Six years ago, Susannah Jaffer was a fresh graduate who moved to Singapore from the United Kingdom in search of work. At the earlier part of her career, Susannah spent more than half a year in a PR agency working as an intern before being recruited for a job at Expat Living magazine in 2013, where she took on various roles such as a fashion and beauty editor to a creative director. Although everything seemed to be going well for Susannah’s career in editorial media, in October 2017, she decided to call it quits and left her full-time job to start her first business, ZERRIN.com.
Why? Here’s her story.
You were a fashion and beauty editor turned creative director at Expat Living. Future was bright for you. What made you decide that it’s time to quit full-time and start ZERRIN in the world’s most expensive city?
I got to the point that what I was doing every day was clashing with my values, so I needed to make a change. That was always on my mind and was negatively impacting my mental health. At the same time, while the spark of an idea for ZERRIN was in my head, I decided “if I don’t follow this now, then when?” It seemed crazy at that time, but so do many things before we put our mind to them, do the work and manage to achieve them.
What is ZERRIN and what are its unique selling points?
ZERRIN is Asia’s first multi-label e-commerce platform for sustainable fashion and beauty brands. Through a mix of responsible retail, content and events, our goal is to enable, educate and empower women to #ShopMeaningfully, and to reignite a sense of connection to our purchases in an accessible, down to earth way.
ZERRIN makes it more convenient for women to shop and discover independent conscious brands in one space. We’re the opposite of other fast-fashion marketplace concept retailers out there. Instead of a message of mass consumption, low prices and deals, we advocate slower, more thoughtful purchasing and appreciating quality over quantity. We’re also working hard to build and bring together a community through our blog, pop-ups and educational events. I see ZERRIN as more than just a retail store, but a movement, lifestyle and mindset.
Yes, Singapore is expensive. Luckily, the overheads of running an online store are a fraction of the cost of renting a physical space. I’m thankful that my career path, and mentors I’ve met along the way, have taught me resourcefulness, which meant I was able to set the business up and not break the bank.
What were the initial reactions of your loved ones when you broke the news to them that you are going to be an entrepreneur?
Call me lucky, but they never really questioned me. My dad was an entrepreneur from a young age, moving over from India (where he was born) to be an accountant. Eventually, he was earning enough to bring his family over, and he went on to start his own business. He likes to joke that I got it from him. He’s still working full time and managing two businesses at 78.
My partner has been a big support too, in a constructive way. He also works in retail, so there are aspects of my business that he could relate to and give feedback.
What were your challenges when putting your plans together?
Setting up the business while working full time in a demanding creative role. That got tough at times. I didn’t leave till after ZERRIN had launched. Thankfully, my boss at the time was very supportive when I told her about my plans. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Another factor was my budget. I had no external investor, and everything was on a shoestring. This got me down at times, but I learnt to pick myself up, revisit my long-term strategy and make informed decisions from there. I prioritised investing in areas of the business that my gut told me were the most important, like branding, essential website coding and some photography. Everything else I did myself – PR, marketing, additional e-commerce/blog photography, digital marketing, social media, accounting…the list goes on. Despite being on a budget, I didn’t want the vision of the company, and what I put out there, to come across as so.
What were the things you learned when setting up an e-commerce store?
There’s a lot to do. As a retailer carrying multiple brands, there’s so much to market, which is a blessing and a curse. Some days, it can feel like I’m not doing enough.
Also, you can’t just put a product out there and hope it sells. Consumers today are way more savvy than five years ago, and will see through your brand if it’s offering is lacklustre. The quality and authenticity of your message are also crucial, as is the strength of your brand story and vision. As a multi-label retailer, I think it’s vital to tell that story (in various ways) continually and not let it fade into the background, otherwise what’s your value proposition and how will you scale?
Where do you see ZERRIN in the next five years?
If all were to go to plan, we’d be an international name, and trusted as a destination for conscious brands, serving customers all over the globe. We’ll also have established a full lifestyle content channel (online and offline) which brings together our community of customers, brands and inspiring individuals paving the way for more responsible retail industry.
Will ZERRIN eventually open a brick and mortar store? If yes, why? If no, why not?
If it does happen, I don’t think it will be in Singapore. It doesn’t seem sustainable. Rent here is astronomical and I’ve seen enough stores open and close throughout my short career to know it’s not a wise move. Physical touch points are essential though, so pop-ups will always be key throughout the year. If we do eventually open a brick and mortar store, it will be more than just a retail space!
What’s your advice to people who want to start their e-commerce store?
It’s always going to take more work than you think. If you’re not digitally savvy or are not willing to learn, then forget it. Above all, starting any business is always a risk. You have to be willing to take it. There’s no guidebook, and you have to depend on yourself to get things done and make it all happen.
Whatever your concept, know your target customer and market, and do enough initial research to determine whether you’re product offering will stand out. Write a business plan! It doesn’t matter if it’s not the most detailed document on the planet (unless you’re pitching to investors from the start, of course.) It helped to gather my thoughts, guide my thinking and strategy. Being prepared is always a good idea!