LCF’s Centre for Fashion Enterprise is working with six new fashion technology businesses as part of a project called Fashion and Technology Emerging Futures, funded by the European Regional Development Fund. The project vision is to support the new eco-system emerging in London, recognising the convergence of fashion and technology SMEs. We met with Sara Ahmadi Derfus from Shopest to talk about what inspired her to start a business, building a venture and the differences between London and New York.
What does Shopest do?
Shopest makes discovering nearby fashion retail fast. We make it super easy for shoppers to find a nearby product, brands, sample sales, pop-up and stores in real-time. At the same time giving bricks and mortar retailers a way to connect with shoppers in their vicinity, before, during and after their store visit.
What’s your mission statement?
We believe strongly in the vibrancy and uniqueness of London fashion and independent stores and want to do our utmost to champion it. There is more to London than Oxford Street (disclaimer we love Oxford Street), however, if shoppers don’t know about that cool pop-up, vintage store or emerging designer then they can’t shop. The business started when Sara was working in the garment district in NYC, moved to a new area, booked a last minute holiday and decided she needed a new bikini. Doing the go-to Google search on her smart-phone for bikinis nearby, instead of getting info on the cool stores she knew were close but didn’t know the name, she was faced with search results of online department stores, tiki bars and bikini waxing salons. This didn’t make any sense in a time when there is a go-to platform for pretty much anything.
How did you get the background and skills necessary to develop this kind of business idea? Both the tech side of it but also running a small company?
I graduated from Central St Martins with a degree in fashion. Afterwards, I worked in London and New York. I took a little time out from fashion design and worked for a marketing company in Abu Dhabi, then went on to complete an MBA in San Diego, this gave me the business fundamentals. Heading back to New York, I founded a fashion start-up in the garment district before Shopest. My team has extensive knowledge of retail and tech. Yvonne is ex-Arcadia and Manoj worked for developing technical financial products in San Francisco before.
Is there someone you always go to for advice or mentorship?
I don’t have one ‘go to’, however a range of people that I bounce ideas off. Mentorship is important, getting opinions and advise, however really the knowing how to evaluate the advice is vital. In the beginning, I was listening to too many opinions and changed so much from person-to-person and learnt to only take the advise off real experts in their fields.
What kind of support did you get – from CFE but also outside of it?
Along with the CFE, I am part of the Mayors Business Growth Hub and part of the E Spark NatWest Hub. The support has been tremendous, from CFE, the branding and networking are brilliant, along with practical workshops on financials, strategy and PR. It means a lot to be part of the ‘Fash Tech’ pioneers program, a real stamp of industry validation.
What would be your key piece of advice for people who want to set up their own business?
Have a clear vision of where you want to be and what sort of company you want to run. When I started, I knew I wanted to build a company that made it easy to find nearby fashion, a pretty simple proposition, and by doing that I would be able to support local stores and designers. What I didn’t know is the how, and really that can change from the tech to the method of delivery. I also knew I wanted to build a diverse company that afforded an opportunity to groups that are underrepresented in tech and start-ups and to do that, I would need to have the right investors on board. My key advice is to be persistent, you are going to get rejected on a daily basis, people will question the validity of your business, you as a leader and everything from the choice of your font. However, remember your vision and why you started this crazy journey.
What do you think is going to be a big fashion and/or tech trend in 2018?
In fashion tech, the big trends are going to be AI (artificial intelligence), voice search and AR (augmented reality). My bet is on voice, we are so used to digital assistants like Siri now and this is going to grow, it is simply quicker to voice search, however for the results to be beneficial there needs to be a large AI component. If I am asking OK Google for red shoes, I am expecting these results to be personalised.
Who do you admire in this arena – who is doing it well?
In Fash Tech I admire Jenn Hyman from Rent the Runway, not only has she been pioneering the subscription clothes rental industry – well basically created it. She has raised more VC money than any other women in the US. I have met her on a couple of occasions and she is so gracious in giving her time and advise. When I was at the girls in tech conference in SF last year, she was sat on the floor in the corridor after her talk to give advice to a group of young women that wanted to follow in her footsteps. She also started Project Entrepreneur in order to pay it forward to women entrepreneurs that don’t have her contacts or didn’t go to Harvard Business School. Truly remarkable leader.
What do you think is the biggest problem facing young businesses today?
The biggest problem is the lack of access to funding, especially for women founded companies. In the UK, only 2.8% of funding goes to women-founded companies. The ‘old boys’ club attitude of funding needs to be eradicated and not by replacing the ‘boys’ with ‘old girls’ clubs, but with fair access to funding. More competitions, more education and more corporations getting into the early stage funding. We are grateful to NatWest for providing brilliant zone 1 office space to Shopest to allow us to grow our team.
Where do you see Shopest in the future?
In the next year, our main goals are: Open our product search in London, onboard 600 retailers, expand to Manchester and launch in New York by the end of the year. As a US citizen, it makes sense to take advantage of this as the market is considerably larger, headquartered in London!
In 5 years we plan to be global and the go-to for fashion search. It is hard to even comprehend where tech will be in 5 years, my vision is that search will be almost non-existent, our phones will be so hooked up that Shopest will ‘talk to other platforms and suggest items nearby without the need to search. Our big idea will be that Shopest will have the inventory of all the fashion items nearby. From a pair of blue suede shoes in Islington to a pair of Moroccan babouche in Marrakesh, oh and you can pay for it on Shopest too!
Within 10 years, in retail tech, the rapid-fire speed in how tech developing could mean that Shopest will be working to solve problems that don’t even know exist yet. All the aims for Shopest at this stage are lofty, however making an impact has always been core to our mission. As such, Shopest will utilise blockchain technology to ensure the fashion retail supply chain is transparent and fairer for garment workers, and to eradicate forced labour. In 5 years if we do achieve harnessing offline inventory, we are in a position to use it for good. At this stage, when the initial value proposition of making nearby searchable and discoverable is continuing to be solved and evolving to match the technology advancements, Shopest will move more into helping retailers and makers in developing nations.
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