Startup Diaries from the UK: Feel the Fear, But Do It Anyway!

Online fashion entrepreneur Zelfa Oliver explains how facing her fears, especially with regard to technology, is part of her entrepreneurial journey.

The shock - or just the gentle nudge - of the new. Writing a column like this is new to me. But then so is working in fashion and so is steering an internet start up, both of which I am embarking on right now.  And that means writing a column is not exactly the scariest thing I have done this week - though I do have to keep reminding myself of that fact!

You see, embracing newness is a state of mind - one that is essential to most businesspeople but not one that comes naturally to everybody. 

That’s what I have learned anyway.

You see, right now I am in the exhilarating throes of establishing a brand new fashion e-tailer, Zelfa.net, with the aim of bringing a wearable aesthetic to life for a womenswear audience that already feels confident and sophisticated enough to make their own choices about to wear rather than just buying whatever is “in” that week. Our mantra is to go beyond the caprice of throwaway trends and bubblegum fashion.

And it occurs to me as I write that, that it sounds like we eschew the new.

But we don’t. We can’t.

There are two huge areas that have define my business and have offered me plenty to learn: fashion and technology.

Now, fashion I had always followed, albeit as a layperson. This goes back to a fascination with my grandmother and mothers‘ wardrobes from the 1930s or 50s. Both were so elegant, so feminine. My reason for starting this business was at least partly because there was no where to buy the sort of pieces I wanted to wear that would reflect that timeless elegance. And working in the industry has been new for me. Very new. And at times shocking. Perhaps I’ll tell you about some of the scoundrels one day. But meeting so many talented young designers has been utterly invigorating and made it entirely worthwhile finding out about shipping times and stock turns. Fine.

But the big one has been technology. I do not fit the profile of a 'tech geek'. I am not the sort of person you would expect to see salivating over the latest iSomething. But only today I bought an iPad 5, unable to resist the lure of its glossy touch screen manipulation and the ease with which it lets me keep up with the world of fashion etail.

But when I started on this project how much did I know about tech? Zero. Minus zero. The journey really has been something and, let’s put it frankly, when you are a certain age it simply doesn’t come as easily.

Fortunately I do have other (younger) people to guide me and I am still happily learning. And of course now I really come alive when discussing the CMS or the Analytics. 

But actually one of the best ways technology has helped my business so far, has been the ways in which I have helped my technology. You see, it turns out that one of the things that all tech geeks and start ups crave is an honest review of their websites. UX they call it – and forgive me for the egg sucking lesson but this was all new to me until relatively recently – that stands for user experience. In other words: how did the target market interact (or is it interface?) with the way the site works? The very clever people who helped me to build the site have been brilliant at creating it but actually there are times when their experience does not quite set them up for creating for our particular market.

That’s where I (and my once-luddite tendencies) come in. If I can’t use it – or it doesn’t make sense to me as a shopper, then we change it. For the better.

And often for the simpler. Apparently I am rather good at explaining in clear simple English how the site should work as opposed to the way it does work. My clever tech-heads tell me that getting that sort of feedback makes me a valuable resource in the world of e-tail. They are polite though, so perhaps they would say that.

But my point is it is new and I certainly would not have expected to taking a lead role in - let alone driving – the creation of a transactional website. But then every time you do something new you feel alive. And part of the reason for that is that you are learning.

Take this column-writing for starters. When I first sat down to write this it was entirely new to me. But now that I have done it, I feel much more confident and am now starting to scribble at a prodigious rate on my own site, delivering the sort of content that I think our customers want.

From style advice to interviews, and the occasional personal insight, it’s unlocked something within me that I never would have dared try before.

So as author Susan Jeffers decreed in her 1987 self help classic, my advice to you is feel the fear and do it anyway. I did. Actually I still am.

As often as possible.

Zelfa Olivier is a businesswoman who, after building a successful career in international hotel development over several decades, launched Zelfa.net in February 2013. This new website is designed to bring wearable timeless fashion to women who have a sophisticated sense of style, servicing the needs of a demographic that Olivier felt was being largely ignored by the traditional fashion industry.  

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