Origin Story Interview w/ Noor, Project CECE

Origin Story Interview w/ Noor, Project CECE

Brighter Future

 / 

Apr 19, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableFashion #EthicalClothing #FashionTech #FashionInnovation #FashionSearchEngine #FashionRevolution

Brighter Future

We’re here with Noor Veenhoven, co-founder of the ethical clothing search engine, Project CECE. This platform makes sustainably-produced clothing easier to find by tracking products from more than 300 online retailers.

Thanks so much for being with us, Noor. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your startup?

I'm Noor Veenhoven, and I’m from the Netherlands. I have a background in physics and worked at an energy grid company for a while before going full-time into my startup Project CECE with a friend and her sister.

Project CECE is a search engine for fair, sustainable fashion that aggregates products from over 300 sustainable web shops onto one website. Our goal is to make it as easy as possible for consumers to make sustainable fashion decisions.

We’ve recently begun expanding into the business-to-business space, where we take the data we collect about products and aspects of their sustainability, and give it to other companies to promote sustainable products more generally. We call that business Impact Bites.

That sounds exciting. So, where did your journey start? What are your roots?

I'm from Amsterdam, born and raised.

Our sustainability and entrepreneurial journey started at university. We liked to buy nice clothes but were a little bit troubled by the negative impacts the fashion industry has on the environment. Then we decided to do something about it.

A lot of our generation seems to end up going this way: we're constantly told that we need to be the ones to solve the big problems with the climate crisis and everything else. It puts a lot of pressure on you, you know? We were trying to do our best to be sustainable by recycling and eating organically, but we wanted to do more.

My co-founder Marcella was my roommate; we studied physics together. She was talking to her sister Melissa for a while about the fact that shopping was often inherently problematic from an environmental perspective.

Sure, there were a lot of sustainable shops out there, but they often had a small supply, and determining which brands were truly sustainable was a job in itself. Aside from that, of course, it was just difficult to have to go through ten internet retailers before you found what you wanted.

But we were lucky— Marcella is super good at programming, so she had the idea to combine all those stores into one website and provide the sustainability information in a seamless way. That would take out the work for the consumer who aspires to be more responsible.

As we were housemates at the time, she just came home one day and told me how she’d been thinking about it. I got super excited and asked if I could help— I told her, let’s just do it. And so Project CECE was born.

That sounds perfect. Was there a specific point where you said, “Yes, now we're going to make this startup a serious business”?

It was more of a student project in the beginning— so much so that Marcella decided to do a PhD after we finished studying. I got a job myself, but we were still doing it in the background. It was making only a little money, though, so we thought more about organic growth.

The change came when we were invited to go to a startup weekend in Berlin. We did this whole weekend with a lot of excitement: let's become unicorns, you know? Let's do everything. This is what you need, this is what you have to do, and so on.

At the end of the weekend, there was a big pitch competition with investors— and we won it. We were incredibly excited, but we also realised that we wouldn’t be able to make this a hugely successful company by doing little bits on the side—we needed to fully go for it, or not go for it at all.

After that, we decided to go full-time into Project CECE. Melissa—who has a background in economics and finance—was about to graduate from university, and I decided to quit my job. We raised some money, and tried to make the whole thing grow. I think that's when we got very serious about it.

How old is Project CECE?

Project CECE became a real company when we decided to work full-time on it, around three or four years ago. But we went online three years before that— so it’s about six years old in total.

You’ve been at this for a while, then.

We were complete newbies in all the involved fields: fashion, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. But we knew we weren’t alone in that: it’s so common for entrepreneurs or startup founders not to have much, or even any, knowledge about what they’re working on, where their expectation is just to jump in and learn as they go. I think it also makes it easier because you don't overthink what needs to be done.

Who exactly would you say you are doing Project CECE for— and why should they care?

We’re doing this for people who want to start buying sustainably-produced clothing but don't want to research which shops are sustainable.

People who already buy sustainable fashion might not need us as much. They’ve already found the brands and the places they want to go with; they don't mind going that extra mile. But some people are just unable to go that extra mile— and we want to make it easier for them.

Finally, although of course, we have people who care, their situation is that they would not like to pay extra, and they would like free shipping and free returns. Unfortunately, that’s often something we cannot do because many brands can’t offer it. We're a bit in between there.

Generally, our target audience is women. When it comes to sustainability on social media, it's just easier to reach them. Our audience has a bit of a larger budget; they are done studying, have a job, and are a bit more highly educated.

What about your job is most fulfilling to you?

I have a big focus on the sustainability aspect of our company. I run operations, do things with other brands, and ensure they come on the platform. For me, it's very fulfilling if they are just basically happy and gain a lot of sales and new customers through us.

I also really love doing impact analyses of the brands we host. Sometimes you read stories about brands that are amazing, with sustainability and ethical production practically built into their DNA. It’s brilliant when a company is so transparent about that. It's not 100% perfect yet, but they explain and think about everything, and I love that. It feels like there are inherently good brands and people, which, of course, feels pretty good. The whole sustainable-fashion community is surprisingly loving.

Throughout your journey, whether in your personal life or your career, were there any times you took a completely different direction from the one planned?

The most recent time was when we went through the Techstars accelerator. We went in with the idea of increasing the size of our marketplace and focusing hard on marketing, but what ended up happening instead was that the Techstars’ feedback and mentorship convinced us to focus more on the B2B side.

We had been developing B2B before but as a small, “extra” part of the company. Now, we were changing directions and trying to really focus on business-to-business. The reason was that there was a huge opportunity to supply data to retailers who wanted to promote more sustainable products but didn't have the data themselves. We thought, okay, we can provide that. So at this point, we’ve made some connections, and it seems like there are quite a few interested people.

Supplying data to retailers allows us to make even more of an impact by getting sustainable products in front of the people not using or shopping sustainably already. The simple way of describing this is that we’re just better at working with data than marketing. Our team is mostly comprised of physicists and economists! I think it makes sense.

In our new orientation, we let people who are good at marketing use our database to put that stuff out there and do the promotion stuff. We just handle the data. That’s been a big shift, but I'm very happy about it.

What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to know that you could develop a good product?

At the beginning of Project CECE, we just wanted a search engine for fairer, more sustainable fashion. In the Dutch markets, there was nothing.

At the time, that is. As it developed, we do now have more competitors in this space! But at least it means there are more markets.

Instead of competing with others, though, we want to empower all of them, and maybe even use the other sites ourselves. We built this product because we needed it ourselves. We very much think that we want to look nice, and sometimes wear what we see others wearing. But we also want to be sustainable.

And the product just kind of took off after we started. Many brands told us they needed a podium to reach their audience. A common complaint— which was pretty terrible when you thought about it— was that it was hard to compete in the sustainability space when so many companies were greenwashing cheap products that were absolutely not environmentally-friendly.

So there was an immediate surge of people emailing us wanting to be on the platform. On the other side, we were getting interest from journalists and the media in what we were doing. I think we got a surprising amount of validation at the beginning— in fact, I think we could have grown a lot faster if we’d just sought funding a bit harder.

It’s funny that you weren’t scared of starting something you weren't sure of. It sounds like you just went for it.

We were in a very privileged position in some ways because, first of all, we were still students. We had no mortgage or kids, and nothing that we had a lot of responsibility over. Building Project CECE was very cheap for us energy-wise because it was just a lot of time we needed to put in. It didn’t need huge amounts of cash, which was ideal, since we didn't have much anyway.

In that sense, it was also low-risk. It only became a bit riskier when we tried to do it full-time without having enough income. That was the scary part. We were lucky our parents lived in Amsterdam. We're still at the age where we should feel like, if everything goes wrong, I could move in with my parents again, and then we'll figure something out. I feel that because we started when we were still really young, family and friends could catch us if we fell. They didn’t have to take on our mortgage, children, family, or dogs; the risk was a lot less.

I like how this encourages other young people to start something, even alongside their studies. It's an advantage in some ways if you’re young, right?

Yeah, definitely. For young people, it's much easier to join mentor and accelerator programmes. They're generally focused on young people. For startups, being young and inexperienced is the hardest part. You'll make mistakes anyway, but you need access to your funding to start the startup.

Most people don't have a big network, but a network is everything. I learned how important networking was at Techstars, actually; it makes everything you’re doing a lot easier. Of course, the flipside is that young people who don't have a network are at a disadvantage. But some people are already in a network, and you don't need it. I feel I didn't notice how much it mattered until recently. Now that I have a network, though, the difference is like night and day.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced? Or even mistakes that you made with Project CECE? And what did they teach you?

Legal stuff can be complicated. We've made tiny mistakes in that space, and getting lawyers is super expensive. Legal problems aren’t so frequent in a positive impact-focused space like ours, but you never know for sure. The pursuit of funding can incur legal costs.

And when we got funding ourselves, I think we worried too much about spending it. This fear was something we actually felt a lot. Our first-round funding brought in €25,000, and we worked with that for almost a year. But now? We could easily spend that in a month if we wanted.

I guess the takeaway we had was not to be too conservative and to go for growth. Fundraising takes a lot of time— it’s practically a full-time job— so the work of fundraising should be distributed across our whole team. We struggled a bit before Techstars, and I think even before that.

I’d also say it’s not good to wait for fundraising until you're super desperate, for obvious enough reasons. That’s not a position anyone wants to be in.

Much of the advice we got at Techstars was the opposite of what we ultimately had done. We started fundraising pretty late, which was not something they recommended doing. We thought we were just going to “see what happened,” but timing is important. Maybe we would have secured a little more funding at the beginning if we had started sooner.

Were there any big “Aha!” moments throughout your journey? What that you remember as seeming particularly important?

The first startup weekend in Berlin gave us a big “Aha!” moment. The feeling was that we could make this really great, but we would need to put in more time and money.” It was logical, but still a big realisation.

I think we had many of those moments in Techstars. We didn’t focus that much on the marketing and business-to-customer side because we were much better at working with data. That opened all kinds of doors.

Getting some external points of view could also be a big “Aha!” moment. It can be incredibly valuable because people in a startup tend to be so immersed in it that they can’t see everything in and around it. An outsider's point of view in this context can be world-changing.

So you're saying the biggest realisations you had came from outside feedback?

I would say they did. But we’d already been thinking of doing a lot of these things, so sometimes it was just good to have extra validation or extra push on something: a suggestion from someone that we had to do something. This also made it easier to put more effort into a given area. Usually, we’ve done things on the down-low and built them a little bit, waiting to see if they got people excited or sparked joy. If we got a good response, then we would continue— but you don't get the momentum we’re creating now like that. I think it works much better in this new way.

Maybe that's the big difference between entrepreneurs and hobby-preneurs.

Yes. But I think it also depends. Entrepreneurs start from an idea, and then they get people on board to build it. But we started from scratch. We're product people who built the products. So we did everything around the product and put it into markets. Then we got into fundraising. But usually, people start with fundraising to commence building the product and bringing it to market.

We did a lot of things the other way around because we thought that you needed to show that your product worked before you could even start fundraising. But you can show this in many other ways— in our case, we could have built landing pages and gotten people to sign up in anticipation of the product which did not yet exist.

Where do you find inspiration?

Both my co-founders have inspired me. I guess my family has, too. My dad is a sort of entrepreneur, and Marcela, Melissa and their fathers. Our entrepreneurial fathers work on a much smaller level, but it makes some of our work feel a lot easier and less daunting. It's good to have someone to show you how easy it can be. Although now my father says himself that he should’ve gone for fundraising when he was younger, like we did. If he had, maybe he could’ve sold his company when he was thirty and be rich now.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you made to get to where you are now?

In the beginning, we took big pay cuts, because we could’ve been working for big companies with good wages and other benefits. I guess I didn't feel it that much then, though, because we were still living on a student budget. We sacrificed stability, for sure. There's a lot of stress around either money or just the amount of work you have to put in to meet deadlines you set yourself.

You need to, in some cases, really watch out for your mental health. I think we haven't, in the team and for myself, really breached any things there, so at least we’re still mentally healthy!

At some point, I had to say to myself that I wasn’t going to cancel on friends anymore for work because it was just an impolite thing to do. I didn't want to be that kind of person. In the end, I still work a lot, but I feel my socialization/work balance is quite alright. I guess it helps to have a dog I have to take out every afternoon.

I think that's a strength. Not everyone can say they’re just not going to cancel on their friends anymore.

I think that's one of the big struggles for many entrepreneurs, and in stressful jobs in general. Of course, your job is important, and the work you do is also what makes you happy. But you should always have time for friends and family. I think all the things people say they regret in life relate to not seeing enough friends and family.

How do you envision the future or a new normal?

We're being pulled in all directions at the moment, and it's terrifying and exciting. Sometimes we feel like we're just being very happy working in a burning house. But I do want to stay positive and optimistic about it. I think we're going towards a world where we're going to solve the climate change problem at some point, even though we're probably going to warm up a bit, but we'll stop at some point and go into renewables fully.

I feel like we're getting a lot stricter over time. How we treat workers on the other side of the world will become more stringent. I can also still hope that technology can pull everything over the line because we have so many employee shortages. I feel we need more robots because I don't think Gen Z will want to work, and I think they are right to feel that way. We may be at the point of going back a little at the moment, but I hope we're still going forward ultimately, and will reach a sort of utopia where everybody can live happily without the stress of survival.

I think we're contributing, in a small way, to this better future. We definitely want to do that. I guess we'll just have to see, though. I think overall, we're still in an upward line in how happy people are in the world. Even though we are also very aware of how badly many people have it. We do have a war, and we do have a pandemic, and we do have climate change and many other things.

After you’re gone, how would you want your close friends and family to look back upon you and your journey?

I’m not planning on going anytime soon! (laughs) But yeah, I just want them to look back at me as a nice person who tried to be a good friend, sister, and daughter. Not in the space of sustainability or trying to make the world a better place, but in the sense that I was there for them and helped them. I think that's more important for me.

What advice would you give to a young entrepreneur who is just getting started?

Go for it and get your idea approved by a good amount of people as soon as possible. You don't immediately have to build a whole product; you can start with a mock-up or something and test that out with friends and family and try to get as many perspectives as possible on it. Then iterate on that. You have something that you think a lot of people will like. I think that would be the first thing.

Don't wait too long. It's always good enough when you can put things online. Or if you make a physical product, try to make it a little more perfect. But remember it's a process, and the first batch will never be as great as the last batch; that doesn't mean you need to do it or run out of money if you wait for the last batch to be perfect, though. So don't wait for perfection and just get testing. If you have something perfect and think you need more money for it, get some money.

If there was one last message you could share with the world, what would it be?

I would just ask people to try to live a bit more within the bounds of the Earth, and you don't have to stop doing everything immediately. Just try to do the things that work for you and go from there. Also, join protests. They're important.

Thank you so much for talking with us, Noor. It was very exciting to hear about the success you had in starting this company, and we hope you continue to grow and promote even more sustainable purchases in the future.

Project CECE can be found online at www.projectcece.com.

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