Featured on Jan 21, 2011
"Imagine, aha!, do, momentum"
Mongolian-born Mei was raised in China and moved to the US after the Tienanmen Square massacre. Mei attended MIT where she studied computer science/electrical engineering and Management. Later, she worked at Goldman Sachs, providing luxury marketing advice to Neiman Marcus, before co-founding a luxury investment boutique with Jeffrey Aronsson (former CEO of Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta). When the current recession began, Mei moved to Stockholm to study design and run Swedish activewear brand, Casall. A year ago, she decided to found AHAlife.com which caters to the savvy consumer who looks for amazing items from around the world that are not easily available online. The site features one product per day (across fashion, food, design, beauty), coupled with editorial that explains how the product was made, who made it, and where it came from. AHAlife's network of curators include Tim Gunn, DVF, Daniel Boulud, Tina Brown, Carmindy, Bobbi Brown, and many other influential tastemakers. She raised capital earlier this year from a group of influential angel investors and First Mark Capital before launching the site during September's fashion week. Read more about Shauna in her recent Huffington Post interview.
In your Huffington Post interview you say that your advice to entrepreneurs is to “Don't be afraid of the challenges; embrace them as part of the journey.” What has been your greatest challenge since deciding to found AHAlife?
I think the key to building a successful business is learning how to break down complex problems into mini-problems where one can risk having “micro-failures” to learn and tweak. The biggest challenge for AHAlife.com is the fact that we didn’t have many precedents to our business model. Despite the plethora of successful discount flash sale sites around, we decided to take the opposite position. We built a brand around sourcing and featuring the best luxurious products from around the world with a clear editorial focus. Luxury isn’t just about quality product but also the story that evokes imagination in a brand. There are many who think the consumer isn’t ready given the state of our economy; however, we started AHAlife.com on the underlying thesis that consumers want quality and are increasingly “in-the-know.” They simply want the best the world has to offer. We continue to learn about our very loyal and sophisticated membership base to see how we can improve engagement and customize their unique experience. We work with our amazing and diverse curator network to hand-select unique lifestyle products. We’ve come a long way in just four months, but the evolution of Ahalife.com this year will be monumental and we are excited to take on this very complex challenge!
You went to MIT for computer science/electrical engineering and then worked at Goldman Sachs providing luxury marketing advice. Can you talk through how and why you made the decision to switch from computer science to marketing?
When I worked at Goldman, I made investments and gave financial advice to various retail brands - not marketing advice. MIT gave me the building blocks to think critically about complex real life problems. Very quickly, I realized that I was not interested in climbing “the technical ladder.” I decided to take on a job at Goldman Sachs to build fundamental skillsets necessary for building a business as an entrepreneur. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I still surprised myself by quitting my six-figure job a little after a year there. Still, I learned a ton and the combination of my basic understanding of technology/engineering, finance, fundraising, investor mindset and discipline contributed tremendously to where I am today. I feel very lucky to have made these moves throughout my career so far.
You mention on your tumblr that you’ve had major AHA moments on an airplane, which is the reason that you recommend that people bring a notebook and pen. Any particular AHA moments that you can recall offhand that have taken place on a plane ride?
Yes, the initial wireframes of AHAlife were drawn on a flight. Also, for the past four years, I’ve written my new years resolutions on a plane. I’m one of those people who find it very difficult to stop. On the plane when there’s no internet (at least on international flights), I often find myself taking the time necessary to consider important issues around my personal and professional life. I forgot to mention on tumblr that I love listening to opera during my brainstorming sessions on the plane. Classical music and opera are proven to increase your IQ!
You recently hosted a FoundersCard party at the AHAloft that you’ve mentioned was fairly male dominated and is something that you’d like to see changed. In your opinion, what needs to change in order to make this happen?
There are two main problems here:
1) There are actually many female entrepreneurs, even in tech, but they are often in different circles and don’t find out / know about these type of events. I think that existing groups need to do a better job to networking with female entrepreneurs.
2) I think that existing and successful female entrepreneurs should be more public and share their story with other women. We all need more role models and I think there is definitely a shift happening. Technology know-how is no longer a huge roadblock anymore. I know plenty of great female entrepreneurs who are in the tech space and who didn’t come from a tech background. We should all put ourselves more out there. One of the main reasons why I started a tumblr blog finally...
In the “Words to Live By for 2011” page on the ahalife website you asked your curators to answer two important questions: 1) “If I could solve one problem, it would be” and 2) “I wish more people cared about… What are your own answers to those questions?
If I could solve one problem, it would be: I would solve people’s fear of themselves (i.e., self-doubt and negativity), which I think stops people from achieving their highest potential.
I wish people cared more about: Themselves; and what I mean by that is that if people were more well-informed and aware of what was good for them individually, I think it would have positive, far-reach global consequences. For example, if people understood the constraints of our environment, we would all conserve more because it’s better for us individually—and it’s also better for the entire world. I think if more people lived this way, everyone would be happier with themselves—and we would all be happier with each other.