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Career Advice From Cuyana's Founders: 'The Easiest Way To Fail Is To Not Follow Your Vision'

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Between e-commerce, blogs, apps, and the vast world of social media, fashion is as much about technology these days as it is about style. In a new series, we sit down with some of the many women who are killing it in the fashion-tech industry and find out how they're kicking ass in their careers. Their worst mistakes, their best advice... it's all here. This is Ladies Who Launch.

Cuyana co-founders Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah

Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah have created a fashion company around the concept of shopping less. "Fewer, better things" is Cuyana's tagline, and it epitomizes the less-is-more approach the company's founders take to fashion. "The idea of intentional buying is part of Cuyana's DNA," Karla told VentureBeat recently. "Our vision of fewer, better things really comes down to two concepts: cleaning up the retail supply chain in order to offer high quality pieces at affordable prices, as well as encouraging customers to cultivate their shopping habits in a way that makes them feel good about themselves and what they're buying."

Piece of cake, right? We sat down with the founders—who are fresh of raising a $1.7 million seed round investment and relaunching their brand—to talk about running a socially responsible company, copycats, and sticking to your guns.

Racked: What does it mean to you when you say Cuyana is an ethical or socially responsible company?
Shilpa: When we say social, it's beyond just the fact that we donate to charity and promote a lean closet. We always wanted a socially aware and responsible company. It affects every decision we make. Along the way we wanted to make sure we had an impact for everyone that we effect along the supply chain. From the craftsman, to the designer, to the product—to give that material respect and celebrate it's inherent properties—all the way to the consumer and making sure that they have an accessible price point. That value proposition has never been a PR play for us, it's always been something that we've held dear and true.

Racked: Were you ever tempted to compromise that vision?
Karla: The only time that we've actually felt pressure has been when we were fundraising, because we needed the capital.

Shilpa: For a while we kept getting advice to become a subscription model. We knew that wasn't the best for our customers. A lot of the times these were just non discussions, Karla and I would be like "No, that just doesn't feel right" or "No, we're not going that way."

Karla: When we were fundraising, many investors in the Valley were excited about the subscription models. There's so much noise. The easiest way to fail is to not follow your vision and the purity of your company.

Racked: How has sticking to your guns paid off?
Shilpa: Now we see that whenever someone stays true to their vision, it becomes a trend. You can say now that we're 'on trend' because our model is to work directly with the producers and cut out middlemen. That's now a trend within companies, but in 2011, it was not what people were doing. It's important to stay true to your vision no matter what, and we're still staying true to that vision even though it is the business model du jour, in some ways. If you build your company in that way, it's going to have a strong enough foundation to survive and it's not going to have that identity crisis that a lot of companies go through.

Racked: In the early stages of a new company, as your vision is being finalized, where does the line between protecting your ideas and sharing them with your support community fall?
Shilpa: We definitely have what we feel are copycats. And I'm sure some people feel like we're copycats. All of it is in the execution, and the idea. Every company is going to feel different. It wasn't like Facebook was the first concept of its kind—there were a few social networking sites that had lots of traction. It just depends on how you do it. Consumers can feel authenticity and they are drawn to different brands in their own unique way. It's better to protect the tactics rather than the idea. The tactics are short term and they can be easily copied. The longer term ideas are the ones that really set up your company's vision.

Racked: In terms of presenting that vision to the public, what's the difference between presenting your brand to customers and to investors?
Shilpa: For the investor, it's about the smartness of your model. They're not investing in you being a one million dollar business, they're investing in you becoming a 100 million dollar business. They're interested in a really smart team with a really engaging, meaningful idea, but it's all in the smartness of the execution.

Racked: How is that different from explaining your business to your customer?
Shilpa: The business of changing behavior is a much harder consumer model, so we have to show a lot more story, we have to explain a lot more about what materials are and how they're made. A lot of people don't understand what's required to bring over a scarf from Peru at a $65 price point—especially when we have a competitor who might be doing it for $30. So you have to really explain if you want somebody to actually put money on that value.

Racked: How do you get your customer's attention for long enough to tell your story?
Karla: We're an online-only brand, so for us the challenge is even bigger than a general retailer, just because we have one channel to sell our products. And to sell the Cuyana story is also a challenge, because it's a long story. So we use different tools. For example, right now we're focused on video. We've developed a video about our brand, a video about how we make one of our top-seller products, a video about the collection we just launched. That's a medium that people engage with more and for longer and so that allows us to tell our story in a richer way. But I think our strongest, strongest tool is our online store. The way that we designed it is so that you can unlayer as much as you want of the Cuyana story and as much as you have time for.

Racked: How important is it to be able to distill your message into a tagline of just a couple words?
Karla: For us, coming up with the right tagline was a bingo moment. When you tell a long story, people pick and choose different parts of the story, then they turn it into their own story. When you summarize it into your own words, it becomes a very powerful message. Most of us actually want to live that way. That was the best exercise we've done for Cuyana.

Racked: What are the pros and cons of starting a fashion company in San Francisco, away from the fashion capital of New York?
Karla: We love being in San Francisco. We're building an online brand, and the key to success with an online brand is really understanding how consumers work on the internet. All that knowledge is here in San Francisco, so I don't think it matters that we're a fashion brand.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Cuyana's story, head here.

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