This concludes the two-part e27 exclusive with Grana’s Co-founders Pieter Wittgen and Luke Grana. Read Part 1 here.
Do you have any direct competitors in the local area?
Grana: The fashion market is very big and there are a lot of competitors in the brick-and-mortar field obviously, but we’re doing a totally new online-only concept. We’re seeing a few brands in America that have started operating online-only and are doing really well. One such example is Everlane.com. But we’re alone in Hong Kong in setting up an online-only fashion brand.
Wittgen: You don’t see a lot of e-commerce companies in Hong Kong… and even the e-commerce fashion companies based in the US still sell all their products from Asia… so just being in Hong Kong but with a global focus makes a lot of sense.
Grana currently has about seven people on its team. Has it been easy to find good people for the team in Hong Kong?
Wittgen: We haven’t had that much difficulty. Luke and I started with a very small team, and after the soft launch, people saw what we were trying to do and started putting in their own applications for joining.
We’ve spent about six months finding our team… our marketing manager, for example, quit her job in the UK and moved to Hong Kong especially for this job. Our designer has been living in Hong Kong, but is also from the UK. Our customer service person moved from France to join the team. Luke is Australian and I’m Dutch.
We want to hire as many people from within the Hong Kong market, but the key for us is to get people who can really grow the business. So if these people are in London, we’ve still been able to convince them to join a startup here.
Grana: We are a global team and a global brand, and we chose that intentionally. We think our ability to ship all over the world reflects in our team. Hong Kong is very strong in fashion, there are a lot of great designers and merchandisers that we can recruit over time. A graphic designing intern has just joined us.
Hong Kong is a great place. A lot of our friends have emailed us asking if they should move out here. It’s an exciting place, nice city, and I think we’ll be able to find and attract the right people to grow our business.
Wittgen: I originally come from a finance background; I’ve been in investment banking for six years. In Hong Kong, a lot of people are stuck in corporate jobs. We do see an interest in the startup scene in the younger generation. We are also seeing interest from the local community to join the startup world, but I do think it’s still early days for people born and raised in Hong Kong to complete a startup — but that is changing.
Did you get any naysayers when you started coming up with the idea for Grana?
Grana: Yeah, I originally thought of the idea for Grana in December 2012. I’m not from a fashion background, but this is my sixth business. From my perspective, it was about convincing myself to do this. I went and worked at Zara from three months, then French Connection, and did a lot of research into the Uniqlo style of business, the Zara and H&M business models. So I think what I did was convince myself.
Then coming over to Hong Kong I had my business planned and US$150,000 as capital from selling previous businesses. The feedback was generally good. It was quite refreshing for people to hear about a new online-only brand. I’ve raised capital before, and raising capital for Grana was actually easier than other businesses I’ve raised for.
Pieter and I have over 20 investors, the feedback has been really good, and the product quality is very high for the price point. So it’s an easy story to tell. The key thing about what we’re doing is that it very scalable. Once we proved it at launch by shipping to over eight countries in three weeks, it proved to investors and potential customers that here’s a company that’s global from day one and can really grow into a large brand over the long-term. It’s really exciting.
You’ve talked about the pros to being in Hong Kong. Are there any drawbacks?
Wittgen: Definitely the rental. Our warehouse is in Hong Kong, so clearly it’s not the cheapest place for that, but where we are right now is actually at a very competitive rate. On the whole, I think there are not a lot of downsides to Hong Kong.
The startup scene in Hong Kong is not as developed as it is in Singapore, [but] the market is a little bit bigger and I think the upside here over other markets in Asia is so much bigger — especially the logistics hub and access to China from a manufacturing point of view. This was more important to us than having access to something like the Singapore government funding programme or a really big startup community.
Hong Kong is trying to learn from places like Singapore, and doing this e-commerce business here made us realise how few people are trying to do it in Hong Kong. That’s not necessarily a negative thing; it can also work in your favour.
Grana: We’ve come to Hong Kong for a reason and I can’t see many downsides right now.
What are the key qualities you think each of you brings to the business?
Grana: Pieter comes from a very analytical background, and if you look at a lot of successful startups, there’s always one key guy that’s all over the metrics and numbers, with attention to detail when placing orders, managing stock and optimising the website. These are key qualities Pieter’s bringing to the team.
Wittgen: I met Luke in my investment banking days when I was covering retailers in Asia for corporate finance. For me moving from a finance job to join Luke was not easy, but it’s refreshing to see someone like Luke at a relatively young age with such a big vision. People like Luke are the ones building new businesses.
For me, it’s about joining somebody who wants to do something unique, something different from other fashion models, coming to it without a fashion background and then actually delivering a really great product. He’s just a great guy to work with. We’ve been working together for six or seven months and as you know startups are not the easiest, but I think together as a team it feels like a very natural combination.
Are there any books you recommend to others involved in startups?
Wittgen: For me there are two books. I really like The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. It shows the importance of having a strong team, and the opportunities and challenges you get as a startup, and the difference between a great startup and something that runs out of business very quickly.
The other book I’ve just finished reading is the Amazon book, the sort of biography of Jeff Bezos. He’s somebody who, similar to Grana, was really trying to disrupt the market, and had the long-term vision instead of trying to make a profit in the near-term.
The other thing about Jeff Bezos is that he didn’t see [Amazon] as a bookstore, he saw it as a logistics company, and that’s how we see Grana. Although we are a fashion brand, we’re all about the execution of it. Reading it was really refreshing.
Grana: The two key books that I’ve been reading while building Grana is IKEA Edge, the story about IKEA. It’s obviously a very big company with a long history. They’ve got a similar business model to us except they sell from a physical retail store, we sell online-only. That’s one book I refer to.
I spent time working at Zara, studying their business model, and so I love business case study books. I read the book on the Zara founder, and that was really inspiring for me.
How about people in the industry that you look up to or idolise?
Grana: It’s a good question. I think for me, I’ve always read about what Richard Branson’s doing with the Virgin brand, and I see a little bit of that in Grana. We want to bring out shoes, bags, the home and the office in the future. I think Richard Branson and Steve Jobs — from a design and product point of view — [have qualities] I see shared in Grana as well. We really care about the fabric and design details rather than just the latest trends.
Wittgen: I would say Elon Musk from Tesla. First of all, this guy follows a similar style to how I introduced Luke — he wanted to do something amazing in an industry he maybe didn’t really know that much about and build an amazing team. He was able to be competitive in an industry with a great team, and has had so many successes in such a short time. This guy could probably have sat down on his couch after a couple years working at PayPal, but I think he’s never satisfied and tries to follow his own passion.
For Luke and I, it doesn’t feel like work, and that’s a key thing. If you see an interview with Elon, he doesn’t see it like work… that’s important. Hopefully it will stay like that. In the Grana culture, we work hard, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like work every day.