109: Tech Fashion Part 2 with Jaya Iyer of Svaha

In this episode, Jaya Iyer of Svaha, a company known for their STEAM prints and dresses with pockets, talks about the lack of science and tech-themed clothing (especially for children), how personal of a choice clothing is, and the importance of expressing yourself and shattering stereotypes and social norms.

A Word From Our Sponsor:

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Rein Henrichs | John K. Sawers

Special Guest:

Jaya Iyer: @SvahaUSA | Facebook | Svaha
Retailing in Emerging Markets Textbook

Show Notes:

01:11 – Jaya’s Superpower: Changing situations for the better.

02:54 – What does it take to change things?

99 Percent Invisible – Pockets: Articles of Interest #3

06:37 – The Lack of Science and Technology-Themed Clothing (Especially for Children)

08:30 – How Personal of a Choice Clothing Is — The Importance of Expressing Yourself and Shattering Stereotypes and Social Norms

25:07 – Breaking Existing Customer Feedback Systems in Order to Expand

30:06 – Starting a Business like Svaha

Svaha Kickstarter Campaign

39:03 – Coming in 2019….

41:34 – Business Challenges


John: How important it is to have clothing that can really express who you are and validate the parts of your identity that you want socially validated.

Rein: All opportunities are unique to everyone.

Jaya: The first time you fail does not mean you will fail every time. Never give up.

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REIN:  Welcome to Episode 109 of the Greater Than Code Podcast. I’m Rein Henrichs. I’m here with my good friend, John Sawers.

JOHN:  Thanks Rein and I’m here to introduce our guest, Jaya Iyer. Jaya is originally from India, however, she was inspired to live the American dream. She moved to the US from India carrying nothing but a backpack of her belongings, along with the mountain of ambition. She worked hard, obtained a PhD in Fashion Merchandising from Iowa City University. She taught fashion buying and wrote a textbook in the fashion and in emerging markets, which is widely used in universities. She’s also worked in apparel manufacturing and exporting. She’s a former apparel buyer for the cult favorite, ThinkGeek which I love, thanks to the inspiration from her daughter. Jaya founded Svaha and became determined to change the landscape of apparel. Jaya is the proud mother of two young children and enjoy nurturing her children’s interest through fashion, adventure, science and social responsibility. She is a world traveler and an artist. Welcome to the show, Jaya.

JAYA:  Thank you so much for having me.

JOHN:  The question we always start the show with is, what is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

JAYA:  I think that my superpower is being able to change any situation for the better. For example, the whole idea of how I started this company was a situation that I was put into by my daughter. She wanted to wear a clothing that had astronauts or any space them on it because she wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. This was when she was two and a half. She no longer wants to be astronaut now but she did at that point. She told me, “Why don’t you ever buy me clothes which have those kind of designs,” and I said, “You know, I will look for them,” and I couldn’t find them and so I said, “I need to do something about the situation,” and I started my company. I think that’s one example of how I changed a situation that could have been a difficult one for me as a mom into something that is pretty amazing now.

JOHN:  That’s great. Is that something you develop consciously or sort of an innate talent or a combination of the two?

JAYA:  I think I have always been able to do that. Growing up, my father was in the Indian Air Force so I was always in the situation of moving to a new place every three years, making new friends, being in a many different kind of situations and I think just all the experiences made me feel that I can either be upset about being in a difficult situation or I can do something about it and I’m always shows to do something about it. I think that’s what helped me to adapt this ability.

REIN:  This is going to be a pretty open ended question. What does it take to change things?

JAYA:  I think it takes courage. It takes a deep desire to make it happen and I think it also requires a lot of support from the people. If there are people involved, then it takes the support from people. For example, the situation where I started my company, if my husband hadn’t been the one telling me, “Go ahead. Do it and I’ll take care of things,” I wouldn’t have try but I feel it was much more comfortable for me to do that just because I had a support.

REIN:  When you see something and you think, “That could be different. I want that to be different,” what happens next?

JAYA:  For example, I’m going back to my company because it’s something that consumes my life right now. For example, we decided to make non-kids dress and then we had a lot of parents reaching out to us saying that, “I want to wear dresses like that too. Why don’t you make for women?” I said, “Okay. We can try to do that,” and although, I have been in the apparel industry but creating a whole new line requires a lot more work and a lot more understanding of what I’m trying to do here.

I figured out ways, I reach out to all the people I knew to help me in different aspects of creating something new and I said, “I’m going to make this happen,” and then I also saw what were the problems with the women’s clothing at this point. Of course, there are no science or technology-themed clothing which was I was going to do anyways and I said, “One of the problems I always have with my clothing is I don’t have pockets in my clothes,” and every time I go for a party or even out for a meal with my husband, I don’t like to carry a purse so I always have to give him my ID and my credit card or keys or whatever else, to have him put them in his pockets.

I said, “This is a problem. I don’t want like this at all,” and so I said, “All my clothes are going to have pockets,” and so I just found a way to fix the problem and I did it. That’s one of the biggest selling point of all the clothes that I have on my website right now, is that everything we have has pockets.

JOHN:  I’m sure that makes a lot of people happy.

JAYA:  Very much so and now, it’s difficult for me to wear any clothes that don’t have pockets because I’ve gotten so used to them.

REIN:  Yeah. For a long time, I didn’t realize how big of a problem pockets were in women’s apparel but I learned.

JAYA:  It is so liberating.

JOHN:  Yeah. There was recently an episode of podcast called Articles of Interest, which is about fashion and the history of fashion in clothing and fiber arts. They had a whole episode dedicated just to the history of pockets, specifically in women’s clothing and how they just evolved not to have any anymore. It’s a really interesting sort of analysis of how we ended up in the situation and now, it’s just sort of self-perpetuating at this point. I’ll post a link in the show notes.

JAYA:  Yeah. In fact, most of the clothes — women’s clothes — used to have pockets before and they evolved into not having them and now, we’re trying to take it all back. The whole handbag industry wanted to promote the use of handbags and they said, “If women have pockets, they’re not going to use handbags so just take them off.”

REIN:  Oh, yeah. Lobbying by big handbag, I understand.

JAYA:  Yup.

JOHN:  You also talked about adding science and technology themes to the clothing. Do you want talk a little bit more about that and how that’s under-represented, especially in young children?

JAYA:  I feel that when I was going shopping for my daughter a few years ago, if you enter a kid’s clothing department — girls department specifically — all you see is a sea of pinks and reds, oranges, yellows, all these colors and princesses or cute puppies or cats or rainbows or unicorns. This is pretty much standard what you would see before. Things are changing slowly but it is still so far away from if a girl likes trains. It’s very difficult to find something that has trains on it, for example, right? I was just not okay with that at all. I said if my daughter will likes science, if she likes space — my daughter loves coding. She’s learning to code. She’s just turned seven and I said, “Why should I not encourage her? Why should I make her feel at any point that it’s not something for girls?” just because boys have clothes that have these kind of designs on them.

It started off as kid’s pink or girl’s pink and then, when a lot of parents start reaching out to us, women who work in technology or let say, a woman who was a coder, she says that she’s usually are one or two of the team of 200 men mainly. She says that, “I somehow always be like dressing up like my other team members that are all men,” and she said, “Why should I have to do that? Can’t I wear a dress and still be a cool coder? Why do I have to be in the t-shirt and jeans just so I can look like a coder?” What do you mean by look like a coder? There should be no definition of what a coder needs to look like.

That’s the reason we decided that we were going to create these clothes for women and for example, my business partner, Eva, she had studied microbiology. She used to work in a lab and she loves wearing girly clothes like dresses and skirts and everything and she would always have people tell her, “You don’t look like a scientist,” so she said, “What exactly is a scientist supposed to looked like?” Now, the men love it that they are able to wear clothes show their love for science or technology or math or any field, actually and feel good about it. You don’t need to dress a certain way just because that is the norm. You can dress how you want to dress, do what you want to do and still feel great about everything. That was the whole reason why we started the women’s line and the kind of reaction we get all the time from people is absolutely amazing. It makes us want to keep doing it.

REIN:  Well, I do look like a scientist because I am a scientist and I look like myself.

JAYA:  But women are apparently supposed to not look a certain ways than a scientist.

JOHN:  Yeah. Even down to the level of t-shirt and jeans, so often all the coding t-shirts and the things that are given away as swag and conferences are all men’s cuts and they probably aren’t very flattering on women, so even at that level, there’s not the representation that there needs to be.

REIN:  I saw a conference that gave away a nail polish in one of the swag bags and there were some men who had opinions about that.

JAYA:  That’s crazy.

REIN:  I think the only response there is, “Yes, that’s what it feels like when things aren’t made for you. Now, you know.”

JAYA:  I think they did a good job by giving a nail polish, actually. It made the men feel how women usually feel, 99% of the times actually, right?

JOHN:  Yeah, that’s great.

REIN:  There’s also plenty of men who like nail polish.

JAYA:  Then it’s a win-win.

REIN:  Yeah.

JOHN:  Actually, this year at Twilio at RubyConf, the Twilio branded scrunchies as part of their swag, which I thought was really cool.

JAYA:  Oh, that’s interesting.

REIN:  — The only people who are the assholes and I’m cool with that.

JOHN:  One of the things that occurred to me when thinking about this whole availability of clothing that expresses the parts of you that you want to express with their clothing just makes me think about how personal clothing is. You know, it’s worn directly on your body and it’s one of those things that I think everyone innately understands really expresses some part of yourself that you want to put out to the world and having a big gap in what’s available to you as far as how you’re able to express yourself is a really sort of… I mean, you might want to call it a micro-aggression because it’s not so overt and aggressive but it’s also such a hugely impactful thing that calling it ‘micro’ seems problematic. I was thinking of it from that perspective and I imagine you have similar thoughts.

JAYA:  Actually, this happened a couple of years ago when we are very new which made us realize how important this is. There was a girl who was wearing one of our science lab dress. It has a lot of beakers and there was science experiment going on the dress. I don’t sell that anymore right now but this girl was wearing it when she went out to some party of some kind. The people who came up to her to talk to her started talking to her about science, which is not normal.

Most of the times when you walk up to a six-year old, five-year old, you asked her, “Who is your favorite cartoon character?” or if not, “Who is favorite princess?” All of a sudden have this person come up to this girl and start talking about, “What kind of science experiment do you like?” or, “What about science do you like?” It’s such a difference in what the communication between people is, which I feel is just amazing because this girl now feel encouraged to talk more about science or do more science. It just completely changes the conversation between people, which I think is amazing.

We have had one woman who wrote to us — she actually writes to us about all of the different interactions that she has with people because of the clothes that she wears. She says that, “I’m an introvert. I have to go to meet clients quite often and all I have to do is wear a Svaha dress and the person who I am meeting starts the conversation. I don’t even have to worry about it anymore.” Because most of the dresses, for example coding dresses, they have a C Language or a JavaScript or a Java code language, just so many things. Everybody says, “Oh, does this code compile? What exactly is the output?” and just so many things that you can discuss the minute people notice that, “There’s something familiar about this text on your dress,” and it just makes people feel that they can connect with people and be able to easily drawn because now you’re talking the language they understand. Because if I’m a coder and someone starts talking to me about coding, I immediately feel comfortable and I can immediately open up and I can have a nice discussion with this person. I feel like it helps in so many different ways and so many different people have different experiences wearing our clothes and that just makes us feel amazing.

JOHN:  Yeah, I think it also does a really good job of fighting against stereotypes, like even beyond starting a conversation, just the fact that the female-bodied person is out there, very obviously being interested in science or code or whatever the dress has on it, is just fighting against that. “Oh, well, I’m not going to talk to that person about science-y things because they’re probably not technical,” and it preempts that stereotyping, which is really powerful.

JAYA:  Yeah and what is unique, most of our kids t-shirts for example, they’re all educational in some way. For example, we have something as unique as a Scoville Scale with all the chili peppers as to what the hotness of the pepper is based on the Scoville Scale Index and then we have types of clouds. We have metamorphosis. We have so many different things that I feel that when somebody is wearing this, you’re almost inviting the person who is looking at you to come and talk to you to ask you, “What do you know about Scoville Scale?” or, “What do you know about types of clouds that there are?” or even categories of hurricane on a dress — what category hurricane has, what wind speeds?

I think if you’re wearing something, if you can make it look nice, it has nice vibrant colors and you’re able to teach yourself or even the person who you’re talking do something. I think that also makes such a huge difference to the clothes set you wear and how it completely changes your perspective on this.

REIN:  I’m just thinking about the change that this is making culturally. It seems significant to me. It’s not just putting a new coat of paint. It’s really about seeing people in a different way and letting people express themselves in ways that they couldn’t before. That seems meaningful to me.

JAYA:  Yeah, absolutely. I feel like it just makes people feel that there’s no limit for anyone. There is no box that someone needs to fit into. It’s an open wide world. You can do what interests you, that there’s no stereotype for anything. We don’t just have stamp in clothing. We call ourselves as [inaudible]. If you’re interested in arts, so be it. For example, you go and look for clothes in the boys department, there will be, are they only talking about girls, so now let’s go to boys. There are boys who like butterflies but can you find a boy’s clothing with butterfly on it because butterflies supposed to be girly so you cannot. But now, I have a purple metamorphosis t-shirt which a boy is completely comfortable wearing because now it becomes science, because you’re talking about metamorphosis. You’re not just talking about a butterfly or a flower, so this is why.

Almost everything that we sell is unisex, which basically makes a boy feel as comfortable wearing as a girl and that’s the whole idea. You’re not just here talking about girls should be able to do anything they feel like. It also means boys should feel completely comfortable doing whatever they want to do too. Because at a certain level, it also impacts boys in a lot of this. You go to a boys department, the only colors you will see is red, green, black and blue. You really don’t see any other colors, so most of our customers says that, “I’m so happy that my son can finally wear a bright color and it actually has tornados on it. It goes really well. My boy likes tornado and he likes pink color,” for example. Why not make tornadoes on a pink shirt. What’s a big deal? We basically want to completely shatter all those stereotypes that are there and it’s totally fine to be what you want to be, wear what you want to wear and it’s perfectly okay.

REIN:  This seems like, especially for kids that it would make a difference in their self-esteem too. You know, being able to have those possibilities that were unavailable to them before, to express themselves in a way that is congruent with their identity. Seems like that that would be a big deal for someone self-esteem.

JAYA:  Yeah, absolutely. Not just at kids level. For example, I used to work at ThinkGeek. Most of the customers were men buying geeky t-shirts and it was awesome. It sounds really well. We do have t-shirts now in my company but it just was like it’s fine for a woman to be geeky and show her geekiness through dresses. It doesn’t have to be just a t-shirt with a geeky something on it and so, I feel that being able to feel good in what you’re wearing is definitely is going to boost your self-esteem. Even for example, let’s say there’s a teacher who teaches math to a group of kids who probably don’t enjoy math as much but if she is showing her love for math through her math dress, for example, the kids suddenly want to find ask her. “What’s on your dress? What is this? What is that?”

Many of the school teachers are our customers and they come and tell us that, “My kids are suddenly interested now in math because they want to know what’s on my dress so I am able to teach them the concept now through what I’m wearing which is amazing to us.” They’re like, “Anything to get kids interested in math.” It helps in so many different, just the self-esteem that interest in people, the conversations between people, there are just so many different things that this clothes helped with.

REIN:  I wonder if there are some people listening who are thinking, “They’re just clothes. Who cares about clothes? These are just material things, right?” but they’re really tied up in your identity. The way you can present yourself to the world is really important.

JAYA:  Yeah, exactly. If you are wearing something and you can feel good about being able to show your interest through the clothing, why not, right? Also, our clothes are the most comfortable. It’s not like you’re putting yourself in some kind of discomfort, wearing a six-inch high-heel kind of discomfort but no. Our clothes, what people say is that, “I can show my interest. I can put it in the washing machine, just throw it in there, don’t need to iron it, put it back on and I have pockets. It just makes a huge difference.

Most of the people are professionals. They don’t have time for maintaining their clothes, unless you have someone to do that for you but schoolteachers, professionals, how much time does anyone have? If you’re wearing something that you think looks good, shows your love for a subject and is low maintenance, why not? Why should I wear something boring and plain when I can wear something fun which starts a lot of conversation for me?

REIN:  For folks who don’t know John, John has bright, fuchsia hair or maybe it’s magenta. If you couldn’t get hair that color, John would still be John but people would perceive John differently.

JOHN:  Yeah, it’s true. At this point, it is part of my brand, I guess but it definitely is again, like with the clothing, it’s one of those things that I used to express parts of myself.

JAYA:  Exactly and just the way you are completely free to express yourself in however you want to, that should be the case for everyone and that’s what I like to teach through my clothing. I don’t think at this point, my kids ever questioned, “Can I become some profession?” My daughter at some point started getting interested in digging out rocks from the backyard and she said, “I want to be a geologist. Can women be a geologist?” I was like, “You don’t have to question that. You can be whatever you want to be.”

I have a skirt which shows the layers of the rock and many people who buy it obviously aren’t geologist. They are people who had just interested in geology and I just think that it’s great. Because how many women geologists do you know or how many can actually start a conversation? Now that they’re wearing that skirt, people come up to them and ask them, “That looks like rock layers,” and then the person can say, “Yes, I’m a geologist,” and that is so awesome.

JOHN:  A reason that I think what you’re doing is important is if you think about what John was talking about stereotypes and how female present to people are stereotyped into not caring about STEM and things like that, this is a system that’s based on feedback, right? The clothes that you can wear and influence people’s perceptions of you and that creates a stereotype, which influences what clothes people make for those people and so, this feedback, this is a vicious cycle, right? And the thing that you do when you have these feedback systems is you find a place where a human can make a different decision to do something differently, to adjust the feedback mechanism and that’s what you’re doing.

JAYA:  Exactly and the thing is sometimes the stereotype, it expands so much that it just creates a norm in this society and now, we are heading to this system where people don’t want to follow norms. People don’t want to do what is expected of them. I think a lot of parents these days, they don’t want to define anything for their children. They want them to explore and figure out what they want to do on their own, which is amazing.

For example, most of the design ideas, the designs that we create come from our customers. These are people who want to wear these clothes. You know that there’s a need for it. There are people who tell us, “Why don’t you make a design –?” For example, a lot of people right now reach out to us saying that they want us to make scrubs because they say that, “I want to show that I love what I’m doing and my scrubs are really plain and boring right now. I want to wear scrubs with designs on them. We need a DNA and the red blood cell scrubs,” and these are people who are in the medical field. They just love it. I think they are just important to do something like that because there’s definitely a need for it and we have felt it and we know it because we’re growing at a very fast pace.

REIN:  The other thing that you’re doing that I think is great is when you look at this feedback system, there are different places in it where someone could try to make a change and they have different impacts, different amounts of leverage. There are people who try to approach this problem by complaining about how advertising works. That’s a thing. You can do it with some effect but I think what you’re doing has much more leverage.

JAYA:  You’re saying in terms of getting input from our customers?

REIN:  I think in terms of breaking this feedback cycle. I think that making new choices for people to wear has more of an effect on this self-reinforcing stereotype than arguing against the existence of the stereotype.

JAYA:  Yeah, absolutely. The whole idea of my company is from getting that feedback from parents. First, me getting a feedback from my daughter and me doing something about it and then, the parents giving us feedback about what they want and that’s how we’ve been expanding in a big way. I spoke about the scrubs, that was something that came from customers. Our next line of things that they’re making are lanyards. Although it’s so far away from clothing but there are teachers who are our customers and they say, “I wear boring lanyards all day long. Why don’t you make me some science-themed or technology themed lanyards,” and I’m like, “Sure, we’ll make it,” and of course, we’re going to make it with the pocket in the back so you can put your stuff, you stick to our pockets and everything.

We’re making leggings based on feedback from people with pockets again and these totally completely made use of all of this demand in the market and the feedback that we get from people for sure. It’s simply not going anywhere based on what people believe is right in terms of clothing.

REIN:  This is a great example of how these things that have social impact can also be really good business decisions because there are lots of markets like this where half of the market is unserviced because no one asks women what they want.

JAYA:  Yeah, exactly. Can you believe that? They’re actually the primary shoppers in a family, if you think about it. They are the ones who shop for their children most of the time. It’s just crazy that I’m not being listened to when they are the ones who would be shopping for their husband or their brothers or children or parents or whoever else.

REIN:  I’m sure you do marketing but so much of your business came to you. It says a lot about the demand for this sort of a thing.

JAYA:  Absolutely. Our affiliate program, it’s extremely successful because people when they wear our clothes, they feel so good about it that they want everyone to know about it. There are people who always tell us, “When you ship my order, can you please put in some of your business cards inside because I like to carry them in my pocket and hand it out to people if someone stops me.” They say that they’re always get stopped in different places when they’re wearing your clothes because people want to know where we got them from. It’s really cool.

JOHN:  Yeah, I like that you’re building yourself based on feedback from your customers, rather than sort of setting out a grand plan of we’re going to make these sorts of clothing and we’re going to have these designs on them all up front. You started small and just iterate and get feedback from people to, “Why don’t you add geology?” or, “Why don’t you add weather?” or, “Why don’t you add DNA?” so you can grow organically but also grow in response to the people out there that want these things, rather than just are deciding upfront, sort of how you want to serve the market.

JAYA:  Yeah. In fact, social media has helped us a lot in that sense. We constantly put up questions for our customers. We tell them, “How about today we discuss science ideas?” and usually, that is the one post that we get maximum number of feedback and comments because people want us to make what they love. We always listen, we always have this long list that we create up to every such post, so we have enough design ideas to last us through a year, almost.

REIN:  We talked about this a little bit at the beginning but I wanted to sort of ask again now that we have a lot more context, maybe in a different way. Imagine there someone who is like you when you got started, maybe in a different market, maybe with a different idea but they see as something they want to do that has the social impact and they want to be sustainable as a business. What would they do? How do they get started?

JAYA:  The thing that I benefited from was of course, I had a background in fashion and then apparel. I think it’s very important to study what it would take to come up with a solution for the problem that they see. First of all, are there going to be people interested? One of the ways to do that like I did is to do a Kickstarter or crowdfunding campaign of any kind. I started off with a Kickstarter campaign, which gave me a sense of is there a market for this product? Are there going to be people interested in buying? And this way, I didn’t even have to invest all of my money in it because you usually get orders and then, you get the money also for it and then you get the products. Because otherwise, people want to start really big because they really believe in that idea without really finding out if people are actually going to want it.

I always feel that you have to start small, unless it’s a product that requires a lot of tooling and other things like that. I think that it’s very important to do your research to find out what is your ability to actually create that product, if there is a market for that product and then be able to present that product to people. I think it’s also important to understand that it is important to create a series of products. It cannot be one product because you can’t start a business with one product and just have that product because it was all is going to be a time when it’s going to be done and then you need something to add like I started with t-shirts but I couldn’t have just that. I had to expand and grow.

I also feel that I have always associated causes with my products. For example, we are constantly raising money for some organization for something. For example right now, we have our dress which has cooking utensils on it and 50% of our profits, we’re donating for childhood hunger. We always associate ourselves with causes like that and I think it’s important because people want to be associated with companies that are doing something good for the society. These are just a few of the things but I think the most important part is a good understanding of what the product is going to be, what is it going to take to make it, your understanding of the process and understanding of the market for the product. Those are some of the important things, I feel and I feel like just because I had been in this industry before — I have been in this industry for a long time — I was able to do those kind of things to make what I have happened.

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REIN:  Crickstart, what if your food had more crickets in it?

JAYA:  I don’t know if this is the same brand but we used to sell them at ThinkGeek. Everybody used to love trying all of the samples. I didn’t dare to but…

REIN:  Crickstart, the food you love, now with crickets. They should hire me is what I’m saying.

JOHN:  Yeah, then you get another [inaudible]. That’s good. Okay, back to your very excellent question.

REIN:  Yeah. I wanted to ask if there were some really concrete things that you think would be helpful. Do you think it’s helpful to start an online MBA course, so you can learn how business works? Do you think that’s good or necessary?

JAYA:  I, of course, have always a proponent of education. I have studied for so many years of my life. I have two master’s, an undergrad and a PhD, so I’m never going to spend no to education but I feel that as long as you are able to research really well as to what you want to do. If you have the means, then yes. Of course, an MBA would give you a much better understanding of the way the business world how it works but if you don’t, then I think it’s very important that you spend a lot of time researching the product that you want to create and the market for it.

REIN:  Yeah. For someone who has effectively no formal education, I can tell you that there are other ways but they will be much harder in some ways, although possibly easier in other ways.

JAYA:  Yup, for sure. Also I feel like it helps with a lot of networking when you are starting. You get to meet people who are like-minded and just sometimes talking to people that are with you can help to get understanding of a situation a lot better. For example, when I started the company, I knew about the actual product aspect of the business. I knew how to get the designs made, I knew how to get the clothing made, I knew how to price a product, how to sell it and all of that but I had no idea about how to create a website because I’m not a technical person that way and I didn’t know how customer service part, the inventory management, the fulfillment, all of that worlds and my business partner used to actually do a lot of those things at ThinkGeek.

It just so happened that she at that time, was looking to do something and she asked me that if she can join me and I was looking for someone because I figured out that I cannot do all of this by myself because I do need someone else to do a part of it that I’m not good at so she did it and we were able to work. We use [inaudible] knowledge together and made this happen.

I feel that a lot of people who do this all by themselves but I think it’s really important to have another partner with you, just so that you can bounce off your ideas with that person. Sometimes, you might not see problems and the other person can or the other way around, so it’s really important to have people that you can talk to, who understand your vision and are able to help guide you in some ways.

JOHN:  Now, that you’re well on your way to tearing down the patriarchy, are there any other power structures that you’re going to take on next?

JAYA:  To completely dominate this entire market. That’s what I want to do. If somebody wants to buy anything science, they know where to get it or anything like starting from head to toe: hats to socks to shoes to bags. At some point, plates and mugs and bedsheets. Sheets, I already recognized as a huge problem because if I try to go and buy sheets for my daughter, all I can find is pink and princesses and maybe dogs and rainbows. That’s about it. Definitely, I want to expand and just conquer this whole themed market, so that everyone will know that if you need to buy something with beakers on it, you know where to come.

JOHN:  Maybe we’ll scope that down a little bit and talk about things that are coming up in the next year.

JAYA:  Yes. We have started working on the designs and what we’re doing next year is we’re definitely going to have backpacks for back to school. We’re going to have laptop bags and laptop covers and those sleeves around graduation time. We’re going to have new range of leggings with pockets for women. Right now, there are leggings available with pockets for women from other places but of course, they don’t have science or technology or engineering theme designs and we have that. Like I mentioned, we’re doing lanyards.

We’re also talking about doing subscription boxes from next year. Who wouldn’t want a pair of really amazing printed dress from much less if you have a subscription box than what we sell for right now. Those are some of the things that are happening in the first half of the year and then as we move on, we’re going to add more things.

JOHN:  Right now, you are selling entirely online, correct?

JAYA:  Yes. We are absolutely really online. We have just been to one or two of these conferences. We have been to a conference in DC called Wonder Women in Tech and we got a lot of good response of it. We’re planning to start going and selling at these conferences. It’s also a great way for us to meet our customers and to have new customers because they see our products. A lot of people are still worry about shopping from a small online company because they don’t know who we are. I’m going to these conferences and we’ll actually expose them to our products. We’re going to do that. We do have a couple of wholesalers who buy from us and sell in their stores but it’s not a big part of our product sales.

JOHN:  Yeah, the conference and trade show ideas is actually sounds like a really good marketing venue.

JAYA:  Yeah, it is. It just we have such a small team so that to send half of the team somewhere, it’s going to be a task but we do plan to do. At least, do some of the big ones and this is all coming from our customers. They sent us this long list of conferences that they think we should attend. We obviously cannot. If we did all of the ones they sent, we’re probably on the road for the rest of the year but we don’t plan to do that but we do plan to go do a few next year.

REIN:  Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you might have faced while you were getting this up and running and trying to grow the business?

JAYA:  Yes. Lots of them. There is no business without challenges, right? One of the biggest challenges that we had initially when we started off was the website itself because both of us, my partner and I, weren’t really familiar with how to operate and run a website and we try to actually start off with WordPress, believe it or not. It was just too much dependence on a coder to help us for every little thing that we did. We didn’t want to spend too much money and moving on to any of these where they have everything prepared for you and we decided that if you wanted to grow, we had to do something about it, so we decided to move to Shopify. That has made a huge, huge difference for us. I think it was a difficult decision because it’s expensive but it was one of the best decision to make actually, to move over there because it just made our life so much simpler. You don’t need to be a coder to be able to use that.

That was one of the biggest challenges. The second one was we still consider ourselves a startup. To hire the right kind of people was another one of the big challenges because you can get a professional person who’s worked for many years and then of course, you have to pay them so much, which we can’t always afford to because we’re still a small company. To be able to find the right people to work for us who understand the business of a startup company and it’s not a nine-to-five job, you have to probably work longer, work from home and all of those things. I think that was kind of challenging but now, we do have a good group of people that work for us and we’re also expanding pretty fast.

The other thing is to also not always know as to how big or small an event is going to be for you. For example last year, 2017, we decided to do a huge event with March for Science which was in its first year is really, really big. We’ve been started doing that. All of the sudden, we got so many new customers because all of the women who wanted to go for this event wanted to wear science clothes and we completely sold out of on almost of our inventory. Our warehouse was empty, like literally. Then we will know how much do we buy because are these people are going to just keep coming back and buying more? Or are they just going to buy because they had this event where they want to wear our clothes and they’re not going to buy anymore.

To be able to make the decision for every holiday season or every time, one of the big things for us is [inaudible] in March and we always have products for it but how much do we buy. Because last year, we had this many customers. This year, we have so many customer but are they all going to buy? How many of our customers are math lovers or science lovers? It’s all these toss up over there, just for me to just have to make our best guess and do what we think is right.

Thankfully, we have not had to invest any money because that can actually be a big challenge in a lot of companies, which are investment-heavy companies but we have been able to put back what we make from the business back into the business to expand. Until now, we’ve been able to do that and that actually is very comforting in a lot of ways because otherwise, there’s no limit to how much you can keep putting into a company. These are some of the challenges that I can think of offhand. There are always everyday challenges but nothing that big.

REIN:  The takeaway there is to avoid any business that involves warehouse logistics.

JAYA:  Yeah, just work from home and use your basement. You know, the first two years, we actually work from our basement. My business partner had a big basement, so we put everything in her house and then finally, when the boss has started creeping into her living room and her garage and she had started packing her car outside, we decided it was time to move to a warehouse. We’re only been in warehouse for a while, to a year and a month. That’s about it.

JOHN:  It seems like saving those growth points for but I think the rule is sort of grow when it hurts or hire when it hurts to not have hired and get a warehouse when it hurts not to have a warehouse, I think that seems to apply in this case pretty well.

JAYA:  Yeah, because a lot of times, it’s really easy to have a code party event house, for example but for every garment that you ship, then you end up having to pay them so much that it’s totally not worth it, so we decided that we are going to do everything based on the need for it at that point. If we felt that now we had some extra money, let’s introduce more products and we did it like that. We never ever decided like let’s put $100,000 into this business and let’s see what happens and then we lose all the money. We definitely didn’t want to do that at all. We did it slowly and as we were growing, we increased the product categories. We listened to what the customer wanted and just went on like that and I think that has served as well.

JOHN:  Yeah. That’s sort of a refreshing way to grow because it’s based on actual demand, rather than the sort of typical venture capital funded sort of dump however many millions of dollars in and trying grow as fast as possible and screw the sustainability and screw the work life balance and screw the workers who are trying to scramble to grow that fast and the culture of the company as it gets really distorted because you just added 50 new people and they haven’t all been trained up yet. I think it’s much more humane way of growing a company to let it work organically like that.

JAYA:  Yeah. I aimed eventually for us to grow but we don’t want to do it so fast that we can’t keep up with it. I have two kids, my business partner has four kids and our employees, they have their own things and we are totally okay with people working from home and just doing however. It’s actually fun to work in this environment, rather than stressful. It’s been great. I’m sure, it could have been probably done much faster if we had $100 million for the company but I’m not sure if that would be the right way to do it. There’s no limit on how much you can spend on marketing. You can just go on and on and for hundreds and thousands of dollars and then hire a celebrity to wear your clothes. For us, we just let it all happen organically and it’s been great. It doesn’t mean we haven’t grown. We have grown a lot but we like it this way.

REIN:  Can I just mention that this, what you’re describing is the core thing that Lean, Kanban, the Toyota Way, etcetera do, which is they let demand pull work through the system.

JAYA:  And it’s really awesome, isn’t it? They have done well.

REIN:  If you want to know how those things work, it’s two things. It’s let demand pull work through the system and empower workers to make decisions. Do those two things, everything else will come. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.

JAYA:  Those are very, very important points, though. I’m totally with you on that.

JOHN:  At the end of the show, we like to do what we call reflections, which is basically just each of us talking about the things that have impact us most from this episode, whether it’s a new idea or it’s something we’re going to be thinking about or a new way of looking at a situation.

I think for me, this is related to what I was talking about earlier whereas I was leading into this episode and the more we’ve talked about it now, thinking about how important it is to be able to have clothing that can really express who you are and it meant to help validate the parts of your identity that you want to have socially validated. I think it’s a really valuable thing when you can see that represented out in the market and you’re not just left to either make your own or feel like there’s just not a place for you in that sort of a world. I think it’s incredibly valuable to be able to give that to someone, so thank you for that, Jaya.

REIN:  When I think about Jaya’s story, it’s tempting to think that was a very unique opportunity that she had. She had a PhD in fashion merchandising. She started a fashion merchandise business. That was convenient and how replicable is that? It may seem like that is a unique situation that only she could take advantage of but I think the reality is that all of our opportunities are unique to us. No one else has and so, you can find the one that works for you and you can work to make it happen. She didn’t just accidentally have a PhD. She worked to get it, so it’s about realizing which opportunities we have and working to make more of them.

JAYA:  Exactly. To actually come back to your point right now, this was not my first business venture. This was my fourth business venture, so I have failed many times before. I decided I wasn’t going to give up but I was going to keep trying. That is one of the most important point, is that the first time you fail, does not mean that you’re going to fail every time. If I had given up, I wouldn’t have done what I just did and started this awesome company.

REIN:  It took you five years to be an overnight success.

JAYA:  Yeah. Never give up is the bottom line.

JOHN:  Greater Than Code is supported by listeners like you and you can support us on Patreon by going to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and when you do that and contribute at any level, you’ll be given access to our private Slack community, where you can join other people who are really interested in all the things we talk about, some of the guests are on there and we have fantastic conversations all the time. Go to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and join there. Well, it’s great talking with you, Jaya. Thank you for being on the show.

JAYA:  Thank you. Thank you for having me. This was awesome.

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