Honest Ecommerce

218 | Empowering People Through Economies of Scale | with Umaimah Mendhro

Episode Summary

On this podcast, we talk about how VIDA achieved a very unique product-market fit, the advantages of digital manufacturing, how VIDA’s products and target market evolved over time, and so much more!

Episode Notes

Umaimah Mendhro is the Founder of VIDA, a global platform offering unique, sustainable, and beautifully design-driven products that aim to positively impact people's lives and overall well-being. 

Umaimah grew up in rural Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - with no access to formal education most of her life - but a deep passion for design and art and a drive to make a difference in the world. 

She paved her way to Cornell University and later Harvard Business School, and built a career in technology, working with a highly select portfolio of game-changing tech companies and managing and growing million dollar businesses. 

Umaimah is also the Founder of thedreamfly.org, a global initiative connecting communities in conflict around common causes with presence across four countries touching over 5,000 lives. 

dreamfly kickstarts seed initiatives that are 100% financially sustainable within one year.

Currently, Umaimah is the Founder and President of One League, a global education institution connecting the world’s highest potential talent with the world’s best opportunities by offering an Ivy League Plus quality education, irrespective of financial means. 

Umaimah has an MBA from Harvard Business School, where she was a Baker Scholar, and a BSc from Cornell University in Human Development with coursework in Computer Science.

In This Conversation We Discuss:


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Episode Transcription

Umaimah Mendhro  

My thought was could I use technology in a way to collapse that distance between that maker and that designer, between that end product and the customer of that product.

Chase Clymer  

Welcome to Honest Ecommerce, a podcast dedicated to cutting through the BS and finding actionable advice for online store owners. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. And I believe running a direct-to-consumer brand does not have to be complicated or a guessing game. 

On this podcast, we interview founders and experts who are putting in the work and creating  real results. 

I also share my own insights from running our top Shopify consultancy, Electric Eye. We cut the fluff in favor of facts to help you grow your Ecommerce business.

Let's get on with the show.

Hey everybody, welcome back to another episode of Honest Ecommerce. I'm your host, Chase Clymer. 

And today we're welcoming to the show, Umaimah

She is the founder of VIDA, a global platform offering unique, sustainable and beautifully design-driven products that aim to positively impact people's lives and overall well-being. 

Welcome to the show.

Umaimah Mendhro  

Thank you so much for having me, Chase. It's a pleasure.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And just a little inside baseball for all the listeners and potential watchers on YouTube. 

We've been trying to schedule this one for quite some time and we finally did it and I'm so excited that you're here. 

Quickly, for those that are unaware of Vida, can you describe the types of products that you guys are bringing to market?

Umaimah Mendhro  

Yeah, so VIDA is a platform. And it's a collaboration between creatives and makers to create beautiful, original and thoughtfully-produced products that are produced on-demand only after people purchase them and at mass scale. 

And that has been the history of VIDA, for many years over 6 years. Some of your listeners might know, we made a big shift into health care products. And I'm sure we'll talk a lot more about it. 

But really with that ethos of being a responsible company, bringing products that people need, and that people want, and that make a difference in the world.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And we're going to talk all about VIDA and the story there. But take me back in time. You've got a very fun history. Let's just take you back to wherever you want to start the conversation.

Umaimah Mendhro  

Sure, let's go back in time, just in terms of the history of the company. And this was an idea that I would say that I had thought of for many, many years. I'm originally from Pakistan. 

When I was two years old, we had to escape the country in the middle of the night, my parents and my one sibling, and we were displaced for much of the years that I was growing up. 

We lived in exile for 10 years. I didn't have access to formal schooling or formal education. What I did see in sort of my small four-walled world was a lot of beautiful craft and art. 

I was in rural Pakistan, I was in many  parts of the world that I would say most of the listeners might not even have heard of. 

But really what I saw was  incredible craft, incredible designs, and I got very interested in learning that craft. So I started to sew, I started to paint, I started to sculpt. And for some time --and this is before college-- I thought I would be a designer. So I actually built a line. 

I went and talked to factories, and I  put a little bit of money in trying to just build a few samples. But I really could never get that break. 

And the issue, the way I saw it, was that I did not have the capital to actually build inventory, to actually build an entire line of products that I could then show to my potential customers who could then purchase the product. So where do you really start? 

The other thing that I noticed at that time, was I was spending time in these factories, and I saw the people who were building these products with their hands. 

The people who are actually sitting in factories, sewing these products, their lives were not being positively impacted by this now, trillion dollar industry.  

So there's this big divide between the beautiful end products that you see, but then the people who are actually making those products with their hands. And that just stuck with me. 

Coming from the background that I came from where I felt like I had very, very little and I couldn't really get myself to take that vocation and say "I'm going to be an artist.", I felt, it's just not practical.

I just cannot do this. So, from homeschool , I actually made my way to education in the United States. 

So I went to Cornell, I did computer science and psychology and then I built my career in technology. Completely different direction. 

And ultimately then went to Harvard Business School. And all these years, those sorts of doors that were shutting on me and those moments that I spent in those factories that stuck with me. 

And my thought was, "Could I use technology in a way to collapse that distance between that maker and that designer, between that end product and the customer of that product? Can I take…”

“And tap into the creative talent from all over the world that is already there in all parts of the world and give them a way to design and produce products that customers can see. And there's no middlemen. And the customer decides whether that product is made or not." 

So that was really the impetus of VIDA. We started with scarves and apparel, we went into accessories of home decor jewelry. And, yeah, that has been the story of [what] I would say VIDA 1.0.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, I got a lot of questions here. I guess the first one is when did you decide to really dive in on this idea and what was that first step? 

What did that look like? What were the first steps in the process?

Umaimah Mendhro  

I will tell you that in my mind, I wanted to do this way earlier than I actually did. It took me much longer than maybe in some ways it should have. And I think I will say to entrepreneurs, who are thinking about... There's never a good time. And I think for me too, there was never a good time. 

And ultimately, it just reached a point in a job where I wasn't finding my passion, where I wasn't happy every single day going to work. 

And I said, "I don't know that there's going to be a better time. And I'm going to do this." So making... 

Having made that decision, the first thing that I did was I actually started to talk to designers. I was cold calling them. I made a spreadsheet or Google sheet of designers that I could find online. 

And I started to talk to them about what were some of the challenges that they faced? Then I went to a few different countries. 

So the easiest for me was to go back to Pakistan and I visited factories. I took a few designs, and I said, "Can you make these for me? Can I see what this could look like?" 

And my idea was that "Can a designer in Spain send a piece of design that I could then take to a factory, but really, ultimately use technology to transfer those files? And can they produce that product? How fast can we produce that product?" 

So I worked with factories. We did raise capital early on in the cycle. And so I think there's a lot of learning in that as well. But I raised... As a solo founder, I raised on PowerPoint slides. I did not have a product in the market at that time. 

And [I was] talking to customers and really just serving as many customers as possible if we could create this kind of a product. Once I had  those samples, what was the interest? 

If we were to make these on demand, how long would they be willing to wait? 

The fact that we're making them without any waste, what does that mean to our customers? 

So really, there was... 

This was a multi-sided marketplace and platform and I wanted to check in on each of those sides before I dived in. 

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. You talked a lot about doing customer research even before you're producing products, which is something I always recommend to all founders, entrepreneurs, merchants, however you self identify. 

At what point in the journey did you feel like you had stumbled on to product-market fit? It's such a hard thing to describe. And I feel like you can... 

You know it when you have it, but before then you don't.

Umaimah Mendhro  

(laughs) Yeah, absolutely. 

And I would say that for us, the biggest element there was whether we were serving a real need for our arts community and for our designers. And so the product-market fit was really with our designers. 

I think I would say that we were more challenged when it came to customers, to end customers who would buy the product. 

But when it came to our designers, they really didn't have a way to get their idea into a real product that could be made at factories all around the world. And really what we were doing was we were benefiting from the economies of scale

If you have 1000 designers --and ultimately we had hundreds of thousands of designers-- then we can take  their work to one factory and say "We're going to produce these products that are..." 

We're giving those factories the economies of scale. And so we were really serving a real need and that was the product-market fit that really clicked. 

And that is how we really scaled the company and within the first sort of few years. We 10x the company, and it was all through our work with our designer community.

Chase Clymer  

Can you talk about economies of scale and how your model really helped these small designers get something they couldn't really get?

Umaimah Mendhro  

Yeah. So, going back to my personal experience where I was one person walking into a small factory and saying, "Can you please make these 5 items for me?" 

They might do that as a favor one day, but the next day and the next day, they're not going to stop their machines for this one designer. 

And what I heard from a lot of our designers is that  they knew factories. So there's one story that comes to mind. 

One of my designers mentioned that she worked for a large brand and she actually knew a lot of different factories all over the world. And she would call them and she would place the orders. And then she stopped working for that brand. And she was a solo designer. And she said... 

I said, "Hey, I have all the relationships with the factories, let me actually call them and see if they would make something for me." 

And she said, "Nobody returned my call, nobody returned a call." And it's because as one single sole designer,  you're not going to give an order of 10,000 pieces. It doesn't make any sense. 

So how do you even get started? How do you get started with the one piece that's going to ultimately get you to the 10,000 pieces? So the economies of scale is... 

That's where that comes in. It's when we can work with all these designers. We have all the products that they want to make. We have customers that want to buy those products. 

We can go to one factory, and instead of giving them an order from one designer, we're giving them an order from tens of thousands of designers.

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Chase Clymer  

For listeners that are a little newer to working with factories or just how that stuff works, please correct me if I'm wrong. 

It's a little more presumptive, but it's the same amount of work to set up the machines to produce one product as it is to produce 100,000 products. 

But the factory makes more money on that bigger job. So they're going to opt for the larger jobs and pass on all the smaller ones. 

So where you guys are helping is you're saying, "well, you're gonna do this.." You're just doing a lot of smaller jobs basically.

Umaimah Mendhro  

Exactly. And there too, we use technology. So a lot of our manufacturing is digital manufacturing, which means that  there is really no setup cost. 

Because if you have, say 10,000 SKUs from 10,000 different designers and if you had to set up for every single SKU, --which is sort of more of the traditional form of manufacturing and traditional form of printing-- then that is incredibly expensive for a factory to do. 

So we're really utilizing technology in that way as well, where we were using digital manufacturing, [and] just-in-time production, so that there was no setup cost and we could actually produce millions of SKUs in one go at mass scale. 

Chase Clymer  

Oh man, I could run down that rabbit hole and ask you so many questions but it might get boring to the listeners. 

But there is another question that I have for you. 

So when I asked you about product-market fit, you mentioned that it first came through these partnerships with your designers. And you were having issues getting customers. 

I feel like a lot of our listeners are having that same issue. What were some of the things that you tried that ended up working? Or were there things that you tried that just didn't work and you say, "Yeah, maybe avoid this"?

Umaimah Mendhro  

Yeah. We did all the usual suspects. 

But I will tell you digital marketing, and PR, influencer partnerships... We had some incredible, incredible celebrities that work with us. We were on Home Shopping Network, broadcast TV... 

So everything that any of your listeners might have tried, we tried it and we did it. And I will say that we were reasonably successful. And at the same time... 

And I know, Chase, [that] you wanted to talk about where VIDA is today. There we hit a real moment in time.

And so as you might know, we were on this journey of acquiring customers, growing the company. But then COVID hit. And in March 2020, each of our factories basically started to shut down. 

This is where every day I would wake up and hear about another country that is basically in lockdown. 

And when we are doing just-in-time production, we're manufacturing only what people have actually purchased. 

That meant we didn't have anything to manufacture because we didn't have any factories that were open and working. So in that moment, we were very close to, I would say, losing the company to basically saying... 

You talk about a slow decline or overnight successes, this was an overnight "nothing that we can sell." 

At the same time, yes, I was losing sleep on what I should do with my company. But I was actually losing sleep really a lot more on just what was happening in the world. And New York, we were hearing of so many deaths and just the cases and the numbers rising. 

And my thought was, "Hey, if we can produce products so fast and producing them just in time, can we not produce masks?" And this was the time that Amazon did not have masks. This was the time that we were talking about whether masks are even a good idea. 

CDC had not recommended masks, but looking at the research, looking at the numbers, I felt "No, we do need masks." 

And we, within a matter of literally 4 days from idea to launching the product on our website, we launched those masks. And that was a product that at that moment, we all needed that product. 

I remember just doing a Facebook post to my friends and we had bought enough of a batch that we thought it would last us maybe 2 weeks, we sold it in 30 days. 

And I think if you think about product-market fit with customers, then that was the true product-market fit because it was the moment where we could deliver a product that people absolutely needed, and could not get access to.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. And you mentioned almost in the beginning of the conversation that you guys started to pivot into healthcare. and I'm assuming that was the impetus there.

Umaimah Mendhro  

Exactly. Exactly. And it was... It's those moments where you might say "No, but what about everything that we've built to date?" We had over 10 million SKUs. If you walk into a Target store, you'd probably find 50,000 SKUs so we had really built this company. 

And we had incredible investors and "Should we be doing this?" But in that moment, it was really about rising to that need and being able to do something that we felt we had the potential. 

We had the capability to make that happen. And since then we've really, really turned into a consumer health company. 

And we've used all of the principles, all of the fundamental ideas and concepts that we built this company with. 

All of those have actually played a humongous role in the VIDA that we are today.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. So as you guys stand today, other... 

[Are] there any other kinds of new products that you guys have been bringing to market outside of masks that maybe stemmed from the pandemic or from what you've learned from health care?

Umaimah Mendhro  

Yeah. So when we launched, one of the key thoughts that we had was that if you think about masks that are made out of cloth, my feeling was that "Yes, that is important that we have some protection, but that is not [protective] enough." 

And also from a business perspectiveI could see that we could all be or many people could actually sew cloth masks in their homes. 

And so what is that true gap? And what is the gap that is not very easily addressable? 

And for us, it was high protection masks. It was masks that come with a filtration that really when you put that on, you know you are protected. And so the very first mask that we launched was a cloth mask with a PM 2.5 filter

As we grew, as we progressed, but then also as the virus started to grow and there were new variants... 

When Delta hit, we said... 

Before anybody else, we said, "We need to really increase the protection. The cloth masks with PM 2.5 filter, that is not enough. and people started talking about double masking." 

But before anyone started talking about it, we said, "We need higher protection masks, we need the KF94s, the N95s..." And at this point, we have enough supply. 

The global suppliers opening up such that, we don't have to limit those only for health care providers or at risk populations. We need that for the general population. 

Also, because that is how everybody will be protected. That is how we can then protect the at risk population as well. 

And so we evolved in our health care offerings from the initial product to a high protection product, then we brought our artists back in. 

And so we actually had our artists design our masks. And our designers really bring very beautiful, highly designed, highly beautiful, fashionable masks so that we all feel great in not only just protecting ourselves, but that is something that is on trend. 

And we actually think of this almost as a piece of accessory so that got us into healthcare products almost as accessories, but products that make a real difference. So where we are today is... 

We really think of this space as... 

If I think of sort of... 

Generally, you think of health products that you might go get from a Rite Aid or a Walgreens. And you walk those aisles and those products are largely quite depressing, yet they're so important. 

So if you think about bringing art and design and sustainability to the world of consumer health products, non-prescriptive  consumer health products, that is really the space that we want to make a real difference in.

Chase Clymer  

Absolutely. Now, is there anything that I didn't ask you about today that you think would resonate with our listeners?

Umaimah Mendhro  

You're asking incredible questions. And it's been a really fun conversation. 

One of the things that I could share with you is that VIDA, right from the beginning, we've always always invested in education and empowerment. 

So for every product that we make, we offer literacy programs and education and empowerment programs for our factory workers. 

But it was about now a little over a year ago that I started another organization called One League

And VIDA provided a $1 million grant to start One League. And One League is a new education institution, where we are providing the world's most talented but underserved population and underserved changemakers of the world, with world class education and opportunities. 

So VIDA and all the success that VIDA has had really enabled us to do that. And every purchase on the VIDA website, contributes to the Global Scholarship Fund for One League.

Chase Clymer  

That's amazing. Now, if I'm a listener, and I'm curious to learn more about VIDA or One League, where should I go?

Umaimah Mendhro  

shopvida.com for VIDA and one-league.org for One League.

Chase Clymer  

Thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Umaimah Mendhro  

Thank you so much, Chase. It was a pleasure.

Chase Clymer  

We can't thank our guests enough for coming on the show and sharing their knowledge and journey with us. We've got a lot to think about and potentially add into our own business. You can find all the links in the show notes. 

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