Working wardrobe

Lucy Mair chats to Poppy Dinsey, fashion blogger and founder of social networking site What I Wore Today, to find out how she turned a new year's resolution into an innovative and stylish startup

"I find it really odd when young people think they can start a company," admits 24-year-old, Poppy Dinsey. As she tells the story of how the idea for her fashion blog, What I Wore Today (WIWT), was born from "just a new year's resolution" on a balmy December evening in California, it sounds as though success landed unexpectedly in her lap. But the UCL graduate from Surrey is quick to point out that transforming WIWT from a personal blog into a profitable social networking site with over one million page views per month wasn't a Hollywood fairytale: "It takes years and years before you get anywhere with it," she says.

WIWT started life as a challenge. On January 1 2010, Poppy decided to make the most of her extensive wardrobe by launching a blog, where she would upload a photo of herself in a different outfit every day - for the next 365 days. It became an overnight success, with the blog receiving thousands of hits, and multiple enquiries from visitors eager to find out where they could get their hands on what Poppy was wearing. She saw the potential for her blog to become a business immediately: "I knew people were buying things based on me having worn them, and I was sending that traffic out to the retailers. It was easy to see that this could be something much bigger if I put enough time into it." And that's exactly what she did. Four months after her first blog post, Poppy quit her job as marketing manager at School for Startups, the brainchild of Dragons' Den investor, Doug Richard, to pay full attention to her own burgeoning business.

But it wasn't a love of Louboutins that made her take the plunge. "I had no interest in working in fashion, because it isn't really my kind of thing," admits Poppy. She graduated with a 2:1 in Economics, Business and East European Studies in 2008 and, having already worked in business development and product research for several search engine companies while studying, it was an addiction to "the London tech scene", that inspired Poppy to run with WIWT. "I was already working very much online, but it was all focused on real estate search," explains Poppy. "I could see how exciting it was to work in small teams that get things done really quickly, and running a tech company that's in fashion is the perfect balance for me."

In Vogue

Poppy's blog turned her into an internet sensation, and now everyone can get a piece of the action. This September, WIWT re-launched as a social networking site, where anybody can upload photos of what they're wearing, share their outfits with friends, and follow other users whose style they admire. Building an online community for fashion fans was "an obvious progression" for Poppy. "I could see the money-making side of it very, very quickly," she explains. The business model of the site is based on affiliate deals with high street retailers. Users upload their pictures and tag the clothes they're wearing with the relevant brand - much like tagging friends on Facebook - then, when visitors to the site click the links to make a purchase, WIWT makes a commission on sending that traffic to the online store.

In the first month alone, the new site received more than 300,000 visitors, and 6,500 outfits have been posted so far. Although more people are currently using WIWT as their source of fashion inspiration, news and entertainment, rather than to post their outfits, that doesn't make the site any less lucrative. In fact, most of WIWT's revenue comes from advertising, sponsorship deals, and website takeovers. And brands are queuing up to work with Poppy, she says: "Social media is a whole new world that's opened up to fashion designers and brands in the past few years, and I think it's a huge force to be reckoned with." That's because the opportunities offered to retailers by WIWT and other social networking sites stretch far beyond just selling products that have been featured on them. For instance, WIWT plays an important role in shaping people's perception of brands. "Dorothy Perkins has really changed in the past few years. Some people might still think of it as a shop for mums, but they actually do a lot of very fashion forward things. Seeing people wear those pieces on the website can turn visitors on to the brand," Poppy explains.

WIWT has huge global potential, and the site already has a number of fans in the US and Australia. Though Poppy is keen to work with international brands in the future, it isn't on the cards for now. Instead, she's focusing on working more and more closely with the British high street and British designers. As the UK economy inches towards recession, can WIWT help to revive the struggling British retail sector? Yes, Poppy says, because "it's just normal people wearing normal outfits." She explains: "It's all well and good seeing things presented beautifully in magazines, but that's not necessarily a realistic portrayal of how something will be worn day-to-day at the office. WIWT demonstrates how real people are styling the latest trends in a practical way, which shows off the clothes and different combinations, and inspires people to invest in them."

Despite earning herself a front row seat at London Fashion Week, Poppy remains a champion of the British high street by wearing brands that are accessible to her followers and styling them in a "practical, non-Central London fashion-y way." And, she's well aware that that's exactly what her fans are looking for. The most purchased item through WIWT so far has been a pair of pyjamas from Marks & Spencer, and Poppy says her favourite item of clothing isn't one of a number of designer freebies that she's received, but "just a massive black puffer jacket from Gap."

Sold out

It's Poppy's fun photos, down-to-earth attitude and witty, self-deprecating blog posts that have made WIWT so popular with male and female followers across the world. But, because the success of the business has come to depend on Poppy's "personal brand", it's "a lot of pressure for it to rest so much on my shoulders - I have to sell my soul to it a bit." Since its relaunch, the site has been supported by a small team of web developers and Poppy has one full-time member of staff, but she's reluctant to hire any more people, even as the website grows. "When it comes to meetings, people generally want to meet with me. I have to do all of the copywriting myself, because that's what made the site so popular in the beginning. If I duck away from it too much, it just wouldn't work." As a result, she works "long hours, seven days a week" and faces a challenging balancing act: "I'm in meetings a lot of the time with brands and PR agencies, and I do press interviews most days. For the site itself, we're always fixing or building things, trying to figure out the best ways to grow the site, and writing new content. I also spend a huge amount of time at events," Poppy says.

Of all the events she attends, London Fashion Week is Poppy's favourite, and makes her job "really, really awesome." She enthuses: "Reporting from the front row of shows, live Tweeting and blogging as the first outfits go down the runway, and interviewing designers and celebrities backstage is really exciting." Through partnerships with her sponsors, including Vodafone, Poppy has interviewed "most fashion designers, and most pop stars that are in the charts at the moment", from the likes of British designer Christopher Kane, to DJ and producer David Guetta. You'd be forgiven for thinking that founding a fashion-based start-up is all about exclusive parties, sipping champagne with celebrities and glamorous gifts, but, in the midst of completing her tax returns, Poppy admits that she's "generally doing stuff I hate doing on a day to day basis". She says: "Running your own company means you do less and less of the fun stuff," and more of the "mind-numbingly boring" things, whether it's filling out forms, or dealing with the "legal stuff" that she's had to research and teach herself along the way.

Fashions fade

Few people have the opportunity to style themselves in a different outfit every day, and yet Poppy admits that she's jealous of the "suited people" in the Square Mile. Even before she started university, Poppy says her plan was always to either run her own company, or work in investment banking. She decided to pursue the former because she was dubious about "working for a massive corporate". Yet Poppy often envies her friends who went straight from academia into the City: "I've always been interested in emerging markets, especially in Eastern Europe, and I'll always be jealous of those people who are working in the sector." Although it's a far cry from her current lifestyle, Poppy says that, in a few years' time, banking is "maybe what I would do next".

After a hugely successful two years, what advice would Poppy give to other wannabe start-up founders? Many a young, successful entrepreneur would encourage others to follow in their footsteps, but Poppy is more cautious. "If you want to set up a business, you should go and work for other people for as long as you can first. I always say you should make your mistakes with other people's money before your own." Then, she says, when you feel confident that you'd risk your own cash, and make decisions with your own money on the line, "that's when you're ready to leave and do it yourself".

She adds: "A lot of people just don't realise how hard it is, and you can't expect anything to happen through luck." Season to season, hard work and dedication are the wardrobe staples of the fashion entrepreneur.