What do MBAs do at startups
"I see ourselves as coaches of a high-performance team"
What does it mean to you to be your own boss?
The word boss ’has a negative connotation for me, which is why I don't like it at all. I hope my business partner, Bahman Nedaei, and I were able to build a corporate culture in which we are not seen as "bosses" or as people who make decisions about everyone else - and that's only because of our position!
I see us more as coaches of a high-performance team. As coaches, one of our most important tasks is to create the context for all navabists (employees at navabi) so that they can become successful at navabi and exploit their potential to the maximum. This in turn means for us that we treat every navabist as an entrepreneur and have to give them enough freedom, but also responsibility, to be the "boss" of their own life and success.
On what occasion did you get the idea for your start-up?
My co-founder Bahman Nedaei comes from a family that has a long tradition of working with fashion. His grandfather and aunt have long been in the fashion business. He experimented early with the possibilities of selling fashion online. Many years ago he paved the way for navabi's success. As a good entrepreneur, he quickly realized that it would be worth taking a lot of risk. Through his family's experiences and our first sales figures, we realized that we had probably hit a gold mine with the niche in the market for premium fashion in plus sizes.
After completing my MBA, we began to analyze the German, European and global fashion market together in great detail. There was only "cheap" fashion from size 42. Even then, we discussed a lot about how it can be that a market as large as premium plus size fashion is so massively undersupplied. In principle, depending on the country, the fashion industry excluded around 30 to 40 percent of all European women (and their needs).
An ideal basis for entrepreneurs: A “blue ocean” market that has been neglected worldwide. That was the chance for us to build a global company that can become synonymous with its category. We saw a market in which the added value for the customer is “a new life” and not the umpteenth shop that offers a product that you could get anywhere else.
Based on this, we have developed our current business model and with navabi we have specialized entirely in premium fashion. In the beginning we were often laughed at because we were two relatively sporty boys who wanted to make dresses for curvy women. The experts advised us against it because taller women don't want “fashion”. But our success proved us right: customers from over 30 countries write to us every day about how much we are changing their lives. We enable them to finally dress fashionably to express their identity through clothing.
Where did the capital for your company come from?
The start was financed privately. In 2010 we concluded our first financing round with DuMont Venture. Shortly thereafter, Seventure from France followed, and in 2013 a larger round led by Index Ventures. And now, in January of this year, fresh capital of 25 million euros has been added. In addition to the investors from the very beginning, Bauer Venture Partners are now also on board, helping us to reach even more women worldwide through their publications.
What were the biggest stumbling blocks when you founded your start-up?
The established fashion companies with their unrealistic ideal of beauty put the biggest stumbling block in our way. At the same time, that was exactly our greatest advantage. On the one hand, navabi is only there because of the industry's misconception that premium quality plus-size fashion would not be bought. On the other hand, it took a lot of perseverance and educational work to explain to the designers that the fashion industry is bypassing an important market. But we didn't let up here either.
Due to the prejudices of the industry, we were isolated in the fashion industry and on our own. So we taught ourselves everything from scratch - and today, with the expert knowledge that we have built up in a niche over the years, we are world leaders in our field. As a first mover, we see our task in driving a new revolution in the model world in a trend-setting manner. Today we are pleased that navabi offers well-known third-party brands as well as high-quality own collections.
Unfortunately, we haven't gotten to the point where curvy women are accepted by the fashion industry. But the facts show that we are on the right track: Our plus-size model Candice Huffine made it into the famous Pirelli calendar this year and our model Ashley Graham made it into the world-famous Sports Illustrated magazine.
Looking back, what would you do differently in the start-up phase?
Until 2014, we deliberately communicated little to the outside world about navabi. Our strategy was to take a position that determines the market and then start the PR machine at the right time. We wanted to take advantage of our first mover advantage and not wake sleeping dogs. In retrospect, I think the reluctance wasn't necessary. We have a first-class team that can compete with the best in the world.
We were the first to discover and help build a 20+ billion market. Of course there have been some imitators since then. But to this day everyone has burned their fingers in this demanding market because they did not understand it. I am proud that we made it and are now known worldwide as experts in the industry.
Every start-up has to be known. Which type of marketing is particularly important to you?
Of course, like any other e-commerce company, we use the potential of online marketing and analyze everything up and down. In addition, we focused on advice and inspiration for our customers right from the start.
Our fashion experts are there for plus-size customers with advice in the shop, but also with numerous styling tips in our own navabi magazine. Our TV advertising campaigns have been running in Germany, France and Great Britain since last year. For example, a TV commercial with plus-size top model Candice Huffine is currently running on German and soon also British television.
Before we ventured into television, however, we consciously (and that was the result of a discussion with the renowned entrepreneur Seth Godin) focused on perfecting the product. Today we are not an international leader because we advertise worldwide - but because we have the best product for plus-size customers.
Which person gave you particular support in founding the company?
I have to name two people: Jörg Binnenbrücker, then head of DuMont Venture and now founder and managing partner of Capnamic. He was one of the very few who believed us from the start. We were told at the time by one of his portfolio companies that he was the best VC in Europe.
We now know a lot of good VCs in Europe and can confirm that. Jörg is our man. As a VC you are often trimmed to look exclusively at the capital and to ignore the people behind the company. Jörg is different. Thanks to him there was a friend included for “smart money”.
The second person is Peter Siedlatzek, our lawyer. He was our first lawyer and has been with us as a consultant and friend since day one. In my opinion, there are few legal experts in Europe who really understand start-ups and VCs and advise them with passion and knowledge. Pete, as we call him, is very different.
What advice would you give to other founders?
"If you want to make millions find a product that will make millions happier." And not alone, but with the best team you can build. As a coach, it's your job to build the best possible team. This is often lost in everyday life. You want to be quick and hire people who don't fit. And I don't mean if the person is an expert in their field or not. By that I mean primarily whether the person fits the corporate culture, the thirst for knowledge and success.
With the first 50 employees, it is particularly worthwhile to wait until you are really convinced of an applicant. The initial team works as a multiplier because very good people will only recommend and hire very good people.
I don't think much of “hire fast & fire fast” either. I firmly believe that "hire slow, keep or fire fast" is better:
Hire Slow: Because every employee can influence the success or failure of the entire company and that far beyond their own area of responsibility. Be sure who you want to let into the company.
Keep: Those who fit into the company have to get a life mission from you. They have to love the company and see it as their own. They must have the opportunity to go through a steep learning curve in order to reach their full potential. You can't force that. We are awake about 5840 hours a year. Most of us are around 2200-2400 of us at work. I.e. our life is to a large extent our work. As a managing director you have a great responsibility and the opportunity to have a positive impact on many people's lives. The company culture and your management style will pave the way here. It's important to study management and leadership theories and experiment with which style best suits your company. At navabi, we have developed our own strategy & management framework.
In order to keep the best, however, you have to develop yourself as a founder around the clock and have the right to "master" your profession. That means it is very clear that one cannot rest on the “boss”. Because then the learning curve of your employees will be faster and steeper than your own and the best will slowly but surely leave you. In a fast growing company, it is not easy to keep the learning curve above the growth curve. But we didn't start a company because we wanted life to be easy. We founded because we firmly believe that our passion, our will and our discipline can give us wings. So: make it happen.
Fire Fast: The trial period should really be a trial period. It is important to have clear and measurable goals. In my opinion, “stretch goals” are best. New employees have to prove that they are an inspiration to your team, otherwise they should be parted with again. This is best for both parties.
You meet the Federal Minister of Economics - what would you like from him for Germany as a founding location?
The state and education systems are already very closely linked in Germany. What is missing are good and large VCs that have the ambition to change the world. And also to simplify synergy effects and communication between young companies.
The interplay between the state, education, capital and communication between companies is Silicon Valley's recipe for success. We are still a bit away from that. But I am sure that Germany has what it takes to build global companies similar to those of the USA.
What would you do for a living if you hadn't founded a start-up?
That's a mean question. If I'm not allowed to change the world, then at least I want to be able to enjoy it to the maximum. Diving instructor in the Maldives sounds good.
At which German start-up would you like to play little mouse?
Sorry, but I love navabi more than anything. I am sure that there are many other good start-ups in Germany. Fortunately, I have already seen this live at several start-ups from Germany, UK and USA. But rather than playing mouse myself, I would like to invite anyone who is interested to our imperial city to experience navabi up close.
You can take a journey through time: In which era are you traveling?
Into the renaissance to go bar hopping with DaVinci. ;) I think that was a time with a lot of “creative destruction”. Above all, I would like to get to know DaVinci in order to understand how a person can create so much in so many different areas. Was he a genius or was it hard work? I suspect both, but after the fifth Moscow Mule he would surely tell me his secret.
You have a million euros at your disposal: What do you do with all the money?
First to Mauritius. Put on a straw hat, sleep and swim. Then consider what kind of foundation the world needs and can change it. Then come back and invest the money in navabi to continue my path. I would keep my Mauritius idea in mind if one day I had more time - or if I found out DaVinci's secret.
How do you spend a nice Sunday?
Go to the office after exercising. ;) Normally I would either enjoy life with friends and colleagues somewhere in the world or get up relatively early, do sports, have brunch with my girlfriend, go for a walk with her, cook together afterwards, talk a lot ...
Who would you like to meet for a coffee or a beer?
Mohammed Ali for a coffee and Michael Jordan for a beer. Mohammed, because he is a very funny and at the same time inspiring person. And Michael, because hardly anyone in human history is as crazy about winning and then maximizing their potential as he is.
In focus: Further questionnaires in our main topic 15 questions to
Zahir Dehnadi is co-founder and managing director of navabi, the world's leading online retailer for premium plus size fashion for women. The native Iranian came to Germany in 1989. After completing his bilingual Abitur, he studied in the Netherlands, Italy and the USA and completed the renowned Handelsblatt MBA program at the Rotterdam School of Management and at the University of Chicago-Booth School of Business. During his school and university days, Dehnadi founded an advertising company, the film production company “Rebell Films” and several other start-ups together with his future navabi partner Bahman Nedaei.
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Christina Cassala, editor at deutsche-startups.de, was already working as a journalist in her best university days in the 1990s. Immediately after completing her traineeship, she worked for a specialist publishing house in Hamburg before joining deutsche-startups.de in 2007 and since then has observed developments in the start-up scene in Germany with great curiosity.
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