Startup advice: Find the shortest distance from A to BFebruary 8, 2012: 11:59 AM ET
The best entrepreneurs see a gap in the market and fill it. Today, the start of Fashion Week in New York, is a good time to share lessons from Mona Bijoor, who spotted inefficiency in the fashion industry and created a company to fix it. With $2.25 million from Battery Ventures and angel investors, Bijoor, 34, is building an online marketplace for boutiques and brands to buy and sell contemporary women's clothes. Longterm, she wants JOOR to be an eBay (EBAY) of wholesale goods. Here's her story.
When I was a child, my mother would get out the telephone book and I would hide my face in the couch cushions.
"Mona, asking for help is not an embarrassment," she would say to me, unfazed.
She would dive into the Yellow Pages, pick up the phone, and dial the number of some random Indian family. Switching from English to Gujarati, she would ask, "What is the best Indian restaurant in the vicinity?"
With no Zagat or Yelp on the scene back then, my mom resorted to cold calling.
My parents immigrated together from India to the United States, where they became small business owners. Growing up with them exposed me to clever ways to tap unlikely resources, find answers, and solve problems really fast. My parents told me that you get what you want fastest when you find the shortest distance from A to B.
I'm not sure I took the shortest route to entrepreneurship, but I learned a lot along the way.
1. Find your true calling. "Why don't you become a dermatologist?" my mom used to say to me. "They have better hours than business owners!" Like a lot of first-generation Americans, my parents wanted me to become a doctor. When I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, I chose business. After college, I went into fashion because I just knew it was what I wanted to do. The contemporary fashion industry is a large and diverse market: $80 billion, with thousands of brands. I studied it voraciously--the players, how they distribute, how supply chains work. Armed with a passion and a Wharton MBA, I consulted for brands like Elie Tahari, Chanel and Ann Taylor (ANN). My diverse experience, along with my passion, would lead me to a big entrepreneurial goal.
2. Do it, especially if you don't know how. In the early 1990's, in the suburbs of Buffalo, my parents had an investment property that wouldn't sell. The economy was bad; the real-estate market was treacherous. To test me (and the market), my dad asked me to pitch the property to two or three prospective buyers. "What have you got to lose?" he said, daring me. So I just…did it. I sold the property without my parents' help. I learned that with enough confidence and encouragement, you can do almost anything--even at age 12.
3. Work smarter. Like everyone associated with fashion, I used to daydream about having my own brand. But my inspiration came when I realized that I could do something to make a difference for every brand in this industry. For all brands, no matter whether the economy is good or bad, the difference between being in the red and being in the black is the cost of distributing your product. Especially in tough times, the costs of trade shows, outsourced sales reps, and third-party showrooms can put a brand out of business. I thought, What if I created a sales channel that brought the wholesale market together online, allowing brands to scale cost-effectively and boutiques to source the best product efficiently? That's when I put pen to paper to create JOOR.
We launched JOOR in March 2010, with 40 brands and 18 boutiques. These brands took a chance with us before we even had a functioning website. Now we have more than 300 brands and 7,500 independent retailers.
I now realize that my dad gave me the best advice: "It isn't how hard you work," he told me. "It's how smart you work."
And my mom--that lady with the Yellow Pages in her lap, dialing a random Patel or Gupta family—taught me to be fearless. By the way, she was right: An entrepreneur's hours are terrible. It's a good thing I love what I do.