Azora Zoe Paknad on creating a new entry point to sustainability with Goldune

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Describe Goldune in a few words?

We make sustainability less beige!

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I was into the sustainability world, personally and professionally, but I didn’t see myself in any of the dominant narratives I saw on Instagram or online in general. On one end of the spectrum, there were the waif-like thin white influencers with perfectly manicured beige homes and $400 hemp pants that we were supposed to believe were aspirational… which I knew would never be me! On the hand, there was a really passionate zero waste community that felt pretty granola, and honestly, a little all-or-nothing. I really admire the zero waste movement, but it’s inherently a huge privilege to shop sustainably (and when we leave out that part, we leave out *a lot* of marginalized or vulnerable communities who are actually way, way more likely to be impacted by climate catastrophes). 

When I looked at the people in my own life– friends, fam, peers, coworkers– I saw a lot of folks who didn’t fit into either of those two extreme archetypes, but all wanted to do and be a bit better. They just hadn’t found an entry point to sustainability that spoke to them, much less welcomed them in.

I wanted to create a space that was inclusive at its core (with representation for women and BIPOC folx built into its business model), warm and joyful, that lead with a judgment and shame-free approach. Goldune was born in October 2020! Our mission is to make sustainability less beige, but sometimes I like to describe us as the welcome wagon for sustainability. 

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I spent the last years working in business + revenue operations at Food52, a content + commerce company in the kitchen and home space.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Definitely, both my parents are serial entrepreneurs and I grew up getting toted along on business trips and taking naps under the table during board meetings. 

That said, I always had ideas about the things I felt like I had to accomplish before taking the leap, and I never would have thought I’d do it during quarantine– it took some convincing myself to finally take the plunge!

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

It was fairly recent, so I have no problem remembering it– it’s been less than 6 months!

I remember the panic moment when the gravity of what I was launching and how important marketing actually was to its success all hit me. I was chatting with my dad about the digital side of things and all of the web development and merchant ops I had been SO heads down in, and he gently asked what my marketing plan was. At first I was a little flippant– “duh, I know how to market something”– but he said something that checked my ego real quick. 

My dad is an engineer, and he’s started several companies of his own. (I was a kid, so while growing up around startups was a big part of my childhood and my identity, my view of what was actually going on was a bit skewed–  children, uh, don’t always understand acquisitions or what a Series D round of investment is.) My dad reminded me that the startups he launched solo or with another tech-focused co-founder struggled– sometimes failed– and that it wasn’t until he worked closely with my mom, a brilliant salesperson and marketer, that they started cookin’ with gas. “You can build brilliant product, but it never matters if nobody knows about it.”

That knocked a few things loose in my brain. That whole “build it and they will come” phrase is kind of misused– the meat and integrity of what you’re doing matters SO much… but you DO need people to know about it, and nobody will know unless someone tells them. He told me all this about a month before Goldune’s launch, September 2020, only about three months after I decided to start the business. It was like he flipped a switch and I went from feeling calm and confident and determined to this manic panic state of chaos. (For what it’s worth, I am still in a manic panic state of chaos, months later– I imagine as long as I run my own company, I will be, most days.)

I scrambled to interview PR agencies, and they either turned me away or quoted me rates that felt insane for no promised ROI. The full panic set in. It felt like to be this glossy female founder archetype, you had to have already made Forbes 30 Under 30, become an influencer in your own right, and then land a Coveteur, Vogue and Into the Gloss feature. I was living with my parents, dirt broke, and the farthest thing from Instagram famous you could imagine. No fancy investor connections, no rich boyfriend or famous friends to gift my highly Instagrammable product to– I felt screwed.

We’re by no means a HUGE company, but it happened: I did build it, they did come. It was 100% elbow grease. I hired someone who used to be on my team at Food52 to help me pitch hundreds of editors and influencers for a few days. We started pitching like crazy a few weeks before launch, and I’ve basically never stopped since. It’s A LOT of work, but going without a publicist or a paid marketing agency has meant that not only do we stay lean and liquid, but we also build amazing relationships with our community on social and with the editors and influencers we work with. I’d so much rather have a lasting bond than treat those encounters like a transaction, and there’s no job I’d rather have than being an evangelist for my own hard work– Goldune is my baby!

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

I wouldn’t take any of these back, and I’m not even sure that I’d call them “mistakes”, but I am never not feeling challenged by any of the following decisions I made, for better or for worse: starting a business alone mid pandemic with no life or business partner to lean on after a hard day, investing in costly legal services when I could have done things myself, doing things myself when I should have invested in costly legal services, not having a marketing plan ready five minutes after I greenlit my business plan, investing in certain contractors that weren’t right for my business, not taking better care of myself so I could be a better business operator in the long term.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

I am SO proud of the business I have been able to build without a full-time staff, venture capital, a PR firm, or spending a dime on paid marketing. Our organic growth has been nothing but tenacity, long hours and quick thinking– that won’t be sustainable always, but 6 months in, I’m really pleased.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

I’ve hired wrong before, and I don’t know that there are many ways to avoid that mistake– it’s one that I think we all have to learn from. There’s no magic question for me, I just let people talk. If they don’t ask me questions or send a thank you note, it’s a red flag I can’t get past. I’ve truthfully been kind of shocked at how few folks send thank yous anymore, whether for a job interview or an informational one, and it bums me out– it’s still so important! It matters more to me than someone’s resume. You don’t always have control over what kind of access you have or where you’ve been able to get a job or go to school in the past, but you do have control over something as simple as a quick thank you email. 

We’re going to grow the team substantially over the next year and one of the things I’m grappling with the most is hiring folks I’ve never met in person. (I have not met our two team members IRL ever!) If someone is joining us on a full-time, longterm, salary basis, I really would like to grab a coffee with them and know what our professional chemistry looks like. While remote work has so many benefits, I can’t get past losing that IRL connection! I’m hoping for the best of both worlds in 2021 and 2022.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

I started my business mid-pandemic, so Goldune has never known another life. In some ways, this was the right year to hunker down inside and give something your full and undivided attention 900% of the time, and to live lean and startup-y. On the other hand, as a single person with no cofounder, I just lived the hardest year of my life, personally and professionally, without the comfort of friendship or community. I have never needed to vent over a cocktail after work more, and even now, that’s still not an option. I gave up my apartment to start the business and live in the boonies with my family! It’s so gracious of them and it’s allowed me to give all my attention to the business, but beyond the social distance of the pandemic, I’m also 2,500 miles away from my core business + personal communities in NYC. That’s been *tough*.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

So much! I want to make millions of people feel warm, welcome and excited about sustainability– I won’t be happy until we’ve made sustainable commerce less granola and more inclusive and accessible in the long term. Beyond that, you’ll have to follow along with Goldune for the launches to come– they’re still secret!

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

At the risk of sounding morbid, if you want to do something, do it. You don’t know how much longer you– or your loved ones– will be around. I have never been happier or more challenged (or exhausted) in my career than I am after taking a risk, but the pandemic laid bare a lot of regrets I have around not spending more time with family while I could, or not appreciating some of the tiny luxuries (living alone! going on a walk with a friend! margaritas!) while I could. I have always loved that Hunter S Thompson quote, “buy the ticket, take the ride”- – let’s just say I will be buying all the tickets and taking all the rides in the next decade.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I may still be a little too close to the beginning to see clearly– it’s actually still been less than a year since I decided to start a business. Right now, I wouldn’t change a thing. I made some mistakes, but we all need to, and even if I didn’t know exactly how some things would go, I was never too far off. I wish I’d traveled (safely!) to see family some more or enjoyed those little last moments of freedom before my life was consumed and free time became a thing of the past!

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Ha! I am not grounded at all. I have not managed. 

I know a lot of people put on a veneer so things seem glossy or diplomatic in media and on social, but I’d like to think after 2020 we can be done with that. We’ve all seen inside each other’s messy homes on Zoom, with children crying and dogs barking in the background. The truth is, I barely hold it together most of the time, and sometimes I do not at all– doing this all alone mid-pandemic, and with all of life’s other challenges (breakups, losing loved ones, wildfires, friendship breakups, financial stress, earthquakes) is just too damn hard to pretend otherwise.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I don’t. I believe in the concept, but I don’t think it’s attainable for everyone. I don’t believe that most “successful” people managed to achieve what they did without some level of workaholism. I think founders who say they’ve nailed it are either lying, or have way more help behind the scenes than they let on. 

When I started a business, I was really smug about work life balance and finding time to exercise and make art and taking lots of mindful breaks. Then, I launched the company… yeah, that all ended pretty fast. I pull all-nighters before every launch, there is not a day I do not work, and sleep is the only time I’ve ever fully gone offline! I definitely believe that hustle culture is damaging, so I say this not to imply that there is anything good about my lack of boundaries or that it’s glamorous. (Anyone who has done this knows it is actually sooooo unglamorous!) But I do think that in its own way, the public dialogue around wellness and work life balance in the zeitgeist is almost as toxic as the dialogue around hustle culture. I’ve listened to so many podcasts where influencers and founders and creatives talk at length about their wellness practices and it becomes some sort of aspirational wellness-porn of its own! 

It’s actually more comforting to me as a founder and  a small business owner to hear folks talk about how hard it is and how hard they work and to feel less alone in that experience than it is to hear people encourage me to take a break or to listen to them talk about their own balanced routines. Again, my opinions have *seriously* evolved on this– only 7 or 8 months ago was I smugly pledging to reinvent balance in my entrepreneurial life and solemnly swearing to have offline time and complete breaks each week and weekend. Now I am literally pouring my coffee into an insulated cup when I go to bed at midnight and putting it on my nightstand so I don’t even have to get out of bed when the alarm goes off at 6 and I can just start working, coffee in hand, from bed. It’s manic, it’s chaos, it’s exhausting, and it’s not sustainable in the long term at all– but that’s what the business demands of me right now! I hope that at the very least, being honest about it is a comfort somewhere to someone who is also in a similar chapter of giving work their undivided attention.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I have an insane array of hobbies and I am endlessly delighted by Greek mythology– so much so I used to host a podcast about it. That’s right! A modern Greek mythology podcast.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

1) Coffee.

2) Superhuman for email– it’s as close as I’ve been able to get to hiring an assistant.

3) A second coffee after lunch.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Making room for entrepreneurs who don’t have the same privilege and access that men and white women do, and having a sip of the nice Scotch after dinner every once in a while.

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