Adriana Taheny, founder of Zzzana Sleepwear shares her life and business lessons.
ZZZANA Sleepwear was founded last year by Adriana Taheny. The business makes luxury sleepwear made from 100% organic bamboo, making it anti-bacterial, non-hypoallergenic, temperature regulating and moisture wicking. The products are designed in Ireland and ship internationally.
What’s your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
My journey is full of twists and turns! I had originally started an accounting degree after finishing school but then decided mid-way through my first year that I actually wanted to study Law. In the interim, I would work in retail and earn some money before embarking on a law career.
“I am determined to have a successful business no matter what it takes, twists, turns and pivots – I will succeed”
I became so immersed in the retail environment, customer service and sales that the law degree took a back seat! I progressed through the retail ranks eventually becoming a department manager in a big retail chain. I then took a leap and moved on to join a new start-up company managing their sales, marketing, and PR. I grew into this role pretty quickly, eventually becoming the general manager. It was during this time, having been exposed to and learned so much that I realised I wanted my own business for sure!
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
My big why is centred around making a difference! It may seem cliché but it is the truth. Now you may wonder, how can a pair of PJs make a difference?
My focus is on the full customer experience. How do I make this person, who has bought my product, have the best experience. I want to be etched in their memory with utmost positivity. From how they feel when they receive their order when they open it and eventually wear it. I personalise each order with a handwritten note, spray each tissue that the pyjamas are wrapped in, in a calming scent.
ZZZANA pyjamas are made from 100% organic bamboo – this is the big USP. Bamboo is naturally temperature regulating, anti-bacterial and is as soft as silk, without the maintenance. The quality of the bamboo especially when used in pyjamas offers my customers the chance to sleep comfortably. I have received messages from customers, most notably, those undergoing cancer treatment and experiencing nasty side effects such as night sweats and skin irritation, thanking me for giving them the gift of a good night’s sleep. How can I not want to keep going after receiving this?
“Empathy plays a key role when it comes to customer service and is probably ingrained in me! My empathy also allows me to not take things personally and take feedback as an opportunity to progress”
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
ZZZANA is 100% self-funded. I saved in order to be able to pursue this dream. It took a lot of sacrifice and led me to have to move back home with my parents and work from there. I am grateful I had the opportunity to do so.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I think my biggest strength is empathy. I know it’s an unusual answer but my ability to empathise and put myself in others shoes is paramount to what I do. How will my customers feel, how will they react, what would they like? Empathy plays a key role when it comes to customer service and is probably ingrained in me! My empathy also allows me to not take things personally and take feedback as an opportunity to progress. In terms of skills I am so lucky that I had that chance, in previous roles, to turn my hand to anything and learn. I have also been someone who won’t accept that things are just done. I need to know the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and this has stuck with me throughout my start-up journey. I guess that’s determination! I am determined to have a successful business no matter what it takes, twists, turns and pivots – I will succeed.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
It is hard to answer this without saying, everyone! Working within this industry for the past ten years has been really beneficial. It gave me the opportunity to build up my contacts and I have found everyone I have reached out to has been more than willing to help. Irish people within the start-up community, regardless of the field, are really open, from my experience. It is like a club, we all know the stress, sleepless nights and self-doubt! I find my greatest inspirations are those that are honest. They speak publicly about the bad days, the challenges, the days of zero sales and as a start-up you need to see and hear this.
I really admire Irish beauty and fashion entrepreneur Suzanne Jackson. She documents her success online and you can see part of what drives her is the opportunities she can give to her family. That is something I would love to be able to do for my own family. She also does a lot behind the scenes, I suppose on the outside looking in she has worked hard and appreciates her success and I find that refreshing.
In terms of mentor and inspiration all in one, I am beyond grateful to have crossed paths with Una Tynan, founder of Blank Canvas Cosmetics and co-founder of Up Cosmetics. Una has built a hugely successful business while maintaining practical anonymity! She works so hard and lets her brand do the talking. She is the most genuine person I have met within this industry and always wants to see people do well. The number of successful Irish entrepreneurs within the cosmetics industry in Ireland that would not have started or be where they are without her guidance and support is a lot! She has always said to me ‘Adriana, there is room for everyone’ and I think this mentality sums her up as a person.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
“There is room for everyone” and ‘Don’t forget the customer’.
It can be hard, especially in the beginning stages. You invest so much financially and time-wise into your business and then you see a well-known brand do something similar or someone promotes another brand and you think – I can’t afford that marketing budget to match, how will people know about me?
If you think about it too much you will go crazy thinking of all the reasons as to why you can’t be successful as opposed to all the reasons why you can. So, I have to catch myself and think – there is room for everyone in the market. Don’t forget the customer- It may sound silly but sometimes you can get so caught up in what you like or what you’d like to see for your brand you forget about what’s important. Often the customer wants the easiest and most simplistic version!
“I am an online-only business and all of my selling and communication with customers is done digitally”
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
You have to be thick-skinned and have a lot of self-belief. If I listened to different people throughout the years, I would never have started ZZZANA. Everyone has an opinion but often they can only see it from their point of view. I suppose the saying ‘don’t take advice from someone you wouldn’t trade places with’ rings true here. I think especially for me, turning 30 and investing everything I have into this business when I could have used the money to get on the property ladder is something others might see as crazy! Also being aware of this, I didn’t tell many people about my business prior to launch. I knew what I wanted and I was going for it. In the same breath, I was fortunate enough to be able to make this decision without other commitments. The lack of access to funding is difficult so finances definitely make the difference between success and failure and I am facing a lot of brick walls in that regard. It’s competitive out there and you have to leverage and take risks. In reality they don’t always pay off so you need to be resilient enough to make peace with that.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
Finance for sure, it’s the biggest factor in a product-based business. Being self-funded you have to make big decisions. Do I do X or Y which will be better for the business etc. Essentially, you’re making a decision with very little information to base your decision on. Everything falls on me. I work on my own. These are my decisions. In terms of growing the business, again, finances. Marketing costs money and you need to see a return on your investment. With the changing landscape of how we consume information both traditionally and in digital forms, you need to decide where you are going to reach your customer. What you put in front of them will resonate with them. It is trial and error of course but it’s expensive.
“I have zero regrets and I can confidently say I have done everything I can”
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
I was already in the thick of my idea when Covid hit but I never once thought that it was a bad time to launch or keep going. I suppose I was lucky in a way. I didn’t have to pivot, I worked with the landscape I had at that time. In terms of lessons, the personal lessons I learned benefited me professionally. I learned that five minutes can change your life, nothing is guaranteed. So I was even more eager to take the risk on starting the business
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
My whole business wouldn’t be possible without digital technologies. I am an online-only business and all of my selling and communication with customers is done digitally. My marketing is mixed up as I feature in print media also but again the call to action here reverts to digital. I think Covid forced businesses to embrace the digital transformation, they had to get online. I think now digital presence is embraced by most businesses and customers alike. I think there was a period of time where digital shopping was the preference but finding Irish companies was more challenging. Where now consumers have the best of both worlds.
“I am inspired by entrepreneurs who give back”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
My answer depends on the day you ask! I have zero regrets and I can confidently say I have done everything I can. Every decision I made, I did so with the best intentions therefore, I don’t tend to look back. At a push, I probably wouldn’t have launched in July! It left me in limbo with Christmas deadlines in August and very little sales data. However, I don’t dwell on that.
Who inspires you in business today?
I am inspired by entrepreneurs who give back. Whether that be in time or otherwise, I am inspired by those who have had or are currently on a successful journey but still find the time to do that podcast answering questions, or reply to the Linkedin post. I am inspired by those that don’t get caught up in the ‘success’ and give when essentially there is nothing in return. I have found this rare in my 10 years of experience within the industry. I am inspired by many Irish businesspeople who expand globally.
Gary Lavin of VITHIT is always one that springs to mind. He pushed through major barriers and competition from high profile brands because he was determined and believed in his product. He backed himself to the last.
Pamela Laird, Owner of Moxi Loves is another Irish entrepreneur that I admire. She has faced many business challenges and is always so open and honest. You can tell how much she wants to succeed but is always so kind and forthcoming. She appeared on the Apprentice in 2019 also, all with the main aim of pushing her business. I love seeing her business grow. She definitely deserves all her success!
“Go with your gut, stop trying to please everyone else. The only wrong decision is the one you never made! ”
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Given I have no official recruits it’s a bit of a hypothetical question! I am lucky to have had years of experience managing and nurturing team members to success, in previous roles. It is something I am really passionate about. I would advise to ‘ask the question’ you only know what you know. I am a real advocate for coaching as opposed to telling. I think you can teach someone practically anything but making them believe they can do it is something else.
You need to instill the belief in them that they are the right person for the role and they will progress. Everyone suffers from imposter syndrome so it’s important to focus on removing this from new recruits’ mindset. For ZZZANA, when I do recruit, I want to ensure a positive and productive workplace. Nobody wakes up and wants to have a bad day. I want people to feel valued and acknowledged as well as respected. There will be no hierarchy, it’s a common goal we work towards together, and together it is achieved.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
Although not a book, hands down for any Irish businessperson The Entrepreneur Experiment podcast by Gary Fox. It is focused on Irish businesses and their stories. It is incredibly inspiring to hear these stories and the guests are always so raw and honest. The reason I suggested the podcast first is that sometimes, I have found in the past, books written by non-Irish entrepreneurs have less of an impact, they don’t face the same challenges we do on a smaller island with a much smaller population/customer base.
Looking to be taken seriously abroad, when Irish, as a brand can be challenging so the Irish perspective is always inspirational. In terms of books ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhig. It helps you understand why we do what we do. I have always wanted to know the ‘why’ and it helps me to reset if I feel I am falling into a slump!
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Google Calendar and notes on my iPhone! I keep it simple. I make notes of the smallest details as I usually have so much going on it’s inevitable something will slip! For work, I find ‘Monday’ a great tool for communicating and storing/ sending files. It is similar to slack. As my organisation grows, I will definitely be using it.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I personally love Linkedin and Twitter. I find that they are safe spaces where I learn so much. There is less curated content on these platforms, education and information is key. Instagram and Facebook are always going to be there and are absolutely pivotal to my business, but I can become disillusioned with the perfectly curated lifestyles depicted. I am human after all! I prefer to invest my time spent on social media informing myself, it’s what makes my brain tick!
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
It is getting increasingly difficult to capture and keep people’s attention. The once-off Facebook post with lots of text and information has completely changed. It has disappeared. You have a max 10 seconds to get your point across and the challenge is keeping the viewer engaged for more than three seconds. Video content is the way to do this but the landscape is changing. It is interesting to see where the influencer landscape will go as it is pivotal to my business. People are still craving aspirational lifestyles, similar to what we did in the past with celebrities but online influencers make us feel it is slightly more accessible.
In Australia, they have banned influencers from promoting any health products including SPF and vitamins regardless of whether it is declared as an advertisement. I see more strict rules coming into play in the coming years.
I think the one to watch is virtual reality and the Metaverse. I can’t say I fully understand it but I have no doubt that in years to come I will be selling Virtual ZZZANA’s in a virtual store and to be honest, I am pretty excited about the prospect! I think the rise in NFT popularity is also an indication that the appetite is there. People trust and are invested in technology
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Go with your gut, stop trying to please everyone else. The only wrong decision is the one you never made!