Rima McDonald is the founder of Veragano, an Italian luxury fashion brand that started in San Francisco on August 2019. With her dedication, she will share her entrepreneurial journey, from the challenges she faced to the habits she has.
1. Tell us more about yourself.
I am passionate about meeting professional women’s taste for elegance, quality, and comfort, especially when it comes to shoes. It was something that I tried to do for myself, my need for comfortable footwear ever since I was diagnosed with Sciatica several years ago. You can read the full story behind the start of Veragano on our website You will learn that it was indeed a personal mission with heart and soul thrown into the mix.
I am also a visionary woman who likes to think about things in creative and imaginary ways. I believe nothing is impossible as long as one has a passion for achieving desired goals. Thus the reason I was able to come up with specially designed molds and components to make our first collection of uniquely stylish and comfortable high-heel pump shoes. While I may not be great at sketching, I was able to get my ideas on paper, through detailed illustrations. As a result, I managed to convince my suppliers and factory partners in Italy to develop something that has never been done before. I guess in many ways, I am a go-getter as well.
My past professional experiences in running online businesses, including an online magazine for women, must have been instrumental to my starting an e-commerce business today. I had also worked for big corporations in Singapore in several areas of marketing, especially advertising and promotions before I migrated to the United States. So I knew I have the skills and experiences necessary to start such a potentially big business. I just need to amp up my visionary ability to come up with out-of-the-box ways to get things done without investing too much money, especially during the pre-revenue stage of the startup. I think I did quite alright so far.
I am also a strategic thinker. When I meet people, be it for personal or business endeavours, I am always thinking about how we can do things with each other to reach a win-win result in the end. I think it is safe to say I am a person who tries her best to be fair at everything she does with people.
2. Why do you choose to do this business?
I wanted to help professional women be done with uncomfortable shoes, finally, even if they were beautiful and exclusive because nothing could knock off a woman’s self-confidence like tired, achy feet, especially at a workplace. I also believe women should not have to carry an extra pair of flats to run around town in or sacrifice style for comfort. So I started making high-heel shoes first, with their comfort and style in mind, and can be worn with any outfits for all occasions through many seasons. And so, our shoe collections will always be designed with versatility and functionality in mind as well.
I was also deliberate at starting the business using a direct-to-consumer approach. I wanted to focus on customer’s convenience yet provide the same value of exclusivity and prestige that other high-end brands are offering them. And so, I chose to offer white-glove services for women to experience the Veragano difference, right at the comfort of their homes, similar to the way that the Queen of England has shopped for her clothing and shoes for years.
Most of our shoes are also made-to-order, with limited quantities of ready-to-wear collections. This way we can stay in line with our overall mission of fashion environmental impact toward climate change. This is something that has been missing in the luxury goods industry and Veragano fills that need immediately.
3. What do you do as a startup founder?
I am a thinker by nature, so one of my key activities as a founder is innovation. I am continually innovating the design of Veragano shoes, making sure the comfort and fit issues are always addressed at every iteration of a new shoe model. For this reason, you will find me traveling back and forth between the United States and Italy so often when working on a new collection and making sure our order fulfillment center there runs smoothly.
Like every other startup founders, I also wear many thinking caps each day, as I take on leadership roles in product design, production, marketing, sales, and A&P when working with agencies and individuals responsible for each area of our business operation.
I also work closely with Nancy Ahola, our Company’s Chief Strategy Officer, who is responsible for building alliances with complementary brands and organisations, and getting our shoe collections in the hands of many more professional women around the world. Her skills in fundraising help me in developing a business model that will be ready for incoming investments soon.
4. What are the 3 challenges you faced in the business? Highlight and elaborate on each of the 3 points you have chosen.
Finding the right people:
Since I am adamant about making sure every part of our business operation is run based on achieving desired results, finding the right people to join our team has always been my biggest challenge. People from companies that offer their contractual services most often do not fully understand our Company’s mission and vision. They assumed something that works for another client would work for us as well, and we know that is not necessarily true. Therefore, I am always looking to hire high-caliber professionals to join us on a full-time basis. This way, they can put in as much effort in trying to understand our Company’s mission and vision, and work on reaching our desired goals effectively. At the same time, I find it even more challenging to meet such people who can passionately do their jobs in exchange for stocks. Equity is all we can offer to potential employees at this time. Thus the reason why we need investors to join our team soon, so that we can provide salaries to individuals with proven track records to take the Company to the next level quickly. However, It is almost like a chicken and egg situation at this point, as long as we are still in the pre-revenue stage.
While what we are offering, in terms of product design and value, are pretty amazing, we need to step up, even more, to compete with other brands. So we have chosen to get into specific niche markets that are still underserved by our existing competitors. As we serve these niche groups of customers, we are forced to innovate even further in the way we deliver the Veragano experience and difference to our Customers. Due to insufficient funds, we are doing it at a plodding pace in the meantime.
Technology integration with business (e.g. automation, A.I.):
To further stand out in the marketplace, especially in the luxury goods industry, we know we need to convert Veragano into a fashion tech brand. We need to use Artificial Intelligence technology to deliver personalized styling services to offer more value to our high-end customers, especially when purchases of our products will be made through digital means now. So, we are always on the lookout for strategic investors who can also be heavily involved in developing such technology with us.
5. What are the 3 mistakes you wish you could avoid in the business? Elaborate on each of the 3 points you have chosen.
Hiring the wrong people:
When I first started developing the business model for Veragano, I took on the expertise of someone brilliant in business. However, he was too calculative about time, yet he wanted a significant amount of share in the Company. The partnership ended pretty severe within a few months. So my advice is, make sure whoever joins your startup is not calculative about time, and contribution justifies the stock offered. Starting a brand from scratch is no easy feat; personal commitment, and passion are the two main ingredients to making sure your startup can go from ideas to traction quickly. You need people who will work hard like you do, especially when they do not put in the initial funds to start the Company.
Not launching the product sooner:
We could have launched the product way before the coronavirus hit the world. I already had a minimal viable product at the time to help me start gaining traction, but I spent too much time on improving the prototypes of our de Vera collection instead. By the time I was ready to launch Veragano, it was a little too late. We ended up gaining traction with just a couple of samples in hand during the global health crisis. As a result, we managed to get the shoes in the hands of the right people for feedback and endorsements. We also use this lull period of the business to build upon brand credibility through celebrities, who are more than willing to help us out of goodwill and genuine support for emerging brands like Veragano.
Not able to pivot:
Now that we are in a global health crisis, we found ourselves not being able to pivot any further for sales. We still show up every day on social media platforms though, to make sure that we remain at the top of our potential customers’ minds throughout this unprecedented trying time. We do not give up just because the world is on a standstill.
6. How to have less regrets?
Every experience, be it good or bad, is meant to teach us something. Learn from it. Cry about it if it hurts you so much but get over it the next day or two. Remember the lesson hard at every point of your decision-making process so that you can remind yourself not to go through such experiences again. And if the experience was great, remain humble while you celebrate it. Find ways to reinvent that wheel with your next project. Keep doing what works but be flexible along the way too so that you can adapt to changing situations effectively.
7. If given a chance to meet your younger self before you started this business, what is the one advice you will give yourself?
Take art seriously even if everyone said you would never make it in life when you major in art and design. Have an early interest in fashion so that you can turn your design skills into a career in fashion. Go to a shoemaking school instead of a four-year college so that you will use that time to learn to design and make beautiful and comfortable shoes that you have been dreaming about owning. Otherwise, all your sketches will go in the trash. Apply for internships or jobs at famous fashion houses so that you can understand what it takes to run a fashion brand successfully when you get the chance to start your brand.
8. What are the 3 habits / key activities do you think one should cultivate / invest to becoming a successful entrepreneur? Elaborate on each of the 3 points you have chosen.
Always be networking with people who fall in your target market group; otherwise, you have no one to sell to and no opportunities for developing lucrative partnerships to grow your startup or business further.
Studying human behaviour:
Know that every human being requires the following six things to live a fulfilling life: Certainty, Variety, Significance, Connection, Growth, and Contribution. Use this knowledge to develop products and services that will meet those needs, and then communicate them effectively through imagery and verbiage in all of your Company’s marketing materials.
Planning / strategising the next move:
Always be working on the next move to grow your business or adapt to the ever-changing world in life and business quickly when the need arises. For example, look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to change our behavior. It puts a spotlight on how we, as human beings, can easily change our behavior when the need to do that arises. As actions changed, the way, people think changes as well. What may seem to be necessary in the past is no longer a necessity to do or own right now. So what do you do to adapt to such changes? Be quick at changing your strategy.
9. What are the responsibilities of a business owner / entrepreneur?
A business owner/ entrepreneur tends to take on so many different roles, duties and responsibilities when running a company, but it is important to note that there are two non-negotiable responsibilities that he or she should have in order to succeed in the business world.
Not only does it helps business owners to come up with the best solution, be it products or services, that will solve the world problems, but also use the skill to retain good employees that will, in turn, help in acquiring and retaining great customers with loyalty to turn the business into an empire.
A skill that is useful to have as we tend to be the one who leads in managing day-to-day operations of the business, including effective use of human resources and Company funds.
10. What has been your most satisfying moment in the business?
Being able to find a factory in Italy that makes shoes for Chanel, Dior, Sergio Rossi, Adidas, and many other high-end brands was the most satisfying moment in my business career. It was challenging to find factory owners who believe in the vision and mission of a woman who did not even have the typical investment capital to start a shoe brand, but only ideas and drawings in hand. I remember being laughed at by a factory owner in Parabiago, Italy, when I told him that I could only afford 48 pairs of shoes to start. His comment almost broke me, but grit and tenacity went a long way for me and in my favour in the end.
11. What is next for your startup now?
We will continue to build brand credibility while getting ourselves ready to showcase our debut collection at showrooms in New York City and Los Angeles, where most of our high-end customers live and shop privately. This way, we can continuously maintain our brand’s exclusivity and prestige.
12. Who has been your greatest inspiration?
No one in particular, although I admire businesswomen, the like of the late Madam C.J. Walker, who started something out of nothing in the most unfortunate trying times.
13. What do you do during your leisure hours / non-working days?
On my off days, I usually spend my time hanging out with my family, watching movies or dramas together, and barbecuing in the backyard or when we do Airstream travel and camping around nearby states. I also enjoy lifestyle photography, so I use my off days to document our activities in the form of artistic portraiture. However, I find myself working on my startup somehow, even when I was supposed to rest. It is merely the result of an enormous passion for what I do in business that has become part of my life.
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