Daria Surzhik: "The idea of our brand is that you can and should feel good at home"
Ogonёk has been working with the Ukrainian brand Sleeper almost from the very day of its creation: all this time we have been watching their growth and success with admiration. I can state that this is the most famous Ukrainian brand in the world, which I am proud of, both personally and in terms of partnership. Of course, when I considered my concept of "Heroes of the brand" blog, I dreamed about talking to the Head of Sales of Sleeper brand and, finally, I managed to do so. Today, I am happy to introduce Daria Surzhik and our interview with her to you. This interview is about the way she grew up as a professional from personal assistant position to the role of Team Lead, the brand's work during the quarantine and the challenges it brought, building relationships with foreign partners and the importance of caring for the end user. It was a great pleasure for me to visit the Sleeper office in Kyiv and talk to Dasha personally for several hours in a row, especially taking into account the fact that the development of Ogonёk and Sleeper shops took place in parallel. I hope this text will be useful to anyone who works in sales, has their own brand or is just going to create it or enter a foreign market. So, enjoy reading.
Iordan: — Dasha, hello. My first question is how did you get into the fashion industry and to Sleeper in general? Was it your first job? Tell us about your professional growth.
Daria: — I got into this industry at the age of 16. Even then, I was interested in everything related to fashion. I started working at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, I took part in organizing shows, helped backstage and basically wanted to get all the possible experience in order to see how it works from inside. After that, I got into a French-Canadian magazine, worked as a representative remotely in Ukraine for six months. I attended exhibitions, shows, events, documented all of them and wrote about contemporary Ukrainian art. As I was going through each stage, I realized that I wanted to work in the business sphere.
I was very interested in fashion, but from a business point of view.
I read a lot of different resources at that time, especially “Business of Fashion” (it just started to gain popularity). I followed new interesting startups in fashion, which combined together both fashion and technology aspects. And yet, closely followed the Glossier (smiles).
After school, I entered the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy of Marketing. While studying there, I finally realized that I would be looking for something business-related, preferably in fashion. I was interested in how brands create a product, how they make this product be sold worldwide to the largest retailers. For example, Harrods was one of my biggest dreams.
At the time, Sleeper was looking for an intern in the sales department. Everything I'd seen and read about Sleeper before was very inspiring. When I read the story of how the girls (Asya Varetsa and Katya Zubareva, co-founders of Sleeper) started from scratch, what the product was about in general and what stood behind it, I wanted to be a part of it. At the age of 19, I started working at Sleeper. Asya was living in New York at that time, I had a remote interview with her - a very interesting experience for me, by the way. At that time, Sleeper still had a small team that consisted of 10 people only. I remember, by the time I came to the interview as a student, I’d already had a lot of ideas about what to do next. I was offered a job there and, from that moment, a long way of building a great sales department began, the one that we have as of now.
I: — So you were studying and working at Sleeper simultaneously?
D: — Yes, I got this job when I was in the third year. After two years of my studies, I realized that I had too many ideas. I really wanted to implement everything that was in my head into real projects.
I: — Now let's talk about the work of a Sales Manager. When did you come to Sleeper? What were your responsibilities?
D: — A lot of things (laughs). At that time, our company's areas of responsibility were greatly blurred, but it was fine for such a scale. There was the division into wholesales and retail sales from the beginning, since these are two different parts of the business. My department deals only with wholesale services. In the beginning, I helped Asya with managing small clients and finding new ones.
Six months after I started working in the company, at the age of 19, my first trip to Paris took place (Fashion Market in Paris during the Fashion Week). It was the brand's first show in Paris and my first solo trip as a Sales Manager in general. It gave us a very big and great boost in development. I met our future clients for the first time, such as: Harvey Nichols, Net-a-Porter, Bloomingdale's. It helped me a lot to expand my understanding of what other brands were on the market, how B2B sales worked in general, because we started to do it intuitively. However, even then we knew that Sleeper should be listed and sold in the largest department stores in the world. We have never thought about being listed at the local market only. On the contrary, we wanted Sleeper to be represented worldwide from the very beginning.
I: — Did Asya and Katya understand initially that they didn’t make a retail brand?
D: — It has always been a mix of retail and B2B. We started with Ukrainian retailers - we can't even count how many years you have been working with us (laughs).
I: — Six years for sure. Or seven.
D: — Yes, as long as Sleeper exists, Ogonek stays with us. However, at first, we started working with Moda Operandi and smaller stores in Denmark. In the beginning, we communicated with the help of emails. There were no meetings at that point. Initially, we aimed at the US market, since there was and continues to be a large part of our retail audience. And of course, I had my own goals for Sleeper: I really wanted our items to be sold in the biggest stores such as: Barneys, Harrods and so on. Paris has given us an understanding of what to do to ensure that the end consumer would get the best possible experience of interacting with our brand through our partner.
I: — Tell us more about it, please. It is a very interesting topic. What insights have you come across with? What conclusions have you made during the trip regarding better understanding of the businesses that represent you? What have you changed, fixed or added to the company later?
D: — We are always very sensitive to the feedback of all our customers - both end customers and our partners. In fact, Paris helped us a lot in this. It was very important for us to understand which collections are better for us to make, what sells better, what sells worse, what the client needs. Here is a very important point: during conversations about what our end customer needs (people who buy in our stores), we collected feedback, which later improved the product by developing collections. For example, realizing that our clients really like our dresses, we asked ourselves: how do we make them better, so that they fit even greater? What colors should we add? Our clients really liked flax, so how can we work with it more? We realized that we were moving in the right direction that stood for continuous product improvement.
I: — In Paris, you always receive a great amount of information: everyone is open. Also, speaking about personal communication — it is always more effective than having online talk. You will never reach full honesty online. When you communicate with somebody personally, this person sees and understands you the way you are, so you start a small talk. You start asking questions and your interlocutor, of course, is happy to answer them.
D: — Yes, of course, everyone is happy to answer questions and give some advice. People basically like to advise (laughs). In our company, English is an important and necessary part of the job.
It is very important to speak with our partners not just in one language, but in common senses.
These subtleties sometimes take a great part in the way the conversation is composed, how well you understand your partner and what he or she is talking about, you can hear certain details, little things that in general may not change the meaning, but change the shade. In Paris, communication is also an important part of the job, so it is necessary to do it professionally and efficiently. There we did not miss a single meeting and collected absolutely all the feedback we possibly could. In addition, it was important for us to hear from potential partners about their vision, how they work with clients, run and build their business, what their values and approaches are, what service they offer to our end customer. I think all this is very important, because when our customer anywhere in the world comes to the store and buys something from Sleeper brand, he must receive the appropriate level of service and get the experience that our brand provides.
I: — It turns out that partners, for their part, teach and show you their experience and you share yours, for better sales.
D: — Of course. We always work with our stores to improve the sales. It seems to me that the synergy of what a store has to offer and what we can offer to make the brand sell well is a win-win. The partnership we always strive for is a long-term relationship. That's why we always work on samples, we always check things that go best. Before a new season, we start planning what we can offer. For a business to be successful, a permanent bilateral partnership is required.
Our partner's successful business is our successful business as well.
I: — I'm sure that after the first trip to Paris, you made a quantum leap in the volume of orders. How has your job changed? Did you stop doing logistics and everything else that had nothing to do with sales? How did you cope with such a rapid growth in production and sales?
D: — We had a quantum leap after we started working with Net-a-Porter. This is one of our key partners now - a fairly large online retailer, that we have been cooperating with for the third year. By that time, we had already been represented at Barneys and Harrods. Of course, after Net-a-Porter, the number of stores representing us began to grow organically and naturally, mainly on the US market. Growth was really sudden, and many processes had to be adapted to new realities. So, at this point, we understood that it was time to build a team, because without it, we can very easily lose the quality of the service we provide. We started to grow gradually and very logically. We didn't hire the staff immediately. For about six months, we tried to figure out how to build everything in the best possible way. It was important for me to find an answer to the question whether such growth would be permanent or a one-time phenomenon. We watched how our partners behaved, how much real work we had. So, six months later, I realized that we confidently reached a new scale. Since then, we have really managed to grow steadily. We started building a team, hiring managers, promoting managers to leads.
If you want to scale your business up, it is impossible to continue working in the format you were in the beginning.
We need to separate functions, form departments, each team must do its part - then you will do it well and, most importantly, you will have the opportunity to grow, do more and improve in every aspect.
I: — How many people work in your department?
D: — There are five of us currently. This is a great assistant, managers, team lead. Each employee has his own aspect that he is responsible for. We are currently a global brand: we have more than 22 markets and more than 100 active partners worldwide. Being sold on every market, we try to build long-term cooperation with our partners. It's about bringing value to their client, who is our client too. He can buy our things all over the world in the best stores both online and offline.
For me, especially with the start of quarantine, it was very important that we were available where our customers could buy us. It seems to me that the situation with Covid-19 has shown many brands and retailers that the processes should be launched there, where the customer is. If the customer is online - be online. This does not mean that you do not need to be represented offline. I still believe that physical retail is a very important part of sales. This is an experience that a person can only get in the store, during personal communication. However, online stores cannot be ignored, they should exist.
I: — If you think that offline experience is an important part of your job, why don't you still have your own retail stores?
D: — Since we started working with B2B, the function of our retail stores was performed by the stores of our partners. That is, all the physical experience that can be gained with a brand, happens through them. Owning a shop is a bit of a different situation, because it is very important to approach everything consciously and with the understanding of what additional experience you want to bring to your customers.
I: — We mentioned the topic of quarantine that is still relevant. How did your work last during the quarantine? When did quarantine start for you?
D: — My colleague and I were in Paris. This was our first season in Polly King — a showroom, cooperation with which was our little dream with Asya since I started working at Sleeper. We were very inspired and happy to be there among a lot of cool brands. The first few days were very active, there was a large flow of buyers from around the world. However, at some point in the midst of the showroom, the news came that covid-19 was in Europe, cases of infection had already been reported in Paris news and many of our partners were literally banned from going to the market. Our buyers cancelled the meetings en masse, the situation was very scary. There was complete uncertainty: I did not understand how we would close the season and what would happen next. Nobody understood anything. When we returned to Kyiv, it became clear that the situation was very uncertain. Physical retail has been closed, and not everyone has yet completed their online business.
I: — We launched our online store three months before the quarantine started, in December 2019. I somehow felt intuitively that it was necessary. Of course, it was still not perfect, but quarantine just gave me the opportunity to make it the way I saw it. In our case, it was a coincidence.
D: — Many of our partners launched the site just on the go. For us and our partners, quarantine has become a growth point. In June, we held our first digital showroom. We contacted our key partners, learned how to make it easier for them to place orders, and reformatted fairly quickly. It seems to me that in a world that is moving at such a frantic speed, it is very important for businesses to understand that they need to be flexible.
Our first digital showroom was quite successful — now we work only in this format every season. Of course, this cannot be compared to personal communication, but we did almost the same thing as we did in Paris. Quarantine has shown us that it is still possible - it's just another way or channel of communication with our B2B customers.
I: — How has your personal retail changed during the quarantine period? As I know, all your communication and PR were aimed at making your Instagram even more active with your end user. How has the ratio of wholesale to retail changed during the quarantine?
D: — We have a synergy of wholesale and market sales. I think, with the right approach, this is how it should be: wholesales increase retail sales. This is mutually beneficial marketing on one hand, and on the other — there are different sales channels. During the quarantine, our retail grew. We watched our clients work from home in Sleeper pajamas — it was very important and nice to us that they also support the brand this way.
The same goes with wholesale. In quarantine, we became convinced again that it was important to expand, diversify our channels in bulk, and enter new markets.
We realized that it is worth being with those partners who are ready and able to adapt to the new reality.
We have become more attentive to whom and how we work with, and even more actively expand our presence in the world (both online and offline).
So during the quarantine the idea to establish a corporate direction appeared, that is to work with businesses for their needs. Now we are actively developing this approach. In addition, thinking about how we can solve the problem of unsold stock, we started working with the popular luxury reselling platform called The RealReal.
I: — It turns out that quarantine has affected you in a positive way. Tell me, please, how much has the number of team members changed during the quarantine?
D: — Our team has grown and continues to grow. Even in crisis situations, it is important to be able to look at everything from a different angle, from different points of view. The main mission of our brand is to carry the value of care and self-love. In a situation where everything around is unstable and uncertain, it was more important than ever.
I: — Speaking about the plans for the future, tell me, do you have any dreams now, like the ones you had with Harrods once?
D: — Yes, we are now launching with Net-a-Porter in China — for me, personally, it is very interesting. In general, the whole Asian market seems very interesting to me. It is very special in its way, and now we will actively work to be listed there as well. Here are our big plans (laughs).
A few years ago we had an incredible launch at Galeries Lafayette with their Champs-Elysées location. For me, this discovery was the first sign that retail should change. The way they approached the opening of the location, its filling — everything was fantastic. A person came and not only bought some items, but also found himself in a space where he wanted to spend time, where clothes were only part of the experience. It was a fantastic experience and I want to have more partners like them.
I: - Great! Now let's move to the questions related to you. What is your favorite thing?
D: — Our Atlanta dress.
I: — What color?
D: — Now it is lavender. I have three "Atlanta '' in my wardrobe, and this is probably not the end — I really like this dress. I have this dress for each type of mood (laughs). For example, a version of this dress in silk. This dress model is super versatile and appropriate for any situation.
I: — Your favorite food is…
D: — I get the most pleasure from home-cooked food. In general, I like sweets, especially brownies (laughs).
I: — Do you like to cook yourself or in a specific place?
D: — I try testing the food in different places. I am a person who is always interested in trying something new. If time allows, I love cooking. I really like lasagna, both to cook and to eat.
I: — What is your favorite pastime?
D: — You know, I really like walking and traveling, even if it's within a small location. There is nothing better than a walk, especially in a beautiful place outside. Movement in general is an important part of my life. I like running, sometimes dancing. But at the same time, I really like the comfort and home rituals, evening movies, so I felt very organic at home during the quarantine.
I: — What is your favorite part of the day?
D: — I really like mornings, especially when I wake up earlier.
I: — What is your favorite movie?
D: — I love Tarantino (laughs). Therefore, the first things that come to my mind are "Inglourious Basterds" and "Pulp Fiction".
I: — What is your favorite book?
D: — It is difficult to choose one. I am currently reading Victor Frankl's book called "Man's Search for Meaning". This is a very important book, in my opinion, for everyone, especially in the situation, which we all now find ourselves in. It is about the fact that it is very important not to lose the meaning of life, no matter what happens.
I: — What is Ogonёk for you?
D: — Ogonёk is my love, can I say it like that? (laughs) For me, this is an example of what retail should be like. I am very proud of the fact that this example exists in Ukraine, that we have such a high-quality and professional business. Together with selling things, Ogonёk also talks to its customers and opens new cool brands for them. I think you are doing an amazing job and we are very lucky to get to know you.
I: — It is very mutual. With your help, I often answer a lot of questions that arise from customers or young people trying to create their own brand. For me, the way Sleeper was built is the clearest example that I am very proud of. When I came, you were already working with Ogonek. I was still communicating with Asya and Katya, and then with you. I'm very proud that Sleeper was made in Ukraine.