We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."
Lisa Buhler is the founder of Lisa Says Gah, an online boutique that features sustainable, independent designers and has become known for clothes with funky patterns and oddball prints. The company's name comes from Buhler's own frequent use of the word "gah" — a sound that's meant to express excitement and joy upon finding something new and fun.
Buhler, who lives in San Francisco and welcomed her second child this summer, previously worked as a buyer at Nasty Gal, a job that she said helped her find her "calling" in the industry. The 35-year-old entrepreneur spoke to TMRW about how she turned a spark of an idea into one of the most popular fashion companies on the internet right now.
TMRW: What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Lisa Buhler: I knew I wanted to do something creative. I was always playing with my mom's camera, but I also liked to paint. I was not an artist, but I would try to sell (my work) anyway. My parents always joke that they'd say, "Oh, here's a quarter," and the next thing they knew I'd come out and have like 15 different options laid out on the floor (for purchase). So they saw a business side of me.
Growing up in the '90s and with the supermodel craze — I was definitely influenced by that. Cindy Crawford shot a Pepsi commercial (in my hometown) and my dad took me. The supermodels walked by and waved and it seemed like such a mysterious, dreamy, romantic thing: fashion.
You were a buyer at Nasty Gal before launching your own company. How did you know it was time to take that leap?
I didn't really know, to be honest. I left Nasty Gal, which was a job I really loved, to move from Los Angeles to San Francisco to be with my now-husband. Being in San Francisco, there's not a big fashion scene here. Coming from fast fashion, I felt the need for something slower, but (something that) still hit that nerve of being fashion and being really inspiring. I had consulted for a while, so I thought I was going to do that. The idea (for Lisa Says Gah) started so small, and from my apartment.
What did the beginning of Lisa Says Gah look like?
I started on Squarespace. Platforms like that are really great for not having a lot of funding to start. I worked with what I had, which were past connections through my experience within the fashion industry. I reached out to designers and said, "This is my idea. It's all about independent design. And it's going to feel like anti-fast-fashion, pro-community, really focusing on the artists of the industry, and giving them a platform." The overhead was so minimal — you know, stocking product in the cupboards and shooting everything myself. It was not a five-year plan by any means. It wasn't difficult, because I was doing it all myself in the beginning. I started with a credit card, and the business was self-funding after a few months.
Being a non-VC-backed business, I'm really thoughtful in how we grow. Of course, having funding allows for a lot of growth potential. But for me, working with what I had allowed me to not grow too fast. Some businesses have funding right away and huge expectations. Doing it on my terms felt really special. And the team I've built feels the same way. We can control our destiny.
How did you manage to stand out from other fashion retailers?
I think there was an appetite for more independent fashion and not using real models, and having more diversity and inclusion. The way we shot was more candid, less pose-y. Also, I shot on disposable cameras, so it kind of gave that nostalgia feel, too, which is really embedded in the brand. I'm not a professional photographer, but I knew the vision and the outcome that I wanted. We still shoot on film and we shoot mostly on iPhones now, so it still has that raw, peer-to-peer feel and look.
How you define "gah" to someone who's never heard the word?
I say it's that reaction — an outburst, really — of, "I've got to have it." Or just something that sparks something in you that feels good. That's what we want to present. It's also something I quite literally said a lot, so that's why it stuck. I wanted something unpretentious and relatable.
What is your favorite part of running your own company?
Just creating. Doing what I love and figuring things out. Sometimes I joke that I'm playing house and figuring it out as we go, and sometimes I feel that imposter-amateur feeling, but then I realize that having challenges that you've never faced before just allows you to come up with solutions that are different.
What is the most difficult thing about having your own business?
There's no break from it. You can't just check out, not that I would want to. Things like maternity leave — I have two kids now. A lot of my friends get six months of no email, being totally checked out, and that's just not a possibility for me. Luckily, I love what I'm doing, so it doesn't' feel like work. But there is that difference when you're an owner.
Speaking of babies, would you ever expand into kidswear?
I mean, "gah gah" is just so perfect, right? Baby Says Gah Gah? I think it would be fun to do a collaboration or a small test ... that would be a lot of fun.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.