Zahra Khan: “The Destination Site Is No Longer The Only Point Of Interaction”
The global digital space, today, is all about the survival of the fittest. And in India, it’s a race to the finish. Either you capture a loyal audience or you’re out of the game. So in the unfiltered world of the internet, how do you make your mark? How do you make sure your platform garners the following it rightfully deserves?
Well, these women we feature in our Women In Digital series this month can teach you a thing or two about that. Having founded and established popular content platforms with high traction, these smart, sassy, digital natives are putting India on the global map. If you want a piece of the digital pie, we suggest you take notes.
And we finally conclude this illustrious series with none other than our CEO, Founder, and Editor-In-Chief, Zahra Khan. With over 15 years of experience in print and digital media, Zahra started Hauterfly, a premium destination for all things style and beauty, in 2015. Since then, her baby has grown from strength to strength, and her own role within our incubator Fork Media has expanded exponentially.
Knowing the ever-changing digital landscape like the back of her hand, Zahra shares her journey so far and what lies ahead.
Walk us through your career trajectory, and what led you to start a digital media company.
I’ve been a journalist for over 15 years now, and written about everything from crime and HIV/AIDS research, to celebrity, luxury lifestyle, and music, to ultimately focussing on fashion and beauty.
Before I started Hauterfly, I’d dabbled in pretty much every medium, from newspapers and magazines to even television news, but digital in where I ultimately wanted to be. I’d been wanting to start a fashion- and beauty-focussed website for millennial Indian women for many years, but never took the leap of faith, because I was terrified of the non-content aspects of running a business.
It was while I was with the e-commerce startup, Stylista, that Samar Varma, the CEO of Fork Media, agreed to incubate my passion project and provide the necessary support of tech, marketing, and sales, and that’s how Hauterfly was born.
Tell us a little bit about what makes your company special/different.
I think we’re very much like a magazine, in that we create addictive fashion and lifestyle content that appeals to women, and take the guesswork out of the equation for a lot of them. Our curation of the newest and the best in clothing, accessories, skincare and makeup products, home décor, etc., helps women discover new things every day, but our biggest USP is that we make the process from “inspiration” to “transaction” very seamless for the reader.
We break down a trend, tell you how to wear it, and then direct you to websites where you can shop them instantly. I like to think of Hauterfly as a shoppable digital magazine — a unique content-meets-commerce hybrid that satisfies both stylistas as well as shopoholics!
At what point in your journey did you realise you had something special on your hands?
To be completely honest, we had a slow start. There were days when I would question everything I was doing, and whether we were on the right path. Slowly but surely, though, people started taking notice. Readers started sending in mails and messages saying they loved what we were doing, and had queries asking us to curate very specific stories, do beauty product reviews, or identify the lipstick Alia Bhatt was wearing at a particular event.
So we listened to our audience and started doing more of what they wanted. People were so used to reading crappy lifestyle content online, that a lot of them would tell us we were like a breath of fresh air. What’s more, the industry at large sat up and took notice too. But the biggest win was when brands started approaching us directly for collaborations, thanks to the organic traffic we were driving their way through our shoppable stories.
Starting a company is no easy feat. What’s been the most rewarding part of the process?
Coming to work every day and feeling like a big part of a small system that you know well and can shape for the better is a huge motivator. At most of my previous jobs, you always had to toe the company line, and there was little room for innovation or experimentation. What’s more, we were so insulated from what readers *actually* wanted.
The beauty of the digital medium is that you know in real time whether something is working or not, whether readers are engaging with something you think is awesome or not. Personally and professionally, the learning curve has been huge.
What’s more, I’m surrounded by some of the nicest, smartest, most ambitious people, so we’re always driving each other to be bigger, better, stronger. It is both exhilarating and exhausting, but this has easily been one of the best decisions of my life.
Where do you think you’ve had your biggest struggles, and how have you overcome them?
I don’t think people realise how important it is to be surrounded by a great team. As any new entrepreneur will tell you, entrepreneurship is not a 9-to-5 job. It is your life. Your team is your family. Your personal life will suffer. Vacations will be a distant memory (I haven’t taken one in over 2 years).
But what will keep you going are the people you surround yourself with. When you have a strong team that supports your vision and is just as invested in building something they have a big role in shaping, you know you’re on to a good thing.
I struggled with some bad hires and not being a good people manager in the beginning, and it took me a while to realise that when something isn’t working, you have to drop the deadweight quickly. You’ll be surprised how quickly a few people’s passive aggressive negativity can ruin a perfectly good working environment.
Now I actively look for qualities like loyalty, initiative, playing well with teams, and problem-solving abilities in people I want to hire. They’re the ones who will shine, and the ones you will learn new things from.
Any challenges you face as a digital company versus a legacy media publication? How do you think you score over legacy media?
Speed and adaptability. We’re not stuck in our ways about how things should be done and can drop things that aren’t working fairly quickly. What’s more, we’re constantly testing and adapting our approach to things.
From the beginning, we were very clear about taking the native advertising route. Banner advertising was not something we wanted to get behind. Instead, we wanted to tell good stories. There’s no reason why a sponsored article should be shoddily created. Our native solutions are just as good as our everyday content, and we take pride in coming up with ideas for brands that we know will resonate with our audience.
One of our biggest supporters has been Nike, and the stories we’ve done with them speak volumes for both our ability to tell good stories and their confidence in our platform.
What, in your opinion, is the best thing about being a digital company?
The ability to understand your audience on a visceral level. To communicate with them daily, and have them communicate right back with you in real time.
The other thing I love about being a digital-first media entity is that we can do so many things besides just “write” stories. Today, the shelf-life of every piece of content we create can be extended massively by converting it into a fun video for YouTube, a live video for Facebook, or a social only GIF-heavy story for Instagram or Snapchat.
The destination site is no longer the only point of interaction. Today, we have the ability to go where our audience is — on social media, for example — and still push out all this amazing content in various iterations.
Lessons you’ve learned along the way that hold you in good stead today?
Know who you are, stand by what you believe, and be passionate about what you’re building. Only then will the end result reflect your hard work.
What’s more, when you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t get to take the day off. What helps ease the strain, though, is the people you choose to share the burden of expectations with. And the kinship you develop with those who are as invested in the success of your ideas as yourself.
So surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. For they will also be the people you will not be afraid of failing with.
Do you think building a business as a woman — raising money as a woman — has more challenges?
Yes and no. In my experience, raising money has less to do with you being a woman and more to do with whether you have the necessary experience, know-how, and ability to run a sustainable enterprise.
But I have had experiences where being a woman has coloured people’s perceptions about how I (should) conduct myself. Because if you’re a man and you’re demanding, you’re just doing your job. But if you’re a woman and you’re demanding, you’re a bitch. It’s hard being a female entrepreneur if you don’t have a core set of principles to guide you, or a set of standards for yourself, your employees, your brand. And while you probably won’t get congratulated for being professional or competitive, you will get criticised for being a bitch.
So say exactly what you mean. Don’t apologise for it. Don’t water it down. Is everyone going to be a fan of the straightforwardness? Nope.
But when you put your heart and soul into what you do and people around you don’t live up to your standards, then calling them out on it does not make you a bitch. It makes you serious. It’s what you do when you want people to know that if they waste your time, you won’t just smile and take it.
If you had to go back and start over, is there anything you would do differently?
Honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. I only wish I hadn’t waited as long as I did to launch Hauterfly.
Waiting for the perfect moment to pursue a goal is often like waiting for Godot (a character in Samuel Beckett’s play of the same name, about two men waiting for a third who never shows up). When I was in my 20s, I was always waiting for the perfect time: to study abroad, to find a job that satisfied all my creative impulses, to ask for a raise, to commit to a relationship, to work out, to work for myself. The list kept growing until I realised that there was never going to be a perfect time. If I wanted something, I had to act.
So, a little over 3 years ago, I took an extended break from full-time work for the first time in a decade to sit back and evaluate what I really wanted to do. I finally had the courage to put my business idea down on paper and set the wheels in motion.
Last year, I met a young CEO who told me he started his entrepreneurial journey when he was only 14. Today, he runs a fairly successful digital marketing agency between India and London. He turned 22 this year.
If I have one regret, it’s that I wish I’d started sooner!
What else can we expect from your website in the future? Where do you go from here?
We have a ton of ideas, but this year we’re betting on video in a big way. Our short-format Haute Hack series, how to style videos, celebrity beauty how-tos, and longer format #MakeupMonday reviews have been performing really well, so we’re definitely going to build on that. We’re also planning some original programming with a strong female focus later this year. 2017 is going to be an exciting year for Hauterfly!