It’s Thursday 30th November and I find myself in West Hampstead; the home of thirty four year old banker-turned-entrepreneur, Ada Yi Zhao.
Having founded curated-crowd.com and Curated Ventures in early 2016, welcomed the birth of her firstborn son in May whilst simultaneously managing a huge renovation at home; this is a woman who is learning the hard way what ‘multitasking’ means.
Bonding instantly over a mutual desire to see more honest accounts in the press on what female entrepreneurship truly means behind the scenes, over coffees in Lola’s Bakery on a bitterly cold London morning, I got to grips with her journey since going solo last year.
Unsurprisingly, despite all (effortlessly chic) appearances, Ada’s the first person to say that it’s been anything but easy…
She can. She did. A history of working in debt capital markets sounds intense! Did you enjoy it?
Ada Yi Zhao. I did… I still think banking is a great industry to start your career. You learn the basics, you get the discipline in place and the network you build in those years is amazing…
SC.SD. And also, to put it bluntly, you get paid well..!
AZ. Totally! I was chatting to another banker-turned-entrepreneur the other day and he said that one of the best things about banking is that you meet a lot of smart, internationally minded people but the downside of that is that they take a lot of talent away from other industries; where they could have perhaps made a bigger contribution because they would have been more passionate about it. Instead they went for banking because the money is good.
SC.SC. 100% I mean something has to make up for the ridiculously long hours!
AZ. Long hours?! It has nothing on this! I’m working around the clock; more so than before for sure!
SC.SD. Haha I’m sure! We’ll come on to that later! So when did the idea for Curated Crowd pop into your head?
AZ. I’ve always loved fashion and when I was in banking I had a good amount of disposable income that allowed me to buy the things I love…
SC.SD. I guess on a day to day basis though, you had quite a strict uniform at work?
AZ. Yes, but I was always the outsider! I never wore black and white suits so often colleagues would say “where did you get this from? Are you in fashion?” and I’d say “of course not!” but I always knew that I wanted to do something in fashion.
Some of my friends were designers themselves and when I said “I’d love to do something in the industry” they just said “stop talking about it and do it then!” But I didn’t know how… I had to combine the finance skills I had with an industry that I was really passionate about …
Then at the beginning of last year a big redundancy round came at Barclays and I thought, ‘you know what, maybe this is destiny calling’ so I decided it was time to pursue something I had been longing for…
SC.SD. Was it very much a snap decision or did you have some time to think about it?
AZ. I was super unhappy towards the end of my career. I remember in December 2015, it was so dark in the morning and I woke up each morning thinking ‘do I really have to go in to work?’
I went on holiday to South America that Christmas with my husband and we were sat in front of the Perito Moreno Glacier watching the glacier collapsing into the sea and I thought, ‘you know what? We’re all going to be dead one day and vanishing just like that; we might as well be doing something that we love.’ I know it sounds really cliché and horrible but that’s what I thought!
SC.SD. It does sound cliché yes but (!) I had a similar moment myself and when that realisation hits you it’s hard to ignore isn’t it?!
AZ. Yes! I just said to myself, in 2016, I’m going to do something different. Then I came back to London, went back to work and the redundancy news came out so I made the decision and never looked back!
For the first four months after leaving Barclays, Ada spent her days going for coffee with as many people in the industry as possible, expanding her network in the industry…
AZ. Once that was over I just thought, ‘I’ve wasted four months of my time and haven’t got anything started!’ It was tough but it’s a typical journey most entrepreneurs go through right?!
At the beginning you have to get out there and make those connections but then you have to distil that information, sit down on your own and think about what you’re going to do with all of that! At the time, I’d been reading a lot as well and Kickstarter (a funding platform for creative projects) kept cropping up in the news saying, “this fashion label raised a million pounds, this label raised two million pounds…” and I thought, ‘oooh! Maybe that’s a good way to merge finance and fashion…’
I remember so many of my designer friends had said that it’s so hard trying to launch a fashion label and in the end they hardly earn anything. At the same time, I’d been buying so many emerging labels, I knew how much I was overpaying for them. The designers don’t actually get a lot… all the people in the middle take away the margins.
Designers sell to a wholesaler which is usually 2-2.5x mark-up on production cost, and then from the wholesaler to retail, the mark-up suddenly becomes 10x the original price – it’s the people in the middle taking away all the profit margin! I just thought, ‘if we disintermediate the people in the middle, the designer gets paid more and the consumer pays less. Wouldn’t that be perfect?’ So that’s how Curated Crowd was born!
Initially Curated Crowd was a crowd funding platform for fashion designers. However, knowing that once the designers had raised funds, they would want to sell their products somewhere, Ada added an e-commerce element to the site. Consequently, Curated Crowd is now a combination of crowd funding and a direct to consumer marketplace, where the stories of each fashion creation is told and sold to their patrons.
AZ. From a business point of view it’s two separate parts but from a customer journey point of view, it’s seamless so when you land on Curated Crowd, you can shop by project or by product.
SC.SD. Amazing! For anyone that wants to start their own label, how does crowd funding work in layman’s terms?
AZ. First of all, we’re not an equity based funding platform so it’s not like you ask people to invest in your business and they get 10% of your business in return let’s say. We provide a place for new labels to raise money in a very organic way and more importantly to help them connect with their consumers directly from the start. We curate our designers very carefully because we want Curated Crowd to be a place to buy unique fashion for people who want to wear stories, but not just clothes. Designers can launch a campaign to raise money for a show, a presentation, a coffee table book or a new collection by offering one-off pieces to your supporters. It could be something you put together from your leftover materials from past seasons or pieces from your archive of samples – you can offer them to your patrons and say “if you support me, you can buy this product and the money from that will help me to launch my next project.”
SC.SD. So it’s give and take?
AZ. Exactly! For designers, when they come to Curated Crowd they can either say I want to raise funding or I want to sell my products on the platform.
SC.SD. Such a good idea! You mentioned that you spent three to four months networking in the early days… once you’d distilled that information, what were your initial steps to set this up because there’s clearly a lot of technology going on behind the scenes?
AZ. It was a long winded journey I have to say!
Originally, Ada worked with a design agency based in Berlin who created the logo and drew the initial sketches for the website. When it became clear that she needed someone in the UK however, she tried working with a number of big London based agencies before deciding to hire an in-house team.
AZ. I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that I have to trust my gut. Initially I thought I’ll go with an agency. I know they can deliver, they have big infrastructure, I know it’s expensive but I’m sure I’ll get what I pay for… but my experience so far is that established agencies aren’t always the best…
SC.SD. Well I guess in many ways it mirrors what happens in the fashion world with the middle man, ie. the big agency and not the designer themselves, taking all the profits…
AZ. Yes! Agencies assign you a project manager but they’re not necessarily the ones actually doing the design and the coding and they can’t dedicate the time you need. I sat down with my previous agency and explained the changes I needed to make to the website and they said “it’s going to cost you X amount, it will take a month to sit down and plan and then we’ll hand it over to the team” and I just thought by the time we’ve implemented it, the likelihood is we’ll need to change it again! For start-ups you really need people that are passionate about what you do, so I’m so happy having an in-house team now. They came on board in September.
SC.SD. Where did you find them?
AZ. It was a Saturday, I was so stressed, I didn’t want to do anything at all and my husband said “let’s just go out and take your mind off of business.” I sat in the car and just text all my friends and said “guys I’m looking for a development person. If you know anyone good please send them my way” and I got a message back from the wife of an ex-colleague of mine saying “I’m having dinner with my cousin and mentioned you to him- you guys should have a chat…” I thought ‘oh dear, a random person, maybe not…’ but then again, why not? I had a call with him on Sunday morning! He was starting his business after quitting a big agency and he said he’d love to work with me so for about a week I was debating whether to go with him – a young start-up – or an agency that had built for all these big brands…
SC.SD. And you took the risk?
AZ. Yes! It was really hard. My husband is a bit more risk-averse… Anyway he said “what do you like and dislike about the agency?” and I said “I like that they WILL deliver” and he was like, “hang on! You just said they didn’t deliver… What about the young start-up business, how well do you know them?” and I said, “I don’t but there’s something about them…”
SC.SD. There’s something about that energy when you work with other start-ups though isn’t there? They’re equally hungry…
AZ. It’s true! So I went with them!
AZ. I was advised against it by my business partner. She likes to play it safe and she said “Ada I respect you, it’s your decision but don’t complain if it doesn’t work!” I decided to give it a try though and so far, they’re working so hard!
SC.SD. A risk worth taking then! How did you go about getting your first client on board?
AZ. It took me six months to convince my friend to come on board! He was a designer for Vivienne Westwood for ten years and then set up his own label at the same time I launched. I just said “trust me, let’s do this together” so we bounced a lot of ideas off each other and he became my first client. My partner at the time was doing a lot of outreach to around fifty designers on Facebook and Instagram and then four said yes…
SC.SD. The odds are against you with sales so four out of fifty is good… especially when you’re so new on the scene.
AZ. Definitely, it’s a numbers game! I think because we’re solving a real issue for designers, and we’re genuine, they liked the idea. It taught me not to be shy about knocking on the doors of all the important people too though; you’ve got to be persistent. For example, I reached out to British Fashion Council…
SC.SD. Was this via email?
AZ. Yes and I didn’t get a response initially. By accident, my friend who’s a member at Soho House invited me along to their ‘Fashion for Breakfast’ which is held every Friday and I ended up talking to the journalist who hosts it. He said “Ada this is such a good idea! Let me introduce you to so and so…” and he introduced me to Tania Fares who is the Founder of Fashion Trust– the charitable foundation under the British Fashion Council. They’re very similar to us but come at it from a different angle… So I met Tania and she invited me to join the Fashion Trust which was obviously huge!
SC.SD. Absolutely! And I suppose it was also reassurance that this idea isn’t stupid! You’re not going crazy!
AZ. Totally! I have to really remind myself that every day!
SC.SD. How did you celebrate when your friend agreed?
AZ. I didn’t! I just moved on to the next thing on the list… maybe I should have!
Curated Crowd currently has six designers on board with a further six joining the site in early 2018.
SC.SD. Has the way you approach the designers changed since the early days at all?
AZ. Slightly. The designers we’re already working with now introduce us to their friends, I’ve had requests coming through all social channels and just networking. It’s so important. We do some workshops too but we still advertise on Facebook and Instagram. Designers come along, they find out about us and then they say yes!
Despite starting Curated Crowd in March 2016, the business wasn’t launched officially until September 2017.
SC.SD. Why did the official launch happen eighteen months in?
AZ. So last year was all about building networks, convincing designers to come on board and fine tuning our business model and reflect that on our website. Then in February this year, we had a glitch with the agency, the website wasn’t up to the level that we wanted so we chose another agency, and then my baby arrived in May! We were rushing it and rushing it all the way until then, but it just wasn’t up to the quality I wanted! So I said, “you know what guys, let’s put it on hold and we’ll launch it properly when I’m back”.
Taking two months off work to adapt to motherhood after the birth of her son Henry in May, Curated Crowd launched during London Fashion Week this September.
SC.SD. You’re still so new in the grand scheme of things but what have been the hardest hurdles you’ve faced so far throughout this journey?
AZ. I’ve wanted to walk away so many times! I was genuinely expecting millions of pounds to flood in overnight after the launch and obviously it didn’t happen! It takes time for them to trust us and then take out their wallet and pay so that was a huge low…
SC.SD. I can imagine that being hard if your expectations were so high… How did you deal with that?
AZ. For three days I was traumatised, I won’t hide it! I just wanted to wrap it all up and call it a day but then I spoke to my husband and my investors and they said “Ada, are you crazy? Everyone would do it if it was that easy! Take your time and make sure people understand what you’re doing; make them trust you!”
It taught me to put my feet on the ground again and look at the FACTS! ‘How can we convert more traffic to the site into sales?’ It really forced me to sit down and look at the harsh reality rather than blue sky thinking… to look in the mirror and ask what went wrong?
SC.SD. And what do you think did go wrong?
AZ. We decided to do a customer survey and an Instagram post asking for feedback and we found out that the customer journey wasn’t perfect. It was then that I realised I needed an in-house team that can be really nimble and responsive to what customers need. I guess without that downtime I wouldn’t have been forced to realise that.
SC.SD. Those low points, in hindsight, can be so useful… even if they feel like anything but at the time!
AZ. It’s true, you have to push yourself AND take some time off too!
SC.SD. Absolutely! What about standout high points? What are you most proud of?
AZ. Huffington Post asked me to be a contributor for the fashion industry in October! I was really happy with that! And the other high was when we closed the first round of funding this June. You can probably tell with my character now though that I’m very much a ‘that’s it, tick the box, move on’ person! Maybe I should take more time out to look back and see what I’ve achieved!
SC.SD. You should! So if you started this in early 2016, the two highs came over a year later… were there any proud moments in that first year because a year can be a long time if there’s no highs along the way?
AZ. That’s a very good question…! I suppose I always had a grand vision. I always wanted to build this to be the next Net-a-Porter or FarFetch, but with a totally different twist – it’s a story-led platform, people come to shop with us for the stories of each brand, not just clothes! I met all these amazing people who believed in the concept and I just thought there has to be a reason why they believe in me. It just takes time to get the brand name out there I suppose.
SC.SD. Where did the name come from?
AZ. I was in Berlin for a conference and ‘curated’ was such a buzzword at the time and I was thinking about crowd funding… Initially we had ‘Curated Ventures’ but I spoke to friends and it sounded too business-like and too detached from the fashion world. We now use that as an umbrella company name so we do consultancy work for designers under Curated Ventures and under that we have Curated Crowd.
SC.SD. Do you outsource that consultancy work?
AZ. No we do it ourselves. For instance a lot of established designers are interested in launching in the Chinese market and that’s where I can really help. If a Chinese company approaches you and wants to do business with you, have you thought about the business terms? The legal terms? What your sales strategy will be? That’s what designers find super helpful.
SC.SD. And did you know about that already or did you have to study to be able to offer that?
AZ. I don’t believe you can “study” how to do business… it’s really the experience and networks I built up during those banking years, and of course, doing my own business has taught me so many important lessons that I really don’t want other people to make the same mistakes!
With established crowd funding platforms such as Kickstarter, Crowdcube and Seedrs already present in the market, I was keen to get to grips with Ada’s thoughts on the competition…
AZ. Crowd funding as a concept for fashion designers is still so new, they actually have an aversion to some of the most established places! Say you’re a talented designer and you want to establish yourself alongside other super talented people, you wouldn’t go to Amazon, you’d go to Net-a-Porter; so it’s finding the right crowd for your brand. A few designers have said the reason they don’t go to the established platforms is because it’s not a curated website, they like our concept more.
The biggest hurdle we have to overcome is convincing them that this will work though because we don’t have a track record right now…
SC.SD. That will come in time! Do you keep an eye on what the competition are doing?
AZ. Fortunately there’s no one out there doing exactly what we’re doing – crowd funding plus direct to consumer commerce – so I can only look at the business operation in silos. For example, on the crowd funding front, Indiegogo introduced a market place so they clearly see the potential for reusing their data! I also look at similar business models in a different space. For example com have just launched a new section called ‘Talent Lab’ where they offer crowd funding for interior designers so that makes me think I can’t be crazy!
The question now is how do we scale up quickly? Going into the second round of fundraising, it comes down to money unfortunately…
SC.SD. You’re obviously investing a lot in this emotionally as well as financially…
AZ. To be really honest, psychologically it’s really hard to accept that you don’t have the pay cheque coming in each month anymore. I had to make huge adjustments to my lifestyle, especially having a baby and doing the house renovation at the same time. It’s a huge financial drain so I’m so lucky I did build that financial backing from my previous career and that my parents and family are supportive.
Having left China and her family for the UK at sixteen, Ada has a history of only sharing good news with her parents to avoid them worrying. Her decision to leave the world of banking however was something that couldn’t be kept to herself!
SC.SD. Let’s talk about that support network… it can be really intimidating walking away from a career that supports you financially in the way that banking does. How did your family react when you left the “sensible career”, let’s say, for this?
AZ. My parents were really shocked! I’m Chinese and in Chinese culture you find a “sensible” job, get paid and have a family; the picture perfect life. I know my parents really want me to be happy and do something I really enjoy but equally they want me to be financially independent and I guess I am but as parents they’re always worried. Dad was like “how do you know you can do it? You’ve never been an entrepreneur before!” and I just said “I have to start somewhere!”
AZ. I think they’re still sceptical but they’re really supportive too. And my husband is super supportive… He’s known me for so long, once I make up my mind, I go for it. I see so many of my ex-colleagues who are still holding on to their old jobs, taking the same tube every morning, going to the same places every summer and winter to spend their hard-earned cash, but they are so empty! It’s a trade-off between comforts and achieving what you want to achieve I guess and there’s no guarantees with the latter…
SC.SD. That’s the thing; it takes a lot of courage to walk away from that lifestyle in my opinion! If Henry was born in May, you must have found out you were pregnant in the early days of going solo… How did the news impact the way you approached this business?
AZ. It made it harder for sure! My character is that I take what life throws at me though. When I found out… we were so happy, we had tears in our eyes! Once the initial shock wears off though it comes down to ‘what does that actually mean for us?’ A new family, a new house, a new job… we knew it was going to be really tough.
When I was pregnant things were easier but once he was born, the reality check kicks in! It’s really hard to find the balance between being a good mother, being a good daughter, being a good wife, running a good business… It’s just a case of keep going! I’m really grateful for the amazing team I have. We had a meeting two weeks after I’d given birth and I said “guys I can’t move, do you mind if you come here?” And they didn’t mind at all!
SC.SD. That’s so good! What’s your advice to anyone that’s staying in a career they don’t like for maternity pay when deep down they dream of launching their own company?
AZ. Obviously we don’t live in LaLaLand! We need to feed ourselves and pay rent… if you really need the money my advice would be to stick with it but during your maternity leave really think hard about what you want to do next. As beautiful as it is to spend time with your baby for twelve months, it’s so important to think about what you’re going to do after that’s over. I’ve seen enough people come out of that year and think ‘now what?’
SC.SD. Absolutely. With all this said and done then, what does being a young female entrepreneur mean to you today?
AZ. Multitasking! You have to be really tough – both physically and mentally – and I’m still learning how to achieve that status. It’s also really important that you give yourself a break. About two weeks ago I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I didn’t care what I was eating, I didn’t care what I looked like… I used to look after myself so well. I’d go to the gym every day, I’d see beauticians… it’s so important to try and still find time for that even if you are focused on your job.
SC.SD. I couldn’t agree more… finding time to exercise keeps me sane! What does switch off time look like to you then?
AZ. When I go to yoga and when I meet friends! That’s the other thing I’ve learnt: Don’t forget you’ve got people out there who really do care about you, even if they’re not sending you WhatsApp messages every day. It’s the importance of reaching out. I can’t stress that enough!
There are days when I sit at home working constantly, getting really, really depressed and very often just one phone call to a friend or going for a coffee is all it takes. You might think it’s a waste of time, you’ve got too much to do but it’s so liberating. Never assume those social obligations are useless. Just go out and be open-minded at every opportunity.
SC.SD. 100%… the days where you can’t be bothered usually turn out to be better than you think but I get it, it’s hard telling yourself that when you’re not feeling it!
AZ. Exactly! Instead of spending time debating whether to go, you should just do some work and then go out!
SC.SD. Favourite quote?!
AZ. Now you’ve put me on the spot! Let me think…
Actually, I’ve been reading Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive and there’s a quote from Rumi in it: “You wander from room to room hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck.” Just take a step back and realise what you’ve achieved and what you can do with your talents…
SC.SD. I love that! Can you foresee the day when you sit back and think ‘I’ve made it’?
AZ. I don’t think I ever will! I used to travel a lot before I had Henry so my ultimate goal would be to travel for work and meet all the amazing designers around the world and be able to bring my team with me. To be able to just say “guys, next spring let’s just work from Paris for a few months, then off to Burma to do a shoot before coming back to London for our investor update” … I guess the ultimate “I’ve made it” moment is to find the equilibrium among all things I love to do: constant learning, travelling, meeting designers and maintain a great family life. I think that’s the ultimate goal for a lot of people but it’s so hard.
SC.SD. It is but I have a feeling you’ll get there! What’s your advice to any young girl that’s thinking about setting up a business but not actually going for it?
AZ. Just do it! Set a goal. Give yourself a year or two years and if it doesn’t work out, really look at yourself in the mirror and think ‘why didn’t it work out?’ Learn from those mistakes and if you find that entrepreneurship isn’t for you, you can always get a job. There’s no shame in that. I think the media is doing a really bad job about portraying the dark side of entrepreneurship, it’s been so overly romanticised.
SC.SD. I’m so glad you said that. It’s why I’m so determined to share the whole picture because Instagram for instance, can make it all look so glossy…
AZ. Totally, and entrepreneurship really isn’t for everyone! Use social media to your advantage but don’t be fooled by the glamour. It’s artificial… I say that though and sometimes I look at my friends online and think ‘Oh my gosh! Why am I sitting here writing emails?’ It’s a tough journey and looking back at the days I spent in the office banking, banking is dead easy…
It would be easy to assume that the financial security a background in banking can bring would have made Ada’s entrance into entrepreneurship that bit easier. Yet my chat with her offered me a whole new perspective.
When you’ve spent over a decade in an industry that provides you with luxurious comforts, opting to abandon the bulging pay slip in pursuit of a career that is in no way guaranteed, takes a huge amount of courage that is often overlooked. Especially when those around you remain immersed in that lifestyle and circumstances at home create further flux.
Every low point reinforces the security that monthly cheque used to bring and when those anticipated millions don’t roll in overnight, it becomes ever more tempting to return to pastures old.
Yet Ada’s sheer determination to solve a problem so widespread in the industry she’s so passionate about provides the all-important motivation that continues to spur her on.
She picks herself up after every setback, forces herself to question “what went wrong?” and adjusts accordingly each and every time. (Not to mention remaining honest en route so that others can learn from her mistakes.)
Headstrong, intelligent and naturally chic.
There is no way this woman will do anything but succeed.