Jade Huang, CEO and Co-Founder of StyleSage, is leveraging artificial intelligence to transform the fashion industry for the better.
Inspired by the success of fashion giant Zara, Jade quickly pivoted from aspiring fashion designer to innovative technologist. She realized that many of the bottlenecks and pain points experienced by the fashion industry could be solved with the right data and analytics. She then created StyleSage’s smart AI, which she says sees the world the way customers do and helps retailers and brands automate data-driven decisions and processes.
We asked Jade about how she transformed her idea into a service that’s now used by clients around the world and the lessons she has learned throughout her journey.
Q: Tell us the story behind your company’s founding: How and why did you start working on StyleSage?
A: In 2013, When I was in business school at INSEAD in France, I was inspired by a business case about Zara. They achieved global success by gathering data points that were ingested by design and merchandising teams who then produced beautiful collections that customers all over the world loved.
I thought that if other brands and retailers had easy access to this type of insight, the industry as a whole could move faster and meet customer demand better. Most importantly, there’d be less waste in inventory overage, which is a huge challenge for many companies and the environment.
Q: What problem does StyleSage solve?
A: From my days studying fashion design at Parsons School of Design, I knew that we could solve a number of bottlenecks with the right analytics and technology. We went out and talked to industry veterans to gain a deep understanding of what kept them up at night, what challenges were difficult for their teams, and what was distracting them or diluting their focus. And that’s how this idea came about—to automate a lot of processes and intelligence gathering that their teams were having to do manually, so they could focus on what they do best: creating really beautiful garments that people want to wear.
StyleSage delivers global insights and market visibility to retailers and brands in four major business areas: pricing, promotions, assortment, and trends. Our advanced image recognition and machine learning capability extracts important visual elements from images the way a human would, but at a massive scale. That scale allows us to do this across millions of products in seconds. This approach is very powerful when our clients are trying to understand how to enter a new market and how to differentiate their brand and products from what is already being offered. That differentiation is often what makes or breaks a brand, especially when expanding into a new market.
Q: What were the most difficult and most impactful lessons you’ve learned since starting and running a company?
A: Prioritization is one of the most challenging tasks, especially in the early stages of starting the company. In the beginning, you’re pulled in all directions. It feels like everything is on fire and sometimes it is tough to know which fire to put out first. I’ve learned how to take a few moments to prioritize what I want to accomplish for the week, then subsequently what to focus on for the day. An entrepreneur friend of mine once shared that his daily prioritization process is akin to that of a chef who lays out a mise en place (prepping all the ingredients, tools, and equipment) before cooking a meal, and I find that to be true. I lay out my to-do list of the day with a theme so I can focus better.
Another hard lesson I learned is the importance of self care. The first three years of building the company, I took only one week of vacation. At the time, I felt that every minute that I was not working, my competition was. As a result, I couldn’t bring myself to take time off. The feeling of burnout really manifested in the fourth year. I felt demoralized and unmotivated, and it nearly caused me to give up. It took a lot to come back from that. Since then, I’ve been slowly learning how to take better care of myself and to draw boundaries so that I can be more productive and engaged in all areas of my life.
Q: Have you struggled with self doubt as an entrepreneur? How do you navigate this?
A: Absolutely. Every entrepreneur I’ve spoken to has professed to having self doubt from time to time. The journey of building a company is full of uncertainty and uncharted water. I think it is normal to have such doubts and to acknowledge them. The key is learning how to manage these moments and pull yourself out of a rabbit hole instead of talking yourself into failure.
For me personally, having a strong support system is essential to tackling those low moments. It’s important to not lean on a single person all the time, because you can deplete that resource and create an unintentional emotional and mental burden for that person. I have a wonderful network of family and friends as well as a supportive partner in life who is my rock and who I lean on in my time of crisis. And last but not least, my co-founder, who has been on this company-building journey with me since the beginning, is a great listener and advocate. I can’t stress enough the importance of having these people in my life.
Lastly, It may be helpful to work with an executive coach. I worked with Milo Razza from EvenBraver Coaching earlier this year to hone my leadership style, and it was a transformative experience. I learned how to identify trigger points that created doubt and proactively manage my reactions so I can be an effective leader. It was the first time I’ve worked with a coach, and I wish I had done that much earlier in my career.
Q: Have you discovered any underappreciated leadership traits or misconceptions around leadership?
A: In the beginning of my career, I thought there was a formula for leadership and there was a rigid set of criteria that constitutes to being a “good leader.” At the time, there was a lot of admiration around creating a culture of fear to drive people to perform well. While it didn’t resonate with me, I also didn’t have concrete ideas on what the alternative should be.
As I went further along in my career and started to build teams, I found that being a good leader actually involves a bit of self-discovery and reflection to understand what kind of leader you want to be. From that, you draw on qualities that shape you into that leadership vision.
For me, I discovered that empathy was an important yet underappreciated quality. I personally perform the best when my manager makes an effort to understand my point of view and recommendations, and trusts me to produce the results she’s looking for. I try to bring that into my leadership style when I work with my team, so that they have autonomy to be their best selves.
Q: What would you tell your younger self if you were to start your entrepreneurial journey all over again?
A: Don’t be so hard on yourself when things don’t go right or when you aren’t perfect. You can only make the best decision based on the information you have at the time. Mistakes are okay as long as you do a post-mortem analysis and learn from them. And, seriously, take a vacation. The company won’t go down in flames if you take a few days off.
Q: What’s next for you and for StyleSage?
A: Last year was really, really tough. Retail was one of the hardest hit industries because of COVID-19. I had many sleepless nights worrying whether we would survive and how we’d be able to take care of our team.
In the end, we were very fortunate in that we managed to maintain the same revenue levels, and therefore had no layoffs or salary reductions. The insights from our analytics were essential for our e-commerce-focused clients to compete effectively—many of them double-downed and increased their accounts with us.
Starting 2021, things are already looking brighter. With the combination of vaccine rollouts and lockdown restrictions easing, retailers are now looking to invest in e-commerce and technologies that will enable them to be digitally savvy. We’ve doubled our annual revenue in a single quarter and have big plans in the works to scale globally. We’ve weathered the storm thus far, and I am optimistic about the future. Personally, I can’t wait to see how far we can take StyleSage in the next year.