Interview with Asmau Ahmed

September 1, 2012

Series: Entrepreneurial Heroes

Asmau Ahmed's entrepreneurial story begins with years of unsuccessfully navigating store aisles in search of make-up and clothing colors to help her look her best. As an engineer and beauty and fashion enthusiast with over 11 years of experience in business, Asmau was compelled to address the problem with technology. So she built Plum Perfect, a visual search engine that provides instant personalized recommendations to shoppers using their photos.

Asmau Ahmed

Founder/CEO Asmau Ahmed, brings over 11 years of experience in chemical engineering, math/statistical data analysis and strategic consulting to Plum Perfect. She holds an MBA from Columbia Business School and a B.S. with honors in Chemical Engineering from the University of Virginia. 

Her story begins with years of unsuccessfully navigating store aisles in search of make-up and clothing colors to make her look her best.  As an engineer, beauty & fashion enthusiast,  she was compelled to address the problem with technology.  And so she built Plum Perfect, a visual search engine that provides instant personalized recommendations to shoppers using their photos.

 

Asmau Ahmed

Transcript: 

Interview with Asmau Ahmed

Lucy Sanders:  Hi this is Lucy Sanders, the CEO of NCWIT, the National Center for Women and Information Technology and this is an interview and a series of interviews that we're doing with just wonderful entrepreneurs, who have started technology companies. With me is Larry Nelson, w3w3. Hi Larry.

Larry Nelson:  Hi I'm so happy to be here. One of the great things we've been on the Internet Radio Show business for fourteen years and we're running into NCWIT and Lucy Sanders and their whole team. This has been absolutely been fantastic. I've got four daughters, so I'm very very moved.

Lucy:  Wonderful. OK. This is the first time in over seventy interviews that I believe we're interviewing a chemical engineer.

Larry:  Oh, that's it. That's right.

Lucy:  It's awesome and with experience in color quality assurance no less. So stay tuned as to why this is so important for her company, Plum Perfect. Today we're interviewing Asmau Ahmed. She is the founder and CEO of Plum Perfect and it's just this fantastic site where you can go and you can upload a picture of yourself and magic happens, and it will find through color detection the right kind of make‑up for you. Now, Larry if you're not going to really look up at make‑up yet, OK, they're going to expand in other verticals around clothing or maybe furniture so you could send a shot of your sofa and you would know what colors you could use to decorate your house. Welcome Asmau. We're really happy to have you here.

Asmau Ahmed:  I'm thrilled to be here. Thank you for having me.

Lucy:  So tell us a little bit about what's going on at Plum Perfect. It's just an astoundingly beautiful site as well.

Larry:  Yes, yes.

Asmau:  Thank you. Thank you. What we've built really is a technology that enables end‑users to use mobile, social and online photos to shop. That really is the base line of our technology. Think about, what you said Lucy, taking a photo of your face and instantly in seconds, we would scour the web and all of the brands that you know and love to find you the one lipstick that would look great on you, the one eye shadow that would look good on you for that night out. Take a photo of a dress that you already own and we're going to find the perfect accessories to go with that dress or couch, to find the perfect throw pillows or paint colors. What we've really built here isn't just a beauty product or a fashion product or a home product. It is the ability for users to take photos, which we all do now, right? We literally have cameras everywhere we go on our phones, on our computers, so the ability to utilize that and we share it everywhere too as well right on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram. We're really in this culture of photo sharing. What Plum Perfect does is leverage that culture of photo sharing and uses that to drive e‑commerce powered by really, really strong technology.

Lucy:  I can already see a successful exit for you.

Larry:  My wife would be there tonight.

Asmau:  I would be happy to take any introductions.

Lucy:  I may be visiting this company when I go to California the end of this week.

Asmau:  Oh, that would be great.

Lucy:  Why don't you tell us how you first got into technology? You're a chemical engineer and here you are now starting a tech company.

Asmau:  Absolutely. So where do I start? I love innovation. It's just been part of life, part of how I grew up. I remember growing up and reading my father's ‑‑ I'm aging myself now ‑‑ at that point, computers as common as they are today ‑‑ but reading my father's encyclopedia and just always being amazed by technology, particularly chemistry. At a young age, my parents changed our laundry room into a chemistry lab for me. [laughing]

Asmau:  You know they did. So that was just the beginning. I knew that even in college, I was a chemical engineer, but I loved, loved, loved till today, loved math. I loved innovating and I couldn't just figure out what I wanted to concentrate on. That could be a good thing and a bad thing. I went with chemical engineering because it was so diverse, but I also made sure that I took all of the math classes and all of the biology classes, just anywhere I had an interest. In leaving college, my first job was Honeywell International, where I did manufacturing work. Through my experiences at work and through my experiences at shopping, I thought how neat it would be, if we were able to build, if we ever got to the point where we had visually accurate information in consumer‑grade cameras and were able to extract that information somehow, make sense of that information, and use it to recommend other products that you could buy. At that point, I thought how neat would that be if we could use photos to power e‑commerce. This was years ago.

I don't think that if I had built something back then, it would be as successful as it is today with the culture of photo sharing, but that was how it all began for me. I honestly did not do anything with it for a while, but sat on it. It was just one of those ideas that wouldn't go away. It was one of those things that just kept nagging me. In the back of my mind, I knew that it had legs. I knew that this was something that could really really catch on.

Until I went to business school and wrote a business plan and built the technology, I learned how to do it. I had a chemical engineering background not a software engineer or a coder, but I know logic. I was curious enough to learn how to build out the first technology, build out the first recommendation engine. That was about five, six years ago and here we are.

Larry:  Wow, very impressive. My goodness. What do you think out there in the field are technologies that are really cool today?

Asmau:  Oh my goodness. I think virtual reality, anything virtual reality is great. I was watching , actually one of my favorite Sunday pastimes is watching tech. This past Sunday, there was a show and I don't remember his name, on how we can really integrate a virtual world with reality without having the interface of a computer. Where you can literally just use your fingers to take a photo or go shopping and use the window to figure out what it is that you want to buy in the store. I think virtual reality and integrating reality with the online world or the digital world, I think that's where the next big technology breakthrough would be.

Lucy:  I just read about being able to control devices mentally, so I don't know if maybe I dreamt that. [laughter]

Asmau:  You know to think that that's not too far away. I mean there are great technologies being built today that allow you to control things by what you sense is, smell. For us we are using photos because we thought using something visual was the closest thing we could get. It was measurable. But being able to control something by your mental ability, using your brainwaves of some sort to control what you do. It's a little scary isn't it? But its great.

Lucy:  It is great. Well, so why are you an entrepreneur? What is it about being an entrepreneur that makes you tick?

Asmau:  I think that there is an entrepreneurial DNA. I think that there really is a type of person that can stride in the world of entrepreneurship. For me as a child, I remember to just always wanting to be everything. I could never say I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer. All I knew was that I wanted to innovate. All I knew was that I wanted to do something radical, make a difference. I wanted to build something out of seemingly nothing, but put pieces together. That was my one goal really in life. For me, I find that one goal fulfilled with entrepreneurship. It really is a way for me to innovate, a way for me to build, a way for me to use my brainpower and my knowledge to make a difference and to create something that I see has utility. People love it when they see it and they use it.

I've worked in corporate America before and there are great things about it, but I was bored to death. At the time I stopped working, I knew it was time because it was an environment that was good from a stability standpoint. I was getting a paycheck every other week. It was great to have that, but I felt my brain cells were deteriorating because I was not learning anything new. I was not motivated by what I was doing. I did not have the freedom to innovate as much as I wanted to.

It really is, innovation is what drives me. For me, it is not about work or play, it's really all about life and for me life is about innovating. It's about making a difference and entrepreneurship allows me that outlet to do that. For me, there isn't a nine to five job. It really is my life and what I do.

Larry:  Now, let me ask this. Along the way you launched your company five, six years ago now and you've done so many different things. Who were your mentors or service role models for you over the years?

Asmau:  Well, there are quite a few. The greatest supporters I've had, have been advocates of technology, advocates of women in technology, advocates of minorities in technology and just people that recognize talent when they see it. I know that I've started building technology five, six years ago, but we launched the company about two years ago 2010. One of my very early supporters was with the Astia Network. Astia is a community of women in technology or women in start‑ups to come together. I joined ASTIA back in 2010. Through Astia and all of the wonderful people that make up Astia, Yolanda Wardowski, Sharon Vosmeck and a bunch of others, I've got a huge huge support network and a huge boost. One of our greatest supporters, as well an earlier investors, was Keyport Capital. Frieda and Mitch Keyport has just been, I can't describe words how much support they have offered.

You know when you talk about having angels or [indecipherable 11:09] . It's not just about the money, it's about the advice, the time, their experience, belief in you even when you make mistakes and you will make mistakes. I have made mistakes. Their constant support and knowing that there is somebody with this much experience that has been through the grind, had so many business start‑ups and has seen the entire spectrum of really big successes to drastic failures, and having them believe in you and take the time and energy to spend with you, most recently Golden Seeds, who are our latest investors. o

On that board is Marty Nealon, who is the former CEO of the Home Shopping Network. I remember first meeting Marty and actually met her with another gentleman, and immediately, when I told her about what we were building, she loved it. She loved it from the get‑go. She got it. She understood and she has been behind us a hundred percent since.

Obviously, we couldn't have done this without Astia, without Keyport Capital, without Golden Seeds, without my husband who takes care of my two‑year old son every time I have to go out on the fundraising trail or go out to travel for business. We could not have done it without all of their support, both people that believe in the technology and its potential, and people that believed in me and my potential as an engineer and also as a founder and CEO and people that have just been a great support network for me, family and friends.

Lucy:  Well, you know we know many of them well here at NCWIT. We worked with Frieda and the level playing field and we worked with...

Asmau:  Oh. so you know how passionate Frieda could be.

Lucy:  Oh, absolutely wonderful people. Now, we're going to switch gears and talk about this toughest thing that you've ever done in your career. Why don't you tell our listeners what ever comes to mind about, "Oh, that was horrible. I would hope to have never do that again."

Asmau:  That's a tough one because Lord knows I've made a lot of mistakes. The toughest thing that I've ever done ‑‑ I know this is going to sound very cliché, but it's the truth ‑‑ it really has been around not following my passion when I knew it was time. It's been around staying at that job longer because I wanted to have that security of that paycheck. I did not want to take the leap of faith, you know, what would happen if I did that? ,The toughest thing that I've done is stayed at an environment that I knew wasn't right for me, that I knew was a path really leading to nowhere but feeling obligated to stay there because I had to make ends meet right? For me, that was the toughest thing emotionally. It was also the toughest thing, mentally for me. It was the toughest thing. It was tough. It was tougher than going out there.

I know that most start‑ups would say the toughest thing was fundraising and waiting for forever and not getting funded and you know hearing all the nos. For me honestly that was fine because I knew that not everybody would buy into our technology, not everybody would love it. It wasn't everyone's sweet spot, but I believed in it and that fuel kept me going. Staying in the environment where I had no fuel, where I had no passion was a slow death, so that was the toughest thing.

Larry:  Wow, you know that's going through a great deal and that's a great segue into our next question. That is, if you were right now sitting at your desk or your table with a "wannabe" entrepreneur, what kind of advice would you give them?

Asmau:  I would say if you can, find a partner. Find somebody that believes in this just as strongly as you do. It has to be the right person from the onset and go at it together. Finding that partner is like choosing a mate for life because it really is that intimate of a relationship. You have to trust them. You have to get along. You have to be comfortable about talking about strategy to finances to direction of where the company is going to go, hiring, who's going to take responsibility. It's like raising a child together right? So you have to be able to know that person and trust that person in and out. That's my first advice. My second advice would be you're going to hear a lot of nos and you're going to hear people give you varying opinions on how can grow your product and that's a great thing. When you have a strong technology, you have a strong product. There's several different ways that you can go with it. That's a good thing.

But you need to stay focused and I struggled at that very much in the beginning. That was something that I got lot of guidance on was when we first build this out, we wanted to be everything. We had to choose one vertical to focus on, and hopefully, we can roll out the others with time, but we had to get the first vertical right. My third advice would be to stay focused.

Lucy:  Focus is important.

Asmau:  It is very important.

Larry:  I like it!

Lucy:  So along the same lines and maybe drilling down just a bit, what personal characteristics do you have that make you a successful entrepreneur.

Asmau:  Staying power and not giving up, that's one. The second is thinking outside of the box and pushing the envelope. Whenever I try to bring somebody on board on our team or I post the job, I always put on there that this isn't for the faint‑hearted. If you're looking for the status quo, this isn't it for you. You have to be willing to push the envelope. If I think that and not going out there and seeing whether they exist and using that as the limits to what you can create right? And I had a lot of people that have done that. They've come onboard and they're like, "Oh let's see what other people are doing," and that kind of creates the boundaries to what we can do. I say, "No. We can't do that. The whole point of this is that we're not looking to create what has already been created. We're looking to push the boundaries here."

Yes, we learn from what has already been done, but we take that next level. We take it a step ahead. So I think just having that mindset as well. I think the two characteristics are staying power and just a thirst for innovation and pushing the envelope and not being satisfied until you do.

Lucy:  Well, and I think the push for innovation is something that many people need to experience an innovative effort before they really understand that, right?

Asmau:  Agreed.

Lucy:  They have to be around it for a while. Some people are busy when they're young blowing things up in their parent's laundry room and the chemistry lab. But I think some people are a little scared of innovation perhaps until they've gone through it before.

Asmau:  I think also that people are scared of failure.

Lucy:  Yes. Agreed.

Asmau:  I've been through this as well. For me, I think it's not necessarily failure, it's a fear of not being the best and not knowing how to approach or solve a problem. You then kind of shut off and just think you can separate yourself from this world of innovation just because you don't know how to relate to it. You are not sure you would be the best that you can be, if put in that world. I think even more so than not being around innovation because I think this day and age we're all around innovation. You can't escape from it. It's everywhere. I think it's the fear of just engaging with it and knowing that you can without failure.

Larry:  Innovation is certainly a big word here, but also you know you have a very loving, wonderful family. You're building a new business. How was it that you bring ‑‑ and this is a word we talk about a little bit ‑‑ balance into your personal and your professional lives?

Asmau:  A lot of support, my family. I think as women, we are built to multitask. I went out fundraising, when I was pregnant. I continued to work when I had my son. I didn't shut down between breastfeeding and changing diapers. I continued to work. It's really a matter of effective time management skills. Again that drive, that drive, if you're really passionate about something and it's is what drives you, then you find time for it. You get it done somehow. There's been times when I've slowed down, absolutely, but I've slowed down. I have always known that I would have to make up for that and get back on and push even harder. There's no magic formula to this. It's really just about having that drive, managing your time effectively and having the support. My husband has been... I couldn't have done this without him. He's been awesome. I remember having to travel out to the West Coast sometimes and not having a nanny and he would come out with me and stay with my son in the hotel, while I went out on meetings. It really is a team effort.

Lucy:  I love that story because I feel like that's an answer to women potentially having stronger careers, that kind of sharing. I think not only that, but I think it's an answer to a number of fathers feeling like they've been with their kids as they've grown up. I think it's wonderful. You've already achieved a lot. What's next for you? We think that's kind of an interesting question to ask entrepreneurs because they are so heads down in their business and their life, but do you see anything that potentially might be next for you or for the company?

Asmau:  Absolutely. You know it's interesting that you say that we're so heads down because I think you're absolutely right. I was talking to one of my colleagues here, and sometimes, we just realize that we just need to take some time out and appreciate the milestones that we've achieved. You spent so much time working at getting to that milestone, but when you get there, you're already thinking what's the next step. For us, I think we've built a great technology. We've built a great product and we have active users. I would love to see our user base increase significantly. I would love to see us go out there in the marketplace. We haven't done a ton of marketing, but we've already built great enthusiasm for our technology in the technology round space.

My next goal is to reach as many people in the US and internationally as we can. I really see this as the next way to shop, the next way for people to engage with stores and with retailers both online and the physical stores. It's just to take a photo of whatever it is you want and we can use that visual information from that photo to drive e‑commerce. I mean just think about how huge that could potentially be.

Lucy:  I'm excited.

Asmau:  Whatever that thought is or wherever your imagination goes, that's how big we want to get, that's how much impact we want to have. It's baby steps. We've certainly taken a lot of baby steps in the past four years. We've made huge milestones and we're looking forward to our next achievement.

Lucy:  It sounds wonderful and I'm looking forward to the time I could actually buy make‑up that looks good on me.

Asmau:  Certainly.

Lucy:  All right well thank you very much

Asmau:  Thank you, Larry.

Lucy:  I want to remind listeners that they can find this on w3w3.com and ncwit.org

Larry:  You betcha. Thank you so.

Lucy:  Good luck with the company.

Asmau:  Thank you so much. [music]