Tech geeks and fashion usually clash. Think pocket protectors, hiked-up pants and T-shirts festooned with inside jokes for software coders.
But when Silicon Valley entrepreneur Rob Meadows thought about fashion, he imagined a purple-green halter dress and shiny suits of gold lace. So after he sold his mobile software company, Lumitrend Inc., in 2006 for millions of dollars (the amount was not disclosed), he decided to start his own clothing line rather than create another tech company.
“I didn't want to jump from one 20-hour technology day to another,” he said. “And of course there's the parties, the beautiful women, the fun parts of it as well.”
His line now sells at small boutiques and has made a special line for Nordstrom.
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High-tech entrepreneurs such as Meadows are notorious for starting company after company. But some leave tech for less geeky pastures: They start vodka companies, they become vintners, and yes, they even go into fashion.
“A lot of folks, when they have wealth, find things that will be interesting and unique to their lives,” said Al Osborne, faculty director of the Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. That often means becoming involved with nonprofits, starting health food restaurants or investing in green technology, he said.
Making it in fashion is very different than in technology. It takes years for a fashion line to be profitable because the profit margins are slim.
And in some cases, they'll be competing with people who have plenty of cash: think Sean Combs' clothing and fragrance line Sean John, and Jennifer Lopez's lifestyle brand JLO.
For tech entrepreneurs, it's often the challenge that attracts them to fashion.
Sep Kamvar sold his personalized search engine, Kaltix, to Google Inc. for an undisclosed amount in late 2003 and began to work for the tech giant. But he grew restless.
“I had done a technology company,” he said. “I was ready to try something new.”
Kamvar and some friends began making shirts and other pieces for friends, then hired a Stanford University undergrad with a fashion background. They started a line, called Distilled Spirit and later shortened to Distilled, featuring button-down shirts, hoodies, outerwear, pants, shorts, T-shirts and, just for geeks, jackets with a built-in iPhone pocket.
Now, Distilled pieces are sold in stores such as Bloomingdale's and in boutiques in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Toronto and Tokyo.
Sure, events including Men's Fashion Week in New York were fun, Kamvar said, but the clothing industry presented challenges he never faced in tech. Anyone can create an Internet start-up for very little money and, with some good programming and word of mouth, attract millions of users.
But a fashion line requires cash to design and manufacture clothes, and few stores will even look at you until you've been around for a few seasons.
“The industry is a lot less glamorous than portrayed,” he said. “The number of fashion parties I've been to has been small compared to the amount of time I've spent sending something back to the factory.”