In this episode of the McKinsey on Start-ups podcast, McKinsey senior editor Daniel Eisenberg speaks with Maximilian Bittner, the chairman and CEO of Vestiaire Collective, a leading, global online fashion resale marketplace. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Daniel Eisenberg: Hello and welcome to McKinsey on Start-ups, I’m Daniel Eisenberg.
Buying used clothes is far from a new phenomenon. A certain segment of every new generation of teens and 20-somethings invariably gets drawn into spending time combing through the racks at thrift shops or flea markets. But in the last decade, the emergence of online, peer-to-peer fashion resale marketplaces has turned the act of purchasing and selling used clothes into a much more mainstream activity. Even before the pandemic, the growing interest in sustainability and the circular economy had helped fuel momentum in this brand of grassroots-driven ecommerce; once COVID-19 began, more and more people forced to stay at home found themselves going through their closets to see what potential merchandise they had to offer.
Today we are excited to be able to speak with the head of one of the leading start-ups in this space. Max Bittner is a tech entrepreneur and CEO of Vestiaire Collective, a global, community-driven platform for pre-owned fashion, which he joined in early 2019. Seven years before that, Bittner founded Lazada, the top online shopping destination in Southeast Asia. In 2016, following Lazada’s rapid growth, Alibaba Group purchased a controlling stake, and two years later, Bittner moved from his CEO position into an advisory role. Earlier in his career, Bittner worked in Morgan Stanley’s investment banking division in London prior to joining McKinsey & Company in Germany.
Max, thanks so much for joining us today.
Max Bittner: Thank you so much for having me.
Daniel Eisenberg: Tell us about Vestiaire Collective and what it hopes to achieve as a company.
Max Bittner: Overall, the concept of Vestiaire is that we want to be an inspirational, trusted fashion resale platform. We’re really dedicated to changing the industry for good by making fashion as sustainable as it is desirable, promoting the circle of fashion as the alternative to the industry’s wasteful practices. We are present in about 80 markets, have over ten million members, and we’re really the only true global resale platform for premium, preloved fashion.
Daniel Eisenberg: As you pointed out, sustainability in a circular economy is a key part of your business model. Tell us about the consumers that are driving the sustainability imperative and therefore driving your growth. How do the fashion-related shopping habits of, say, Millennial and Gen Z consumers differ from those of prior generations?
Max Bittner: Before I go into that, I think it’s important to step back and ask, what is fashion? Fashion is amazing at creating desire, at bringing dreams into reality. And that’s why Vestiaire was founded by people who really love fashion. But let’s also face it. Fashion fuels some of the world’s biggest problems: Overconsumption, overproduction, climate change, work ethics, et cetera.
It’s really at a point of dramatic change where it needs to adapt, because the consumers are expecting it to adapt. And if we’re honest, the only truly sustainable piece of clothing out there, if you’re not going naked, is probably hanging in your closet already, versus buying it.
What we really want to do is encourage people to understand the value of the assets they have hanging in their closets, that they think of a product not just at its original purchasing price, but the price after the primary purchase.
It’s really around education. At the heart of the circular economy is explaining to people that there’s a life after the initial purchase, and that maybe their trash is someone else’s treasure.
Daniel Eisenberg: Do you find that there is a generational difference at all?
Max Bittner: I don’t think there’s a generational difference in the way people fundamentally consume. I think there’s a difference how fast people adopt new trends. Another example that is close to home for me is the way and the speed at which people adopted mobile phones, and the way they use mobile phones for e-commerce, shopping. In Asia, the app became much more relevant than in Europe or in the US, just because there were no alternatives. You had a very hungry population, a young population, that wanted to access the same kind of things that were available in the West.
That doesn’t mean that people in the West don’t use apps. You and me use WhatsApp. You and me use phones for multiple things. Just for e-commerce, we had very good alternatives. So the actual adoption of something new just takes longer.
Fashion resale is not a new industry. But with the app it’s much more gamified. And I think younger people are just faster at adopting new things because they’re not necessarily tied to the past in the way they consume.
So I think it’s faster adoption, but not necessarily a different mindset. I think when people start engaging with secondhand, they get it. In the end, it’s a very simple concept, where you get better prices. Your behavior is less polluting, so it has a very high feel-good factor. It comes from the younger adopters. But I think it’s spreading very fast.
Daniel Eisenberg: I’m wondering a little bit about the purpose-driven aspect, the sustainability part of things—if you have any belief that that appeals more to younger folks these days.
Max Bittner: I think at some point everyone young goes through this phase, “Oh my God, we have to save the planet tomorrow.” I was born in Germany in the late ‘70s, but I grew up in the ‘80s, when the Green Party started entering government. They closed the highways on Sundays so people wouldn’t use their cars. We started collecting all different sorts of trash, and bringing it to school to separate.
I guess younger people still have better dreams. And I think sadly, as people become more focused on the real world and the real problems of feeding their kids and making sure that everyone is healthy, sometimes this planet that we need to save becomes of secondary importance.
But I think what is happening right now, and why this is more front and center than it’s ever been before, is because we’re starting to now live through the first real impacts of what global warming actually means.
In the past, it’s been very conceptual. And now, just look at the weather events happening, the almost undeniable evidence that this is tied to global warming.
I think right now, we have no choice. That’s why I joined Vestiaire, it’s the bottom line. Because when I look back over the massive transformational changes that e-commerce had on the world, and I then had to look for something new, I really just stepped back and said, “Okay, what is going to be the most defining thing that will happen to the world of the next 20, 30, 40 years?” And ideally, you do something that is tied to that trend, because things are much easier when you have the wind at your back. The only real massive global trend that I could foresee was global warming.
Daniel Eisenberg: After Lazada, you arguably could have gone into any aspect of e-commerce in a CEO position with a different company. And you chose Vestiaire. So it sounds like the sustainability aspect of it was in some ways the real deciding factor.
Max Bittner: Absolutely. I had no clear plan of whether I wanted to build a new business or whether I wanted to join an existing business. I felt that e-commerce is what I knew, and I felt it had a long way to go. I started looking in that area, and the Vestiaire opportunity came to me. I wasn’t particularly looking for it. But the moment I engaged with it, I just realized how it could give me an even higher purpose—especially after Lazada and the success that Lazada had—one that is not just about GMV (gross merchandise value) growth and valuations, and some of these more prominent things that people obsess about these days.
I have three daughters now. I’ve been incredibly fortunate. So I felt it gave me an amazing opportunity to give back, to apply the learnings that I had made over the years to something that is actually bringing good results without having to make a compromise, to being ambitious and doing good.
I think quite often people are faced with this choice between doing good for themselves and doing good for the planet. And the beautiful thing about our business model is that it is circular. As a result, when we do well we also do good for the planet.
Daniel Eisenberg: And was the sustainability aspect of it part of the pitch to you, in a way?
Max Bittner: Not really. The investors who reached out to me at the time looked at this very much as a secondhand, luxury fashion business. I don’t think people were yet seeing how big the sustainable opportunity could be. And I really have to admit, I didn’t see it either. I thought it was a wild card, five, six years out, where anything that helps save the planet is a good business. But the speed at which it now came absolutely surprised me.
However, it has always been part of the vision of the founders. Fanny [Moizant] and Sophie [Hersan] and I talk about this every day, because I think it’s really at the heart of what we do. But it has really crystallized much more over the last years, just as the topic became so front and center.
Daniel Eisenberg: Obviously the pandemic also helped spur fashion resale commerce, with people being stuck at home, looking at their closets and thinking about scaling down a little rather than going out and shopping.
Max Bittner: Yeah, COVID did drive digital adoption. On top of that, people were at home, and had to keep busy in many ways. But also, many people faced real uncertainty, both health uncertainty and also financial uncertainty.
And this is coming back to this concept that fashion is an asset, not a consumable—if you treat it the right way, if you don’t destroy the clothes that you have, or you don’t buy really cheap fashion that falls apart after you wear it or wash it three times. So by selling and monetizing their wardrobes, they were able to also alleviate some of their financial concerns. On the buying side, yes, the stores were closed, but you could buy things cheaper, and you could still afford the same brands. So you didn’t have to make this compromise.
I think we did, as bad as it has been, benefit from COVID. But most importantly, I think COVID has resulted a bit in the comeback of science, where doctors and scientists became the primary voice that people started listening to again. And once you start listening to how scary COVID has been and then the potential impact of global warming being exponentially worse, I think it’s just given everyone a really, really rude awakening, yeah?
Daniel Eisenberg: Yeah. I definitely think it’s been a reminder of existential risk.
Switching gears, the booming market in resale fashion is obviously crowded. How do you set yourself apart? What do you believe are the most distinctive elements of Vestiaire’s business model?
Max Bittner: Yes, the space is competitive. If you look at the players who are out there today, most of them were founded around the same time, after the last financial crisis. Vestiaire was founded in 2009. Tradesy was founded around the same time. The RealReal also. So most of these players are all now more than ten years old. But I think they’ve now just become much more visible through the positive momentum that the overall space has enjoyed.
Right now people are becoming much more nuanced when they think about resale because there’s no one resale model, and there are very differentiated offerings that cater to different customer needs. I really rarely think of them as competitors. If you think about who our competitors are, there’s a much bigger pie of people who buy firsthand clothes than competing for the pie of people who buy secondhand clothes. I really look at all of us as jointly educating the market. I joke about it, but I love nothing more than my competitors launching a massive TV campaign because it means I don’t need to explain to people how secondhand works. I can then focus on how I’m different, yeah?
So coming back to your question, how are we different, we really believe in in the scale of the marketplace, scale of assortment. We want to make as broad an assortment possible for the items that we believe are perfect for secondhand. And those are more high-end items. I think the whole point for secondhand is not driving increased consumption because you’re able to buy and sell really fast and therefore buy more, but actually that you buy less but you buy higher quality. As a result, if you want to buy higher quality, you very quickly go to more luxury, high-end fashion. So we really look at this higher-end fashion space, where we want to provide as broad an assortment as possible for people to really be inspired, to find things they can’t find anymore, this whole concept of Alibaba’s cave, a treasure hunt.
And then we want to make our model adaptable to make the order economics work for this broad assortment. The order economics for a 10,000 euro Birkin bag are incredibly different than the order economics of a 150 euro Isabel Marant dress. Especially if you send it cross-border to one of the 80 markets from which customers can buy. So I really adapted the model to make it more flexible. We do provide advanced authentication for every item and every customer who wants it. But we’ve now adapted our business model and said, “Not every customer necessarily values that service of authentication.” So we allow them to opt out of this authentication, do what we call direct shipping.
That’s a key part of how we really differentiate ourselves from the two biggest buckets of competitors. One is really the asset heavy, hands-on players who try to control the stock and the authentication as much as possible, and on the other end is the very open, relaxed, peer-to-peer players like the Poshmarks, Depops, and Vinteds of this world. We put ourselves a bit in the middle, albeit still with the focus on higher-end basket sizes.
We believe customers are not as artificially separated by the business models, as these business models might want. Very few people only have luxury and very few people only have fast fashion. If you look at the biggest, broadest sense of the consumer, they have a lot of day-to-day wear. They have some fast fashion. But they also have these investment pieces. So if you really want to cater to that target customer, you need to be able to offer both services. We’re the only ones who provide this authentication service if you want it, but you can opt out of it for certain price points. That way it works economically for both the customers and for us.
The third piece where we really want to differentiate ourselves on is building a very engaging social commerce experience that is gamified. This is really the learnings I’ve had from Asia, from Southeast Asia, working of course with Lazada, but then also learning from Alibaba, where e-commerce has just developed slightly different from the US, which is very Amazon dogmatized on how e-commerce should be done.
Secondhand is really about discoverability. So gamifying the experience and making it fun and engaging for both buyers and sellers is really the third big pillar.
Daniel Eisenberg: Your point about a mix between high-end luxury and day-to-day is even more relevant these days when people aren’t necessarily at offices all the time, but occasionally want to get out of their comfortable clothes to dress up and start to go out, enjoy restaurants, bars and performances again, for instance.
When you think about fashion as a dynamic industry, where consumer behavior and taste can change pretty rapidly, what are the challenges of staying innovative, and how can technology help?
Max Bittner: I think the beautiful thing about our business model is that we are a marketplace. So while fashion tastes change incredibly fast at least I don’t have to worry about that. Our sellers are people who buy these products according to what fashions they follow in this particular month or week or year or decade.
The main focus for us really is to stay on top of changing consumer expectations with regards to the tech aspect of it. And tech is really our weapon to reduce friction points between buyers and sellers. If you think about a successful marketplace, it is purely defined by the liquidity it provides to sellers. It’s nothing else, yeah? if you think about our business, the only thing we need to do—and only is of course being massively simplistic—but the only thing we really need to do is to continuously remove any points of friction that stop this liquidity. If you think about technology, I mean, that’s all we do. We prioritize ways in which we can reduce friction to make it easier for a seller to sell and the buyer to buy. And ideally for them to meet somewhere in the middle in in the most efficient way.
Daniel Eisenberg: I saw that the company is on quite a bit of a hiring spree for tech talent these days.
Max Bittner: It never stops.
This is the beautiful thing that I’ve learned over the last ten years. There’s a lot of platforms out there. And I was as guilty of this as most. We spend exorbitant amounts of money on marketing and coupons. But in the end, most of that is borrowed time. The best investment is still always in just better tech. Most every decision I make is around, do I spend the marketing dollar today or does it make sense to make the product that little bit better? And very often I convince myself to delay spending more marketing another two, three months, and instead improve the product along the way.
Daniel Eisenberg: And how challenging is it to get the best engineers and data scientists to join a company like yours’?
Max Bittner: Of course it’s very hard, especially now in a post-COVID world. The way that work and the workplace has changed has made the battle for the best engineers even harder. There’s many companies now that are offering only work from home, work from anywhere concept.
So the war for talent is as hard as it’s always been, with the additional complexity that you’re now hiring a lot of people who’ve possibly never met each other, which really makes it hard over time to keep the culture and the values of the business consistent.
What we’ve really focused on and where we really can differentiate ourselves is that we’re very clear about our mission and our vision. And that vision is a bigger one, it’s not just about being the best company at XYZ. But it’s really about being a company that addresses the world’s biggest problem that we will face for the next century, which is global warming. And we really try to emphasize that this is extremely authentic in the way we do it, because it touches everything that we do. And that message comes across extremely well on the recruiting side.
Daniel Eisenberg: Let’s talk about the luxury brands and your business. I think one of your priorities coming into Vestiaire was to build broader and deeper relationships with luxury brands, many of whom even just a few years ago were said to view the resale markets with a certain degree of wariness. I’m wondering how these relationships have evolved for your company given the potential for value reinforcement and lifecycle extension balanced against concerns about risk of cannibalization. I know you recently got an investment from Kering, which owns several luxury brands like Gucci and Balenciaga. So I would think to a certain degree those relationships have improved.
Max Bittner: Yeah, the bottom line is there’s no secondhand fashion without firsthand fashion. By definition, we can’t ignore the existence of brands because if they don’t exist, we don’t exist, yeah? So I want to understand the brands. I want to understand their needs. I want to see how we can help each other. That’s always been a core pillar of Vestiaire’s, not just mine.
Over the last ten years, as we and some of our brothers and sisters in arms have built these businesses, I think it was not really top of mind for most of these luxury brands, as they didn’t really have to think about it. But then over the last three, four years, these brands had to face our existence.
And like always, I don’t think there’s a homogenous way that all of these brands have reacted. I’ve really spent the last two years trying to think about, Okay, we are here. We’re not going to go away. We’re not dependent on the brands. But saying, “I don’t care what the brands want or do,” is not the right approach, either. Because the brands have something that is absolutely invaluable for me. Apart from, of course, their firsthand products, it’s their knowledge of what people actually have in their wardrobe. I always talk about this treasure hunt. And this Alibaba’s cave, but that Alibaba’s cave needs to be populated with all the world’s wardrobes. And the best way for me to get an understanding of what lies in these wardrobes is ideally to work together with the brands, work together with the online and offline retailers.
So practically from the day I started, I began reaching out to the brands. And I said, “This is what we’re trying to achieve. This is what I’m hoping to learn from you.” But then I really focused on the fact, what can I give back to them? And especially on the luxury side, I have tried to emphasize the point that we’re in no way a threat or cannibalizing their sales. On the contrary, if anything, we’re educating consumers of the fact that they should buy less and buy better, yeah? And by buying less and by buying better, this whole concept of buying assets, not consumables, can help justify the high prices that many of these brands command. So I really spend time on saying, “We’re nothing but paying homage to your brands by the fact that you can resell these products after six, 12, 18 months.”
I’ve really gone out of my way and spent the last two years trying to find ways that we can work together. The obvious ones are reducing friction points in the marketplace. Topics like authentication, like how fast you can deposit. And also, of course, encouraging circularity. If you sell your old, you can buy something new and get incentivized to it.
Daniel Eisenberg: And they have become a lot more receptive?
Max Bittner: Over the last two years, it’s absolutely astounding how fast all these brands have accepted this new reality. You know, from two years ago, where there were real doubts and concerns to today, being incredibly open. I had lunch yesterday with the CEO of one of the biggest brands, and he says he love it. He said it will take time. It’s not something you do overnight because there’s many things to do. And if you want to do it, you do it right. But they’re all incredibly open to it.
The fact is, it’s less what the brands want or what I want. It’s what the consumers want. The consumer expects brands to act sustainable and responsible today. And once you really start looking at the details, if you want to act sustainable, it’s very hard to not address secondhand.
So I think they’re coming to this space knowing that there’s almost no way around it. But they’re also really recognizing it’s not a choice between a rock and a hard place, it’s actually something that can benefit them.
They’re very excited. They’re still trying to figure out what their place is, what our place is. There’s a value chain, and there’s money to be made. And everyone wants to make sure they get their fair share or more.
Daniel Eisenberg: You’re already working with certain brands or retailers to help them launch their own resale offerings, with customers who can come in and sell something online and then get store credit. I’ve heard the term resale-as-a-service. Is that something that you can envision as a growing part of your business?
Max Bittner: Yeah, absolutely. We have fantastic partnerships with Alexander McQueen. We have a great partnership with Mytheresa, which is an e-commerce player, where they encourage their existing customers to sell their old goods and buy new in exchange. It helps them increase customer loyalty. It helps us acquire supply. It’s a really win-win situation.
Daniel Eisenberg: Let’s talk about branding and marketing. You mentioned earlier that in the end, it’s technology that is the real weapon and that the early days of spending so much on marketing and coupons can in retrospect not seem as smart or productive for the long term. But I would think that to some degree, branding and marketing are still critical to Vestiaire’s success. And I’m just wondering about the particular brand identity you’ve sought to establish for Vestiaire.
Max Bittner: It’s actually a very, very timely question because we have actually not spent a lot of money on branding and marketing over the last two years, because as I mentioned before, I had made a lot of mistakes.
I’ve spent a lot of money in Southeast Asia on marketing, way more than I would be proud to admit, most of it not that efficiently spent. So when I came here, I really wanted to do it differently.
Before I started ramping up the marketing, I really wanted to build a great user experience, great customer experience, a really sticky product that works. And that worked really well for the last two years. We really focused on what I would call engagement: Daily active users, monthly active users; how often you make people come back each month; push notifications; how do you use the app? How do you make the app exciting, that people come back and open the app every day? Things like making an offer, which is a negotiation tool; or price drops notification. So everything we did, also driving traffic, was tied around the product. We spent almost no money on marketing, had incredibly low customer acquisition rates.
It’s actually only about now that we’re starting to say, okay, we’ve been growing really well. But what could we do if we start spending more money on branding? And, like you said, you need to make sure not just how you differentiate yourself from competitors, but that the broader, new customer base knows it. So this whole topic about how can we push the brand stronger, how can we be clear on our brand, is actually something we’re only really starting to work on now.
It’s really quite inspiring, and fascinating, to only get to this point now where we’re thinking about building a large scale, luxury brand because the business has really been organic. If you think about the last ten years, thanks to Fanny and Sophie, so much was built on word of mouth and PR.
So I can’t give you that much of the secret sauce because we’re still trying to figure it out. But hopefully in the next three to six months, you’ll see what I mean.
Daniel Eisenberg: But do you think that despite the sort of approach you’ve taken, that Vestiaire has organically developed a particular brand identity in some ways?
Max Bittner: Yes, the brand itself is very clear. I think people really know what Vestiaire stands for. And that’s largely because the vision and the mission has always been very clear, and hasn’t really changed. When I came in, I didn’t really challenge what had been done before because I really believed in that vision, and the mission. It was more about bringing my experience on the tech, product and logistics side to kind of execute that vision better.
The brand has really always been built around this incredible community of fashion lovers. And the business was really built by people who just love this industry. And they built this business so organically, out of the heart of the fashion industry in Paris, that the community is the industry.
And to that, they’ve added this whole concept of trust. How can you make this happen, these transactions happen, not just locally but country-wide, region-wide, worldwide, in a trusted way? They’ve built this concept around advanced authentication, which continuously develops as technology gets better. And then sustainability is the last piece that we’ve emphasized more and more over the last years to make sure that people understand that this is not just about giving people access to beautiful fashion. But they’re also doing it in an incredibly sustainable way. And by doing that, they’re doing good.
Daniel Eisenberg: I wanted to ask you about internationalization, Max. You guys are now a global company with customer reach across 80 countries. How important has product and service localization been to ensure success in these markets, especially in terms of expanding in Asia and the United States? And what are the primary differences between the different markets?
Max Bittner: Again, a very timely question. The business is a European business. It has been grown out of France, then into the UK, then into the rest of Europe. We launched the US probably four or five years ago, Asia about two or three years ago.
But when we’re talking about Asia, it’s really talking so far only about Hong Kong and Singapore and Australia. And until about a year and a half ago, our US business was largely incredibly sophisticated and educated fashion lovers out of the US buying knowledgeably and knowingly from Europe because they got access to stuff they just couldn’t get access to in the US Most of the sales in in US happened from European supply. We’re only really starting to push now with the local seller base.
When you think about our opportunity in Asia, you really need to specify what Asia is, because it’s very different geographies, not one country. There’s of course Southeast Asia, which I know. But mainly there are the big markets, China, Japan, and Korea. And we’re not there yet.
So I think localization is absolutely key to going after these markets, probably more so in Asia than it is in the US I think the US consumer is very similarly trained and e-commerce savvy, because we’re using the same platforms that people are used to in the US and in Europe. Whether it’s Amazon, whether it’s eBay, everything is very similar, while in Asia, you have massive differences.
Of course China is China, and e-commerce has developed in a very different way; obviously social media plays a different role. Korea is a whole different animal. Even doing marketing there is different because there’s no Google. There you go via Naver and have KakaoPay and KakaoTalk. And then Japan, again, is another ecosystem altogether. So especially when you look at these Asian markets, you absolutely have to localize everything.
It’s the front end, the app, the features that people expect. Live chat or video streaming are topics that are extremely important in Asia. It’s the payment service. There’s a different expectation on the logistics services. There’s a different expectation of what secondhand is. So it’s a whole different ballgame.
Daniel Eisenberg: And is authentication a similar issue in all markets or does it differ?
Max Bittner: It is absolutely different. I think there are different levels of trust in secondhand depending on where you are. I don’t think our peer-to-peer model that we offer with direct shipping, where consumers can opt out of authentication, flies in China. Yeah, let’s be very honest. I think we need to think about our business offering if and when we go to China in a different way.
Daniel Eisenberg: When talking about sustainability, how important is it in your own operations? I think you and the founders have targeted a certain date to be completely carbon neutral and you hope to be certified as a B Corp. at some point.
Max Bittner: We actually just recently achieved B Corp certification, which we’re super, super proud of. It’s been an incredibly tough process, which has taken more than a year. What I think is particularly important about B Corp is that it really involves every part of the business, not just the environment but also social and governance topics.
We were forced to be very self-reflective there, starting with me. The way we lead, the way we think about compensation, the way we think about diversity, the way we think about governance. And of course, all the environmental issues. We absolutely hope to encourage many of our peers and other young start-ups, especially unicorns, to do the same. And I think we’re the first unicorn to have achieved it.
It’s one thing growing a big business with GMV and growth and reaching unicorn status and all that stuff. But I think in this day, actually building a business from day one with a real purpose and a real social responsibility is required. I really hope to challenge many of my fellow CEOs and founders to go down the same path. So we do take it absolutely serious. It’s not about greenwashing. I think you can’t get away with greenwashing in this day and age anymore.
Daniel Eisenberg: What have been a couple of the biggest challenges that you’ve had to overcome in the company’s growth journey since you joined Vestiaire.
Max Bittner: Obviously I came into a new business. I brought in different perspectives, different people. But I think that’s not been as difficult a challenge, because I really worked together with the two founders who are still in the business, Fanny and Sophie. I work incredibly close with them. Sophie sits next door to me. Fanny lives in Hong Kong, but I speak to her multiple times a day. Most meetings we do together. We are really partners. So that cultural challenge has been big. But we managed it really well together.
I think the hardest one has really been COVID. And more importantly, how do you lead a team through COVID?
Building an e-commerce business in Southeast Asia, ten years ago, things were really, really hard. I thought I had really thick skin and I thought I’d been through really difficult periods. But I think COVID just topped everything in a different way because it was so psychological. And what I mean by that is it’s less the first six to eight weeks when COVID hit, when we were like in firefighting mode. We had to make sure that the business continuity is guaranteed, we needed to make sure that the staff is healthy, we needed to suddenly shift to working from home. That was this hardcore execution mode. The executive team at Vestiaire, we had three calls per day, one at 8:00 am, the next at 2:00 pm, and the last at 10:00 p.m., every day for more than two months.
But where it started getting really difficult was the beginning of this year, actually, especially around April or May, when we’ve been in and out of two or three lockdowns. We were still waiting for vaccination, so it was still much safer to stay at home. And then having these younger team members, who are many times alone at home, and many people who have been hired after the pandemic began and have never actually met anyone in person.
To keep them motivated remotely was incredibly hard. I found it very difficult to inject that same energy as pre-COVID, when I could just walk over to someone at the coffee machine and say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job.” Or when you could see that someone is not in a good mood. When you’re in the office, you look across the floor and someone is slumping a bit or they’re walking a bit too slowly, and something’s clearly wrong. You can do something, you can intervene. But you just don’t see that via a computer screen.
And at the same time I was also starting to get tired, to have doubts and questions and motivational holes. All while I was trying to, continuing to, drive the company, which is beginning to really suffer. It was getting to be really difficult.
All my peers I’ve spoken to are the same. I mean, people were tired. It was really tough to continue. Building a start-up is tough. Building a start-up in e-commerce is even tougher because e-commerce is just so 24/7.
Daniel Eisenberg: Obviously, those experiences you had had earlier in your career weren’t on a level with COVID, but did they help at all as you had to deal with self-doubt or just obstacles feeling overwhelming?
Max Bittner: I try to remind myself that things are never as good as you think they are and things are never as bad as you think they are. If you have a great fundraise, for instance, I’m just like, “Okay, there will be bad days again soon.” And when you have really bad days, you just remind yourself there will be good days soon. So you start just becoming a bit more levelheaded, which I think is part of experience.
Daniel Eisenberg: If you had to give advice to budding entrepreneurs who had their own moments of self-doubt or endured a certain loneliness of the journey, that’s what you would tell them, just try to be levelheaded and don’t get sucked in by the highs or the lows?
Max Bittner: Yeah, I think that’s a really good one, especially for me. I think everyone needs their own number one advice. I’m someone who’s incredibly emotional. I get really excited and I get really pissed off or sad. So telling myself I need to be levelheaded is very tailor-made for me.
I think the number one advice I can give to any founder is that it’s going to be relentless. You just need to power through. That comes down to working incredibly hard and finding people who can work incredibly hard with you. And making sure that what you’re working on is really tied around a vision and a mission, and that you’re really clear what that is. Because in these really tough and relentless moments, you need to be very clear why you wake up in the morning and why you’re doing it. And it’s not about valuation. It’s not about growth.
In my really mean moments, when I try to encourage my teams, I just remind them, “Let’s make sure that our kids can walk in forests, so let’s work a bit harder.” It’s a bit manipulative, I admit it.
Daniel Eisenberg: It’s not a big ask or anything.
Max Bittner: Not a big ask.
Daniel Eisenberg: Let’s just save the planet.
Max Bittner: It’s between us and doom.
Daniel Eisenberg: Last question: When you think about Vestiaire five to ten years from now, where do you hope it is as a company and how would you judge success at that point in time?
Max Bittner: You kept the best one for the end. Where would I hope to be in five to ten years? I would hope to be exactly where I am today in regards to what I want the company to do. I think the vision should still be the same one, and the passion with which we go after that vision is hopefully the same one.
Will it be in a different setting? Yes. Will it be a different size? Hopefully. Will we have some different colleagues? I guess so. But I hope there will be some still there that are here today.
I don’t want it to be that different. I love going to work. I love working with colleagues. I love problem solving, and trying to just get a bit better every day. And just move that bit closer to what is a never ending and always moving target.
I don’t wake up in the morning and think, “I’m single-handedly saving the planet from doom.” In my very nostalgic moments, after three bottles of wine, maybe I think that. But I don’t blow that much smoke up my ass.
But it’s really about the educational journey. I’m now a heavy user of Vestiaire; when you go on the app and go to my profile, @maximilian, that’s the stuff I sold over the last year, the 50, 60 items that I’ve sold. Once you start buying and selling secondhand myself, you just become more educated. You become more educated about what consumption means. You can become more educated of what you can do.
And the best example I use is that once I became an active Vestiaire customer, it became harder and harder for the rest of my life to be unsustainable. I’m German, and Germans like their German cars, going too fast on highways. I’ll look at the motor and it makes such a great noise and all that stuff. But I just can’t do that anymore. Like, I can’t sit there in a petrol car, and pretend like this matters. You start changing the rest of your behavior. You start buying an electric car and you start making other decisions differently.
So for me, the success would really be that that we use Vestiaire, driven by what we do on a daily basis, to continue to educate consumers of what they can do or how they should behave. And help them want to become more educated in not just the retail or fashion consumption part of this world, but in other aspects of their life as well.
Daniel Eisenberg: That’s great. I think I’ve taken up more than enough of your time. So I want to thank you again, Max, for joining us today and spending so much time talking about Vestiaire Collective and sustainable fashion more broadly. It’ll be interesting to continue to watch as you grow, and the whole online resale space, and the circular economy for fashion, evolves.
Max Bittner: Fantastic. Thank you for having me.
Daniel Eisenberg: Well that’s our podcast. As always, I want to thank our great McKinsey on Start-ups production team—Molly Karlan, Polly Noah, Sid Ramtri, Myron Shurgan, and Katie Znameroski.
And finally, thank you for listening. We hope you’ll return for future episodes of McKinsey on Start-ups.