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Lessons learned from starting a company during the 2008 recession, which eventually sold for over $300 million.
7 min read
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In this series called Member Showcase, we publish interviews with members of The Oracles. This interview is with Dressbarn co-owners, Shayan Zadeh and Alex Mehr, who co-founded the online dating company Zoosk during the 2008 recession. It was condensed by The Oracles.
Who are you?
Alex Mehr: We met at Sharif University, Iran, before starting our Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. Shayan studied computer science before dropping out to work for Microsoft. I went on to become a NASA aerospace scientist.
We co-founded the online dating company Zoosk during the 2008 economic collapse, running it for 10 years before selling for over $300 million. We now lead Dressbarn with our business partner, Tai Lopez, and invest in or advise other ventures.
What are you more skilled at than most people in the world?
Shayan Zadeh: Starting Zoosk during the 2008 economic collapse taught us many lessons for the current COVID-19 crisis. Most people are shell-shocked during a crisis and don’t take action. They “wait and see” to see how things work out.
As internet-first entrepreneurs with 20 years of experience, we utilize data to make quick decisions and optimize businesses. With this mentality, you can quickly spot opportunities, test ideas, experiment and pivot while keeping a lean team. When you fail fast, you learn, grow and improve quickly.
We’re bringing that DNA to retail, where many companies have done business the same way for 30 years, and juggernaut brands often cobble together ecommerce platforms without truly understanding how the internet ecosystem works. The current crisis has taught us that brands need to take ecommerce seriously.
How did your business get started?
Alex Mehr: We questioned why many retailers struggle and realized that it’s a structural problem, which the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated. They rent massive stores, but foot traffic has significantly dropped with the rise of online shopping and rent remains unchanged.
When acquiring Dressbarn, we kept what worked (the beloved brand and merchandising) and removed what didn’t (massive stores). We might revisit brick-and-mortar stores as the world moves back to normality, but we currently focus on ecommerce at Dressbarn.com. Three months in, we’ve already got thank-you notes from customers for keeping the “doors” open.
What book changed your mindset or life?
Shayan Zadeh: I love biographies about people who accomplished great things. Most recently, “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” by Andrew Roberts was eye-opening, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. It’s interesting how many smart people don’t see reality or choose not to.
Leading up to World War II, many of England’s leaders didn’t think Germany was a problem. Churchill didn’t just listen to the news; he spoke with people on the ground to understand what was unfolding. Then he dared to speak out and act on it. The lesson learned is to be discerning with your information sources as you navigate the challenges ahead.
What was your biggest, most painful failure?
Alex Mehr: We started Zoosk as a market research tool. We struggled to gain traction until we stumbled upon the idea of doing online dating differently. So we pivoted, but it wasn’t easy.
We invested time and effort into our dream and sold it to others, including investors and employees. We had to sell them a new compelling dream and take their focus off the red flags, hoping they would continue to believe in us. Maybe you’re in that situation right now: It’s scary to go back on your promise, but if you’re on a path to nowhere, it’s the right thing to do.
Remove your ego, acknowledge your mistakes and identify a solution. Be honest with others and they’ll respond well. Refocus your time, energy and resources into a winning plan.
What’s the biggest common leadership mistake?
Shayan Zadeh: Overplanning. As General Colin Powell said, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” Very few people predicted the ramification of COVID-19. It’s easy to get analysis paralysis, especially now. Get out of overthinking, make a move, get feedback and adjust as needed.
For example, many retailers are currently closing down and canceling their purchases from suppliers. We could follow that trend, but instead, we’re taking a different viewpoint: Suppliers have these orders that they don’t know what to do with — how can we turn that into a competitive advantage for our company?
How do you evaluate a good business deal?
Alex Mehr: The hallmark of a good deal is potential, a vision of what to do with it, and the unique skills to transform the asset into value. The best deals are undervalued by the seller or other buyers because they don’t see the potential or have the skills to leverage it. If you get an asset for a low cost, the upside potential is significant, while the downside is minimal.
For example, we knew Dressbarn’s potential — the brand was strong, while the digital strategy wasn’t — and we’re uniquely qualified to do something about it.
How do you prevent burnout?
Shayan Zadeh: A solid support network is critical, especially now. I lean on my family often, and my wife, Anousheh, is a huge source of positive energy. Carve out time for yourself and your family. You need boundaries in our 24/7 world, where it’s hard to see where work stops and life starts. Several hours a night, I don’t respond to messages unless it’s an emergency.
Working out also helps me clear my mind, recharge and regroup. When this pandemic passes, I recommend a minimum bi-annual 10-day vacation. Traveling, meeting new people and seeing new cultures is energizing; you’ll always return with new ideas.
What are you working on right now?
Alex Mehr: Laying the foundation for Dressbarn’s growth, from building the infrastructure and navigating COVID-19 to hiring and establishing the right leadership. Traditionally, retailers rely on intuition to predict trends. We’re focused on coupling that intuition with data and plan to leverage artificial intelligence for predictive modeling that informs quick decision making.
We’re also focused on our team. We have three offices across the country and contractors overseas. Decentralization with virtual working has its challenges, but it’s working and becoming the standard out of necessity due to current events. You can tap into different talent pools and have a continuous business across time zones while maintaining that personal connection.
What do you want to be known for?
Shayan Zadeh: When you help the right people grow with your company, you don’t just deliver amazing results; you build friendships for life. I’ve seen this at each of my companies. Give a small group permission to do amazing things fast, and that vote of confidence will grow your company and their careers exponentially.
We have close bonds with high school and college friends because you experience a great deal of growth together in a short period. Early-stage companies are the adult version of that. I love the camaraderie and mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs. It’s exciting to think that they will take what they learn here and go on to do great things.
The words and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee alone. What worked for them may not work for everyone. Any claims in this article have not been independently verified.