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Courier produces useful, inspiring content for modern entrepreneurs. Our Friday newsletter features stories on working better and living smarter.
Friday 18 September

This week we dig into angel investing in Iraq, find out what's next for the fashion rental and eyewear sectors, look at transparency in the vodka industry, and talk with the founder of a company that's dealing with sleep deprivation (and stress) for adults and kids alike.

‘There's a public health crisis around sleep deprivation,' says Ian Chambers, founder and CEO of audio mindfulness app Moshi. Having recently raised $12m in funding, Moshi creates original content that helps children and families get a better night's rest. ‘We saw apps like Calm and Headspace addressing sleep deprivation through the power of audio,’ Ian tell us. ‘It’s a powerful sense, because it's the last one that falls asleep.’

The wellbeing and ‘self-care’ markets as they stand are overwhelmingly adult-centric. Moshi, which works on a subscription basis, offers content across the age spectrum, from soundscapes for newborns to stories for young children to fall asleep to. And it seems to be working – in 2020 alone, Moshi’s paid subscriber count has grown by 180%. 

One of the major themes the company is tapping into is that this has been a stressful year – and not only for adults. Moshi’s offerings have gone way beyond the initial remit of sleep, to providing content to deal with moments of stress, anxiety or anger that children might feel during the day. It's giving free access to its content library to schools and teachers, as well as introducing Moshi for Workplaces. ‘The pandemic has brought on a different work-life blend,' Ian says. 'We want to work with companies to bring Moshi to their employees and support their parenting routine.’

Back in 2010, eyewear company Warby Parker launched a then-radical model of cutting out the middleman and offering a try-on-at-home service. The company became a poster child for the burgeoning direct-to-consumer movement – so much so that countless founders have since described their company in pitch decks as ‘the Warby Parker for [insert industry]’. But a decade is a long time – so what’s been going on in the sector in the interim?

Mark de Lange is founder and CEO of Dutch eyewear brand Ace & Tate, which operates more than 60 physical stores, everywhere from Antwerp to Berlin. He told us two things to look out for.

  • ‘There are a few things making it easier to sell eyewear without the need for the customer to be at a physical location. One is progress in doing eye tests online, which is still very, very early days, but big steps are being made. The other element is trying on eyewear. With AR [augmented reality], you're able to make pretty specific measurements of someone's face and you can virtually scale a pair of glasses to their face, so they could very easily see how it would look in real life.’

  • ‘One of the big innovations in the eyewear industry is a customer focus. I know that doesn't sound like innovation, but the experience of buying eyewear, from where I'm sitting, still sucks the majority of the time. It's about as fun as going to the dentist… Thinking from the customer [perspective] is something I believe is missing in our industry. And that’s not saying you'll get three pairs for the price of one. It’s making sure their customer journey – presale, during the sale and after the sale – is as frictionless, fun and catered to them as possible.’

Listen to this week’s podcast to hear more.

Rental fashion was an industry to watch – and then the pandemic came along. The complete standstill of events for which people might rent clothing, coupled with hygiene concerns, led to fashion rental companies experiencing an estimated 50% decrease in demand. But rental fashion companies have been busy innovating their business models, operations and offerings to put customers’ minds back at ease.

In China, for example, the Alibaba-backed rental company YCloset is going beyond rental to offer resale services as well. In India, Stage3 is putting all of its rental clothing through a rigorous, heat-based dry-cleaning process.

Louisa Rogers, a fashion lecturer and founder of the vintage fashion platform Trendlistr, shared some more insight into where rental is heading: 

  • ‘Rental companies could function as a platform for smaller brands that have seen an increase in popularity, while chain stores have been sat closed for months. For example, Rotaro is blending firm fashion favourites with smaller brands, all with carbon-neutral shipping.’ 

  • HURR Collective also offers the option of registering as cosigners, which allows individuals to rent out their wardrobes and turn their own clothing into a revenue stream.’  

Elsewhere, Tamsin Chislett of London-based rental company Onloan saw demand switch almost overnight, from comfort being a priority at the beginning of lockdown to people now dressing in brighter prints just for the sake of it. She says:

  • ‘We are the only rental company to do our own logistics, looking after garments between rentals at our warehouse in east London. Hygiene and sanitation has, therefore, always been really important to us and remains the case – everything is steamed.’

  • ‘We have also partnered directly with more than 20 top, global contemporary brands. The pandemic has deepened our relationship with them; whereas, before, rental was an “interesting experiment”, most now see it as a fundamental part of future-proofing their strategy.'

Where does vodka come from? Potatoes, sure. But it can also be made from pretty much anything. For the past six years, Mark Byrne and Tristan Willey have been building an ethical and transparent vodka supply chain from the ground up, and they’re now on the brink of launching their brand, Good Vodka.

The pair met while working at a bourbon distillery in Brooklyn, before Mark became a consultant to the liquor industry. ‘I was framing the editorial voices of liquor brands, and I found that the words I was putting on these labels were only skin deep,’ he tells us. ‘The spirit industry didn’t want to own up to its agricultural origins. They wanted to say they were sustainable, but didn’t want to change how the actual product was made – at most, they’d use recycled glass bottles.’

The penny dropped when Tristan, now working in the cocktail world, visited a coffee farm in Guatemala and spotted waste byproducts of coffee fruit rotting in a corner. ‘As a distiller, if you see a pile of rotting fruit, you can’t help but think, “Why isn’t that alcohol? We’re wasting sugar feed stock!”’ Tristan says.

Mark and Tristan have embedded transparency into their supply chain, right from the origins and processing of the waste coffee fruit to the infrastructure required to get it to its vodka-flavoured form. ‘The fact that we tell you the farm region and harvest season that that vodka came from is already more transparent than most,’ Mark explains.

‘Sustainability’ is everywhere, and with that comes the risk of its true meaning being diluted. A transparent business model and supply chain allow Good Vodka to stay ahead of the curve. ‘Consumers are already making intelligent decisions about what they are buying. They already have the tools to find where their food products are growing,’ Mark says. ‘Transparency and education feed each other. So, if you’re a shitty company, you can’t hide for much longer.’

For more stories about food and drink brands mixing things up, check out our site.

And, finally, what does it take to build a new business hub from scratch? Mujahed Waisi and Ali Al-Suhail are about to find out. As founder and fund manager respectively at private sector development company KAPITA, the two launched the Iraqi Angel Investor Network (IAIN) earlier this month – and companies showed up to IAIN’s first-ever pitch day on Sunday.

‘Iraq is a rich country, but access to finance remains a challenge,’ Ali says. As the entrepreneurship scene emerges in Iraq, with hubs in Baghdad, Basra and the Kurdistan region, the pair are excited by the wealth of opportunities for investment. ‘Our particular focuses include businesses that remove barriers to digital banking,’ Mujahed explains, ‘and agri-tech startups that address some of the mismanagement that goes on in the Iraqi agricultural sector.’ The fund also focuses on local, non-tech small businesses in the informal sector.

The vision – and tall order – is to make Baghdad and Iraq more widely attractive places for investment. Mujahed and Ali need to not only incubate and fund new businesses, but build investor trust. ‘We need to teach investors to invest here, and build a supply market,’ Ali says. ‘People’s idea of Iraq is shifting. We’re moving away from crises and we're at an inflection point… Funding is step zero, but it gives validation to small businesses. They can then think about business models, better governance and better reporting for the whole startup ecosystem.’

1. The direct-to-consumer party is over – what's next?

2. Ways the pandemic has changed how we shop for food.

3. Dopamine’s dominance on consumer decision-making.

4. More on the rise of 'dark stores' – this time with Whole Foods.

5. And teenage girls are leading a guitar sales boom.

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