Marianne Hughes, who started her first business in college, has thrown herself into a new company, KnowLabel. Its app tells shoppers the story behind the clothes on the rack, so they can make better, more ethical decisions about what they buy.
But while Hughes may like “slow fashion,” she thinks young would-be entrepreneurs should dive fast into business ownership. Start small if you must, she says, but start early.
We sat down with Hughes in London and got her insightful advice about what it takes to push through barriers and start and build a business.
This interview was originally published on Prabha Dublish’s blog featuring international women entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.
Can you tell us more about yourself?
I’m the founder of KnowLabel, which allows customers to tap their smartphone and view digital labels that provide context into what they are buying. Currently we are focusing on clothing — we seek to use the pull of fashion coupled with our exciting technology to start engaging the general population. We raised a seed round of investment a few months ago and have spoken to different brands about using our product. We have the consumer-facing part of the model, which enables consumers to walk into a store, tap our label on a product, and see the story behind it. I have a grand vision of what the world needs to look like, and I believe technology will get us there.
What’s your education background and did you expect to be an entrepreneur?
I studied business management in university and always knew I wanted to start my own company. But at the end of the day, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you just have to do it. I started my first business at age 18, eventually became president of my university’s business society and encouraged others to start businesses. I then took a year abroad in Hong Kong, and I realized I wanted to learn more about sustainability. It is clear that this was a massive challenge facing the world, especially the fashion industry.
What was it like running a company in college?
I 100 percent recommend running a company in college. There’s no better way to learn about business than to start one. The college environment is the most risk-free environment as well, because you have a strong network that you can test your idea on, find team members in and more. Applying skills at the same time you are learning them is the always the best approach.
What was the process for setting up KnowLabel?
There was never that one spark of inspiration where the idea suddenly hit me. But I really started thinking about the idea for KnowLabel 3 years ago. It took me a while to clarify and solidify those ideas further, because I really wanted to become an expert in this space first. I went out and met with people that could help me validate my idea and understand if my approach was correct. I gathered knowledge from people around the world and iterated on my initial idea as I went. For example, I went to Mumbai just to meet customers and learn from different brands.
How did you go about reaching out to companies and people you wanted to talk to, but didn’t have connections to?
I heavily utilized social media, especially Instagram. I posted images of my dissertation on social media, and a company focusing on sustainability consulting reached out and wanted to learn more from me for their clients. I’m naturally a shy person, but when you start a business you oftentimes have no choice but to put yourself out there and reach out to people. I always put myself in positions where I have no other option but to do what I need to to succeed.
Being a female founder, have you ever felt discriminated against?
Throughout my whole life, I have never labeled myself separately as a female founder. When Lean In came out from Sheryl Sandberg, I initially questioned whether it was necessary. I thought that whatever I wanted to do, I was going to do, regardless of a glass ceiling or not. I genuinely believed that everyone in the world is equal. I approach everyone thinking I can learn some different. I’d never treat anyone different, so I can’t imagine others doing the same.
Looking back now, I can definitely think of certain things that would have been much easier if I was a male founder. One time I was told by someone that I needed a male co-founder. But at the time, I just pushed through the barriers because I was so determined to achieve my goal. Gender discrimination in tech is definitely an issue, but I wonder if me talking about it will have a profound impact or if I need to focus on becoming a role model for women first so I can show them anything is possible. There are very few female role models who are entrepreneurs. There are a bunch in the local ecosystem, but for the general population there are very few.
How do you get through challenges?
I focus on the end goal. I’m obsessed over it. The point of enduring the suffering is to learn, grow and become better as a result. I work really hard, but I know when I need to take a break when things get too tough. Don’t be afraid to take time to figure things out. Startups tend to idealize throwing away their culture, moving fast and figuring out things later, but that is very much the core of what we are trying to change. I’d rather the app be amazing the first time you see it, so we can convince you to use it.
What’s your advice for college students thinking about starting a business?
Just do it. Don’t overthink why you’re doing it, because the best thing you can do is launch something in a very small way. What’s the easiest way you can test that out tomorrow? You don’t need to go to the end of the world straight away. The only thing you need to do is convince yourself. You’ve got nothing to lose.
Prabha Dublish is an undergraduate business student at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., and co-founder and president of Womentum, a nonprofit pay-it-forward crowdfunding platform that allows anyone in the world to donate to women entrepreneurs in developing countries.