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November 14, 2011

The View From The Top

It's good to be the boss. Three powerful women share the highs, lows, and biggest surprises of their kick-ass careers.

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Photo Credit: Anthony Cook

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Natalie Massenet, Founder and Executive Chairman, Net-a-Porter

After growing up in Paris and Los Angeles as the daughter of a Chanel model and a foreign correspondent, Natalie Massenet took to fashion journalism so easily it didn't seem like a serious career. "I couldn't believe I was getting paid, because to me it was just fun," she says. "Then I realized I was really passionate about it. When you love something, it doesn't feel like work."

A stint as West Coast fashion editor for Women's Wear Daily and W provided "a great education," Massenet says. "There were so many things in my job description — writing, styling, producing, researching. It was an amazing lesson in how resourceful you can be in getting things done, and a great foundation for starting a business."

Which she did, with spectacular results: Massenet will go down in fashion history as the founder of Net-a-Porter, the online luxury shopping site that blended fashion journalism with retail to become a global empire. With 42 million unique visitors last year and shipments to 170 countries, the company was sold to the Swiss luxury goods company Richemont for $532 million, netting a reported $76 million for Massenet, who retained 18 percent of Net-a-Porter and remained as its executive chairman.

Massenet's original career plan was actually quite different: She had hoped to become editor-in-chief of a magazine in New York. But by the late 1990s, she was increasingly obsessed with new possibilities. "I was saying to my friends, 'The Internet is going to change everything in fashion — you clever guys should do that over there!'" she recalls. "But my friends in business were not getting it. So I thought, Let me show you!"

After picking up a pamphlet from Barclays Bank on how to start a business, Massenet convinced 35 brands to give her stock on consignment and called everyone she knew to contribute $15,000 each to help assemble the nearly $1 million she needed to capitalize her new venture.

"I was three months pregnant when I started working on it," says Massenet, whose daughters are now 5 and 12. "I never had any doubt that women would shop online, but I never thought in a million years that our business would end up being a market leader."

To achieve that goal, Massenet has worked with single-minded focus. "It's a miracle that I have any friends left because I really disappeared for 10 years," she says. "I was completely binary; either I was working or with the kids. Both parts of my life are so consuming, but together they give me incredible balance. I think I'm a better mother because of work, because I'm happy. If I wasn't working, I would just be waiting for the kids to come home every day, and living vicariously through their lives."

For Massenet, who is vacationing on the Greek island of Santorini even as we speak by phone, work has created a fabulously different way of life. "Work means independence," she says. "It allowed me to shape my life on so many levels. I've taken an active role in creating the day-to-day life I wanted, by creating the type of place I'd like to work in. It's given me financial independence. And it's given me amazing self-confidence to know that there are no gender secrets to success. You have to work hard and be determined, but it's got nothing to do with being a man or a woman."

And new possibilities continue to beckon. "There's a tremendous amount of competition all over the world, and we're now in a completely different phase, which is reinvention," says Massenet, who is now 46. "I still feel like it's Day One. There's so much to do!"

A decade after the company was founded, Massenet says it will soon have 2,000 employees and is hiring about 100 new people a month from a pool of 3,000 weekly applicants. The original Net-a-Porter site for women has been joined by Mr. Porter for men, as well as the discount site The Outnet; other ventures include Web-enabled television in partnership with Google. "Watch something, read something, and then shop it," Massenet explains. "It's never content without commerce or commerce without content; the two are completely fused. This is what excites me."

So does the constant challenge of keeping up-to-date. "People are really scared of change, but if you don't change in this day and age, somebody comes along and runs over you," Massenet says. "In order to stay relevant, you have to stay open to new trends and keep educating yourself. You have to keep evolving."

And when she gets overwhelmed, she simply tells herself, "Just take one step, and one step, and one step. I do get stressed, but I try to make lists, pick out priorities, and focus. I think, Just keep doing your best. You don't have to be superhuman. No one else is superhuman, either."

NATALIE MASSENET'S TIPS FOR SUCCESS

1. KNOW YOUR FIELD: "The important thing is knowing what you're going to do and being an expert in what you want to do. It can be something very simple, like being an artist doing screen prints on T-shirts. But don't pick an industry you have nothing to do with, and make sure you have a basic skill set or knowledge."

2. DEVELOP A VIABLE BUSINESS MODEL: "Start small, do everything beautifully, have the right people around you, and make sure what you do generates money, because you can't sustain a business that doesn't make money. It sounds simple, but a lot of people don't have any idea of how they're going to make the money."

3. GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME: "Never forget that you only have one opportunity to make a first impression — with investors, with customers, with PR, and with marketing."

4. PLAN FOR THE LONG TERM: "When I started, my entire salary went into paying the nanny. But I knew my salary would increase. You are building something, and your business gets bigger. I can invest today and get the return tomorrow."


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