Cuyana: Lessons on Building a Lasting Brand

Highlights from ✨Hot Deal Time Machine✨⏳ -- On Clubhouse Thursdays at 8PM ET

Below are highlights from my Clubhouse episode featuring Shilpa Shah, cofounder of Cuyana, and Maha Ibrahim, GP at Canaan who led the seed round in Cuyana in 2012.

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💡The lightbulb moment: Fewer Better Things

Shilpa Shah recounts the moment when the switch finally flipped - the day she and cofounder Karla Gallardo settled on “Fewer Better things” as the company tagline and ethos. As an ecommerce company whose business was reliant on selling more things, this was a controversial tagline. But Shah and Gallardo had so much conviction that they called Ibrahim and said “we have to talk to you in person today.” They immediately drove over to Sand Hill Road and shared the vision for the company and how focusing on fewer quality pieces could win over the love and loyalty of customers. The message was authentic to the brand, and differentiated in a way that immediately stood out. 

👛White Gap Products: No Hero SKUs

While it’s been conventional wisdom to build consumer businesses around hero skus, Cuyana took a different approach. Instead, the Cuyana founders assessed the market to identify categories of everyday items that were sorely lacking. The first was the tote bag - one that could easily transition from work to evening. While Cuyana really established this market with their original tote, they never became synonymous with the product. Another white gap product was the travel case, another an elevated cape. Rather than looking for a specific product category to tie their business together, the Cuyana founders focused on the customer and what she needed to live a life of “fewer better”. 

🤦🏽‍♀️The "Oh Shit" moment: COVID

Like many consumer businesses, COVID was a challenging time for Cuyana. Consumer spending was down, retail stores were closed, and many women were no longer shopping for their work or travel needs. Not only that, the makers and artisans that Cuyana works closely with around the world were all feeling the impacts of COVID in their respective countries. Perhaps the silver lining here was watching how Cuyana rebounded. New “white gap” products were identified (hello loungewear!) and the ecommerce side of the business became a focus. If there was ever a moment where Shah felt like the brand had taken on a life of it’s own - it was watching how Cuyana weathered this unprecedented pandemic. 

⚾️ The playbook before the playbook: Influencers and Social Commerce

When Cuyana raised their seed round in 2012, “Direct-to-Consumer” wasn’t even an industry term yet. There certainly wasn’t the D2C playbook around supply chain, ecommerce stack, and customer acquisition that exists today. Instead, Cuyana charted its own path leveraging influencers (before influencer strategies were a thing). By gifting Cuyana products and building authentic relationships with high profile individuals, Cuyana accessories and apparel began popping up on celebrities, royals, NYC elite, and SF millennials alike - IRL and on IG - demonstrating that Cuyana struck the covetable balance of aspirational and luxury. 

🔥The anti-hype: Building brand brick by brick

To venture investors, Cuyana may have looked like a slower burn in the early days. Unlike other consumer brands, they weren’t focused on high velocity sales of 1 or 2 SKUs. They rarely discounted, and they pursued limited paid marketing. Instead, they really focused on sharing the story of their artisans and product quality, building a range of products that were needed by their customer, and developing a deep relationship with customers that drove organic loyalty and repeat rates. Trust takes time, and Cuyana proved that continually earning the trust of the customer meant that she keeps coming back for all of her needs.

Hot Deal Time Machine✨⏳ is a 30-minute weekly Clubhouse show where we travel back in time to the early stages of some of today’s hottest deals. Hear from founders and investors on the original pitch and thesis…and how things actually played out, Thursdays @ 8PM ET