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Mapate Diop: “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast”

We believe nobody should view us as exceptional. Instead, we hope people see us and believe that they can do it too. 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 Evan Fried and Mapate Diop, co-founders of DIOP. Mapate […]

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We believe nobody should view us as exceptional. Instead, we hope people see us and believe that they can do it too.


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 Evan Fried and Mapate Diop, co-founders of DIOP. Mapate Diop is a first-generation American of Nigerian descent. Whenever his mother traveled back to Nigeria, she would bring back rolls of Ankara — a body colored and patterned fabric used throughout Nigeria. Mapate and his mother would take that Ankara to tailors here in the states to make shirts that were high quality, comfortable, and connected him to his heritage. Many years later, Mapate met Evan Fried in Baltimore through the Venture for America program. Mapate was wearing one of those original Ankara shirts his mother had had made for him and Evan asked where it was from. Together, they saw an opportunity to use that same Ankara fabric to create shirts, bandanas, and shorts — and DIOP was born. Today they ship their products from Detroit.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in New York City. My Mom is from Nigeria and came over to the states in her early 20s. While I was growing up, she would travel to Nigeria and come back with fabric to have clothes made for me in NYC. The most common was a shirt that fit me really well and had beautiful prints and bold patterns. It was a really rich part of my childhood, a low-lift way to keep in touch with our culture, and a way to express myself. However, this happened less and less when I went off to college, and was almost non-existent after I graduated.

In the summer of 2017, I was with my now co-founder, Evan, at a friend’s BBQ in Boston. I was wearing one of my custom shirts that had a bold green and white pattern. He asked me where it was from and I told him the story I just told you. He asked why we couldn’t make the clothes ourselves, and that’s how we got started.

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?

We took a shirt my had Mom made to use as a base, but needed to find a tailor to make adjustments. We were standing in a Jo-Ann Fabrics and Craft Store in Baltimore (where we were working at separate startups as part of the Venture for America fellowship) explaining what we were looking for, when an employee mentioned that her mother, who is Nigerian, ran a small tailoring business out of her basement. She wrote down a number on a sticky note and told us to call.

Some time later, Evan and I were on a trip in Birmingham, Alabama and I wore our prototype to a farmer’s market. On the way there, five different people stopped me to ask about my shirt. I was even given free kombucha by one of the vendors because he loved it so much. That was the first time I realized this was something other people would be interested in buying.

In April 2018, our close friend Lauren convinced us to do a crowdfunding campaign and we raised 17,000 dollars in six weeks. Our original plan was to make 50 shirts and see if we could get people to buy them. However, with 17,000 dollars and 300 orders placed, we were able to start a real business.

There are 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?

Starting a business is difficult, and at DIOP, we are aware that we don’t have to be in business, but that we get to be in business. From our point of view, the two most difficult challenges in a viable business are the financial strain of getting started and finding sustainable means to sell the product. In most cases, you don’t see any real income for the first three years. We were very fortunate to have had money saved from our previous jobs, a large network of mentors, and supportive families. We’re aware that isn’t the reality for many entrepreneurs and are extremely grateful.

We work diligently to validate our product, understand our customers, identify their needs, and overcome their objections. Our approach is to move in stages and slowly expand by applying risk accordingly. We’re currently an e-commerce business, so for the first three months we asked ourselves, “Can we get people to come to our website and part with 59 dollars after only reading text and seeing some pictures?” When that was successful we launched our second collection and asked, “Can we get existing customers to come back and buy a new collection of clothing?”

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?

We would tell them that skepticism is healthy. When you make a career out of an activity you enjoy, it changes your relationship with that thing. You’ll have to make difficult choices. In practical terms, our advice would be to talk to other people who have started a business and set real expectations at each stage to justify turning your hobby into a business.

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?

We focus on our customers. We get to connect with really savvy, generous people and we’re fortunate to work on products that they enjoy making their own. We request an interview with all of our new customers, and out of almost 1,000 orders in the past year, we’ve interviewed just over 100. Quite a few of these people have become friends of ours and support us in ways that are far more meaningful than just buying our products. They constantly send us feedback and ideas, they connect us with their networks, and when we visit their cities they take us out. They are a constant reminder of why we started the business in the first place.

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?

We enjoy testing different ideas and concepts. It’s a great feeling to give someone something they didn’t know they wanted. The toughest part is finding balance, staying in business is difficult because more resources have to come in than go out and it takes a lot of grit to balance those demands and continue doing what you love. That isn’t necessarily a drawback to overcome — it’s the nature of work — and we aim to get better at it.

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?

We come from a startup background, so we’re used to being scrappy and solving problems with fewer resources. Constraints breed creativity. We apply that attitude to our own business and because we do this full-time, this is as real as it gets.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There’s not one story specifically, but about once a month we’ll get a customer who lives in our neighborhood in Detroit. We’ll invite them over to see the warehouse (our basement) and try on the product in person. Now, those customers text us whenever we launch new clothing to come over and try it on. It brings a nice IRL component to the business that you miss sometimes when you’re purely digital.

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

The two people that come to mind are Amy Nelson, CEO of Venture For America, and Evan’s grandfather Paul Fried.

Amy sets a superlative example. She and the VFA team took us and our ideas seriously from the start. They work hard to put fellows and alumni in a position to succeed in accordance with the organization’s values.

Evan’s grandfather, Paul Fried, is an inspiration because as well as he’s done for himself, he’s always prioritized his family and friends. He always talks about people he came up with in Detroit who became wealthier than he could ever imagine, but were miserable because they forgoed so much to get there. We apply that value to our business everyday, our friends and family will never not come first.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Though we continue to make progress, we’re not quite a success yet. We’re going to keep creating opportunities for ourselves and others. We believe our product not only fits our customer’s lifestyle, but that our brand reflects the world they live in.

On our website, here, we’re proactive about diversity, inclusion, and cultural appropriation. Many people ask who can wear clothes like ours (the answer is everyone). We view it as an opportunity to engage thoughtfully with the nuances around culture.

Every Sunday, we publish editorials from our customers. We believe that we’re all more alike than we are different, and whatever differences we have should be celebrated. Check them out here.

We’re very proud that we can make the space to build community. We never cease to be amazed by the generosity of our audience. It’s been a breath of fresh air for all of us.

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.

We believe nobody should view us as exceptional. Instead, we hope people see us and believe that they can do it too.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A mantra we’ve adopted is, “Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.” This is a reminder that patience is something you practice, and with enough discipline, there’s nothing you can’t achieve.

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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Over breakfast, we’d ask Emily Weiss how to retain a sense of community as it scales. Over lunch, we’d ask Evan Spiegel if screenshots are the next billion dollar product opportunity. Over dinner, we’d ask Rich Paul if he enjoys being underestimated.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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