Innovation Transfer & Entrepreneurship
Bold and Beautiful: From A Life Sciences Background to Launching a Luxury Fashion Startup with Machine Learning
Human Physiology majors aren’t your typical candidates for a luxury fashion entrepreneur. Sherry Soliman graduated from UCLA with a life sciences major and has since launched Choisi, a luxury fashion startup. Thanks to curiosity and some market discovery, Choisi was born in an effort to tackle a two-sided market challenge for shoppers and independent luxury designers around the world. We sat down with Sherry to hear her journey into entrepreneurship, the challenges, and her successes thus far.
Tell us about your background and your co-founders.
My background is in human physiology, so I come from a life sciences background. Fashion definitely wasn’t my focus in college, but after graduating, I did three freelance projects with fashion companies. I wanted to go into it further and I wanted to look into the industry to see what I could do to start my own project.
Eventually, I co-founded Choisi with two co-founders, Tay Ung and Abhilash Marecharla. Tay focuses on product management and product development, helps with web design/UX, and makes sure we hit our targets. Abhilash is our head of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and he’s developed the algorithm that we’re using in our shopper-designer matching.
How did your company come to be?
It all started from being frustrated with the shopping experience. In general, there are so many choices for what to wear – which is good – but it’s difficult to sort through and find items that match your style. Whenever I’d go shopping, I’d only know a handful of designers that had stuff I liked, and I’d go through thousands of items and I still wouldn’t find something I liked. I started to work with independent designers to see if they had items I was interested in, only it took hours to find where they were located and what items they had. I wanted to use technology to simplify the discovery and shopping process and make it more efficient. I knew AI had been used in many industries and I thought it would be great to apply it to fashion. I wanted a system that knew my preferences, sorted and filtered out the noise, and consolidated designer offerings to what is most relevant to me. So that’s what we set out to build: as a shopper, you can quickly browse relevant items and make it easier to find something you like rather than spending hours trying to search. Mainstream designers already have major marketing and communication efforts and don’t need to be discovered so we started to look at a platform that would serve independent designers.
Why did you create a startup in the luxury fashion industry?
Our target shoppers wanted items that were more unique and high quality, which translates to designers who are into the creative process, who source the best materials, and who really develop pieces that are timeless investments, not seasonal items that leave your closet a year later. We focused on timeless and unique pieces to include in your wardrobe. The designers who fit that vision were in the luxury industry, so it was a good fit for the segment and our vision.
What problem are you tackling?
Fashion discovery of independent labels: fashion discovery on its own is the real core of our platform. We want to connect customers with the right independent designers for them.
What product or service have you developed?
We’ve developed a website (soon to be mobile app) and a recommendation engine with visual artificial intelligence and machine learning technology. Our engine displays items that would be most relevant to a specific shopper or customer. Items are displayed based on a shopper’s real-time behavior: which items they look at, how long they look at an item, which items are added to their shopping cart, etc., as well as their fashion preferences. All that data works together to suggest items that would be most relevant to the individual shopper. We’re really using data on each customer along with data on the specific features of different items to do the matching.
What makes Choisi better and more valuable than competitors?
We source unique, quality designers from around the world. Our algorithm is unique because it focuses on matching specific criteria of features of what a shopper likes and the features of each designer’s piece as well as real-time data on customer browsing, past purchases, and more. We include fashion-related data about what’s trending as well as industry data into our algorithm, which differentiates us from competitors. We haven’t really seen anyone else focused on using AI with independent designers either; we’ve seen marketplaces that list independent designers but they aren’t easy to use or customized to the shopper.
What challenges have you faced in constructing a two-sided platform?
Where do you start with a 2-sided platform?! Brands don’t want to come on if you don’t have customers and customers don’t want to come if you don’t have brands! We decided to focus on the brand side first. We approached brands, explained our technology (we had to, as most designers are focused on the creative and design process, not technology), discussed our idea, and offered to feature them for free on our platform so they could test it out and discover how they liked it. They werere worried about their image and how joining our platform would affect it, but we started to get a few brands and designers, and then it expanded from there. As we added more brands, more designers were inclined to join. From there, we started to promote to friends, on social media, drive site traffic, and started approaching magazines as well. Now we have solid participation from both sides with much room for growth!
What is your business model?
We’ll be taking commission from purchases shoppers make. There will also be a monthly fee for designers to be on our platform. That’s in the early days, then we’ll add in try-before-you-buy subscription boxes, but we’ll see what happens later….
What impact do you envision achieving?
We really want to help the independent labels get more exposure and allow them to thrive more in the fashion industry by connecting them to the right type of customers around the world.
What is your basic roadmap and what does the future hold?
We’re planning to add more features and make the algorithm more personalized, such as suggestions based on upcoming events, or different personalization aspects such as suggestions by regional trends or by city. We want to implement the option to try out designers before purchase: shoppers order a few items, see how they fit, keep what they want, and return what they don’t want. This makes it more risk-free for the shopper but it’s an important value-add for the designers. We found that once people find a designer they like, they keep going to that same designer, but the biggest challenge is getting them to try on an item, thus the try-keep-or-return option will help to alleviate that.
Biggest challenges thus far and how you overcame them?
The biggest challenge was finding the right team for this project. We’ve been through different developers and co-founders, and I’ve found it difficult to find people who share the same vision or who don’t drop out when things get difficult. Eventually, through continued work on the project, we found the right team of people who were committed to getting it built and staying the course no matter what. We have a good team fit now and agree on the direction we’re going, which has made a huge difference.
Any key partnerships or recent highlights?
We have key partnerships with two magazine publishers. They’re helping us to push word out about the Choisi platform, and in return, we’re collaborating with them and featuring their content on our platform. It’s good for exposure and PR and has helped us by providing content to post on our site. We’ve also been featured in four magazines so far: Fashion Magazine, Dolce Magazine, Madmotive Magazine, and Wearme Fashion.
What resources within the UC system have been beneficial to you and why?
We used UCLA Startup in a Box – they were really helpful in that they connected me with legal advice at a discounted rate. I learned the best way to incorporate our company and talked through issues that might come up regarding co-founding and intellectual property. We attended VC office hours and pitched without the pressure of being in fundraising mode which was such a helpful experience because they provided crucial feedback on what milestones they needed to see before making an investment. Startup in a Box has pushed us to think about what the future of Choisi is and the tasks I need to accomplish in order to get us there. They’ve also given us a lot of local connections.
We’ve been bootstrapped thus far and are starting to look for funding, reaching out to investors, and raising a seed round. We’ve had good traction, we’ve had good PR coverage, and good userbase of 2,000, therefore we’re confident that we can raise a solid seed round. The luxury fashion industry is a bit difficult to fundraise investment money, but we’re trying to find specific investors who would be most open to our industry and see the future of fashion tech.
What advice would you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
When you have an idea, you should just start somewhere. You’ll spend all sorts of time stalling or doing research because you see how much work is involved. Get out there, talk to people, talk to potential customers, and get something built – it doesn’t have to be perfect. Start learning from the feedback and making necessary changes. It’s really important to make that first step and then continue to move forward and not be stalled by negative feedback or getting bogged down by all things you need to do before you can start the process.