We had an interesting chat with Ms. “Rula Alami”, Founder of the Lebanon based start-up “ALYA SAL”
Below is the interview we conducted with her:
1.What is it exactly that you do and what your start-up is all about?
ALYA is an innovative conservative fashion business thriving on an expanding market for fashion attire among conservative communities worldwide. We sell online to tap this large market.
2. When has your startup been founded? And what stage is your startup currently at?
Alyasal was officially launched in March 2014. The website, a Magneto platform became fully integrated with credit card payment channels in July 2014. Therefore my start up is still in its early stages.
3. What is your startup’s business model and how does it work?
The business model is based on E commerce to access a wide client base of conservative women in the Middle East and beyond. It is an online boutique offering fashion forward audience designer looks by various upcoming Lebanese designers.
4. How did your team meet? And who in your team does what?
My team is small, I have one operations assistant, referred by the branding company. She is responsible for social media posting, website back office management, marketing research, event planning.
I outsource accounting, social media optimization and photography .
5. What, exactly, makes you different from existing options, what will make your product and/or service stand out in the marketplace? In other words what’s unique about you and what’s new about what you make?
My business is considered niche, it targets conservative middle to upper class fashion conscious, trendy women. I offer them the total look, that is the outfit with an option to buy the matching scarf. The novelty lies in offering the total look, saving the client time spent to mix and match.
6. What is your growth like? And what milestones has your startup achieved so far?
The company is still at a very early stage of operations .Sales so far are on private exhibitions basis.
We are now investing heavily in SEO to activate online sales. We have a very competent team of designers, photographers, good sources of raw materials. The supply chain for a small business is under control. The website is fully integrated with shipping company and with online payment platform.
7. Who are your competitors? And what is your start-up’s competitive advantage over them?
Many other companies sell modest fashion online, however they offer rather cheap quality mass production. My competitive advantage is quality of fabrics, up to date fashionable looks, and trendsetting designers.
8. What obstacles did you face and how did you overcome them?
Main obstacles were to find the right people, a devoted motivated assistant, a skilled photographer. I also had to find good sources of raw material, and that took precious time. Finding reliable seamstresses is also an ongoing hinder to a smooth production process.
All these obstacles were overcome simply by trial and error.
9. What are the key things about your field that outsiders don’t understand?
My concept has proven hard to understand. That is offering modest fashion to trendy conservative women. Outsiders don’t understand that there is an exponentially growing market for these women that is largely untapped.
10. Why are you going to succeed?
Succeeding is a long journey of failure, trial and error, and I’m willing to go through it, because I strongly believe that this business grasp a huge untapped market if done in the right way.
11. If your startup succeeds, what additional areas might you be able to expand into?
If I succeed in selling online cloths, I will expand into bags, and accessories, to complement the business model. I will also attempt to operate on a shop to shop basis.
12. Why did you choose this idea and concept to build your start-up based on?
This idea started from shopping with friends who wear hijab, but like to be trendy. Their frustration in shopping and match making ignited the idea, and I developed it into a business plan for my EMBA final project.
13. What have you learned so far from launching your idea?
I’ve learned to accept mistakes, to look for the best quality to price raw materials, to control quality thoroughly, to avoid accumulating inventory by making 2 pieces from few designs.
14. Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?
Selling will always be the biggest problem because it’s the ongoing objective in a competitive world.
Keeping inventory at a minimum will impose a very reliable supply chain to be able to deliver orders within reasonable time.
15. What’s the benefit for the customer/user?
The main benefit for my customer is the opportunity to shop online for quality designer women’s wear, saving time on looking into normal fashion platforms for conservative looks and matches.
16. How did customers / users find out about you?
The launch event was well publicized locally, I had a TV interview on a fashionista program, I help an open house in Dubai, I advertised with fashionhijabista bloggers , and of course word of mouth.
17. Who are your current customers / users? Who are your target customers / users?
My main customers are young to middle aged women, who wear hijab or are conservative but at the same time very fashion conscious and like to follow recent trends as much as they like to observe their customs.
18. Where do new customers / users come from and what makes new customers/users try you?
New customers at the moment come from other customers, but I’m hoping that investing in SEO and social media platforms will bring new customers to try the trendy modern looks that Alya offers. What lures clients is the trendiness in parallel to conservatism.
19. What do your customers / users say about your product and/or service?
So far customers are very pleased with Alya’s quality garments, however many think they are rather expensive. The culture of online shopping is still new among Middle Eastern women.
20. How are you going to scale?
Scaling can only happen if I find cheaper labor and raw materials without compromising on quality. Keeping inventory at the lowest and taking orders is a must to reduce business risk.
21. What’s the biggest missing feature? The one thing customers/users keep asking for?
So far I cannot pinpoint what is missing, nor are customer requesting more than what we offer. We are trying to cater for different tastes , on a small scale , basing the model on a trial and error loop to test customers’ tastes and preferences.
22. Are you going to internationalize? And if yes how are you planning to expand your start-up’s operations accordingly?
Being on operation online is precisely the route to internationalize my company. This is a huge challenge and very costly. Another way expand is to operate on a shop to shop basis regionally.
23. How big do you think you can get? Why? And how you are planning to achieve your goals?
Measuring how big I can get is impossible at this early stage. Being a niche , I do not intend to be a large company. I would rather remain a medium sized competitive online platform .
24. Are you looking to hire a new workforce? And if yes, what job vacancies do you currently offer and where can potential applicants contact you at?
I am not looking to hire anyone at the moment. Most jobs are outsourced.
25. Are you looking for partnership opportunities or funding from Venture Capitals (VC) or other funding sources? Or your business is self-sustainable? And if the first option applies where can potential partners / investors contact you at?
I would certainly consider venture capital or partnership provided it doesn’t compromise on my decision making process, nor represent a danger of loosing control of the company.
My business is self sustainable and self financed for now, but I will need funding if I want to expand vertically.
26. What advice do you have for fresh entrepreneurs?
New entrepreneurs should be cautious in every step they make, plan as much as possible, accept mistakes, learn from them, keep searching for more information, hire motivated people, look out for competition , react fast to customers demands and comments.