Iconic Tour

A blogger's social media idea sparks a retail revolution, and $1 billion in sales

Susan Caminiti, special to CNBC.com
Source: Mindy Bird

For every fashion blogger who's ever wondered, "Can I make money from this?" Amber Venz Box says yes. This one-time personal shopper and millennial is a disruptor in every sense of the word with her Dallas-based company, RewardStyle. That's because she figured out ahead of anyone else how to get retailers to pay her for the fashion content she posted on her blog and across social media. Moreover, she recognized that if she could do it for herself, there was no reason why she couldn't do it for scores of other women.

Venz Box started RewardStyle, a monetization platform for content creators — now known as influencers rather than bloggers — with her then-boyfriend (now husband) Baxter Box in 2011. Over the past six years, the venture-backed firm has grown from a one-woman operation into a global network of 16,000 influencers that have generated more than $1 billion in sales worldwide for its 4,000 retail partners and more than 500,000 brands.

The company's more recent creation is the rapidly growing LIKEtoKNOW.it, an app that makes it possible for users to buy merchandise that their favorite Instagram influencers post. When a shopper likes a picture on Instagram, she receives an email with information about where she can buy the item she liked. Since LIKEtoKNOW.it launched in 2014, shoppers have purchased more than $350 million in merchandise via the service.

Both RewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it are expanding around the world, and in the process, Venz Box is creating an army of 21st-century digital personal shoppers who are making money one click at a time. Some market analysts call it a retail shopping revolution.

"RewardStyle has been massively helpful in helping to introduce bloggers to affiliate marketing," says James Nord, co-founder and CEO of Fohr Card, a New York City-based company that helps connect brands with influencers. "It's done a lot to mature the industry."

Retail disruptor monetizes social media
Retail disruptor monetizes social media

Here's how it works: Influencers on the RewardStyle platform are paid when followers buy the items featured in the content they create. Clickable links in the influencers' posts allow both the retailer and influencer to track the purchase. The influencer typically gets paid roughly a 10 percent commission — just like an in-person personal shopper would — whenever a sale is made. RewardStyle handles all the back-office administrative functions and processes payments from the retailers to its influencers every two weeks. The amounts range widely, of course, depending on how much business is being generated, but the company says there are some influencers making more than $20,000 a month. RewardStyle makes money by taking a cut from these commissions.

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If this sounds more like a tech company than a fashion company, well, you're partly right. More than half of the company's 250 employees operating in eight offices around the world are engineers, including Baxter, 35, who is the company's CEO. Venz Box is president and oversees everything to do with the brand, influencers, marketing and the customer experience. "We're definitely yin and yang when it comes to our skills," says Venz Box, 30, describing how she and her husband run the company. "We sit next to each other in meetings and can really balance each other's ideas."

An early eye for fashion

Venz Box got the entrepreneur bug early. She was in sixth grade when she launched her own jean skirt business. By the time she was in college, she was making $100,000 a year from a jewelry business she started in high school.

Venz Box's love for fashion and retail grew over the years. In 2011, when she was 23 years old working as a personal shopper in Dallas, she launched a blog to attract clients. At the time, she was earning roughly a 10 percent commission on the items her customers purchased. Thinking it might be a good idea to promote her skills, she cobbled together a website that marketed her services and documented her particular fashion style and point of view. "I was still living at home with my parents and had a lot of time," she says. "I was posting content three times day."

After the Dallas Morning News published a feature about her, clients weighed in with congratulations and words of praise. But Venz Box soon began to notice an alarming trend. Customers wrote to tell her that they loved the beautiful outfits she was putting together and posting on her website, but instead of booking her personal shopping service, they simply started buying online for themselves. "I had pretty much cut myself out of the whole process," Venz Box explains.

Fashion-tech startups have made the BCBGMAXAZRIA and Herve Leger catwalks shoppable with an Instagram photo-shopping tool from RewardStyle, and edgy media outlet Refinery29 shows consumers where to buy the clothes worn by the stars.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Thinking there had to be a way to make money from her content, she attended a blogging conference in New York City. When it was over, she approached the speakers and asked them if they were getting paid. "They told me they were getting free clothes and party invites," Venz Box says. "That might make you feel super special, but it doesn't pay the rent." Back home in Dallas, she discussed the dilemma with Baxter, and he agreed to help her find a way to bring her offline business into the digital age and make money in the process. She named the company RewardStyle.

The biggest early hurdle was getting retailers on board. Venz Box culled every contact she had from her personal shopping days and reached out to friends asking if they knew anyone. Once she got a name and her foot in the door, her pitch was simple. "I said, 'I'm going to take your clothes, style them into outfits, take pictures, put them on my blog, and tell my followers why they should go out and buy them,"' Venz Box explains. The retailers would only have to pay her if a sale actually occurred. RewardStyle would enable them to track these sales by adapting existing affiliate technology that enabled a retailer to see where a sale was coming from on their site.

We almost think of RewardStyle as an incubator that's going to help them [social influencers] monetize their content now and help them grow much bigger in the future.
Amber Venz Box
founder of RewardStyle and LIKEtoKNOW.it

Online retailers ShopBop and Net-a-Porter were the first two companies to sign on, and today RewardStyle does business with Amazon, Wal-mart, Gucci, Etsy and Crate and Barrel, just to name a few. Its roster of famous bloggers include Sincerely Jules (with 4.6 million followers) and Song of Style (4.6 million followers).

"Basically, any retailer or brand with an e-commerce platform can do business with us," Venz Box says. And though the company started with a strong focus on fashion, its influencers have expanded to reflect the changes going on in Venz Box's own life. "Once I got an apartment, I started caring about interiors, so I wanted to show my followers my apartment," she says. "Then I got married and had children, and that expanded the retailers and influencers we could work with even more. RewardStyle sort of grew up with me."

The Instagram challenge

Her next big idea came in 2013. It was LIKEtoKNOW.it. It debuted as RewardStyle's business was growing, along with the popularity of Instagram. Venz Box saw the rise of this mobile-first platform and how easy it was for influencers to take great pictures on their smartphones and publish on the site. However, there was one big drawback: Instagram didn't allow for linking out from its site. "I knew it was critical for the future of our business to work with Instagram, so Baxter and I went away for a week and said we're not coming back until we figure this out," she says.

The resulting solution was the LIKEtoKNOW.it app. By registering their Instagram accounts with LIKEtoKNOW.it, followers could "like" a photo on the LIKEtoKNOW.it site and then receive an email containing all the shopping information and links to purchase those items. Followers could choose to get the emails daily, weekly or as soon as possible. Venz Box says more than 95 percent of consumers elect to get the information immediately.

In its first year, LIKEtoKNOW.it drove $10 million worth of retail sales, according to the company. Last year it reached $150 million, with revenue growing 120 percent year-over-year. But just as Instagram emerged on the scene to take the lead with mobile, Venz Box says she fully expects new platforms to emerge soon. That's why the company has developed a strategy to become platform agnostic.

"If you look at this through the eyes of the influencers," says David Singer, managing partner of Maverick Ventures, an early investor in the company, "they just want to have their work amplified across as many platforms as easily as possible. That's what RewardStyle enables them to do. And they want to do it on the next platform that we probably haven't heard of yet."

In the meantime, Venz Box says the company is constantly refining its platform and the methods by which it adds influencers to its network here and around the world. She says it's received about 150,000 applications from folks looking to become a RewardStyle influencer. Those chosen get the back-end technology to distribute their content, ongoing education and annual events to meet with other influencers to share ideas and best practices.

"When we select someone to be an influencer, we want to see that this is a true business and profession for them," Venz Box says. "We almost think of RewardStyle as an incubator that's going to help them monetize their content now and help them grow much bigger in the future."

— By Susan Caminiti, special to CNBC.com