CEO, Blue Nile
GGU Graduate Makes the Cut in eCommerce
Ten years ago, Diane Irvine took a risk. Up to that point, her professional life had taken her on a fairly traditional, conservative path. When Mark Vadon, the founder and former CEO of Blue Nile, an online diamond retailer, first approached her in 1999, Irvine was chief financial officer for an S&P 500 company. Living in Seattle with her husband and children at the time, Irvine says that, as a businessperson, she couldn’t ignore the 1990s emergence of the Internet. So when looking for her next career move, she naturally looked online — but not necessarily online jewelry. “I remember going into the dinner (with Mark Vadon) thinking ‘Gosh, this is a company selling diamonds over the Internet,’” she says, “but, I left my dinner with Mark thinking, ‘This is something.’ This makes so much sense for the consumer.” Part of the reason Irvine decided to take that risk on Blue Nile was because she says she always would have wondered what might have been if she hadn’t.
Now, a little more than a decade later, Irvine is the chief executive officer of the world’s largest online diamond retailer — and her initial instincts were spot on, as Blue Nile has turned the model for diamond and jewelry shopping on its head.
Yet it wasn’t always an obvious success. Since the company’s 1999 inception, the way Americans conduct business has changed. When Irvine first signed on to work at Blue Nile, consumers typically went to a mall to try on shoes, a bank to deposit a check and a store to rent a movie. They arrived at airports clutching paper tickets and had to leave their houses to find the latest bestseller. Not anymore. Today, Zappos, online banking, Netflix, e-ticketing, and Amazon have changed all that. Americans are getting more and more comfortable managing and spending their money over the Internet. With two thirds of them reporting that they have purchased something online, why not diamonds? Blue Nile means no more squinting in front of a microscope to discern the cut or color, no more haggling for a lower price in store after store and no more high-pressured salespeople.
But while the business proposition may seem like a sure thing in today’s e-commerce world, Irvine says it didn’t start off that way. Shortly after joining Blue Nile, four other companies were competing for the online jewelry market as the Internet suffered the downturn of the dot com bust — she spent her first few years at Blue Nile just fighting to get the company to profitability. “There were some tough days, but at the same time that was character building,” Irvine says. “It really forces conviction in the business. It was kind of us against the world.” Early on, for instance, the company met with 90 venture capitalists to try to fund their business — they were turned down by every one. “But in some ways it was our best moment,” she recalls. “Behind the scenes, we could see that this business was working.”
When Irvine first joined Blue Nile, she weighed her prospects at the new business against larger companies that might have made for an “easier path.” But the path she built herself has been far more rewarding, revolutionizing the jewelry business and allowing customers to make informed, value-driven purchases.
While she says a start-up is always inherently the riskier business choice, she dove in full-force to build a business she hoped would grow to become an iconic brand. And, 10 years and countless accomplishments later, Irvine says she and her company are just getting started. “We’re really in our infancy,” she says. “There’s so much runway ahead of us.”