Shauna Mei didn’t just have an “aha” moment — she created an entire business around the concept. The founder and CEO of global e-commerce destination AHAlife.com, Mei launched the online store, which functions more like a virtual shop full of handcrafted products, in September of this year.
AHAlife features one unique item each day, that has been exclusively designed for the site. Ranging from fashion to home decor to technology, the products fall into a series of life-enhancing categories such as: “Dress me,” “Treat me,” and “Nourish me.” Mei tells the High Low, “I wanted to develop a portal where visitors can be inspired each day by someone else’s passion, learn about someone else’s discovery, and read about how it was manifested into reality.” A quick search on the site turns up items like “Filthy Pickle, Onion & Cherry” cocktail garnishes for $18 and a “Croc iPad Cover” for $1599.
Some famous faces are getting in on the act, helping Mei curate her products. Project Runway’s Tim Gunn has a product in the works, and mogul Wendi Murdoch — wife of media mogul Rupert Murdoch – is planning to feature something in December, which Mei says “isn’t anything you would expect.”
Mei kindly agreed to answer our questions about the goals for her business, the power of creativity, and the future of e-commerce.
The High Low: Not too many people in the fashion industry can say they graduated from MIT with a double major in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. What inspired you to switch gears and enter the world of fashion commerce?
Shauna Mei: When I began my career at Goldman Sachs in investment banking and private equity, I was staffed in consumer retail. While there, I was introduced to the fashion luxury market through working on the sale of Neiman Marcus Group. At the time, I found the industry to be vastly influential in our global economy but also hugely inefficient. Then I had an “aha” moment — I wanted to create one destination to service the increasingly busy and demanding consumer [who wants] to discover, learn about, and purchase the best the world has to offer across your entire lifestyle. AHAlife.com was born from there.
THL: Inspiration — and the idea of “being inspired” — seems to have influenced you throughout your career. What about fashion and design inspires you?
SM: Fashion and design are things that allow us to tap into our creative side. Every time I meet designers, I am left inspired by their fervent and passionate efforts to create something extraordinary.
Over the years, I’ve advised designers on how to get their line carried at certain stores like Barney’s and Bergdorf. And while it’s huge for a brand to be featured there, larger department stores do tend to dictate your creativity. Sometimes a store will tell you “make your dress longer” to cater to an older consumer, or “we want this in a different fabric” … they are catering the product to increase sales. But, what happens is that products all end up looking the same!
If you want something that is totally unique, you need to let the designer see their vision come to life. So, we’re trying to break the cycle — to just allow the designer to focus on creating. When we bring a designer or artist to AHALife, we give them the creativity to let their designs shine. We might advise at the beginning of product creation, but we’ll never ask a designer to change his or her design to fit our ideas.
THL: AHAlife aims to “redefine the traditional shopping experience” — how does it differ from other e-commerce sites?
SM: E-commerce is too often predicated on practicality and discount — a marked distinction from how consumers shop in real life. In reality, people often buy things when they accidentally discover a new object and are inspired by it.
For example, when I was stuck in Paris earlier this year due to the Icelandic Volcano, I was roaming the streets and stumbled upon a cute, quaint shop where I found the most beautiful hand-blown glass paperweight. It was so beautiful that I bought it. I would never have gone online and searched for a hand-blown decorative glass paperweight!
Most e-commerce sites take the unique sense of discovery out of the experience. Our site is dedicated to helping online consumers find something really special.
THL: Take us through the process of choosing a design or product for AHAlife.
SM: Each designer and curator is different, but the creative process is always there.
Our products are always sold exclusively on AHAlife, which makes them quite unique — but designers will also create an entire concept designed especially for us.
Curators and designers will often work together to come up with something. For example, Diane von Furstenburg wanted to create something for AHALife, and she’s not just a designer, she’s also a curator for the site.
We didn’t want to carry a DVF dress, because that can be found anywhere. So she had the idea of creating inspiring photographs. From there, Cannon created the Cannon DVF PowerShot G12 camera exclusively for AHALife.
THL: How do you choose the curators? Are they all friends, or do you ever find someone at random?
SM: I always try to choose people who are genuine and who have an expertise and a trusted following. Some are my friends, while others are writers, designers, or artists I admire. The team at AHAlife.com ultimately looks for quality experts who have an influential voice within their disciplines — the common denominator is always integrity and passion.
The concept of collective curation really came out of the idea of how I want to shop. I get most of my ideas through word-of-mouth and through my friends who tell me about something really cool.
If I see something on a billboard, I probably wont buy it. It’s sort of like, when Daniel Boulud tells me about the best Organic restaurant in Tennessee — that’s where I’m gonna go! It’s not because I saw it in an ad, but because the expert is really making an informed suggestion.
I also wanted to create a lifestyle destination, and I’m just not the expert on every category — so I wanted to find those who are the experts. All of my curators are really passionate people who have a specific expertise in an area.
THL: Throughout your career, what has surprised you most about fashion and design?
SM: What is most surprising — and what many people overlook — is how difficult it is to launch a brand. I realize that people who choose to live and create in this space are driven by their immense passion.
I hope to offer a place where they can launch the best, most innovative, design-driven products, and bring them right to the consumer.
THL: Where do you ultimately see AHAlife going? Do you have plans to expand the site or the company to include other lifestyle elements?
SM: Of course! I think AHAlife has the potential to be the go-to place to live a better life. Technically, there are many applications for this. We’re not about mass, we’re about finding things that are special, unique, of high quality … and our team has so many ideas that we want to implement.
My ultimate hope is that [AHAlife] will actually change how we shop online in the future.