Matthew Kaness | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Matthew Kaness

Background:  

ModCloth is an online retailer of vintage-inspired clothing by independent designers who can’t be found in department stores. High school sweethearts Susan Gregg Koger and Eric Koger founded the company in a dorm room at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Matthew Kaness joined ModCloth at the beginning of 2015 after seven years at Urban Outfitters as chief strategy officer.

The Mistake:

Growing up, my mother said, “You should be a patent attorney.” My dad was an engineer; my mother taught art and computers. I think she had this idea that I was good at math and science and loved debate and discussion and she put those together — and a cousin of hers was a patent attorney. That’s what I intended to do from 12 to 22. I went off to college and studied engineering, and my first job out of school was at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). I was a provisional examiner.

I went to my initial orientation there, and you had to physically sign in and sign out of the office in 15-minute increments. I remember thinking, “Holy cow! This is straight out of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall.’” And, “Wow. They really don’t trust people here to be adults and do their work.” That was probably the first moment where I thought, “This doesn’t feel right.”

Later on, I met an older examiner that had been at the patent office for I think 40 years, a well-respected, nice, smart guy. He was telling me how long he had been there and I asked him, “What keeps you going for so long? You must love doing it.”

He said, “No, it’s not that I love it. It’s that I am not ready to die.”

I said, “Come again?” And he said that his best friends from the PTO academy had died within six months of retiring, and since he wasn’t ready to die, he was still working at the office.

I realized that I would kill myself if I actually had to be a patent attorney for a living. I was at the patent office for five years. I went from a provisional examiner to a full-time examiner. It felt like I was going to work in a coffin every day. And I was at the PTO with some of the smartest people you’ll ever meet, and the institution is really important to the country. I knew it wasn’t for me.

I spent the next couple of years researching business schools trying to find the best one, studying for the GMAT and getting more involved in the professional society. I applied and got into the University of Virginia Darden.

After that, I was an operations consultant and got a project at Burton Snowboards in Burlington, Vt. I’ll never forget showing up there and meeting Jake Burton Carpenter, the founder; his wife, Donna; and Laurent Potdevin, the president at the time. These people loved the brand and lived the lifestyle. If there was a foot of snow on the mountain in North Vermont, folks didn’t come into the office until after lunch. They really cared about what they did, and I had never experienced that anywhere in my life.

I thought, "Wow. This is amazing! This is exactly the kind of place I want to work in.” And I have been in the lifestyle, consumer brands ever since.

When I got the opportunity for ModCloth, it was the same thing. It’s about really standing for something, having purpose, being an outsider and living the lifestyle.

It felt like I was going to work in a coffin every day.

The Lesson:

As much as your parents or mentors or professors want to give you advice, you have to decide what is it that defines success for yourself and own it.

Getting to express my personality day in and day out with people I respect and learn from are things that I value. At ModCloth, I get a lot of fulfillment from working for a brand that has a purpose in the world, and I get to see every day how it impacts our customers.

Being the father of a 10-year-old girl, ModCloth is the version of the world that I want her to grow up in. ModCloth promotes inclusivity and positive body image within the fashion community. We don’t doctor or manipulate photos of our models in our campaigns. We have a commitment through our internal design to design products in a full size range, XXS to 4X. We use our customers and employees as our models in our campaigns. I don’t think most fashion retailers — at least at our scale — do that, because they all look at it as an expense, but we look at it as table stakes for what we do.

Follow Matthew Kaness on Twitter at @mattkaness

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