I’m so excited to have Karla Gallardo and Shilpa Shah, co-founders of Cuyana, on today’s episode of Unstoppable.
With the tagline, “fewer, better things”, Cuyana focuses on creating high quality clothing and accessories for women. Back in their early days, I actually went to a Cuyana trunk show in San Francisco. Now, they have retail locations in San Francisco, L.A., and New York, and you can also find Cuyana online.
On todays’s show, Karla and Shilpa talk about how Karla came up with the idea to start Cuyana, what it is like to have an international supply chain, their experience raising money and much more.
Enjoy the show!
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“I have an opportunity to maximize what I contribute, to see and push my limits to my capacity. And so I think that ability wasn’t lost on me, to try it, to really see what we were all capable of.” – Shilpa Shah
- How Cuyana started
- What are the challenges of an international supply chain
- How to be an entrepreneur
- How to raise money
- What to expect from fundraising
“The answer really is just doing more of what we’ve done. Doing more and more and more and better. We’re not going to be changing anything. It’s really about just doubling down on what we’ve done from a product standpoint, a team standpoint, a technology standpoint, so that we can keep growing the essence of what we’ve built and touch more women around the world.” – Karla Gallardo
- Connect with Karla Gallardo & Shilpa Shah:
“The great thing was that there was a proof of concept. A lot of people along the way ask us what it takes to start a company, and Karla had quickly established product-market fit with very little capital investment.” – Shilpa Shah
Kara Goldin: Hi, everybody. It’s Kara Goldin from Unstoppable. We’re so excited to hear from Karla and Shilpa today from Cuyana. Are you guys all familiar with Cuyana? It’s amazing, amazing bags. We’re based here in San Francisco with them, but we’re going to hear a little bit more about how these guys got started and what is the story, and all of the exciting stuff for them going forward too. But first, welcome, you guys. Super excited to have you here.
Karla Gallardo: Thank you. Thanks for having us.
Kara Goldin: So, how did you two get started? How did you meet? What is the backstory of the two of you coming together to do this?
Karla Gallardo: So we met back in 2009 when I was in business school. And I’d gone to business school to take Cuyana from an idea that was on my business school essay into reality. I was taking a class on entrepreneurship, and I think once a week, maybe twice a week, prospective students come in and sit in the back of a class. And one of those weeks was the week that Shilpa had come to visit Stanford. She sat in the back of my class and then she introduced herself and I needed her for a project that I was working on separate from Cuyana, and she needed to get into business school. And so we made friends at the end of that class and kept in touch, and we worked on the small project together. Then fast forward a year into Cuyana, kind of the beginning stages of Cuyana that I was working on, I sought Shilpa out at her business school to see if she wanted to join the Cuyana endeavor and join me.
Kara Goldin: That’s so fun. Wait, so go back to this program. So you’re at Stanford, and you came to just look at the class. You hadn’t applied to school yet?
Shilpa Shah: I was in the process of applying, and so I was just visiting the school.
Kara Goldin: Just to see what the school looked like.
Shilpa Shah: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Kara Goldin: And so, people actually come in and take on projects in order to show the school?
Karla Gallardo: Well, no-
Kara Goldin: I was like, I’ve never heard of this before.
Karla Gallardo: I know, right? That does not usually happen.
Kara Goldin: I know. This is awesome.
Karla Gallardo: No. Actually, no. They just come in for a class and leave. But they do introduce themselves, and then sometimes they approach students at the end of the class to ask questions about Stanford and life as a student. And so we just got acquainted that day, and then Shilpa introduced herself as a UX designer, and I needed help from a UX designer for this project that I was doing in this other class.
Kara Goldin: That is so funny.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. I asked Shilpa if she wanted to help with that and then Shilpa said later that one of the reasons why she was really interested in helping me in that project was so that we could get to know each other and maybe I would write her a recommendation to get into school.
Kara Goldin: Oh, that’s awesome.
Shilpa Shah: It’s a win-win.
Kara Goldin: Okay. Now, it’s all coming together.
Shilpa Shah: But the entire kind thing was very serendipitous.
Kara Goldin: So, did you end up going to business school then?
Shilpa Shah: I did. I ended up going to Berkeley. Karla was at Stanford.
Kara Goldin: Oh, not Stanford? After all of that?
Shilpa Shah: I know.
Kara Goldin: I’m just kidding. But you stayed in touch after that?
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. Yeah. For like a couple years after that.
Kara Goldin: And so you were still incubating this idea in your head?
Karla Gallardo: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, yeah. No, I had established the business. We had a couple of collections that I was selling. We had a website. We had customers. Early-stage revenue. And yeah, then it was time to go big and raise money, and it was time to not do it alone anymore. I did have a couple of interns help me in those early days for free. But no, when it was real that Cuyana was, you know, that I was into something and it was time to make it big and raise money… yeah, I kind of pushed the go pedal and sought a co-founder.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. And is there meaning behind Cuyana?
Karla Gallardo: Yes, there is.
Kara Goldin: And what is the meaning?
Karla Gallardo: It means to love. And the whole purpose of our brand is to instill the philosophy of fewer, better, which means really own and buy what you love. I know today Marie Kondo has helped us a lot with actually describing that as “spark joy.”
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Karla Gallardo: But Cuyana means to love and it’s in Quechua, which is the language of the first makers of our first collections.
Kara Goldin: That’s so great. So you stayed in touch and then how big were you guys when you ended up joining into the team?
Shilpa Shah: I mean, we were pretty small. I mean the main-
Karla Gallardo: Two.
Shilpa Shah: … very small.
Kara Goldin: Oh. Like that small.
Karla Gallardo: We had [crosstalk 00:04:58]. We were two.
Kara Goldin: So, you were early. It wasn’t-
Karla Gallardo: We were two. I think some interns before that did the summer, so…
Shilpa Shah: I doubled the company employee count.
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Karla Gallardo: Officially, yes.
Shilpa Shah: The great thing was that there was a proof of concept. A lot of people along the way ask us what it takes to start a company, and Karla had quickly established product-market fit with very little capital investment.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Shilpa Shah: So that was a very big headstart to know that what we had was already working.
Kara Goldin: Why did you want to do this, Karla? Were you in fashion before? Or what sort of made you kind of say, okay, I’m going to go and do this even in business school. What was sort of the core?
Karla Gallardo: I was a frustrated consumer. I have always loved fashion, and I grew up in a country where I had zero access to fashion, only fashion magazines and so-
Kara Goldin: Where was this?
Karla Gallardo: Ecuador.
Kara Goldin: Okay.
Karla Gallardo: And so I grew up buying fabric from the fabric store. There are fabric stores everywhere, and there are seamstresses everywhere. And so I would just refabricate what I would see in magazines because the amount of shops there to buy fashion are very minimal. And then when I moved to America for university and then later my career, it was the entire opposite. There was just so much but nothing that necessarily filled that gap for me. And I was working at Goldman Sachs at the moment where I realized, you know what? There’s just … I mean I couldn’t find product that was what’s labeled now as essentials or those day-to-day products that you just feel great in every day and that the quality doesn’t go down through time.
Karla Gallardo: But more importantly, also, there was very little connection that I saw the consumer having with the products that they were buying so that they would be more valuable to her. You know, knowing where they’re made or what the material is or whether it’s good quality or bad quality. Even that just subtle distinction of knowing, “Oh, I bought something that’s great quality.” I didn’t see that even just by shopping with my friends. So there were a lot of very small reasons kind of that all accumulated into this bigger thing which was this brand that would kind of solve it all.
Kara Goldin: And the tagline “fewer, better things.” I mean, that’s-
Karla Gallardo: Oh, yeah. wWe came up with that much later. It’s funny because that wasn’t a tagline that was there at the beginning, but that was the intention from the very beginning. A couple years into the beginning of Cuyana in 2013, when it was time to go to market officially and start really doing marketing campaigns, because we had spent the first two years building the supply chain and the product and making that really perfect, we sat down and we were trying to articulate what exactly is it exactly that we’re doing? What’s the value proposition of our products that customers can… our elevator pitch, really. It turned into tagline. And it turned out it was “fewer, better things.” And back then, brands weren’t really focused on making fewer, better things, and that wide gap was wide open. We trademarked “fewer, better.” It’s ours.
Kara Goldin: I love it.
Karla Gallardo: And we’re the only ones that can use it to sell product, and so it’s pretty cool.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So take me back. So the first product was the…
Karla Gallardo: A hat.
Kara Goldin: A hat?
Karla Gallardo: I know. I was the hat company. So my business school classmates were like, “How’s the hat business going?” And I was like, “Oh, man. It’s not a hat business, but it’s going great! Thanks for buying that hat.” Because they all supported me buying hats. But it was the easiest thing to do from a manufacturing standpoint-
Kara Goldin: Interesting.
Karla Gallardo: -because being from Ecuador, that’s where Panama hats are made. And I knew who the best makers were, and I could just fly home and-
Kara Goldin: Yeah. And do it.
Karla Gallardo: -do the whole thing from my dad’s house and just not spend money, even on hotels. But it turns out, it’s a really hard product to sell online. I mean, how many people know their hat size? Not many, right?
Kara Goldin: Yeah. That’s what I was going to say. [crosstalk 00:09:16] really hard, right? Yeah.
Karla Gallardo: And one of the goals at the beginning was to be accessories only so that we limit return rate, et cetera, but hats are sized and so it doesn’t really apply to hats.
Kara Goldin: I bet that would be really tough. Yeah.
Karla Gallardo: So I [crosstalk 00:09:35], but it worked, and it was fine. Because at that point, I wasn’t really marketing the company online. It was all product-market fit, and so most of the sales of that collection were actually done in person. It was all grassroots trunk shows and fairs and all sorts of things.
Kara Goldin: I remember the trunk shows.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. Tons of trunk shows.
Kara Goldin: I think in your early days, I went to one of your trunk shows.
Karla Gallardo: Oh, you did? Where?
Kara Goldin: Yeah. Like really early. It was somewhere here…
Karla Gallardo: Probably the Mission.
Kara Goldin: Yeah, it was somewhere here. In fact, I think it was. I think it was… and I can’t even remember who was holding it. But anyway, it was interesting.
Karla Gallardo: Oh, that’s awesome. Yeah, we had so many people host trunk shows for us. It was so great. We really leaned on my business school friends’ friends, and then when Shilpa joined, all her business school friends and friends, and we did so much grassroots, in-person sales. And so even though it wasn’t the best product for online, it was fine because we were mostly selling in person.
Kara Goldin: And then I remember having your product when I went to an Every Mother Counts benefit.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. We missed each other.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. And that was here in the city, and you guys had done a small little bag for it, and I remember. I was like, “Oh my god!” I remember at that point seeing you guys were doing bags, and I hadn’t sort of… I think it really, it was just hats. And I was like, “How did I miss that they were doing bags?” So what was that transition?
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. I mean, really, that was the ultimate goal, to do leather, and it took time to get there. You know, first straw because I’m from Ecuador, and then alpaca because it’s right next to Ecuador, Peru, and I had a really good friend from business school that helped me figure out the best providers of that. And then Argentina was next for leather, and so it was kind of the third in line. But it was great, because the-
Shilpa Shah: With a quick stop in India for…
Karla Gallardo: Oh yeah, we did a quick stop in India. When Shilpa joined, we did India, because Shilpa’s family’s from India, so why not, right? But no, with leather, it was really one of the target product types, and it ends up being the majority of our sales, leather goods. There’s a huge… there continues to be, but back then even more… a really large, wide gap for well-priced, well-made leather goods.
Kara Goldin: No, absolutely.
Karla Gallardo: That’s really what pushed our brand forward and to the frontline and that really fueled the velocity of our growth.
Kara Goldin: And so where’s the majority of products no made?
Karla Gallardo: Where are they made? So we make them around the world. And now you know that leather is the majority of our sales, and so we make leather products in the three best countries that we’ve found, in terms of just facilities and leather quality. So all of our leather itself comes from Italy and Argetina.
Kara Goldin: It’s so nice. It’s super soft. I know nothing about leather other than the fact that I love soft leather. So yeah.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. And it smells delicious. When you walk into our stores, you can just smell the leather, right?
Karla Gallardo: And so that’s where the leather itself comes from, and then we manufacture also in Italy. We manufacture the bags in Argentina as well. And we manufacture in Turkey, which turns out to be a country with incredible talent for cut and sew of leather, so we have some productions there as well.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. What are the challenges of doing it overseas? Just take me through some of the challenges of that world.
Karla Gallardo: There was this class at Stanford called… it was funny because we used to laugh at the name, but it’s true… it’s “Different Countries are Different.” So that’s how I can describe our supply chain. Every country’s different. Every vendor is different, and we really maximize the partnership when we understand each other’s cultures. The fact that Cuyana means ‘to love’ sometimes is a cheesy thing, but it’s true. When we find partners that actually love what they’re doing, and factor is a love to make product for the long run because they’re proud of it, and we understand how to work together, we make product that’s just incredible and beautiful. Each side takes the ownership that each side needs to take, and it’s just a very loyal relationship. And so I think there’s a lot of beauty in making product in different countries. I feel fortunate to be from Ecuador, where I understand a lot of cultures outside of the US, and I’ve learned about other cultures as well.
Shilpa Shah: There are some cultures, though, and we’ve learned along the way that there’s certain countries which… I mean, our goal with Cuyana is to make ‘made in’ any country mean just as much as it does for some other country, right? So why can’t made in china, made in India, mean the same as made in Italy? If you do it well with respect and integrity and quality, they can have this similar kind of ethos and significance. But when you’re working in certain countries, there are certain corners that certain cultures may cut or they value different things. And that doesn’t mean it’s negative about that country, it’s just that for our business model, it didn’t exactly work.
Kara Goldin: How’s it been being a woman going into these countries and basically saying, “We want to get this stuff done,” and then get it made. Has that been challenging?
Karla Gallardo: I mean, I always like to say it shouldn’t be challenging. We use it to our advantage. I mean, the types of relationships that we’ve been able to build with the owners of so many of these factories are so strong. Like our factory in Argentina, I call him Papa Ruben. Father Ruben.
Kara Goldin: So you had contacts or like friend-of-a-friend that made introductions into some of those, which I think is helpful
Karla Gallardo: Yeah, or just through business contacts. And so I think that, no, there’s a lot of goodness that can come out from that, and think that we’re smart, we walk in, and we have business to do together. We figure out a way of getting it done. Yeah, but I don’t think we’ve had challenges for… I mean, some cultures, yes, we’re just dealing with men, but that’s okay, too. That’s the same thing as in… here, you know, previous jobs where maybe I was the only girl sitting in, like, a math class.
Shilpa Shah: We are always entrepreneurial about everything. So if that happens to pose a cultural problem, we figure out a solution for that that’s to our advantage. You just find the right person who can make the intro or set up the meeting in the right way, and then we’ll take it from there. So we just usually view it as an opportunity to [crosstalk 00:16:57]
Kara Goldin: And now that you guys are growing, too, I think you’re able to go into these places and really show credibility. I mean, I remember when we were starting Hint. I mean, I was literally trying in secret to figure out who was going to co-pack our product. And I would call a bunch of Coke packers, and they were like, “Oh. Did you work at Coke or Pepsi before?” And I’m like, “No.” And then they’d practically hang up the phone on me. And then I found a woman in Chicago who just believed in me. She thought it was such a crazy idea, and I was paying her some money upfront in order to run the first product. But she said, “We’ll see how it goes.” And she was going to make a little bit of money, and maybe she had some [line 00:17:38] time and that’s why she did it. It’s kind of the same industry. It’s mostly men, and our industry, too. I mean, now the world gets easier as you grow and people are able to say, “Wow. This is like a real company.” But in the beginning, I mean, I always tell entrepreneurs that, too. I think in every industry, it’s not that easy to just get that person to say yes and actually believe in you and do it. Have you guys read Shoe Dog? The Phil…
Shilpa Shah: I have not yet, but I’ve been wanting to.
Kara Goldin: It’s been sitting on my desk for like two years, and I finally read it.
Shilpa Shah: Have to read it.
Kara Goldin: Phil Knight almost never was. And there’s all these manufacturing stories, and him just like getting on a plane and going into their plants and who did he believe more, and it’s such a great…. Highly recommend it. Yeah.
Shilpa Shah: Awesome.
Kara Goldin: I was just like, “Oh my god.” Like Phil Knight is my new savior on so many fronts. It’s so, so inspiring.
Kara Goldin: You guys have done so many things that were hard. I mean, make the product, go and figure out manufacturing in all these different countries. You sell online, but you’re also selling in stores. And so your stores in San Francisco, that was your flagship.
Shilpa Shah: That’s our flagship. We own every customer touchpoint. So I think some of the parts that people don’t realize is that we didn’t even outsource fulfillment. So it’s a Cuyana employee that packs and ships every box. We own our own distribution center, we own all of our touchpoints, we don’t do any wholesale, so every customer interaction is ours, from customer service emails to the store retail experience to all of our social channels to email to the website, all of it’s in house, to the box experience. So we truly are working to be a fully omni-channel company. Not multi-channel, which a lot of people kind of mix the two, but really giving the customer experience the best possible treatment. And that’s actually what we mean by direct-to-consumer, because a lot of times direct-to-consumer can just signify that they cut out the middleman. They just give you that price markup. For us, it’s really about ensuring that the customer journey with the brand is the best it possibly can be.
Kara Goldin: Have you been tempted by, like, the Nordstroms of the world coming to you and asking you to do stuff like that? So that’s awesome.
Karla Gallardo: I mean, as we grow, we are always considering that we may not always be the sole distributor. However, if we were to find a way of making it work, we want to make sure that the customer journey, as Shilpa explained, is the very best and we can control that.
Kara Goldin: And it is.
Karla Gallardo: So just how the brand expresses itself to the customer and not the way that the product is sold to that customer. Because ultimately, we’re fewer, better. We don’t push customers to buy. That’s not what our sales team is trained to do. We actually train our team to teach customers how to buy and then they should make that decision and walk out feeling great about their purchase. And so nuances like that make it very hard for us to fall into that traditional framework of letting go of any of those touchpoints.
Karla Gallardo: And then there’s the data point. We own all of our data. We know everything about our customer. And so if we were to find an arrangement, we need to make sure we are able to get those numbers.
Shilpa Shah: Protect those numbers.
Karla Gallardo: I would say that those are the two key things. Now, there’s a third one, which is margins. Which some position that as the number one kind of unresolved piece for direct-to-consumer to be able to sell through more traditional wholesale channels, but I think there are ways of making that work. So I wouldn’t consider that to be the most challenging piece of that partnership from working. And whether it’s a Nordstrom or Amazon or anybody else, those first two points… no need to be more creatively sold.
Kara Goldin: Well, and it’s challenging. The data side of it, you hit the nail on the head. I mean, we sell through stores like Target and Whole Foods, but we also sell through Amazon and then, I mean, we have 40% of our direct-to-consumer business is on our site at drinkhint.com. And so for us… it’s funny, I actually mentioned this to a banker the other day, and he said, “I’ve never heard Amazon described as a customer acquisition tool by anybody.” And I said, like, at the end of the day, Amazon has a selection. They have a buyer, and they pick a subset of our drinks or sunscreen or whatever, and they put it on the site. And then the consumer goes and buys there because it’s convenient, the price is right, whatever it is, but we can’t control the price. I mean, we don’t get the data back, but there’s a lot of these consumers that come to our site because there’s a bigger selection. Even though this isn’t true, they feel like they get the newest batches that are there.
Kara Goldin: And then also the subscription side of the business is something else. Where Amazon, their subscription is just one way, and ours is very customizable. So I think I could totally see you guys going in that direction, but the reality is, it really boils down to the data and sort of how much do you care about that as you grow. But I think there’s a lot of avenues that we are in now where… I mean, people always say to me, “Should I buy it at Target or should I buy it on your website?” I’m like, “You are the customer and you control that journey.” You go do whatever you want to do. In the end, as our sales grow offline, they grow online and vice versa. It just keeps going like that at some point. So anyway, it’s an interesting sort of challenge. I think, you know, the, what’s the best thing to do ultimately along the way, but it’s-
Shilpa Shah: Yeah. I mean, for us, like Karla said, the distribution mix really just depends on what gives the customers the things that they want.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. And even walking into your stores, right? There’s going to be people that walk into your stores and not purchase, but then they’re going to go online. That’s me. Then I’ll be thinking about something, and then I’ll go online, and then I’ll go and buy it. Or I’ve had it before, and I want to give it as a gift or buy it again. So I think that that’s the interesting side of this as well.
Kara Goldin: So how many years have you guys been…
Karla Gallardo: So, 2011 is when Cuyana started.
Kara Goldin: Officially. Okay.
Karla Gallardo: And yeah, Shilpa joined in 2012.
Shilpa Shah: It’s actually our eighth birthday.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah, Cuyana’s eighth birthday was this weekend.
Shilpa Shah: On Sunday.
Kara Goldin: Happy birthday. That’s awesome. That’s awesome.
Karla Gallardo: On Saturday.
Kara Goldin: So you have stores in New York and two in Los Angeles?
Shilpa Shah: Two in Los Angeles.
Karla Gallardo: Two in LA.
Shilpa Shah: We have one in Pacific Palisades and then one in Venice Beach.
Kara Goldin: Do customers vary by San Francisco versus LA? There’s always this rivalry that goes on between the North and the South. Like, who’s cooler? Who has better fashion?
Shilpa Shah: No, I don’t know about that question. I mean, the main difference is that our San Francisco store is a second-floor experience. You know you’re coming to Cuyana when you come into the building. You’re seeking us out. So it’s a different customer mix that we see in San Francisco that way, a higher repeat customer versus Abbot Kinney and Palisades is more, it’s more diverse in that perspective, a lot more walk-in traffic, people who are not aware of us. It’s just a very different customer profile. Every market’s very different.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Shilpa Shah: I will not answer who has better fashion, but they’re all very, very…
Kara Goldin: Or New York. We’ll just say New York has better fashion altogether, right? Just kidding.
Kara Goldin: So are you guys selling internationally now?
Karla Gallardo: Not yet.
Kara Goldin: No. No.
Karla Gallardo: I mean, if you were an international customer, you can order it, and we’ll ship it to you, but we are not set up yet to do that in a competitive way. But we will. But not yet.
Kara Goldin: Not quite yet. We’re in the same boat. Exactly the same boat.
Kara Goldin: For people who are listening, what do you think is sort of the biggest challenge? I mean, again, going back to some of the challenges that I think you guys had, everything from finding manufacturers to actually figuring out the selection to… you talked about, you just closed your Series C. You and I chatted a little bit about, like, I’m very honest about raising money that it’s like the worst thing. I think it’s probably the worst thing that entrepreneurs do.
Shilpa Shah: It’s a challenging process for sure.
Kara Goldin: Personally, I think that it’s just not so much fun. But what do you think is the key thing that people should be aware of when they’re raising money? Like when, I mean, you guys have gotten to your C raise, what do you think is the big thing?
Karla Gallardo: To be aware of?
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Karla Gallardo: The amount of time it takes. So our Series C was a little different. So we weren’t officially on the road raising, so I don’t know what it’s like to raise a Series C. But in the previous runs, at least in our seed, it just takes a long time, and I think that the amount of distraction it creates into the business, until you go through it, you don’t understand it even though people will tell you. It feels like it’s just presentations and you’re just meeting with people? No. You’re doing a lot of work in between. It’s just a lot of work, and I think that there needs to be a lot of planning done before fundraising so that the business can continue on the path it needs to go to while the fundraising exercise happens. And when you have bigger team, that’s easier, right? But when you’re usually doing your seed round, there’ll be kind of a dip in the performance while you’re out raising.
Shilpa Shah: It’s a full-time job while you have another full-time job. I don’t think people realize how much time that takes. And so the whole time you’re raising money, you want to get back to work, but you are working, so it’s [crosstalk 00:28:47]
Kara Goldin: What do you think were the key points where they… like what people were asking you about. Was it team, was it growth… what were the-
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. I think at different stages, the question are different. Our seed round was really product-market fit and team.
Shilpa Shah: Team.
Karla Gallardo: Those two were the key things.
Shilpa Shah: And what is the team going to bring to this problem’s space. How are you going to solve it differently? You don’t have the examples, necessarily, as many at your fingertips as you do later in your business. So you have to use what you have, that you’ve gotten as scrappily as possible, and then you have to really lean on just the caliber of the people.
Kara Goldin: At seed, did you feel like your existing investors also helped? Do people look at sort of like, oh, who else is invested in this too? I feel like that was something for me that people really looked at. Like, oh, that person has invested. That gets credibility. I think if you grow your cap table, I think that that kind of stuff really makes sense. So I always tell entrepreneurs, too, it’s one thing to get money in the door, but I do really believe that the people, they sort of speak to it. We have, like 70% of our cap table is women, too, so people are always like, “Whoa! You guys have a lot of women who have invested in the company…” So anyway, I’m always telling people that it’s one thing to get the check, but if you can think, is this somebody that’s actually going to be… on paper look great, but also maybe can also make some introductions, too, along the way. I think that’s such an important piece of it as well.
Shilpa Shah: For sure. It goes both ways. And it’s hard, when you’re asking for money, to think about that part, because you’re just hoping somebody will invest in your idea. But it really is a partnership, so you have to be cognizant of who you’re partnering with, too, and make sure you’re taking money from the right person.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. Totally.
Shilpa Shah: For many reasons beyond connections, too. Just to make sure that your working styles are similar, that you’re really adding value both ways.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. And I feel like you guys have just followed a passion to go and create something, too. I speak a lot on college campuses, and I’m always telling people, I think that if you can actually go do a job… eventually, maybe not right away… that you really, really are passionate about, that you believe in it… and maybe you like to wear it, maybe you like to drink it, whatever… I think it just makes life so much easier that you can actually wake up and love that. What would you say to that? To entrepreneurs or would-be entrepreneurs that are thinking about creating something.
Karla Gallardo: Whether to follow a passion or not?
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Karla Gallardo: I mean, it’s so important to be passionate about what you do. Because it’s hard most of the time, it’s not an easy thing. And on top of that, if you’re not passionate about what you’re building, I can’t imagine doing this, frankly. There wouldn’t really be a reason. It’s not easy
Kara Goldin: No. It’s hard. Yeah. I always say, there’s a lot easier ways to make money.
Karla Gallardo: Oh yes.
Kara Goldin: So if you’re not really that passionate about sort of what you’re doing, too, I think that’s really, really important. So that’s awesome. And also finding people that you like to work with. It’s obvious watching you two interact with each other that that’s such an important piece of it as well.
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. Super important.
Shilpa Shah: It’s a marriage.
Karla Gallardo: And the first employees matter. I mean, those are the people that will build the DNA of the company, and so all of that really matters. I mean, you spend most of the time together.
Kara Goldin: Is most of your team here in San Francisco?
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. Yeah. Most of them are here. Now, with retail stores, we have people spread in different cities, but most of the team is here.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So what’s next for you guys? What’s the next big thing?
Karla Gallardo: Exciting stuff.
Kara Goldin: Now you guys have plenty of money in the bank, right?
Karla Gallardo: Well, it’s so funny, but the answer really is just doing more of what we’ve done. Doing more and more and more and better. We’re not going to be changing anything. It’s really about just doubling down on what we’ve done from a product standpoint, a team standpoint, a technology standpoint, so that we can keep growing the essence of what we’ve built and touch more women around the world.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. That’s really, really great. So what makes you guys unstoppable? I always ask this question. You’ve already highlighted a few things, but I’d love to hear from both of you guys.
Karla Gallardo: What makes us unstoppable? I guess I’ll answer first, since I just repeated the question. For me, I like to say, and this is one of the values of our company, but I’m just so grateful of the opportunities that I’ve had in life. I come from a country where most people live under the poverty line, and I had the opportunity to leave and get an education in an Ivy League school, and now I’m building a business. And so for me, the more I do, the more I feel I owe even more to the world. It’s a sense of kind of gratefulness that makes me unstoppable.
Kara Goldin: That’s so great. So do you go back often?
Karla Gallardo: I try to, but now I have a son, so that makes it harder. And also, my first kid was Cuyana, and so even with Cuyana, I think I went when we were making the hats and after that, once a year at most for Christmas. We are very close with my family and my father, in particular, who still lives there.
Kara Goldin: They must be so proud.
Karla Gallardo: Well, finally, he realizes it’s a real business. He was really upset when I left Goldman. He could not believe I did that.
Shilpa Shah: When he saw his daughter selling hats, basically.
Kara Goldin: And he thought, “Oh my god. What is she doing?”
Shilpa Shah: Because he used to see vendors on the side of the road in Ecuador, so he was a little concerned about that, rightfully so.
Karla Gallardo: He never told me, of course, because he’s like the most supportive father ever. But my sister would be like, my dad is really, really upset. He doesn’t know why you’re doing this. Why are you selling hats on the street? And I’m like, “Oh my god.”
Kara Goldin: That’s so funny.
Karla Gallardo: There’s a bigger vision. But yeah.
Kara Goldin: I think all dads are like that when entrepreneurs go on their journey. And moms, too. Look, I was a tech executive, and then I had this big idea to start a beverage company. Yeah. My dad had been in the food business, actually, for years. He had started a product inside of a large company called HealthyChoice, which was inside of ConAgra, but he was like, “Oh my god. What are you doing? You’re living in Silicon Valley. I’m sure you can find a job somewhere in tech.” And I was like, “This is just what I want to do, and I want to solve this problem around sugar and sweeteners.” And he was like, “Okay. That’s great. But you could make a lot more money doing these other things.” And then-
Karla Gallardo: What does he say now?
Kara Goldin: Well, he passed away a few years ago-
Karla Gallardo: Oh, I’m sorry.
Kara Goldin: -but he was alive when we were going and getting started. And I think, for him, what he realized… that he never really, as he said, didn’t have the courage to go and live this way. It’s sort of a whole other point that I tell entrepreneurs, too. It’s really easy for me to say… I mean, at the time, I had some money that I had saved up, so we were able to finance the first few years. And I had three kids at the time when I started the company, actually ended up having four right when we were launching. Looking at my dad with five kids and him saying, “I want to go and start a company,” he felt like that was irresponsible to actually go start a company when he had to feed us and send us to school and do all of these things. And so I think for him, I gained an appreciation… I was always like, “Why were you so chicken? Why didn’t you start a company?” And so it was a journey that we both kind of went through, because it’s real.
Kara Goldin: People are like, “Oh, I want to start this company but I have a family and I’ve only got one paycheck coming in…” or whatever. I’m like, “You shouldn’t do it.”
Karla Gallardo: Definitely not. That’s too risky.
Kara Goldin: And it’ll still be there, your idea. But I think in the case of my dad, too, working for a large company… when in the food and beverage space, and I would guess in fashion it’s sort of the same thing, but there’s slotting fees for these big placements inside of stores. And so my dad, when I went to him and I said, “Okay, how do I get it on the shelf at Safeway?” He is like, “I have no idea.” Because ConAgra did the deal with Safeway and then they said, “Okay. We’re going to put these products on the shelf.” So he was like, “I have no idea how that’s done. I mean, we deal with the buyer, but it’s already slotted. We don’t actually sell it in there. We sell it internally who’s going to get those slots.” Which is, again, anyone who’s worked in large companies would probably… I would guess it’s sort of the same situation.
Kara Goldin: So anyway, it was an interesting kind of realization. But he also, I think, thought, if I would’ve decided to do it earlier in life before I had kids, this is the kind of stuff that I would’ve done. Again, I think all entrepreneurs that I meet, especially the ones that are able to scale their business, have to be really comfortable with living with one foot off a cliff. And the earlier you do it in life, the better, when you don’t have a family, and you’re not… I mean, it’s the risk.
Karla Gallardo: Totally. And times are different, too. I feel like starting a company’s kind of contagious. We have the fortunate aspect of living in a city where so many people want to start companies or have started companies, that it kind of just fuels the fire. For me, going to business school was kind of like two years of a retreat to make it happen kind of thing. Because you have to have a lot of courage to do it. And I think our parents lived in a very different time for them to be able to do that, right?
Kara Goldin: Well, you touched on two things. I mean, I think it is more common, but I think especially in the Bay Area… like I always say, failure… and the number of people who I interview who are previous entrepreneurs and they’ve decided to sort of go in and support a company versus actually founding another company… but they can articulate the fact that their company failed or they got fired or whatever it is… that would be something in my dad’s generation that you would never tell anybody. That is something that is so much more common today, and I think people are much more understanding, and I think it’s much more credible if people can own that kind of stuff, too. I think it’s important. But I also think we’re spoiled in the Bay Area that I still don’t think that there’s certain parts of the country that you’re going to walk around and say, “Oh, I lost my job,” or, “this company failed,” or whatever. There’s still this-
Karla Gallardo: It’s a unique environment.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. There’s still this shame that goes with that, I think, that shouldn’t be there because we’re all just learning on this journey, and I think it’s super important. But yeah. That was the crazy, crazy story. So how about you? So unstoppable…
Shilpa Shah: I think one of the things that makes Karla and I such good partners is that we share a lot of the same values, right? So I also have an incredible appreciation for this moment in time. My grandfather, he used to beg for two rupees a month so he could go to school. And so like only two generations later, I have an opportunity to maximize what I contribute, to see and push my limits to my capacity. And so I think that ability wasn’t lost on me, to try it, to really see what we were all capable of. I think when you approach it that way, and you’re maximizing for fulfillment, then you can do a lot of really amazing things.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, not only for him to be watching, but your son… you have a son, right?
Karla Gallardo: Yeah. Yeah. Shilpa, she does, too.
Kara Goldin: It’s so great. I mean, itt’s a whole new generation that you guys are starting above and beyond the product, of just being able to go out and disrupt a business… it’s super cool.
Kara Goldin: So where do people find Cuyana, where’s the best…?
Karla Gallardo: Online.
Kara Goldin: It’s the best [crosstalk 00:42:27] too.
Kara Goldin: Cuyana.com.
Karla Gallardo: Cuyana.com. Or we have five stores running now. San Francisco. Stanford. Palisades… Pacific Palisades. Venice Beach, on Abbott Kinney. And then in Nolita, New York, on Prince Street.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So if somebody were to tweet something out about Cuyana, what would you want them to say about the company or you guys?
Karla Gallardo: It’s the best price per wear in any category, that it really is made with integrity, and that it lives up to the value of “fewer, better things.”
Kara Goldin: I love it. That’s great. Super great. Well, thanks to both of you guys for coming-
Karla Gallardo: Thank you.
Kara Goldin: -and tell us anytime how we can support you guys.
Karla Gallardo: Thank you, Kara.
Kara Goldin: And thanks for coming.
Shilpa Shah: Thanks so much.
Kara Goldin: We appreciate it. Thank you.