If you’ve ever bought anything online based on the recommendations of, say, Vogue, The Coveteur or, let’s all be honest here, the Kardashians, you’ve been shopping through an invisible commissions platform called rewardStyle. Its referral links allow content creators, from iconic magazines to influential style bloggers and celebrities, to get a piece of the action whenever readers purchase products featured in their posts. Over the last four years, the company has quietly become a force in the fashion world—and turned more than a few part-time bloggers into six-figure earners. Though it has its competitors, rewardStyle is the gold standard in the luxury space—anything else is considered off-label—and its success is owed almost entirely to the tenacity of its founder, Amber Venz Box.
The 28-year-old redhead launched rewardStyle in 2011 with her then-boyfriend, now husband, Baxter Box, in their hometown of Dallas, after realizing how strange it was that she was making commissions from sales at her retail job but not from the recommendations she made on her personal blog. As Venz Box saw it, a sale was a sale. After raising money from family and friends, the pair opened a small office and hired three employees. “The next year we grew to 12, then 24, and this year I think we’re at 117,” she says. “The growth has been incredible.”
In an era of inscrutable start-ups with impossibly high valuations, what makes rewardStyle so remarkable is the rock-solid simplicity
of its business model. “Our goal as a company is to make our publishers the most revenue possible, in line with their influence,” Venz Box says. “If they are driving tons of sales, they are able to be rewarded for that influence.”
The publishers in this case include premier style blogs like the Man Repeller and Bag Snob, socialites Hannah Bronfman and Olivia Palermo, glossies from Glamour to Elle and celebrities like Pretty Little Liars’ Shay Mitchell. All told, rewardStyle has partnerships with more than 9,000 content creators in 80 countries. When one of them chooses to feature a product sold by one of the company’s 4,000-plus retailers—heavyweights like Chanel, Nordstrom, Nike and Net-a-Porter, to name a few—they simply link to it through rewardStyle and let the cash roll in. On any given item, the average blogger’s share of the profits ranges from 10 to 15 percent, which can add up fast. For example, one Isabel Marant Aggy Knitted Fur Jacket, which retails for $2,229, nets a commission for publishers of about $234. A blogger who convinces 100 of her 500,000 readers to purchase that coat stands to make $23,400—simply for suggesting a product she loves.
Though rewardStyle is reluctant to confirm numbers, its star bloggers reportedly make as much as $20,000 to $30,000 per month, with some pulling in more than $1 million annually. Venz Box not only turns online tastemakers into mini-moguls, she also offers retailers a constant flow of referrals. In 2014 alone, rewardStyle drove more than $280 million in sales.
Thanks in large part to Venz Box, affiliate linking is now ubiquitous on the web—though many on the content side were initially wary to take the leap. “At first, I really wanted to have an ad-free blog, and then I realized that whether I use these tools or not, people are still going to come to my site,” says Marie Claire contributing editor Nicolette Mason, founder of nicolettemason.com. “It really doesn’t change the type of work that I’m doing and the type of content I’m producing, it just makes it more financially viable for me to keep doing what’s true to me.”
Though there are very few publishers left who don’t employ an affiliate-linking service of some kind, there’s still an underlying reluctance among partners to discuss the practice publicly. Online shoppers are rarely the wiser, and most publishers prefer to keep it that way.
“I think it’s on the part of the publisher, or the blogger, to be fully transparent about the way that they’re using affiliate links or sponsored content,” says Mason. “At the end of the day, it’s a tool, and it’s at the publisher’s discretion how they use that tool.”
Former Bachelorette Jillian Harris was able to hire two employees to manage the day-to-day operations of her style blog from the money she’s made through rewardStyle, but she insists she’s been careful not to sell out. “We’ve had offers to write about or promote brands or products that I probably wouldn’t wear every day, and sometimes there’s a lot of money behind those offers, but it’s really important that our readers continue to trust us and continue to feel that our content is authentic and genuine,” says Harris. “So we have ultimately turned down those offers.”
Just like commissions-based sales associates who suggest products for customers in stores, rewardStyle publishers only make money if they drive their readers to actually make purchases. Publishers are vetted before they’re accepted by rewardStyle, and once they’re in, they have to produce a return on investment or face being cut from the roster. Only the strongest—and most stylish—survive. Blogger Kat Tanita started her site, With Love From Kat, as a hobby years ago but says she was able to quit her full-time job to focus solely on her blog because of rewardStyle. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved because when I refer one of my readers to Nordstrom.com, the store
is happy and wants to work with me again,” she says. “And the reader thinks, ‘Wow, I just got free advice from Kat.’ ”
In addition to offering publishers valuable analytics and a personal advisor, rewardStyle hosts regular conferences to school its content producers on best practices. It’s also constantly expanding its reach, creating new ways for publishers to increase—and monetize—engagement.
One of the most recent innovations is LIKEtoKNOW.it, a platform that allows people to shop directly from Instagram, a social channel
that previously offered users very few opportunities to monetize by linking out. When a publisher posts a picture of her favorite fall outfit on Instagram, viewers who have signed up for LIKEtoKNOW.it can “like” that post, which automatically sends an e-mail to their inbox with links to purchase the products. To date, the company has sent over 60 million of those e-mails—another runaway success.
“We’ve seen this kind of urban sprawl in digital publishing,” says Venz Box. “It started with blogs, then went to Facebook and Twitter, then Pinterest and Instagram, and now we’re on Snapchat. We create tools so our partners can extend their businesses onto these platforms, and it’s required a lot of resources. We process more data now in a single day than we did in all of 2012.”
Perhaps more important than any technology, however, is the sense of community Venz Box fosters among members. “With these other programs, it feels very transactional,” says Tanita. “What Amber has done is build amazing relationships. She and her team have a true interest in the growth of our brands, and that’s meant a lot.”
“Amber is genuinely a sweet and kind person,” Marie Claire’s Mason agrees. “She remembers people—she remembers what you do and who the important people in your life are. It’s something that absolutely sets people apart in business, especially in the fashion industry.”
In main photo: Dress, $1,460, KAELEN, kaelennyc.com.