Mejuri’s CEO on Growing a Godzilla Company as a First-time Founder

Straight talk from Noura Sakkijha about personal growth, empowering your team, building culture, fundraising and more.

Real Ventures
Real Ventures

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By Lauren Jane Heller

Version française par ici↗

How do you build a brand that earns a massive following and creates its own rules for the game? We believe the special ingredients are absolute conviction, humility and self-awareness…and an unstoppable drive to grow and learn. These are qualities that Mejuri co-founder and CEO, Noura Sakkijha, has in spades… and they’re part of what is propelling her company toward becoming the biggest global jewellery brand of this generation. Well, that and the fact that Mejuri creates beautiful, ethically-made products that resonate with their audience because they truly understand what they want.

Founded in 2013 by wife-and-husband team, Noura Sakkijha and Majed Masad, Mejuri’s mission is to change the way that women buy jewellery — to “make luxury a habit”. A third-generation jeweller, Noura wanted to create a new purchasing behaviour — women buying fine jewellery for themselves — and she’s succeeding. By creating a direct-to-consumer brand that eliminates the major markups on traditional jewellery, pioneering the drop model and influencer marketing, Mejuri is getting major attention and a loyal following that loves how the products make them feel about themselves.

We recently invited Noura to speak with a group of our founders about her entrepreneurial journey. This candid conversation covers the ups and downs of entrepreneurial life, what she does to balance her work and family life (she has very young twins!), and how she’s worked through the mental and emotional challenges of fundraising and scaling her company.

Mejuri is one of these Godzilla companies that is just scaling so quickly. As a founder and CEO, you have been so malleable and self-aware and adaptive to all the challenges that come with scaling and growing and fundraising and operation and goal setting. How do you do it?

I’m a first-time entrepreneur, so I don’t know everything and I’m very honest about this. It’s a title I wear as a badge of honour, allowing me to go and ask questions. When I was at FounderFuel and 500 Startups, I talked to everyone. [It] doesn’t mean I’m going to act on every single piece of feedback, but I get different points of view. This is my first time leading a company and probably the first time for everyone in our executive team to be a major decision-maker for our revenue or growth — and that’s not a bad thing! This challenges us to be resourceful when figuring out where to get the answer. That’s how we learn.

Being open and transparent with everybody is one of the keys. But at the same time, there’s this spectrum between ‘don’t run out of money’ and ‘go big or go home’. That dichotomy creates a lot of stress. How do you deal with that on a mental level?

I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. We’ve raised 32 million USD so far, but my proudest raise is actually my seed round, raising $1 million dollars. When I immigrated to Canada 10 years ago, I didn’t have a network; I was starting fresh. I went to FounderFuel, and then I went to the US to get connected to US investors. It took me about six months of trying to convince them to invest because I truly believed in what we were building. Six months is a very long time, especially at the seed stage. I had to collect investments from everywhere.

And no one wanted to invest in a jewellery company, right? That was the gamble. “You’re doing great, we like you, but we don’t want to invest in a jewellery company.”

Yes, it definitely wasn’t easy. I remember I had five pitches in New York on the same day. It was one of the worst days of my life because no one was interested. At that point, a lot of people would have quit. But, I continued to pitch until we raised the $1 million.

Once you raise, you have to then deliver results. The pressure taught me that I never want to put myself in a position where I need money from investors to survive, so I kept my head down and looked at unit economics to see how I could deliver the most value to our customers.

“I also asked myself a series of questions: What do I care about? Are we acquiring customers? Are we working with the right influencers? Are we providing value to them? Are we creating the best products? Do we know how to scale this stuff? Do we know how to hire people?”

I got to a point where I was burnt out. I was waking up every day and not wanting to be there. No one in my social circle could relate; they were relaxed, and I was the only one who was on a budget. I decided to see a therapist and one of the therapists told me, “You’re having an existential crisis.” I didn’t know what to do, so I went to 500 Startups — that was a turning point in my life. I realized there are so many other smart people going through similar issues and they’re not judging themselves.

I used to tie the success of the company to my own personal success. Being at 500 Startups was therapeutic in a way where I learned I’m not alone. All of these people are smart and yet they’re facing the same challenges. The number one lesson is to not isolate yourself. Talk to other candid entrepreneurs who are honest about their challenges.

When I came back, I got serious about therapy and my mental health. I still see a therapist, because I need a space where I can reflect on my thoughts and try to resolve them. It has helped me tremendously. At Mejuri, we encourage spending part of your benefits on mental health and really acknowledging the fact that we all need it. We all go through a lot of stress and different people have different tolerances. Paying attention to your mental health is very, very important.

I’m not going to pretend that it was a smooth journey. I’ve been through really tough times. Mentally, it was exhausting. Now I’m so happy because I’m aware of where I stand and how to deal with stress.

The Mejuri travel case (source: Mejuri)

Since you started Mejuri, you’ve gone from being involved in every part of the business to hiring experts to run the various departments. At what point in this company did it click with you that “I used to take charge and now I need to let go”?

We have to deliver big results. It happened gradually for me. It accelerated at the point when I went on maternity leave — I had to let go.

[When I was applying for FounderFuel] I walked into Real Ventures and we had zero sales and I said “We’re going to be the number one global jewellery brand!” and I believe we can [be]. In order for us to do that, I have to continue to grow as a person; if I want to continue to grow as a person, I can’t be involved in the details. I have to make room for other people to really shine and to take control — and for them to also be invested in the company.

When we first started, I hired people who are like me. People who are hungry. They’re not subject matter experts, but they’re really hungry to achieve results. Right now, we’re hiring more subject matter experts. You have to be able to separate your ego from the company.

“I am not the success of this entire company. I am someone who, now at this point, shouldn’t be a subject matter expert. I should be able to bring the right people on board, align them and move towards a specific goal.”

When I came back from mat leave — I was only out for three months from the day-to-day — I felt very challenged. I returned and the business was moving as per usual. I felt like they didn’t need me. It actually took me quite some time to catch up. Our company is so fast-paced, something I love. There were so many new people that I didn’t know — but then I realized, how amazing! This is a self-propelling machine if I don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day.

So now, based on that topic, if you looked at your schedule, where were you spending your time 24 months ago versus 12 months ago versus today on a day-to-day basis?

24 months ago, I was focused on marketing: How do we acquire customers? What’s happening with every product design? How many shipments? I would go to our manufacturing warehouse in Toronto every single day. I’m still involved with product, but now I’m dealing with the directors of each area, so I can talk about product strategy as opposed to specific product design. I discuss the marketing mix instead of a specific marketing channel. But when there is an issue, I do dig deep.

So aside from just hiring great people, what has been the biggest learning for you to drive performance on the team?

We’ve hired many leaders very quickly, and I think that the toughest thing is aligning them on strategy. Are we actually doing the right things to make sure they’re moving in the right direction? Did we hire the right people? First of all, they have to work well together, so it takes time. We have to accelerate the process of creating trust so we’re not dancing around problems. At this point, we are still in the process of figuring [it] out.

Without micromanaging them, how are we ensuring that we’re going to hit milestones and scale? That’s the current challenge.

Your co-founder is your husband, you’ve got two beautiful daughters, you’ve got this crazy scaleup. You’ve opened stores in New York, Toronto, a store in LA, and one opening soon in San Francisco, so now you’re flying all the time. Your team is scaling to beyond 200. How do you balance work and family?

I think the idea of separating work and family is a very old concept. I think if you love what you do, they integrate nicely together. It’s a lifestyle. I love what I do — not every single day, not every single moment, and sometimes I just want to be alone and I don’t want to talk to anyone. I’m not going to pretend I’m in love with it every single day. There’s no such thing as “this is work and I’m done…and this is home.”

The only thing that I try to be religious about is my twins; I want to be the first one who sees them when they wake up and the last person they see before bedtime. When I’m with them, I’m with them. I won’t look at my phone. When they sleep, I like to go back online and check in.

“We’ve all been raised on this idea that school sucks, that work sucks and that it’s sort of a means to an end — but I think we just need to rewire our brains to understand that it’s life.”

Lastly, having my husband working in the same field is not very easy because date nights can turn into strategy sessions — we just always need to be mindful!

So I wanted to touch more on your maternity leave. How did you set everything up before leaving? Did you completely disconnect?

I worked up to the point where I couldn’t actually work. It might sound a bit extreme, but I was in the hospital for two weeks, so I felt like I needed to do something. We were raising our Series B and I literally signed papers at the hospital. With fundraising, I typically talk to the investors, get interest, get the deal up to the point of due diligence — and then financial due diligence, Majed leads.

Before I went on mat leave, I audited my calendar to see if there was anything I was in on a day-to-day basis, and then I tried to find someone or even hire for that area. I opened up the door for the team to be self-sufficient.

Every year when I’ve taken a vacation and come back, I’ve realized I was preventing the team from progressing. Sometimes you really need to step back because they don’t need you for that level of detail — and they need the space. So for three months, I was away from the day-to-day, but I still worked on larger strategy sessions with our creative director. I was very fortunate to be able to take three months and focus on the twins.

What was the moment that you felt that it clicked in you that your mission could be achieved, or what was it that led to that click?

There was not a single moment, but it was — maybe too logical — that people want jewellery. I understand the market and the market opportunity. I’m not creating something brand new that’s not proven. I would say we’re creating a brand and a new purchasing behaviour. There is huge demand for what we’re doing, so it’s a matter of execution.

Obviously, that was in the early stages. We started seeing [that] there’s an appetite for what we’re doing, actually acquiring customers without spending a ton of money to do so. These [were the] sort of signs. Then I convinced subject matter experts — our CTO and our Creative Director — to join me very early on. They joke about it, but we used to sit in a small room in FounderFuel and say, “We’re going to be number one.” They had 15 years of experience with big brands, and I’m convincing these people to come and work with me. I’ve always thought these were all signs that I should continue.

It sounds like you followed the plan or the product that you set out to build. Was there any type of pivot or change to what you’ve done?

In 2013, we were thinking of a crowdsourcing platform that [would] basically enable designers to submit designs which we would make. Then I realized how much I disliked that idea, because we had no control over the design process. Even though we would explain it to the team, you would end up getting products from all over.

“Brand is defensibility; brand is something that when you’re small is very hard to quantify the importance of, but when you grow, it becomes a very difficult thing to copy — and you can’t create a brand with those types of products.”

So we scrapped that and at that point, it was just the CTO and I working on the company. We came to FounderFuel and John said,”You need a creative director.” We then hired Justine in Montreal and then she moved to Toronto [with us]. We became a team and pivoted at FounderFuel.

Where do you see the Mejuri brand going now? You mentioned it becoming a global brand. What are the clients you are trying to go towards?

To answer this question, I’m going to tell you what we stand for. For those who don’t know, Mejuri is a direct-to-consumer fine jewellery brand changing the way women think of fine jewellery — and how they buy it. I am the third generation in my family to work in jewellery, and I’ve seen the industry. It’s traditionally very expensive products marketed for men to buy for women. It hasn’t changed in a very, very long time.

We decided to create a direct-to-consumer brand for women buying fine jewellery for themselves. It then becomes a self-purchase product, giving us a whole new idea of how to design. We pioneered the drop model: every single Monday there are new products that are added to our collection. 70 percent of our transactions are women buying for themselves, and 30 percent every month are repeat customers. The reason I tell you these numbers is because I believe we can be of the scale of Pandora — but for the next generation.

International retail expansion is huge for us. We’re creating a brand new category in the thought process for women. We opened the first retail store and we thought it was going to be a nice addition. And [then] we found out that 80 percent of the transactions in the stores are actually brand new customers, so it became an acquisition channel. We’re going to double down on that. The ethos of the brand is making luxury a habit, and for women to think of investing in themselves. We even started creating additional product categories under that as well.

Is there anything else that you really struggled with as you grew?

[In] the U.S., there are people who give money to entrepreneurs because they know them at seed stage. I’m not saying that’s the right approach, but if our Canadian investors are not doing that, then who’s going to do that for me? Who’s going to be the first cheque in?

The other thing I discovered [that differed between the] startup culture here and there — and I don’t know how it differs right now — but in the U.S., they talk about failure so positively. In Canada, they talk about it very negatively. No wonder I was under a lot of mental stress!

I went to the U.S. and there were people who would say: “This is my third startup, and I hired this and I raised that.” It’s so interesting to see that failure is actually a data point — that you tried something and it didn’t work so you did something about it. It’s a positive thing. I came back and felt much more excited to pursue Mejuri. If I fail, I’m still a smart person.

“It’s one of the things that can keep you motivated — try really hard to disconnect your self-worth from your company’s performance.”

How was your company’s fundraising experience after the seed round?

After the seed round, I started getting some inbound interest; I would take calls to nurture relationships. You need to start talking to investors before you need the money, because at the end of the day, you also need to like them. You need to “date” for some time to figure out whether they’re the right investor for you.

Those are the things I learned. I kept investors in the loop and I kept the conversations [going]. Essentially, when we hit a big milestone, I would loop them in. You also have to be authentic. I care about knowing them as people. I care about knowing Vanessa, for instance, who sits on our board. I bet you even if she didn’t invest, we would be friends. It’s the approach: We get along; we’re going to continue to talk. We work together; awesome. We don’t work together; no problem. I’d love to have these people in my network regardless. That’s why our Series B was done in a few months. Series A took a bit longer, but also was easier [than seed]. Right now, we’re in a critical phase where we need to make sure that our numbers at scale make sense so that we continue at the same pace.

You have a really interesting go to market. How did you get going with the initial growth? How did you get that first million in sales…first two million in sales?

Influencer marketing was very new at the time, and [Sam from Real Ventures] was talking to me about influencer marketing, and pushing me towards it. I remember I closed the first deal with an influencer to do a collaboration in the basement of FounderFuel and I was pitching them on an idea. That was one of the first larger go-to-market initiatives that got us a ton of attention. We started doubling down on that and became so good at influencer marketing that we never used any outside platforms.

That’s one thing we’ve done that would be applicable to a lot of [new startups].

“Anything you think will be a center of excellence in the future, even though it could be a challenge in the beginning, you should probably have in-house.”

We have marketing and partnerships in-house — we’ve never used any agencies, meaning that we hold our relationships with these influencers long term. We hold the data of what works, what doesn’t work, and therefore we can create a model that can tell us what to do. Creative is in-house too. The creative agency is now one of our biggest teams. Technology and our warehouse are all in-house. [For Mejuri] it is important that everything which touches the customer is in-house. You can imagine, as a small company, you are trying to deal with all of these issues in every area, but it pays off over time.

So how did we hit the 2 million? There are multiple touchpoints that impact the customer. Every touchpoint or area had goals, and we had to hit these goals. We had to move as an entire organization, similar to an OKR structure. Every area has to make strides and that’s what we were [doing] even at FounderFuel.

Final question: I’m interested in your thoughts on how jewellery can potentially serve a role to improve this patriarchal society that we live in today?

Prior to Mejuri, women only had a choice of buying fashion jewellery if it was affordable — costume or fake jewellery, that tarnishes and is mass-produced and low quality.

Our thinking was: how can we give women quality product so they don’t have to buy as frequently and this product holds value at the end of the day because it’s gold? It’s actually serving the purpose of quality over quantity with less mass production. I want to buy fewer products of higher quality — and I think that’s a lot of the thought process that’s going on right now in fashion. Our products are handcrafted — they’re not mass-produced — and everything is ethically sourced.

On top of that, the whole premise of the brand is making luxury a habit.

“The new luxury is not the idea of a prohibitive price point or something that’s exclusive to just a few people. It’s the idea of treating yourself. The idea that you can actually go and have time for yourself or buy yourself something you like [that’s] of quality.”

And this really resonates with women.

Jewellery is a personal thing. It’s a new luxury to be able to afford diamonds and gold at the prices and that’s the value that we offer without having to compromise on experience.

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Real Ventures
Real Ventures

Canada’s leading early-stage VC firm dedicated to serving entrepreneurs and nurturing the communities in which they thrive.