Meet Alexis, she is this weeks Female Founder Interview. Alexis was a wonderfully relaxing interviewee and a pleasure to be around. What she has achieved, with her co-founders, at Bespoky is very impressive in such a short space of time. Great lessons and understanding to be learnt here about Hackathons and finding great co-founders!
Tell me a bit about your journey.
So I’m American but I grew up in Hong Kong. At University I figured out that I wanted to do graphic design and I eventually made my way over here [UK] to study graphic design. It eventually pushed me into digital innovation. I’m currently Associate Creative Director of a digital agency as my day job and I work on Bespoky on the side.
What was your first role out of university?
I was an Interaction Designer Intern at a design studio; they built really beautiful websites and products. They really focused on crafting beautiful experiences and the playful side of interaction design. They really taught me how to think about the user, who is using the website and how to delight them.
That covers your UX background but where did your interest in fashion come from?
My mother is mega fashionable, she has amazing jewelry and my grandma was also really stylish. So from the personal side I just loved clothes, jewelery and shoes! Then I attended Decoded:Fashion which is a meet-up that started in New York and became global very quickly due to the desire to merge fashion and tech. It’s interesting because fashion is a very creative industry and tech is a very enabling kind of industry. So I went to the meet-up last year and thought it was awesome; there were all these different people from different industries talking about how they use tech in fashion. I just thought “this is where I need to be”.
Before we really get into Bespoky you also had a wedding blog, can you tell me a bit about that.
I think the wedding industry is really interesting because my impression is that it is more open and collaborative than the fashion industry. It was also a little bit younger. Fashion blogging had already taken off by that time so it was a much more accessible way of meeting fashion designers and photographers. Through that I was able to cover bridal shows from backstage in the same way that a fashion blogger might do; it was great. That was about three years of my life; blogging about trends and fashion from a bridal perspective.
Does the blog still run?
It’s more in archive status now just because my interests have changed. Interviewing people, and publishing on an on-going basis, is very labor-intensive but it was an amazing experience.
Did you always think you would run a business at some point?
My blog made a little bit of money but I never wanted to turn it into more than just a hobby. I really do enjoy the business aspect of things but I never had the ambition to start my own agency. It wasn’t part of the plan so when Bespoky came along I thought “oh my god, now we have got to do it.” I’ve got really great business minded co-founders and we balance each other out very well.
Bespoky - The Story
After attending the Decoded:Fashion meetup you then went to the hackathon?
I decided to go because I wanted to meet people and explore the fashion and tech scene more. It seemed like there was a lot going on but I didn’t have any way in other than these meet-ups. As part of the meet-up you sign up to a platform called Challengepost which is a forum where you can meet people if you don’t have a team.
I made a profile and these two guys, who are now my co-founders, Claudio and Giovanni contacted me saying they’re looking for a designer to join their team. I just said “yes!” as I really wanted to just experience all of it. I didn’t realize once you get there, there is pitching and networking. It’s very much “I have this idea and do you want to be in my team” I just enjoyed mingling and meeting all different types of people rather than pitching.
One of the great parts of the hackathon was a panel discussion with the experts in the industry and the challenges they face; how to use technology in retail to facilitate human experiences, how to handle the distribution issues, etc. For me it was a more authentic way of setting a brief than coming with an idea that you had thought of out of context. I actually didn’t mind that we didn’t have an idea, I think sometimes coming pre-prepared can ruin the spirit of a hackathon.
We met our teams online on Friday night, for those of us who didn’t have them, then Saturday morning we had presentations and the panel discussion. Then we found a room, started thinking about ideas and throughout the process we had mentors coming in to speak to us, that was the most amazing thing ever. I never thought that I would be in the same room as heads of departments for Twitter and Managers for one of my favorite fashion labels. Then Sunday afternoon we had to pitch our ideas in the first round. That was to a panel of ten people; Editor of Wired, Venture Capitalists, Fashion Editors and representatives from All Saints who were the main sponsors. We were one of the top 5 groups who then got to present at Decoded:Fashion Summit which was a professional event the following Tuesday. That was to an audience of 300-400 people and the judges of that were prominent CEO’s in the fashion industry.
It’s funny, the emails that went back and forth between myself and my co-founders because it was a complete roller-coaster of emotion and excitement. I have never felt anything like it, I was on the verge of tears and laughter the whole time.
After that you won an opportunity with All-Saints. How did that come about?
The three winners of the hackathon won the chance to develop their concepts further with All Saints. There was no promise of a contract but there was a promise of a meeting with the CEO and a further meeting with the Global Head of Innovation.
Wow! So how do you go from Hackathon to full functioning business in such a short space of time?
The most ridiculous thing was we didn’t have a developer when we won the hackathon. For both pitches it was just the three of us and we had mocked up a prototype to share the idea. It didn’t really matter but then we had to go find a developer so that we could then go to our first meeting with All Saints which was two weeks after the pitch, as a proper business, with a proper timeline and say “this is what we intend to do”.
As a consumer, how does Bespoky work?
It’s a bit like Tinder for shoppers and stylists. If a customer walks in a store they can browse the profiles of the stylists that work there and are available at that time. Each stylist profile has a mood board, an introduction and a photo as well as the languages that they speak etc. By choosing to shop with someone that has similar interests to you, you are more likely to buy. From the consumer side, we’re putting the choice into their hands in terms of whether they want to be helped when they go in a store or not. From the business perspective, All Saints have these staff that are really well trained. They are much more than shop floor assistants, they’re stylists, they understand the collection, and they’re really interesting people. A lot of them are fashion designers or fashion students. It is an appointment booking system which allows you to choose someone to shop with who is more like you.
We’re hoping to pilot soon – we are working on timing with them and getting over the last hurdles in development.
Now you’ve got your All Saints pilot where do you see Bespoky going from there?
We had some requests from other retailers; just interest at the moment. We are really keen to get through the pilot and take our learnings from there to understand how we can improve it. We will do the pilot and take the learnings to figure out what is the next step. Ideally this is an app that people will use for lots of different stores. We see it working well in stores that have a lot of different styles; Topshop, New Look and Selfridges.
How did you find your developer?
We have a team of developers now, which is through a combination of a developer that we met at the hackathon, a friend of Giovanni and Claudio’s and Google Campus co-founder speed dating. I love my co-founders, when I first met them I thought “these guys are crazy!” You know I have never worked better with two people that I never met before than I did with these guys.
I imagine that is definitely a reason that your team did so well, it is very difficult to find a good team at a hackathon.
There were teams that broke up at night and other people defecting in the middle of the night. I think this is probably why I have such a romantic view on hackathons because I have only been to one. I’ve met two guys who are now very good friends of mine in one night. I know I have to be realistic about that as they’re probably not all going to be like that. Anyway, it was tricky to find the next piece to the puzzle because we had such a great dynamic. That has been a challenge but I think we’ve got a really good team in place now and we’re just making sure that we can maintain this.
Are you all working on Bespoky part-time or are any of you full-time?
We all have full-time jobs but we all work close together so we can have lunch meetings, meetings after work and skype calls. We have a WhatsApp group which is the best and the worst, it goes off all day! It is really great for keeping the momentum, excitement and enthusiasm of what we are doing. It’s quite a democratic way of discussing things where everyone can be on the conversation and it is a good way of recording things as well.
We treated that first meeting with All Saints as a really serious meeting. They said “we want to see what you’ve been up to since the hackathon”. Claudio said “we need to treat this like Bespoky 2.0. We’re not a bunch of kids that went to a hackathon anymore, we’re a business and we have to approach this from a very professional perspective.” We made a very concerted effort to put together a presentation of how we have moved forward. After the meeting All Saints said, “these are the things that we want to improve, these are the challenges that we see you having and here is an introduction to our retail manager”. Having access to some of their team in the format that we do, which is quite casual and collaborative, has been awesome.
What do you feel is your biggest challenge?
To date it has been getting ready for the pilot. At the very beginning we were just figuring out how to get where we wanted to go without zigzagging all over the place. Now we are talking about scalability and product roadmaps. It is efficient to develop for the future as well and we have a million ideas for the future. So it’s about using the strengths of Claudio and Giovanni who think about the business, thinking of the direction into which we want to grow the business, then scale and add more functionality to turn it from an app to a business. I’m really focused right now on getting a user base and they’re focused on creating something that will have value and be a business. I don’t think it is a challenge, just something that we are working on.
What tools would you recommend that you can’t live without?
What books would you recommend?
Advice & Final Thoughts
What advice would you give to women wanting to go and start their own business?
I met this girl who has a 3D printing jewelry company at a fash-tech meet-up. I went up to her and said “oh I love your jewelry, it’s awesome. How long have you guys been going?” I was thinking that they had been established forever but they had only started five weeks ago! I was so surprised - they had a table at an event, all their products were up and running. I remember thinking if she can do it then I can do it.
The other thing I learned is I’m a perfectionist and I think you have to allow things not to be 100% perfect. Getting 80% there and then knowing you have to move on because we need to improve and it is going to change anyway - that has been a big learning experience for me.
What is your advice for people managing a full time job and a startup?
I always find when I’m busy I get more done. It hasn’t really been a problem yet but you have to ask people for help and delegate well. That applies to both Bespoky and my job, you don’t have to do everything yourself. There are a lot of things that I feel like I should do but actually other people in the team are perfectly capable of doing. Also, having trust in your co-founders - and I absolutely do 100% - so really the part is stepping back and knowing it can run without you 24/7.
What do you see as your vision for the future?
I’m so in the moment that I’m just trying to get this done and my day job is very busy, which I love to pieces. What do I do with the rest of my life is a very emotional thing, it is one of the reasons why I haven’t left my job to focus on Bespoky. I love my team and I have been in my company for about five and a half years. I’m not sure but I think that fashion and technology is the place for me, everything that I have worked on combines those two things and I’ve felt so excited about that area.