While she was still an economics student at the University of Queensland, Madeline Veenstra looked at Wikipedia and wondered why there wasn’t a central resource for fashion news.
She mentioned this to her computer programming boyfriend, Coen Hyde, and he suggested they start a wiki. Coming from the Hawaiian word, ‘fast’ or ‘quick’, a wiki is a website whose users can add, modify, or delete its content via a web browser using a simplified markup language.
“I’d never really used Wikipedia so it wasn’t something that just came naturally to me, but I learnt how to use the wiki language before we launched,” says Veenstra. “It was definitely that push in the right direction that made it happen.”
The result was Wikifashion, a central resource modeled on Wikipedia where fashionistas congregate to find out about all things fashion, including articles, photos and videos on fashion designers, editors and brands.
Launching in 2009, in the two years since it has been endorsed by top fashion designers including Allanah Hill, has attracted about 5000 contributors from Australia, Asia and the US and had write-ups in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider. It now enjoys a cult following with fashion bloggers and emerging designers with content updated daily by a loyal team of contributors, many of them doing it out of their love of fashion. In the month of November 2011 alone, the site had 60,000 unique visitors and over 250,000 page views.
The growth trajectory was so fast Veenstra quit her graduate job at the Queensland Treasury after six months to concentrate on Wikifashion. It took her a year to confess to her parents that she’d left a promising career as an economist to concentrate on turning her hobby into a business.
“I was always really interested in fashion - I worked for Country Road, David Jones and Myer for five years - but I wasn’t sure how I would get a job in the industry,” she says. “Once Wikifashion started to become pretty popular I decided that I should do it full-time because it was quite draining on my time. I had to do it full-time or not do it at all.”
Now 25, she says the biggest challenge was getting the original group of users on board, especially since people had to get used to the wiki code. They taught a few of their core users and they in turn taught one another. Now Veenstra looks after marketing, the community and bloggers while Hyde tends to the technical side.
“Our breakthrough moment was when we had about 500 fashion bloggers add ‘I love Wikifashion’ badges to their sites on their own accord to show support,” she says. “We also had emerging designers contact us and ask for help adding content to the site about their brands. Then MTV linked to us and Madison magazine and a couple of magazines such as Frankie and Elle Girl in the US used our content on their online magazines and it grew from there.”
The next step is attracting venture capital to the site. They went to TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco to meet with investors and will be launching their Series A funding round in January. They also plan to work with brands and advertisers on more highly targeted advertising, as well as working with brands for sponsorship of events and sponsored content.
Meanwhile, Veenstra and Hyde plan to move to New York in 2012 to be closer to the epicenter of fashion and media. They are already working with New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to upload its fashion archives to Wikifashion, and long-term Veenstra would like to collate other college archives online, saying there’s a lot of information on the history of fashion currently hidden in university libraries.
Veenstra says they are better known in the US than Australia and a lot of people assume the site is based in New York rather than Brisbane. If it doesn’t work out, the fallback plan is to work in digital marketing and social media for a fashion brand, something she’ll pursue in the States.
“Wikifashion is a valuable contribution to the fashion industry so even if it isn’t something that can support me and my business partner we will keep it going,” she says. “I love working with all the bloggers, building a community and having so many people say, ‘this is really awesome, I wish I’d thought of that idea’. That validation from the community that what I’m doing is needed, and they really love it, is what keeps me going.”
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