Giving Vintage a Whirl |Interview with WHURL founder Samantha Kuntz

by | Jun 12, 2016

A year ago, Los Angeles-based Samantha Kuntz left her position as a buyer at ModCloth and founded her own app called Whurl. A community-driven vintage marketplace, Whurl was forged out of her love for vintage and a desire to create an online fashion hamlet, if you will. Whurl is a completely novel niche in the clothing industry. Sam noticed fundamental holes in the vintage and fashion marketplace and grew her brainchild from scratch, beta-testing a mere month after quitting her full-time job.

The ethos behind Whurl is essentially eBay in reverse: the buyer holds the (1960s-era) cards and the sellers cater to them. The home page of Whurl reads like a glamorous want ad, a delightful digital flip book through the eras. Potential buyers list an inspiration photo of an item they’re looking for: say, a 1930s silk robe, Gena Rowlands outfitted in a power-suit in a Cassavetes movie still, or an interior home décor photo from 1963. The caption announces to the Whurl community what precise aspect of the photo they’re searching for. The onus is then on the sellers to post images of the items they have for sale that are either exact matches or their nearest doppelgängers.

Whurl thusly eliminates the tedium of the vintage search, working against the challenging paradox that makes vintage items so special: the goods that existed before mass production in China makes them extraordinarily difficult to find. Whurl helps ease this challenge by creating a community around helping the buyer find what they want. Sam has killer business acumen: she knows what hundreds of her buyers want and keeps it in mind when new items are posted, routinely connecting her sellers to her buyers with the best friend version of a Town Crier.

Sam and I walked (okay, waltzed) around the bougainvillea bushes of East Los Angeles (normal daytime activity for freelancers) and talked shop: hers, specifically. Read on for Sam’s insight on how to grow an idea from a seedling to a sapling while struggling with the desire to counteract the reigning attitude of fashion as frivolity. Don’t forget to check out her app (free!) in the app store and follow the Whurl Instagram @shopwhurl to see all the connections being made, both past and present, between the people that care deeply not just about what they’re wearing, but about keeping history alive in how they live, today.

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Was it always your plan to own your own business?
When I was a teen I wanted to have a store one day. That idea evolved (as did the retail industry) over the years. I’ve had a few ideas of retail hybrids that I still have in the back of my mind (clothing store & soda pop shoppe perhaps?!) though at this point I think it’s best to live in the moment.

It’s possible to romanticize something and simultaneously convince yourself your idea isn’t “good” enough. I do it all the time! I always loved the idea of having my own fashion business but I thought for so long that the industry was just too superficial or maybe that I would be seen as superficial if I got involved. Eventually, I realized that there’s truth to both sides: yes this industry can be so vacant, but you can make your business whatever you want.

Don’t underestimate the power of yourself, as cheesy as that sounds. I’m so proud of Whurl and proud to call it a fashion tech business while knowing that the fashion aspect is secondary to the real heart of its success: the community.

What inspired you to leave ModCloth and work for yourself?
I had been working as a buyer at ModCloth for four years and was starting to feel like I had outgrown it a bit. The company was so much smaller when I started in 2010 and I was hired as one of the first buyers in their brand new LA buying office. Four years later, the company had changed and naturally so had I. To be honest, when I left I was a little unsure of my next steps. I interviewed a few places and found myself pretty underwhelmed. After working for such a genuine company it was really challenging to be reminded that almost all other fashion companies are based entirely on making women or men feel less than.

I had the idea for Whurl to address some of my own problems as both an avid vintage shopper and a hopeful seller: how can the two connect easier with more engagement for the shopper (to encourage repeat shopping, great pricing and overall happiness) and less work for the seller (only posting online when you see demand for what you have, getting to know your customers better so you can cater to them and remove guesswork). I did a beta test involving a private Facebook group with about 70 vintage enthusiasts and learned what worked best, and then went on to look for engineers and designers to make my dream come true.

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How did your previous jobs help you with running Whurl?
Previously working for a fashion tech company definitely put me at an advantage when starting my own. I think the one lesson that comes up often is around patience. There were countless times at ModCloth when me and my team would want a technical aspect of the site or app changed and we’d always say things like “can’t you just change this one thing? It would help our business so much!”

What we never realized is, no, they can’t. In almost all cases making technical changes can take anywhere from hours to months. I’m experiencing that now firsthand with Whurl so try to imagine what that was like at a company of 400+ employees and tons of differing opinions! At times it’s excruciatingly frustrating and other times it’s a sort of relief and freedom to accept that there’s literally nothing I can do at this moment to change things.

Do you have any advice for those seeking to start their own business?
I think the best advice I can give is really just that the only difference between me and you is that I did it. Nothing else sets me or my idea apart from yours, and that’s genuinely true. If you can’t leave your job to start your business just yet, find other ways to test the market.

Reach out to people to try and get advice (I’m available!) and accept failure as not only an option but a likelihood. Failure isn’t just good, it’s great. It means you’re learning about yourself, your business and your customer so you can try something different next time and get closer to the success you’re aiming for.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, what are your three favorite places to eat in LA?
An ideal day starts at Division 3, my local coffee and breakfast spot near my house. This is place has it all: delicious, fresh and imaginative while still somehow selling biscuit sandwiches for $4. Also, as someone who doesn’t even drink coffee, I can’t walk up to the window and not order an iced almond milk vanilla latte because they’re just that delish.

For lunch, I absolutely love Dune in Atwater. The feta and beet sandwich is a vegetarian dream, and I’m not even a vegetarian. Their lamb meatballs are also heavenly if beets aren’t your thing.

Speaking of meat, my go-to dinner spot is Soowon Galbi, a Korean bbq restaurant in K-town. Every single thing here is delicious from meats to the best varieties of banchan.