Building a DTC Brand through COVID: Wk 1

Wk 1: Interviewing through COVID


Since I was 10, all I’ve ever wanted to do is run an apparel brand. This summer, I decided to forgo the traditional internship route my fellow business school classmates were taking, and have started my own company, IXORA. During a pandemic. Yes, I repeat, I’m trying to start an apparel brand during a pandemic. While I knew it would be difficult to start a DTC brand in an over-crowded, hyper-competitive apparel market, the combination of the COVID pandemic and being a broke grad student have made it five-hundred times harder. I can still hear my parents saying, “why are you doing this now?”

Therefore, in an attempt to eliminate the incessant small-talk questions that I get from friends & family about: “how’s it going?” “what are you working on?” and “what hypothesis are you testing?” I thought it would be helpful to lay it out in a blog. While my way won’t always be the right way nor will there be any guarantees IXORA becomes remotely successful, I hope this will start some discussions about entrepreneurship during this crazy time.  

As soon as school was out, I knew I needed to find a designer. As much as I consider myself a designer by hobby, I’m not a designer by trade. I needed someone who has professional experience designing at brands, picking fabric, creating tech-packs, working with manufacturers and most importantly, willing to work with me on a limited budget. Fashion has been one of the hardest hit industries during COVID; brand after brand has made headlines for thousands of furloughs and layoffs. While I’ve had some people tell me it’s a “buyer’s market,” I constantly wrestled with the ethics of trying to find someone to take a risk with me in this perilous environment. Am I doing the right thing by asking someone to put their livelihood on the line? I knew the best way is to be as transparent as possible: about pay, about workload, about the future outlook, so with that I started my job posting.

The easiest way I thought was to post on various NYC fashion school’s job boards. My Results: The Fashion Institute of Technology: 0 applicants. Parsons School of Design: 1 applicant. As a last resort and despite my cheapskate instincts saying no, I posted on LinkedIn Jobs for $200 for 3 days, and within 3 days, I received 200+ applicants, reminding me that sometimes the investment is worth it. The joys of being a sole founder is that I am not only the Founder & CEO, but HR as well. I’m responsible for screening every applicant. While a good portion were unqualified or ineligible to work in the U.S., I narrowed the pool to ~75. Pre-interview, I knew many designers would be yearning for a stable income amid COVID, so before wasting their time doing Zoom interviews, I emailed each of them to be transparent about the pay, and with that, I scared off enough to dwindle the pool down to 25.

I scheduled these 25 interviews across three days to take place over Zoom, one of many COVID-adjustments. At this point during COVID-times, I, like many people, are quite adept with Zoom. Between classes, happy hours, and everything else in between, I was confident in my Zoom skills, so when interviews started, I set-up my computer for Zoom and a notepad. As I went through each interview, I wondered why this felt so awkward. I hoped that I would feel more comfortable and more confident as the day went on. However, as I reflect on those days, I realize that I missed not witnessing physical cues such as hand motions or nervous ticks, if any. I found both me and the interviewee talking over one another when we didn’t grasp who was done speaking. Then with my list of questions in-hand – and no office art or commuting stories to make small talk of – conversations felt more forced. How was I supposed to pick someone through this?

On the bright side, after a cumulative total of fourteen hours of interviewing, I feel lucky to have met so many skilled and willing people. Despite being in an industry that hasn’t been kind during COVID, many of the designers are still optimistic on the future of the fashion industry and still genuinely love what they do. As I spoke to each of them, no one doubted that apparel would come back. No one doubted that fashion would still be important for self-expression. Their unwavering confidence in the industry was something I desperately needed as people question why I’m doing an apparel company through a pandemic. I can never think highly enough of designers for they are artists, constantly innovating the way we do these things, and they are eternal optimists, knowing the world will eventually get better. These are just some traits that we all need during this time of uncertainty.

This week, my interview experiences reiterated that Zoom can’t create personal connections.  Although we’d like to think that anything can be digital, interviews aren’t the same (and as I learn later, a lot of other things can’t be done digitally either). You lose so much of a person in the blurry webcam feedback. A person is so much more than their two-dimensional view of their face and their voice. I miss seeing their full presence, witnessing their disposition and feeling their energy. After my interviews were said and done, I was faced to decide between two incredibly seasoned designers. How was I supposed to decide on someone who I only met digitally? What if she turned out to be horrible? What if we don’t get along? There are only so many more Zoom calls I can conduct and request given my measly pay. It was incredibly daunting trying to pick someone to join me on my startup journey. In the end, I picked a designer based on my gut – someone who I knew would challenge me; someone who I can work long hours with; someone with the optimism and drive to make IXORA happen. Traits that I hope to have been able to see on my small laptop screen after fourteen hours on Zoom and twenty-five interviews.

But for anyone that is hiring during this time, what interview tricks did you find most helpful to getting to know someone over Zoom? How can we make our Zoom interactions just as personal as in-person?

Next week, I’ll share my stories around sketching and finding manufacturers through COVID. Until then, stay safe everyone!

“Building a DTC Brand During COVID” is a series written by Farah Azmi to serve as a discussion for starting a company amid a pandemic. The stories are meant to share personal experiences and is not in any way meant to promote and prescribe a “correct” methodology. We hope readers find this informative and amusing and we welcome informed advice and active discussion.

IXORA Apparel is an early stage start-up fashion brand founded by a Harvard Business School student. Our mission is to support women in their lives through the way she dresses while providing resources to support her in the workplace.  We aim to provide made-to-measure trend-driven apparel for women, where everything is made-for-her and not made-to-stock.

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