The Main Tab, founded by Liseda Shelegu is the first and only high-end wholesale marketplace in the current market. We are honored to welcome her to share her experience as a successful female entrepreneur. Being in the sales industry since the last decade, she understands the struggle of finding the right platform for retailing and discovering potential wholesale and independent retailers; which inspired her to start The Main Tab.
In this episode, Liseda shared with us her mission as a female entrepreneur in this current society, and the struggles she encountered during this journey. Although she was rejected by many investors during the early stages, it did not discourage Liseda from fulfilling her dream. Instead, she developed skill sets and some personal techniques which allowed her to flourish in the VC environment. From there she was able to launch many platforms and collaborate with many authentic and independent boutique brands. If you are looking to be motivated by an inspirational story of a successful entrepreneur, you should not miss this episode.
Angela– On episode 14, I would like to introduce my good friend Liseda. How are you today?
Liseda– Hello, I’m good thank you.
Angela– So, I’ve known Liseda for over 10 years.
Liseda– Give or take.
Angela– I really, truly admire her ambition, her dedication, and just her strong work ethic. Her ambition and determination led her to be a self-starter. She has previously worked with numerous large corporations where she gained some great business insight and created some great connections. She then found an amazing company called the “Main Tab”, after realizing that the industry was missing such a platform. I’m going to let Liseda explain further what the main tab is, and maybe do a brief introduction about it
Liseda– Thanks for having me and glad to have known you for a decade. That was a really kind introduction and I really appreciate it. So, the “Main Tab” and the simplest way to describe it, is that we are the only high-end wholesale marketplace. We are on a mission to support Main Street stores, the independent retailers, the mom-and-pop gift shops that sell gift items and really provide that experience that you normally would not get at a traditional big-box retailer. As you said, I’ve been working in the industry for the last decade, I kind of really fell into the space, in the category, and completely fell in love with working with independent retailers (and saw how powerful they are). I didn’t even realize how powerful they are until about a year ago when I started working on the “Main Tab” and this idea that kind of came to me in a lightbulb moment. I learned that there are over 50,000 independent retailers in America generating over 800 billion dollars a year in sales. It is astronomical how massive that market is, and here is what’s really wild: they are completely neglected. It is such a fragmented industry and the way that they discover these brands and place these orders, is very much the old school way of like fax machines and phone calls and emails; there’s no one place for them to have everything in one main platform to do the wholesale. This is how it came about. Frankly, it was also a bit about (and this is every entrepreneur’s story about being lazy) I wanted to make my job easier, because I was on the sales side. I thought, “How could I make this easier for me to sell more of my brands and get them more exposure, and more revenue?” And I thought, why isn’t there a Net-A-Porter for wholesale, for the gift industry. Or even a high-end version of Alibaba?
Angela– And how did this come about? What did you do, what was the next step after the idea came about?
Liseda– So, after I had the idea, I needed a website and I had never done one before so I googled “how to make a website.” I built a website on Wix, I came up with the name, and I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing. I chose Wix because it was a bit cheaper than Shopify, and It was really a test for me to see if there was a need in the marketplace for this idea that I had. And then, I sent out four mass emails to about 2,000 independent retailers for over 4 months and one of them placed an order for $1,500 for one of the brands. So I thought okay, the concept is approved! And eventually the hard work started when I had to look for an engineer who could build the platform that I envisioned for that marketplace that needed to be built and wholesale tends to be very difficult from traditional retail because there’s a lot of customizations behind the scenes. So you know, you have these independent businesses that will be like “I want this order but I want this shipped in two weeks from now. Ship this to this one location and ship the other one to a different location.” It’s very detailed because it’s bigger and it’s in bulk. We had to build a platform from ground and from scratch, so that took some time, but we got in and that went live with our MVP last year in August. I was bootstrapping it, working full time while building the platform so I definitely slept only two hours a night maybe. I started talking to some VC’s, and I thought it would be easy to raise some money, and then realized I was really wrong. We ended up raising a small amount and getting into the accelerator program, so we were able to rebirth the Main Tab this year of January.
Angela– Could you go into more detail of how you got an investor or how everything worked out?
Liseda– It was hard, I come from a Sales background and in sales it’s a lot of cold calling and just approaching people, with VC’s it doesn’t work that way. It’s a very closed off network that unless you get that “warm introduction” everyone talks about you’re not going to get anything with them. They all say it’s kind of like ‘dating’, and I tend to be very honest and straightforward about things whereas an average person who is raising money will go to VC and say, “If I don’t get a term in 24 hours we’re moving onto the next one” and they’ll get that term sheet. Whereas I would be like “Here’s what we are building, here’s our strategy, here’s the long term vision, and it’s not inciting that urgency because I’m being more strategic and more long term versus short term and trying to get that validation
Angela– Can you describe Main Tab for me in 3 words?
Liseda– 3 words is hard, can I get 3 sentences? So I feel like I keep grouping it, so we’re really particular about the brands we have on our platform. We are a gift, wellness and lifestyle space, no fashion, it’s very cyclical. Every 4 weeks there’s always a new selection so clothing would be too hard. So, premium coveted high brands, and then seamless or frictionless experience, and we’re really a small business and very much operate like one. We work with small businesses so we have to understand what they need, what they want, when you’re a small business that’s what happens. They’re the backbone of the economy at times.
Angela– Let’s go back to the questions where you met the investors with your idea. I want to know how many said no to you, and what kept you going? You obviously did not give up because you eventually landed on an investment.
Liseda– All of them (laughs) Interesting, very good question. So I met with several VC’s and I honestly didn’t keep track of the numbers, but it was all “no’s”, and again coming from a sales background you tend to become comfortable with rejection.
Angela– Why do you think they said no?
Liseda– For many reasons, we were in a very early stage and every single VC that I did approach and met, I didn’t have a very warm introduction to them. It was a lot of cold pitches and it was a lot of cold intros even, and it didn’t come from someone in their portfolio company which is usually when it is beneficial to the relationship. Plus, we were really early on in the stage, I launched the VP website in August. The home page is something that I designed myself, and it wasn’t the best but you’re bootstrapping. This is how you grow, you try and you test it out, and you keep going, but yeah a lot of people said no to me. And you know we’ve heard a lot of stories of these billion-dollar companies over the years and you look deeper behind it and then you realize it’s all smoke and mirrors and, they’re the ones that are really selling this crazy vision and this idea and they’re adding few extra zeros to their target market, and that’s what VC’s want. I approached every meeting with the VC’s in a very honest way which was, here’s how big the market is, here’s what we can obtain, here’s how we’re going to go about it, and here’s how long it’s going to take. Very pragmatic, but they want me to come in there and say “it’s going to be an 800 billion dollar business, get it now!” We talked about this before but we were raised in our culture to be reserved, and avoid saying how great you are or boast about your company. If someone asks us how the company is doing we would usually say “it’s fine, how are you?”
Angela– My parents told me the same thing, even if you’re doing amazing. It shouldn’t always be that way
Liseda– Yeah, especially in the VC world, that’s exactly what you should not do. You really need to toot your own horn massively because, if you’re not someone else will do it for themselves and they’ll get the money you want. It almost doesn’t feel like a “fair” world, but it is just the way it is. So yeah, the VC route is challenging, it’s tough but it’s also really rewarding when you meet the right investors which we did. They are so helpful and they see the vision and they want to help support it. They email me constantly regarding new brands and boutiques, and that’s what you want, that kind of relationship.
Angela– So if you can improve something in your business what would it be?
Liseda– Every single day I come up with a list of to-dos and improvements. It varies, some days it’s changing something in the tech, other days it’s about building additional relationships, acquiring more customers, getting more brands. Right now, we’re in such hyper-growth mode that it’s very fast and things just have to get done, so we’re not much about improving, that usually happens in the later stage when you have built something and you can go back and fix things. Right now, we are currently still building and if it breaks, we fix it.
Angela– So what kind of issues do startups face, not just yours but in general?
Liseda– Millions. So, there’s an issue with acquiring and hiring talent, it’s a very competitive landscape because you’re competing with likes of Facebook and Google’s who have these incredible compensation packages that I look at and I want it. (Laughs) So you’re competing with that and you’re really trying to sell that vision to someone about what you’re going to build and pay them minimum wage. So that’s a challenge.
Angela– How do you find those talents?
Liseda– A lot of it is luck. A lot of business is actually luck. My engineer was pure luck, finding my marketing manager was someone I used to work with 10 years ago. So it’s really about being in the network and getting luck and reconnecting. But I always say, and I’ve heard this from another entrepreneur who I admire so much, he said, “businesses fail for 2 reasons; either they run out of money or someone or somewhere in the company stops trying- and usually someone stops trying because they run out of money.” The money will buy you 2 things, time or resources. When you don’t have one of those or both of those, you’re in trouble.
Angela– Would you suggest that they go ahead and get a business loan?
Liseda– Yes, I think right now and this is me specifically. I feel like all these entrepreneurs that are coming up right now and building these incredible companies and really have these fantastic stories for them, were a generation that was saddled with student loans debt. So we hear the word “loan” and we have PTSD. But I think there’s a massive opportunity for companies like you guys to educate people on what a loan actually is. Because if someone thinks of the word “loan,” they may think that they need to pay it back for the next 50 years of my life. I’m still paying student loans and I graduated over a decade ago, so that’s how people perceive loans now. It’s sort of like a tarnished term, so is it right for some business, maybe. Is it better than VC money, I don’t know, it’s probably cheaper. People always say that you take a loan and the interest can only be 2% or you sell 10% of your company for the same amount of money so what’s worth it more to you. I think in the end, it depends on what kind of business you’re in and what the growth potential for that business is.
Angela– So, what is your day like? What is the secret to being a successful entrepreneur?
Liseda– Frankly, every day is different, it’s a lot of early wake-up calls, lots of late nights but, usually Monday through Friday I’m in the office 9-6, heads down working. But during those hours, I try not to do anything that’s not directly going to positively impact my company in my trajectory. Then, early mornings and late evenings are meetings, whether it’s something like this or whether it’s with an investor or with a potential client.
Angela– What is one thing you can tell your younger self and why?
Liseda– Not that it’s a flaw, but I tend to work really fast. I like getting things done at a speed of light and I’m more of a person who’s like “do it now and ask for permission later.” But I think if I could go back in time, I would tell myself to slow down. I look back 5 years ago or 10 years ago and the only thing I can remember is the work and accomplishment that I’ve done, but I would also remember some nice trips with family and friends and it makes me realize that it’s nice to slow down and catch up as well.
Angela– Okay, great! Thank you so much!