December 14 2020 • 5min read

Founder Spotlight: Sophie Hill, CEO and Founder of Threads Styling

Founded in 2009 by Sophie Hill, Threads Styling is a chat-based commerce company, providing customers with a bespoke and personalised personal shopping service

Founded in 2009 by Sophie Hill, Threads Styling is a chat-based commerce company, providing customers with a bespoke and personalised personal shopping service that allows its customers to find luxury apparel, accessories, home and beauty products through the use of social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Talis first backed Threads in 2018.

Talis’ Beatrice Aliprandi sat down with Sophie Hill to talk all things Threads and her journey as a founder and CEO.

Beatrice: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Talis’ Founder Spotlight series. We’re excited to have Sophie Hill, founder and CEO at Threads, with us today. We’re going to hear a bit about Threads’ mission, how the company has weathered the global pandemic, as well as some of Sophie’s wisdom on her journey as a founder and CEO. Sophie, it’s great to have you with us today.  Kwekwe Could you kindly introduce yourself, and could you tell us a bit about Threads?

Sophie: We are delivering a new wave of luxury retail to the next generation of consumer, and we believe that the personal shopping element is a very important part of this. We’re a business building a platform that allows our personal shoppers to deliver a very bespoke and personalised luxury retail experience to our customers. We believe that this is the future of luxury retail.

Beatrice: That’s great to hear. Threads’ customer base is typically high-net-worth individuals, so they really want that personal touch and personal shopping experience.  Aomorishi What inspired the initial idea?

Sophie: We really believe that luxury has very much led on customer experience, and many other commerce sectors have copied this: luxury is about delivering the best possible customer service. We saw that there was a new generation that wanted very different things from their retailers. The expertise that I had at the time was very much focused on fashion and luxury, so it felt very natural that that’s where we would focus our time.

We built the product and the retail experience in partnership with the Threads customer base. From day one, we asked our customers what they really wanted from a retail service. In luxury, repeat customers drive business, but they often aren’t given as much focus. In e-commerce, when you have a big strategy around paid acquisition, you really are quite split between your focus on the repeat and the new. We wanted to build a business that was solely focused on the repeat loyal customer base who were spending regularly with us. We spent so much time with them, asking them: okay, what do we need to do for you that would help make this the best possible experience?

Beatrice: What I like about you guys is that you’ve always been social-first: I think this was very much ahead of its time.  It must help in the COVID environment that people are stuck at home looking at social media as that’s your initial point of touch with your customer base. I assume that’s been a benefit in this environment?

Sophie: During COVID, it has proved to be a very viable business model: it really does lend itself to the situation that we find ourselves in now. Decisions made to take this strategy when we first founded the business were really driven, again, in partnership with the customers. We asked right at the start how they want to communicate with us, and they said they wanted to communicate with us on chat: everything that we have built has really been about delivering to them in a way that they want to be served. Social media is their shop window and their inspiration, and they were all early adopters of Instagram and they were the first movers, so it made sense. We’ve built our business on chat commerce because customers are telling us that’s where they want to talk to us and transact.

Beatrice: I assume you get asked a lot about COVID-19 and how it impacted the business. But in spite of the current environment, Threads has had a very strong year. What were the main challenges and how did you overcome them to have such a great year, even in 2020?

Sophie: I think if any business said that they haven’t had challenges this year, that would be quite unusual. It has definitely been challenging.

As you say, we have elements of our business that lend themselves very well to the current climate: as we’re a marketplace, we don’t hold stock, which means that we could be very agile, and that we could pivot towards our customers’ needs, which did change considerably this year. We are comfortable with working remotely, so luckily that wasn’t a challenge for us: our sales team are independent and autonomous anyway. We were able to put social distancing in place very quickly in our warehouse and in our distribution, so we were able to continue to deliver.

This year, I think most businesses have had to work 10 times harder to be able to get strong results. I would attribute our success to the fact that we’ve been able to be very agile in terms of decision-making ability, which has been absolutely critical. Any young business should be making sure that they are fully funded through this year, making sure they’ve got contingency plans, and making sure that they’re making the decisions that are right for the team. You need to acknowledge that your team members are going through a lot individually (as everyone is this year) so making sure that you’re putting them first is important. There was a serious amount of a work that needed to be done to be able to get the results that we have. One thing we did well was moving very, very fast, and we have been very, very agile throughout this year.

Beatrice: I actually religiously follow Thread Styling’s Instagram account. I noticed that there was a lot of agility in how you switched the content strategy from being event-focused, showcasing items like gowns, to be more about leisure and contemporary clothing.

Sophie: In terms of COVID, we’re in a much better position now where we understand how to keep the team safe and how we’re able to go back to the studio. We didn’t have a studio in the first few months, and in that first wave, we really didn’t know as much about what was happening as we do today. We flipped to a model where our creative team were making content at home, and that brought significant operational challenges, but I think they did an incredible job. They became the models, they became the presenters, they were doing things over iPhone, whereas usually they’ll be working collaboratively in teams of six. Usually there would be a videographer helping the presenter, positioning the camera, but they were doing it all themselves. But again, I think these were decisions that we did need to make quickly, and we had to find a way to continue to work when we were unable to be in the studio.

Beatrice: I’d like to talk a bit more about employees and culture. For our founders — and for startups in general — one of the main challenges is really finding the right talent: that can be really, really tough. I know you’ve been doing some hiring at the at the leadership level lately: what are the qualities that you look for in people that come and work for Threads?

Sophie: I think cultural fit is really, really important. Hard skills are obviously important too, but I actually think that the cultural alignment of anybody coming in into a business is significantly more important. You need to build a recruitment framework that really helps people identify if they are the right fit for the role. I really am a huge believer in people, and that anyone can do incredible things if they really set their mind to it, but I think jobs come down to the right fit. It needs to be the right person for the right role, and that is the most important thing for a company to spend time on. Giving candidates as much information as you can about the role, about the culture and about the expectations helps them decide if this is what they want to do; and equally, helps us as a business to decide if this is the right person for us. We’re still a fast-growth company, so we can always improve our processes, but I think every business should really stay focused on how you assess cultural fit for any role, at any level.

Beatrice: How do you make sure that everyone stay aligned to the company goals and company culture? Because I think that’s really challenging, especially with a distributed workforce.

Sophie: It’s definitely challenging. It’s something that you have to rise to as: this year, everybody has acknowledged that remote working is possible, and that it’s a very viable way for us all to work as a team. I think we need to make sure, as we move into next year and regardless of what happens with the pandemic, that we really are taking a very different approach to flexible and remote working. This has to be a priority of any business: coming back into the office full time will become archaic. We’ve got to take away as much as we can from this year and build a structure that really works for the team.

Having said that, we also need to address what challenges remote working has brought for people in terms of connectivity, teamwork, and even just social bonding. It’s about getting the right balance as we get into 2021: we need to make sure that we can give people what I believe is a business community, and a sense of belonging. We’re all on the same mission working towards the same vision. For a lot of us, it’s going to be test and learn, but I think it’s not something that we can take our eye off. It will be a big part of our strategy to really make sure that that we get this right.

We’ve tried things like virtual Sports Day, and all kinds of things that we would have done in person. I’d say some of them have worked, and some of them haven’t. We’re looking at routines and rituals: in terms of meetings, a lot of people have Zoom fatigue, so that’s something we’re trying to tackle at the moment. We have a ‘daily pause’ put in, which means that nobody can book in Zoom meetings at those times, which allows people to get on with other things.

Beatrice: How did your role as founder and CEO change from the very start to now?

Sophie: I’ve always said that I think one year in my role is the equivalent to somebody else’s three years in a different role. I think any founder needs to accept that the dynamics and the responsibility of their role will change significantly over the course of every year: definitely within the first kind of three, four or five years, depending on how fast you are growing. There needs to be a real acknowledgement of that, and you need to be prepared to do what you need to do: like making sure that you have a strong senior team around who really have expertise in different areas, making sure that you’re taking on coaching for your leadership style, making sure that you set your values, making sure that you don’t underestimate the impact of not creating a structure around your culture.

Often founders are so focused on the vision and the mission that there’s times when people can forget that you have to bring your team with you. If you don’t bring your team with you, there is no one with you on that mission towards that vision. And therefore, team is an absolute priority: you cannot do it alone so the team should take up the majority of your time. An idea is something that can take a minute; execution is much harder to achieve.

Beatrice: I like your answer — it reminds me of an interview with the founder of Spotify that said exactly the same thing. He leaves his management team to do a lot of the day-to-day and he spends his time thinking about strategy and the vision for the next 10 years. But I think that makes sense: when you manage 300 employees and many millions of revenue, you can’t just be wrapped up in the day to day.

Founders typically have a very hard time switching off from work. How do you manage your time, and how do you manage to switch off?

Sophie: Even in the early stages, time management is something that you should spend your time on. I think I definitely made all the errors of working absolutely relentlessly, day and night, at the start: you’re unbelievably focused, and you are driving what feels like a very big boulder up a very steep hill. When you step back, and you really, really think about what the best use of your time is, it’s only at this point that you really can start to understand where you are best placed to serve the business. Yes, there will be times where you have to work in a significantly more compressed way, time-wise, but if you really think about this as a marathon and not a sprint, you can find effective ways to deliver for the business what it needs without draining yourself to the point of total burnout.

I still make time to exercise and I really believe in things like hypnosis. One thing about hypnosis that I really like is that it’s a tool that helps you decide what you are going to spend your time thinking about, and helps you understand that actually you do have total control over what your mind is concentrating on. There’s a lot of noise that happens in all of our heads because of the stimulus around us, so being able to understand that you have control over where you put your energy, and that we all have control over where we put our time, have been two very powerful things for me and helped me kind of get that balance.

Beatrice: I definitely second that: if there’s something that I try and do every day, for at least 10 minutes, is meditate. And that can also really help you to decide consciously on what to focus your mind on.

Sophie: I think for all of us living in this time, reducing the amount of worry and anxiety is something that we’re all tackling. Finding tools that that can help with that can really give you a lot of space to then think about the strategy and what you need to do to get it done.

Beatrice: One final question: what is one piece of life advice you think everybody should live by?

Sophie: I believe that anybody is capable of doing anything that they want to achieve. But what I think is even more important is that people are honest with themselves about what they want in life: you should set goals that match this. It’s important that you do not set a goal that other people want for you. If you’re very clear on what your goal is, then I believe with a lot of hard work and determination that it can be achieved. I really think that people should try to spend more time thinking about what would make them happy and what makes them feel successful. It doesn’t need to be as grandiose as people presume it should be: it just needs to be what can make us feel happy and balanced.

Beatrice: That is great. Well, I think that concludes our Founder Spotlight session. Thank you very much Sophie for speaking with us and thanks to all of our listeners!


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