Redefining Retail: Elabelz Founder And CEO Nooruldeen Agha On His Latest Venture, ST-YL
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When I met Nooruldeen Agha at his offices in Dubai on an evening in May, the 30-year-old serial entrepreneur -perhaps best known for being the founder and CEO of Elabelz, an e-commerce venture that has, since its launch in 2016, become of the largest online fashion destinations in the MENA region- seemed to be trapped in an almost constant state of restlessness.
Agha sat down and stayed still for only a little while during the two-hour-long interview; the rest of the time, he kept pacing back and forth in front of me, which resulted in me repeatedly darting my head alternately to the left and the right -much like watching a game of tennis- as I struggled to maintain eye contact with the man. Now, I assumed the reason behind Agha’s agitation to be because he had, only a few days before this interview took place, launched his latest enterprise, an online retail venture called ST-YL, and I thought Agha’s restiveness must be nothing more than the expected post-establishment jitters. But, as our conversation went on, it soon became apparent that Agha’s state of mind wasn’t being driven just by worry about his new endeavor- on the contrary, I could see that this entrepreneur was consumed by excitement for the impact that he believes ST-YL will have on the world at large.
Agha believes that ST-YL is going to change retail as we know it, and its impact is not going to be restricted to just the UAE, or only the MENA region- it’s going to be global, he says. “I believe this is the future of retail,” Agha declares. “I believe that I will have a chance at building a global, multibillion dollar company…I think I’m going to have an important mark on the technology world, globally, because of this project.”
With a statement like that from Agha, I guess we need to be clear about two things at this point. First of all, I must say that I didn’t feel Agha was being pompous or bombastic when he made this declaration- on the contrary, as I replay the scene in my head, I remember him to be focusing inward, making the statement in a quite simple matter of fact way, before I essentially made him repeat it for me. But this doesn’t mean that I can vouch for the veracity of what Agha believes to be the potential for ST-YL- it’s way too early to predict anything at this stage, in my personal opinion.
However, cast my doubts aside for a moment, and try to see STYL through Agha’s eyes- that, I believe, would make for a better exercise for you to make your own decision on whether it is, well, the future of retail. After all, Agha’s track record with Elabelz –an e-commerce enterprise that managed, in just a year and a half, to secure over 500 international and local brands, and 45,000 products for men, women and kids on its platform- makes one curious about what is he going to do with ST-YL. To learn that, you need to first head to ST-YL.com, where you’ll see that it is, to put it extremely simply, a personal styling service for men and women. Customers will receive a curated collection of clothes directly at their doors, following which they can choose what they like, and pay only for that, while returning the rest- shipping is free both ways. So far, ST-YL may sound like, well, every other personal styling offering out there- but Agha explains that it is in how ST-YL gets a curated collection together for a customer that makes it stand out as an enterprise.
The process begins with the user filling up a rather comprehensive questionnaire on the ST-YL website, with questions including everything from the color of your hair, to the kind of patterns you like to see on your clothes. Once this is done, the tech part of the solution comes into the picture- artificial intelligence (AI) is what’s at play here, and, according to Agha, this is what makes ST-YL a game changer. All of the data that a customer inputs is fed into an AI machine to determine a style profile, following which a stylist -a real, live, human one- is assigned to the case. This stylist, armed with the wealth of user data as well as AI-powered insights, has a personal chat with the customer, following which a personalized box of clothes is then sent for him or her to try out.
“So, what will happen is you would receive a box; you will open it, and try out the clothes we sent you,” Agha explains. “Whatever you don’t like, you can throw it back in the box, and put the box outside the door. Someone will come pick it up, and you’d pay only once we receive the box back- we see what you kept, what you did not keep, and you would pay for that only.” Thus, users are receiving clothes that have been specifically chosen for them, and in case they don’t like what they were delivered, they get to send it back at no cost. ST-YL makes it a point to get feedback, i.e. find out what wasn’t right about the clothes a customer rejected, and yes, that data is stored and fed into the AI machine again- that’s going to be a determining factor in the contents of the next box ST-YL sends out to the same client. “The coolest part is that every box you get is going to be better than the box before it,” Agha says. “Because we will know you better.”
Personalization at scale: that is what Agha believes ST-YL will be delivering as a retail concept, and that is pretty much why he believes his enterprise is going to redefine the industry at large. “If you asked anyone 20 years ago what’s the future of retail, they’ll tell you it’s e-commerce,” Agha says. “But e-commerce is not the future anymore, it’s the present. We are right now in the present- so, what is the future? The future is all related to personalization.” And ST-YL, Agha believes, is one of the first (and few) players in this arena- and that is why he is so vehement about the potential scale and success this enterprise can have. “Look at Amazon when it started,” he says. “It was really marginal, no one paid attention to it. It was on the sidelines, it was something of a joke in the beginning. Even when it got some traction, no one actually paid attention to it. But, today, they control the retail industry as we know it. Because, when they started, at the time, they were the future… This is where I believe we are now with ST-YL.”
Agha’s argument is bolstered by the fact that there isn’t really much competition out there in terms of ST-YL’s offering: regionally, there doesn’t seem to be any other player that is bringing together fashion and tech like it is, whereas, if you look globally, the closest contender in this space would probably be San Francisco-based personal styling service, Stitch Fix. Its achievements, made possible with the use of cutting edge technology, can be seen as a forerunner for the heights of success Agha believes ST-YL can ultimately reach, thanks to its own proprietary tech. The American company, which was founded in 2011, went public in 2017, and was valued in February this year to be worth US$2 billion.
So, remember Agha’s declaration from earlier, about how he could build a multibillion dollar enterprise with ST-YL? Doesn’t seem like a fanciful dream now, does it? In any case, Agha has, with the aid of a seed investment in the venture, kicked off his global dreams for ST-YL by launching it in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, with the aim being for the enterprise to master these two markets in the coming six months. Following that, the plan is to have ST-YL launch in a new market every quarter. “We think we will provide a service across Asia and Africa,” Agha says. “I don’t see why we would not go for global one day, but for now, we are going to focus on these regions to make sure that our service and technology is worthy of growing organically. But my vision is to take this on a global level, once we have the technology that is powerful enough to compete at that scale. I think this is what we are building here, and this is where we are going.”
Agha also highlights how, with time, ST-YL will have a digital closet of all your clothes- so, the next time you need help to decide what to wear for, say, a special occasion, ST-YL can go through your digitized wardrobe and offer you suggestions on how to put an ensemble together with what you already have, plus offer new options for what you may need to complete that look. “We are digitizing your closet, completely,” Agha says. “This is a feature that we have added that nobody else has, even globally.” With that being said, it’s pretty clear as to who will be the people that will be central to the ST-YL operation- the workforce will have to be a harmony of creativity and science. “If our team was comprised of 1,000 people, we would be 600 stylists, 100-200 data scientists, and the rest in operations,” Agha approximates. “So, the core of this business is stylists, but what they will do here will be completely different than any styling job they’ve ever done in their life. You’ll really need to understand data science, and combine it with style, in order to be able to deliver something that will actually be a hit with the customer, and be able to have value for them.”
Now, while I’m sure that ST-YL will need to have a terrific team to push it ahead, I’m also pretty certain its progress is going to be driven by one man alone- and that is Agha himself. ST-YL is his brainchild, his baby; all that he is doing for it seems to be fueled by a single-minded determination and dedication to his vision for the enterprise. All of his projections for ST-YL are grand (“I genuinely believe that we will be able to control a really mass volume and value, when it comes to the fashion retail industry at the global level”), and while some of you may call such predictions to be far too much like castles in the air, well, Agha doesn’t really care about what you think- as far as he is concerned, ST-YL is to him, as, say, Apple is to Steve Jobs.
“I truly want to effect change,” Agha says. “Honestly, my hope is to build a very large-scale company that will employ more than 10,000-20,000 employees across the planet, and be a company that will actually effect change- what we do changes things at the global level.” But can such an enterprise come out of the MENA region? Agha says yes. “The ability to build a platform or a company that actually has 100 or 200 million customers is the dream, and it begins with knowing who you are serving, and how quick is the mass of what you are serving,” he explains. “And that can start, I believe, from this region, and then go global. And the only way to actually effect that is to create something, a platform or a service, that will be able to deliver at a global scale, rather than only within the limitations of the region.” ST-YL is that kind of an enterprise, Agha says- and it’s hard not to be taken in by the zealous belief he has in it.
And for all of the apprehensions you and I may be having about ST-YL’s viability as a business, Agha says he is well aware of them- it’s just that he uses them, in a way, to his advantage. “Honestly, I cannot survive if there is no fear,” Agha replies. “Like, if I am not extremely, extremely worried, I would not be able to work and get out in the morning. The amount of fear, the amount of worriesyou cannot get motivated without it. It’s a big fight, it’s a big hustle, and it’s a very, very crazy hustle, especially if you’re doing it from the ground up, without having the heritage and the background or a backer of a family or a big name or anything related to that, so it’s ten times harder. The bigger you dream is, the bigger the worries, and the harder the hustle, and the harder is the fight.” At this stage, I’m willing to bet that if Agha’s fervor alone were enough to fuel a company, ST-YL would already have been a market leader. “The dream of actually creating something global means providing a product with a customer service that is phenomenally amazing; there’s no way around it,” Agha says.
With ST-YL, Agha believes he has built just that- now, it’s for the world to judge.