A start-up with style
By Amanda Gome
The brainchild behind Swap My Style is 29-year-old Shaughla Ahmad, who has brought like-minded fashionistas a new concept that combines clothes, champagne and canapes with a night out.
Shaughla Ahmad is 29, and she has turned a hobby into a business. Growing up with two sisters, she learnt to appreciate having a wide variety of clothes to choose from.
That heritage was the foundation for Swap My Style, a business that brings women together to swap fashion items. It is still a very young business and Shaughla still works in another business while developing Swap My Style into long-term viability.
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Amanda Gome: So let’s hear about your idea; how does it work?
Shaughla Ahmad: Basically Swap My Style is all about women who love fashion, and it’s about giving them a facility and a forum where they can talk to other like-minded fashionistas, and trade and swap fashion items. How it all came about? I had a really bad eBay experience. I’ve grown up with two sisters, so I had the advantage of being able to swap my clothes and have access to three wardrobes.
My elder sister is really super-sporty, so if I ever needed like an ‘outdoors’ type outfit, I’d know to go to her, and my middle sister is really cutting edge and really fashionable, so if ever I needed a really high-end designer, I’d go into her wardrobe. Yeah, and I’m very corporate, so I have all the suits. So it worked really well.
It made me wonder, ‘Well, what do other girls do?’, and I am someone that still does spend a lot of money on clothes and outfits, and I just thought, ‘I don’t have time to load everything on to eBay, you won’t find me at a market’, and I just thought why not swap it and why not hold an event where women can actually talk to each other find something that they like?
What size business are you looking to build?
I’d like to have around five full-time staff, and revenues of about a quarter of a million.
You’ve got an international business and finance background majoring in marketing, and what did you do then when you finished that course?
I went into consumer finance with GE, and worked my way through various divisions until I took on another role with a finance company that was launching a healthcare product.
You were working in that part-time while you launched your business. Why haven’t you left there yet?
Up until about a month ago, I was working full-time and I’ve only now felt more confident to go part-time, because Swap My Style is basically launching in Perth, Canberra, Brisbane and Adelaide before the year’s out, so I really need to be part-time.
So you held your first event when, and how did you advertise it?
I held my first event in February this year.
One of the first things I did was I hired a PR firm, because I really wanted the media to experience the events, and get word out. I also had a budget for paid advertising, so I looked at databases that had, I guess, a good membership database and a good open click rate and spent a fair bit on advertising as well. At the first event, we had over 200 women turn up, so that was really exciting for me.
And, on average, how many outfits did they swap?
Everyone’s allowed to bring up to five, and most women brought five. Some even brought more, because they weren’t sure and they wanted us to pick which five they should enter into the swap. We also have a bargain bin on the night, so if you have brought more than five, and you just feel like you’re ready to let go of them, they go into the bargain bin, which ends up going to charity at the end of the night.
And what’s your business model? Who pays?
To be honest I’m still trying to figure that out. But, you know, with every event I’m learning. You know, it’s a combination.
Do you charge the women to come?
There is a ticket price, but it’s maximum $40, and for $40 they get a champagne on arrival, canapés, access to free manicures, free massages, they get their hair done, their make-up done and they get a gift bag as they’re leaving as well…
Phew. What are your costs then?
I’ve been really fortunate that I recently signed a deal with a really, really amazing alcohol brand, and they really love Swap My Style and the women and the age-group and the target audience that comes to the events.
How old is the target market?
Most of the attendees are 25 to 35. The majority work in the city; very corporate, very high sense of fashion and style, you know, high disposable income, the majority earn over a base salary of $60,000. So that’s the audience that really attracts Swap My Style. And the brand is a French sparkling wine, and also a champagne brand that have come on board. So they work with Swap My Style in all the states.
So you’re aiming to get money from tickets and sponsorship? What about websites?
Every month there’s a newsletter that goes out. Our membership is just over 10,000 online members, and we’d like to get it to 20,000 by December.
What have you found from your corporate background that you’ve been able to bring to this business?
The ability to first not be afraid to pick up the phone, and just ring around to actually get meetings, and be able to initially just do the pitch, and really talk about Swap My Style. Being in the corporate space, I’ve learnt a lot about big business, and I guess who I need to approach, and in terms of a sponsorship agreement, and from their angle, what would be appealing to a potential sponsor.
Who do you need to approach?
It’s a combination of a company’s marketing team, a company’s PR firm and also the actual management. So in most cases, on most products that have worked with Swap My Style, it’s a meeting with the PR firm, with the marketing team and with the senior management team.
So when you are expanding into those other states, how are you going to do that while still working part-time?
We’ve looked at a few models to see what would work and what won’t work, and whether we hire an events manager in each state. So, we’re working through it, but I’m really fortunate for my launch in Perth that there is a local magazine that has jumped on board, and is really excited to bring the event over to Perth. So we’re working quite closely together. But, next year’s a new year; I may be doing Swap My Style full-time. It really just depends on how I’m feeling and how comfortable I am with leaving my current position.
You’ve got a low barrier to entry; anyone could copy you. Are you building barriers into your business model?
We have a very unique token system, and that token system grades items going into the swap, so it’s not just a general swap where you drop off your clothes and hope for the best. No-one else has the token system. It’s something that I got quite a bit of legal advice on, in terms of how to trade, market and protect.
I guess the other key thing is it’s really about building the brand and building Swap My Style and getting that loyalty behind the brand, and letting people know that Swap My Style is the event that they would want to go to, and it is the one that they’re going to get the best value and have the best time.
So what ultimately is your vision for the business?
Next year I’d like to do two major events as part of the major fashion festivals. We’ve had a few early stage negotiations. Also next year, we’re really going to re-launch the website. There’s going to be a live blog and a social networking aspect to the website, and also Swap My Style will be launching into other areas, such as end-of-season designer sales, special events where we showcase latest products from a range of companies, events where we have a fashion show and showcase guest speakers.
How big do you think this could get? What sort of trends or changes in demographics or society are there, that you think’s driving this?
Everyone’s thinking green; everyone’s really thinking about the future and innovations and what to do about it – the fact that it takes 10,000 litres of water just to make one T-shirt. So you can be swapping basically new items that you may have worn once… it’s kind of your little way of doing something for the environment.
Two, obviously the credit crunch. People are getting a bit more sensitive about how much they spend and what they spend their money on. I also think today, especially in our age group 25 to 35, we do spend a lot of time and energy and thought into fashion and what we do and how we wear it, and I think the ability to have around 200 to 300 girls who all share your sense of fashion and style, and you know that you can find something, and that social networking aspect where it’s a great night out, you catch up with your girlfriends, you have a great time…
So it’s a sort of new take on the Avon or the Tupperware?
It is, yeah. It is like a Tupperware party and Avon party.
But could you see it ever happening without the internet in terms of marketing and reach and messaging… community building?
I personally don’t think I’ve utilised my website enough. I really relied on press, media and exposure, and that’s where we predominantly got over 200 to 300 women turning up. But I think in combination with a website and with an online social facility, it will expand it even more and get more of a community involved in the event.
Have you put a lot of money of your own into this, or have you managed to be cash flow positive?
That was one of the biggest barriers and biggest hurdles starting Swap My Style, being an unknown business with a really new concept, getting the capital. I actually have relied on my own savings. My sister is also a director in the business; she’s helped out quite a bit. So it’s pretty much been a self-funded business to get it to where it is.