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Net-a-Porter founder makes comeback

Natalie Massenet had intended to retire but now returns to e-commerce as a venture capitalist

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Ms Massenet has teamed up with Nick Brown, an investor in consumer startups, to form Imaginary Ventures.

New York

NATALIE Massenet said that she had planned to keep a low profile after she stepped down in 2015 as the executive chairwoman of Net-a-Porter, the luxury e-commerce site that she founded.

But after more than two-and-a-half years away, she is returning to e-commerce - though as a venture capitalist, not a fashion entrepreneur.

Ms Massenet has teamed up with Nick Brown, an investor in consumer startups, to form Imaginary Ventures. The new firm plans to announce that it has raised US$75 million for its first fund - money that the two expect to pour into direct-to-consumer startups such as Glossier, which sells beauty product to millennials, and Keeps, a hair-loss prevention company.

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"I didn't have a specific plan other than to take a break," Ms Massenet said. "But while talking to various entrepreneurs, I found that this was something I enjoyed."

The two are focused on investing in e-commerce startups as they have become bigger and attracted takeover interest from existing retailers. The clothier Bonobos sold itself to Walmart for US$310 million in June, for example, while the latest investment in mattress-maker Casper valued it at US$750 million.

Imaginary Ventures faces plenty of competition. Firms such as Forerunner Ventures, Thrive Capital and Benchmark are active investors in e-commerce, on the hunt for the next Warby Parker (which recently raised US$75 million) or Stitch Fix (which went public last year, and is now valued at about US$2 billion.)

Ms Massenet and Mr Brown are counting on her Net-a-Porter experience and contacts to help Imaginary Ventures stand out. It has already invested in companies such as Glossier and Everlane, a clothing brand.

"Their understanding of consumers in today's age and how to build great brands and guide entrepreneurs is unparalleled," Michael Preysman, Everlane's founder, said in a statement. Ms Massenet began as a fashion journalist before founding Net-a-Porter in 2000. She left Net-a-Porter shortly after the e-commerce portal merged with rival Yoox in a deal with which she reportedly was unhappy.

She had intended to largely retire, keeping a yellow Post-it note with the phrase "Just Say No" on her computer as a reminder of what to say to the flood of requests for business opportunities. Other than joining a Net-a-Porter rival, FarFetch, as co-chairwoman, she largely succeeded in doing just that.

Then came Mr Brown. He was previously a partner at 14W Venture Partners, where he invested in the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop lifestyle site and the shoe brand Allbirds.

"We had been looking at the market from different perspectives," Ms Massenet said. "I realised there was no better person in the space to work with than Nick."

Over the course of 2016, the two decided to join forces and began talking to prospective investors. Backers of the new firm include Rick Caruso, a real estate developer based in Los Angeles, and two fellow fashion entrepreneurs, Tom and Ruth Chapman, who built and then sold Matchesfashion.com. NYTIMES