Founder & Creative Director of Aella
Think polished clothes that feel like yoga wear that you can also machine-wash.
We’re based in Los Angeles and sell direct-to-consumer. We’ve been around for about two years now.
I wanted to create clothing that women could feel really confident and comfortable in- something that looks great but feels even better. An armor that feels like second skin. This kind of clothing is surprisingly hard to find, especially if you’re not a pure creative and cannot wear jeans and leggings to work.
Whether you like it or not, what you are wearing is a huge part of making your first impression. I also believe you cannot feel completely confident if your clothes are uncomfortable. This is why if you’re a lady with goals and dreams, your clothing matters!
I had a horrible time looking for suits that suited me when I was switching from a creative role at a fashion company to business school. I was shocked at the lack of comfortable yet polished pants, so eventually, I made my own!
What steps did you take to get where you are now?
I’m the type that prefers “doing” before “thinking” (and I sometimes wish I weren’t like this) so once I had the idea, I immediately launched into learning how to make a proper pair of trousers and researching materials. This took about a year. I created the product, launched the product (probably too early) while I was getting my MBA and from then on, it was iterate, iterate, iterate.
Where are my customers? What’s the best platform? Should I do wholesale or not? What’s the right price point? I tested everything. My early customers were probably so confused.
I really admire brands that launch with a perfectly realized vision and execution from Day 1 (Glossier?), but that was not my path. I learn by doing, so I really had to exhaust all the options to arrive at where AELLA is now.
How has your MBA helped you in your business? Were there things that your MBA couldn't prepare you for?
Going to business school for me was valuable because it gave me another perspective. Before that, I’d always been only trained in the creative; in undergrad, I got away with all of my requirements without taking a single econ class. I’ve always been a taskmaster, but now I have a lot of small and big ideas on operations; this is one of the main things I’m looking forward to managing in a larger scale when the business gets bigger.
But, no one needs an MBA to run a business. In fact, business school teaches you almost nothing about getting a small business off the ground, other than things like: test things! Use data! There’s a class I took on SEO that teaches you the logarithmic algorithms for calculating SEO rankings… It’s interesting but actually has very little to do with what you have to do to get a brand out there in the beginning.
For other businesses that do what you do, what do they usually lack?
A critical viewpoint. Brand-building is a delicate balance between sticking to your guns and also paying attention to the larger trends and making the things that people want. It’s a tug of war that never ends.
I think it’s really hard for small designers to take a very hard look at what they’re making for obvious reasons: they’ve put a lot of time and money that is limited into their brands. But sometimes in order to grow your business, you have constantly ask yourself: Am I making things people want? In fact, how big can my market be? You have to be honest with those questions.
What do you do get to this answer? How often do you ask? When is it really obvious?
First you need to know you are addressing a real pain point. You do market research or you’re just really intuitive, but either way this is the first hurtle. After that, if you are not able to get customers, then it’s most likely your execution that is the problem. Both of these are really difficult to gauge, which is why start-ups are start-ups! There’s too much uncertainty. Execution means these things in particular: it can be the product that is the main problem, it can be the channels you use to sell, or it can be the method or amount of marketing. It’s hard to know the exact breakdown of these factors, which is why I think it’s important to expose you and your products to as many different touchpoints to customers as possible so you can start to gauge what works and what doesn’t. The “Fast, Good, Cheap” saying applies here. If you want all of these answers fast, you need lots of money.
As an example, when I first started selling AELLA at a premiere boutique in LA, the first round of products did not do so well. It was a fashion destination, so when I updated the product mix a little bit, the products consistently had 90% sell-through. However, those same products were not selling on my website. The problem was pricing and context. At the boutique, my items were sitting next to items much more expensive and by association, it wasn’t hard to sell a new brand under that price-point. Online, the products were too expensive from a brand people had never heard of, and they were confused by the styling and what the product actually was, because I wasn’t fleshing it out enough through the brand message.
What are you working on right now? How does this fit in the big picture?
We are always updating the website. We’re a digital brand. The website is the store and the window that everyone in the world sees us through. We’ve come a long way but there’s always opportunities for massive improvement. From the moment people come to our website to opening their packages, the experience really matters.
Right now the website is a little lacking in my opinion.
When you started, did you know you wanted to do direct to consumer? What are the pros and cons of doing it?
No, I didn’t. This is why I was testing both. I cut out wholesale because it was hurting my direct-to-consumer business. I just had to make a strategic decision on this because of the nature of my product. If you are selling a true problem-solving-type of product, I think DTC is a much better channel because you can control the conversation and educate the customers on what your real selling points are. In the retail channel, you cannot control this conversation. But at the same time, pants are really difficult to sell online, so I had to do a lot of problem solving to deal with that. At the end of the day, I decided I want to invest into getting end-use consumers as my customers as opposed to retailers as my customers. Every business is different; I think there’s no right answer here.
Of all the skills you have to use at Aella, what has been the most critical?
I have decent negotiating skills and I’m a taskmaster. I’ve been able to build very strong relationships with all of my key vendors. This has been so important. I was a one-person operation for a long time, so being a good multitasker really helps.
Also, even though I don’t enjoy it, I am good at math and can crunch numbers. "Also, even though I don’t enjoy it, I am good at math and can crunch numbers."
What numbers do you have to crunch often?
Product profit margins. Operating budget.
What is frustrating you right now?
The creative stuff - product design. I would say even though I have a full-time employee now, even now I only spend about 5 to 10% of my time planning new products. This is not good.
Do you think if you spent more time on the product, you would be more successful?
Do you have any mentors or peers?
My dad is my biggest mentor. We talk about big picture strategy and sales. I like to think that he’s my biggest fan, but most of the time he’s my toughest critic. He lights a fire under my ass to do better, always. In terms of peers, I have so many! Practically everyone in my building who are also ilovecreatives users. Peers are your support network and your sanity will thank you.
What does your dad do?
He runs our family textile and fiber business. That’s actually not his area of expertise at all. Before that, he worked for a large Korean conglomerate company, handling their US business. He always says he only does three things: look at money #’s, hire other people who can do things he can’t or doesn’t like to do, and decide who to give credit to (or not).
Growing up, did you always know you were going to be an entrepreneur?
Growing up I thought I was going to be a painter, pastry chef and make-up artist.
If you could talk to an expert to gain more insight on something, what would it be about?
SEO. Any SEO hack is not really meaningful, because whatever shortcuts you discover are at Google’s blackbox mercy. But nevertheless, I would seriously love to get more exposure!
What kind of collaborations or opportunities are you looking for?
Creative collaborations! Brand partnerships! Photographers to create content, designers of all kinds to help with our visual presence, and brands for co-marketing partnerships!
What kind of opportunities/projects are you looking for?
Something where our minds can meld to create a boundary-breaking product that empowers women, hello!
I would really like to partner up with another creative to co-design products at a certain point.
Do you allow yourself to say No?
Yes. I think it’s completely reasonable to fire insane clients and vendors and say no to them. They are a drain on your time and resources, and they will take you away from the things that matter.
However, I never say no to AELLA customers; and I believe in “Yes, and” conversations.
How should someone approach you about working together?
Email me, because I respond to every email I receive, as long as they are not spam mails.
What is your advice to “stay creative”?
Do fun things. Sleep.
This member profile was originally published in September 2015.