Soraya Darabi on Ethical E-Commerce, Storytelling, and Zady.Com

7/2/14Follow @bvbigelow

Soraya Darabi already has had an amazing career as a digital media entrepreneur, and she’s only 30 years old.

Darabi and friend Maxine Bédat are the co-founders of New York-based Zady.com, a socially conscious e-commerce website for what they call “slow fashion.” They are building Zady.com as a brand that sells high-end apparel, accessories, and other products from makers who care about timeless style and durability, for consumers who care about the origins of items they purchase. Darabi compares their ethos with Whole Foods, saying Zady.com offers high-quality products from ethical companies that use sustainable business practices and pay living wages—in contrast to the “fast fashion” penchant for selling throwaway products made under sweatshop conditions with no regard for the environment.

A 2012 regulatory filing discloses that Zady.com raised $1.35 million in initial financing. Darabi says that’s not accurate, but won’t disclose more specific information about the round or its investors.  AngelList shows $1.95 million in funding for Zady; Crunchbase and other sources have identified the investors as NEA, Softbank, Box Group’s David Tisch, and San Diego investor Navid Alipour of Analytics Ventures. Since April, Darabi has visited San Diego twice to meet with local entrepreneurs, business partners, and investors.

Darabi grew up in Minneapolis, MN, where she graduated from the Blake School in 2001, and intended to become a journalist when she enrolled at Georgetown University. In a talk last month at the 12th annual San Diego Venture Summit, Darabi said she was working as the college marketing rep for Sony Music Entertainment in Washington, DC, when she realized the established music industry was on the verge of disruption. “I’d get boxes of CDs sent to my house every month at a time when all of my friends were downloading their music from Napster and LimeWire,” she recalled.

As a college student, Darabi also had the good fortune to work as a marketing intern at The Washington Post’s website, where her job was training reporters how to use RSS feeds.

After graduating with a degree in English, Darabi moved to New York, where she joined Condé Nast and met Dawn Barber, who was a founder of the New York Tech Meetup, and learned the importance of networking. “Were it not for her welcoming young women like me into the group back in 2005, it would have been much harder for me to network with people who later became founders, friends, and investors,” Darabi said.

In the fall of 2007, The New York Times hired Darabi, initially as manager of “buzz marketing.” She was promoted 15 months later to manager of digital partnership and social-media marketing. Somehow, she also found time to work as a social media adviser at ABC News. “I became the person behind the scenes at big media companies who was trying to syndicate the news,” she said.

Darabi left The New York Times to join Drop.io, a Brooklyn-based file-sharing service later acquired by Facebook, and in late 2009 she joined Foodspotting, a food-discovery app that enables foodies to share photos of their favorite dishes.

Before OpenTable acquired Foodspotting in a $10 million deal that closed in early 2013, Darabi re-connected with Bédat, a high school friend who had graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School. Bédat founded a nonprofit called the Bootstrap Project while she was working as a private lawyer in Tanzania at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was prosecuting perpetrators of the genocide. While exploring Tanzania’s markets, she noticed that local artisans had trouble selling their crafts, and started the Bootstrap Project to help bring sustainable economic development to similar communities around the world.

Zady.com co-founders

Maxine Bédat (left) and Soraya Darabi

Bédat and Darabi founded Zady in late 2012.

I got a chance to speak with Darabi before her talk in San Diego, and we chatted about creating an online brand, the importance of storytelling at Zady, and the challenges facing women in business and as entrepreneurs. I’ve condensed and edited our conversation here:

Xconomy: I was reading a blog on your website about “Objects with Meaning” that was really about the sentimental importance of heirlooms. It’s like you’re creating a sensibility for the products you sell—that every item is one of a kind.

Soraya Darabi: Isn’t that a wonderful campaign? Maxine was inspired by a gift her father gave her and that she’s held onto for years and years. She brought up the idea in a marketing meeting and the whole team just loved it right away, so we decided to make that an ongoing theme in our Tumblr blog. [We] ask our users to post photos of the objects they hold near and dear.

X: It’s like Zady is a boutique storefront you might find on the Upper West Side. But it’s really an e-commerce website. How does operating as an Internet business make it different?

SD: The advantages of launching a brand online are great and vast. Maxine and I decide to build this brand online because we firmly believe that the next Ralph Lauren will begin online, the next Nike, the next Starbucks will begin online. It’s just smart and efficient, and less cost intensive to begin a brand online.

If you have a real point of view, an intelligent team, and savvy communication skills, you can really build a community online that will lend itself to being a loyal customer base. So with the advent of social media, two-way communications between brand and customer, and with our ability to design a beautiful platform like Zady.com with a heavy emphasis on visual merchandising and storytelling, we knew that in a relatively low-cost way we could acquire customers who would become almost part of our family.

We encourage them to share the news of our website with their friends and family, and then what happens is you start to build a community and as that community grows, interesting data emerges. Data that is easiest to measure, of course, online through analytics platforms like Google Analytics or Kissmetrics. That’s one of the reasons we were so pleased to partner with Analytics Ventures and Navid, because he is so data-driven and data-savvy.

Soraya DarabiYou have to look closely at your demographics. Where are people coming from when they come to your website? What website did they come from initially? What part of the country did they come from, demographically? Do they skew more heavily female versus male?

It’s important, not to become dependent on the data, but to learn from the data and to use the data to make smart decisions about where your company and your brand are headed, using those metrics.

It’s important to be a brand online first, but ultimately, we think of Zady as an omni-channel brand. Three months after we launched, we had a pop-up shop at LaGuardia Airport, and since then, we had another pop-up shop sponsoring a music festival in Brooklyn. We’ll have another one this summer.

X: Were you inspired by any antecedents? The storytelling part of your business reminds me of the J. Peterman catalog.

SD: Yes. There was definitely some inspiration. The [Peterman] catalog we remember from our youth, and not just from Seinfeld show. People revere it and love it. It’s a brand that resonates with a lot of people because the art of storytelling has been lost in recent years, especially when it comes to apparel. We no longer know where something comes from, and truthfully, that’s scary. Maxine and I banded together to create a brand that revived traditions of craftsmanship, transparency, and process and honesty. With that came Zady.

X: What are your top three or four best-selling items? And do you know what makes them best-sellers?

SD: The Milano bag by Alice B. ($450-$475). It’s a bag from Milan, Italy. It’s definitely a best-seller. It was featured on the cover of The Wall Street Journal and the cover of The Wall Street Journal style section. That definitely moved the needle for us. But what sells the item is the story: It was designed by a mother and daughter who just love Italian fashion, and who partnered with a fourth-generation tannery in Northern Italy that uses vegetable tanned leather and craftspeople, expert makers, who have made bags for luxury houses all over Italy.

The Lucy jeans line by Imogene + Willie ($145-$218) is hugely popular. Again a great story: The founders are Carrie and Matt, a husband and wife team from Henderson, KY. They met in the fifth grade at a pool party and Matt said that Carrie was his first taste of freedom at age 10. Twenty years later they reconnected, got married, moved to Nashville, and with their family opened a denim line called Imogene + Willie, named after her grandparents. They refurbished an old gas station into a really cool shop. You can walk in as a tourist, as I did very recently, have a glass of lemonade and watch the jeans being made.

X: Describe how you’ve built out your business.

SD: For the first nine months of business, we did not spend a cent on marketing. Instead we used the stories of the makers to get the word out about all the different products, as well as creating our own original content on Zady.com. We publish stories that don’t necessarily push products, but rather speak to our brand ethos and our mission—our mission being the “slow fashion movement” and the idea that items made well and made to last is what we should be buying— buying fewer but better things.

Zady.com ad

“Fast Fashion” ad

Then partnerships emerged. We were able to, through a partnership, take out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal declaring “Fast Fashion is Fast Food,” and it became a trending topic on the East Coast and Twitter.

X: Your products come from all over the world. How do you maintain your high standards for validating worker safety and sustainability and these other hallmarks of high quality that pervade your marketing?

SD: More than 50 percent of our products are made in the U.S. Quite a few are made in Europe, Northern Asia, Latin America. We only partner with nonprofits, cooperatives, or companies with fair labor laws. So you won’t see products typically from countries that don’t have those laws in place.

We’ve partnered with companies [and suppliers] that seem to really believe in our ethos of craftsmanship and high quality. We carry bags from Italy, cashmere scarves from Nepal, beautiful products from Zambia through the Bootstrap Project [the nonprofit partner that receives 5 percent of all Zady sales], gorgeous homemade alpaca hats from Peru. We’ve visited companies in Milan, in Dutch Country Pennsylvania, in California.

X: How many staffers do you have?

SD: We’re a team of seven [all in New York.] We also use quite a few consultants and five interns.

X: Has it been possible to visit the source of every product you sell?

SD: No, it’s impossible to visit all. As much as possible, we try to get some documentation. We find products that we believe are made fairly and ethically and locally, and we give these brands certificates of authenticity to sign. We ask them to cite where the raw materials for the item come from, where the item was designed, and where it was manufactured. Then we ask them to follow up with photos of that process, and we include those photos in the brand stories that we appear right on our website.

After we begin working with a brand and develop a relationship, we use every travel opportunity to visit them. Here in Southern California, we have four brands, which is why I’ll be visiting all four brands while I’m here.

X: Can you talk about your approach to networking?

SD: Networking is definitely a strength for both Maxine and me. We feel really good about networking, but also we have to be selective about it. It’s important for us to meet with people who either help us create more partnerships, secure new brand partners for our company, or with people who just help us spread the word.

I try to make it authentic and not too opportunistic and to network without an agenda. But it’s important to follow up and ask for a business card, and to try to be helpful to the person you’d like to get to know before you ask for help. That’s something I strongly believe in. Two-way relationships, reverse mentorships, beneficial networking. Whatever you might call it. I firmly believe in not just asking for something from someone I’ve just met, but in being helpful to them in their career and their path because that’s how the more genuine relationships form.

X: We’ve talked previously about the Sheryl Sandberg book Lean In. Do you see much difference in the challenges women face in a structured workplace, like a big company versus entrepreneurs? How is it different for women entrepreneurs?

X: Sheryl Sandberg’s book is phenomenal. I’ve read it twice. Maxine, my business partner, is in a Lean In circle and she’s read it twice. It’s definitely a book that comes up in conversation a lot. I think it’s a hugely valuable book for women in business, at any stage of their career. The second reading was more important than the first for me. The second time I read it the larger message came through, and that was to commit to your goals and not be fearful of them.

From personal experience, I see a lot of women making decisions out of fear and not confidence. There’s so much to be learned from Sheryl’s book, but the most important thing to think about is to release fear and to embrace your career and to have strong goals that you stick to and to understand that things have a way of working themselves out.

X: Do you see a difference, though, for women as entrepreneurs?

SD: Yes. It’s tough. When we’re talking about venture-backed businesses, it’s still only 3 to 6 percent of VCs are women, and that’s just abominable, and don’t even get me started on how many venture capitalists are minorities. A lot of this stems from the origins and roots of how many women can access capital because it’s fundamentally more difficult for women to raise money from folks who may or may not understand their sphere of business. With that being said, more and more investors are investing in women because their businesses are perceived as so profitable and having such great returns for the investment portfolio, and also women are just kick-ass entrepreneurs in general.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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