Mariam Naficy ’91 reflects on entrepreneurial experiences

Last Friday in Griffin, entrepreneur alumnus Mariam Naficy ’91 gave a presentation to students on the difficulties and rewards of making a living as an entrepreneur.

Naficy was a political economy major during her time at the College. After graduation, Naficy pursued a career as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs. Naficy attributes her knowledge of work ethic and business principles to her time spent at Goldman Sachs. However, she soon transitioned to a career in management consulting, which she said “became a key and lock for me in understanding business patterns.”

After realizing her passion rested in the creative sphere of entrepreneurship, Naficy enrolled in the Stanford Graduate School of Business for her MBA. By the age of 27, Naficy became a revolutionary among women in the field of entrepreneurship when she launched the first online shop for cosmetics,

When Naficy founded her company in 1998, the Internet was slowly expanding to cater to the female consumer. Despite constant denials that women would enjoy shopping online, Naficy and her investment banking partner raised $26 million in capital to fund the creation and expansion of, opening the online commercial sphere to women in the process.

“How you capitalize the company is very much linked to your experience as an entrepreneur,” Naficy said. As Naficy needed a considerable amount of capital, she had to sacrifice some of her autonomy in the company’s decision making, despite her affinity for autonomous decision-making. Although continued to grow rapidly, Naficy began to lose interest in a company that she no longer had much control over. Compounded by conflicts such as an over-stretched budget and intense competition, was sold for approximately $110 million in 2000.

Despite the stress of leaving her start-up, Naficy vowed to continue pursuing her passion in the field of business and creation by merging the two into Instead of cosmetics, Naficy centralized her new website around graphic design, selling premium stationary and art décor. Unique to this experience, Naficy explained, are the relationships she has developed with the community in producing art that can be loved and appreciated by her customers, especially with more autonomy.

“We are very much trying to be an open brand. We believe in collaboration and that it will make us stronger as a brand,” said Naficy. “Internet can produce friction between designer and consumer.” This collaborative spirit has allowed to expand from a .005 percent conversion rate to a 2 percent conversion rate as of 2013, thus meeting the average industry conversion rate of 2 percent to 3 percent. Naficy admitted that raising the conversion rate and becoming a profitable business was a difficult task since she refused to raise as much capital for as she raised for This was intended to provide Naficy with a sense of independence in overseeing her business.

“It was tough to start this business with very little capital,” said Naficy. In 2008, took $3.3 million in capital and launched a collection of holiday cards. In 2009, baby and children’s stationary were introduced to the website. In 2010, $5.5 million was accepted in capital as began selling wedding invitations. The art and party décor was introduced in 2012, and in 2013, attained profitability.

Although the website has grown significantly in success over the past five years, the first 30 days of operation saw poor sales with little revenue. “The small amount of life that we could see was found in crowd-sourcing,” Naficy said. Through soliciting contributions from the online community, Naficy further improved her business by molding it directly to desires of the group that drives the market: consumers.

This community has enabled Naficy to gain insights into her life as a driven entrepreneur. “[Working as an entrepreneur] is very lonely because there are so few people who do it. You’re most likely undervalued,” Naficy said. “One of my biggest lessons that I’ve learned through my work is that, although I’m extremely career driven, the most important things to me are my family, my friendships, my relationships.”

A recipient of the Williams’ Bicentennial Medal, Naficy continues to attempt “to create a meritocracy of design where people don’t need connections to succeed.” In this attempt, Naficy has vowed to avoid the fear often associated with risk taking and pursuing her dreams. “I don’t feel like anything at all can scare me,” said Naficy. “I feel empowered by this.”

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