Aashish Nathwani Takes The Lead With DTC Startup Aestate

By Rachael Masih

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Aashish Nathwani, the marketing brain who made Endy a household name and brought innovative temporary tattoo company Inkbox to life through unique experiences and partnerships is branching out on his own with a DTC line: Aestate. His new luxury home goods brand hopes to make premium towels in bold and trendy colours the latest must-have in every home. Built to create luxury experiences in your everyday life, Aestate takes something average and makes it extraordinary.

“[Towels are] the most intimate product we use every day. Yet it’s such an oversight. It’s one of those commodities in our house that we don’t think about,” said Nathwani, who’s used to bringing buzz to unconventional items.

When Nathwani worked with Endy he created a conversation around mattresses, which nobody had done before. With Inkbox he sold experiences that went beyond what was expected for pop-ups. With Aestate he’s focusing on selling the feeling of wrapping yourself in a premium towel after a hard day.

By working with major direct-to-consumer businesses Nathwani found a passion for DTC and he hasn’t looked back. He only grew more confident. Nathwani is pulling from his range of marketing and direct-to-consumer experience to make his new business a successful one. 

“The good thing for me has been that I can put myself in the places of our early team members. Some people get thrown right into entrepreneurship and they’re the founder right from the start. For me, it wasn’t that journey.”

Nathwani says he looked to Rajen Ruparell of Endy as a mentor and source for motivation and guidance over the years. Guidance that isn’t going to waste. By working with Endy and Inkbox, Nathwani recognizes the qualities he’s looking for when hiring fellow team members. He knows the DTC marketing game inside and out and already knows how to address his strengths and weaknesses. Now, he can be proactive about making changes and surround himself with the right people and resources to make Aestate an international brand.

Through retail, experiential pop-ups, and potential collaborations in the future, Nathwani hopes Aestate will redefine how the world looks at luxury home goods.

For this week’s Entrepreneur of the Week, Bay Street Bull spoke with Aashish Nathwani, Founder and CEO of Aestate, about what it’s like going solo, and the question on everyone’s mind: why premium towels?

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What has your career been like up to this point?

I worked corporate for about five years for Torstar. I was in traditional media. I led a lot of their digital initiatives and helped transition them from an offline traditional newspaper over to digital. I got a lot of early exposure to digital. I was pretty young in my career but got a lot of opportunities and led a couple of big initiatives like WagJag. I was playing pickup basketball, in a rec league and my cousin was on the team and he kept talking to me about this mattress company that he was working on. He was running the creative and did web development there.

I brushed him off and said, “What are you talking about? Nobody’s buying mattresses online.” It was early in the DTC space. Later I met Rajen, who was one of the founders and the chairman over at Endy. Two days later I gave my two weeks’ notice at Torstar and I jumped in with Endy. That was my transition over into the startup community and a more strict DTC space. These guys gave me the opportunity to do everything marketing-related. Whether it was running a billboard or a digital campaign, I got exposure to everything. Then post-acquisition, I had my first child and it was a great transition period for me.

Then, I got an opportunity to join a [temporary tattoo]  company called Inkbox. What they do with their product and what it does for people is unique. As a fan of tattoos myself, it was such a wicked fit and I got to do all their partnerships, experiential and retail. That was amazing exposure outside of just the digital space and I zeroed in on my love for DTC. [I loved] the fact that it was all-encompassing going from offline to online and merging the two worlds. As you see traditional retailers fizzle out you realize that these DTC brands that we looked at as just e-commerce plays are just a new wave of retail.

Then we had baby number two and so it was another transition point. Then COVID hit, and that was my time to take a step back and say, it’s time to do something for myself.

A man sits in the shower wearing a pink towel from Aestate.And what was it like to venture off on your own and build Aestate from the ground up?

It was scary. The term imposter syndrome is thrown around loosely because it’s a bit of a buzzword but it’s hard not to [wonder], ‘Are you ready to branch off on your own?’ I had a good support system at Inkbox because I was going into an established team. At Endy, I was employee number three. I felt like part of the core founding team there. So, I had a lot of support in both those avenues. I realized I had to build that support system for myself to be successful with Aestate. 

I had to be proactive in how I built out our team and the types of resources that we put around ourselves, even when we raised a small pre-seed round quietly and under the radar. I did it all through WhatsApp and without any towels in my hands. I got to do things the way I wanted to do them. That to me has been empowering. At first, it was daunting. Then I realized I had the skillset to do this. It’s been a culmination of ten years of grinding out different media buying and marketing techniques. I realized that I know my pocket and I know where Aestate’s going to be successful. We’ve plugged in amazing people around me that support the areas that I’m not an expert at. That all comes from the growing pains of going through it with a company like Endy.

Although you were a core part of Endy, how does it feel to become the founder of Aestate and have people look to you for leadership?

It’s intimidating because you realize the pressure you feel and internalize, early team members are feeling as well. The good thing for me has been that I can put myself in the places of our early team members. Some people get thrown right into entrepreneurship and they’re the founder right from the start. For me, it wasn’t that journey. I was an early team member brought on to help enhance somebody’s idea.  Now it’s about having belief in my concept and finding people that buy into what we are trying to achieve.

I’m fortunate that having seen it, I know what to look for. I look for myself in a way. Somebody who’s gone through it. There are times when you get beat down because you’re selling one mattress a day in the early days, and you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to get that up to ten. It feels daunting and it’s a challenge. [I’m] finding people who are willing to embrace that.

When coming up with a product to get you from one to ten to hundreds, why towels?

There are a lot of components that went into, ‘Why now?’ And ‘Why towels?’ I was in LA for work with Inkbox. I had a big meeting and it didn’t go quite as I planned. We stayed at the 1 Hotel West Hollywood and it was a dream. I had Kith downstairs that I could go shopping at after meetings—it was an amazing setup. As somebody from Toronto, that’s a dream being out there for work. At the same time, I had the worst meeting possible with one of the biggest partners that we could have had. All I remember was that I got back to the hotel, I had a shower and I wrapped this towel around me and thought, ‘Holy, this feels amazing.’ It was the moment, the way I was feeling it at the time, and the fact that it was just an amazing towel. It encapsulated the fact that something as simple as a towel could [create a strong] feeling.

I thought something was interesting there and it ties me back to my Inkbox and Endy experience. With Endy, we took something like a mattress and made it relevant. People were talking about mattresses and they’d never done that before. You had this debate that was going on about whether it was us or Casper. It was amazing that people cut so differently over a mattress. Then I went to Inkbox and all I would tell my team there was, “We’re doing experiential.” I preached that we wanted to create extraordinary experiences in ordinary places. What I meant by that was, everybody sees a pop-up, but what can you do within a pop-up that creates an amazing experience above and beyond what people expect.

I looked at something as simple as a towel, and thought, ‘This is the most intimate product we use every day, yet it’s such an oversight.’ It’s one of those commodities in our house that we don’t think about. When I came back from LA, I went shopping for towels because I got inspired. I may or may not have taken one of the [hotel] towels and stuffed it into my bag for reference. I went to places that I wanted to shop at. I checked out Crate&Barrel and Restoration Hardware. Neither spoke to me, the vibe, the colours, I don’t know. The experience wasn’t there for me. I couldn’t justify it, especially at that price point. I didn’t get a full customer experience. 

Then I went the e-commerce route and there were quite a few amazing options for e-commerce, but we felt that they were playing it safe. They weren’t talking to the Gen Z and  Millennial crowd. I was looking at this audience that is massive [and emerging], both from a purchasing behavior standpoint, but also from a demographic [standpoint.] You have these Gen-Zs and Millennials rocking $300 Jordans. They’re wearing $250 hoodies and they’re doing it because it reflects them, and they can afford it now. They’re at that threshold where they’re in that purchase mindset, but they’re taking care of themselves and they’re investing in themselves. I think COVID was a reminder of that. 

Going back to the fact that a towel is so overlooked, it was because nobody was speaking to that audience. What if Aestate said, ‘Look. There is an option for you.’ The colours are reflective of the fashion that they’re aligned with and [we paid attention to] little things. We spent so much time on our labels. Our black towels have a black label on them because they’re the all-black-everything towel. Those nuances that we take into consideration come from my aspirations of being a fashion designer, I get to live them out in the DTC world.

A man and a woman sitting in their living room, both sporting Aestate premium towels

With all the experience you’ve got in all forms of marketing at Endy and Inkbox, what other key lessons have you taken from your previous ventures that you’re applying now to Aestate to help make sure it’s successful?

I went through everything that was successful at Endy and Inkbox and I created a hit list. What I’ve been able to do is be proactive in all the challenges that we ran into down the road. If it was an operational challenge that we ran into, I got proactive. I have one of the best 3PLs (third-party logistics) out of New Jersey running all of our e-commerce orders. I’m not an operations person, so I knew that was something that I had to identify early.

The DTC space from a marketing standpoint hasn’t changed a lot. It’s not as relevant for Aestate because we don’t have a lot of historical data, but I’m hoping these privacy changes spur some creativity from marketers to go beyond the standard. You have your core digital spending, once that hits a threshold, you start diversifying offline, whether it’s traditional media, podcasts, or TV. It’s not easy to get to that level of scale, but the playbook is well-established now. 

If you look at the MVP (Minimum-Viable Product) the Aestate website, it’s fairly DTC-driven. Since we’ve launched, all I’ve been working on is revamping the website to reflect an experience. Every touchpoint has to be perfect and there is that expectation.

We’re going to execute [something different] through retail, experiential, and pop-ups. We see [partnerships and collaborations] in the streetwear hype space and how that’s merged over into mainstream fashion. There’s a huge opportunity for us and that’s something that I picked up from my time over at Inkbox where I got to do things with Post Malone. We did anything from that level down to Adult Swim and Rick and Morty. You can tap into these micro-communities and I think we’re going to be taking that same approach to our digital [strategy].

In the past, it’s been, ‘Go blanket everything.’ We’re going to be targeted at hitting micro-communities. [We’ll] take the same approach when it comes to our influencer marketing and our content marketing. Towels are a complementary product to a lot of brands that we would associate with, or vibe with. So, I don’t think we’re intruding on other brands’ territory and Aestate is a big partnership opportunity because everybody uses a towel.

Woman wrapped in a white Aestate towel

With the design that went into it, what sets Aestate towels apart from what else is on the market?

I tested 30 to 40 different towels total and they were all slight variations. Noticing a difference in some of them was next to impossible. We knew we wanted to go with a sustainable towel. When I say sustainable, that’s a bit of an arbitrary word that’s thrown around right now, but we knew that we were going to go with our best foot forward on as many sustainable materials as we could while keeping the core product as strong and durable as possible. I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality and longevity of the product. 

We use TENCEL which comes from the eucalyptus tree. It’s a naturally occurring fiber that uses less land than cotton. As you can imagine, harvesting trees as opposed to harvesting crops takes up considerably less land and therefore takes less water to irrigate. We found a sustainable product in TENCEL. It’s well known right now. Brands like Lululemon are using it because it has qualities that you want out of a towel. You want it to absorb everything. In Lululemon’s case, they want it to absorb all the sweat and the moisture. For us we want it to suck everything up but also release all the moisture so that when you go to hang it, it’s not holding onto bacteria and building up odors.

A lot of our testing went into ensuring that all of our colours last. We’re going with some deep rich colours and we went with all organic dyes in our dying process. You have to make sure that it’s going to hold over. 

Then, ‘Is it losing any integrity?’ As you increase TENCEL, you reduce the amount of foundational cotton and you risk losing that foundation support. That was a balancing act, but our towel has the most TENCEL on the market at 40%. That’s why we are priced at a premium price point. When you look at a market comparison to what we put in the towel, it’s the Ferrari of towels that we’ve got down to that sweet spot from a DTC price point.

Throughout your career to this time, has there been a piece of advice that you’ve been given that you reflect on or that you hold near and dear to your heart in guiding your decisions?

Yes and no. For me, it’s from Rajen over at Endy. He was a professional mentor for me while I was there. He had seen so much of what I was going through, so what he told me was that I needed to be more action-oriented. I was trying to tackle everything, but for him, it was always about focus. He’d say, “Aash, go do your shit,” and sometimes that was all the motivation I needed. He gave me confidence. I was fortunate that I had guidance as I was going through all the different marketing initiatives for the first time. The mentorship that I got from him transcended through what I was doing at Inkbox and heading into this project.

The best marketing advice I received was to build strong foundations: “Stop trying to dig 10 shallow holes—choose two or three spots and dig deep.” As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to get lost in the daily grind and all of the small, but critical, everyday tasks. This lesson taught me to take a step back, reflect on business objectives and execute my top two to three priorities at 100 percent, as opposed to trying to do 10 different tasks at 10 percent. It’s a take on time management, prioritization, and execution in one analogy.

RELATED: 3 Lessons on Disruption from the Founder of Endy, Mike Gettis

If you were to go back to yourself at the beginning of your career before you started at Torstar what advice would you give to yourself? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Invest in crypto? [laughs] No honestly, it’s confidence. Early on, even at Torstar, I doubted myself. One of the biggest things I got confidence from was when I got tapped on the shoulder to do Dragons’ Den for Endy. That was a pivotal moment for us as a company. To be part of that solidified that I had built that repertoire within the organization, but also that I could speak to the brand and that I knew what I was talking about. Even at Torstar, I was a 24-year-old brown guy in a room full of 55 to 65-year-old white men.

It was intimidating at times. I walked into a boardroom meeting once and I was wearing a polo and you could see the bottom part of my tattoo under the cuff. As I was doing a presentation I noticed all the eyes were [on the tattoo]. I was fortunate that the team that brought me on was incredible but I saw the other side of it. At times I look back and I think, ‘Maybe that stunted my ability to be confident in myself and to express myself.’ When I got to Inkbox after the success of Endy, Inkbox taught me that message about inclusivity. They live and breathe it. You feel it the second you walk into their office.

They’re the ones that made me feel self-confident. Not just confident in my work, but self-confident. I wear my tattoos with a different level of pride than I did before I joined there. They taught you to celebrate yourself. By doing that, it came out in the work. I’ve had amazing moments that have given me direction and confidence going forward. Confidence would be my number one thing. I had doubts about my abilities and now when I reflect on it I think, ‘How have 10 years gone by?’ It’s been cool to see the progression.

At the end of the day, what does success mean to you?  

It’s providing freedom for my kids. My son’s about to turn three. I have a one-and-a-half-year-old. My family has always been my biggest motivation and my biggest driver. It’s the reason why I was successful at Endy. I had a clear goal of what I was trying to do and who I was trying to do it for. Now it’s like my family’s extended with Aestate. It’s also my team, it’s our investors, it’s everybody who is believing in the project. That’s my motivation. Not to get sentimental, but a lot of Endy was driven for my father. We lost him a few years ago and he didn’t get to see the end part of Endy, the acquisition.

He didn’t get to see Dragons Den go on TV. He found out about the deal ahead of time, but he never got to see it. So now my motivation is my family and it’s always been that, it’s just transcended down to my kids. I hid my story with my family in the towel. If you look at the towel, the two lines are perfectly shaped. There’s a one-inch plank and then a two-inch plank and that’s supposed to represent the father-son relationship. As [the design evolved], the bottom bar [became] me, the middle is my daughter and then the top bar is my son. That was how I hid my piece throughout the design.

That’s so sweet. I love that. Is there anything else we haven’t touched on that you’d like to speak about today?

The sustainability story. I believe in that. It’s been tough with COVID. We have to individually wrap [the towels]. We’re being conscious. Everything right now is recyclable and we’re transitioning that into compostable. Other than that Aestate has a diverse, interesting team based out of Toronto that wants to establish our foothold in New York, LA, and Toronto, in our backyard. We want to be that brand that makes it across the border. That’s our ambition.

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