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2011 December 13

Temperature Check: AHAlife.com Goes Brick-and-Mortar

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Shauna Mei of AHAlife.com Shauna Mei of AHAlife.com
Patrick McMullan
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(NEW YORK) Reason #4,239,410 we’d love to be in L.A. right about now, barring any weather-related rationales: AHAlife.com rolled out their first brick-and-mortar outfit last week at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. Whether or not holiday gifts top the shopping savant’s priority list right now, the site has set up a selection of its expertly-curated goods at the Regalo, a shop sans walls nestled in Jose Andres’ Bazaar resto, alongside the likes of Assouline volumes and Kiki de Montparnasse skivvies. The Daily rang up AHAlife.com founder Shauna Mei for the story—plus, what she learned from studying at MIT, a stint at Goldman Sachs, and some time in Stockholm. ALEXANDRA ILYASHOV  

Why did you decide to launch a physically shopable version of AHAlife?
My personal philosophy is to just put it out there and it’ll come to you, so the idea of doing an off-line experience was something I’d thought about and really wanted to do. When I received a phone call from SLS it seemed like alignment or synchronicity of some sort.  The people behind SLS Hotel were customers and big fans of AHAlife, so they approached us about doing a collaboration. Brick-and-mortar was always part of the vision, because I’ve seen AHAlife as a way to creatively bring together the most incredible items from around the world, and it makes perfect sense to have them available in a physical space. The SLS in Beverly Hills has a clientele that’s very similar to ours: We want global citizens who really want the best that the world has to offer.  A shopping destination at a hotel makes perfect sense, because when people travel, they’re the most inspired; there’s a sense of discovery. 

And what’s the back story of AHA Life? 
The idea came to me while I was living in Stockholm, Sweden. I traveled all over Europe and realized how many amazing, unique products are not available globally.  I’d also run into issues transporting my purchases home! I’d be in London for a weekend, would stumble into a beautiful vintage furniture store, and fall in love with an old armoire. But the shop wouldn’t be able to ship it outside London, and obviously I couldn’t carry an armoire as my luggage. Just like the name sounds, AHAlife is really about a lifestyle; it’s a brand about living your life to the fullest through finding and having access to the most incredible products around the world.  With AHA Life, you can find something you love, buy it on your smart phone, and have it shipped directly to you—versus a traditional, business-to-business model. 

What were you doing in Stockholm?
I was running a Swedish activewear and wellness company. The previous company I had, I cofounded with the former CEO of Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs—it was a luxury investment advisory company. Launching AHA Life was a combination of those experiences. When I was in Sweden, I got to see the consumers’ side of the retail process—we get very spoiled living in New York City. If you can’t find it online, you can certainly find it offline somewhere in the city. Stockholm is a very fashionable city and people tend to dress well, but you don’t have access; you have to travel to get what you want. 

So how did AHA Life come to fruition? 
When I came up with the idea, it didn’t feel like this was absolutely what I had to do. I had two other major opportunities on the table that I was heavily considering. One was to join a fairly large company, and the other was to do something really exciting in China. I put pen to paper, then flew to New York for a long weekend to meet with all of my mentors from the finance world. The moment built really quickly, and all of my mentors said, “You have to do AHAlife! Drop everything else and go do it!” 

How has the company grown since its debut at the beginning of 2011?
We started with three or four people, and now we have 28 employees. In January, we’re doubling office space with an amazing loft on Bond Street. The space is the epitome of the AHAlife lifestyle; it doesn’t look like an office and it’s very airy. 

What’s the biggest “a-ha!” moment you’ve had since launching in February?
I wanted to source ‘good karma’ products, as a reflection of conscious consumption—the opposite of just buying what looks nice, without caring about the story behind it. Everything from a scarf that we created with Lauren Bush to help women in the Congo, to a pendant we collaborated on with Pencils of Promise. Those products actually end up being our best sellers, and that’s been the biggest surprise to me: people really feel connected to the objects they purchase. A perfect AHAlife product is beautifully designed, high quality, has a great story, and is making some kind of social impact. That’s the ideal!

What were your takeaways from your time on Wall Street—and are they relevant today?
I’m always thinking about my ROI, or Return On Investment, which means making sure everything you do has a result. AHAlife is a very results-driven environment, so my staff knows that everything they do has to have a positive impact. Our mission is to connect the best that the world has to offer, with the world’s most discerning individuals looking to live their best lives. That’s a pretty big mission for a tiny company like ours! I think that mentality came from my time at Goldman Sachs.

What were your formative style experiences like, in such tech and finance-oriented environs?
At Goldman, people are well-dressed professionally, but they’re very, very conservative, so they’re not fashionably stylish. MIT was a disaster. On my first day, I was wearing hot pink capri pants and a zebra-print top—keep in mind, this was in 2001, when that was actually trendy! Everybody was staring at me; I felt so out of place. I came from a high school where you looked odd if you didn’t dress like that, and then I got to MIT and was the total weirdo. Everyone else was in sweatpants.
I didn’t adapt; I stayed true to my style. But what I loved about MIT is that it didn’t matter, because there were such bigger things to care about. We always used this analogy that going to MIT is like drinking water out of a fire hose. It’s so intimidating, difficult, and hard—and the only thing that matters is stimulating your brain and actively thinking.

Where did you cull the creative elements of AHA Life from?
When I was little, I actually wanted to be an artist! I grew up with very traditional Chinese parents who pushed me towards the engineering and math route. If you look at resume and see MIT and Goldman Sachs, I look like a very quantitative person, but I’m definitely more creative than I am analytical.

Any expansion plans already for your SLS-housed wares?
I’d love to be able to shop in my hotel room, not just downstairs in the lobby. I think it would be great to be able to order beauty products from room service! I don’t usually like the stuff that’s in the hotel bathrooms. I’m hoping to work with SLS on expanding the store and offering a menu of options to browse and order from the room.

What item on the site really made you go “a-ha!” lately?
It’s called the Cancer-Free Headset, and you can use it to listen to music or talk on the phone.  They’re made out of wood, and they’re shaped like a stethoscope, with an air tube—and air is a great conductor of sound. I initially featured them on the site because everyone was talking about not getting cancer from their cell phones, but when I tested them out, I couldn’t get over how they have the most amazingly clear sound! It’s the only headphones I use for traveling now. I can’t even hear the announcement they make from the cockpit!




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