W Power 2024

How Lithuania's Vinted cracked the luxury clothing resale code

Investors have blown billions of dollars on loss-making luxury clothing resale firms. Now, an unlikely startup from Lithuania, finally cracked the code

Published: May 8, 2024 11:56:41 AM IST
Updated: May 8, 2024 12:44:52 PM IST

How Lithuania's Vinted cracked the luxury clothing resale codeGoodwill Hunting: Streetwear staples Adidas and Nike, and French womenswear brand Sezane, are the top movers on Vinted’s Europe-wide secondhand market­place, says CEO Thomas Plantenga

Thomas Plantenga bet the future of Vinted on a television advertisement. The secondhand clothing resale app was burning $1 million per month and had less than a year of cash left when Plantenga made an $800,000 gamble on French television.

It was May 2016, and Plantenga had recently been hired to save the eight-year-old Lithuanian startup. After its founding at a college party in 2008, Vinted had grown rapidly as people from 10 countries used its platform to buy and sell secondhand clothes. But it was free for users, barely covering its server costs with advertising, and an attempt in 2014 to bolt on a Poshmark-style 20 percent sales commission resulted in a user revolt. Traffic almost halved overnight. The Netherlands-born Plantenga, who had never been to Lithuania, signed up for a five-week gig as a consultant in May 2016. He ended up becoming Vinted’s CEO 18 months later.

“They had the best retention and engagement numbers I have ever seen. Then they applied the Poshmark model and everything collapsed,” says Plantenga, 40.

His prescription was tough medicine: He closed most Vinted offices outside Lithuania, axed half the staff and slashed fees by 75 percent. “I became persona non grata in Vilnius—twice I was kicked out of an Uber because [the driver was] a friend of someone I got fired,” he says.

His last recommendation to Vinted’s three co-founders—Milda Mitkute, Justas Janauskas and Mantas Mikuckas—was perhaps the most shocking. “I was advising them to burn all the cash on TV, and there were rumours I had been hired by the competition to destroy the company,” he says.

After a TV blitz in Germany, the app’s strongest market at the time, failed to juice sales, Vinted was running out of options. Its burned-out founders were willing to bet it all. “It was better to do something big and bold than have a slow death,” says Mikuckas, 39.

Camped out in Vinted’s office at the time, a cavernous Soviet-era avionics factory with rain dripping through the roof, Plantenga and Vinted’s co-founders anxiously watched the numbers come in. They didn’t have to wait long. Within seconds of the French ads airing, downloads soared.

Seven years later, Vinted is one of Europe’s largest consumer marketplaces, with over $600 million of sales in 2023. It now counts 100 million users glo­bally. Last year, it posted its first annual profit—at least $20 million—distinguishing it from its loss-making American cousins including The Real­Real (valued at $360 million), ThredUp ($200 million) and Poshmark (sold for $1.2 billion). Vinted became the Baltic nation’s first unicorn in 2019 when it raised $140 million at a $1.1 billion valuation, and sales have since grown sixfold. “Vinted is the leading company in this space by a wide margin,” says Deven Parekh, managing director of Insight Partners and a Vin­ted board member.

Vinted’s fees start at 70 cents and are capped at 8 percent. Rival platforms like Poshmark take a cut starting at 20 percent, but Vinted keeps costs low by pushing the messy business of sorting, listing and shipping on its users. “You can upload with three clicks, and there is no fee for sellers. They have captured the market from a sellers perspective,” says GlobalData analyst Louise Deglise-Favre.

Vinted’s splashy ad campaigns and slick signup process flooded the site with inventory. Plantenga’s tweaks also meant that sellers were often lured into browsing, then buying. A few clicks and a new coat or handbag will be in the mail without the hassle of auction bidding. “Thomas’ insight was that the sellers were the most valuable thing on the platform, and you can’t tax them,” Mikuckas says.

Another key advantage, especially in urban Europe, where most people lack front porches for package deliveries: Vinted offers cheaper deliveries to neighborhood stores that get a small fee. Bodegas across Europe are filled with clothes stuffed in garbage bags with Vinted labels (Plantenga’s no-frills budget doesn’t stretch to free packaging). Its environmentally conscious young customers don’t care.

How Lithuania's Vinted cracked the luxury clothing resale code

Beyond Vinted’s startup rivals, there’s the granddaddy of online resale—eBay, which Global­Data estimates sold $11 billion worth of clothing last year. Vinted is less than half the size of Japanese app Mercari, which recorded revenue of $1.1 billion last year. Etsy tried to muscle into the clothing resale game with a $1.6 billion takeover of London-based Depop in 2021, while European players Zara and H&M are building out nascent in-house resale operations. Poshmark now has the backing of South Korean search giant Naver, which bought the site in October 2022. Even Chinese fast-fashion giant Shein, which churns out $3 bikinis, jumped into the resale game in 2022.

These challenges, if anything, seem to inspire Plantenga, who sees an IPO in the cards. Going public would be a crowning achievement for the serial entrepreneur, who built his first company, a boat rental marketplace, in 2010. That business, started with a classmate from the Netherlands’ Eindhoven University of Technology, where he earned a master’s in engineering, was a modest hit, but it landed him on the radar of OLX, the Dutch Craigslist rival. As head of emerging markets, Plantenga transformed himself into an internet marketplace Mr Fix-it who parachuted into Argentina, Kenya and Dubai to help build the classifieds giant’s now $1.6 billion revenue. “He’s the best operator I know,” says Fabrice Grinda, OLX’s co-founder and a Vinted investor.

In 2014, Plantenga teamed up with Grinda to start another Craigslist rival called Sell It, which they eventually sold off to Spanish competitor Wallapop in November 2015 for a handful of shares. By then Plantenga had built enough of a reputation for fixing stuff that he got the phone call when Insight Partners investor Elodie Dupuy needed help with a floundering investment, Vinted. Before Plantenga arrived, the startup had raised $60 million from big names like Insight and Accel after early success as a word-of-mouth hit on desktop. Vinted further boomed after the trio of co-founders launched a mobile app in 2012 that gained traction among fashion mavens. But popularity was not transla­ting into financial success.

After Plantenga’s shock therapy, Vinted’s user numbers and listings increased. But the business was still on life support. Plantenga, who had stayed long past his initial gig with no contract, took the reins as CEO in November 2017 from Vinted’s exhausted co-founders. “We bon­ded as a team, but break-even was only the first step,” Mikuckas says. All the Vinted co-founders have now stepped back from the company.

The pandemic’s e-commerce boom pitched Vinted into a battle for Britain, Europe’s largest e-commerce market, with Etsy, which had just bought Depop. “If we didn’t give everything we had, Etsy would have gotten a taste of how to beat us,” says Plantenga, who plowed more money into advertising and kept fine-tuning delivery options until Vinted finally cracked the UK.

Plantenga has no plans to let Vinted’s momentum go to waste. Denmark and Finland just went live, and befitting a man who trained as an engineer, Plantega has a mathematical formula to plot which country to target next. In each new outpost, Vinted has plans to hammer advertising and streamline shipping to get every user as active as those in its French heartland. “Now it’s a machine that rolls with countries that are cash-flow-positive financing new countries,” he says.

How Lithuania's Vinted cracked the luxury clothing resale code

One market that doesn’t fit his formula for now is the United States. There the market is fragmented between eBay, the likes of Poshmark and specialist players like GOAT for sneaker geeks and Rebag for Birkin aficionados. “eBay was the OG, but it had so many pain points all these rivals popped up,” says Oliver Chen, retail analyst with Cowens. “The question for the industry is should they all merge together?”

That hasn’t stopped Plantenga from trying. Vinted made its first pass at the US in 2013. That failed. It tried again in 2021. No go. Plantenga calls the American market “immature.” Earlier this year, he mothballed its Canadian operations. “If I knew what it took, I would get it done,” he says, laughing at what seems to be a frequent question.

With America on hold, Plantenga is gunning to move Vinted upstream and grab a slice of the luxury resale market. He pushed for the recent $30 million acquisition of rival Rebelle, which has its own designer authentication team to battle counterfeits, in a move that should see Vinted’s average order size and fees skyrocket. “Vinted is a brand for regular people and regular clothing, but we were able to grow the luxury segment massively fast,” he says. “Fashion items costing over 1,000 euros are the fastest-growing segment we have at the moment.”

You wouldn’t know it from Plantenga’s own threads. On a tour of Vinted’s Vilnius HQ, he’s sporting a secondhand hole-pocked T-shirt and parachute trousers. One thing missing from the office: Racks of clothes. “We are a tech company, not a clothing company,” he says with a shrug.