Welcome to ‘Female Founders’, the Information Age series profiling 12 women who have grabbed the entrepreneurial reins and ridden into the unpredictability of start-up life.
We talk to the women about their business, entrepreneurship journey and advice they’d give to other women considering starting their own business.
Information Age interviewed all 12 women on the Start-up Catalyst Mission to London this year. Start-up Catalyst runs regular missions for start-ups, investors, and other leaders to some of the world’s top tech hotspots, such as Silicon Valley, Israel, Hong Kong and London. The goal? To transform both the individual and innovation landscape in Australia.
Today we speak with Sharine Duran, co-founder of Adzurra.
Name: Sharine Duran, founder
Established: 2018, Gold Coast
No. of employees: 3
No. of customers: 52 boutiques
Information Age: What’s your business all about?
Sharine: Adzurra is a fashion e-commerce marketplace that connects local fashion with local users and with local independent boutiques.
IA: What problem does your business solve?
Sharine: Consumers want to be able to buy both online and offline. Online, there’s a stack of places you can shop at, but how do you buy something from a local boutique without physically visiting it?
Boutiques want to be able to attract new shoppers. Paid online advertising is becoming extremely expensive, so boutiques are looking for a new way to sell their products. We charge the boutiques a subscription fee and a revenue share to fully automate their inventory and systems.
IA: How did the idea for the business come about?
Sharine: I'm 24 years old, and I shop quite regularly online and offline. But there was no marketplace that allowed me to bring those two worlds together. It came to me when I was travelling in Japan. I wanted to find local fashion in the area.
I was like, "Well, why isn't there a marketplace that allows me to figure out if there are clothes I want in a store prior to going into it. When I travel, why can't I find all the different types of independent fashion boutiques in the area so I can support local fashion and local businesses?"
IA: Who is your ideal customer?
Sharine: Women who want to support local fashion. They don't really discriminate whether it's online or offline – it's all about what product you want. You don't really care where it comes from at the end of the day.
It’s women who want to support local fashion and who aren’t really into mass-produced fashion.
IA: What's been your biggest challenge in getting your business up and running?
Sharine: I’m a founder – not a co-founder – and I don't think a lot of people understand the difference between having co-founders that you can rely on, and being just the sole founder. The problems that you face are very difficult.
With co-founders you've got a support system. As a sole founder, everything relies on you, so you have to learn about tech. You have to learn about marketing. You have to learn about consumer markets. You have to understand your business model, you have to understand finance, you have to understand everything! I’ve had to learn about AWS and all the different types of systems that are in place in my business.
I think the biggest difficulty is building a team. You need to understand what your gaps are and build a team that can help you meet the gaps. Hire a tech person, hire a marketing person, and make good hires at the start of your business.
IA: Who has helped you along your entrepreneurship journey?
Sharine: Having an early stage investor very early in my business empowered me to actually believe in my business from the beginning. I started off quite early – I began the business when I was 22 years old – and having an investor come in and say ‘that's a great idea’, empowered me to find more mentors in the space. He's since become a mentor for me.
IA: Have you ever thought about throwing in the towel?
Sharine: Yes. There haven't been that many moments where I wanted to throw in the towel. I think that's partly due to naivety and partly due to believing what I’m building.
When you build a product that's for you, that you would use yourself, that’s exciting.
I realise it may sound trivial to some, but for me, to be able to connect worlds of fashion from local fashion in Japan, to Korea, and to other countries, that's pivotal in my life.
I would say that I’ve wanted to throw in the towel when the team starts to lose faith. As a sole founder, it's very important that your team believes in who you are as a person, and that they want to work with you. As a startup, you work with low budgets, extremely high stress, and overly ambitious goals. The team you work with needs to believe in not just your goal but you as a person.
The team also keeps me going when they tell me that if we can't raise capital, they would work for free – that makes me cry. I'm very driven by my team. When they say, "Look, if we can't raise any kind of money, we'll continue working for free until we can get to that point,” that makes me feel like I can achieve the world.
IA: With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently along your journey?
Sharine: Absolutely, yes. [laughs] Of course. I would have built my team earlier. When I first started my business I was a sole founder with no technical experience, and because I came across capital quite early on, I hired an agency to actually build my product overseas in the Philippines. That was probably the biggest mistake I've ever made.
I had no control over my product, and because I’m non-technical, I couldn’t really dictate the best system for the specific functionality I wanted. I had no control. I would have just spent a bit of time looking for a team before spending any money.
I would have looked for a software developer and asked, "Okay, do you want to be part of my team?" then looked for a marketing person and asked, "Do you want to be part of my team?" Baking that culture already from the get-go before spending a dollar on development fees and things like that.
It also cost me my six months of time to fix what the Philippines agency couldn’t deliver. In start-up world, six months is a long time to lose.
I had to start over and develop the product from scratch – that was one of the times I wanted to just throw in the towel. I was like, "I'm going to have to start again, and I’ve already spent $90,000, and there was nothing achieved within that time."
That was very difficult to get over, and then having to rebuild my company and my company culture, and then do proper hires six months later.
IA: How has your business been funded to date?
Sharine: We have an angel investor through the family and friends. We received $285,000. Now we're currently going for a seed round for early-stage investors, VCs or angels in the e-commerce marketplace space.
IA: How did your angel investor come about?
Sharine: That's quite a unique story. I had graduated from law school at a Gold Coast university and within three months of graduation, I had this idea to connect local independent boutiques online.
I was going through this moment when you graduate from uni, you're like, "I don't know what to do with my life. Should I go into corporate world? Should I go into government? Should I become a lawyer? Should I work in other areas? Should I work in the start-up area?"
So, I had this idea, and I was babysitting for my uncle, and I was speaking with him and I was like, "Hey, I have an idea. Do you guys know anyone that might help me as a business mentor?" I was looking for a business mentor at that time. I was like, "I need a business mentor first."
My uncle says, "Actually, I have a really good friend. He's quite a high net worth individual. He's had a few businesses that are very well off and making quite a substantial amount of money. He would love to speak to you because he's always looking for younger people to impart that wisdom on."
He calls him and says, "Hey, my niece, has this idea. She wants to get into tech. She doesn't really know where to go from here. She needs a business mentor. Do you know if you could impart any wisdom?"
Richard, who's now our investor, was like, "Sure. Please put her on the phone." I get on the phone, and he's like, "Hey, what are you thinking of doing? What your interests are. What industry is it in?" I said, “I want to do e-commerce marketplaces. This is how much money we're trying to raise as well."
Then he was just like, "I like that idea. I like you. You sound like you're smart. You just graduated. You've got the whole world at your feet. You're young. I'll invest."
I said, "Okay."
Obviously, he didn't invest there then, but it was over two-month period of emailing and understanding the business, where we want to go and the mission of the business. Then within two months, we received our first initial injection. Then three months later, after a bit of market research, he injected another round of financing.
IA: You mentioned you're looking at another capital raise.
Sharine: We're currently seeking $1 million in seed funding. We're looking for early-stage investors and seed funding in e-commerce marketplaces at this time because we've done a angel round. We are also looking for other angels, but angels with experience in e-commerce marketplaces, and to grow marketplaces specifically because everyone knows marketplaces are very difficult to scale. We've got two to scale. We've got the boutiques to scale, and we've got users to scale. That's all about customer acquisition and conversion rates. We want someone in that space.
IA: What is the vision for your business?
Sharine: I would love to see all the local independent fashion boutiques, online and offline, all connected onto one marketplace so that when people shop, they don't just think online or offline, they think online to offline. We don't think about going online or offline. It's like the two worlds are together now. Our vision is to connect all these local fashion boutiques, no matter where they are in the world, to come to one marketplace.
IA: What do you think will be the first international market you have a presence in?
Sharine: Outside of Australia, we will go UK, then US.
IA: Who do you think put you on the path to entrepreneurship?
Sharine: Not my parents! My dad's actually a business man, but he never really wanted me to go into business. He's like, "Don't become part of business, become a lawyer, get your security, get your money. You go up and down in business, I don't want you to have that stressful life." To this day, he asks when I'm ever going to become a lawyer!
My mum ran a business with my dad quite successfully back when I was quite young. She also said, "Don't do it. Long hours, low returns".
The person who inspired me to get entrepreneurship was an ex-partner of mine. When I was 21, I dated a man who was into entrepreneurship and inspired me to become part of that world.
Once I was in my last year of university and I was asking what I was going to do with my life, he was running his own start-up. I’d see him work so many hours, but I loved the fact that he was working for himself.
We're not together anymore, but we’re still good friends. He empowered me to become part of entrepreneurship. That's when I realised, "Actually, I can do this, too."
IA: What advice would you have to any other females out there who are seeking to follow an entrepreneurial path?
Sharine: Have a strong idea of your business plan and what you're trying to accomplish. Speak to lots of people about your business. Don't think about your business being stolen or the idea being stolen. No one's going to steal your idea. Chances are, people are too lazy to even steal your idea. It takes a lot of hard work!
So, speak to people about your business. They might connect you with someone. Don't think of anything as a waste of time. Just do it and speak to anyone and you never know where that's going to lead.
Roulla Yiacoumi travelled on the 2019 Startup Catalyst Mission to London with the Female Founders.