Denise Lee: Founder & CEO of Alala

Episode 377

In this week's episode Denise Lee, Founder & CEO of the athleisure brand, Alala takes us on her inspiring journey to building the company she founded. From the early days of leaving Singapore for the U.S. at 18 to pursue her dreams in fashion, to working with retail legend Chris Burch to starting her own now multi-million dollar brand Alala. You are going to love what she has to say including all of her learnings and tips. You won’t want to miss this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go Let’s go. Hi, everyone, its Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I’m so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Denise Lee, who is the founder and CEO of Alala and Alala is this incredible brands that if you don’t know about it, I don’t know how you don’t know about it. But if you don’t know about it, you definitely need to know about this athleisure brand Alala that is really, really not only cool, wonderful, but also the backstory is super inspiring. So at just 18 years old, Denise left Singapore, moved to New York to pursue her dreams in fashion. I’m sort of fast forwarding it a little bit. But her career started off working with retail legend, Chris Burch. And eventually she started her own self funded multimillion dollar brand, Alala. And we’re going to hear all about Denise’s journey, how the brand, not only started, but some of the twists and turns along the way that every great entrepreneur has. And I’m certain there will be plenty of inspiring stuff that she shares with us along the way, and learnings and all of that. So welcome, Denise.

Denise Lee 1:58
Thank you for having me, Kara. Yeah, really excited.

Kara Goldin 2:01
So. So let’s start with the Alala story, I’d love to hear what is it.

Denise Lee 2:08
So I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur. And my parents were entrepreneurs. And I always just felt like, I just need that big idea to hang my hat on and feel like it was really good to jump into. And while I was working for Chris Burch, I was training for my first triathlon. It was something that was on my bucket list. And I was like, I gotta do this before I turn 30. And so I had this whole career and fashion, and retail and apparel. And while I was training for my trap on, I wanted to buy some new clothing to motivate me to work out. You know, you’re training six times a week. And so I knew that if I got some new clothes, it would make the workouts and training easier. And so I went to all the stores, and this was 10 years ago. So there were not a lot of brands out there at the time, except for the big ones. And I just felt like they didn’t really reflect my sense of style and my style ethic. And that was kind of the aha moment for me where I thought, oh, my gosh, there’s like a white space in this market for something that’s more elevated, more fashion forward than the brands that were out there at the time.

Kara Goldin 3:34
And how did you come up with the idea of exactly what you would be focused on when you were first initially trying to come up with a few products?

Denise Lee 3:43
Yeah, it was such an interesting time. I feel like it was driven out of what my personal style was and what I wanted. But I also worked with a really great designer at the time, and we work together to understand like the merchandising matrix, and really kind of get to the heart of I think what was missing in the market that we saw.

Kara Goldin 4:07
And what what did you see that you felt like, you know, why isn’t anyone doing that? I mean, I know I’ve, I always have walked into stores and said, it’s kind of be here, this product that I’ve got in my head. It’s gotta be here somewhere. And it sounds like that was a little bit you as well.

Denise Lee 4:25
Yeah, it was seeing that there was an opportunity for like taking some of the design elements out of ready to wear our favorite brands at the time, and bringing them into active wear, which at the time was like very basic, you know, black tanks, black pants. And so when we launched we launched with some really fun colors and prints, but that were like sophisticated enough to fit into the New York wardrobe

Kara Goldin 4:54
that I had. So interesting. I remember seeing some of your product early on. and it had like bows on it, and no one had done bows on product. Not all of your product has bows on it, but I just thought it was cute. And it was different and really kind of stood apart. Plus the fabrics were really, really terrific.

Denise Lee 5:15
Thank you. Yeah, fabric and fit are such important parts of our business and important parts of like upholding what we believe in.

Kara Goldin 5:25
So you started the company drive this right in 2014? That’s right, amazing. And then as you mentioned before, you worked with Chris Burch. I think about this a lot. Like, I don’t think there’s one way to become an entrepreneur, right. But there’s a lot of people who become entrepreneurs after working for entrepreneurs, and it doesn’t mean that they’re, you know, taking an idea, they’re just actually, I think you gain a lot of confidence right from, from these entrepreneurs. And maybe sometimes you’re seeing that they don’t have it all figured out. But they’re gonna go try and all of those kinds of concepts ring true. And you’re thinking, gosh, maybe I should go do this now is that kind of how you felt with Chris and I know, you’re still close to Chris. And, and that’s, uh, I’d be curious sort of what your experience. What part of your experience led you to be able to go and do what you’re doing today?

Denise Lee 6:26
Yeah. I joined Chris after I went to business school. And for me, I felt like working for Chris was like my second business school expert experience. You know, he really taught me that foundations in real time. And in real life, what it was like to launch a brand, run a business, especially an apparel business. And so I’m so grateful to him for all that experience that I gained from working for him. And I feel like one of the things he always said was, you know, it’s enough to sit in a room and listen and absorb the knowledge that’s coming to you, in addition to actually doing stuff. And so I’m very grateful that Chris, let me sit in a lot of rooms with really great inspirational entrepreneurs, and business people. And I felt like I really just absorbed so much of that.

Kara Goldin 7:31
That’s great. Well, working for a mentor that that actually will sort of share steps along the way too. I think that that is just so so key. And it’s something that you don’t learn in any school, whether it’s undergraduate, or, you know, definitely Business School, either, it’s just you just do not actually get to see until you get in there and get feet on the ground and roll up your sleeves, and all those things that I think you were really, really lucky to be able to do. So you start your brand in 2014, what was kind of the big hurdles that you had to figure out?

Denise Lee 8:10
I feel like we were so lucky when we started because spring 2014 was when we launched. And it was also when athleisure became a word that we started saying. And so there was a little bit of luck in the timing that we had. And we were able to kind of ride this whole wave of athleisure, you know, trending into where we are today. But I think one of the big hurdles for me when we started. And also sometimes today is really understanding like the day to day cash flow situation, and how to manage your money in the best way. I think people underestimate sometimes how much capital A product business really needs, especially if you want to grow. And that was a big lesson and a hurdle that I had to like get over.

Kara Goldin 9:02
Yeah, definitely. Did you feel like you had it figured out on in terms of quantities? And I know that that’s always like a, I get lots of entrepreneurs reaching out to me asking like, how do you know how much to order in that first? Because you’re, you know, typically paying for it upfront, right? You’re not getting things on consignment? I mean, it’s you’ve got to in any industry, especially for any physical Good, you’ve got to pay for something upfront. So did you feel like you had a good grasp on that? Or was that kind of a scary move?

Denise Lee 9:36
It definitely was very scary. And this is what I would say for our philosophy, but also for someone who’s thinking about starting a product business who might be bootstrapping it themselves. I would say always start at the smallest quantity that the factory would work with you with and it’s better to chase and place another order than being stuck with a lot have inventory that you can’t sell? Yeah. And I think that worked really well for us. You know, but I remember our factory was like, you’re only ordering how many pieces? You know, for our first order. And I it, it was heartbreaking to hear them say that. But it was the right move at the time.

Kara Goldin 10:20
Yeah, well, and then you put in another order after that, so. So thankfully, you’re able to kind of get a head start on the pandemic, I’d love to hear your experience with the pandemic, like what, what was the situation when the pandemic hit for you all? Can you kind of set that up for us?

Denise Lee 10:41
Yeah. So we were in our New York City office, you know, I had this big office with a big team. And obviously, we went all remote at the time, and there was a lot of uncertainty at the beginning of COVID. But we were able to really be nimble and quick, in kind of switching people’s roles in the team to support where we saw the business growing unexpectedly. So before COVID, we were a big wholesale business. So we sold to a lot of retailers. And that was a majority of our business at the time. During COVID. Obviously, the stores were shut and E commerce became a very big significant part of our business. And one of the things that I’m really proud of is that we were able to shift everybody into focusing on our E commerce site and our E commerce business, even our wholesale team and the people that really didn’t really touch e commerce kind of pulled their way into that direction into that channel, and we were able to really grow a lot into that channel. Over the pandemic.

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Denise Lee 14:14
Oh, yeah, we’ve been dealing with that for you know, the past couple of years for sure. But during the height of the pandemic, I think we were very fortunate to have a diversified factory base. So we did manufacture some things overseas. But we also did and still do manufacture here in New York City. We manufacture in LA. And so we were able to kind of like work with the factories that were open at the time. And kind of, you know, wait on the business that we had with factories that had to close. And so we were fortunate to have, you know, the different countries in place for us to really take advantage of who was open and who was able to produce goods?

Kara Goldin 15:02
That’s really, really smart. I know, we’ve talked to many people to where if they only had their product manufactured in one country, that was the big lesson for them that, you know, they’ve got to have options. So yeah, diversifying very, very quickly. If you only have one option for manufacturing, your product is absolutely key. So I think that that was a big learning for so many. So you self funded your company initially. So I’d love to hear how you’ve been able to do that.

Denise Lee 15:36
Yes, so we’ve been self funded since the beginning, it’s been nine years, since we’ve launched. And I’ve learned a lot on the financial side, not going for venture was a conscious decision on my part, I really wanted to hold control of my business, especially at the beginning, because I wanted to get to know every part of my business really well. And I think being more disciplined with, you know, smaller budgets, really helps kind of shape the culture of the business, too. So we still are a very lean team today, we, you know, are very careful about where we spend our money. And we have this idea of our return on our investment always on the front of our minds. And I just think that’s a good way to do business. You know, my dad is a business person, and he always just ingrained in me like, you need to be profitable, especially if you want to be self funded. And I also learned a lot about, you know, alternative funding sources. So now we have a revolving line of credit with a bank, we’ve spoken to, you know, and have relationships with factors for our wholesale businesses. And so there are other ways to get working capital until a company besides, you know, the sexy venture funded route.

Kara Goldin 17:06
What did they want to see in general these days for for that, for like revolving credit, and factoring? And for those people who are thinking, okay, it sounds like Denise has, has it figured out here? And you know, I want to I want that program.

Denise Lee 17:24
Yeah, I think with the factoring, they basically front you the money that, you know, let’s say a Nordstrom or a sax would be paying you for the goods. So you have to have a wholesale business in place to speak with the factors. So that’s really important. And obviously, a growing wholesale business is even better for them. So that’s the factor for the bank. I think, you know, having that profitability and your bottom line is really key. They’re all about mitigating and assessing risk, right? Will you be able to pay back this loan at some point? And so I think for them, it’s like looking at the overall health of your business. And if you have a strong trajectory of growth, I think they feel more confident that you’re going to be able to pay back the loans.

Kara Goldin 18:14
Yeah, definitely. So you’ve used social media to get the word out about Alala? And can you talk a little bit about, you know, what has worked best for you on on that front?

Denise Lee 18:33
Yeah, I think for us, you know, we grew up in the age of Instagram, we’ve seen a lot of our influencers that we’ve worked with in 2014. Explode to be huge influencers over the last 10 years. And so I think with everything, it’s about building relationships, and it’s about being very genuine in those relationships, and not seeing it just like as a transaction, like here, I’m giving you clothes, you post once. And that’s it. We’ve been very conscious about really building relationships, not just with big influencers, but micro nano influencers as well. And I think, you know, you need to be very broad, sometimes in that approach, because you don’t really know who’s going to be the person who’s going to really drive that traffic for you, you know, might be somebody with 10,000 followers versus somebody who has millions.

Kara Goldin 19:32
Definitely. So how do you stand apart in a crowded category? I mean, that the category that you’re in, obviously is is there’s lots of different companies not as good as your product, but I mean, how do you get the consumer to know that? And maybe you use influencers, but I think it’s, it’s always you know, I think a big challenge to for brands especially clothing, like, do you actually have to touch the product? Obviously, they could return it if they needed to. But I’m curious what you would say to that, how do you build that brand?

Denise Lee 20:10
So I will say building a brand is not like a one time thing. It’s just the same as like you learn about yourself over time, you really learn what the brand stands for who the brand’s customers really are, over time. And so I feel like for me, there was a lot of experimentation, you know, over the last 10 years, like, there were some seasons where we were like, oh, let’s try a little more streetwear vibes or like, let’s try and do this. And it wasn’t until maybe like, two years ago that we really nailed down, okay, like, this is our customer. And this is what she’s looking for from us, which was sophisticated, very high quality clothing that you could wear in your closet, season after season and year after year. And so we really, once we got that download from our customers doubled down on that. And really, you know, made it our space in this very crowded space.

Kara Goldin 21:21
So you’re speaking to your younger self, you know, maybe you’re that 18 year old who’s coming to New York, and you’re thinking about starting your own company? Is there anything you do differently?

Denise Lee 21:34
Yes. So much. I feel like coming from an Asian country, and growing up in a very, like traditional Asian households, you were always taught that, you know, you had to listen to your elders, people who are older than you always knew better than you. And you should just follow whatever they say. And I think if I were to tell my younger self, something, it would be to trust my own intuition and gut so much more than I did when I was young. Because I was like always thinking, oh, this person says, I should do this, like, I should listen to them, because they’re older than me. And they know better than me. And it took me a really long time to get out of that mindset. And to understand that, like, a lot of my own intuition, and a lot of what I was kind of like, pushing down, really was the best thing for me. Yeah. And I wish I had realized that sooner.

Kara Goldin 22:37
No, I think that’s really, really valuable. I think it’s it’s a, you know, definitely I’ve, I’ve thought about that a lot, too. And I think as you get older, you start to realize that, you know, especially when things don’t go exactly as you thought you should have trusted your gut. And it sort of sounds cliche, but I really do think it’s true, and you have to sort of rely on what is your gut telling you and kind of undoing what you learned over the years, I think is is a very powerful thing for sure. So do you have a board of the of the company, a lot of times people have boards, especially if you’ve raised capital, but it sounds like you guys have not done that? Do you actually have a board?

Denise Lee 23:22
So I do not have a board. And I think that is another thing that I wish I had, you know, done sooner? I think what I’m facing right now to be very candid and open is I don’t know, really how to get to the next level of my business. And because I don’t, I’ve never done it before. Yeah. And so I’m finding now that I’m like, Oh, I wish I had sooner, you know, board members who could help me, show me the way and direct me in a direction that I could get to the next level. And so one of my big things for this quarter, is really to assemble a board of, you know, experienced professionals who can really help me get to the next level, because I just feel like I don’t know what I don’t know. And I need some help getting there.

Kara Goldin 24:17
No, it’s interesting. Well, and I think there’s also something to be said about advisory boards too, if you don’t actually want a governing board, but you want people who can kind of help you. I’ve also seen people do advisory boards, where people are, you know, really sort of helping you think about different things. But either one, I’ve seen both work but

Denise Lee 24:43
yeah, it’s a lonely journey to write. It’s like I don’t really have a lot of people to talk to honestly and openly about the business and so I would love to get a board together of some sort.

Kara Goldin 24:56
Yeah, it’s it’s interesting. I think lonely comes up when describing entrepreneurs a lot, and, and, or, you know, their own journey, and I think it is true. And I think often when you’re sitting in, you know, the top spot, that’s, you’re supposed to have it all figured out, right? And especially you’re leading a team, you’re making sure when there’s a problem, you have a set schedule for the day that gets interrupted when there’s some hiccup of some sort in your company. And whereas Steve Jobs used to say if the coffeemaker breaks, it’s on you, right? To go fix it. And it’s, it’s very, very true. So I think it’s, it’s definitely being able to have more than just you, I think, is the key to scaling it for sure. But also doing it carefully and relying on your gut as you’re building. Because I think that trust and integrity and is probably even more important than experience, frankly. So it’s definitely a journey for so many as they’re building. For sure. So what are you most proud of when you think about the Olala brand?

Denise Lee 26:08
One thing that I’m so proud of, is my team. A lot of them have been with me since the beginning. And you know, we’ve weathered a lot of storms over the last 10 years. And that’s really been a big source of pride for me. Just the fact that, you know, these, these amazing women have bought into the vision of what Alala could be. And every day, they choose to work with me, even though you know, we don’t have the best pay or the best benefits out there. They’re really buying into, I think, the vision that we all share for the future. Malala. And that’s so cool.

Kara Goldin 26:53
Yeah, no, it it is, it’s a great thing. And as I always tell people that, you know, they may not be with you for the entire time, you’ve probably had people who have, you know, come and then they left. And, you know, maybe you’ve got a few people that have been here with us since the beginning, which is a really powerful thing. But I think it’s also the fact that somebody signs on to your idea wasn’t their idea for even any amount of time is, you know, great. I remember the first time that we lost our first person, I think they were with us for like nine months. And it was in the early early days of hint. And I took it very personally, I remember thinking like, you know, oh, my God, you know, it’s like, somebody tells you your baby’s ugly, right? It’s just it’s a very, you know, it’s your very like, oh, my gosh, how was this happened to me, and I think, you know, the best you can do is wish them luck. And and, you know, as long as they can leave with the same professionalism as what they came with, when they started, I think that that’s the most important piece of it. And, you know, it’s Yeah, I

Denise Lee 28:03
think being kind to them on the way in, during and on the way out is, you know, so important. And it’s such a small industry, it’s important not to burn any bridges.

Kara Goldin 28:15
Yeah, no, absolutely. So, with the pandemic, too. There’s so many people that are working remotely these days, obviously, you’re in New York today. Do you see that with the, the apparel industry that a lot of it is, especially on the supply chain and direct to consumer? Do you feel like a lot of people are actually working remotely? Do you feel like people, it’s good to have FaceTime? I feel like expecially Gen Z, I’ve got some young millennials, and also some older Gen Z years, I guess is the easiest way to say it, that they want to be back in office, they want human interaction. They want their buddies that they meet at work that they can go out with afterwards. And but I’m curious sort of what you’re saying.

Denise Lee 29:05
Yeah, we’re very fortunate that like my team now, had been in the office together before COVID. And so I feel like we did develop a culture and a great working relationship with everybody before we went remote. And so I think it is difficult for new employees to come into a culture when you’re fully remote and understand what’s going on. So I think ideally, for me, it would be a hybrid structure. And we’re starting to figure that out. But in the meantime, because we’re a clothing business and you need to touch and feel and try things on. The girls just come over to my apartment a lot of the time. And we do fittings here and we get together here. And I also make it a point really to you know, get everybody together on a quarterly basis or every couple of weeks. Just to make sure we do have the FaceTime with each other, because I feel like it’s so easy just to feel disconnected from everything.

Kara Goldin 30:08
Yeah, no, I think that’s super, super important for any organization, if you are not actually going into a physical office actually figuring out another way to get together. Definitely, especially, not just a zoom. So also getting together for whatever it is drinks, bowling, tea, whatever. So really, really interesting. So last question, best advice that you’ve ever received along the way, that’s business advice, I should say.

Denise Lee 30:41
One of the things I always remember is what Chris said to me, which is that it’s better to make a quick bad decision than a slow, good decision. And his whole point was that momentum, and moving forward is really important to advance your business. If you decide to just be frozen in indecision, that’s a bad place to be, you know, because no matter whether you made a good decision, or a bad decision, you learn something from that. It’s only when you don’t make a decision at all, that you get stuck. And if you’re a good business person, if you’re smart, even if you make a mistake, you can course correct, and get to the next goalpost instead of just, you know, freezing and not doing anything, and not getting anywhere. So I always think about that, because we’re so overloaded with decisions we have to make every day. And you know, sometimes it’s easy just to like push it off, and be like, I don’t want to deal with that. But I think the right attitude really is to try and figure it out and make the best decision you can with the information you have.

Kara Goldin 32:01
Definitely well I think that’s super, super great advice. And thank you so much for coming on and sharing all about you and Alala and all of your thoughts on on everything. So best of luck with all and thank you again, everyone for listening. So we will enjoy all the Olala products and get everybody we’ll have everything in the show notes for how to connect with you and with the brands. So thank you so much, everyone. Thanks again for listening to the Kara Goldin show. If you would, please give us a review and feel free to share this podcast with others who would benefit and of course, feel free to subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of our podcast. Just a reminder that I can be found on all platforms at Kara Goldin. And if you want to hear more about my journey, I hope you will have a listen or pick up a copy of my book undaunted, which I share my journey, including founding and building hint. We are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And thanks everyone for listening. Have a great rest of the week, and 2023 and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening