The 5 Business Lessons I learnt from the Zara Founder

The 5 Business Lessons I learnt from the Zara Founder

Alok Kejriwal 25/01/2018 9

I read an amazing write up about the world’s richest man – Amancio Ortega in the latest issue of the Economist, and was humbled to learn five critical lessons from his story:

1. To succeed, you need HUNGER. Sometimes literally..

According to an employee of Zara who works with him, “the true story of Amancio Ortega has not been told.” Mr Ortega, the son of an itinerant railway worker, who started at the corner shop aged 13, had a basic upbringing: an ex-colleague says he talks of meals of “only potatoes”. 

I have heard this story repeatedly. From the legendary tale of Dhirubhai Ambani being a poor petrol pump attendant to the fact that George Soros was a Jew in Germany who had a very hard time with the Nazi occupancy, the theme is common – Extreme hardship, hunger, deprivation and even fear creates a drive and urge in people to succeed beyond their ultimate imagination.

Lesson? If you are born comfortable (and thank God for that), there is a chance that you will do extremely well, but to succeed like Ortega, you will need to find a hunger that devours you.

2. There is NO formula to great success – Education included.

The article on the Zara founder mentions, “The manner in which he rose does not fit the usual template. His lack of formal education has profoundly affected his management style. Those close to him confirm that he does read—novels and newspapers—but he is reportedly ill-at-ease with writing at length. He has never had his own office, desk or desktop computer, preferring to direct his firm while standing with colleagues in a design room of Zara Woman, the flagship line.”

Check Ortega’s comment on business model!

Nowadays, there is such an emphasis on higher education that it results in a death race of students brutally competing with one other to get into a top college such as IIT or IIM. Going abroad means selling your family heirlooms to pay for that 2-4 year course that almost never results in a job.

Lesson? Of course education is VITAL – but it’s not the surest and only way to succeed. Winners like Ortega prove something that I always maintain – Education is a lifelong process, and nothing teaches you better than real life experience.

3. The best management style is the one that works for you.

“One former long-term CEO of Inditex, and Mr Ortega’s business partner for 31 years, José María Castellano, says that his ex-boss’s working method is to discuss things intensely with small groups, delegate paperwork, listen hard to others and prefer oral over written communication.

This preference for close personal interaction may have even helped him concoct the formula behind Zara’s success. At a time when the fashion industry mostly outsourced production to China and other low-wage countries (as it still does), Mr Ortega decided to keep most manufacturing close to home. Some 55% happens in Spain, Portugal and Morocco—near the firm’s main markets. That in turn allows bi-weekly deliveries of small but up-to-the-minute fashion collections to every store.”

I once read that MBA meant “Management by being around”.

To become spectacularly successful, you need to spot an insight, an opportunity, a glaring need. But the PROCESS to fulfill that need needs to come from the Entrepreneur or Inventor vs. others and more often than not, this process may be UNIQUE and NOT defined in MBA text books!

While I learnt some invaluable lessons in my father’s socks factory, I noted that he would take 3 rounds of the factory floors each day at 10, 2, and 4 pm. I found that odd – everything seemed to be humming along nicely and we had enough production managers to keep things in control. But when I would quiz him on this painful habit, he would say, “Alok, the machines sing songs. I need to hear them ever so often.”

He made a small factory, probably one of the most profitable businesses I have ever come across and I’m sure the ‘songs’ he heard would not be found in any music album or concert hall.

Lesson? Do your own thing. If you have to go into the nuclear detail of certain aspects of your business, do so. If you need to keep asking people about their deliverables, no big deal. Do what you have to do to succeed. And if someone throws some management gyaan at you, tell them about Zara’s Ortega!

4. It’s never about the fame – it’s always about the results.

“His leadership style appears to favor extreme introversion. A video from a surprise 80th birthday party in March shows him tearful and backing off from assembled staff. He almost never speaks in public nor accepts national honors—aside from a “workers’ medal” in 2002. Colleagues say he resented a rare biography of him, from 2008, by a fashion journalist, Covadonga O’Shea. So few photos existed of him pre-flotation that investors who visited awkwardly confused him with other staff.”

This is what he has to say about fame !


“But that low profile means there is room for other top executives to shine. Inditex’s chairman and CEO, Pablo Isla, has run things since 2011, yet Mr Ortega shows up to work every day. In many firms a professional manager might chafe against the presence of a revered founder, but there are no such reports at Inditex.”

This is a spectacular takeaway from the story and also the hardest. Fame is the most alluring temptation in the world. The moment you start to succeed, the world notices you and puts you in the spotlight. It’s extremely hard to run away from being a star and in the front page news. Very often, the addiction to be famous and constantly in the limelight becomes a top priority for many founders.

I met Narayan Murthy in a plane and was stunned by his ‘down to earthness’. Check out what I ‘unlearnt’ about myself from him in 4 minutes 

Lesson? It’s fun to be famous but the real reward lies in actual business success. Sooner than later you will have to decide between the two.

5. There is no start or end point.

Dhirubhai started up in his late 50s. My Guru Sri Sri always jokes at the concept of “Burning out”. He laughs and says, “C’mon… what does burning out mean?”

Zara’s Ortega is 80 and shows up at work everyday. He says:

I meet many aspiring entrepreneurs who think “I’d better start when I am in my 20s or early 30s. Post that I don’t think I will ever be able to be an entrepreneur. In the same vein, many accomplished professionals I meet in their 40s and 50s think that starting up is meant for them. I think we all must be inspired by Ortega and start when we want, however we want and give it our 100%. 

Lesson? There is no beginning or end of success. It’s a process that you must simply start.

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  • Yorkshire Lad

    Zara's success is largely attributed to the Asian market.

  • Joaquin Ortiz

    His company copies cool designs from other brands, change them a bit, and sell them for cheaper but the clothes' quality is still pretty good

  • Frank L

    This article makes me want to shop at Zara

  • Steve Willem

    Many people forget to wonder why their clothes are cheap. The reason they are cheap is that someone out there is not being paid what they should be, and since we desire new clothing constantly these workers have to work harder to achieve our demand.

  • Aditya Sawdekar

    Fantastic read, highly recommend !!!

  • Winston Hound

    A very well explained and a wonderfully made article on how to become a successful person

  • Denise Sheehan

    …still not enough money to pay the already under-paid workers!!

  • Patrick Vargas

    Zara's fast fashion model is obviously popular and in demand. I appreciate having access to modestly priced stylish basics within my capsule wardrobe.

  • Lucy Walker

    It is surprising how many huge corporations started from nothing.

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Alok Kejriwal

Innovation Expert

Alok is the Co‐Founder & CEO of Games2win India Pvt Ltd. He is a serial entrepreneur who supports great ideas by partnering with the best people to make them come to life. His previous start up - Mobile2win was acquired by The Walt Disney Company (China) and by Norwest Venture Partners (India). Alok holds an MSc of Commerce in International Business from Campion School, Mumbai.

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