Leading in Louboutins: How CEO Michaela Wessels is Changing the Fashion Game
Michaela Wessels, CEO of Style Arcade
“I always knew from a young age that I wanted to create something of value that would help a lot of people” recalls Style Arcade co-founder and CEO Michaela Wessels, “to be in control of my own path and to pioneer real change, making people’s lives better in some way.”
... I wanted to be in control of my own path and to pioneer real change
“But I never would have thought it would be in software! If you had’ve told me that, I wouldn't have believed you, it’s was certainly not the industry I imagined myself in’”.
Not every teenager knows they want to launch their own business. But not everyone has the entrepreneurial spirit and passion of Wessels.
Back in the Day
Buried in paperwork and Excel spreadsheets during the early days of her career in the fashion sector, as a merchandise financial planner, a job which required her to analyse print-outs of over 200 products every week, by store, she knew there had to be an easier way.
“It was an incredibly manual process with Excel papers everywhere and hard copies of everything,” she recalls. “I said ‘this is crazy, no one is able to be strategic buried under paper and Excel’. I couldn’t stand the inefficiencies and the wastage.”
From there her unexpected career in software, and the development of her game-changing fashion analytics platform, Style Arcade, began.
With her co-founders Brent Maxwell and Tristan Hoy, the trio now run the world-first technology platform that seamlessly analyses the performance of a brand’s fashion products and helps them digitally plan their future ranges. The suite of products has revolutionised the fashion industry, giving brands deep analysis of their past performance, recommendations for current trade and a way to plan their future ranges bot visually and financially.
But Wessels came to the industry via a unique path – and we’re not just talking about the edgy pieces she says filled her envelope-pushing wardrobe with in her early twenties and uni days.
The entrepreneur had begun her career in finance and then found the balance between scientific principles and creativity was where her passions truly lay.
The Trailblazer, The Tech Head & The Genius - The Coming Together of Minds
Born in South Africa before moving to Australia in 2009, a finance degree –
“I thought I was going to become a chartered accountant, that was the plan” – should have seen her on a very different path. But when a job ad for a merchandise planner at Truworths – which owns over 700 department stores – popped up, she suggested the role would be perfect for her close friend.
Access card on 1st day as merchandise financial planner
The friend soon pointed out that the job required a finance degree so Wessels went for the role instead - and landed it.
After moving to Australia at the height of the GFC, jobs at M Webster Holdings (Jigsaw, David Lawrence, Marcs), True Alliance (Coach, Ben Sherman, Lacoste, Lee and Ugg among them), The Iconic and retail consultancy roles followed.
But a meeting with long time friend and now co-founder Brent Maxwell – third co-founder and “coding genius” Tristan Hoy would later come on-board - to solve her industry bugbear would become a turning
point in her life, resulting in the conception of what is now known as Style Arcade.
“I said to Brent ‘can I take you to dinner and just talk about this problem,’” she recalls. “Brent was adamant that ‘anything could be solved by technology ... anything. Trust me we could do this’. And I was like ‘ok, prove it to me’”. The pair gave up evenings and weekends talking about how they could solve the problem, who they needed to hire, and how to get it developed.
L-R Brent Maxwell, Phillip York, Michaela Wessels & Tristan Hoy
After leaving The Iconic to pursue consulting in the industry Wessels hadn’t realised how essential the platform had become to The Iconic, Australia’s biggest online fashion retailer, until it went offline unexpectedly one day.
“We didn’t have any user tracking so when I left The Iconic, I was wondering if they were using it, ‘do they love it, do they hate it’, and then one day we got a flood of emails, and I realised ‘oh my god, everyone’s using it, they love it’. We quickly fixed the issue but it was at that point that I knew then how integral we had become to their business.”
Soon every client Wessels consulted with wanted Style Arcade and it was clear her co-founded passion project was no longer a side hustle. “It got big enough that I realised I needed to go full-time on it to make sure that this was out there for the world.”
Style Arcade's 1st flagship customer was The Iconic, Michaela Wessels pictured with Anna Lee COO.
From Startup to Success Story
Now some of the biggest brands in the Australian fashion industry; The Iconic, Surfstitch, P.E. Nation, M.J. Bale and Aje among them, rely on it daily for their success.
When asked what her favourite and most rewarding part of creating and co-founding the one-of-a-kind software is, Wessels says she is most proud of the kind of talent they have managed to assemble around Style Arcade. Intellects like these don't stick around unless they are endlessly challenged, solving all the hard problems and are inspired daily. “Knowing that we have built a culture like this that can attract and retain such talented individuals means we are going to achieve even greater things as we expand.”
Behind the Screens - the Style Arcade team today
A real foodie at heart with an unstoppable sweet tooth.
But she also loves the time she gets to spend talking directly to the clients whose businesses they've changed, just as her younger self hoped for all those years ago.
“This is going to sound crazy but I still hop onto our support chat every once in a while to keep my finger on the pulse and the kind of comments that come through make me incredibly proud. Things like ‘this has just saved me a weeks worth of effort!’, ‘what a game changer’ and ‘I love Style Arcade so much, I wants to marry it!”, just makes all the hard work worthwhile knowing what a difference we are making for them.
That’s right, when her clients jump on to ask a question, it’s sometimes the CEO behind the keyboard navigating their queries.
Therein lies her passion.
“In the early days at Style Arcade I was all business and worked 7 days to get it off the ground but I have come to appreciate the brilliance that comes from taking the time out for your other creative outlets.”
“Some of the best solutions to problems and also the best ideas come from when I'm not concentrating on work and simply enjoying some time cooking or dining out, exploring foods is certainly something I find great joy in.”
Cooking and baking is a true creative outlet for this entrepreneur
Retail therapy. Some could call it market research in this line of work.
“If I'm wanting relaxation you'll find me choosing retail therapy or reading and listening to audio books while taking long walks”
She describes going full-time on the platform two-and-a-half years ago as a “huge leap of faith”, not least for someone who not that long ago would have said no thank you to a career in the world of software and tech start-ups.
“My biggest challenge was embracing fear, I had to become ok with any which way it was going to roll for me that day because being in the start-up world you feel like you need to put your gloves and chest pad on every morning because you take so many punches and knocks.”
“But you get so resilient from that, you almost look forward to the next one because every time something bad happens, a few weeks later there’s such a huge up that you look forward to rolling with it on a daily basis.”
Those downs could have meant failure, a very real prospect for most new businesses, but inaction wasn’t an option for Wessels during any early moments of doubt and hesitation. “You think ‘of course I could fail at this,’” she says.
“In fact, it’s more than 80 per cent likely I’ll fail at this, so for me it was thinking forward to perhaps when I’m age 70 and I’m sitting looking back at my life and think ‘can you believe that I had this product that I never got to market and to the world? Either you do it or someone else will, so get your ass out there and go do it’. I didn’t want the regret of having a business in the palm of my hand and never having executed it to its full potential”
And as the co-founder and CEO of a tech start-up where females are overwhelmingly outnumbered, you have to hand it to her!
“People talk about how being a female founder is so much more difficult but I didn’t allow it to be.”
For any other females with a big idea but a little apprehension, Wessels offers this advice: "Embrace the fear because if your goals don't scare you then they're certainly not big enough! Always follow your passions, you need never ask if they are realistic or not".
Adding that building a team is crucial. “If you can find the right people to go on the journey with you - and that’s not hard if you’re passionate about what you want to do and milestones you want to achieve - people are naturally drawn to that and then it about building those relationships. Stalk them on LinkedIn, attend events, go online, do whatever you need to do to get them on board.”
Taking on the World
Since launching to market in 2018, Style Arcade is achieving annual growth in excess of 300% and 3 year in its lifetime is proving to be an incredible time knuckling down for global scale.
"When we realised that every 3rd demo became a customer, and our daily active usage stats were reaching the kinds of engagement that only some of the largest global platforms like Whatsapp can brag about, we started setting up the path to international expansion."
With a goal to help fashion brands, of all sizes and sophistications, grow and thrive by utilising Style Arcade – the business is already focusing on expansion into the UK, US and beyond, a huge feat for a business that hasn't even hit it's third year but there's no doubt they'll achieve it.