FIRST, DEFINE YOUR BRAND. Early on, do branding exercises where you define your brand’s values, pillars, and promises, along with useful things like taglines, consumer value propositions, and the like. This will help you be consistent with all of your messaging. We are translating our positioning in our storytelling through social media, where we also encourage the dialogue with our customers through the products they buy or they are passionate about.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diego Abba.
Diego is the CEO of italist.com, a Los Angeles-based global online platform that offers expertly curated luxury goods imported from Italy. Diego was formerly the CEO of Sleepy Giant, a fast-growing game publisher, and technology provider, in conjunction with TPG Capital and CAA. As the VP of Finance of the Americas, he also spearheaded the development of the regional finance role for Activision/ Blizzard. In Europe, Diego served as Group CFO of Zero9, a mobile content company majority-owned by Invest Industrial. He also led the new areas of business of the company as well as mobile advertising. Prior to these roles, Diego worked at Bain & Company, where he extensively advised clients in media, technology, and private equity for 9 years, both within the US and in Europe.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
My passion for fashion was instilled by my family, who had a sartorial dedication to my look — I wore my first tailored jacket at four — and by growing up in Venice, Italy, where there was a tradition for more formal parties at a young age. To me, the idea of luxury was more related to the exceptional quality of the design, materials, and details -they were significantly different from the branding of the outside world today. In a sense, the educational process of understanding materials and details was a necessary step in learning how to dress for my generation. I was also lucky to grow up spending time between Italy and California, allowing me to gain a vast understanding of very different cultures and styles.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
I have been in and out of the fashion industry for the past 20 years, starting from my time at Bain and Company. When I was not working in fashion, I was focused on technology and media, as recently as my previous role as CEO of a technology company in Newport Beach that provided back-end solutions for some of the largest franchises in the video game industry and produced mobile games as well. I have always enjoyed working in the fashion industry, particularly when I was on the board of a world-leading luxury knitwear company that had business relations with several of the most relevant luxury fashion houses.
For this reason, I am really enjoying being at the helm of italist, because it bridges two worlds that are completely apart and often have difficulty understanding each other. Silicon Valley (i.e. “tech”) has great difficulties in comprehending and investing in luxury and fashion, and the fashion industry is still far from fully embracing modern technology.
While we’re bridging these two worlds, we’re creating an innovative value proposition for the consumer in terms of product selection, price, and convenience of ordering. This is confirmed by the customers who regularly come back to buy on italist.com over and over.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
My advice is to follow these rules as you pursue your dreams. (1) Be unique — offer something that puts you in your own niche. (2) Invest in long-term relationships with your customers by engaging them in authentic conversations and acting on feedback. (3) Be consistent in your message about what makes you unique, what makes your value proposition compelling, and why consumers should value what you are offering. Then, execute better than your competition.
italist has succeeded by bringing the curatorial excellence of buyers from the best luxury multi-brand stores in Italy (which represent the bulk of Italy’s overall sales volume of luxury fashion products) with the convenience to buy from home or from your smartphone, at the best price in the world. Hence, no more queues at the airport for VAT refunds, no more complications on custom declarations and payments.
We’re very proud of this innovative model and of our ability to offer excellent deals to savvy consumers. We’re also very passionate about fashion, design, and quality, and are proud to be the only online store dedicated to virtual shopping “as if on the streets of Italy” selling more than 1,000 international luxury brands.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Do your research, and if the need is there in the market, take the leap. However, it’s also important to make a calculated risk. Not all hobbies are meant to be businesses.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I stay authentic and honest. Business owners are human and imperfect, so missteps will occur, but you just have to fix them and move on. The way to continue to love what you do is to take the missteps in stride, keep striving, and working towards your goals. This keeps it fresh and enjoyable for me.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I enjoy the freedom and creativity, constantly innovating, and working with my partners. The downside is a risk, but that is also a motivator. I am an entrepreneur at heart, so there aren’t downsides for me — I am instead stimulated by the ups and downs of building a company.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
For the moment, none, probably because I have been in this role before and have dealt with most if not all of the components of this venture.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
No, because I’ve already had “real” jobs. I worked at Bain & Company and at Activision Blizzard for many years, and my previous role before starting italist was CEO for a technology company that provided back-end solutions for some of the largest franchises in the video game industry and produced mobile games as well.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mistakes in business usually are not funny. It is key for a successful venture to minimize them and even more important to be able to tackle them immediately and solve them. Personally, the major lesson I have learned is to be zen while working to solve them, regardless of who made them.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I was fortunate enough to work alongside several great leaders throughout my career. If I have to pick just one, I would say Fabrizio Freda (CEO of Estee Lauder) while we were both working at Procter & Gamble. His ability to create consensus on the decision-making process while respecting a tight schedule and his focus on the most important aspects of the business, with the ability to cut the rest, were great lessons early on in my career.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Sustainability is a huge issue in the fashion industry. We areworking to offset the environmental impact of our business by making our packaging as green and low-waste as possible. I am also committed to reinvesting a portion of our profits back into the local community where we’re based (Los Angeles), supporting educational programs for children and young adults. Finally, I am on the Board of Directors of a charity that operates charter schools in the less affluent areas of Los Angeles. Education is the key to make the world a better place.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- FIRST, DEFINE YOUR BRAND. Early on, do branding exercises where you define your brand’s values, pillars, and promises, along with useful things like taglines, consumer value propositions, and the like. This will help you be consistent with all of your messaging. We are translating our positioning in our storytelling through social media, where we also encourage the dialogue with our customers through the products they buy or they are passionate about.
- CONSUMER FIRST. In brand management, think of it as every point at which consumers interact with your brand. Most people think of social media and your website because those are the obvious points where you get to define who and what you are, but brand reputation is even more complex. It’s how you treat your customers, how you handle disputes and mistakes, how you anticipate consumers’ wants, needs, and desires, and how you align yourself in the marketplace among your competitors, with influencers and partners, and even which charitable causes you work with. Personally, I do read each customer review we receive and I do follow up on key points to make sure we really “listen” to suggestions and implement them.
- HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY. I believe that being honest and human is the best policy when it comes to managing a brand. In the end, there are people behind the name, and those people help to define the brand and maintain it. But, they’re human and imperfect, so missteps will occur. Apologize and move on. The culture I’m trying to instill is to identify quickly any misstep with all the focus on how to solve it and if there is any process that needs to be changed to minimize the risk of the same error in the future while minimizing the fact that someone made. We all make mistakes, let’s call them out quickly, and let’s work on fixing them.
- PERCEPTION. From a marketing and communications perspective, it is also useful to think holistically about how your brand is being viewed and perceived. Not only is it social media and your own website, but it’s also higher-level media coverage in reputable, trusted outlets that cover your company’s leadership team, the philosophies that drive the business and the people who work there, and the values your company (and therefore brand) stands for. This is becoming increasingly important as with all of the choices at their disposal, consumers want to support businesses that they feel have similar ideals and principles to their own. Brand and reputation management is an ongoing, ever-evolving process of definition and redefinition, and of solidifying what you stand for, which is reinforced by your behavior, not just your messaging. I believe that this goes for every person at every level of our company, who must understand which words they should use and why we say things a certain way regarding our operations or our value; as a team, we are the first line of ambassadorship.
- EXECUTION. The ability to quickly execute the company strategy and operational plans while minimizing costly mistakes is paramount for the success of the venture. As one of the managing partners at Bain used to say, everybody can come up with a great business solution with unlimited time to work on, the difference is to achieve it faster than everybody else. I would also add, avoiding going off strategy or taking steps that will result in very costly in the future.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think learning is the key to growth and self-fulfillment. Therefore I think the greatest good is to invest in education. If we were all inspired to give back by educating others who are younger or haven’t been afforded the opportunities to learn through internships, mentorships, etc. I think if more people built this into their business it could inspire a movement that would change the lives of many.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Execution is key. The ability to implement the strategy and company plans and avoiding costly “mistakes” or “missteps” is the key to achieve success. To be able to do this it is necessary to keep a constant focus on the most important pieces of the business. I try to keep my team focused on doing an excellent job but following through on execution most of all, rather than nitpicking unimportant details or derailing through marginal revenue streams that add unnecessary complexity.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Hiroshi Mikitani, the founder and CEO of Rakuten, Inc. Through its Shopstyle and Ebates properties, Rakuten already dominates the e-commerce advertising space but doesn’t yet directly aggregate luxury e-commerce stores across the world. I would like to finalize a plan on how to integrate italist in his new luxury offering and address some of the issues he is facing in that space.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.