Entrepreneur Vashi Dominguez is shaking up the diamond industry by dealing direct with miners. Peter Crush caught up with him for inspire to talk leadership, recruitment and sparkling personalities
It’s not everyday someone you’ve never met casually pours £250,000 of highest quality diamonds onto the palm of your hand and is completely cool with it. Anywhere else and you’d be flanked by half a dozen burly security guards, all ready to react to anything untoward. And yet here, in a plain office near London’s Hatton Gardens, its just me, inspire’s photographer and owner of said gems, half-Indian, half Spanish entrepreneur, Vashi Dominguez, who, without any experience in the highly protective circle of diamond selling is not only taking on established jewellers on their doorstep, but doing a seriously good job of it too.
Dominguez, 34, is CEO of Vashi.com, the online diamond specialist that began selling through Amazon in 2007, but since selling direct, with its own website in 2009, has grown to be Europe’s largest online jeweller, with a turnover of £5m last year, and £10 million forecast for this year.
By buying from diamond miners direct, Dominguez is the cliquish sector’s long-awaited disruptive force. The middleman is redundant, which means his diamonds – as high quality as any you’d find elsewhere – are a staggering 72% cheaper than his competitors. It’s no surprise customers have flocked to his site, but Dominguez is remarkable not just because he’s battled the odds to get here [he had 200 meetings with gem wholesalers until one finally said yes], but from humble beginnings selling electronics on the island of Tenerife, to transforming from one-man-band, and employing 17 staff, he is a completely self-taught business leader, claiming to have read more than 1,000 business books.
“I firmly believe your character dictates how far you get in life,” declares a warm Dominguez, who talks with a sparkle in his eyes almost as luminous as the diamonds he sells. “My character is persistence – I was brought up well, told that life is how you deal with the circumstances you’re presented with, and so I never once thought of giving up when trying to break into this business. But I knew that to get further, I needed to study business, and read more. While it’s true you tend to look for the things you agree with, I sincerely believe the books I’ve read have polished me into what I am now. I’m a collection of hundreds of business writers’ views, but I’m still very much ‘me’.”
I’ve always believed you have to treat people with respect and empower people to make decisions – otherwise leaders will stay being a one-man band
The ‘me’ of Dominguez is a tale of a self-confident electronics shop assistant, who, in 1997, persuaded his boss to pay him commission instead of a salary. “Immediately my £300 a month pay went up to £2,000, and within four months I’d saved enough money to open my own electronics store,” he says. “Three and a half months later, I’d opened my second shop, and moved into wholesale of tech goods.”
The only things that stopped him growing further, were geography – there is, after all, only so many shops a small island could support – and price. “I was buying containers full of gadgets from Asia at one price,” he recalls, “but by the time they arrived, it was months later, and you could no longer sell them for the same price you thought you could.” It was time to get out, and that’s when he started thinking of his childhood fascination with diamonds. Not only were they beautiful, they were small, easily transportable, and never likely to fall in value.
His move coincided with a boom in online retailing, and the rest, as they say, is history. “Today, it’s amazing that people are willing to buy a £3,000 engagement ring on their phone,” he says. But during this process, he’s had to turn into a leader of people – something he says he couldn’t have done without reading one book in particular – the one he claims has transformed his life: Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
“Before I went customer-facing with the business, I was wholesaling diamonds first, literally on my own, flying to Antwerp to buy diamonds. I didn’t take a day off for 500 days, “ he says. “I thought this wasn’t scalable either. Then I read Covey; it’s a difficult book to read – I had to read it three times – but he gave me a new perspective – about how you just can’t do everything yourself. As I tested the market, it helped give me confidence that changing the model would work.”
According to Dominguez, “too many bosses are control freaks.” He says; “I’ve learned in life that success is ultimately down to human success – that’s why we believe there is a very strong culture here of collaboration and inclusion.” However, he is quick to point out that too often bosses confuse treating staff well and with respect and making them happy:
“I’m not here to make staff happy,” he explains. “That’s when they get too comfortable. My aim though is to make sure staff are looked after. CEOs should still feel they’re able to push and challenge staff, as that’s what business is about, but if they can see that it’s done from a supportive framework, then that’s what matters.” So highly does he regard Covey, he actually gives it to all new staff to read, so they know what to expect from him.
It’s knowing which small insights like these will make the largest impact that really defines Dominguez’s approach. The most expensive ring Vashi.com has sold cost the customer £50,000. For many that would be job done. But, unlike in electronics, which have a shelf-life of sometimes months, diamonds will last an eternity, and by realising the long-term customer value this can give, Dominguez opted very early on to offer customers unlimited cleaning and polishing of their gems for the rest of their lives.
“It’s another chance to have an interaction with the customer,” he argues, with a look that shows he wonders why other competitors don’t follow suit. “We’ll even give customers their money back if they’ve been dumped, or divorced, and have a wedding or engagement ring lying around creating bad memories,” he says. Again, his view, is why not? “It will happen to one in every 2,000 customers,” he argues. “It’s not going to cost the business a lot, and only has positives. We did it recently for one customer from the Netherlands. We know our £800 refund created £17,000 in referrals.”
Having a face, a human-side, is clearly important to Dominguez. After all, internet businesses can all too often be faceless. In July 2013 Dominguez re-brand his then company 'Diamond Manufacturers' to it's name today ‘Vashi.com’. As he media profile has grown (he recently brought £5million on diamonds onto This Morning, and has made other appearances on the likes of The Alan Titchmarsh Show), he says the timing is now right for him to use his own name, and trade on his growing business guru status.
This authenticity is sure to win him more fans. For despite devouring a library of business books to get him where he is, [actually, he whispers, “90% of books all say the same thing”], Dominguez – the person behind the brand – is still very much at the forefront. Learned as he is, he doesn't mind going with gut instinct too.
“I’ve always believed you have to treat people with respect and empower people to make decisions – otherwise leaders will stay being a one-man band,” he says emphatically. “My first boss used to swear at me, demand I change my plans, was basically quite horrible sometimes – so I’ve seen the other side of work,” he recalls.
Even while doors were being slammed shut at him by the original oligarchs of the diamond world (despite him physically putting money on the table in front of them), he says he still maintained a quite respect for them. He says: “I knew their opinion was not fact, so I respected what they had to say, but at the same time, I knew that what I was doing would eventually work.”
Work is has. Next he’s having local websites designed and launched, starting first with Ireland, and a further eight more after that. The plan is to grow to being a £100 million business in the next six-seven years, employing 120 staff.
Growth means he’ll obviously have to delegate even more. On the plus side, Dominguez claims not to want a company where he doesn’t know everyone’s name. He thinks he’ll be able to maintain this – ironically, arguably, because he want to still involve himself in the recruitment process. While it might not sound like trusting in others, actually, it does make sense:
“I’m looking purely for cultural fit,” he explains. “We have a three-stage interview process, and if they pass the first two, it’s only the final one that is with me. I’ll ask questions like, ‘how would your friends describe you, and what would they say behind their back?’ I’m not really looking at the content of the answer; more how they answer, and I only have 33% of the vote.” He adds: “Even if they don’t get the job, I want them still to have had a positive experience. That way, they still promote the company.”
While it’s classic management book stuff, it seems like his love of business books combined with his own sense of himself will guide him down the right path. “Something’s wrong with our recruitment if we don’t hire people that are better at marketing, better at finance, better at sales than me,” he says unapologetically.
You also sense that despite great confidence, he’s still keen to demonstrate he’s the real deal in what he still describes as a “closed” market. “I don’t automatically get the best diamonds offered too me,” he states. The inference is that he’s still regarded as an outsider, or at least a new face to the industry, that has yet to win his spurs. However, he’s working his connections, and India, he promises, will be where he starts getting more of his wares from (rather than Antwerp, which still controls 90% of the diamond buying and selling market).
But self-awareness is a quality that has stood him well. “I never rubbish my rivals,” he says. “There will always be people that still want to go to Bond Street, that want to pay for an experience, and have the association of an expensive brand,” he says matter-of-factly. “However, the amounts people that are now willing to spend online make us increasingly a second option for people.” He adds. “Ten years ago, if couples wanted to save money on their engagement or wedding rings, they’d be made to feel they were cheapskates. With the economy as it is, people who are seen to be careful with their money are now seen as the smart ones.”
Dominguez is certainly the smart man, with the smart business. But more than that, he’s maintained being a thoroughly personable business leader in what is a hugely cutthroat industry. “If I thought I could do stuff better than my staff I think it would be me that has the character problem,” he says self-deprecatingly. It’s a comment that completely sums this former psychology student up. “When I hear people say ‘I don’t believe you can do this?’, I simply say ‘why?’ You can’t control everything in life, but you can make things work well if you trust in your people. You can’t take things personally.”