We all know a great outfit helps us put our best foot forward and boosts confidence, but the cost of dressing to impress can become expensive quickly. If you’ve faced the common dilemma of an approaching special occasion and nothing to wear (who hasn’t?), you’ll appreciate the concept behind Rent the Runway. The company was created to make designer clothing available to women everywhere, giving them access to fashion-forward items at a fraction of the cost.
With a hit-the-ground-running mentality, coupled with a series of informal focus groups and formative meetings with top designers and retailers, Rent the Runway was born. Now, founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss have turned their company into a one-stop shop (they sell accessories and undergarments, too!) where fashion-obsessed women can find the perfect designer look for any special occasion without the anxiety of investing in piece after piece.
Check out my interview, where they offer the inside scoop on starting their own company, advice for budding entrepreneurs, fashion advice and more!
Q: I understand you two met at Harvard Business School. Can you tell us a little more about how you created your concept for Rent the Runway and how you launched it?
JH: Jenny and I would have regular lunch meetings when we were section mates at Harvard Business School to bounce fun entrepreneurial ideas off of one another. I brought the idea behind Rent the Runway to one of our lunches after witnessing my sister claim that she had nothing to wear to an upcoming wedding despite her overflowing closet full of dresses. The idea was not only to provide women with access to designer dresses for all of their special occasions but more importantly, to promote self-confidence and deliver Cinderella moments to women everywhere.
JF: Neither Jenn nor I had any background in the fashion space. Some might consider this a hindrance but I think it enabled us to have a fresh perspective and the gumption necessary to tackle something that had we known better, would have probably seemed unachievable. After all, Rent the Runway takes the principals of high-end designer fashion and flips them on their head by, among other things, marketing generally inaccessible designer fashion to the masses and featuring real women as models. These practices would likely make anyone with a fashion background a bit nervous.
Q: In developing your idea, how did you ensure it was going to be successful? At the beginning, what were your concerns and the hurdles you had to overcome?
JH: Because we were at the forefront of the rental economy, it took a bit of time for some people to warm up to the idea of this new consumer behavior. After all, renting did not previously have a place within the fashion industry. Therefore, as with any other type of industry disruption, it did come along with its hurdles.
JF: The key from the beginning was not being married to one approach but rather being open to testing different iterations of the general concept. We held trial trunk shows on college campuses, met with everyone we could talk to in order to gather feedback and suggestions, and adapted along the way. Listening is hugely important when innovating and entering a new industry. If we had not been flexible around how we would carry out our concept, I don’t think we would have found the same success.
Q: Sometimes getting started is the hardest part of creating a company or implementing a new idea. What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs to get them from brainstorming to business?
JH: Stop strategizing and start doing. Many would-be entrepreneurs get bogged down by the idea of having to create a business plan and having to answer every question before they even know what questions to ask. Less than 24 hours passed between Jenny and I discussing the idea for Rent the Runway and the two of us cold calling our first designer. We took the strategy of testing out our idea on the ground and tweaking it as it progressed. Additionally, I have always had the philosophy that I have nothing to lose. If the idea did not work I would find another job and if it did, I would be doing what I loved everyday.
JF: I would suggest taking every single meeting, whether or not you think it will be immediately productive. Leverage your network and bounce your idea off of anyone that will listen because it is their feedback, doubts and suggestions that will help you crystallize the best possible version of your idea. Even if a meeting does not produce tangible results in the short-term, you will likely thank yourself down the line for making that connection. I would also advise finding a way to test your concept directly with consumers early on and see whether they will put their money where their mouth is! We did some initial consumer testing by buying dresses and renting them to college students. This testing taught us a great deal about our consumer, validated our concept, and helped us evolve our business ideas in an efficient way.
Q: Give us a peek inside the fashion world – in your current dress selection, what’s one of your favorite styles and who is your favorite designer?
JH: I develop a new designer obsession almost weekly, as Rent the Runway lets me play dress up in a way I never had the ability to before. Recently I have been loving all things Narciso Rodriguez. He came out with a mint color for spring that is pretty incredible with a tan. The clean lines he uses make all of his styles feel very sophisticated and easy to accessorize.
JF: We have a dress that I love from Calvin Klein Collection called the “Ramon Dress.” It looks like a simple long-sleeved dress but it is super flattering and comfortable and even has a fun cutout detail in the back.
Q: At Career Woman, Inc. we value the importance of mentorship in career development. In the journey of creating Rent the Runway, who has been your most important mentor and how have they helped you achieve success?
JH: I have had so many wonderful mentors who generously lend their time, experience and honest feedback with the intention of helping me grow as a leader. One of the most important mentors to me has been Scott Friend, one of our investors who believed in me and this business from the very beginning. One of Scott’s greatest strengths is his emotional intelligence. As a former entrepreneur himself, he understands how to build a solid team and company culture and his insights on leadership prove to be extremely important as this company continues to grow.
JF: Marc Lore has encouraged me to be ambitious and go after big ideas while maintaining a strategic, analytical approach to each initiative. Alfred Lin has shown me the balance of being hands on, yet strategic. Jenn herself has taught me a ton about sales and visionary thinking.
Photos: Courtesy of Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss