“Think of a Business as a Puzzle and If One Piece Doesn’t Fit, Try Another” The 5 Lessons I Learned Being a 20-Something Founder

I had the pleasure of interviewing Niki Shamdasani. Niki Shamdasani is the 24-year old CEO and co-founder of Sani, a collection of modern Indian-inspired occasion wear that she runs with her sister. She was most recently on the Program and Investments team of a startup accelerator in NYC and SF. She launched and ran the NYC office, serving as design thinking coach, investments associate, program manager, and office manager. When she’s not running Sani, Niki helps lead design thinking workshops through the Public Radio Exchange and helps college students and recent grads use storytelling to get their dream internships/jobs.

Jean: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” of how you become a founder?

Before graduating, I made it a point to get out of my comfort zone as much as possible, but after college, I thought my path was joining the amorphous world of consulting, going to business school, continuing with consulting, and getting a great startup job after that. My consulting stint lasted no more than 6 months and I shifted to a startup accelerator focused on early-stage media companies. I started in SF, thinking that would be my home for at least a few years and within 4 months I was asked to move to NYC to open the office there. For various reasons, I left after a year and a half and was figuring out what would be next for me in NYC, where I thought I would be forever. During the time I was searching, my sisters and I were spending a lot of time trying to find Indian clothes for a wedding we were attending soon. We had never liked shopping for these clothes because the styles on the market were terrible or the prices were through the roof. After looking in various cities in the US and even doing WhatsApp Video calls to stores in India, we were fed up with what we saw. We ended up paying too much for some cheap outfits and thought that was that. Then my youngest sister and I began to think, what if we make some outfits we love for ourselves and our friends? And that was the beginning of Sani, our collection of modern Indian-inspired occasion wear.

Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Sani, we blend Indian craftsmanship and culture with modern, fusion silhouettes to create the kinds of outfits we always wished we could find. We make it easy for young Indian Americans to find options they love in the US by designing beautiful pieces that can be taken from an Indian wedding to a gala. In addition, we know experience design. We make sure the buying experience feels luxurious. That is not the focus of most occasion wear stores in the same price range. We are also discerning about what retailers we provide our products to and make sure they have the same focus on a luxury experience.

Along with all of that is a commitment to experimentation. We started out thinking we could succeed as an online-only company but quickly learned that some sort of physical presence is very important for a company like ours. So we shifted our strategy. We thought our customers were young Indian women and quickly learned that their mothers were the ones often buying the clothes. So we shifted how we thought about the end-to-end experience for customers versus users. Fashion companies are not often thought of startups (with some notale exceptions such as Outdoor Voices), but we run our company like a startup.

We know we are on the right track when we hear statements from young Indian women such as, “before this, I have never walked into an Indian clothing store and liked so many options” and from mothers such as “this made my life so easy and now I do not have to worry about shopping during my India trip.”

Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?

We are planning a big fashion show in September to launch our new collection and an exciting collaboration with a brand in India. You can stay posted on both by following @sanidesigns on Instagram.

Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?

The Alchemist is one of my favorite books and it’s a good one to come back to each time you make a plan and life changes things up. I have had plans to have certain jobs, in certain cities, with certain people but have learned to let life take its course. When I decided to start Sani, I was nervous about the idea of being in an industry we did not have any background in and to move away from a fashion capital (NYC) to go back to NC (a place I had not thought I would return to for a while) to work on the company with my high schooler sister. A quote from The Alchemist helped influence me to go for it — “It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.”

Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Twentysomething Founder” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Do lots of things outside of your comfort zone. I’m introverted and a homebody. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I have always had to challenge myself to step out of what’s comfortable, whether that is taking an internship that scares me, moving to a city I’m unsure about, taking on a role I think I’m unqualified for, and more. My greatest learnings have happened when I feel like I am completely out of my element and unsure of whether I made the “right” move.

2. Think of a business as a puzzle and if one piece doesn’t fit, try another. Don’t stick with something that is not working. Know when it’s not, try to figure out why it’s not, and then change it. That could be applied to your business or to life more generally. The point is to keep experimenting and adjusting based on what you learn. When we started Sani, we thought we had it figured out — the distribution strategy, marketing, the aesthetics of the brand. Some of it has worked, some of it has not, but when we see a puzzle piece isn’t fitting, we move on to another one.

3. Remember that learning what you don’t like (in work environments, communication styles, etc.) or what doesn’t work is just as important as the inverse. There is a lot of pressure to find that perfect job, the perfect city, a perfectly compatible partner. I try to tell this to seniors in college as much as I can — do not put so much pressure on yourself to figure out the perfect post-grad step. I thought I had the “perfect” post-grad next step and my next 5 years planned out, but things changed and along the way I learned just as many lessons about what I did not want as what I did. I have used so many of those learnings as we have built Sani. Remember that knowing what you do not want in life is just as important as finding what you do want.

4. There’s a fine line between resilience and stubbornness — figure out what metric helps tell you which side you’re on. I’ve toed this line professionally and personally so much. One example was when it came to a job — I thought I needed to just stay in a job until the 2 year mark so that it would look okay on my resume, but some circumstances at this job were taking a significant toll on my mental health. I did not know if I would be demonstrating a lack of resilience if I left the job. Ultimately, the metric for me was my happiness and mental health. Since then, thinking about my happiness and mental health has helped me make decisions when there has been a fork in the road. Figure out what that metric is for you. That doesn’t mean it will always be right to the outside world, but it will be right for you.

5. Surround yourself with the right people. Know who helps you stay grounded. It is not just money and “success” that can make you feel less grounded. Aimlessness does it too. When it comes to Sani, my parents have been hugely instrumental in keeping me grounded and weathering the highs and lows with me and my sister. They also provide me with inspiration when I need it the most. Figure out the people in your life that both boost you up and also don’t hold back on the truth.

Jean: 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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)

I’d love a private lunch with Anjula Acharia, a partner at Trinity Ventures and Priyanka Chopra’s manager. Not only is she a champion of female entrepreneurs, but she has a background at the intersection of startups and the entertainment industry (both Bollywood and Hollywood). Getting her advice on Sani and entrepreneurship more generally would be such an incredible opportunity.

— Published on June 27, 2018