As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sian Rowlands, CEO and Chief Storyteller, RETOLD.
Hiking to Everest Base Camp tells you one thing about Sian — she likes to set her sights high.
Driven by adventure and an innate sense of achievement, her other interests include sailing and boxing. Fancy a roller-coaster ride? Sian’s up for it.
But at the core of Sian’s many pursuits are her passion for design and architecture. This was triggered as a child as she enthusiastically crafted shapes with Lego. The journey continued as she went on to pursue interior architecture at University in the UK.
With the wind in her sails, Sian went on to design and deliver several large-scale design projects for four and five-star hotels, food and beverage concepts, and spa projects — winning multiple awards and nominations.
It must be said that the SME movement is close to Sian’s heart and she is seen as an evangelist within the local SME community. Her success is a result of her passionate work ethic, sharp client-facing skills, and creative business outlook. With an enthusiasm for B2B development and social marketing — she continues to sharpen her skills in concept evolution, strategy building, marketing, and micro-business launching.
And then her story took a new and exciting twist, in 2011 My Ex Wardrobe was born. And with it her quest for a lower-impact lifestyle; Sian began to articulate a message of sustainable living. The business grew rapidly and recognised by two business awards within the first six months.
But as her work life got more demanding, another story was unfolding. Despite another prestigious award, Sian decided to make the shift and write a new script. My Ex Wardrobe made way for RETOLD. The new boutique was launched on 22nd Jan 2018. The concept of RETOLD was a perfect fit for fashionable expat audience. It was about breathing life into beautiful clothes that would normally been put away in the back of wardrobes or left unworn and forgotten in the spare room. What a marvellous idea, we heard the ladies say.
The RETOLD brand, however, had a message with a meaning — to reduce the UAE’s carbon footprint, and encourage customers to lead a sustainable lifestyle. This is central to RETOLD’s core values, according to Sian. Moreover, the former owners of the clothes would also enjoy a financial return on their unwanted clothes. Collective Consciousness at work in the real sense. RETOLD is about giving clothes a second chance at happiness!
With some creative entrepreneurs the best is yet to come. Perhaps Sian is one of them?
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in Interior Design, and over 15 years I built a substantial portfolio of award-winning hotel, F&B and spa projects. As a creative individual, I have always enjoyed fashion and over the years developed a bit of a shopping problem! After a few ‘eureka’ moments, I realized there was a gap in the market for fashion resale here in Dubai, and I conceptualized a way to fill it by launching My Ex Wardrobe in 2011. It instantly gained traction!
Originally I was running the concept alongside my career, but knew it wasn’t sustainable. Whilst I love designing spaces, the business was growing and eventually, my passion for making the world a better place got the better of me, and I decided to focus full time on growing the concept. At this point I decided to rebrand to RETOLD, and began the months of hard work getting ready to launch our flagship boutique.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Well, there were certainly a whole lot of mistakes to learn from! When I very, very first started (this was back when the concept was called My Ex Wardrobe) and I created our Facebook page (also back in the day when Facebook was the main social media channel) I made a very simple and very silly error — probably down to all the late nights working. I had spelt “Wardrobe” wrong in the Page Name — I had missed an R and written wardrobe. This was an error I hadn’t spotted until about 3 or 4 months later when I was sharing our Facebook page with a large digital media company and we couldn’t get the link working properly! It certainly reminded me of the importance of proof reading, and sleep!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I am a huge lover of podcasts, some business related ones I enjoy are — How I Built This with Guy Raz, Planet Money by NPR, and The Pitch by Gimlet — although these are just 3 of my library of shows I subscribe to, which has over 50! I also really enjoyed the audio books Profit First by Mike Michalowicz, and Shoe Dog by Phil Knight.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I first started, I was driven because I saw a viable way to fill a gap in the market here in Dubai. I wasn’t entirely reinventing the wheel, merely adapting concepts I had seen all over the world to suit the Dubai market. But I started the business because I cared — I cared about the amount of unworn clothes there were hanging in my (and my friends’) wardrobes. And over the years of running the business, I became increasingly aware of how important it was to raise awareness about the dark side of the fashion indutry (particularly fast fashion), and how important it was to show people how easily you can transition to a greener lifestyle.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
This is probably still a shortcoming of mine. I take EVERYTHING far too seriously and far too personally. So the ‘number one principle’ I am trying to adopt is that “business is business” and that it doesn’t run your life.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the majority of businesses, especially SMEs. As a small business owner, it has had a huge impact on me personally; on both my ‘business’ life and my ‘personal’ life as they are very much one in the same. On a more ‘family’ level, I had to cancel a family trip to visit my parents — which was scheduled for the end of March, to celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday. So I am definitely sad that I didn’t get the much-needed trip to spend with my parents, and my sister, her husband and my little nephew. We’re a close family, so that’s been hard. But honestly, these are both very small issues compared to the well-being of your loved ones — so I am just happy that my friends and family are all healthy and safe.
But like they say “Every crisis brings new perspective and offers unprecedented opportunity”. The current situation has helped us understand the opportunities we have and we are working towards leveraging that.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our biggest challenge is that we were too heavily reliant on our brick-and-mortar boutique, and the sales were dependent on the customer footfall. We hadn’t quite gotten our digital sales funnel self-sufficient, so when lock down hit, we weren’t really ready to move all our products onto our digital platforms, so this has been an area of focus for myself and the team while we have all been working remotely. As a team, we thrive from seeing each other daily so it was a big change for us all to be sitting behind computers working remotely — like most teams I suspect.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I am very lucky that my family and friends are all safe and well. One of my sisters lost her job which will have a huge impact on her family’s situation, but they remain grateful that everyone is well. However, I do have a lot of friends who have been effected by loneliness, so keeping up regular communication with those around us is really important.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
One of the silver linings to this terrible pandemic has been that people have ‘slowed down’. The ‘busy for busy sake’ mentality seems to have become a thing of the past. This has given way to more mindfulness — which can only be a good thing. People have been spending more time with their families, more time doing simple things like jigsaws, and more time on themselves. This has included clearing out their wardrobes and discovering more conscious-driven brands like RETOLD to shop from. Especially ones that help people financially — which is always attractive during economic downturns.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I hope it will make everyone a little kinder, a little more mindful, a little more respectful and a whole lot more environmentally conscious!
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
RETOLD has many benefits to our community, two of the key benefits are being able to shop for fashion without breaking the bank or hurting the environment. We want to use Post-Covid ‘mindfulness’ as a growth opportunity — we are already seeing lots of new customers discovering us, and feeling increasingly more comfortable with shopping pre-owned online.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I encourage others to think about how your business impacts the environment; ask yourself if your business is making the world a better place. If all businesses did this, I think the world be a much better place and business would come more naturally.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I didn’t come this far to only come this far.”
What that means — is don’t give up. Persevere and that perseverance will reward you, if only because you are one step further than you were before. You can control your actions and you can choose to keep going.
This mantra kept me going on every hard step on the way to Everest Base Camp, even when my legs refused to work properly and my mind was screaming out to stop. It has kept me going through everything, even if I can’t see it at the time.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Well, RETOLD itself is most active on our Instagram, we post loads of new products every single day and you can purchase directly through the platform — you can follow us on: www.instagram.com/shopretold — or visit our website directly at www.shopretold.com. In fact, everywhere online you will find us at shopRETOLD
Personally, I can be found on LinkedIn as well: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sianrowlands/