live in a time when London is no longer in Europe. To think that two years ago I oversaw the first and only Italy-UK cross-border merger between two fashion e-tailers, YOOX and NET-A-PORTER!
I shall continue to push boundaries, to test the limits and combine experiences within the company as well, where I encourage employees to try out different roles and fields, and to keep moving forward. Could that be because while I am seen as a businessman, I think of myself first and foremost as a creative and I never know where to set my own limits?
Originally published in WIRED Italia.