CEO & Editor-In-Chief @Hauterfly
Zahra has over 15 years of experience under her belt in the fashion, lifestyle and luxury industry with major media names like Times Of India, HELLO and Times Now while also playing a major role in the launch of Gucci, Bottega Veneta & Jimmy Choo in India. She founded Hauterfly, an independent website that influences how urban Indian women spend their time and money online. Zahra’s core expertise lies in creating innovative content that female audiences can instantly connect with, apart from creative strategies for its promotion and amplification. Her strong knowledge of digital media gives her a competitive edge, which is why she is an absolute #BADASSBOSS
In this exclusive interview with BeBadass, She discusses what it really takes to be the CEO and lead a team while explaining how she started and got to where she successfully is today.
Tell us about your professional journey so far. How and when did it start?
I come from a thoroughly editorial background, having worked with some of the biggest names in national media including The Times of India, Times Now, and HELLO! magazine -- among several other media outlets -- for over 15 years. For a brief time, I was also part of the marketing team that launched the luxury brands Gucci, Jimmy Choo, and Bottega Veneta in India, before going back to my first love, i.e. creating great content.
Shortly before launching Hauterfly in 2015, I worked for a fashion e-commerce startup called Stylista, where I used content as a driver for encouraging purchase decisions, and that gave me some great insights on how women shop online, apart from superb exposure on how to build a brand and a company from scratch.
Did you always know what you wanted to be?
Pretty much. I was always very creative as a child – I loved writing, arts and craft, music, dramatics – so I figured I’d be doing something creative eventually. But for a brief time in college, I did very seriously consider a career in law!
Was your educational background in sync with your career choice?
Umm… no. I majored in Banking & Finance as part of my B.Com degree 🙈. Back then, there were few options if you wanted a creative career!
Can one ‘manage’ without a management degree in your opinion?
I can’t speak for everyone, but in my case I have certainly ‘managed’ without a management degree. If you have a hunger to learn and a passion to succeed, you will eventually land on your feet through sheer grit and determination. The road to success might be longer perhaps, but it won’t be any less eventful or life-altering. In all honesty, creating and running Hauterfly has been my MBA.
Every girl wants to be a CEO (#GirlBoss) these days, but what does a CEO really do?
There’s a LOT more to running a business than just creating good content and hoping to god that brands like you enough to pay for it! You have to be on top of your numbers – be it website and social statistics, growth metrics, revenues, P&Ls, cash flows, etc. It can be daunting – especially if you’re a first-time business owner like me; I won’t lie, I was (and still am) terrified of the business side of running Hauterfly. But that’s what getting out of your comfort zone means if you’re a true #GirlBoss in the making. You HAVE to learn what you don’t know. It’s not a choice. The only choice you have to make is whether you want to be a thriving business or a passion project.
Do you prefer hiring women considering the content is for women?
Considering we serve a female audience, it’s natural for us to hire women to speak to and relate to others like them. But if we do meet men who demonstrate the skill and sensitivity needed to talk to this audience, we’d be more than happy to hire them.
What percentage of your employees is female at Hauterfly?
100%. At a Fork Media (parent company) group level, we have a healthy skew of 48% female work force, which we’re actively looking to take to 50% and upwards.
How difficult can it be when you have to step up as a leader?
You know, leadership is not easy. If there’s anything every entrepreneur must learn, it’s the art of leading a team. Sometimes, your goals for your company may not match that of your employees, but inspiring them to believe in your vision, aligning them to your goals, and then helping them perform to the best of their abilities will be some of your biggest wins as a leader. Once you have that foundation on solid footing, achieving all sorts of business targets becomes relatively easier.
How do you handle self-doubt as a startup entrepreneur?
Self-doubt is a natural part of being an entrepreneur. You will often ride that emotional rollercoaster of the highest highs and lowest lows. But at every step, it is important to remember why you started out in the first place, how far you’ve come, and how far you still have to go. Never lose focus of the principles that guided you in the beginning. They will always be the pillars you will lean on.
" If you want to be competing in a crowded marketplace, you’ve got to have some initial capital and a serious go-to-market strategy within 6 months of launch. If you can’t monetize by then, you can’t be a business. It is, unfortunately, as ruthlessly obvious as that."
- Zahra Khan
To get an investor, or to not get one?
That depends entirely on your vision and the kind of company you want to be. “Success” is such a subjective word in entrepreneurship. You can be a one-woman army or a 30-woman army, a 1-crore business or a 100-crore business, the scale and ambition is entirely yours to define. Once you’ve defined it though, you need to consider whether you really need outside funding or whether you can bootstrap it on your own. Don’t ask for money unless you absolutely, positively can’t do without it.
How difficult is it to fire someone?
I’ve done it a few times now, and it never gets easier. But I’ve learned to let go of people who don't share your passion for building something of quality and value. Fast. You'll be surprised how quickly a few people's passive-aggressive negativity can ruin a perfectly good working environment.
Is it true what they say about keeping your head and heart separate as a boss?
I’m still on the fence about that way of thinking. I personally don’t know how to keep my head and my heart separate at work – my employees are some of my favorite people in my life right now. And it’s natural to feel like that about the smart and sassy young women you spend so many hours with every day. They help define what it means to be a significant player with a differentiated voice in a very crowded market place. It’s not easy – that’s something I’m still learning to see the merit (or demerit) in!
How important is diplomacy, being the Boss?
Being tactful is an art. But I prefer dealing with things straight up rather than playing the diplomat. As women, our fear of the dreaded 'BITCH' label is so pervasive that it affects our behaviour in ways we don't even recognise. Because if you're a man and you're demanding, you're just doing your job. But if you're a woman, you're just rude. The day you start apologising for having high standards or expectations is the day you start losing respect for yourself. It's hard to be 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.
Having been on both sides, from being hired and to hiring, what would you advise an applicant?
Demonstrate qualities like loyalty, initiative, playing well with teams, and problem-solving abilities – those are the things I look for in people I want to hire. They're the employees that will shine, and the ones you will learn new things from.
What has been the lowest point of your career?
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 nearly 3 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.
Tell us the highest high so far?
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.
What’s the toughest part of being the Boss?
Leading by example. It sounds like the easiest thing to do, but in so many ways it is perhaps the hardest.
Who are some women you consider Badass and why?
2. Sophia Amoruso of Nasty Gal and Girl Boss – she has demonstrated how a poster girl for fashion e-commerce success could go through bankruptcy, the eventual sale of her company, and divorce in the span of a year, and still rise out of it to create yet another business that seems to be charting a good path for itself!
Define a Badass Woman.
Someone who takes chances and pushes herself out of her comfort zone often. After all, you want to WRITE the rule book, not abide by one!
Your words of wisdom to young ambitious ladies preparing to boss up.
One of the most favourite entrepreneurial myths out there is that a fantastic idea is all it takes and everything else will magically fall into place. It's not hard to see why it's such a dearly held belief. It makes so many people feel like they are just one step away from fame, fortune, and favour. But running a successful business is SO MUCH MORE than a brilliant idea.
I've spent the past two years working with some of the smartest, most ambitious people I know preparing for things I've never done before. From competitive research to digging deep into numbers and spreadsheets, we've spent long days and longer nights refining the clarity of our ideas and the depth of our new ambitions, and how we can successfully execute them in nimble ways. And we've done this alongside everyday things like running our businesses, managing our teams, and basically not having a life.
With Hauterfly turning turning 3 this year, the things I've done, the mistakes I've made, and the lessons I've learned are priceless.
Among my two biggest learnings is passion and people – always be passionate about what you’re doing. Without it, it will be yet another dead-end job you’ll hate doing. And invest in solid people – they will be your competitive advantage in a sea of mediocrity!