Just ten years after the launch of an e-bay store with a highly curated selection of vintage threads, Sophia Amoruso has turned both Nasty Gal and #GIRLBOSS into a serious creative empire. I’ve been watching the evolution of her company and brand for quite some time now. When I learned the latest news — that we’ll soon see a #GIRLBOSS original series on Netflix — I had to write about the intellectual property strategy behind the brand.
I think her story showcases an incredible journey of an “everyday creative entrepreneur” to now being at the helm of a multi-million dollar brand. I know many of us struggle with seeing the full possibilities when building a brand from the ground up. The truth is, we’re no different than anyone else. We just get to learn from their story, and remix what makes sense for our own. See, even though we’re all building something quite different — at the core, there are key principles that are exactly the same no matter what industry you’re in, who you serve, and what you’re creating.
Here are the key lessons that we can learn from the business and intellectual property strategy behind the #GIRLBOSS brand.
Lesson #1. Building a brand not just a business is an important move even when you’re just getting started.
In 2006, Sophia opened her eBay store, naming it Nasty Gal Vintage. She used the platform to her advantage. She styled her pieces on everyday models, reflecting what she’d learned about her customers at every chance. Sophia eventually moved to her own hosted website after being “kicked off” of eBay. Sophia purchased the domain for www.nastygalvintage.com. She leveraged social media by showcasing the distinctive styling of Nasty Gal Vintage pieces and positioning the brand as not just a retailer but a lifestyle brand.
I believe that from the very start you must focus on building a brand around no matter what it is that you do. You’re never just an artist. Or, just a designer. Or, just an event planner. Or, just [insert your thing]. The thing that you sell or create is just the beginning of it. I’m no branding pro — and I’ll never claim to be. But what I do know is…
there is more legal protection for a brand than any other creations in your business.
Anyone can do your exact same work. They can sell your exact same thing. But your brand is where you capture the differentiators — the things that make it plain how you are different from the others.
By developing Nasty Gal Vintage as a lifestyle brand, out of the gate, Sophia immediately set herself up as a magnet for peeps who wanted to purchase from her because of the association with the brand (not just because of the merchandise). Her competitors could have started styling their products in the same way — but it was the total brand experience that set her apart. Giving it a strong name that could be legally protected and owned as an asset turned the heat up.
Once you own the trademark for a strong brand that’s known for one huge thing then you’ve started positioning your business to be investable (because having exclusive rights to a name is very attractive to potential investors — I know you watch Shark Tank). It becomes scalable (because you have the freedom to license rights to the name to other companies to deliver your product or service). You also position it to be sellable (because it’s a more valuable deal if the business has the maximum legal protection for its brand as a part of the company’s intellectual property portfolio).
Lesson #2. Building a brand and developing an intellectual property strategy gives you the freedom to make the best decisions for your business (and your sanity).
Nasty Gal Vintage earned over 100 million in revenue in 2013 and at that time Sophia operated the company without any outside investors. When she was ready to seek outside investment, she did so with no pressure and was able to make sure that her investors didn’t just offer a financially attractive deal, but also complimented the “soul” of the company.
I love that Sophia had built such a powerhouse on her own that she wasn’t cornered into being dependent on investors who weren’t aligned with her company’s vision. A solid business and intellectual property strategy sets creative entrepreneurs up in the obvious way — to generate massive revenue and growth. But the part, often overlooked, is that it also sets us up to have more freedom — to make moves not because we have to but because it’s what feels right.
Think about where you’re at now in your business — how many times have you had to work with clients who didn’t feel right because you needed the income?
Lesson #3. A solid intellectual property strategy considers not just where you are today but where you want your brand to go in the future.
The book #GIRLBOSS was published May 6, 2014 and quickly became a favorite in emerging, women entrepreneur circles. When I saw the book title I immediately thought it was brilliant — it was catchy and memorable. It made a statement in just a single word. My hunch was this was a name Sophia would build up as a brand and movement, just as she had with Nasty Gal (she eventually dropped “vintage” from the name) and that there was more to come.
I was right.
A lot of people don’t realize there is no legal protection for a single book title. Sophia had the potential of a solid brand around the name #GIRLBOSS. But, publishing the book under that name didn’t prevent other people from using it. She had to use it in other ways to first establish ownership of it as a common law trademark (an unregistered trademark limited to geographic location), and then register with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to establish it as a federal trademark (giving her exclusive ownership in the United States). It was no surprise when she launched the #GIRLBOSS podcast and foundation, and positioned it as, “a platform inspiring women to lead deliberate lives.” Now, she’s in a position to own the federal trademarks for #GIRLBOSS and does indeed have applications pending…
She’s covered the name from just about every angle… here’s a sneak peek at the pending #GIRLBOSS trademark applications:
C 009. US 021 023 026 036 038. G & S: Downloadable film and television programs featuring comedy, drama, news, entertainment, reality, cartoons, science fiction, anime, animation, music, action, and/or adventure on a variety of topics relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters
IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: Providing a website featuring information relating to entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters
IC 041. US 100 101 107. G & S: Entertainment services in the nature of production of television programs and films relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters; education services in the nature of providing classes, courses, seminars and workshops relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters; training services relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters; career counseling services, namely, providing advice concerning education options to pursue career opportunities; providing online training courses about a variety of topics relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters; workshops and seminars for entertainment, education, and training purposes on a variety of topics relating to personal empowerment, personal and self awareness, entrepreneurship, marketing, business networking, making the transition to becoming an entrepreneur, and other small business matters; all of the aforesaid services not specifically in relation to fragrances, cosmetics, and clothing
IC 045. US 100 101. G & S: Providing a website featuring information relating to personal empowerment, and personal and self awareness
IC 009. US 021 023 026 036 038. G & S: Software; mobile application software; downloadable podcasts
IC 016. US 002 005 022 023 029 037 038 050. G & S: Printed matter; notebooks; school supply kits; calendars; day planners; postcards; stickers; folders; paper; paper stationery; bookmarks; greeting cards; note cards; notepads; books
IC 036. US 100 101 102. G & S: Investment services; charitable foundation services
IC 041. US 100 101 107. G & S: Entertainment services; entertainment services, namely, providing podcasts; digital video, audio, text, and multimedia publishing services; arranging, organizing, conducting, and hosting events
Rest assured, that if folks use #GIRLBOSS in association with any of these services or products (or even remotely similar ones) they will be legally stepping on the toes of the #GIRLBOSS brand.
Lesson #4. Building a brand bigger than you leaves room for you to make a larger impact.
In 2015, Sophia stepped down as CEO and opened a second retail location. In Forbes, she explained “There was a lot I was doing that I had been doing for the past nine years and it felt like time to put myself in a position to paint with broad strokes, which I am beginning to do.”
See, as creative entrepreneurs we tend to always envision ourselves as the front line and doers of our businesses, today and forever more. But, most of us are visionaries and at some point, being on the ground level of the business in every aspect will prevent us from expanding and realizing our full vision.
I love Sophia’s story, in particular, because she is a true everyday, girl next door — she made some mistakes, it wasn’t a picture perfect start. She also wasn’t born into and handed a ready-made empire. She started out on eBay and had no idea how large this would be…but look at where she’s at now.
She’s positioned her business so that it can continue to “go” without her at the center of it while she does the work that’ll have an even larger impact on other women entrepreneurs. Now, that’s true creative freedom.
That brings me to… the Netflix deal and the power of leveraging your intellectual property…
Sophia can literally do anything now that Nasty Gal and #GIRLBOSS are well-respected brands. Do you think Netflix is penning deals for an original series with every woman who opened a vintage shop? Yep, that was pure sarcasm. This deal demonstrates the power and potential in owning a strong brand and owning (and controlling) your other intellectual property.
Now, don’t get me wrong — you must have a great business to back up the brand. And, that’s why I believe business and intellectual property strategy go hand in hand. But even a multi-million dollar business wouldn’t have been enough to attract Netflix — it was the story and movement captured in the brand. The solid intellectual property strategy and clear ownership of her intellectual property brought the deal to life — and now we’re talking residual income galore. If you haven’t guessed it by now — I think Sophia Amoruso is pure creative genius…
What lessons on building a brand can you learn for your own journey?