Sophia and her team have been working on an app that can give women immediate feedback on outfits from stylists, their friends and even fashion bloggers. Style Counsel is essentially a personal stylist in your pocket.
With the sun beating down on London, we hit the 5th floor of Second Home and chatted over icy cold water to find out a little bit more about Sophia, her startup and her thoughts on the fashion and tech industry.
You got back from New York Fashion Week about 26 hours ago, how are you feeling?
Oh my God, New York.
New York is a place I always come back from where I feel I need a new body and a new brain because it’s just such a hectic city! You run from one meeting to another, but at the end of it (especially with the flights and the jet lag), I’m quite drained.
And that’s why you’re on your 3rd coffee of the day! Tell me about New York Fashion Week.
I was actually there for the Goldman Sachs Annual Retail Conference which takes place a couple of days before fashion week. Fashion week has a very big business aspect. It’s not just about choosing beautiful things to put in your shop. Think of fashion week as content and the retail conference as the business.
What I found interesting is that retail is moving in two very different directions. The one’s that are embracing change and technology are the ones that are doing well. The one’s sticking to the old model of ‘we have a shop, people come to us, give us money and we sell stuff’ are not thinking of innovation, how people behave and shop on their phones. They are not doing well.
So for aspiring entrepreneurs, you can already tell that very established companies are being shaken up unless they embrace innovation because there is so much of it and we, as consumers, are changing so much. If you think about how you behaved with your phone 5 years ago, it’s completely different now.
So I read a few bits and pieces on New York Fashion week and according to the papers, it was possibly one of the most innovative fashion weeks to date – including the actual fashion on the catwalks. Do you think that’s because of the technological side of things?
Absolutely. We can even take the catwalk itself. There was one show, I forgot whose show, where the catwalk was a labyrinth through people because they knew that everybody there wanted to take a photo and share it on social media. Everybody needed to have a different angle and if you’re sitting right at the back, you’re not going to get the shot. So you, as a brand, don’t want to piss off that blogger because you’ll get less coverage. Even the physical nature of the catwalk has changed because of the mobile phone. To me, that’s really remarkable.
Also, if you look at the business side, it’s really interesting to see that there have been two high profile fashion departures going to Apple. One of them was Angela Ahrendts who was the CEO if Burberry. She’s gone to become the head of retail at Apple and you think, you’re one of the CEOs of one of the coolest companies in the world, are you taking a step down or is it not?
And what seems interesting is that, in most people’s head, they are such different industries.
If you think about it, an iPad is as much of a fashion accessory as a Burberry bag. I actually think it’s fascinating how fashion and technology are starting to occupy some of the same spaces in the consumer’s mind.
Very true. So Style Counsel is for the everyday women and we’ve spoke about these big brands that are relatively upmarket. Things that…
Exactly! So how do highbrow brands’ new trends at fashion week trickle down to the everyday woman?
It’s actually really easy. When people are watching the catwalks, there are also buyers and designers from places like ASOS and Zara. They can see what the most photographed dress was and what was most popular on social media. So they don’t only see what they think is good, but also how girls on Instagram react when an image is shared. They can then take that, reiterate it given the reaction/popularity and given the cost to make it mass market. It will be in shops 6 to 8 weeks later. When you talk about fast fashion it is really fast.
So you obviously travel a lot. You always seem to be off somewhere. Do you have any daily rituals that keep you in the zone or get you through the day?
Yes. I got some really good advice from a great entrepreneur who is much more established and successful than me.
Give it time!
Well, he is older than me! But what he said was: ‘your morning routine has to be sacred’ and ever since I’ve put that into practice, it has really helped.
You’ve got to wake up in the morning feeling like: whatever happened yesterday, today will be a better day. I know who I am and I know what I want and I know that I’m capable of dealing with the challenges that are inevitably thrown at me. So the worst thing you can do, is check your phone. If you wake up and you start seeing all of these messages of ‘you’re running late to this’, and ‘this has happened’ and so on… Put it this way, if you’re running a startup, there are a myriad of things constantly going wrong, but you’ve got to have a little bit of time when you wake and think actually, whatever happens, I can do it.
For me, I only check my phone whilst I’m having breakfast. After I’ve got out of the shower, when I’ve had some time to think, to make a list of priorities, because it’s important to make a list of priorities before you get pulled in every direction, maybe that list then changes because there is a massive fire burning that you have to put out, but at least, in some way, you’re still in charge of where you’re going as opposed to being a panicked person running from one thing to the other.
Agreed, that is a very good piece of advice from your friend there. Alright, so we’re sitting in Second Home right now. In terms of workspace, do you find that sitting surrounded by other people and startups in this shared environment actually helps boost your innovation and productivity?
I would definitely say so. When you’re first starting a company, money is tight for most people, but if you can, you should work somewhere, preferably with other people. It’s good to get out the house and separate home from work. Also, being surrounded by people that, in some ways, are going through the same thing as you is really good.
There are difficulties startups all have in common: starting your company, hiring your first person, even opening your first business bank account. If you’ve never done it before and the person sitting next to your has, it’s really really helpful.
If I see people that have started kinda at the same level as me, seeing them succeed make me actually think ok, they’re a normal person, they’re not God, so come on let’s get on with it.
Ok, so this is going to be a bit more about you as an entrepreneur. What do you think the best and worst thing is about being an entrepreneur?
The best thing? Well I think it’s the team I now have around me. They’re all cool, interesting, smart people. This includes the team that actually work for the company, but also our investors and our advisory board. I told you earlier, our first ever employee is being interviewed on the BBC today! The people that I have are all rockstars and knowing you hand picked each one of them – it’s a bit like going on trip to Selfridges, picking the best things that you want and taking them all home! Seeing these people energised about an idea you started with and improving it. That is really cool. You start being proud of the fact that things with them are so much more brilliant than what you would’ve done alone
The worst thing… I would really love it if I could clone myself 4 times because there is just never enough time and energy. You have to deal with the fact that it can’t all be perfect even though you could make it perfect if you weren’t doing anything else. You can only do your best with the resources you have. In corporate companies, you have marketing departments, HR departments, legal departments. As an entrepreneur, you’re all of these things, and you still need to eat, sleep and occasionally see your friends.
That is the worst part, but you have to let go of the feeling of guilt. If you exhaust yourself, work 20 hours a day and keel over, your business will keel over – or at least, is more likely to. So kindness to yourself is important and it’s also realising that if I don’t look after myself, I’ll be letting other people down.
Taking a step back now and looking at Style Counsel, what is your proudest moment since you’ve registered your company so far?
Proudest moment? I would say that proudest moment was when we got our first investors through. When you’re fundraising, before you have a product out, it is insanely hard because you’re saying I’m really smart and my team is really smart and we’ve got this great plan. Give us some money and we’ll return it ten times over, but you don’t have anything for people to see so it’s a leap of faith! Some people have a rich uncle. I have not yet located that rich uncle, so I’m still looking!
I’m sure you’ve been analysing your family tree
I’m hoping he might be five times removed and if he reads your blog then please tell him to get in touch because we’re here ready to receive!
We’ll forward the message! So that was looking at your past achievements, but what about the future? What are the next steps for Style Counsel?
Well, our product, the app, is coming out in Beta in 3 weeks!
That will still be a very small group of people testing it out because there will inevitably be lots of bugs. Once we erase all those bugs, we are going to have the app available for the public in October/November. Then we will be working with people actually using it which is really exciting!
What will be interesting is seeing what people really like and what they don’t and letting the consumer lead the conversation rather than us saying that we know what they want and forcing them to like it.
That’s is really exciting. Congratulations! So this is my last big question. You’re in this interesting area where fashion and tech are starting to fuse, but I would say it’s still very much in its early days.
So where do you think this industry is heading?
I think it will become absolutely merged, but not the way that consumers will see it. For example, this dress I’m wearing, I don’t want it to start lighting up.
Or start measuring your heart rate!
Exactly. I mean, there are things that are going to be technologically enabled, but they are specific areas, like sportswear. But if I’m going on a date, I want a dress and shoes that make me taller, but are comfortable and are on trend. You know, that’s the stuff that isn’t going to change.
Obviously the way things are made. That’s changing. We as consumers just think ‘oh it’s nice, I like it’. So there is a lot of innovation in the background and even more so in analytics and big data, and how consumer behaviour is being monitored and analysed in order to inform what the designers are making and what the buyers are putting on their sites.
Analytics is the kind of thing that is really going to drive retail. How they use information and how they analyse information and then make the things we want. The ones that do it right, will make money. The ones that don’t will go out of business.
Style Counsel can now be purchased on the Apple App store.