Now in its 12th year of operation, Karmaloop has gone a long way from its first home: Greg Selkoe's family basement. It's a story he tells often, because it's the classic tale of how hustling hard and making the right connections can really take you places.
It's easy to draw parallels with the short-lived HBO series "How to Make It In America," but when talking to him it's apparent that behind the drive, there is also a great mind for business. Among Karmaloop's latest power moves: the launch of premium e-commerce site Boylston Trading Company, a new members-only elite program called MONARK, and most surprising — inking a distribution deal with a Chinese luxury retailer Xiu.com, likely doubling Karmaloop's distribution.
We sat down with the Karmaloop CEO to talk about how they're still nurturing younger brands, how people can break into the business, and the ever-changing face of streetwear and style. Here's our Interview: Making It In America With Greg Selkoe of Karmaloop.
Interview by Jian DeLeon (@jiandeleon)
Is it true you started Karmaloop in your parents' basement in 2000?
Yeah. I lived at home during that whole time, until 2004 or something like that. I basically had no money because the site was just a ping-pong table with some clothes on it, but obviously I moved out eventually.
What were some of the brands you carried back then?
Freshjive, Triple 5 Soul, Spiewak, and Caffeine.
And you still carry Spiewak.
Spiewak and Freshjive, which is crazy cause there’s such an amount of turnover in this world.
What initially drew you to those brands at first?
Music and fashion are symbiotic: they just feed off each other.
My boy, who is now the director and designer of Karmaloop. He had a small electronic and hip-hop music magazine, and he wanted me to help him sell ads. So I was just checking out cool clothing companies, hitting them up, and they didn’t have any money because they only had like two boutiques, — like one in LA and maybe 2 in NY that sold their stuff. So it was like: “Shit, we’re doing the wrong thing! These brands are dope. Let’s try to provide a reseller on the Internet for them!”
A lot of these brands already had a high visibility: particularly Triple 5 Soul. Mos Def and pretty much everyone was wearing that Brooklyn sweatshirt. The idea was that people would read about these guys in magazines and see these brands but they couldn’t get them if they didn’t live in a big city, so that was kind of the initial idea.
So the whole street team and rep program… did that evolve from the idea that you were helping out your friends and these brands?
I think one of the things that was awesome was that I didn’t have any money and we were sort of an underdog in the beginning. A lot of Internet-based companies that were starting up got huge funding from venture capitalists and stuff like that, we didn’t take any VC funding until 2008, so the first 8 years we were just going at it alone, and so a lot of people would just volunteer to help out cause they thought it was cool.
The original website was designed by a guy, I think I paid like 500 bucks or something like that. So the rep program just came like, someone would buy from the site I’d be like: “Shit, how did they find out about me?” So I’d call them up, talk to them, they were hyped about the site and whatever, and I’d ask them if they’d help out and promote and they were always super down to do that. From that we kind of formalized it into the rep program today. These people were doing it for free in the beginning, and we worked our way so people could get compensated.
And you guys just hit a milestone with that right?
Yeah 100,000 reps. It’s crazy.
From its roots, Karmaloop was connected with music, have you guys really nurtured that connection? And how important is it to the brand?
Well, I think its super important. Music and fashion are symbiotic: they just feed off each other. The initial traffic I got on the website was from calling up record labels and saying: “Hey, put me on your website and then we’ll give away a CD in the box.” This is when they still had these things called “CDs,” I don’t know if you remember those.
We were down with Kid Cudi really early. He played a 800-person Karmaloop party for $500. A lot of artists that are young and up and coming, we fuck with them early. I’d like to think we’ve helped with putting people onto Cudi and other artists.
Bad Rabbits is a group where the guys actually work at Karmaloop, so we’ve been putting them on hard. Obviously, Pharrell is the Creative Director of Karmaloop TV. He’s a musician; he’s also into fashion; he’s got his own clothing line. We’re gonna start selling BBC shortly on the site. From Steve Aoki to Gwen Stefani, we’ve had relationships with their clothing lines.