Mirra's Founder On The Importance of Community and Prototyping
At only 26, Katia Ameri is already well into founding a company in a space she’s been passionate for years: democratizing access to skincare. But her love of business is nothing new. She shares that the first time she invested (in Apple, no less) was in the 10th grade. Both driven and intellectually curious, this proud second-generation Iranian-American is refreshingly candid about her experiences and is not the sort of person who is afraid to say, “I don’t know.” In our interview, Ameri takes on the preconceived notions you might have about Millennials, Generation z, and the future of commerce.
Did you always know you wanted to start your own company?
In short, yes. After I graduated from Stanford in 2014, I went on to become the first hire on the investment team at the early-stage venture capital firm, Pear Ventures. I’ve always wanted to start my own company so my goal was never to stay in venture - I saw it more as a jumping-off point. I come from a long line of entrepreneurs, so I guess you could say that it’s in my blood. Starting my career in VC was absolutely invaluable as I built an extensive network while really getting to understand how the “other side” thinks.
While at Pear, I took over one of our troubled portfolio companies as the interim CEO, where I got my first true taste of entrepreneurship. Once I wrapped up my time with that portfolio company, I knew that I needed to keep going down the entrepreneurial path (I caught the bug big time!), but I knew that I needed to work in a space that I was passionate about: the intersection of technology and skincare. That’s when I founded Mirra.
I’ve had really bad acne and eczema my whole life (in addition to an irrational fear of aging!). I’ve wasted thousands of dollars and suffered from countless rashes as a result of using the wrong products on my skin in pursuit of the “perfect complexion.” I feel like traditionally, brands have really preyed upon female insecurity in order to sell product. I constantly felt bullied into buying the latest and greatest overpriced serum that ultimately did me more harm than good. Additionally, the beauty industry has traditionally been left unregulated - which unfortunately means that you can bottle up pretty much anything and get away with it. So, as a result, sifting through all the marketing noise to find products that actually work is next to impossible. I found myself becoming obsessed with skincare and how I looked. I’d stay up late sifting through various blog posts and creating ingredient cheat-sheets not because I wanted to, but because I felt that I had to.
Our goal at Mirra is to build a skincare brand that starts with you, the individual. We create tools (in the form of content, products, and in-real-life events) to empower you to feel confident in your skin no matter where you’re at today. Our goal is to help democratize access to skincare information and to break down the barriers that prevent women from being able to make informed decisions about their own bodies. We believe that at the end of the day, you are the CEO of your own life. We will never tell you what to buy or pretend like we know you better than you know yourself. I think that the best thing we can do is to engage in a conversation with you, and to help you build your own personal “knowledge toolkit.” That’s why we’ve taken a content first approach with our weekly newsletter (and blog) to decode the skincare routine. We have an exciting product that we’re working on now as a response to the feedback that we’ve gotten from the newsletter, and we can’t wait to get it into the hands of our community and see what they think.
We live in the age of the side gig; is Mirra your full-time job?
I’m sort of an all-or-nothing sort of person. I like to eliminate all excuses in order to hold myself accountable and give Mirra the attention it deserves. Also, because I’ve been working on Mirra full-time, I’ve been able to test out several different business models before getting to where we’re at now. First, I built an app that connected women with experts. Then, I created an AI-driven personal assistant on Facebook to give women personalized product recommendations. After I ran those two experiments, I combined my learnings from both and realized that the best user experience was something a lot more low-tech: a newsletter.
Why a newsletter?
My intention with the newsletter was to create a long-term relationship with women and to create high-quality content that they wanted to engage with on a regular basis. Our mission at Mirra is to empower women with the tools they need in order to feel confident in their own skin. Each week, we demystify one element of the skincare routine, and feature content that puts current beauty standards into question. I believe that building an engaged community is more important than anything else. The best thing about a newsletter is that it’s simple. Each week, we can totally change the content we deliver and see how people engage. Also, there’s a clear way for our subscribers to communicate with us, which allows us to quickly learn how to better serve them. Hitting a reply button is much easier than downloading an app! We started out with an email list of fewer than 200 subscribers. About nine months later, we’re at about 45,000 subscribers.
Do you feel young entrepreneurs are treated differently?
Being young and female hasn’t been an issue for me as a founder. Actually, I’ve embraced it and I think it’s helped me in my career and further helps to legitimize Mirra. That said, being female can be tough when pitching the company to people outside the beauty industry. Sometimes, I feel like I have to “change the pitch” when talking to male VCs who can’t relate to the problem we’re solving and often find myself reaching for buzzwords to make the business sound more attractive. What I’ve learned though, is that as tough as it is to find the right entrepreneurs to invest in, it’s just as hard to find the right investors to invest in your business. It’s a two-sided street. And it’s not really about gender. It’s about finding people who believe in you and your ability to execute.
What would you tell young professionals/ entrepreneurs with ideas they want to bring to life?
Start today, and start small.
I’m a perfectionist. I often feel like I need to have everything figured out before I release a product. But the truth is, you’re never going to be totally “ready.” Just put something - anything - into the hands of your end users and see what they think. The sooner you start getting feedback on whatever it is that you’re thinking about, the sooner you can find out if you have a viable idea, and if it’s worth spending more time developing.
It took us several experiments to get to where we’re at today. I live and breathe through experimentation, even though it’s not always very comfortable. When I started working on the first newsletter, I honestly had no idea what I was doing and had very few subscribers. I gave myself a deadline and told myself that whatever I had at that point would be good enough. Once I forced myself to click send, and commit to sending the newsletter every Friday, I got the ball rolling and now we have close to 45,000 subscribers. I know that if I hadn’t literally forced myself to send that first newsletter and commit, there’s no way we would be in the position we are in now. Today, as we develop physical product(s) for our community, I have to remind myself of the same advice: Just start, and start with the simplest MVP possible. Don’t overthink it.
How do you find and choose mentors and advisors?
Being a founder is all about being honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and finding strategic ways to fill in those knowledge gaps. Mentors are great for helping you with that.
My mentors always end up being people that I’ve gotten to know over an extended period of time, and sort of end up as my mentors organically. And usually, they end up being people that I’ve worked with in some capacity. I’ve found that the ideal mentor for me isn’t one that necessarily understands the specific space that I’m thinking about (for example, skincare). The mentors that help me the most are the ones that push me outside of my comfort zone, and challenge me to ask myself questions that I may not be thinking about (or want to think about!).
Where do you think the commerce industry is headed?
The consumer today is oversaturated with content. She has an abundance of choice, and is exceptionally sophisticated when it comes to parsing content to figure out what it is that she wants to engage with. I think that that means that any brand that wants to be successful in the long run has to take the time to truly get to know their audience, listen to their needs, and continuously build for their community. There are no shortcuts.
I believe that the future of e-commerce is the combination of community, content, and product. I think that in order for any digitally native ecommerce company to be successful, it is empirical to understand how these three areas work together in synergy. So, I will say, focusing on creating an engaged community, both in person and offline, is a must in 2018. That’s why that our first ingredient at Mirra is community.