Behind the Screens: Talking with Shilpa Naik of Moxsie

Earlier this year, we started Behind the Screens to get to know some of the many people creating most of the value at Silicon Valley startups. In the past, we’ve featured the lead developer of the popular Zynga game “Mafia Wars.” We’ve also interviewed the media engineer of Automattic, best known for its open-source blogging software WordPress.

Today, we emailed with Shilpa Naik, director of merchandising at the 14-person Palo Alto startup Moxsie, an online retailer focused on selling fashions from up-and-coming designers. Naik, who joined Moxsie from Gap Inc., has had to be scrappy. Though Moxie is raising a Series B round right now from Alloy Ventures and individual investors, the company raised just $1 million nearly two years ago from Alloy. Luckily, the 32-year-old Chicago native knows a thing or two about dollars and cents, as well as about getting creative; she studied economics at the University of Illinois Champaign Urbana before nabbing a second bachelors degree in graphic design at the Art Institute in Chicago.

How did you wind up in San Francisco?

While I was at the Art Institute, I was working for an industrial design firm in Chicago and after graduating, I moved to San Francisco in search for a design job. I soon found out that the design market was extremely saturated, so I decided to pursue a career in fashion instead.

I first landed a job in merchandising at Zappos, when it was headquartered in SF. It was a fun place to work and I even moved with the company to Las Vegas. But after living in Vegas for a year I was recruited by Piperlime, a division of Gap Inc., to help launch its new online shoe store. I worked there as a buyer before heading to Moxsie in June of 2009.

Why did you leave a big company for a startup, especially one with relatively little capital?

I was there for three years but the corporate environment was very difficult to maneuver. When the opportunity at Moxsie arose, I knew it’d be a great way to help grow the merchandising division of a small company. It was also an opportunity to be involved in styling of the photo shoots, an area I’d always been passionate about.

So how would you describe your job?

As the director of merchandising I manage a team of three assistant buyers and one photographer to create a compelling assortment for our target indie fashion consumer. We analyze sales and maintain inventory, seek out new brands and manage daily photo shoots for women’s and men’s apparel, women’s and men’s footwear, handbags, jewelry and accessories, like watches, sunglasses, and gadgets. We also create the brand and lifestyle images seen in the boutiques, on the homepage and the landing page.

And what are most days like?

Each day starts with checking out sales for the week. After that I monitor inventory and determine if any products need to be reordered to avoid missed sales. I also make sure there’s a steady flow of new merchandise so the site never appears stale. Our new arrivals category is one of the most trafficked, so it’s important to make sure it appears fresh and fun.

Are you spending a lot of the day writing purchase orders then, or making related calls?

Yes, we have 96 brands on the site, and all of the designers are independently owned. That said, there is hardly any time spent on the phone; they all communicate over email.

What happens next?

In the morning one of the assistant buyers goes to our photo studio, located in our warehouse a few blocks away, to manage the shoot. After lunch I go to the studio and review the final images with our photographer. I also check out any new products that might have arrived that day and determine the schedule for the week.

Do your job involve much traveling?

Twice a year we travel to Vegas to attend Project, a large trade show that’s dedicated to up-and-coming independent brands. If needed we’ll travel to the LA or NY market shows, too, but Vegas is definitely the most important.

Once a quarter my team and I also do a “comp shopping” trip in SF. We check out comparable boutiques in neighborhoods like Hayes Valley and the Mission. We look for new designers, current trends and pricing, like markdowns. Based on the trends we see, we update the lifestyle categories on our site. For example, this spring we’ll introduce new trends such as nautical and pops of neon. We also trend watch by reading fashion blogs and magazines. In this industry it’s definitely important to be on trend, especially with the onslaught of blogs and social media. As Heidi [Klum] says, “One minute you’re in and the next you’re out.”

What are the best parts of your job?

I love the ownership that I have and the ability to use my creative skills. Although my title is merchandiser I’m also a stylist and graphic designer. I’m even learning a bit of HTML, which is challenging but fun.

Our ready-to-wear photo shoots are always exciting,  and they help to break up the monotony of sitting at your desk all day.

I also enjoy developing relationships with the vendors. In my previous experience [at Gap Inc.], it was hard to truly own this aspect of the job. Now, without the red tape, it’s much easier to develop successful partnerships with even the smallest independent vendor.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

I’m usually able to anticipate an accurate sales-to-inventory ratio by season, but as we grow, we sometimes have to react very quickly to certain situations.

The other challenge would probably be budget. I never really knew the ins and outs of hiring a photographer, booking a model or liquidating old merchandise. It was always someone else’s job to worry about [a lot of these things]!

If you weren’t working at Moxsie right now, what would you be doing instead?

I really love my job, but if I had to do something else, I’d be an architect or interior designer.