“We will only be successful in building a global leading company in a great force of people and power”: Interview with Anna Franziska Michel, CEO and Co-founder of Yoona

Founded in 2020, yoona.ai is a Berlin-based AI-based B2B software solution, shortening the value chain of the fashion industry to just one click. The young startup is pursuing the vision of holistic digitization – committed to encouraging conscious consumption and to driving sustainability. 

Co-Founder and CEO Anna Franziska Michel wanted to make a change in the fashion industry – to make something that would support designers’ creativity while at the same time reducing waste. Yoona’s main product is a scalable artificial intelligence-based B2B software solution. By using design, sales, and trend data, yoona proposes new collections, single designs, prints, materials, or colour concepts.

Digitalization is the way forward across industries, and the fashion industry is no exception. Yoona’s offering is paving a new way for designers to work sustainability and efficiency. The vision behind the young company is that with yoona, design can be equated with both digitization and sustainability. 

We caught up with Anna to learn more about this vision, and how yoona is disrupting the market. 

Anna, thanks for taking the time to catch up with us. Could you please give us a brief overview of your personal journey and how you became a founder?

My wake-up call came after struggling in the fashion industry for over ten years: during this time, I realized that the work of a designer is very inefficient and that designs often overlook the consumer. Don´t get me wrong, I am super creative, but 99% of the world’s customers don´t buy super creative outfits. Designing by hope with a manual process leads to not only an oversupply that ends up in the garbage – which is neither economically good for companies nor healthy for the environment. It leads also to designers with burnout. 

The waste of time, money and resources annoyed me beyond measure. I wanted to find a solution to change the processes and I was sure that the latest technology could give me that answer.

In the department of Business Informatics of HTW Berlin, I founded a research group where I came into contact with Artificial Intelligence for the first time. With a total of seven developers, I investigated neural networks and their possible use in the design field. The goal was to shorten design processes and to design closer to the customer. My results were presented in a collection sponsored by Microsoft “Unter den Linden” in Berlin. With this knowledge of possibilities, I started to build a team uniting garment engineers, machine learning experts, full-stack developers and founded yoona.ai in August 2020. In October 2020, I closed an investment round and in January, Techstars, one of the best American accelerators, invested in our team. Today, yoona is already working with fashion companies such as Gerry Weber, Apart Fashion and Vaude. 

How is Yoona revolutionizing the fashion industry?

If you have a look at the current design processes, they are based on former experiences and they are driven by hope and 90 % of those processes are done manually. The customer is only important at a later stage in the process. Yoona.ai is a platform that is driven by data and is digitalizing the whole process until the product goes into production. We provide the world’s first end-to-end solution that helps companies save up to 80% of the time in the design and collection development phase, correspondingly reducing costs and avoiding throwaway products or overproduction. At yoona, we are designers and techies building a platform together. 

We notice that for an engineer a shirt is only a square with a hole. But there are so many details and specifications in the design process, which can only be known by designers and maybe merchandisers. 

Yoona was founded in 2020 and has already gotten a lineup of experts on board, including Alexander Gedat (former CEO Marc O’Polo and GERRY WEBER), Martin Kronbügel (former Puma Team Head for Regional Product Creation PUMA), Daniel Manzke (former CTO Delivery Hero) and others. How did they get interested in the project?

My goal from the beginning was to generate a change in the industry. This included founding a panel discussion series in cooperation with the Literaturforum im Brecht-Haus, which I initiated regularly during the Berlin Fashion Week – so I formed a community that knew that I was up to something completely new. For example, the topic of our first panel was “The Death of Fashion Design”. My perspective was so new and so unusual that while I was seen as some sort of a freak, I was also recognized as someone who had an exciting new perspective. 

So, I was invited more often – to panels, discussions, industry meetings, whatever. And of course, I went. To meet people – and ideally to convince them. I was – and I am – spreading the word everywhere. You know, I am an athlete. If you have a look at a basketball game, when do you see a great leader and a really successful team? Is it the person who is playing kind of alone and only focuses on their own success getting the ball in the basket without empowering the team? Or is it the person who is empowering the team and the strategic passes in between are leading to goals? 

We will only be successful in building a global leading company in a great force of people and power.

Yoona.ai is among the 1% of companies worldwide in which the TechStars Accelerator program has invested. In your view, why did they select you? Any tips for future program participants? 

I believe that Techstars invests in founders who are persistent, passionate, and taggling a problem which is really relevant for the world.My tip: Try to connect with the Techstars network before and enter the program with settled goals. You really have to know what you want to reach with it

Yoona is based in Berlin, Germany. What is your opinion on the environment for creating tech companies there? Have you received any support from the local ecosystem? 

Of course, I did. Thank you, Berlin. The government, University, Berlin Partner, the whole city network is super supportive. There are many great funding programs and I have always found the people you meet here in Berlin to be incredibly committed and helpful. Thanks to all our supporters, mentors and fans. I believe yoona is not only Daniel, me and the team. Yoona is a huge network and a community which is helping us to succeed.

There have been a lot of conversations and initiatives around sustainable fashion in the last few years. In your view, has the fashion industry adjusted? Is there hope for a more sustainable and green future?

It may sound a little callous now, but thanks to Covid-19 the industry started to adjust to working more digitally and so more sustainably. But still, I think it is a long way to go. The fashion industry creates more CO2 than Germany, France and UK together. We really welcome the two laws which the European Union issued: one for the taxes for CO2 and the second forbidding throwing away unsold clothes. I just had a conversation at Frankfurt Fashion Week and we believe yes, there is hope. And if we hurry up, we can still save our planet for our children’s green future.

My vision is to bring all the Fashion Startups together and create an innovative new Value Chain for the industry. I believe strongly that we all together can create a huge impact.

Last but not least, any tips for female founders of tech startups?

Female founders of tech startups should be persistent, believe in themselves, always keep going and never give up. I believe that only developing an innovative technology is not enough to implement that in the industry. We have a wider mission, which is changing mindsets and creating a new culture.

As I come from the fashion world, I love to quote Anna Wintour: “You’re not following, you are leading, you’re driven by your heart, you’re driven by your talent, you’re driven by your instinct. And if you start to question and if you are looking at what the people are doing on the left of you or on the right of you, you’re gonna loose that clarity of thought. Listen to that information but at the end it has to come from you. Own your decisions and own who you are without apologies.”