“I Call Challenges Opportunities to Learn”
Mahmoud Gao, the Founder of Mr. Draper, speaks to Small Enterprise about his company, the initial days, and the plans ahead
Tell us about your company.
Mr. Draper sells clothes to men, which must be hard because men hate shopping for clothes right? Well, they don’t as it turns out. It’s just that the existing alternatives don’t meet their needs and that’s why the cliché of men hating shopping exists. We’ve redefined shopping to include the best of offline shopping with the best of online shopping and thrown a big dose of personalization into the mix.
The result is customers receiving a box of hand-picked clothes curated into outfits personal to them and their lifestyle by their very own Personal Stylist. Because we don’t have the expensive overheads, a shop, customers don’t even have to pay for the service, they only pay for the clothes, if they decide to keep any as they get to try on clothes before deciding whether they’d like to make a purchase.
What services do you offer on the market? Who is the target audience?
We believe shopping is broken, traditional offline shopping is inconvenient and online shopping is a gamble on sizing and whether you’ll like what you buy once you’ve tried it on. With our service customers are able to shop from home like with online shopping, but also try-on clothes before they buy them like with offline shopping. Problem solved, right? No.
This gets your first sale from a customer but what keeps them coming back and really sets ourselves apart from traditional online and offline shopping is personalization. With us a return is just as valuable as a sale as everything is added to the customer’s profile, so each new package gets more personal. Because we’re like a digital wardrobe and style profile for the customer, shopping is just a quick WhatsApp to their Stylist.
How did you start up? When did you start up? How did you arrive at the idea behind your company?
It was a combination of ambition and circumstance. I’ve always been interested in building a business but never felt I had the right idea to kick things off. So when a start-up I previously worked for as the first hire went under, I was left with two choices – look for another job or build my own thing.
The idea itself came about organically. As someone who was always into dressing a certain way and helped my friends do the same, I figured an online personal stylist that catered to the everyday guy was a great opportunity as alternatives only catered to the privileged consumer. To be frank, what I set out to build and what we launched were two completely different ideas.
Tell us about your team? How many members? Who is involved in the day to day operations?
I bootstrapped the business for a long time with just a stylist, a driver and myself. Our now CTO, Ulugbek Makhmudov freelanced with me from day one to build out our tech and then joined full time in 2017 along with James Baldry, our Marketing Lead. Once I had my core team in place we really started to grow and were soon after accepted onto the 500 Startups Accelerator and most recently, the Sheraa Accelerator.
Did you come across any challenges during the initial days?
Our challenges echo many of the region’s pain points when it comes to building a company. Those include fundraising, finding key talent with an understanding of start-up culture, and high costs of starting the business. At the end of the day, it’s all about mentality. Calling them challenges means that, mentally, they’ve already had a negative impact.
I call them opportunities to learn – both for me as a first-time founder and for the ecosystem which is only getting better over time. I have no doubt that with time things will only get better as more start-ups exit in the region and those founders continue to stay involved in the ecosystem to influence change and guide future company builders.
How is your company different from similar companies on the market?
There’s nothing quite like us here in the UAE but in the US you have Stitchfix that IPO’d for $1.4 billion and Trunk Club that was acquired by Nordstrom for somewhere around $350 million. Stitchfix is big on AI (and position themselves as such) and is more mass market than Trunk Club who positions themselves as more personal and has inventory at a higher price point.
We’re somewhere in between the two, we position ourselves as personal and sell the human side as the customers are buying into having a personal stylist at the end of the day, but behind the scenes, we equip the stylists with an AI engine that helps them with their job. In terms of locally, what really differentiates us from other businesses selling clothes is retention. Shops and online businesses are not getting recurring business from the same customers whereas, for us, most of our business is made up of repeat customers.
When did you join the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre?
We joined the Sheraa Accelerator at the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center in February 2019.
What made you join the Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre?
A combination of the opportunity to learn from their mentors and be opened up to their network. But what you also get is the chance to learn from other founders on the programme. It’s always beneficial to meet others from the start-up ecosystem as we’re all travelling a similar path and talking to the same investors but we’re also at different stages in our lifecycle and so we can learn from one another’s successes and failures.
In what areas has Sharjah Entrepreneurship Centre helped you in your startup journey?
The Sharjah Entrepreneurship Center was instrumental in leveraging its network to connect us to key people to help guide our fundraising process. Their advice, network, and process helped us get “investment ready” for our next round of financing.
What are your future plans with your company? Any new markets/target audiences you plan to reach?
We’re really excited about what the future holds, and we’ve got two big plans coming. We’re going into Saudi and we’re going to launch women’s. Our customers and their wives are always asking us about when we’re going to do the same for women so we’re super excited about launching women’s. And Saudi Arabia is the biggest opportunity in the world right now. The country is going through a huge transformation and as they open themselves up to the world, we can’t wait to play a small part in their story.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
At any stage throughout your journey, but especially in the early stages, talk to other CEOs/founders/early employees who started or played a key role in a start-up. These are the people who’ve been there and made all the mistakes – mistakes you can avoid if you ask the right questions.