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From Fashionista to Tech Startup

At September’s Athena Executive Club, Denise Palladino shared 10 lessons she and her business partner/sister, Dianne Conti, have learned forming a tech startup:

Ten things we’ve learned from our first year of business

Dianne and I were lucky to start our business with a solid foundation. I’d already had a strong background in E-commerce and the Fashion industry. Dianne has a head for finance and business. We both loved fashion and giving back. We complemented each other.

We’re happy with the progress to date; we believe that there are lots of great things to come for Chic Stash!

1. First, STAY CALM – take a break once in a while .

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Running a startup can be like having bees coming at you from different directions, all trying to knock you off balance. You need to retain a calm mind and not panic with every burst of the unexpected. Believe me every day will be different and you must prepare.

Taking a time away from work…will enable focus and clarity. It’s essential to recharge. Denise- for me running or dance class, (high impact) allows me to see more clearly, then, I can then take appropriate action. Dianne uses meditation or yoga to provide a calm and focused, mind enabling her to deal with to everyday challenges.

As entrepreneurs, we are so busy with work, family, walking away and making ME time is crucial so we can better see the big picture, and move forward.

2. Sure, you’re a startup, but you don’t have to look like one.

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You need to look good in every aspect of your business. Perception is everything! Your personal appearance is the starting place-make sure you walk out the door projecting an air of confidence no matter how hard it is to get out of your gym clothes!

Business appearance -everything with your company name must look professional and give the impression that you’re a competent business that’s going places!

We spend significant time working on the Chic Stash brand- from the website, business cards, hang tags, press release, to product images and descriptions. Online shoppers don’t get to see, touch, our product – so we can’t cut corners on photography. Everything must be organized and well presented. We’re open for business; we need the world to be impressed.

3. Talk to everyone/connect with others

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Everyone is a potential customer, partner, or investor. I ended up sharing a taxi one rainy Singapore rush hour with a woman, we had a nice chat about Chic Stash, exchanged cards and now she’s our press agent and a regular buyer on Chic Stash. Make sure you always have business cards ready – you don’t know who you’re going to meet.

Dianne and I will take a meeting with just about anyone! Singapore is small and everyone knows someone. We’ve hired interns, photographers, been introduced to bloggers, magazine editors, and business partners all because someone introduced us to someone they thought would help us on our journey.

Social media is a key connector for business. People will find you on LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, so be active on these platforms and watch your presence and connections grow.

Coffees, party invitations, networking events, BBQs, and play dates for your kids – say yes to as many things as you can manage to go to.

Be ‘on’ when you’re out in the world or stay home! We all get tired and irritable. If you’re cranky or can’t put your best face forward, then do NOT go to that party or networking event. You are your brand and you don’t want negativity associated with you or your brand.

4. Be prepared that your house is no longer a home

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Being a startup usually doesn’t come with an office. We waited about 7 months before we decided to rent an office. So our homes became our office, warehouse, conference room, photo studio and drop off point. Sometimes we actually forget that it’s our home.

It’s important to be organized, tidy things away and clear up, otherwise the house can just be overrun with papers, inventory or anything to do with your company. Do hold out as long as you can before you rent an office space, – it’s perfectly acceptable to take meetings at coffee shops, hotel lobbies, and restaurants – do it for as long as you can.

5. Be thick-skinned –negative feedback is a source of learning

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Feedback on the site has been instrumental in how it looks and works. Initially I was sensitive to negative feedback, but I learned very quickly that somebody giving their opinion isn’t wrong and that I value their opinion. Appreciate both negative and positive feedback and use feedback as a source for learning.

You don’t have to agree with everything they say, but it’s crucial you listen. Especially to your “I’m always right” customer. If you start an ecommerce business, you’re in the customer service business, don’t forget that! Bill Gates said: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.” Keep your ears open and your mouth shut!

6. Exposure has value

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Sometimes it’s worth doing things for free! A free guest blog post (Dianne is writing for free a monthly AWA column in the Bamboo Telegraph) a giveaway, promo code, giving out free stuff in Gift bags, even doing a pop-up event for exposure is important. Don’t give away all your time or products for free, but do consider the less-tangible on a case-by-case basis as you’re building your brand. The contacts, goodwill & exposure have a tremendous value.

7. Right Team

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It takes time and energy to find the right talent for the right job. Hiring, and training the wrong person takes away valuable time from your brand, so take your time! Everyone you hire is critical to the success of the company. Don’t forget, not everyone can work in a startup. It takes an independent, self-motivated, wear-many-hats kind of person to work in the controlled chaos of a startup! Don’t just hire a body!
We’ve lived off of the generosity of interns- they’ve been are essential to CS’ success. Tap into the Universities affiliated within your industry to find interns both paid and government subsidized.

8. Learn to use your intuition and follow the clues

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A little hunch, gut feeling, a funny feeling, can lead you out of a troubled situation. We should have listened a bit more closely as deadlines came and went. The CS launch date changed 3 times

But we spent 4 extra months staying true to our original, very broad, let’s-appeal-to-everyone business plan. It cost us lots of extra $ and time! Some advice- Take your current idea & simplify it – We should have started small.

Rather than focusing on multiple components /features of the site, we should have focused simply on setting up the Concierge & VIP section of the site-(A more focused section that we had control of). Over many an evening we discussed changing course…we always had faith & convinced ourselves the “developer will get it right”…even thought we had a gut feeling we were wrong…of course we were! If we followed our intuition we would have seen more success sooner. We could scale after. Follow your hunch and you’ll never regret it.

9. Put careful thought into your platform, DO NOT BUILD YOUR OWN SITE!

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Even if you can afford to hire someone to build a custom online store, don’t!!! We did and if we had to do it over again we would have purchased an off –the- shelf ecommerce solution and then customized it. We tried changing developers half-way through the build, but having a proprietary site meant that no one could take the existing platform and assist with functional issues. Most IT companies we talked to wouldn’t spend the time learning the code and insisted the site was a complete rebuild! $$$, time, and self-doubt ensued! It’s not necessary to build your own site! If anyone tells you it’s the only way they work, move on, find someone else!

There are all sorts of e-commerce solution companies -Magento, Shopify, Opencart, OSCommerce, even Yahoo even has a good option. They let you design the overall look, feel and functionality of your online store. You can upload a product catalog, set up customer shopping carts, securely accept payments and handle order fulfillment. They securely host your online store on their own servers.

They take the hassle and headache of coding, hosting and doing maintenance on a server of your own out of the equation. All you need is a little bit of time and patience with which to learn how your system of choice works.

10. Its only worth it if you love it!

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People are great doing things they love and that make them happy! If you really, truly love what you do, then it will be worth all the time, money, and energy you put into building your business because you’ll end up with a “career” that you love, not just a “job” that you do. I promise there will be days you don’t love what you’re doing so go back to lesson 1 STAY CALM, take some time away. This is usually all you need to do to get back to neutral!

Starting a business is not for everyone. However, if you’ve ever had even the tiniest dream about starting your own business, I’d encourage you to continue dreaming and hopefully, we gave you a little more to think about!

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Thanks and have a glamorous day! Denise and Dianne

Contributed by Denise Palladino

If you would like to attend the Athena Executive Club, please contact us for more information!

About Chic Stash

Chic Stash

Chic Stash is leading the pre-loved fashion revolution in Asia, with a rapidly expanding community of discerning buyers & stylish sellers. Feel good about shopping again by re-selling unwanted items and buying from others. It’s Eco-Chic at its best.

Connect with Chic Stash online.

The Athena Network, Singapore

Asia-Pacific’s Leading Business Community for Female Executives and Entrepreneurs Focusing exclusively on female executives and entrepreneurs, The Athena Network provides a platform for members to share knowledge and experience across a diverse range of industry sectors, and to collaborate for mutual success.

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