Polyvore’s Jess Lee on Taking the Startup Leap

When Jess Lee left Google in 2009 for a little-known fashion website called Polyvore, she wasn’t sure what to expect. But she loved the site. On Polyvore, fashionistas create collages that mix clothing, accessories, and other items, and share them with their friends and followers. They can also comparison shop and seek advice from the site’s fashion-forward online community.

“[Google] was a fabulous place to work, but I always wanted to do my own thing,” Lee says. Since she joined Polyvore, it has become one of the Internet’s top fashion sites, with close to 10 million unique visitors checking it out each month. The site receives more web traffic than websites published by Vogue, InStyle, and other traditional fashion magazines, according to comScore.

As a co-founder and one of Polyvore’s earliest employees, Lee has had a significant hand in developing the site. She quickly learned that, as part of a startup, she had to do a little bit of everything: The Stanford computer science graduate wrote code for the site and, although she is not a fan of public speaking, she presented at tech events and spoke to the press. She even washed the dishes.

In the early days, Lee also helped sell advertisements. She knew that Polyvore needed a big-name client to prove to other potential customers that the site deserved their attention and advertising dollars. She turned to Tory Burch, which had a reputation for being savvy about social media. The designer’s community challenge — users created Tory Burch-themed sets — raised Polyvore’s profile, drawing the attention of other designers and the news media.

Lee, who last year was named one of the Huffington Post’s 18 female founders in tech to watch, says she uses Polyvore frequently to take the pulse of the site and its users. She credits her entrepreneurial drive to having strong female role models when she was younger. These women included her mom, who ran her own company, a translation service.

“I do think there should be more women in technology,” she says. “The best thing that women can do is be examples and help other women.”

Another mentor was Google’s Marissa Mayer. Early on, before Lee accepted a job at Google, Mayer told her that the best decisions she has made has always come from taking on the bigger challenge and the path that would push her personal comfort level.

“That’s becoming a guiding principle,” Lee says, adding that the risk she took in joining Polyvore has proven worth it. “It really is everything I love.”

About Ellen Lee

Ellen Lee is a business and technology freelance writer in San Francisco. Reach out to her at ellenleeonline@gmail.com.
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