As a little girl, Zhao Zhao had the aspiration of running her own business one day. Despite facing pressure from her family and society to settle down, she chose to follow her dream; she now runs her own successful fashion label, aside from having her own family.
The co-founder of designer brand and platform La Unica shares about her journey as an entrepreneur, and how a formal education in technopreneurship had led her to the success.
What aspect of an enterprising mindset do you most closely relate to?
I firmly believe in having a clear vision – to have a good understanding of what I hope to achieve for the society and my consumers, and to actively work towards it.
After operating my business for over two years, I have grown to become very clear with my products, my target customers, and what I am able to do for them. I even invite some of my customers from Singapore, China, Indonesia and around the region to be my models. This allows me to truly understand my customers’ preferences and personalities. Through this deep understanding, and by bringing in only the best designs and perfect cuttings for them, I am able to produce appealing luxury products at affordable prices.
Tell us more about what La Unica does, and your inspiration for starting the brand.
La Unica is a luxury designer brand, and doubles up as a platform for fashion designers. Our apparels are designed and manufactured with quality in mind, and priced affordably for the everyday consumers.
With the multiple hats I wear as co-founder, I pay attention to not just the creation and design of products, but also the materials used, production methods, all the way down to the final delivery.
The story behind La Unica came from my own experiences as a consumer of luxury goods. The products I bought from famous luxury fashion brands often turned out unsuitable for me. As far as I know, many other Asian consumers also encountered such experiences. This led me to the realisation that I need to start something more appropriate for Asian ladies. I did my research and grew a deeper understanding of the industry, and eventually took the leap in starting up the company.
What were some of the challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?
Pressure from my family was one of them. My father is a businessman with a very traditional mindset. He had hoped for me to settle down and focus my efforts on being a good wife, instead of going out to pursue my own business. However, being brought up in an entrepreneurial family had inculcated my passion in business since young.
This shaped many of my life decisions, leading me to an undergraduate degree in International Business and Trade, and subsequently to the Master of Science in Technopreneurship and Innovation course at Nanyang Technological University – Nanyang Technopreneurship Center.
Instead of holding me back, the pressure I faced from my family propelled me further. I had the implicit motivation of wanting to show my father that I could balance both family and business well – and I spent the last two years proving it to him again and again.
How has this formal education in technopreneurship given you an edge of fellow peers in the industry?
The course allowed me to better grasp the nuts and bolts of different business structures, objectives and strategies. This has greatly benefitted me in applying the knowledge throughout the different stages of La Unica – from the setting up, to expansion, and even to seeking funds from investors.
From the lessons I have learnt in the course, and advice from both my professors and peers, I decided to set up my fashion label with both online and offline platforms. This went against the norm of just being a brick and mortar fashion retailer, which would only result in stiff competition with tens of thousands of other brands. This decision resulted in a brand that is one-of-a-kind back then, with a unique business model and no fear of competition. Understanding these concepts right from the start allowed me to lay a strong foundation to build the label over the years.
When I was considering the expansion of my business, I also turned to the knowledge gleaned from my time in MSc TIP. I sought out partnerships with fellow designers and brands in the industry as my expansion strategy. Instead of potentially having friction with the other players in the market, this resulted in a win-win situation for everyone. This effort paid off, and it helped me establish relationships
with many of such industry partners, raher than competitors.
When faced with potential inflow of investments, I was also able to clearly analyse and weigh the pros and cons of each investment. This prevented me from jumping at the chance whenever a big name came in, which may have led me to lose ownership of my own company and become a mere employee. I have even bravely turned down rounds of investments before! These decisions were always tough, but I owe much of the courage I have to what I’d learnt in the MSc TIP course.
What are some tips you’d give to other aspiring entrepreneurs in your industry?
First, know who you are marketing to. The market is extremely large, and it isnot possible for everyone to be your customer. It is important to identify specific groups, then dive into the details and understand them well – who they are, what they like, what are their spending behaviours. This allows you to view things from an empathetic angle, and provide the customers with what they truly want.
Second, to always be practical and pragmatic. Do not be too ambitious; always start small and take things a step at a time. Benchmark your success to your own efforts, instead of unrealistic goals. I’ve seen many business owners who put in a large percentage of their time and effort seeking rounds and rounds of investments, and discussing about yet-to-be-realised dreams. If you are really passionate and confident about your dreams, you can always lay out the capital yourself – success and external funds will come naturally.
Finally, to always practise humility. Many people only see the glamorous side of entrepreneurship, but fail to understand that it is an arduous journey. As an entrepreneur, you need to put aside your pride and ego. There are stories of those who run small market stalls, and are very successful; there are also those who helm large businesses yet are knee-deep in debt. Focus on your own goals, and not to care what others think of your work.
Without a doubt, Armancio Ortega and Rosalia Mera, the two founders of Zara. They have built a brand that has become synonymous to global fast fashion, providing the trendiest clothes for women all over the world. Many luxury brands lose millions of dollars each year, yet Zara remains as one of the top global brands.
黄沙百战穿金甲，不破楼兰终不还 (huáng shā bǎi zhàn chuān jīn jiǎ, bù pò lóu lán zhōng bù huán).
The first verse paints a picture of a long and tedious battle, with strong competition and a harsh environment. The second verse conveys the spirit of the soldier – that despite these conditions, he will vow to fight on until the objective is accomplished. This nicely sums up the life of an entrepreneur, and is something I deeply resonate with.
Having the opportunities to learn about, and even visit, different businesses and corporations. This gave me the chance to learn about the many different business models and strategies, and see how they have been implemented to various degrees of success.
La Unica is a fashion label that offers that “missing piece” for any occasion – be it a full day presentation at work, a candlelight dinner at an upmarket restaurant or a leisure high tea at a scenic garden.
A brand that focuses incessantly about the conception, design, materials, production and the final delivery experience, La Unica is all about constructing dresses for discerning women who seek sophistication and style.
Learn more about Nanyang Technological University – Nanyang Technopreneurship Center and their program.