Cécile Roederer

Is one born an entrepreneur or does one become one? As Smallable, the online children's store that she founded turns five, Cécile Roederer tells us why being an entrepreneur is nothing short of a vocation. She looks back on the beginnings of an entrepreneurial adventure that has turned out to be anything but small.

So, what is your role at Smallable?

I am the founder and president. I am also in charge of general management.

Tell me briefly how you got to where you are today?

What I love is being an entrepreneur. I would say that from about the age of 12 or 13, I had always dreamt of setting up my own company. I studied Business and Management so enterprise was kind of the next step. I went to England and then India on a micro-credit program to help women set up in business. But, even though I knew that I wanted to set up on my own, I have always been of the mind that you first of all have to gain as much experience as possible, to establish solid foundations in business, management and marketing.

So I went to DIM first (where I met Fanny Moizant, the co-founder of Vestiaire Collective), following pretty much a classic product marketing route. Then I moved to Lancel. I spent 3 or 4 years with each brand, and then I decided to set up on my own. I think the fact that I had just turned 30 also had something to do with it!

One part of me really wanted to create a concept store. I love the idea of a concept store. When you say concept store, you are saying not just a shop but the discovery and creation of an entire lifestyle. I found that the world of women’s fashion was saturated. But for children this wasn’t the case. Especially not on the web. A high-end shopping destination with a complete selection of both fashion and design just didn’t exist online.

The idea of creating a physical store did cross my mind, but then I thought, no, you want to discover brands from across the world, and to make them available across the world. The only platform for this is the web. So I threw myself into e-commerce, which, at the time, I didn’t know much about. I was learning as I went along. And I am still learning every day!

But, before I did anything else, I worked a lot on my market position and what I was going to offer. I was convinced that there was a real market for it. So I left my job and started up on my own.

Of course, at the beginning I was in my living room with an intern – I stayed there until we we were a team of five! But I was always really serious about the venture, I wasn’t doing it to stay in my living room. I had real ambitions for Smallable from the very beginning.

So have you always seen Smallable on a large scale?

Yes. Biggable in fact! I built it as a company that was going to grow. I worked hard on my business plan beforehand (for almost a year prior to the launch in August 2008) and notably, I really focused on the different stages of the company’s growth. And that is important because once you are involved in running the company, you don’t have the time anymore. That planning makes sure that you don’t lose sight of your vision and the direction you want to move in. Maybe that is one of the secrets of why we got going quite quickly and why we are still here today.

I confess I had the image of Net-A-Porter in my head. That model is inspiring for any woman entrepreneur. I always see Smallable as I want it to be, i.e. the global e-commerce site for children. Nothing has been left to chance. But it hasn’t been a straight or easy path.

Do you remember the moment when you realized that it was going to work?

Yes. There are two things that I think of in those moments when I take stock: when I realize that we have clients across the world (US, Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong) who keep coming back to us, and when I look around me and see 20, 30 people who are working with me. But that can also be overwhelming because you say to yourself, ok, we can’t slow down, we can’t stop here.

Indeed! So how do you deal with moments when things get difficult? How do you stay motivated?

When you are an entrepreneur you have extreme highs and extreme lows. You are free but everything depends on you. During the lows it’s in your interest to keep morale and a good mental attitude going. You can never let go. You have to tell yourself, ok, that’s behind me, let’s move forward, it happened, it made us stronger, we’ve learnt from it.

How does having a business partner change things? (Cécile’s business partner is her husband, Pierre Rochand)

I think that it is important not to be on your own. Having a partner means you have someone to bounce your ideas off, and to share your vision with. Personally, I need someone to talk to. Pierre complements me perfectly. We are very different, with different skills. But there is also a certian intimacy between us because we are husband and wife, and that gives us both a chance to ‘boost’ the other when someone is feeling down. I see it as a strength, working alongside my husband. But at the beginning I was alone. He joined me when I had our baby. That was when I said HELP!

(Interesting… Cécile started Smallable before having her son… Can you be interested in the world of children before having one yourself? "Yes, for me it was enough to feel an affinity with a universe and a product. In fact, it was perhaps an advantage because I was very objective.")

How do you see the competition, as I would say that today’s market is not the same as it was when you started Smallable?

I haven’t invented anything. It’s not like I created Facebook! But it’s true that the terrain was pretty untouched when we started. Afterwards for a site to be copied, emulated, that’s normal. It’s actually a very good sign. Emulation is healthy and dynamic. However, I would say that you have to be careful to create your own identity. It annoys me sometimes, when I see projects that have no originality, which do exactly what we (or others) are doing, without trying to create their own visual world.

What is it in your personality that has made Smallable what it is today?

Shouldn’t I be asking you that question? (Laughs – With Cécile sitting in front of me I realize that the Smallable e-shop, and particularly the magazine, really does have something of her in it. I tell her this and she explains that the magazine is precisely their DNA, the essence of their universe. There isn't any point in continuing with this line of questioning! I can tell you myself. Smallable is Cécile.)

What would your advice be for a girl starting out as a web entrepreneur today?

First, prepare your project well. That is fundamental. Then surround yourself with the right people. I would also say that you have to have a great capacity for hard work, and be brave, and audacious, of course.

A vision of the internet of tomorrow?

The physical will come to the aid of the virtual. I don’t necessarily mean via a shop, but I am becoming more and more of the opinion that the greatest challenge is managing to recreate that shop atmosphere online. That is the issue; to be able to says to yourself ‘I am in front of my iPad, on the Smallable site, and it is just as good as being in the shop. It is just as unique and intimate.’

What are your favourite sites?

Net A Porter, even though I think they could still do more, especially concerning designers who aren’t British. I am in love with a site that I have just discovered called First Dibs. I follow sites that are more about content and editorial, like FabSearch or François Simon’s site for discovering restaurants; or The Socialite Family and The Glow because I love going into people’s homes! I like what inspires me, what helps me to discover something new.

Do you read blogs?

Not really. Well, it’s not really a blog but do I read the Business of Fashion. I don’t have a lot of time so I only read the essentials, sites that are really telling me something useful.

A favourite designer?

I have a lot. I like Alexander Wang for his minimalism, but I also adore Matthew Williamson’s prints for example; even if I don’t really wear them. I love to flit around! For example, I love the Nordic designers but I can also move towards something a lot more elaborate. I like a small touch of something out of the ordinary.

A childhood memory?

I am the last in a family of five girls. I think that is what has forged my tastes, my artistic sensibility. And what gave me the sense that I had to be different. Our family is quite artistic. I was enveloped in that universe. For example I remember when I was very young I took my mother’s sewing machine and made dresses. I like creation; I have a real sensitivity towards products. Even now at Smallable, I would say that my strength is buying and putting our product range together.

Chic or geek?

I would say both. But I am definitely more chic than geek! And Smallable is definitely both.