North America is full of Indians and other Southeast Asians with a dollar to spend on quality fashion. However, in the mainstream, their styles and brands from their homelands are almost nowhere to be found.
That gaping hole in the market inspired Toronto-based tech and advertising entrepreneur Sonya Gill to develop The Lnk, a marketplace that connects international brands with buyers in the United States and Canada.
Well, that and her mother’s shopping misadventures.
“To be very honest, it started with my mom and her complaining,” said Gill, an Indian-Canadian. “I didn’t know where to go to buy clothes from India. It was really fun.”
Gill said her mother would send her screenshots of websites, asking if she should buy from them, only for her daughter to text back “no, don’t shop there” and for her phone to be flooded with ads for similar sites not verified
“So she would go on Facebook Marketplace and build relationships with people back and think, ‘I’m so good!’ and I said, ‘No, this is so terrible!'” said Gill. “But that’s exactly, to be precise, the moment it started.”
Still in its infancy after a beta launch in February and official launch this month, The Lnk currently has around 300 brands, mostly from India and nearby Southeast Asia and is about to expand to Indonesia, Dubai and Africa. Gill expects this number to reach 5,000, in part because companies are attracted by his 15 percent commission. The $10 to $15 per day typically spent on online advertising, she collects and settles as ROI.
“I’ve always had this idea of a trendy e-commerce platform and with Covid I noticed all these mom and pops popping up on Shopify and Wix. The market was saturated, long after the pandemic,” Gill said. “With Shopify you could do the logistics, the currency price, the taxes, but the main problem still remained, which is that overseas, returns are a pain in the butt.”
That’s why, says Gill, The Lnk handles all shipments and all returns for the customer with a 60-day guarantee, as long as the tags are intact.
“You can return it to our warehouses in Toronto or New York, more like offices, and we’ll take the return and ship it back, or we’ll sell it,” he said.
Gill says marketplaces like his help get around the huge SEO barriers that giants like Amazon and Shein have erected.
“Before, you could pay a few hundred dollars a month and get on Google, but now it’s so ridiculously difficult and that’s where marketplaces work really well,” he said. “The market is a niche place; make it easier for the consumer to discover you”.
“When I go shopping at the department stores I should see these items that are culturally appropriate for 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 target us, we’ll buy them. We’re going to make it mainstream.”
– Sonya Gill, founder of THE LNK
Any company can apply to be a vendor on The Lnk site, although Gill says there is a vetting process.
“The last two or three weeks we did a lot of interviews. It’s very important for us to find the right kind of brand,” Gill said. “A lot of brands will come to us, but we have to make sure they’re not making items in some workshop and paying people just a penny. Pay them well, be sustainable and make sure your images are exactly what the client will receive in the package. We take care of all the packaging.”
Gill’s first target consumer is North Americans with cultural ties to the other side of the world.
“Cultural clothes are becoming more and more prominent in society, just look at how Diwali is becoming mainstream,” he said. “There are 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 growing. Where are people going to find these articles?”
The second target of these fashions are the North Americans who have not yet been exposed to these fashion styles and may be attracted to them for that reason alone.
“We are not only for people of culture, of color; we are for the everyday shopper. We’re making it normal for you to see these types of items on a shopping platform,” Gill said. “When I’m going to shop at the big box stores I should see these culturally appropriate items for me, because guess what? We have a lot of money to spend, and many other cultures have a lot of money to spend, and if you guide us, we will buy them. We’re going to make it mainstream.”
Convincing Americans that these styles are the fashions they want to play right in the wheelhouse of Gill’s previous incarnation at the forefront of what would become known as social media influence.
“All I had at the time was a blog called Youzus, which was used to connect businesses,” Gill said. “I used to go out to see a pizzeria or a dry cleaner – at that time we didn’t even know it was a thing to influence – but I paid them through the blog. Around 2010 I knew I was onto something: How do you make money connecting people?
In 2012, Gill turned his blog into an official digital marketing agency and in 2015 he sold it to an Australian marketing agency and started his own VC called Doyonne Capital.
He recently passed the midpoint of a $1 million seed funding round, a door he opened with the help of his trusted friend: social media.
“I started my first company at the age of 20 and [then] I would never have thought to put something like that on Instagram. I would think of it as kind of a faux pas, so tacky, like who does this? Gill said. “However, we do a lot of things on social media, so I thought, ‘why not post it’? I have about 5,000 followers, what if one of them is an investor?
As it happened, the top four donors Gill found through social platforms.
“I think it’s important to share because the power of social media is real,” he said. “I have a lot of friends who are serious investors and if they took social media more seriously they would see how valuable it is, from a venture capital point of view.”
As for the name of his market, that came from a day of shopping at Zara.
“I looked at the back of the labels on all the clothes and they said, ‘Made in Morocco,’ ‘Made in Turkey,’ and I smiled and went home and checked all the labels 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 link you to these brands, directly from the outside.”