Shaper: Dessi Bell

Show aired on 2nd December 2017

Transcript

Elliot Moss
The sound of Jason Moran with Honeysuckle Rose, a former Jazz FM Awards winner back in 2015 for his Fats Waller cover. Good morning, this is Jazz Shapers, I am Elliot Moss, thank you very much for joining me. Jazz Shapers, the place I hope you know where you can hear the very best of the people shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we put someone who is shaping the world of business, we call them Business Shapers. I am delighted to say that Dessi Bell is my Business Shaper today and Dessi is the founder of Zaggora, and Zaggora if you don’t know are a business focussing on women’s active wear and food, healthy food, and supplements around that. You are going to be hearing lots about her business very, very shortly. In addition to hearing from Dessi you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya, some words of advice for your business and then of course we’ve got the music and today we have Julie London, we have Gil Scott-Heron and we also have this from Mr Gregory Porter.

That was the French African Queen from Gregory Porter. This is Jazz Shapers and Dessi Bell is my Business Shaper as I said earlier; founder of Zaggora. Zaggora in the world of women’s active wear and health food, I hope that’s a decent way of explaining it, you are going to do much better because I am going to say hello.

Dessi Bell
Hello Elliot. Thank you so much for having me.

Elliot Moss
Thanks for joining. In your own words, tell me about Zaggora and why the name?

Dessi Bell
Zaggora was founded in 2011 really on the simple premise of helping women get healthy in an easier way. I was getting ready for my wedding, I had very little time to look beautiful in my wedding dress and I needed something to help me get more out of my time and I think that’s probably something that most women can relate to where, you know, we want to get more out of our time so we launched our flagship products, Hotpants, six years ago and since then we have sold a million products around the world.

Elliot Moss
Am I holding Hotpants?

Dessi Bell
Yes, you are holding Hotpants.

Elliot Moss
I’ve been shared a pair of Hotpants, unfortunately they don’t work for men but they do, this is because you are not a men’s brand, but…

Dessi Bell
Well, we are exclusively for women, yes.

Elliot Moss
Yes, but these are the Hotpants in front of me. But you, so you launched, just go back a moment though – I’m going to put these away you can hear them rustling around, I’ll put them over there – you launched back in 2000 and…

Dessi Bell
11.

Elliot Moss
…11 and you, just so, the story about, you know, a woman who wants to look beautiful on her wedding day, that is the story of every woman I have ever known and not that I have married all the women I have ever known, to quickly add, but the, that is one thing as an insight. To set up a business off the back of that, it’s quite a big move, I mean you could have just gone ‘I’m going to look beautiful, I’m going to go and work out more, I’m going to not eat this and not eat that’ and, you know, the usual stuff that people talk to me about. Why did you decide to do something and why did, why was it this? Because I imagine you could have had a, I am sure you have had other ideas, I know you have other ideas.

Dessi Bell
Well, Zaggora really was started as a bit of an accident. So it was a time when, you know, I think I was in investment banking for a few years, my husband, at the time, was, you know, doing investment management and we both wanted to do something consumer focussed. I think times were changing, the economy was changing, and then we though well we’ll just give Zaggora a try and so, you know, we did research, we found a supplier, we had read up, I mean the whole thing was just so accidental, we had read a book about, you know, the power of social media and Facebook was just sort of becoming more of a, you know, an interesting platform and we just thought well we’d just give it a try and everything, you know. We had no background in consumer and I was lucky, in fact, that my husband wanted to start to Zaggora with me because I don’t know whether I would have done it on my own but he is a very entrepreneurial man and it has been a really fun journey. But, you know, we thought, well let’s just give away a whole bunch of product on Facebook to people that we don’t know and see what they say, you know, and a lot of people told us that was very risky, you know, what if people had come back and given you bad feedback and so on but we thought well nobody really knows about our brand and the only thing we can do is really get customer feedback.

Elliot Moss
But to choose this specific thing, why was it Hotpants? That’s what I am interested in, why did it start like that?

Dessi Bell
Because it was, I figure that the problem of wanting to get more out of your time, you know, I mean the use case was very simple, as I said, I was working in banking and had one hour a day to go to the gym, if I was lucky, and that meant that within an hour I had to go there, get changed, workout, come back at my desk. So I had actually a very limited of time but I still wanted to look good, and so I figured most women who happen to be, you know, professionals even if you are a mum at home, you have very limited time and so if we could deliver them something that helped them get more out of their time and then Hotpants really sort, you know, I started doing research, I found that heat was something that was certainly something that was linked to better performance in exercise, more calorie burn and so on, and we started with Hotpants and within the first ten weeks we had sold 100,000 products so then that’s how our business was born.

Elliot Moss
Then you know you are onto something. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, that’s Dessi Bell, the founder of Zaggora based on the back of one hour a day, that’s all she had, and so welcomed Hotpants to the world. Time for some more music, this is the brilliant Gil Scott-Heron with It’s Your World.

That was Gil Scott-Heron with It’s Your World. I am talking to Dessi Bell about the world of Zaggora and if you were listening earlier, which I hope you were, you will know that Zaggora is an active women’s brand which sells clothes and also health food related products. We were talking about the Hotpants and the Facebook experiment and all that but I just want to ask about the name again. Just tell me why, Zaggora? What does mean something or is it just a nice collection of letters?

Dessi Bell
I was born, I was born in a place called Stara Zagora in Bulgaria and in all honestly we were looking for some, for a website address that we would be able to buy the dotcom for and so it had a nice connection to, you know, where I am from and also allowed us to actually, you know, have a nice property online.

Elliot Moss
And how did you end up in London? When did you, did you move millions of years ago? Has this been your home forever?

Dessi Bell
Yes, this has been my home for twenty years, so I moved over with my family when I was in my teens and, you know, I came to university here, secondary school, obviously started my professional life here and met my husband who is, you know, English, have two beautiful children now so certainly not going back to Bulgaria anytime soon.

Elliot Moss
No. In terms of London being a good place to, obviously your, your career is here, and we talking about the world of banking and I think you had a brief stint at the Ministry of Sound, and various other things, but is this a fantastic place to create a business and, if so, why?

Dessi Bell
I think London is a fantastic place to create a business because it’s just such a melting pot of talent and cultures and, you know, for us, you know, when we started the business also we were very fortunate because young people coming out of great universities, you know, availability of great career choices, wasn’t as available so as a start-up we were able to attract a lot of, you know, great talent very early on which certainly has helped us as a business but, you know, from a cultural point of view I think being a, you know, a UK business and a European business certainly is an advantage because from day one you have to be able to compete, you know, globally and you have to be able to operate across country borders, you know, different languages, different, you know, legal environments and so on and I guess we are quite unusual in that sense that we very early on took on the international view and, in fact, the largest market for us right now is the United States, 8% of our sales go to the US even though we are very much a UK based business.

Elliot Moss
And how many people work inside the business now?

Dessi Bell
We are a very small business so we are a team of ten, some are based in the US, some are based in the UK. We have structured operations in a way that allows us to, you know, leverage a small team and continue expanding.

Elliot Moss
And it’s all online, there are no retail outlets?

Dessi Bell
Everything is online, we are very much a pure play ecommerce business. But you know these days launching an ecommerce business is actually very easy because the infrastructure for ecommerce is so available, right, you’ve got the ecommerce platforms, you’ve got the logistics providers, what’s become more and more difficult is growing a brand in a increasingly crowded marketplace and there is a, you know, a very interesting book that has just come out called Fall which talks about the death of the brand so for us as a brand it’s always, you know, continuing to innovate and offering our customers products that do create a point of difference so that we can bring them back to our brand and there is a reason for them to come back.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me to find out more about Dessi Bell and the Zaggora mission here on Jazz Shapers. Latest travel in a couple of minutes and before that you are going to be hearing another person from our Future Shapers series and this person and their business are hoping that they will be shaping the future of their industry for many years to come.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I talk to somebody who is shaping the world of business, there is many of those people in the can as it were, on iTunes put in the words ‘jazz’ and ‘shapers’ you can find a lot there. You can go to CityAM.com that’s another destination and one more for the road, or rather for the air, it’s British Airways High Life. Today, Dessi Bell very much on the ground in front of me, is my Business Shaper, she is the founder of Zaggora and if you were listening earlier it was the brand that has been created to fill that need which is ‘I’ve only got a few minutes in a day, I want to maximise the opportunity I have to be fit and healthy’ and now she’s gone beyond clothing and she’s moved into, something looking at me, it’s a Protein Super Smoothie Chocolate Coconut flavour supplement that she’s making lots of those as well. In terms of building this business and scaling it and you talked and it’s very much the world we’ve now become, and we’ve talked about use cases you mention, you know, when people actually use my product, you talked about ecommerce platforms, even five years ago I don’t think I was having as many of these conversations as I am now. I read and it may be wrong, that you haven’t taken one penny of investment externally and if that’s the case, two questions: one, is how much have you had to invest yourself or has it been significant and two, how have you managed to maintain and grow at the pace you wanted to grow without external investment?

Dessi Bell
Well, it’s true we have never taken on external investment and we chose to finance the business through by selling products to our customers. So from very early on we were profitable as a business and we have always been able to finance the business purely through internally generated cashflow but I think because, you know, we have been very lucky because we do have products that create a point of difference. So we are able to attract a customer at a particular time of their journey when they are looking for something which is going to help them get in shape, get healthier and our products ultimately deliver so, you know, I guess our journey isn’t unusual, you know, you have a lot of successful businesses that, you know, focus on selling physical products that are able to finance the business through the customer base and, you know, in many ways for me that’s the best way to finance a business because when you are young, when you are lean, you have to really be very creative in how you approach, how you approach problems. So, you know, I think that that’s really been a blessing for us.

Elliot Moss
And I want to ask you about the creative approach to problems, I mean, you are now six years into this business, it’s your first one, you still look fresh-faced and happy, you are working there with a, you know, your husband, the man that you love and all that and I imagine that makes a difference. What have you learnt along the way about yourself, Dessi?

Dessi Bell
Well I think being in business – so I’ve always wanted to work for myself, I’ve wanted to always start my own business since, I mean, for as long as I can remember – I think the one thing that I have certainly learnt is that being in business is, you know, it’s I think Reid Hoffman said it, you’re, you know, always one minute away from euphoria or despair. So when things are going really well it’s fantastic but when, you know, when the going gets though the tough get going so, and you know, as any business we have been through, you know, when we first started we had a, you know, pretty strong growth early on. I think that made us a little bit complacent in terms of, you know, the way that we structure operations, we, you know, loaded a lot of costs onto the business, and then we had to really go through a, you know, quite a challenging restructuring exercise and we are back where we, you know, today in a much healthier position. But I think along the way we have, you know, we have learnt that, you know, you see the same people on the way up as you see on the way down so certainly maintaining integrity in business probably the most important thing that you can do but also because we haven’t been, you know, funded externally that’s also allowed us to kind of, you know, run the business at a pace that really suits us from, you know, an overall, you know, family perspective as we have two small children. In the last three years we’ve been able to take things a lot easier, our children are kind of at an age where, you know, one is already in school the other one is about to start going to school very soon, so, you know, we are now ready to really go for it again but we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve had the opportunity to actually slow down when the children were young and really, you know, enjoy that time with them.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, Dessi Bell, founder of Zaggora, talking there about balance, it sounds like you might even have got some of it, I am very jealous. Time for some more music right now, this is Julie London and Cry Me a River.

That was Julie London and Cry Me a River. Dessi Bell has been talking to me, founder of Zaggora, about all sorts of things, about the journey that she has been on and the moment I think you quoted the Reid Hoffman LinkedIn founder about, you know, one moment from me the despair or happiness or it’s exhilaration or whatever you said around that. The question I have is, how have you emotionally coped with that, because if that is true, how have you ensured that those swings of fortune haven’t swung you one way then another? You seem pretty balanced to me.

Dessi Bell
It’s not easy.

Elliot Moss
Ah.

Dessi Bell
Ah, but ah…

Elliot Moss
Do you have people you talk to outside of Malcolm, your husband…

Dessi Bell
Yeah, we have, you know, we have a range of mentors that we have spoken, you know, that we speak to, you know, people who have run businesses for a long time and I think certainly speaking to people who have been in business for a long time gives you a perspective that, you know, business is cyclical and it’s important to, you know, one of the main ways really to, you know, in my experience and, you know, from what I know is really just to keep going so, you know, people underestimate the importance of grit often times but it’s, you know, it’s one of the, I say, the most important skills that we have certainly learnt, you know, over our time in business.

Elliot Moss
I have interviewed many women in business who have done this, who have gone and created their own thing, I think roughly, I don’t know the stats specifically but around half the people I have met over the years have been women and sometimes there is a real focus on how difficult it is, some people have come and said it’s just really hard to raise the money or to run the business. I don’t sense you would have even thought about the gender thing from what you have told me. Have you experienced anything that would be more difficult or is it actually a benefit because you’ve chosen a business which is all about women anyway?

Dessi Bell
Well, in my case it’s been obviously an advantage because my business happens to be focussed on women but I think certainly in the broader business world this certainly is, you know, very much a gender bias which I think people are becoming more and more aware of and it’s not a case of being defeatist about it, it’s just a fact of life and, you know, it’s some work needs to be done from very early on from, you know, primary school time to really encourage girls to be, you know, more focussed from maths and science and getting into business, providing them with role models and I do do quite a lot of work with various charities, you know, along those lines. But for me it’s never really been about gender, I think, you know, you’ve got to find, whether you are a man or a woman, you always have to look for a) the best opportunity, are you the best person to execute that opportunity and often times it’s not about what you like but what you are really good at because if you are really good at something, you know, if that happens to have, you know, naturally fall within your, you know, skillset, you know, what you are interested in then you will become good at it, you know, better at it, and you will enjoy it.

Elliot Moss
And right in-between you mentioned very, I just want to touch on this briefly, you mention about the giving element and you talk quite opening at Zaggora about where that money goes, it goes towards helping women in many different ways. What’s encouraged you to make that a fundamental part of your business model?

Dessi Bell
Well, if you look at… so there is 800 million people in the world and, that are illiterate, of those 500 million are women, you know. These are women who, you know, I am very aware of the fact that, you know, I come, I was born in Bulgaria, I came to live in the United Kingdom, I have had a tremendous about of opportunities afforded to me, purely through luck because I happened to be born in the right family that happened to come to the right place. If I was somebody who was born perhaps in Rajasthan which is a region where we do a lot of work through our charity partners then I certainly wouldn’t have those opportunities and there is no reason why, you know, we couldn’t help, you know, for the price of a latte, we can do actually quite a lot in some of these regions and we work with women so, you know, we give, you know, every month to help women in the developing world start a small business because we are great believers in, you know, helping people but helping them, you know, help themselves in a sustainable way so starting a business is a great way for, you know, women to earn an income, to be independent, to send their daughters to school for a longer period of time and there is some tremendous work that’s being done there and the reason why we went to Rajasthan is because, you know, I happen to have a personal connection with a charity that I spent some time working with while I was at university and I know that they are people with great integrity that do some phenomenal work and we can really see an impact much greater than what we could achieve, you know, somewhere like the UK for example.

Elliot Moss
Final chat coming up with Dessi plus we will be playing a track from Gary Clark Jr, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Cold Blooded from Gary Clark Jr. Dessi Bell is my Business Shaper today, you were listening earlier, I am sure, she is the founder of Zaggora. You set this business up, you are six years in and things seem to be going pretty well, you are expanding. What next? What does excellent look like to you over the next few years as you think about shaping your own business?

Dessi Bell
I think there are so many opportunities in, you know, if you look at ecommerce we are looking at, you know, a range of things, obviously, you know, we are looking to expand our product catalogue, perhaps bring, you know, physical experiences to our customers, because if you look at the, you know, what is happening in the broader landscape, Amazon is slowly eating the world and if you, if you read statistics, you know, back in 2007, you know, 70% of consumers could define a favourite brand in clothing or in food or whatever whereas if you, you know, fast forward ten years on the percentages are falling sort of 30/40%. So certainly there is, you know, the death of, of brands, if you like, and certainly the rise of the, you know, omni retailer and for us as a brand really it’s about thinking how can we bring experiences to our customers, you know, products that are different but, you know, not available to purchase everywhere and really deliver something as a difference, so, you know, I think that’s certainly a very interesting landscape and how do you grow a brand in a world where the consumer becomes less and less interested in learning about brands with less and less, you know, attention span and it’s tough but I think, you know, for us it’s about focussing on, you know, excellent experience, great products, you know, and really providing a safe place for women to, you know, to get healthier, to discuss their problems, to get in shape, but it’s certainly an interesting time.

Elliot Moss
I mean, would this business be where it was now pre the internet because I imagine if you have had this idea you would have had one, maybe one or two outlets and that would have been that, your platform is extraordinary because your customer is anywhere.

Dessi Bell
Well, absolutely no and certainly probably we wouldn’t have been here before Facebook because when we first launched, you know, I mean in 2012 we won the ecommerce, the National Business Award for Ecommerce Strategy of the Year and that was because our whole ecommerce strategy was based on real feedback loops. It was about providing products to customers, getting feedback, you know, putting it on a website, other people can see it and really kind of that created a virtuous, you know, loop that allowed us to grow our business but I think pre-Facebook we wouldn’t have been able to find all of our customers, we wouldn’t have been able to, you know, advertising, we wouldn’t have been able to spread the word of mouth, you know, our whole experience would have been certainly, you know, much smaller and much different and I think the internet has enabled us to grow as a business but it’s also, I think, made as I said before more challenging for brands to really communicate, you know, the quality of the products, their brand stories because everything is so transactional right, you go on, you know, something like a hundred million households have Alexa at home today, right, you go to Alexa and you say ‘Hey Alexa, you know, get me batteries’ and then obviously the first thing that pops up is Amazon basics so it’s certainly, you know, many things like AI voice, you know, the whole experience of being online for extended periods of time are making it ever more important for brands and for businesses to communicate their values, their mission, the quality of the products to consumers in a challenging and a changing world.

Elliot Moss
It’s been really lovely to talk to you Dessi, thank you for your time.

Dessi Bell
Thank you so much.

Elliot Moss
Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Dessi Bell
My song choice is Etta James, At Last, and it’s a song dedicated to my wonderful husband with whom we would have been married for ten years in a few months’ time and to whom I am grateful for more things than I can, than I can remember.

Elliot Moss
That’s nice isn’t it. What a lovely thing to hear. Here it is, just for you. Thank you.

Dessi Bell
Thank you.

Elliot Moss
That was Etta James with At Last, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Dessi Bell. At the point of getting married she saw a gap in the market and she went for it, she created a business, she focussed really hard on what customers would want, she was gritty right through it and here she is six years later with a business that’s selling its wares in a hundred and forty three countries, really good stuff. Do join me again, same time same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am for another edition of Jazz Shapers. Stay with us right now though because coming up on Jazz FM next, it’s Nigel Williams.

Dessi Bell

Dessi Bell studied Economics and Financial History at LSE, where she founded the university’s Women in Business Society.

Following this, she was employed in Fashion Development at the Ministry of Sound; in the Debt Capital Markets department at JP Morgan; and was Chief Opportunity Giver at Bijoux Place, a jewellery brand which also supports women in the developing world, before founding Zaggora in 2011.

Follow Dessi on Twitter @dessinka.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“Zaggora was founded on the simple premise of helping women get healthy in an easier way.”

“I was lucky that my husband wanted to start to Zaggora with me because I don’t know whether I would have done it on my own. He is a very entrepreneurial man and it has been a really fun journey.”

“I was working in banking and had one hour a day to go to the gym, if I was lucky. That meant that within an hour I had to go there, get changed, workout, then get back at my desk. I had a very limited amount of time but I still wanted to look good.”

“I think London is a fantastic place to create a business because it’s just such a melting pot of talent and cultures.”

“I guess we are quite unusual in the sense that we took an international view very early on. In fact, the largest market for us right now is the United States – 8% of our sales go to the US even though we are very much a UK based business.”

“We are by no means an exclusive brand, we are very much a brand that tries to make it as accessible as possible for women to make small changes and to be healthier.”

“We have learnt that you see the same people on the way up as you see on the way down so certainly maintaining integrity in business is probably the most important thing that you can do.”

“We give every month to help women in the developing world start a small business because we are great believers in helping people, but helping them to help themselves in a sustainable way.”

“How do you grow a brand in a world where the consumer becomes less and less interested in learning about brands? For us it’s about focusing on excellent experience, great products and really providing a safe place for women to get healthier, to discuss their problems, to get in shape.”