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STARTUP STYLE: AN INTERVIEW WITH JULIA LAM

startup style

This Female Founder Brings
Valley Swag to Fashion Design

Photos and Story By Kimberly

 

 

You got a problem? Yo, she’ll solve it. Meet Julia Lam, the founder of Tara&Co—a just-launched line of women’s accessories that are oh-so-streamlined for your overworked everydays.

Their first product? A multifunctional (and multifun) bag that works while you work it. Check it out on Indiegogo here.*

We talked about all things female founder-ful, how she’s bringing a tech testing mentality to the fashion world and why she’s so obsessed with designing better solutions for modern movers, shakers and idea makers.

Who says SF has no style?

*Psst: There’s a special perk for Twenty Five Hundred readers this week only.

startup Julia Lam

Twenty Five Hundred: You come from the tech and startup space. Tell me about your background.

Julia:  I began working at Facebook in 2007 when the company was only 200 people—and left in 2011 when it was 2,500 people. So I got to be there during a period of super fast growth and work with crazy smart people. I’ve spent the last 4 years in startups, most recently in the travel and technology space.

 

“It’s different for women in the valley.
Guys can go into these investor meetings
wearing hoodies and flip flops.”

 

 Why did you make the move to fashion and create a physical product?

Going around to different companies and doing fundraising, I was constantly on the move. And I had to carry a lot with me, which meant having a large and heavy bag. I already look young, and I didn’t want to carry a backpack to these meetings—because all the backpacks I could find made me look unprofessional.

It’s different for women in the Valley. Guys can go into these investor meetings wearing hoodies and flip flops. But as a women, you have to look like you’re on top of your game. I started getting pains in my neck and arms from carrying my life around on one shoulder.

 

Did you ever switch to a backpack?

I did! The day after I closed my funding round, I bought a backpack. But it still wasn’t a great solution. It just didn’t feel sophisticated. And if I had an important meeting, I wouldn’t bring it.

 

Why make the move from tech into fashion?

I like to solve problems that aren’t being solved. I’ve never started something for the sake of starting it. You need to have a problem that keeps you up at night and a product that occupies every waking moment. When I started thinking about how I could blend fashion and function to solve the everyday problems of modern women, I couldn’t stop.

 

“Women want to share their thoughts.
But they aren’t usually asked.”

 

 

What’s missing from the fashion industry that you’re trying to change?

I don’t think there is much discussion about what real users want in the fashion industry. Women have been very generous with their time with me. And it’s been amazing talking to them about what they need—because they have so many opinions. They use bags everyday. They know the things they like and the things they wish they had. They’ve been looking for the perfect bag for years. Women want to share their thoughts—but they aren’t usually asked.

 

 

 

“I’ve built Tara & Co. like a tech company—where it’s all about iteration and user testing.”

 

 

 

What specific problems are you trying to solve with your first product?

First, bags within bags. Women go to work with large bags‚ then they have small bags inside—because the big bags aren’t convenient for errands or running to lunch. One bag should be able to do it all. Second, the distributed weight problem. Women carry laptops all the time. And they want to look cute and classy—even if they’re running around all day.

 

 

How have you applied your tech background to the fashion space?

I’ve built Tara & Co. like a tech company—where it’s all about iteration and user testing. Design is usually very aesthetic and opinion-based. Of course, I have my own aesthetic that I’m trying to express. But ultimately for me, it’s about collaborating with my end user, the woman on-the-go, and finding out what she needs.

We asked hundreds of women what they carry in their bags everyday. And if 50% or more women listed an item, we built a specific place for it. We asked what kinds of bag shapes and styles women preferred. We even had users help choose our name and logo.

For every round of prototypes, we got as many women as we could in a room to see and touch and try to use the bags. Then we did extended testing—lending out the bags for a few weeks so women could go to work with them and travel with them.

 

Speaking of the name, why did users choose Tara?

The name Tara comes “Green Tara,” the Buddhist mother goddess who is a symbol of strength, action and achievement—much like the women we’re designing for.

We’ll also be naming all of our bags after women who inspire us. Our first bag, The Tracy, is for Tracy Chou—the former Pinterest engineer who wrote a blog post that got 250 tech companies to actually release their diversity numbers and have a real conversation about what needs to change.

 

“Most VCs are male— and they don’t understand
the day-to-day problems women have.”

 

 

 

Who are your style inspirations?

I know she’s a fictional character, but I love Olivia Pope’s style in Scandal. If I could have her wardrobe, I would 100 million percent do that.

 

As a female founder leading a startup—what do you find the most challenging?

In startups, everything is challenging. Nothing is proven yet, so everyone is skeptical and getting people bought in at the beginning is difficult.

And for companies that are targeted to women, it’s even harder. Most VCs are male—and they don’t understand the day-to-day problems women have. If there’s a big enough market, they can see it eventually. But it isn’t something they relate to. So they may look at it and think it’s cool, but it isn’t a company they’re immediately interested in backing.

 

“I’m loving working with so many badass women

to create this brand and this bag.”

 

 

There are lots of stories out there right now about female-founded companies having trouble getting funding. What have been your experiences?

Having raised one million myself for my last company and advised other women on fundraising, it is extremely difficult for women. As a woman, you’re being judged by exactly what you’ve accomplished—instead of your ability to potentially accomplish something great.

This is basically the antithesis of seed funding. Seed funding is about having a good idea and a great team—then being given the leeway and the support to go build it.

 

 

“You’re going to have a harder time,
as a a female startup founder. 
But you simply
can’t be afraid to fail.”

 

You didn’t fundraise for Tara&Co. Why not?

Fundraising takes months and months of time and effort, and I just wanted to build a product with this company.

Since I was really passionate about the space and about solving problems for real working women, I funded it myself.

I believe that there is a market out there for the product, so I’m hoping our Indiegogo campaign will prove that women want products that fit their lives.

 

 

What are the advantages to being a woman leading a startup?

It’s always good if you are your customer in some aspect. You have to love what you’re doing. Because nothing is handed to you, and everything is hard.

This startup has made me feel hopeful and rejuvenated and happy. I’m passionate about making women’s daily lives better. A lot of things aren’t built for women who have jobs, which is the majority of women now. And I have the opportunity to make something for them that will genuinely help.

I came from tech, which is very male dominated. I’m loving working with so many badass women to create this brand and this bag. Having a team of ambitious, creative, reliable and smart women has been such a joy.

Any words of wisdom to other female startup founders?

You’re going to have a harder time, as a a female founder. But you simply can’t be afraid to fail. The more you talk to people, the more doors people can open. Persistence is the key to any kind of entrepreneurship.

At the early stages, people tend to not talk to people—because they’re afraid of the judgement. But the more feedback you get, the better it is in the long term. Have conversations early and frequently.

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Ready to suit up (and bag up) with Tara&Co startup?
Be sure to get your bag early through their Indiegogo campaign today.
And check out their website to learn more.
Pro tip: The stop motion video shows you exactly how much you can fit inside the bag. #crazy