How this Tunisian channeled fashion into a startup

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When Arbia Smiti founded Carnet de Mode (Fashion Diary) in 2011, the crowdfunding platform captured the attention of the French media, including Paris Match, Télématin, and Le Monde. Yet, following an initial flurry of interest, the service failed to take off and the Tunisian entrepreneur had to stop short.

Six years later, Arbia Smiti can proudly say she has finally succeeded. Carnet de Mode has become an international marketplace for young fashion designers, as well as a renowned and bankable platform. She says the reasons for Smiti’s success are her tenacity, her Tunisian origins, and her adaptability.

The Amazon of select fashion

"Most creators do not have an ecommerce site," observes Smiti. As such, they have neither the means nor the skills to create, manage, and promote a website.

Carnet de Mode puts at the disposal of creators an ecommerce site allowing them to manage their own e-shop, billing, stock, and shipping without the need for developers or ecommerce pro.

Arbia Smiti's success is not surprising when taking into account her determination and her taste for risk. (Image via Arbia Smiti)

The platform also helps them promote their products. "We invest in marketing and communication to bring them traffic, sales, and customers," explains Smiti.

In short, Carnet de Mode takes care of the business side of things so that the creators focus on their core activity: creation.

The company remunerates itself by taking a 35 percent commission on the public price of sold products. This is nothing compared to outfits that take a hefty 60 to 75 percent.

But beware, the site is rather choosy. "We are selective, we are not open to everyone," says Smiti. The company selects designers based on the design of their products, quality-price ratio, and the photos of the products.

The platform currently displays 500 designers, with 1,000 more awaiting approval from the Carnet de Mode team. The company, which has raised 1.3 million euros (US$ 1.4 million), turned profitable in 2016.

The need to start a business

Arbia Smiti's success is not such a surprise when one takes into account her determination and her taste for risk.

"When I was little, I really wanted to have power; I wanted to create something that had a social impact, revolutionizing an industry. For me, this stands as my definition of entrepreneurship now," she explains.

"I have always loathed labels and boxes and I'm doing everything to get out of them. Tunisia, family, mentality ... I was looking to move toward a more open mindset, an international culture, to discover the world,” Smiti reveals. “All this was before the revolution," she adds, referring to the mass demonstrations that toppled Tunisia’s undemocratic regime in 2011.

She edged closer to her ambitions at the ESCP business school, where she earned a master's degree in marketing, followed by an internship at L'Oréal, where she learned marketing techniques in a hands-on environment.

A year and a half later, Smiti knew more than ever that she wanted to start her own business. She hadn’t figured out the details, but she did have an inkling that it would have something to do with fashion and digital marketing. So she joined a company in ecommerce fashion, Fashionshipping, to familiarize herself with the industry.

The inevitable pivot

In January 2011, she launched Carnet de Mode. At first, it was a crowdfunding platform dealing with fashion. "That's how it became known," she recalls. “We made a huge buzz in France because I was the first to bring the concept of crowdfunding to the country."

But very quickly, she realized that the market was not ready, that it was too early. In 2012, she decided to change her strategy. Carnet de Mode remained on the market for young creators, but its economic model was altered; it started to become a marketplace.

"That's what any startup does. There is not a single startup in the world that has not rotated two or three times,” Smiti argues.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard. "There are ups and downs in any startup, there are many more downs than ups. We have to ignore them and move on," Smiti insists. "If we do not have the guts, if we do not believe up to 1,000 percent in our idea, then it is useless to go on."

The advantages of an upbringing in Tunisia

The success of Carnet de Mode is due to its perseverance, but also its international approach.

"[Having] a double culture is always an advantage. It can only open the world to us, [so that we end up] wanting to make a greater impact. In my case, it prompted me to internationalize my startup very quickly," Smiti says.

From day one, Carnet de Mode has operated both in English and French. Today, the whole team is bilingual and international. The site offers international deliveries, so creators come calling from all over the world, mostly from France and the UK. Meanwhile, Americans and Britons make up the bulk of the customers.

Tunisia, always

Despite achieving success in France, Smiti has always kept her native country, Tunisia, in the back of her mind. Though she might not work in Tunisia, she assumes the role of unofficial ambassador for the country.

"I recommend to creators that they produce in Tunisia, and I put them in contact with Tunisian factories," she explains. “I know the skills of Tunisians, and on textile, they are still very competitive. That is what I bring to my country."

Will she ever set up a company in Tunisia?

"It's not my first company and it will not be the last,” she vows, referring to Carnet du Mode. “For my next project, I would think a little more about making a direct impact on Tunisia.”

Feature image via Editions Originales.

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