At Shop Lune we're always on the lookout for founders and entrepreneurs who take the final leap into starting from ground up. We love a good founding story and more so if it's one penned by women in India. In the midst of so many media companies right now, the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of fashion and lifestyle site focussed on Indian millennial women, , Zahra Khan takes us through how it all started. From making a B-plan on a Word doc to letting go passive-aggressive employees.
A little background about you?
I worked with some of the biggest names in national media including The Times of India, Times Now, and HELLO! magazine -- among several other media outlets -- for over 15 years. For a brief time, I was also part of the marketing team that launched the luxury brands Gucci, Jimmy Choo, and Bottega Veneta in India, before going back to my first love, i.e. creating great content.
Shortly before launching Hauterfly, I worked for a fashion e-commerce startup called Stylista, where I used content as a driver for encouraging purchase decisions, and that gave me some great insights on how women shop online, apart from superb exposure on how to build a brand from scratch.
How did you start Hauterfly?
I was very inspired by various international media startups, and keen to work in the digital space, but there were few opportunities that interested me. That’s when I decided to start something of my own.
After letting the idea of Hauterfly swim around in my head for years, I finally had the courage to put my idea down on paper and set the wheels in (slow) motion. I didn’t know the first thing about putting together a business plan, so I just wrote it all down on a word document and mailed it out to a bunch of investors. Most were forthcoming with their time and advice, and encouraged me to start it and come back after I’d seen some initial traction.
Finally, Hauterfly took off in 2015, I can’t believe we celebrate two years next month!
Was it bootstrapped?
I had been part of Ant Farm – the parent company of Stylista and Fork Media – for two years when I decided to launch Hauterfly. Samar Varma, the CEO of Fork Media (a digital ad tech company that works with a host of publishers on creating alternate inventory to monetise their content) thought Hauterfly would be great experiment to understand if Fork should get into the content creation space.
So Fork Media incubated Hauterfly with some initial capital and we were able to take it to market six months post launch. We started monetising the business via native advertising and the growth has been tremendous since then.
Was it unnerving coming up with a business plan?
Honestly, I didn’t know the first thing about making a business plan, so I put down my ideas on a Word document and subsequently on PPT.
I figured that if I was able to visualise my ideas and demonstrate the market size, need gap, as well as the growth potential, people would be interested. I think people back founders if (a) they’re able to demonstrate that they’re capable of fully executing a good idea, and (b) if there’s money to be made. Hopefully, I think I demonstrated both!
What are your thoughts about entrepreneurship and mental health?
As any new business owner will tell you, entrepreneurship is not a 9-to-5 job; it is your life. Your team is your family. Your personal life will suffer. Vacations will be a distant memory (I haven't taken one in nearly three years). But what will keep you going are the people you surround yourself with, and the kind of people you hire. When your team is smiling at work every day, having fun, and giving amazing output, you know you're on to a good thing. And that all the stress to grow – and keep growing – is worth it.
How did you build your team? Any hiring tips?
You know that 50% of your work is done when someone comes with great recommendations. I now prefer to hire people that have strong goodwill from previous organisations, or great relationships with mentors or past bosses.
The last two years have been SUCH an eye-opener for me -- especially when it comes to hiring. I’ve met with so many young people, and while there's a lot of good talent, there's also so much entitlement. When young people today demand fat packages or high pay-per-word, they forget that it is directly proportional to solid experience and mad skills.
I have two big tips for hiring today:
1. Let go of people who don't share your passion for building something of quality and value. Fast. You'll be surprised how quickly a few people's passive-aggressive negativity can ruin a perfectly good working environment.
2. Look for qualities like loyalty, initiative, playing well with teams, and problem-solving abilities. They're the ones that will shine, and the ones you will learn new things from.
How did you grow the business?
Building a business is sort of like moving something heavy. It takes time to get the momentum going, but once you do, that momentum can begin to take over and things can start moving even more quickly. Jim Collins, in Good To Great, calls this “the flywheel effect". He compares a company to a heavy wheel, and explains, “Your job is to get that flywheel to move as fast as possible, because momentum — mass times velocity — is what will generate superior economic results over time.”
My business partner keeps encouraging me to move quicker, faster, harder at least once every week. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Take action now. Sometimes you’re not going to see all the way to your end destination when you start, but just taking the very first steps will make the world will open up with new people, new resources, and new opportunities that will enable you to achieve far more than you can even fathom today.
Money management is something people never talk about? Any tips on managing it, especially if you have a dream project?
At a start-up, every rupee is important. No, really. EVERY rupee. This line of thinking obviously applies to lots of bigger decisions as well – working with agencies, consultants, or new hires.
In the early days, I often tried to go with the cheaper option because that’s what we could afford, but turns out there’s a reason certain people charge a lot of money. They’re better at what they do. I’ve found that trying to cut corners has led in some circumstances to dealing with lack of expertise, and other times a false sense of entitlement with little or no body of work to back it up. Those small things add up, and sometimes you end up paying more than you would have for the more expensive option.
I remember when we first started shooting videos, we were shooting them in a small square space between two cabins in our old office. When people saw it, they couldn’t stop gushing about the “production value”. If only they had seen how we would hustle to make them, they’d be shocked!
Did you face any challenges as a media entrepreneur, especially being a woman entrepreneur?
In my experience, becoming an entrepreneur has less to do with you being a woman and more to do with whether you have the necessary experience, know-how, and ability to run a sustainable enterprise.
But I have had experiences where being a woman has coloured people’s perceptions about how I (should) conduct myself. Because if you’re a man and you’re demanding, you’re just doing your job. But if you’re a woman and you’re demanding, you’re a bitch. It’s hard being a female entrepreneur if you don’t have a core set of principles to guide you, or a set of standards for yourself, your employees, your brand. And while you probably won’t get congratulated for being professional or competitive, you will get criticized for being a bitch.
So, say exactly what you mean. Don’t apologise for it. Don’t water it down. Is everyone going to be a fan of the straightforwardness? Nope. How do you start your day? Do you feel guilty when you take a break?
I am not a morning person. I’m like one of those Grumpy Cat memes you see floating around the internet, till I’ve had my first cup of coffee! While I’m doing that, I quickly check up on Hauterfly’s social pages and see how things are faring, then generally scroll through Facebook and Twitter to see what the rest of the world is up to. We have a Team Hauterfly Whatsapp group that’s extremely active at all hours of the morning and night, updating everyone on things to be done, stuff worth writing/creating videos about, and general girlie madness.
And yeah, when I’m away from work I feel fully FOMO about what’s happening with the team. I have zero chill when I’m at home, sick or otherwise!
How do you deal with criticism?
Let’s be honest: no one likes criticism. But when you’re running your own business, you have to be aware about everything that’s working and not working -- whether it’s your content or social strategy, or your people. And you have to learn to deal with constructive criticism with no ego. If the criticism is honest and constructive, take it like a champ and course correct immediately. If it’s not, either be vocal about why it’s not right or choose to ignore it.
There are so many media companies these days. How is Hauterfly different?
When we started out, we were a pure-play fashion and beauty website catering to urban Indian women. As we’ve grown, we’ve expanded our lifestyle offerings to include high-traction categories like tech, décor, travel, food, relationships, and my pet project, women entrepreneurs. They are so inspiring, and I think everyone can learn from their lessons in life, work, and play. I think this amalgamation of everything that interests women today makes us stand out from the crowd.
Any future plans or projects with Hauterfly?
Video, video, video. It’s the big play for any digital publisher today, and we’re going in all guns blazing. From style hacks to beauty how-tos, to even humour and curating trending topics like our WTF! Insta series, our offering is broad so there’s something for everyone there.
We’re also in the midst of planning a really cool series around fashion and street style to coincide with our two-year anniversary, so look out for that soon!
Is Hauterfly hiring? or providing cool internships? Just in case some of our readers want to apply?
Yes, we are! We’re always on the lookout for cool young women with multiple talents to intern with us. If you great both in front of as well as behind the camera, we want you. Send me your CVs and work samples to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Divya Sehgal.