Slope | And ComfortJeffrey Zhao | 2020-09-07
Could you give us a quick introduction to Slope? How did you come across the idea?
Slope was started by me, as well as my partners Karine and Phillip. It’s a half-growth, half-marketing agency. But most importantly, Slope was started because we felt like the agency model needed to be rebuilt from the ground up for startups. As founders, when we were working on And Comfort, which was a direct to consumer fashion brand, we were often looking to work with third-party partners on certain projects. We never really felt like there were any good agencies, especially in the design/marketing spaces, that were well suited to work with startups. Slope is a by founders, for founder’s agency. All three partners have been founders in the past. The idea is that there isn’t really any agency that has been solely focussed on working with these venture-backed companies from day one.
And there are a few things which feed into that. For example, one is speed of movement. Startups move incredibly quickly and they want to test things. That’s very different from the way a lot of traditional design agencies operate. More importantly, we saw that many agencies didn’t understand the industry problems that a founder faces, and they haven’t been in a founder’s shoes before.
It’s been quite a journey. We work primarily with technology startups, as well as e-commerce startups, in the direct to consumer space. We work with some larger companies, like Lego and Forbes, to smaller startups, including a lot of YC (Y-Combinator) companies. Things have been going well. We started this year and we have hit a seven-digit run rate.
What were some of the highlights from your previous venture And Comfort?
And Comfort is a direct to consumer brand for plus-size women’s fashion. The initial hypothesis there was that 67% of US women are plus size, or size 14 and up, but there is this huge disconnect with the supply that’s available. Only 2.3% of clothes in the US are manufactured in that size. So, there is this huge statistical discrepancy between Demand and Supply. When it comes to plus-size fashion specifically, most of the clothes we were seeing were made by fast fashion companies or these really large retailers. And they were making very cheap, mass-produced, trendy styles. The idea was that fashion is a very powerful expression of yourself. It gives you a lot of confidence and it allows you to express your personality. And Comfort was founded on this belief that everyone deserves that. Our idea was to create a high-end brand, focussed on quality, on season-less, wearable basics, specifically focussed on the plus-size range.
Highlights there? Scaling the business was great, and we had a good time doing that. But I would say the most personally satisfying moments were creating a product that we knew people wanted and being able to build that community.
What was your career journey prior to starting Slope?
I studied CS originally, at Harvard, so when I came out of college, I was looking for software engineering jobs. At the same time. I was always very interested in design. I think that first started when I took a class at MIT’s media lab in college. It was a research thing around autonomous vehicles, and I got to do a tonne of UI/UX design for that. It’s a very different process to software engineering. For me, software engineering was often about finding efficient paths to an end goal. We know what we want to build. Design was interesting in that there was no set end objective. This end product could look like anything – all we know is the problem we’re trying to solve.
My first job was at this company called Bizzy, which was a Y Combinator startup. I was the third employee, so it was a very small company. We were working on automating marketing for e-commerce businesses. We were automating drip campaigns, and later we also released a product that automated Facebook advertising. Because I joined the company very early, I got to dip my hands outside of just engineering, into design. While my formal role was on the engineering side of things, we didn’t have a designer in-house. Getting to lead a lot of that was fascinating. Bizzy ended up getting acquired by SendGrid while I was there. I was at SendGrid for a few months. It wasn’t the right fit for me. I wasn’t interested in building an enterprise-like company, like SendGrid. My interest has always been in consumer.
At SendGrid, I first started thinking about various ideas to work on with a few other people. That’s when we came up with the idea for And Comfort. At And Comfort, I took on a much more heavy design role. While there was some engineering work like creating the website, the majority of the work was around creative direction, art direction, actually designing the clothes and handling the operations on that side of things. We scaled And Comfort for around two and a half years and then we exited to a competitor in the space.
After that, I worked as a Designer at a company called Fair. While I was at Fair, there were a few things that got me into the agency and services space. Fair was a very brand conscious company. And Comfort was also a brand, so that was the mindset I was coming from. More importantly, I started working freelance on some brand design projects, with a few friends from YC, and learned along the way. Slowly, throughout the year, after 10-15 branding projects, I got the hang of it and started to think more about how to properly craft a brand for a company. That’s when we decided to work on Slope full time, and commit ourselves to working on this problem. As we thought about it, the scope of it expanded beyond branding itself.
After you had the idea what were the next steps?
My partner Karine and I just started letting our network know and taking on clients, doing special projects to see where we could be helpful. Once we started to find out that there was a real need, and that our initial thoughts were correct, we began scaling the business a lot more.
At what point did you realise this idea had potential?
It hasn’t been that long, so we realised we were on to something maybe a month or two in. When we started to realise that, not only do we feel like we’re doing interesting work, from the client-side (and I know this sounds cheesy), people were very happy. Clients were referring us to other companies, there were lots of ongoing conversations, and it picked up very naturally from there. I guess I don’t have a concrete moment, it’s just that ever since we started it feels like there’s been a natural fit.
How did you meet your co-founders?
Karine was also my co-founder for And Comfort. Before that, we went to school together. Our third Partner Philip joined when we acquired another agency called Abacus growth.
How did your previous experience prepare you for your current venture? In what ways were you unprepared?
Being at a place like Bizzy was very useful, in that it was a small team (I was the third employee). There were a lot of unstructured problems that needed to be solved, which is kind of like the bread and butter of a startup. In this environment where you don’t have any guardrails, and you can kind of do whatever. There’s no one telling you what to do. You just have to find Product-Market fit. I think there was a lot that was learned by getting comfortable with that environment and realising that I really enjoyed that environment personally.
In terms of being unprepared, there is so much domain knowledge you need to ramp up on when you start something. As someone who has never designed a piece of clothing (though I’ve been interested in fashion), has never built a brand before, and has never scaled Facebook ads, these were all new things that needed to be learned. We needed to learn these things quickly but also execute them at a proficiency where we could grow very quickly, and put out work that was top notch. That was very difficult in some ways, very inspiring in others. Being a founder really accelerates your learning. It teaches you a lot about both understanding these domain-specific things, but also little pieces about delegation and managing something that is vast and sprawling. As an employee at a startup, you’re responsible for a lot, but you aren’t responsible for the whole company. As a founder, you’re responsible for the whole company, and that was a new mindset that we had to take on.
Did the idea evolve as things progressed?
For Slope, for sure. When we first came in, we had a more limited set of offerings. I think the way we progress is very natural, in that we just listen to what our customers want, and if that lines up with areas where we feel like we can provide value, that’s when we add it on as a service. TikTok is a prime example of this. We were doing brand design, overall growth marketing strategy, running a lot of Facebook ads for clients, and we started to see great metrics coming from TikTok, from an advertising standpoint. The more we looked into that, the more interesting it seemed and the more it seemed like it would benefit all of our clients. That’s when we talked to Phillip and his team, who were one of the first agencies on TikTok. They are world-class experts at TikTok and we realised they would be a huge value add for our clients.
For And Comfort, there were also many pivots along the way. I would say more at the idea stage. When we first started talking about the problem, we thought about other things that could help. We started a peer to peer marketplace for plus-size clothing, almost an eBay model. What we found out very quickly was that there simply wasn’t enough supply. That’s how we honed in on the idea of creating our own brand.
In the case of And Comfort, how did you deal with catering to a group of people you weren’t necessarily a part of?
It was definitely a challenge and something we wanted to be sensitive to. The ways that we tried to be thoughtful about that: from a personal standpoint, we weren’t just interested in the space because of the business opportunity, my co-founder Karine had family members who were plus-size, so it’s a problem she’s seen since growing up. I think it’s really about taking the time for our customer’s voices to be heard. Instead of us driving direction, really letting that come from customers. We tried to engage via social media, we would send out polls, talk to our customers – every time someone purchased something we would reach out via email. When you’re building a brand that’s not for yourself, it’s really about letting the community’s voice come through.
Were there any low points that you can think of, along your journey so far? How did you get through them?
Plenty! A very natural part of being a founder is a lot of self-doubt. There’s a tendency to benchmark yourself against other people and say “This person started a company the same time as I did and now, they’re worth 100 million dollars”. When you’re in such an unstructured environment, you don’t have the guard rails to lean on. You can’t just say “everything’s fine, it’s just the job”. I think you pour a lot more personal time, energy and your soul into a lot of these projects. So I think in many ways, the lows are no different to working anywhere else, in that you have great days and you have bad days. But sometimes they feel a lot more personal and deep, because you just put a lot more of yourself into it.
I think to deal with it, you need to reflect and understand that what you’re working on is important. But also leaning on network like friends and family, is really important.
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
A lot of the hard parts about startups is that you don’t know if you’re doing the right thing. In today’s society, there is so much opportunity cost to things. You always think “Oh I could be doing this, instead of that”. You make fake projections where you think “If I was doing this, I’d now be a VP and making this much money”. All these hypothetical branches. I would tell myself that it’s okay to take the winding road. It’s okay for paths to be winding, and not to look like the classic, step 1, step 2, corporate path. I think that’s a really important understanding that I would try to give myself. Looking back a few years later, I think things have worked out and all those different experiences, accumulate into me getting to do things that I love today, without compromising some of those classic metrics. Not everything needs to be serious. Sometimes it’s okay to just do things you think are interesting, or learn things you want to learn. At the end of the day, I think those things will always pay off.
What are your favourite books?
I like a lot of books that are more photos and design-based. There’s this book called Made in North Korea that’s pretty cool. It has a bunch of old postcards and graphics from North Korea. There’s a very clear visual aesthetic, that is very interesting, behind it.
Find out more about Slope at: https://slope.agency/
Find out more about Slope at: https://slope.agency/