In an economic climate that's slowly creeping toward recovery, it's fascinating to see luxury and niche brands prosper. Combining an innovative business model, a passion for social media, and a desire to deliver a flight of fabulous fancy each and every day, CEO Shauna Mei of AHAlife has turned a consumer's desire for high-touch, curatorial experiences into what's poised to be a formidable force in the luxury e-tailer space. Merging tastemakers in fashion, luxury, art and design with their singular select for purchase within a 24-hour window, consumers are delivered a globally curated mix of exclusive products. The art is in the discovery, so adjust your timepieces and take a whimsical journey.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with Shauna Mei, and learn more about succeeding during a recession and key lessons learned when launching a company.
After two years of an economy complicated by recession, entrepreneurs, namely women, have found success in starting new ventures. From your successful career in investment banking to co-founding a luxury fashion investment and advisory firm to working with premier brands such as Vivienne Tam and Starwood Hotel Group, what was your impetus for conceiving and launching AHAlife.com? An experiential site that merges content, e-commerce and social media?
The moment of clarity came to me when I was living in Sweden and serving as COO of a design-driven activewear brand Casal, following my time at Aronsson Group. My entire career up to that point had taken me across continents, to many places, each of which had something unique - and completely inspiring - to offer. My big AHA was two-fold: 1) As a busy, globally-minded, and overall more conscious consumer, I was seeking an outlet to purchase special items that spread across my entire lifestyle from a trusted resource because, as a busy entrepreneur and businesswoman, I simply did not have the time to shop and browse dozens of stores. Nevertheless, I wanted to replicate the same sense of discovery - of stumbling upon something truly special and off the beaten path. I wanted to create this moment online for everyone, everywhere. 2) Although my previous experienced allowed me to help a number of talented designers and creative people, each new consulting assignment I undertook felt like I was reinventing the wheel. It made so much more sense to develop one platform dedicated to launching and featuring the best products from the most remarkable talent the world over.
What are some of the professional and personal challenges you've faced as CEO of AHAlife.com?
Leading a company is an exciting and deeply gratifying experience - but of course not one without its own set of challenges. A perfectionist with a voracious drive to create and grow, I admit my desire to do it all often affected my patience. The most resounding lesson I've learned as a CEO is that of prioritization. As a growing company, we must be selective and invest our time and resources wisely to make sure each endeavor we do is not only brand-appropriate, but seamlessly executed.
You've brought extensive luxury acumen, as well as an understanding of the high-end consumer, to the creation of AHAlife.com. Can you speak to how you've leveraged your background in the launch of a socially-driven, highly-curatorial experience?
Succeeding in the luxury and lifestyle space requires two elements: design integrity and compelling content. Ultimately, we as consumers take pleasure in the details - not only in the beauty and aesthetic of a particular piece, but also in the story of how it came to be. I often advised designers that producing a great item without the right messaging is like building the perfect store in the middle of a forest. AHAlife was born out of a mission to cut through the noise through ease of use, hand-selected products, and gripping editorial.
Each of my previous career experiences helped me launch AHAlife. My background in banking and private equity showed me the ins and outs of the fundraising process as I built my team, while my advisory experience afforded me the keen understanding of various challenges and aspirations when embarking on any inherently creative endeavor. My experience in technology and own early adoption of social media has strengthened my intuition, giving me insight into how people today shop and communicate online. Living in Scandinavia opened my eyes to a world of possibility, one that marries design and functionality with socially-driven consumption. Together, these experiences have made me the globally-minded consumer that AHAlife caters to by providing a highly-curated destination to learn about and purchase the best the world has to offer.
From Tina Brown to Gilles Bensimon to Diane von Furstenberg - you've secured notable and creative curators for your single-sale boutiques. How do you source your curators? How are talent merged with product?
AHAlife is founded on the notion of collective curation - a belief that we can optimize our desire to learn about truly fascinating ideas things through the help of others. When I shared the vision of AHAlife with my personal network, interest grew tremendously, and we were able to garner the support of several trusted authorities in various disciplines. When we speak to our curators, they always have a few special products they've come across in their travels and experiences, which they believe deserve more attention. At AHAlife, we love introducing these products because it taps into our innate desire as humans to share our personal discoveries and ideas with others.
How are products selected for inclusion/feature on AHAlife.com? How important is it to share with your consumers the stories behind the objects you source and the curators you select?
Today's consumer is on a never-ending quest for authenticity. Sharing the stories behind the products and the curators who discovered them is paramount to anything we do. Part of achieving our goal of creating a more conscious consumer is arming them with the knowledge to appreciate why a purchase is special and meaningful. We don't believe in consuming for the sake of consumption.
Therefore, we filter product-recommendations in the following way: 1) can't be broadly available online 2) has a great story where we can share with the consumer how the product was made and who designed the product and their AHA! 3) we're passionate about.
How does AHAlife.com differentiate itself from private sale outfits such as Gilt Groupe and editorial-meets-commerce brands such as net-a-porter?
We respect the business model that Gilt Groupe and net-a-porter have adopted and admire their tremendous growth. Speaking more broadly, AHAlife is not an online warehouse or a clearance platform for excess inventory. AHAlife is about discovery and surprise, encountering new objects everyday that fulfill design voids across your entire lifestyle. As part of our ethos, we only feature products we're truly passionate about. To this end, we take careful measures to showcase each product through gorgeous photography and clever editorial, alongside a profile of the designer who created the product and the curator who discovered it. In addition, there ay be an audio or video that takes the reader inside the designer's creative process, so that our members gain an intimate understanding - directly from the person who made it. My team and I approach AHAlife as a true editorial, content-focused destination where purchase is a convenient service. We are not founded on promoting "best sellers" or discounted merchandise. AHAlife is about discovery, every day.
Which of your featured products have been your personal favorites? Any that especially highlight a flight of fancy or an extraordinary AHA moment?
A few of my favorite featured products have actually been AHA Karma items. We have several products that are tied to social causes, and a portion of the proceeds often support a charitable initiative. Having these products now only allows me to look good, but more importantly, feel good. Some other items that have been particular favorites of mine include: the Nomi bag and the DVF Canon Camera - I love photography and capturing life's moments! Why not be chic while doing it? \I also love Scott Nedrelow's ipad cover. http://www.ahalife.com/archive/product/9/book-ipad-cover/ I receive so many compliments on this. We have a really special piece coming up with Lauren Bush that I am very excited about.
Any advice you want to share with burgeoning entrepreneurs?
Believe in yourself. On this roller coaster called entrepreneurship, you will experience moments of doubt and uncertainty and possibly encounter naysayers along the way. If you've done your research, develop your confidence and surround yourself with supportive people - those who believe in you and those who can possibly connect you to resources to help realize your dreams. Don't be afraid of the challenges; embrace them as part of the journey. And when the going gets tough, remember that it's true they say: these experiences will make you stronger, wiser. Finally, in the beginning, you will be naturally inclined to do everything yourself (we have control issues), but make sure to start building a reliable and ambitious team that can support your vision to grow and scale. Otherwise, you may have something successful, but at the expense of your own happiness.
Follow Felicia C. Sullivan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/felsull