North America is teeming with Indians and others from Southeast Asia with a dollar to spend on quality fashion. Yet in the mainstream, their styles and the brands of their native lands are hardly anywhere to be found.
That gaping cavity in the market inspired Toronto-based technology and advertising entrepreneur Sonya Gill to develop The Lnk, a marketplace that connects international labels with shoppers in the U.S. and Canada.
Well, that, and the shopping misadventures of her mother.
“To be very honest, it started with my mom and her complaining,” said Gill, a Canadian of Indian descent. “She didn’t know where to go to buy clothes from India. It was really hilarious.”
Gill said her mom would send her screenshots of websites, asking whether she should buy from them, only to have her daughter text back, “no, don’t shop there” and have her phone inundated with ads from similar unverified sites.
“Then she would go on Facebook Marketplace and make relationships with people back home and she thought, ‘this was so great!’ and I was like, ‘no, this is so terrible!” Gill said. “But that’s exactly, to pinpoint, the moment it started from.”
Still in its infancy after a beta launch in February and official launch this month, The Lnk currently features about 300 brands, mostly from India and nearby southeast Asia and is about to expand into Indonesia, Dubai and Africa. Gill expects this number to reach as many as 5,000, in part because businesses are attracted to her 15 percent commission-only fee. The $10 to $15 per day typically spent on online advertising, she picks up and bakes in as ROI.
“I’ve always had this idea of a fashion e-commerce platform and with Covid I noticed all these mom and pops show up on Shopify and Wix. The market was saturated, extremely so after the pandemic,” Gill said. “With Shopify you could do the logistics, currency pricing, taxes, but the main problem still remained, which is that overseas, returns are a pain in the butt.”
That’s why, Gill says, The Lnk handles all the shipping and all the returns for the customer with a 60-day guarantee, so long as the tags are intact.
“You can return it to our Toronto or New York warehouses—more like offices—and we’ll take the return and send it back, or we’ll sell it,” she said.
“Before, you could pay a few hundred dollars a month and get listed on Google, but now it’s so ridiculously hard and that’s where marketplaces work really well,” she said. “The marketplace is a niche place; it makes it more easy for the consumer to discover you.”
“When I go shopping at big stores I should see these items culturally appropriated to me, because guess what? We have a lot of money to spend, and a lot of other cultures have a lot of money to spend, and if you gear items toward us, we’ll purchase them. We’ll make it mainstream.”— Sonya Gill, Founder, THe LNK
Any company can apply to become a vendor on The Lnk site, though Gill says there is a vetting process.
“The last two to three weeks we’ve done a lot of interviews. It’s very important for us to find the right type of brand,” Gill said. “A lot of brands will come to us, but we need to make sure they’re not making items in some sweatshop and paying people just pennies. Pay them well, be sustainable and make sure your pictures are exactly what the customer will receive in the package. We take care of all the packaging.”
The first target consumer for Gill is North Americans with cultural ties to the other side of the world.
“Cultural outfits are becoming more and more prominent in society, just look at Diwali becoming mainstream,” she said. “There’s African cultural events; I just spoke to someone in Greece about Eid—everyone has it and it’s becoming more and more prominent in society and it’s growing. Where are people going to find these items?”
The second target of these fashions is North Americans who have yet to be exposed to these fashion styles and may be attracted to them on that alone.
“We’re not just for people of culture, of color; we are for the everyday shopper. We’re just making it normal for you to see these types of items on a shopping platform,” Gill said. “When I go shopping at big stores I should see these items culturally appropriated to me, because guess what? We have a lot of money to spend, and a lot of other cultures have a lot of money to spend, and if you gear items toward us, we’ll purchase them. We’ll make it mainstream.”
Convincing North Americans these styles are the fashions they want taps right into the wheelhouse of Gill’s previous incarnation on the front lines of what would come to be known as social media influencing.
“All I had at the time was a blog called Youzus, which was used for connecting businesses,” Gill said. “I’d go out and check out a pizza place or dry cleaning—we didn’t even know influencing was a thing then—but I’d charge them through the blog. Around 2010 I knew I was on to something: how do you make money off connecting people?”
In 2012, Gill turned her blog into an official digital marketing agency and in 2015 she sold it to an Australian marketing agency and began her own VC called Doyonne Capital.
Recently, she exceeded the midpoint of a $1 million seed funding round, a door she opened with the help of her trusted friend: social media.
“I started my first company in my 20s, and [then] I would never have thought of putting something like that on Instagram. I would have thought of it as kind of a faux pas—so tacky, like who does this?” Gill said. “Yet we do so many things on social media, so I thought, ‘why not put this out there.’ I’ve got around 5,000 followers, what if one of them is an investor?”
As it happened, all four of the major donors Gill found came through social platforms.
“I think it’s important to share that because the power of social media is real,” she said. “I have a lot of friends who are serious investors and if they would take social media more seriously they would see how valuable, from a venture capital standpoint, it is.”
As for the name of her marketplace, that came from a day shopping at Zara.
“I looked at the back of the tags on all of the clothes and they said ‘Made in Morocco’, ‘Made in Turkey’, and I smirked and went home and checked all the tags in my closet and they said ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Vietnam’, ‘Made in India’, and that’s when it hit me,” Gill said. “We’re going to be the link, and we’re linking you to these brands, direct from overseas.”