*APAC Heritage Month* Founder Focus
Kathy Zhou is founder and CTO of Queenly, the largest marketplace for formalwear, from prom, pageant, to all evening gowns.
And we're live. Hi everyone. Welcome to Cloudflare TV and another episode of Founder Focus.
I'm your host Jade Wang. I run the startup program here at Cloudflare and today joining us we have Kathy Zhou, one of the co-founders of Queenly.
Welcome to the show Kathy.
Hi everyone. Thank you so much for having me. I love your intro. Thank you.
By the way, anyone who has questions for Kathy, we will be taking them near the end.
You can email in your question to this email address or call it in and this information is also down below.
So all right, so very briefly tell us what your startup does.
So Queenly is a marketplace and a search engine for formal dresses.
By that we mean that if you have dresses to sell in your closet or if you're looking to buy dresses, Queenly is the place to go.
We are an iOS app, a web app, and an Android app and along with that we are a search engine.
I'm trying to figure out other details.
Oh sorry, the breakdown. So when we say dress, we're not talking about your everyday formal dress.
Those everyday cheap dress, those are important too.
We're talking about wedding dresses, prom dresses, a lot of these evening gowns that have very meaningful important moments in a person's life.
So you recently just finished going through YC and raised a $2.3 million round.
First, a celebratory round of applause here.
So what's next on the horizon for Queenly in terms of both in terms of like technology roadmap and business expansion plans?
Yeah, that's a wonderful question and one that I'm really excited about.
In terms of technology, we are able to not only with the backing from this round, but with all the growth and foundational growth we've done is to really expand into many different categories.
What I've mentioned that I want a woman to, we want all women to find their perfect dress.
That means women of all skin tones, body types, budget levels, and so we want all these interactive features, these user experiences to embody that.
And so I've mentioned previously having things like exact dress measurements, having, being able to filter by height, being able to see your body type and your skin tone represented in images and in search recommendations sent to you.
And so being able to deeper dive into that technology through improving our machine learning and data science infrastructure is really important to me.
So can you educate us a little bit about the the market for formal wear?
That is like how many, how many formal wear occasions does a person, does a woman typically have in a lifetime or in a year?
Is, and is there a technical difference versus a marketing difference between a wedding dress and a prom dress for instance?
Definitely, yeah, and that's an interesting broad question because it was something that I've had to learn too.
For background, I grew up in Boston in New England where very often people don't wear formal dresses a lot.
We would go to school dances in sweatpants and I think that's what a lot of us know in these coastal cities is very different from the culture of a lot of women in the South and the Midwest.
It's important to recognize America as a place of vastly different cultural experiences, not only from our own diversity and ethnicities, but from the different towns and places we grew up.
So many women in America, millions of them have to go through up to 10 to 15 formal events in the year because in places like Texas, Ohio, being able to participate in a pageant, being able to participate in a debutante ball is so important to their community.
So for these gowns, the technical challenges to effectively categorize, to acknowledge the different nuances of the search experience, that you need a certain fabric, you need a certain cut silhouette, all these measurements and all these intricacies are important to the end user is something that hasn't quite been done before on other shopping platforms and that is a very important technical challenge for us here.
So talk to me a bit about fit.
So for instance, I have very unusual proportions and I have a hard time finding jeans that fit on regular shopping sites from any regular retailer and the size, sizing as a number between brands is just incredibly inconsistent.
At least men's pants sizing is a system that kind of at least makes sense.
It's like number of inches or this way versus this way, right? So talk to me about how do we filter by measurements?
Do you account for whether a type of fabric stretches or not and how that fits?
Yeah, those are all good questions. And by the way, Jade, I want to acknowledge no one has a normal fit.
I think that's a feature that we're all sort of categorized to understand.
I guess for instance, I have very broad shoulders and so I have the same problem where one dress size doesn't quite always fit me.
I have to look at other things such as what type of fabric is it?
What's the overall neckline going to be? What is the back? Is it a zip up or is it a lace up?
And those aspects of fit fabric type, the type of, I guess, a fastener like lace or zipper are all really crucial components of the shopping experience that I would say are first order priorities.
What we're tackling in terms of being able to solve this problem is being able to put that categorization at the priority.
For instance, when a dress is able to disclose all those aspects of itself as well as when a woman has a custom dress tailored made for her and she wants to list it on Queenly, she's able to share her body measurements and the end user, another user, would be able to see that there's some woman out there with similar body measurements to you and you would be able to see what that kind of dress would look like on a body like yours.
And so that's one aspect. Another is being able to educate many women who don't have the experience of buying a lot of formal gowns and being able to understand, well, what does it mean to take a dress to a tailor?
What's the best size dress if I'm buying this brand new with tags?
How do I customize it? How do I make a dress that I'm not sure if I'll fit into, but how do I learn about how to make this into my dream dress?
And I think that's super important for this whole experience.
It's not just a one-stop, click a button, you buy a t-shirt sort of experience.
It's a whole emotional journey and it's important to have a brand, a sort of user experience that guides you through that way.
So for a typical user, do they ever, for instance, buy like two or three dresses that are potential candidates and then relist the ones that aren't quite the right fit for them?
Like what do typical users do? Yeah, we've seen a lot of interesting, I guess, use cases for that.
So for instance, a lot of our users are in pageants and they have a lot of, or they go to a lot of formal dances throughout their teams.
And a lot of them do want, they're trying to figure out their personal image.
They're trying to figure out who they are and the dress is part of their identity.
And so very often if they end up not wearing a dress to prom, we see them telling us that they've worn it to a photo shoot.
They've had a photo shoot with their friends or they've worn it to a separate, a smaller formal event, maybe to attend a wedding or maybe to attend a smaller dance.
And I think that's the type of, that's the sort of experience that a lot, not a lot of us really know that it's not just this one, I guess, wedding in your life.
There's very many moments where you can have that opportunity to feel beautiful.
And so I think having that flexibility, having that option is important to what we're trying to showcase on Queenly.
Let's talk a little bit about environmental impact. So before Queenly came into existence, what is the typical number of wears that a prom dress or a wedding dress might get in the lifetime of that dress?
Because I've heard of people like inheriting a dress from their mother.
But then like, but you know, average body size has changed so much from one generation to another that it would be hard to find a fit that way.
Like, tell me about like, how many times does a dress typically get reused or resold?
A dress is usually worn once. And within our age of social media, there's a lot of pressure to showcase yourselves in different outfits.
And so when you wear a dress and you showcase it on Instagram, there's that social pressure of effectively wearing it once.
But the major benefit of that is that the girl, the user has not worn the dress too often.
It's pretty much in pristine condition.
And so another girl who might be finding the dress on Queenly can find it and get a really great deal on it.
Nice. I mean, it's, it's kind of mind blowing to think that, you know, like, Ziploc bags are meant to be like one time use, right?
Like, but all the all the energy that goes into manufacturing a fancy dress.
And like, before this marketplace came into existence, they were almost like one time use.
Yeah. And it's so unfortunate, because I think for a lot of women, they, they love their dresses, and it's hard to find another occasion to wear them.
But at least for me, it's extremely gratifying. I sold a bunch of dresses on our own platform.
And it's very gratifying to see that someone else can experience that level of enjoyment and appreciation for that dress.
It's just not going to waste both emotionally, both in terms, environmentally.
And, and yeah, I think having that feeling of not reducing waste, I'm, you know, I'm very Asian, too.
I don't, I like to conserve.
Feels very economical to me, too. So I was browsing around and noticing that a lot of the sellers had, had pageant photos, where they're like wearing a sash with the name of a state.
So our pageant, like, our pageant people sort of, do you have like a profile of power user who just like use the platform a huge amount and just go through a ton of dresses compared to other people?
Is it, is there like a power law distribution of how frequently some kinds of users buy, buy and sell dresses?
Yeah. And to illustrate this, pageant users have been our primary early adopters, similar to how Facebook started on college campuses.
These were girls who were our friends, actually. So because we built that friendship, built those connections, for context, Tricia has competed in multiple pageants, and she's built a lot of long term business relationship with these pageant organizations.
And it's important for a lot of communities to have that trust with the brand.
And so from that, we were able to build out our initial user base.
And within a lot of communities in the South and Midwest, pageants are very core to their culture.
And so even if a girl does not compete in a pageant herself, very often, very, very frequently her friend has or her sister has, or she does look up to a lot of these pageant title folders, these Miss Texas, Miss Ohio's and Miss Tennessee's as role models.
And so we've been able to build out that sort of network effect of micro influencers, of spheres of influence to expand and to grow our user base, grow our community that way.
Thanks. I was noticing as I was poking around a partners program and sort of buying new dresses directly from a brand.
Does that mean that if you have a party of bridesmaids, for instance, that they can all get it from the same maker?
Is that how that works? Yeah, that's a really great idea.
And that's something that we'd like to support later on.
We unfortunately do not have the shared bridesmaids joint cart. But that's what's happening right now in retail.
There's so many new features, new ways to have interactive apps and shopping experiences that we do want to support that.
What's really important about Queenly Partners is one that aspects of reducing waste.
A lot of fashion designers and stores, they don't want to throw out their older inventory and they are running out of space to store that along with their new one.
And so this is the more economical way of being able to put that in front of more consumers.
Another is that ultimately because we want to help out women across America and we want to help out the whole industry of changing how people think about dresses, but also build out their businesses.
There's so many small business boutiques that have so much dress inventory and they don't quite know how to put it on Shopify or that sort of product doesn't speak to them.
And so being able to put it on a search engine that's tailored for a woman finding the perfect dress is perfect for them.
And so we are very thankful to be able to work with these businesses and to be able to build out the industry that way.
So the year 2020 and as we go into as we're into 2021 has been a very interesting year for a lot of different companies across the board.
Can you tell us a little bit about Zoom weddings and graduation car parades and what you have seen during the pandemic as usage of formal wear has evolved?
Yeah, that's a great topic, Jade.
And I think it was such a challenge for us because we honestly did believe that we would struggle through this time and that we would have to do something like shut down our business since many big weddings, many proms were canceled.
But what we saw is because people wanted to have smaller backyard weddings or have prom photo shoots for a mini prom on Zoom and et cetera, that people wanted to have that occasion to feel special, to wear dresses.
And we saw that level of dedication when we were still able to grow and to expand cleanly throughout this time.
And I think it validates our market, but it also validates how much we understand that this experience is meaningful to a person's life.
You can't just not have a wedding if you're going to be married to the love of your life.
So we want to be part of that experience. So on that theme, how large is your team now?
And did you start as a remote-first company or did you have to transition to remote work in the past year?
Yeah, we were lucky in that we did not sign an office lease last year.
So when we had our pre-seed round, that was actually at the start of the pandemic.
Tricia had finished fundraising and closing out our pre-seed.
And we were able to make those broader decisions, such as not having an office, such as staying remote, which was, I guess, easy for us.
But being able to expand this year, thankfully with the timing of the vaccines and with the timing of our YC Demo Day seed fundraising, we are now four people and we're continuing to grow and hire.
And so that's a little plug for our cleanly hiring efforts that we're hiring for engineering, ops, marketing, and really trying to grow this year.
Awesome. I hope some viewers who are watching will take a look at your job postings.
I hope so too. Thank you for having us, by the way. Because it is really meaningful for us to be able to advertise ourselves within the tech industry.
We don't get too many opportunities to. So I want to shine the spotlight a little bit now on the human stories of you and your co-founder.
Can you tell the story of how you two met and how you two decided to start the company?
And let me try to, I hope I don't butcher Trisha's founder story. So Trisha, my co-founder and our CEO, she grew up as a immigrant from the Philippines in Vegas, Nevada.
And her family had a lot of internal struggles with some family members of hers had addiction problems and financial problems.
And so that was what she had to overcome through paying for tuition through her going through and graduating Berkeley.
Now in parallel, I've had a very similar experience and that's part of why we sort of got lucky in finding each other.
I also had to struggle for tuition.
My family also had those problems with losing finances. One family member of my household had an addiction, alcohol addiction problem.
And that was something that built the empathy and that friendship between the two of us initially.
And we also had a long-term friendship. We met in a college internship, stayed in touch as we both graduated, started off our tech careers at more corporate jobs.
And Trisha's overall experience with patentry of being part of organizations that gave women scholarships to help pay for tuition, but also help build confidence in women and really rethink beauty standards and really try to revolutionize what it means to be beautiful.
She wanted to bring that into a company.
And so she heavily persuaded, mentored me through my first pageant. And I, after that, I was really new to that experience, but then I was really- Wait, did you do a pageant specifically to gain user empathy?
For user research? It can be thought of that way.
It was super meaningful to my personal growth. Before this first pageant, it's called Miss Asian Global based in San Francisco.
It's a very Asian American focused pageant.
And it really helped me with my public speaking. And I think that a lot of young women have that similar experience in pageantry.
And that's so crucial to our founder's story of how we're able to find our voice, as well as what we want to promote through our brand, through our company and community.
And so that's what we saw as the crux of it, dresses. That women need a dress on their different budgets, on their different body types.
A lot of them, like us, are new to these events like pageants.
And this is something that can be quickly applied to quinceaneras, to weddings, quinceaneras, sorry, to weddings, to prom, to many other formal occasions that are crucial to one's life.
And so that's how we ended up here.
Nice. So as it is APAC Heritage Month and female CTOs are especially rare in our industry, I'd love to address sort of the intersection of bamboo ceiling and glass ceiling and your experiences.
Talk to me about how basically your career trajectory and transitioning from past individual contributor roles to managing people roles and what you learned in those transitions that may be applicable to anyone who's watching who feels stuck in their career.
So sort of fortunately and unfortunately, I got into coding as a means of finding my passion in life, realizing that I could create really cool, wonderful things with engineering, with software.
And then starting off at Pinterest right after college, being an engineer there, sort of moving up, growing my career for those past years right before Queenly, that was really meaningful because I think that Pinterest specifically tries to empathize with the need for diversity and promote it and work towards it.
I was thankfully able to meet many wonderful female engineers as well as have mentors that cared about these specific causes.
What I also want to acknowledge is that fortunately and unfortunately, I started my career those few years during the time of the Me Too movement, of which we saw a lot of women become more vocal about their struggles, even sexual harassment, even many other aspects of what it means to be a woman in a very male-dominated industry.
And so being very conscious of those and very conscious of all those horror stories, it's something that definitely takes a lot of internal struggle of feeling sort of empowered, but also feeling motivated to want to build a new kind of leadership.
And that's sort of a journey that both Trish and I are still currently on.
We're still trying to figure out what it means to be a good manager, a good leader, to lead with empathy and to lead with care towards employees, as well as to care about representation and diversity as a company grows.
And that's a really huge question, but we're hoping to be very actively part of that conversation.
So I wanted to dig into your Pinterest experience a little bit more.
Can you tell me about some lessons, whether they are leadership-type lessons or management lessons or engineering-type lessons that you found to be really useful that you have applied in your work at Queenly?
Yeah, for a lot of my Pinterest experience, I've had not only the opportunity to have very good managers and mentors, ones that have that emotional empathy and that emotional intelligence to see the value in trying to build their individual direct careers.
That's something that's been ingrained in me and trying to promote that as I take on this role.
Along with that, I've had the opportunity to mentor and help out interns, younger, more junior software engineers.
And I think that range of different human interactions is really crucial to developing as a software engineer, whether you are an individual contributor going through that path of being close to engineering versus going into management.
I think that level of being very skilled at communication, at explaining your different cares and explaining different nuances and having that level of emotional intelligence is super crucial to software.
Thanks. So in our last five minutes or so, let's say I invited you to a magical Zoom call.
And on the other line is yourself from probably like maybe your first day of work at Pinterest.
Oh, yeah. Tell me about what that conversation would be like between you now and you back then.
In all honesty, probably more practical in terms of I would tell myself to start learning iOS development earlier to learn different aspects of distribution.
Sorry, it's a very engineering way of- Oh, I think that's great.
Like here's the to-do list. You get a head start. Yeah, that was the first thing that came to my mind.
Other than that, overall, probably to the real answer that sounds better than what you're looking for is to tell myself to not let other people put you down and to not internalize anything negative, any sort of bad influences that you come across.
Because when you're a young woman in tech, there's a lot of that.
And so it's important to have that sort of person early on to tell you to just not listen to that.
I mean, practical advice is always the best thing too.
Also invest in X, Y, and Z and other things. Yeah, yeah. Buy some bitcoins.
There's that. All right. So last couple of things before we look for audience questions.
Anything else you'd like to share with the audience in terms of favorite movie, favorite video game, favorite book that you read recently that you want to share with folks?
Let's see. Favorite- Or favorite new tutorial or new technology.
I recommend re-watching Ratatouille. Even though it's about cooking, it's about the creative process.
And it's about having that sort of spark when you're sort of unconventional in an industry.
Always do a little something unexpected.
Yeah, yeah. I'm not. That's cooking. Sometimes that's how I feel. Or follow the recipe.
I mean, all else being equal, are you a follow the recipe or do something a little unexpected or somewhere in between, depending on your mood?
Definitely somewhere in between.
Yeah, recipes are great because they're done by people with the expertise and the experience.
But for also context, I identify as vegan.
I eat a pretty mostly plant-based diet. And so much of what I cook is new territory and trying out different vegan cheeses or veganizing classic recipes, classic Chinese recipes, classic pasta dishes and all that.
And so a lot of cooking for me is new territory.
Okay. Most recent favorite new recipe that you've mastered or explored?
I'm like a broken record when I talk about this. I feel like I brag about my vegan lasagna recipe too much.
And I spent so much time during quarantine trying to perfect it.
Do you want to tell us what's in it? Yeah, it's really important to get a lot of different ingredients, right?
So getting that roasted garlic and that roasted eggplant, along with some decent quality vegan cheeses.
There's this great vegan ricotta and this great vegan mozzarella. That's when you combine all these together, you get the strong flavor that you're expecting.
And hopefully surprising to people that have been eating more meat -based diets their lives.
It's important for me to be able to showcase these to others and to help them try something new.
Well, I'm a big fan of reducing the violence there is in the world.
And so if we can even persuade some omnivores to take a meatless couple of days, that's as good as one-seventh of the world becoming vegan.
Yeah, I definitely agree with that. And that is definitely my approach too. It's a lot of inclusivity, a lot of trying to get people to be more open-minded.
And it's new territory for a lot of us.
A lot of us grew up with very certain views towards meat and culture and all that.
So it's important for us to try new things, but have it with less pressure.
I mean, no more cheese or all that. Well, thank you so much for being on our show.
It was a great episode. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Yeah, likewise. All right. Bye. Bye -bye.