Mar 8, 20207 min read

Interview with Joanna Dai, Founder & CEO at DAI.

Emily Thomas

by Emily Thomas

Joanna Dai, Founder & CEO at DAI

How did you start your own business, where did you get the idea for the concept?

I worked for eight years of very long days in investment banking and experienced first-hand the importance of how we look and feel to empower our confidence especially as women in male dominated fields. I saw a huge gap in the market where women’s workwear was made from traditional fabrics that were restrictive and high maintenance, and very few options offered performance, comfort and function. My eureka moment came when I was on a same-day work trip to Stockholm, one that I got dressed for at 4:30am and was on the last return flight 16 hours later after a day of meetings. The waistband was digging in, I couldn’t move my arms, and I wished I were in my yoga leggings. I thought to myself, “could workwear feel like yoga and still look like a power suit?” It was 2016 and athleisure had totally boomed, so with all these technical fabrics readily available on the market, it was obvious to me that there was an opportunity to innovate and revolutionise workwear with fabrics that were 4-way stretch, breathable, wrinkle resistant and machine washable. I envisioned the brand as one that empowered women, and I went for it.

How did you make the leap from employee to business owner?

I left banking at a time when I also was craving for more purpose and impact in my own career development. I felt like a small cog in a big machine in a large corporate environment, so I was ready to move on. In a leap of faith, I left finance full-time and embarked on a crash course in fashion. I took design and pattern cutting courses at London College of Fashion and did a 3-month unpaid internship with Emilia Wickstead (who I knew from designing my wedding dress). I went to Premiere Vision and sourced over 60 technical fabrics, tested all of them for tailoring construction and selected the best, which were patented Italian eco-friendly fabrics, to create our first collection. I bootstrapped using my savings and launched a tightly curated 8-piece collection in July 2017 with everything on preorder. It wasn’t long until we had our first article in The Times (“I found the perfect trousers”). We sold out immediately, and we took off from there.

Who is a woman who inspires you?

Hilary is still my homegirl. Hilary Clinton has been championing women her entire career while holding her own weight in the heavily contentious and foul-play riddled political arena. Despite her defeat, she made giant leaps forward on behalf of all women. The impact of her achievements will inspire millions of younger women everywhere to carry her torch forward, and one of these women will become the first female US president.

What milestone are you most proud of?

It is a cumulation of lots of wins and experiences along the way, but I think the launch of our Spitalfields Performance Space store was a very big moment for us. It’s a huge glass double-floored store in a prominent shopping area in London and near all the corporate offices by Liverpool Street Station. And as a two-year-old company, we’re adjacent to and have a bigger storefront than incredible brands I love and respect such as Peloton, Ollie Quinn, and Malin + Goetz. Beyond our beautiful products, the space is about community, sustainability, and fit technology. It has really complemented all of our online efforts to see us in real life. I am still pinching myself every time I walk up because the store is really special and I can’t believe it’s ours.

What’s the riskiest move you’ve taken in your business?

Bringing on outside investors is one of the biggest decisions any entrepreneur can make in the course of his or her business. We kept selling out and cycling whatever profits we could into inventory but we couldn’t meet market demand quickly enough, and our lack of working capital restricted our investment into other areas to continue to grow at a pace in line with the excitement around brand in the market. Bringing external investors means losing some elements of control in the business I built with my own hands and fully controlled. And it’s like hiring: despite great rapport from all the initial meetings, it’s impossible to predict how the ongoing relationship and fit would be. It’s also like marriage: once you sign the dotted line, it’s not so easy to undo. So it definitely felt like a big risk. But despite all my initial reservations, we have incredibly supportive strategic investors plus the working capital that has allowed us to grow the business significantly to meet market demand and innovate into more products, channels, and community growth.

What has been the most difficult part of growing your business?

Knowing which channels, communications and services to use so that we are most effective in reaching and providing the best experience for your customer. There’s no set playbook and every brand is unique in how it does that, so it’s constantly about testing and innovating new creative ways to reach new customers efficiently and effectively. We’re direct-to-consumer, which gives us a lot of flexibility and direct interaction with our customers, and it opens a wide array of channels for us to test. We learned last year that relying heavily on Facebook and Instagram sponsored posts in an already crowded space was not the most authentic way of introducing our brand. Hence, we had parallel strategies in place through several complementary channels to optimise our brand impact, including pop-ups, sponsoring women in finance/media/law conferences, hosting events, speaking on panel discussions, press, partnerships and more. We’re constantly testing, changing and fine-tuning our marketing channels to optimally engage with our existing and new customers.

What 3 traits do you think are most important when running a successful business?

Resilience, willingness to take risk, business acumen. I’m going to add a fourth, which is creativity.

What’s the best business advice you have ever received?

Know your purpose, your true why. Then ask yourself if that purpose is strong enough for you to do what you do. Life is a rollercoaster. Being an entrepreneur is a rollercoaster. And in the worst possible times, your purpose has to be strong enough and the pain has to be worth the gain, otherwise you won’t make it. My two purposes that I can achieve through Dai for now and forever: empower women and champion environmental sustainability.

Any advice to future entrepreneurs?

If you’re really passionate about an idea and it keeps you up at night, do it. Naivety is bliss. But it’s a rollercoaster, and the moments that teeter on the edge of failure are real. Your unwavering purpose and true why need to be strong enough because that’s your source of raw grit and hustle that will carry you through.