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Business woman took on coding to ensure million dollar success

12 July 2017

Julie Stevanja, CEO Stylerunner

Speaking to Vogue ahead of her appearance at Vogue Codes, Julie Stevanja (above) the CEO of Stylerunner explains why she learnt computer programming languages and the benefits of highlighting books.

Zara Wong: “Many people say they have a great idea, but what do you need to do – or what do you need to have within you – to make a great idea actually happen?”
JS: “No matter how great your idea is, success is one per cent idea and 99 per cent execution. It’s about how quickly you move to execute, how quickly you learn to evaluate the data and the results and adjust. I think that one of the key skills is that momentum. There’s a lot to be said for planning and ensuring you have the resources to see through the idea. It’s about being a doer.”

“Take me back to the beginning, of coming up with the idea, starting the company, speaking to your sister about it… [Stevanja started Stylerunner with her sister Sali Sasi, who departed the company in 2015].”
“We envisioned the website as having all the things we take for granted now but didn’t have then. We did packaging in a box with tissue paper and we started with handwritten notes. No-one owned sportswear in a more fashion-forward setting. It was seeing the gap in the market, and it was a gap that I was really passionate about and couldn’t believe that no-one had done this earlier, with the right intersection of opportunity and timing. We also wanted to launch in time for Australian summer. Timing for launching is also really important, and at that stage there was noone globally who had ever done what we’d done, so we wanted to be a world first. We set a pretty crazy target and that was just over three months to be online to do everything, build the website and have a functioning e-commerce store.”

“Was there a turning point where you realised this was a worthwhile concept and had momentum, or was it like that from the start?”
“It was there from the get-go. When we first launched, I think on our first day we did $10,000 worth of sales, which was really good for a business with no backing. From that month we started seeing a small number of sales every single day, but we started increasing month on month really rapidly. That gave us confidence. Within a few months we had rapidly grown to a solid base of sales and that just never slowed down. There were two days where we didn’t have a single sale, so there were some sleepless nights where I was wondering if it was going to work.”

“And when something like that happens, how do you persevere through it?”
“There’s a quote that being an entrepreneur is like jumping off a cliff and learning how to fly on the way down. That sort of pressure is definitely not for everyone. You’re always thinking: ‘What do I need to do next?’, ‘What do we need to try?’, ‘What could work?’”

“Running your own company is all-consuming.”
“It still is, but I am very good at listening to my body and if I start to feel run-down or unwell I immediately give myself a couple of days off.”

“Have you always been like that?”
“No. For the first couple of years I would just push through every obstacle. But now I need to find a way to deliver the results in a much more sustainable and long-term way. Perhaps if I were to write a letter to my earlier self I would say that if you do look after yourself and that if you do take the rest you need you’re ultimately more productive. I have definitely had to make a lot of sacrifices to give the business every chance of success, so I think my poor husband has had fewer home-made dinners ever since I started the business and he’s had to make sacrifices, too. I can’t say I juggle it all. You know how you see those supermums? I wouldn’t say I’m that kind of person in my life, unfortunately, but I’d say I’m getting better! I’m definitely making more time for balance, but again I think there was just a shifting point for me where I felt I needed to find a more sustainable way, and now I find time; even for working out, ironically.”

“How is what you’re doing perceived as opposed to what it’s really like?”
“Probably that it’s all fun and games. Tech and start-ups look really exciting and they’ve been quite glamorised, and that there’s more freedom, so a lot of people want to be a part of it, but ultimately we are a business with a bottom line.”

“Was there something you wish you knew when you were starting Stylerunner that you know now?”
“That the journey would be longer and harder than I expected. I think when you have a great idea, and even if you see a gap in the market, you probably think that within a few years you could make incredible growth. And while our growth trajectory has been incredible, it’s more like a 10-year journey and that tempered my expectations. But then maybe that wouldn’t make me an entrepreneur, because high expectations are what entices entrepreneurs.”

“Do you think you’re a risk taker?”
“Yes, I do. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as a risk taker earlier in my life.”

“Why do you think that is?”
“I was quite quiet as a child and I’m introverted, which people don’t realise because I’ve learnt to do public speaking. I did well at school and was always ambitious and goal-focused, but I thought I would be climbing the corporate ladder. Since then I’ve done a lot of exciting things in my life; I’ve lived overseas in quite a few exciting countries and committed to learning Mandarin, which I did for several years when I was living in Hong Kong and Singapore.”

“What made you decide to learn Mandarin?”
“Because it was challenging and I like to challenge myself. I thought that there would be an opportunity in the future since China is one of the world’s next superpowers. During the first five to 10 lessons, I just could not get my head around the tones, which was frustrating because I’ve always been a fast learner. But I don’t give up and I’m notoriously stubborn, so I was determined to nut it out, and one day it just clicked and I could hear all the tones. It was a really rewarding language to learn. It’s like coding; I find it really fascinating. But the thing that intrigued me was that if coding was easy I probably would not have been as inclined or as interested in it.”

“When did you start learning computer programming languages?”
“When I looked at building a site in that three to four months before we launched; I basically had to learn as much as I could. Nowadays, there is so much information with off-the-shelf products, but back then I had to learn and evaluate lots of different approaches.”

“Aside from your own personal experiences, where do you get this information from?” 
“I’m lucky that I’m a book nerd, so I read a lot. I highlight my books, even though I used to be scared to do that. I thought you had to protect your books, but what is a book for? It’s there to inform me, and highlighting it makes it more effective. Then at least the book has done what I needed it to do. I’m also pretty fanatical about scanning my Twitter, where I follow a lot of tech people. Also, and this didn’t come naturally to me because I’m such an introvert, there’s so much to be said for reaching out and networking, meeting with people and asking for their opinions. Networking and asking experts is really underrated. That’s something all entrepreneurs should be doing.”

“How do you get over your introversion to network and to talk to people?
“You know, it sounds really silly, but when we started to grow from a team of three to 10, 15, somewhere along the way I started to have weekly Monday meetings to talk about what we were focusing on that week. And it was really intimidating for me. It was good practice as a leader, because you have to share your vision and team goals with conviction and positivity.”

“This year you’ll be speaking at Vogue Codes Live in Sydney on July 29 and you’re an ambassador for BMW. Last year, you attended the first Vogue Codes with Hewlett-Packard – what did you think of it?”
“I absolutely loved it. The speakers were world-class and inspiring, and real examples of confident, incredibly intelligent and savvy women who are the role models of what women can achieve if they have the confidence to pursue their dreams. There’s still a huge disparity between the number of men and women in technology, and I think technology is an industry growing so rapidly that there are going to be so many opportunities. We need to see women riding that wave, and I think it’s an incredible initiative for Vogue to help bring that to women’s attention and to show them role models who are not only successful but also quite glamorous, because there’s still that perception …”

“What else do you think needs to be done to get more women interested in STEM subjects and industries?”
“There needs to be a lot more work done around women – what roles would actually look like if they pursued careers in STEM. I actually started a science degree before I eventually moved into business and marketing. I was completely all about maths and science. But back then I couldn’t really see what I could do with my science degree, I didn’t know enough about what type of jobs there were in science and I didn’t even know much about engineering. I think I would have loved engineering if I had known more about it. So I think that we need to showcase that kind of career path more for women who aren’t aware of it. There’s Girlboss on Netflix about Sophie Amoruso’s Nasty Gal e-commerce business. Highly visible role models in mainstream pop culture like Girlboss are really important to get that kind of cut-through. People look up to Mark Zuckerberg; we need to create really visible female role models who reinforce that message of how rewarding some of those career paths can be, and how to pursue those careers.” 

This article first appeared in Vogue.

For more details: Vogue Codes.


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