Chicfy, a women’s second-hand clothing digital marketplace, is one of the most unlikely success stories of the sharing economy in Spain. Behind the startup’s rise to fame is the one of a kind personality of an entrepreneur, Nono Ruiz, who thinks differently about business.
A bar, online spa resort or restaurant reservations, a digital tea shop… many failures and, finally, a runaway success: Chicfy. Nono Ruiz dubs himself “a professional wardrobe emptier”, but maybe it is better to start by saying that he is a serial entrepreneur who defends failure as the best master’s degree one could enroll on.
At 33 years of age, the Granada-born businessman finally found the recipe for success with Chicfy, a women-only second-hand clothing purchase and sale app. An example of how the sharing economy opens new business opportunities leveraging the possibilities enabled by the digital economy. “Spanish society has gone through a really rough patch in recent years, and that has made a lot of people rethink the way they spend their money, that’s how I explain the success of the sharing economy. In our particular case, we offer something that’s complementary to what giants such as Inditex or El Corte Inglés do. In fact, I believe that, for them, we’re more an ally than an enemy,” says Ruiz.
The idea is relatively simple: to act as intermediary between those that want to sell second-hand clothes and those who want to buy them. This sort of eBay for girls was born in 2013, thanks to Ruiz’s restlessness and his many hours at home in search for the right business models online. In Chicfy, together with his partner Laura Muñoz, he invested the last €5,000 he had to look for a way to make a living. It was his last chance after a long string of failures and life lessons that started seven years before in Granada.
In 2006, before the crisis that nobody expected struck, Nono Ruiz and Laura Muñoz, were still a couple, in their early twenties, and shared a dream: to set up a shoe store, a business in which they were already taking their first steps. But retail spaces were too expensive, brands frequently demanded exclusivity contracts, and what was going to be a shoe store ended up being a bar. To start their business, they made a mistake that would haunt them for a long time: borrow much more than what they could afford, and getting their parents involved. So, their life as business owners started with a huge mortgage, a €300 balance in their bank account and zero experience in the industry.
Ruiz vividly recalls his first customer at the bar, basically because he had to ask him to pour his own glass of beer. “I didn’t know how to: that says it all about how much we knew about bars," he remembers. Despite this first minor mishap, the bar did fairly good: “That customer returned. Customers always come back if you treat them well and see that you care and work hard, and that is precisely what we did.”
But even if it does ok, a bar is not necessarily the kind of business that lets its owners lead a comfortable and relaxed life. “We were working from 8 am to 3 am, and we were making just enough. We were burnt out, so we just transferred the ownership in a rush.” When they closed doors for the last time they still had a 16-year mortgage, with monthly installments of over €1,000.
They started looking for work and they quickly found it doing what they loved: selling clothes. That is the good side of the story. The bad side is that they were making about €800 per month each, so they needed their families to support them to make ends meet. “When you’re working basically all day to pay off a debt, just as we did, your mood turns sour and pessimistic, because you’re basically tied down and unable to move freely. I felt that I was being punished for trying to start a business at 23, and that is how I decided that I had to start thinking differently,” says Ruiz.
Thinking differently, he started considering the possibility of taking part in a TV contest - 'Atrapa un millón (Catch a million)’, hosted by Carlos Sobera and broadcast by Antena 3 - as a quick way to make money to pay off their debt and start again from scratch.
Ruiz studied the contest, where couples competed against other couples. It wasn’t just about getting the answers right, but being someone that the audience would find appealing, as contestants had to go through a casting process. He decided that their own story – a couple of entrepreneurs that needed to cancel a debt – told in a funny way, had to be a point in their favor. He signed up for the casting process, convinced his reluctant partner and his plan turned out wonderfully. “We won €185,000. In just one hour we wrote off 16 years of debt.”
Nono Ruiz and Laura Muñoz, during their appearance in ‘Atrapa un millón’. - Antena 3
Ruiz came out of the studio not only a freer man but with a new way of looking at things. “Since then I haven’t taken out one single loan, I have no credit cards, I buy nothing on credit.” After dividing the prize between both of them, paying the corresponding taxes and cancelling the mortgage, he still had €20,000 in his pocket. “I locked myself up at home, determined to find the right project to invest my money. I was convinced that it had to be a digital business. I would never again put all my money on a single business, like the bar. I knew that with the new investments I was going to make mistakes, more than one, but also that I was going to learn”.
That’s how his online tea shop, spa booking website and restaurant reservation webpage came about… but not all of them failed: with his last €5,000, and an extra €1,500 that Laura invested, they founded Chicfy. They bought the domain, launched a very simple landing page, contacted fashion bloggers to gauge their interest on selling clothes they no longer used through Chicfy, and outsourced all the technical development work. “We didn’t ask for a state-of-the-art rocketship, but a tiny car that could be expanded adding extra features as we started needing them. We’re a product startup, not a cutting-edge company, and that’s how we’ll stay.”
Their first day was a success, much to their surprise: Working from home, they didn’t hire anyone until the company was seven months old, and still then, they didn’t have an office.
Today, Chicfy hires 26 people, have raised €360,000 in two modest financing rounds and have already opened an office, after its founders decided to move to Malaga from Granada. But, in the short story of this company, the before and after came differently: it was when this TV ad aired this past September.
As controversial as catchy, the ad succeed at all levels: it boosted the company’s popularity, to the point that the closing catchphrase – “Claro que sí, guapi (of course, sweetie)”, an expression frequently used in the chatrooms of the virtual flea market that Chicfy is, has become a tagline used in many conversations.
“In the three months since the ad aired, our growth has been exponential: We sell an item every seven seconds,” says Chicfy’s founder, who, still, refuses to change his way of doing business. “Things have to be done with very little money. It’s a great way to bolster creativity.” Being the free and restless spirit that he is, what are his plans for the company? Does he see himself doing the same thing in two or three years? “I don’t even think about it,” he says, laughing: “I don’t plan more than two or three months ahead.”