WHEN their younger sister accosted fashion PR maven Kelly Cutrone on the street during New York Fashion Week, the McGinn sisters had no idea the chance meeting and the invitation to a fashion show, would be the catalyst for their first business venture.
“It was just the most incredible, surreal experience ever. Notwithstanding the state of us in all of our Irish tourist regalia, it was our first experience of seeing serious, serious high fashion firsthand,” says Jennie McGinn, the eldest of the six McGinn sisters.
With Cutrone’s encouragement ringing in their ears, the sisters began a fashion blog called ‘What Will I Wear Today?’ Though initially the blog was just a tool to stay in touch with one another while they lived in different parts of Ireland and the UK, its popularity grew quite quickly.
After four years of blogging, the three oldest siblings – Jennie (30), Sarah (27) and Grace (23) – decided to commit full time to finding a way to make digital publishing more profitable.
“Even though we were getting advertising, it was just for bitty amounts of money,” says Jennie. “It was fairly exploitative and we just felt there had to be another way of making money from what we were doing.”
Jennie and Sarah quit their jobs, and Grace, who had just received an architecture degree, gave up a graduate position in fashion retail, to join her sisters.
“It was one of those times where everyone was like ‘You can’t quit your job! There’s no jobs, there’s no money’. We were like, we either do it now or we’ll never do it, so we took the plunge and quit our jobs,” says Sarah.
They founded Prowlster, which was to be a shoppable magazine, bringing the point of sale into the website’s content. However, the technology behind this requires much more research, says Grace, who heads up product development.
“What you’re ultimately looking for is just a simple ‘Buy it now’ button – but what we experienced over that year was that there are a lot more complexities around doing that.”
Prowlster was acquired last year by Sweatshop and Le Cool Dublin, after the trio found themselves dedicating most of their time to their third venture: OPSH.
Described by Jennie as “an online publishing platform that allows shoppers to recreate their own personalised high street online,” OPSH builds on what the sisters learned from Prowlster.
“What needed to be built underneath that was a universal shopping cart particularly for online fashion retail.”
As big online shoppers themselves, they felt online wasn’t delivering on its convenience and time-saving promises. With OPSH, they’re working with retailers to aggregate products from across the main street. The idea is that customers can shop from all their favourite shops, in one place, and checkout just once, even if they’re choosing items from different retailers.
They’re tackling the higher end of the market, and have so far chosen retailers to work with, with some caution.
“We’re not trying to compete at a value level because there’s already brilliant online retailers who sell value product. It’s actually at the upper end of the high street market that they’re just not great online, even though they’re these big massive machines,” says Jennie. “Because this does have the potential to be really big, we have to be very careful about who we work with at the start.
“With Prowlster it was a bit different; with this we have to carefully choose who the retailers are that we work with at the start, so that they reflect the brand.”
The site went into beta testing last month and the hope is that it will be fully live within the next few months. The McGinns have big plans for OPSH, with sights set on the UK as soon as the site is live in Ireland, ultimately pushing OPSH as a global online retailer.
Grace says: “The grand vision for this is that it’s a totally global product because women everywhere need to shop, and everyone needs to shop in a better way.”
Being sisters is one of the things that has ultimately informed this confidence in themselves and OPSH’s potential success.
“If there’s any problems or issues, we know how to manage ourselves and that was part of the learning process in the first year – how do we actually work together as family, as a business, as sisters, and as friends, if you want to get into it,” says Grace.
“Like a travelling circus act,” is how Jennie describes the reception the sisters received in the beginning, however. “We were very embedded in the tech world when we started first because we were in an incubator programme, which is naturally very male dominated. It was like ‘Come in, we have girls in here! Not only are they girls, but they’re working in fashion and they’re sisters!’
“It was sort of a nervous reaction, like what do we make of this team, but then as we progressed all those tokenistic stereotypes just fall to the wayside because we were still working away and still doing our thing and we were still growing and we moved onto our next business.”
The McGinn sisters say they no longer have time for investors who can’t get past the fact that they are family. “We’ve been here six years, we don’t really have time to justify or explain why we’re working together. This isn’t about the team, this is about our product,” says Jennie.
This sense of surety is seeing them through raising a new round of funding at the moment.
“Our goal is to become one of the top five online shopping platforms for female shoppers within five years, and then after that men’s fashion, interiors, whatever. Our technology is going to be amazing for shopping any product,” says Jennie.
“Fashion is a trillion dollar market, nearly a fifth of that is online fashion spending and as of yet, there’s no clear market leader in the space to provide what people are looking for, which is a universal shopping cart. That’s what we’re providing and it’s going to be highly lucrative.”