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Tanja Bogumil and Linh Nguyen direct me to the Berlin office of Kisura, their personal clothes-shopping service, by saying they are just down the road from Checkpoint Charlie.
The famous crossing point between the former east and West Berlin is a fitting landmark; the fashion-loving founders were raised in families from either side of the cold war divide. Bogumil grew up in the city of Münster, in the west German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, while Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam in the 1980s to what was then a fellow socialist country, the German Democratic Republic. What brought them together was business school.
The pair met at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. Both were completing postgraduate degrees — Bogumil taking a masters in management, while Nguyen was on the specialist finance programme — and they helped each other with exam preparations and case study research.
They had also both inherited a love of entrepreneurship. Bogumil’s mother and father had set up businesses providing mentoring services for executives, while Nguyen came from a family of restaurateurs.
“You just know when it clicks,” Bogumil says. “During the most stressful times it turned out we had a very similar approach to problem solving and shared the same mindset and values as well as the same sense of humour.”
Kisura provides customers with personalised selections of clothes based on the body shape, size and fashion preferences they enter when registering with the website.
The masters in management degree gave academic rigour to the founders’ business planning, including finance and marketing expertise, according to Bogumil, as well as encouragement from the tutors to make the company happen.
Kisura’s stylists select clothes for customers from more than 30 brands and stock from five retail partners. Customers can return unwanted items within 14 days for free, but Kisura pays its suppliers 100 days after receipt of stock, ensuring the business maintains positive cash flow. The company makes its margins by negotiating bulk discounts with suppliers.
“For us what is important is to make ecommerce efficient again,” Bogumil says. “What all our customers have in common is that they value convenience and the ability to return items.”
Kisura signed its first supplier deal with Peek & Cloppenburg, the German fashion chain. It came about when Bogumil and Nguyen shopped at one of its Berlin stores for their initial stock, using its customer discount card.
“At some point they noticed we were buying a lot of clothes, so we got a meeting with the store manager,” Nguyen says. Fortunately he was receptive to their idea.
They formed other partnerships by cold-calling the head offices of clothing suppliers, but the process has become easier as Kisura’s reputation has grown, the founders say.
The typical Kisura customer is aged between 30 and 50, internet savvy and has a strong sense of fashion. “It is both people who know what they want and those who want advice on styling,” Nguyen says. The average shopping cart value is €150 during the summer season, increasing to €200 during the winter months.
Business knowledge gained from the founders’ degree programmes and support from HHL tutors was invaluable in the company’s early stages.
In the start-up’s day-day business, “we regularly face problems for which there is no ready solution”, Bogumil says. “The only thing that helps is thinking outside the box and jumping in at the deep end.”
Going to business school also opened up a network of people who have since supported the company as investors or mentors, Bogumil says. The business currently employs 65 people. Bogumil and Nguyen have raised more than €5m in five funding rounds to develop Kisura’s technology and promote its service in its core German-speaking markets. The next stage is to make Kisura a mobile-first service — most customers currently log on from a desktop computer.
The sense of a shared purpose and passion has been key to the company’s success to date, says Bogumil. “Being friends is not sufficient to form a killer founding team,” she says. “It’s the complementary skills and [personalities] paired with the similar drive, vision and commitment to make a change.”