Episode 143

Isabella Sun ·  Reinventing Fashion for Petite Women

“ I had my eyes wide open, like, wow, there's this whole world out here of how these get funded, how they deploy capital and I just absorbed it like a sponge.”

Isabella Sun is the co-founder and CEO of Short Story, the first personal styling service dedicated to helping petite women find their perfect fit. Isabella grew up in Beijing and is from a family of entrepreneurs. Her mom came to the US to start an import business, and her uncle owned a tailoring shop, so she always knew she wanted to start something of her own one day. Prior to Short Story, Isabella spent several years in New York as a trader at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. After struggling for years to find professional, properly fitting clothes, Isabella founded Short Story with the mission to help millions of women dress with effortless confidence. Since launching in 2019, Short Story has been featured in BuzzFeed, Who What Wear, and USA Today. Isabella is passionate about empowering women and breaking fashion barriers. Aside from being an entrepreneur, Isabella loves trying spicy food, going on long hikes, and exploring new countries in camper vans.


Social media handles:

Instagram: @shortstorybox

Facebook: @shortstorybox

Pinterest: @shortstorybox

Website: shortstorybox.com

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Podcast Transcript

Isabella Sun

Intro: (00:00:00) Hey guys, welcome to Asian Hustle Network Podcast, my name is Bryan my name is Maggie. We interview Asian entrepreneurs around the world to amplify their voices and empower Asians to pursue their dreams and goals. We believe that each person has a message and a unique story from their entrepreneurial journey that they can share with all of us.

Maggie: (00:00:23) Hi everyone! Welcome to the Asian Hustle Network Podcast and we have a very special guest today. Isabella is the co-founder and CEO of a Short Story family of entrepreneurs. Her mom came to us to meet her own business. So she always knew she wanted to try something of her own. One day before short stories, she worked in the industry and struggled for years to find. When she discovered that 50% of US women are 5’4 or under and considered petite she knew there had to be a better way. In 2019 she left her finance job and Short Story was born. Short Story is funded by Y combinator and has been featured in Busby USA today and more. Isabella, welcome to the show.

Isabella: (00:01:18) Hi, I’m so happy to be here and excited to chat.

Maggie: (00:01:21) Amazing. So let’s get right into your story. I’m so excited to learn more about yourself and she was sorry, what was your upbringing like? And how did you get this entrepreneurial spirit? I want to learn more about the inspiration that you got from your mother. And I know you’ve come from a family of entrepreneurs. So tell us a little bit about that.

Isabella: (00:01:40)  I was born in Beijing rather right next to the forbidden city and it was a super voice or a landmark. And those were the formative years of my life when I grew up in one of the cities in the world. And so my mom is an entrepreneur and she owns a business in boarding seasons. So growing up, I’ve always loved seafood. I love a good crab or shellfish or salmon, you know, you name it. And so she hadn’t been running her business for over 30 years and I’m grown up watching her run her business and admired her for being an entrepreneur.

Maggie: (00:02:23) Wow! That is so amazing. I think that matters a lot coming from a family of entrepreneurs, it’s easier to visualize, especially if you don’t come from a family of entrepreneurs, you just kind of stick with the nine to five and you graduate, you get involved in a job and it’s hard. It’s just 65. And so it’s just really inspiring to see that. I come from a family of non-entrepreneurs, so it was very difficult for me to see it and it doesn’t light have that mindset and steer it. I truly believe that 

Isabella: (00:02:59) When you see it growing up, but it’s, you see all the things that are hard about it. I remember at dinner my mom would go take a phone call with an international partner and it was constantly like all day long, see the amount of work that it takes to make something work.

Maggie: (00:03:19) Yeah, absolutely. I know that you were working in the finance industry in New York and I hear a lot of grueling stuff about that. I mean, you were working at Bank of America. Can you talk a little bit about your experience there and what was it like working at Bank of America? How did you kind of have this idea or inspiration for founding Short Story?

Isabella: (00:03:43) It’s funny when I graduated as a young person that I do think working in banking exposes you to so much in a short amount of time, I was 20 something working with really large companies like Activision or Soft Bank and I had my eyes wide open, like, wow, there’s this whole world out here of how these get funded, how they deploy capital. And I just absorbed it like a sponge and so I did that for a while and was interesting as I worked on the trading floor. So, some things are unique to that culture and it was very fast-paced. You have people who are, it’s like an adrenaline-charged place where deals get done. And I was kind of I’m 5’1. So, I’m tiny and standing with that four sometimes really tall people, really tall men.

Then I felt small, like physically small. So, I just remember walking a lot of meetings where I was the only woman, a petite woman, and feeling like I wanted to give myself a little boost and wearing the right things, wearing things that I felt good when I wore something like a dress and I put it together.

And so, this constant of like wanting to dress confidently and helping other people. I was always giving my friend advice on Hey, check out this brand. They have a great cut as well, suited for petite girls. So that grew into the kind of like wanting to do that. It’s to explore the idea and turning into a business. Yeah. So that was kind of, the genesis of the short story is wanting to make a brand to help women feel great about themselves

Maggie: (00:05:46)  I was on this call with Isabella before I started recording. And I was just expressing how excited I am to learn about Short Story tons of my heartstrings personally because I am 4’8 and I don’t know how much of our community knows about that but I’m very petite. I don’t think I really, I don’t think I’ve met anyone else as petite as I am. And as you can understand for us petite women, it’s really hard for us to find clothing and I agree with you, confidence has such a big part in that. And the same thing with me, I was working in the tech industry and I was in the marketing department.

So a lot of other people in my department, normally, Caucasian they’re very tall and I was the only Asian or minority in meeting rooms of my size, I was shorter than five feet and it was really hard for me to find professional work clothing and that matters a lot. I can feel confident in the clothes that you wear, then you’re able to deliver better.

It’s just like how people say, like, if you wear makeup if you do whatever to your skin or it matters so much. And I just love that so much that you had that inspiration. I know that you pretty much didn’t even have any overlap with your full-time job and starting Short Story, right. How it was like for you, because some people will only, start their side business and they stay at the corporate job for maybe a year or two, just to make sure to make ends meet. But it seems like in April 2019 you kind of jumped, was there a reason for that? And were you scared at all during that big jump when you quit your full-time job in the banking industry and you had just started Short Story?

Isabella: (00:07:41) I think my grandma went a little scared for me. What are you doing? It was a leap of faith. I mean, to be completely honest, I don’t have any fashion or retail background at all. And I couldn’t tell you anything about materials, cotton, whatever, but I just figured. I can learn and all of these things can be learned. I mean, we can get into this more, but one of my pieces of advice to entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs just do it, sometimes you think too much, and then you get scared.

But if you just do it, trust yourself that you can figure this out and you have a learning mindset, just go for it. That’s what I would say. And sometimes that lack of immediate experience can be a good thing because you are then asking a lot of questions about how the industry operates that someone has been in there may not be seeing right. So, I remember I used to get off at work and then basically work on this idea, and then it is kind of snowballed in a way that I didn’t expect, because I think women like you, when you are petite and have not had a lot of options and you see something like this, you’re like, okay I need this. And so, I felt that kind of energy and that sort of, Ooh, I love this idea. And I just thought, okay, this thing needs a solution. And the industry has not provided a solution. So it takes somebody from the outside to solve it. I don’t want to wait for something to happen. I’m going to go, just do this. So that was how I got started.

Maggie: (00:09:34) Oh, I love that so much. And I, yeah, I think a lot of us, we have our own internal problems, I have this XYZ problem right. And we’re just waiting for a solution to them. Not many of us think about how we can create our own solution and I think I’ve read this article about you saying, in the early days you’re sitting in it and you were like running back and forth to the post office and the doorman thought you were crazy. I want to know about the hustle days of that time, cause today you don’t have to like package boxes until 3:00 AM in the morning. I love that. I love that you do the nitty-gritty work, but I’m sure you have like a system and process that’s more defined and laid outright. But I want to know about the hustle days of when you were first starting Short Story.

Isabella: (00:10:28) The hustle is ongoing, but we do have a team now, and I’m so proud of our team for where we are today. Back then, it was really I am going to the post office at five, I remember holding those little suitcases they were like little trolleys. So, I got them from Home Depot I think.

And I would stack them up so high and they would wiggle around and I would be sprinting at 4:59 to get to that office before it closes and then there was an officer so nice. They’ve gotten to know me. They’re like, oh, there’s that girl? Oh, there she is. So, I mean, the early days are really about just the rich and making it happen and being so excited that you are just pushing against all barriers to build this thing, to make it from nothing into something.

Maggie: (00:11:31) I love hearing that. Okay. So for some of our listeners who don’t know yet, I want to know how Short Story works exactly. So, it seems like, customers pay styling fees to get a personalized box of clothing, tell us how it works exactly.

Isabella: (00:11:49) So, you can think of a short story as your best friend who happens to be an expert in dressing or petite proportions. So, we are the styling experts who will curate the best selection of brands and styles from around the world on a single platform and essentially match you with pieces that would fit you best.

So, we’ll get to know you a little bit through a style quiz where you share your sizes, your measurements, and your preferences, and we’ll use that to essentially create curations for you. What’s different and unique about us, are we not only curate, not only provide third-party brands. So, brands that you will be familiar with. We also create our clothing and those ideas come from you. So our customers are part of our product creation process. You may say, I often have trouble finding pants in a 25 inch, we will then aggregate that data and then go, curate, that for you.

Maggie: (00:13:03) I was just going to ask that I was wondering if there are any pieces that you and your teams design personally because I think even though there are other larger retailers that may have my petite clothing, it may not always sit right. After all, it’s such a large market.

And I love that you guys have your recording label. And I guess I want to know, what’s the creative process for that? Do you have a specific creative process? Do you ever go with I’m sure that having the customers, for you to inspiration is very helpful for you? Do you and your team have the creative processes and how do you curate them.

Isabella: (00:13:46) So I like to say that we create products from ones rather than a bunch of designers and creatives sitting in their room with a Pantone color and saying, this is, you’re here are the things that. Our process is just flipped. So we draw inspiration from pain points that we’ve identified in our customer set.

So, we’ll look at a customer set and see these, the recurring things that recurrent themes that us petite women. We are, a lot of us are here and we are own customer in and we’re saying, oh, okay for jumpsuits, the seats, the area it’s always too low, which is a huge problem for petite. So, let’s create a jumpsuit where the seat is sitting in the right place. So in that sense, the creative process is customer-driven.

Maggie: (00:14:48) Oh my gosh. It’s so hard for me to find a jumpsuit that suits me. I have to be honest; I don’t even have a jumpsuit. I remember the time when GLCs were popular. I didn’t give myself a jumpsuit I couldn’t find anywhere that would fit me. And last week I had to buy a dress for one of my friend’s bachelorettes parties and she wanted a royal blue dress and I had to search everywhere cause a royal blue dress, I don’t have a lot of clothes. And so, I remember last week I was shopping in San Francisco and I went inside a shop, and I found out what I was asked, but the spaghetti straps were so low that I knew if I put it on as you could just see everything and I’m just, wow, this just doesn’t make sense. And there were no like adjustments on the shop. So, it’s just, that it’s so hard to find clothing for petite people.

Isabella: (00:15:51) And really is and it’s a core that we’ve gotten used to which like that we shouldn’t be doing that right. It’s okay, well, if we just go expecting that, we have to have, we’ll have to get a tailor. We’ll have to cut it ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

And so, it takes some sort of, there’s a theme process around, what are you creating products for and what do they look like and what are their measurements and proportions? So, yeah, so that’s, what we do. We have close to 10 private label lines, and those are all curated around customers.

Maggie: (00:16:33) Short Story has gone through Y combinator. You were featured on Buzzfeed, CTLA, and USA today have recognized Short Story as the number one clothing subscription box in 2021, and that is such an amazing achievement and feat. I want to know what were you thinking at the time? What was going through your mind? What were you processing and how did all of these achievements make you understand that this is something that people need? And when was it that you realized that this could be a thing?

Isabella: (00:17:07)I think there are some moments at the start of this journey that you never heard about yet. And one of these moments for us was when the editors from Buzzfeed editors were girls. And so they found us on the career search and reached out and said, we would love to feature you in one of our videos. And I said, yeah. We would love to work with you. And so, they created the video, they had published the video and they said, oh, we don’t know published, but you’ll find out.

 I said, okay, great. So I remember one Saturday morning waking up to an insane number of new users who had signed up after watching that video and our traffic just skyrocketed. And so I was like, wow, that’s incredible, I know if we were so happy and the next thing we sort of realized was, oh, shoot.

How are we going to fulfill these orders? So it was, it was so funny thinking back to that, but there are moments like that. When I think of us, for the short story, when someone discovers us, they get very excited and they are. It resonates with them and people like you, people like me who are her whole lives, we’ve been trying. I figure this out. And so those are the moments when I’d be, okay, we are. 

Maggie: (00:18:41) I love that so much. Yes, and that he’s about later and finally feeling seen or her it matters so much. And I remember when that was posted on the discussion board. So much good engagement and feedback on your brand, on your story.

And my sister, she’s in the group. That’s most of my sisters and I are all team. My family is all the and so I see, as my sister had seen your post, she, I saw that she immediately felt the short story on. And it’s just one of those things where it’s a lot of women when they see something like a short story, he feels like, oh, wow.

I don’t understand the problem that I have that not a lot of people actually found a solution to. So I love that you’re really toppling into the kind of trying to get over it. It was like, is it to me straight? And am I going to attract, or my audience, like, what if I’m missing out on a bigger target market, right. But I love that you understood your target is so precisely that even if your target audience, like 70% of us are petite and we don’t realize that, right. And I love that you understand what the problem was and how.

Isabella: (00:20:07) There are a lot of us. We need to send you guys some jumpsuits.

Maggie: (00:20:13) I want to talk about some of the obstacles that you faced in the process of launching this business, right. And more specifically, a little bit deeper. I think we did an assistant we’re very much on top of that many investors, right. And so I want to know if you ever experienced any criticism or believe the products would work. And so how did you deal with it?

Isabella: (00:20:53) There were many moments. I mean, to be honest, this belief, this being a problem of existing came up several times through our crew or fundraising. And I said, we can look at the CDC data, but I want you to do me a favor, go outside and walk around. And just to limit chances are one and two of them will be, and I mean, we need to do our job educating people. What is petite? It’s five, four under it’s also people who have, right. So, you can have the T or her legs, but I mean, this thing I had to deal with constantly.

Sometimes male investors have no idea what I’m talking about and then that is when I point to these things that we’ve accomplished in the last four amount of time like, look at her, look at how much we resonated with people, with women and how long have we grown? And these are numbers that you can number don’t lie, right? So I think it’s something that a lot of female entrepreneurs have to deal with and we will tablet one day at a time. 

Maggie: (00:22:15) Oh, yeah, definitely. And I think we’re starting to demand that our voices be heard more nowadays. I think a lot of women are realizing that, and I love that, you know, you have such a positive mindset and we just have to, you know, show them the data, you know, like this is a real call for a lot of females and women. I know that your team is. And we hire a lot with watching a team who are very creative and smart and great stylist and securing the outfits for your clients, the fulfillment to each cost. How do you determine what type of people you want to bring onto the team, or what do you think makes a very effective?

So I love that you have such an outlook on that. And I think that a lot of people will start to realize that this is a problem.

Isabella: (00:23:13)I think the first thing is they have to believe in our mission and our team very much. I believe that we are solving a problem, a real problem, and we’re helping people find a solution that will make their lives better. It’s really like every single shipment, every single duration that we deliver this to somebody’s house and they get this little thing.

And I hope it’s something that’s far away and there is a bright spot, right? It’s been a tough couple of years for a lot of people. So when we hired the top qualities I look for is, is this person a zero to one person? Meaning is this someone who will start with. The belief that we knew it, we can take anything from not existing to existing.

And that’s a special trait that makes somebody a builder. And I think we’re a team of builders, right? So a lot of these processes, a lot of these. You don’t exist. And so, when we’re vendors, they always want, they want history. They want to pass. I have been trended before and that’s the complete opposite. So I think that’s one of the biggest things that I look forward to building.

Maggie: (00:24:30) Not so much, it’s hard to find a good team, but it’s also one of the most important things to deliver to your customers. And customers know when the team is passionate about the mission of the company.

And I love that your team is also, that is amazing sounder and just an entrepreneur in general, there comes along with peaks and valleys and a lot of highs and lows. I’m sure you experienced that too. Brian and myself and much all the other entrepreneurs in our community, it’s hard.

It’s hard being an entrepreneur and yeah and Bryan always says I just wish I could go back to the nine to five and the same thing when it gets really hard, right. But we wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but I think this is a good segue to speak on the topic of mental health and how you take care of yourself and understand it can be so exhausting and being more. How do you manage your mental health and how do you make sure that you make time for yourself?

Isabella: (00:25:42) This is a good question because I think one of the realizations I had indeed matter is all of the things, things that I thought would be hard or not as hard. And all of the things I thought would be okay turned out to be hard.

And so, an example of that is I thought, oh shoot I don’t know anything about manufacturing or retailing. How on earth are we going to do this? So am I talking to people? For people who are super experienced, what is harder is operating in new negativity when there is no earlier answer. And you have to just think through all of those scenarios.

And then. And engaged in this constant iterative process of okay, I’m going to do this, I’m gonna try this. And then it fails and I’ve hurt myself quickly. And just keep going. That has been hard, but sometimes you, like, you want to know what is the right answer? So mental health might be one of my favorite things to do is just.

Maggie: (00:27:12) Oh, I love that so much. It sounds so simple. And it’s something that I’ve never heard of anyone saying before, but oh my gosh, that sounds so relapsing.

Isabella: (00:27:25) You can take it to the next level is, and like, you know, herbs and stuff and get in there.

Maggie: (00:27:33) Now that I think about it, I remember my mom would do that every single night, I had tested him out of that. So I love that so much. Every person may have a different way to cope with mental health, right?

And it may be something in fee and maybe reading a book, but it’s just so important for you to find that outlet and which outlet works best for you right. Especially as founders, and entrepreneurs become so tiring, it’s exhausting. It’s really important to find that out. So you had one thing that you wanted more, the customer’s story you should take away from the brand, what would that one thing be?

You know, if there’s like a specific message that you want to portray through your brand and your messaging

Isabella: (00:28:20) I think it’s that we’re here for you. It hasn’t been an area that a lot of retailers, brands, and designers have paid attention to and I think we feel pretty ignored and kind of brushed aside like there’s this, you go to a traditional mall and in the very back, there is a tiny little section in, there is one that is the session and there’s.

Or styles and it looks really sad and it’s the styles from like 10 years ago. That’s what we have had and the alternative is going to the kid’s section right. And buying like a unicorn t-shirt that has labels on it’s not in the spotlight. And I want to tell all the women who are our customers and those who are just learning about us, that we’re here for you. We are, there are, this is a common thing. And we deserve to have the same selection and excitement and competence as everybody else. So that is what I’ll say.

Maggie: (00:29:27) I love that so much. And I agree oftentimes I have to go to the kid’s section to find exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s always styled that is more for kids.

Isabella: (00:29:47) We’re a very average and normal industry that is disconnected from us.

Maggie: (00:29:55) Absolutely. Isabella, I have one last question for you, and that is if you could give one advice to the spiral entrepreneur. Well, what that one I see, or it could be advice for a woman is trying to find her novenas as well.

Isabella: (00:30:13) This is something that we talked about earlier. It’s just doing it. There are so many roadblocks obstacles, real, or imagined that stand in the way of doing something my biggest piece of advice is just to go in with this mindset that you will figure it out, leaving yourself, you will figure it out.

And then the journey is going to be very long, but it will be really fun. And you will find out so many things about yourself that you didn’t know before, whether it’s things that you’re good at, or you’re just really passionate about and let those be the drivers and wouldn’t be like, well, what do you naturally gravitate toward? You don’t have to have the experience or the credentials just, just believe in yourself.

Maggie: (00:29:58) Absolutely agree. I think a lot of times we think to ourselves, how am I going to get through this? But we go through it one way or another, we get through it and then we look back like a year later and we’re like, that was so easy. So we’re going to listen to find out more about you and the short story online.

Isabella: (00:31:32) You can follow us on Instagram at a Short Story box. And we do have a style blog where we share lots of tips, whether it is how to wear our boyfriend, Jean, or how to wear oversize pieces. And you can find us there on our blog, on our website.

Maggie: (00:31:53) Amazing. And I’ll be sure to leave all of that in the show notes of this episode as well. It was so amazing having you on the podcast today. I loved learning more about your story. Thank you so much.

Isabella: (00:32:06) My pleasure. It was so fun talking to you. Thank you so much for having me.