Catalina Girald is founder and CEO of Naja, a San Francisco-based lingerie company that launched in December 2013 and aims to create luxe-looking undergarments for women at mass-market prices. Girald launched Naja with $100,000 and says her lingerie is for "women who aren't afraid to speak their minds." Girald was an attorney before pursuing her MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, class of 2006. She talks with us about The Art of War, how a startup is like a manual-transmission car, and what it's like to start a business at the age of 5.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
Delivering luxury lingerie at fair prices while empowering women.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
Andy Grove was my professor in business school and he used to take me on walks. He has been a mentor ever since. He has given me a lot of great advice. He told me to follow The Art of War. In particular, when dealing with people, be strategic. You do not always need to react right away. Sometimes it is better to wait for the right opportunity, then execute your strategy in a Trojan horse kind of way.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
I am learning to listen to my own instincts. In Silicon Valley, startups raise a lot of capital and spend money up front to achieve rapid growth. Anyone who does anything different from that is considered unconventional. Naja grew really fast in its first two months, and it nearly killed us. We didn't have the resources or capacity to offer great customer service at that pace of growth. So I had to make the difficult decision to do what was best for the company instead of what Silicon Valley wanted me to do — that is, to take a step back so that we could take a step forward.
Our relationship with our consumer is too important to risk by rushing production. A startup is like a standard car. It tells you when it needs you to put it in the next gear. If you put it into gear when it's not ready, it does things you don't want it to do.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
Ask for help. In my first company, I didn't ask for help. I was an only child, so I'm used to doing things on my own. I have learned that many successful people are willing to help you because other people helped them.
What inspires you?
Most of my creative ideas come from getting behind the psychology of my customers to understand what they want. Before starting Naja, I spent six months interviewing and surveying more than 600 women.
I learned that there is a need for women to feel better about themselves when they buy lingerie. It is more than just fit. If your body doesn't look the way fashion tells you to look, you feel bad about yourself. So I decided to put quotes on the inside of our panties with the objective of making the wearer laugh, smile, or feel inspired. For a split second, several times a day, you can feel better about yourself.
Another idea I had came from a 33-year-old woman who had recently had a child. She said she felt awful about how her body changed after being pregnant, and that the only undergarments that fit her anymore were boring and beige. She was embarrassed to take off her underwear in front of her husband. I came up with idea of printing designs on the inside of the [bra] cup. She knows what is inside even if no one else can see it, and when she takes it off, she feels sexier and more powerful.
What is your greatest achievement?
Two years ago, I climbed Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western and Southern hemispheres. It is all about keeping your mind focused on the objective. It tests you. It took 20 days to climb, going really hard for 10 hours each day, carrying about 50 pounds of gear. It is like building a startup as CEO: The only person who can save you on the mountain is yourself. There are moments when you want to quit the expedition. Four of the 10 people who started with us quit.
Climbing offers all sorts of lessons. On another trip to India, I was supposed to climb up the wall of a glacier with ice picks and rope. It was 3:00 a.m., I couldn't see anything, and it was taking me longer than it should have. I just couldn't do it anymore. Then it occurred to me: If you go down, you will probably die. If you go up, you may die as well. Which way would you rather go?
What do you consider your biggest failure?
When you are doing something as emotionally draining as a startup, you have to learn to manage your emotions and your self-esteem. This is something I constantly monitor and work to improve.
What values are important to you in business?
What impact would you like to have on the world?
I want to change women's lives. I want to make a tiny bit of difference in how we perceive ourselves so we can be stronger. I'd like to create at Naja a culture in which women help each other.
Why are you an entrepreneur?
I can't help it.
If there was one thing that has enabled you to be successful as an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Having someone who believes in you when no one else does. And someone who has the wisdom to tell you when you are doing something wrong.
What was your first paying job?
When I was 5, I sold cupcakes door-to-door. My mother made them, and I had to pay her for the ingredients. I also sold rocks I painted. When the business got big enough, I hired the girl who lived next door. I paid her 10%. My mom was really upset when she found out.
Do you think there is such a thing as balance? How do you achieve balance in your life?
I struggle with balance on a daily basis. Entrepreneurs have this hyperfocus when they are working that makes their brains impervious to anything else. I try to make time for a select group of people: my closest family members and friends. For them, if they need me, I'll drop what I'm doing. I have a horrible email backlog, and I prioritize which emails to open. Investor emails? Important!
What is the best business book you have read?
Peter Drucker's books on management.
What businessperson do you most admire?
Steve Jobs. The guy was a genius from a product perspective, even though he was a horrible manager. I also really admire Sara Blakely from Spanx.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
The interaction with my professors. Eric Schmidt taught me how to pitch. Every time I do a PowerPoint, I think of that man. One thing I learned from him was that the size of the font on the page should be no smaller than the average age of the people in the room.
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
Any application that uses the wisdom of the crowd to better itself, like Waze.