Lemons, Lemonade, and Women’s Fashion

Manish Chandra on his newest online venture

Poshmark founder Manish Chandra started out working on semiconductors at Intel, but he’s best known today for building an online community around women’s fashion. It's not a path that he foresaw. He met with an Asia Society audience on December 11th to discuss Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship, and his roots in the South Asian community.

Born and raised in Dehli, Chandra got his first taste of business spending time in his grandfather’s pharmacy during school vacations. He credits that experience and the “visceral feelings” it instilled for putting him on the path to serial entrepreneurship.

After he moved to Silicon Valley in 1989, Chandra became involved with The Indus Entrepreneurs, or TiE. His connections there became the bedrock for launching his first venture, Kaboodle. The inspiration for the new business, Chandra said, was the difficulty he and his wife had in buying what they needed for a home remodeling project. Kaboodle was designed to serve as an online community where users could share ideas and rate products.

Chandra scraped together his working capital from the people, mostly fellow South Asians, he met through TiE. But more than the funding, he said, what was even more important was connecting with other South Asian business leaders and learning how they tick. The lesson, for him, boiled down to this: “If this fool can do it, I can be foolish enough to do it as well.”

Despite Chandra’s interest in home design, Kaboodle’s platform was quickly taken over by women less interested in remodeling than in fashion. That created a spark, and he considered expanding the site to create a new market for women-to-women direct sales. But the technology wasn’t there. “Women taking their cameras out, taking a photo, then taking their (SD) card out, putting it in a laptop, uploading it, processing it, then uploading it again – it was just too many steps. So I had to put the idea on hold.”

That was back in 2005. Over the next few years, smartphones quickly evolved into highly sophisticated devices, and the timing finally looked right. Chandra launched Poshmark in 2010 and its sales have grown 10-15 times annually ever since.

Fashion is one of the biggest markets there is: $350 billion in the U.S. alone, with 35-50 percent of women’s purchases never even worn. Chandra saw a huge opportunity here, one that even eBay has barely tapped.

The global market is $1 trillion or more, and Poshmark is now planning to expand overseas, including in Asia.

This was not a path Chandra would have picked for himself. As he joked at the event, “When you look at a 45-year-old guy doing women’s fashion, it isn’t a natural evolution.”

But even with the twists and turns of his career, Chandra says his approach to business has been surprisingly consistent. “I’ve generally gone with the flow. When I came to Silicon Valley I was doing semiconductors, then I did enterprise software, then I did internet software, then I did what I thought was a home decoration company which became a women’s community company, and now I’m selling women’s shoes. I just tend to look at lemons and make a lemonade out of them.”

The event was hosted by McKinsey. Kausik Rajgopal, a Director at McKinsey and head of its San Francisco office, moderated the discussion.