The power of the pivot – Isabelle Ohnemus, CEO of EyeFitU
This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Isabelle Ohnemus the founder and CEO of EyeFitU. EyeFitU’s proprietary “Size-as-a-Service” increases conversion and reduces returns for online and in-store retailers delivering a more personalized experience for consumers. Isabelle began her career in banking working for Credit Suisse and Merrill Lynch before founding EyeFitU in Zurich Switzerland in 2013.
I was keen to hear how and why Isabelle made that leap from banking into entrepreneurship.
“I had been helping raise money for the Swiss Red Cross by organizing galas. Some of the ladies were telling me about the designer dresses they had ordered for these events and how often they had to return them because of sizing and other issues. That sounded expensive as well as bad for the environment with packages going back and forth.
I contacted a couple of the retailers to ask them what they do with the dresses that get returned. Sometimes there were able to resell them, but sometimes they couldn’t. That’s when my entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. No one in the fashion world was talking much about ecommerce or sustainability back then, but I wanted to get my CTO Erik Troelson on board because of his background in sustainability.”
Isabelle makes it sound so easy, moving from one career to another as soon as you have a good idea, but we know that there is a lot more that goes into starting a company and it’s clear that Isabelle is being modest about making a change. I wanted to learn more about the confidence required to change things up.
“I’ve met many entrepreneurs in my life, including my husband. He always said that when it feels right it’s right, but that doesn’t mean it’s a straight line once you get started.”
That line immediately resonated with my experiences as a founder. I had to drill down and hear more about Isabelle’s journey and why it wasn’t a “straight line”.
“We started EyeFitU with a B2C model which, with hindsight, turned out to be a bigger undertaking than we had estimated. We built a free to consumers fashion app enabling everybody to shop in their size. It was an affiliate model. There were 52 online stores where shoppers could create their size profile and see their recommended size from Farfetch to NET-A-PORTER to Forever 21, whether single brand or multi-brand.
It was great from a machine learning point of view, but it was an expensive exercise. Then in 2018, I watched a major fashion app in the US get sold for about a third of the funding it had raised. That was in the biggest market in the world, and I was in little Switzerland!
So I called my board and my investors and I told them we needed to pivot and develop a B2B model. I said we were going to work on it for the next few months and be ready by 2019 with visualization, pricing and marketing.
It was a huge shift and then during the first few months of COVID, no one was buying apparel. Thankfully our investors supported us, and they could see this was the right direction.”
Almost every startup I have spoken with has undergone some kind of pivot along the way. As your company matures and as the market continues to evolve even while you are developing your product, you’re going to discover that reality has diverged from even the best laid plans. Every entrepreneur will have to deal with this at some point and the best founders will not shy away from making course corrections, even when they seem as huge as switching business models from B2C to B2B.
I wondered what it was like for Isabelle and EyeFitU going out into the market again with a new model.
“We realized early on that one kind of fashion retailer, say evening wear, did not relate to experience we could demonstrate with sportswear or menswear. We had to go out and get clients in each category. Now for example we have several clients in cycling wear and they love to be able to talk among themselves about our software and how it helps them.”
Getting those early reference customers translates to every industry, not just fashion and Isabelle’s point about how even within the same industry there are subcategories that don’t necessarily measure themselves against others. Understanding how to tailor your references and make sure they are relevant for each new engagement is vital for startups looking to build their footprint.
Many years ago, I built my startup in Italy, so I’m always interested in how other European startups address the global market.
“Our first client was American, based in New York. We landed several US customer before we had any customers in Switzerland. I think our integration with Shopify really opened doors for us. We signed our first client in Japan. We have been successful with middle range clients, but I think the challenge for us is to get the giant retailers in the US. For us to sell into those companies, I think we need to be aligned with one of the large software integration companies like Boston Consulting Group or Accenture or Microsoft.”
Before ending our conversation, I had to ask Isabelle what advice she had for young entrepreneurs and what she wished everyone would know before starting out on this journey of founding a company.
“Two things. Don’t be afraid to delegate. That means you have to trust the team you build around you. You can’t do everything yourself, so surround yourself with people you can trust and then listen to what they tell you.
The second thing is to try and keep control of your company as long as you can. I’ve been very lucky with my investors because they were also entrepreneurs. They understood the experience and that made their advice more important than the money. And finally, resilience, resilience, resilience. Don’t give up!”
The story of EyeFitU and Isabelle’s determination to succeed is inspiring. Being willing to step back and change your business model takes confidence and demands the confidence of your investors. Most startups will think about a pivot at some point. Deciding to make a change and then executing it flawlessly takes real skill.