Five years ago, Jennifer Hyman was a 29-year-old Harvard Business School graduate with no experience in fashion or technology, pitching her startup, Rent the Runway, to a boardroom full of partners at a big-time Boston venture capital firm. The idea then, as now, was to buy designer dresses wholesale and rent them, over the Web, for a night or two for a fraction of the price. When Hyman was about to get to the part where she explained how many inventory turns she could get from a Diane von Furstenberg, one of the men interrupted the presentation, cupped her hand in his and said, “You are just too cute. You get this big closet and get to play with all these dresses and can wear whatever you want. This must be so much fun!”
Hyman now laughs about it, doing an imitation of the guy in a baby-doll octave. But at the time she was floored. Weeks before the patronising VC trapped her hand in his grip, Hyman had got six term sheets from some of the country’s best venture firms, which valued her “big closet” at $50 million. The comment left her more driven than before. “Opposed to screaming and shouting about inherent sexism in this entrepreneurial world, I thought: Let’s work it—let’s build the most kickass logistics company in the whole world, and then we’ll reveal what’s under the dress.”
What Hyman and her co-founder, Jennifer Fleiss, have built is the farthest thing from cute. Buzzing around Hyman’s cubbyhole-chic office in an old printing building in lower Manhattan are 280 employees with a strange blend of talents: Data scientists, fashion stylists, app developers, apparel merchandisers. It’s as if MIT and FIT threw a mixer.
The operation is downright daunting in its complexity. Each day, Rent the Runway and its software algorithms juggle more than 65,000 dresses and 25,000 earrings, bracelets and necklaces as they zip across the country among its five million members. Sixty percent of the dresses fly back out of the door on the same day they arrive balled up in Mylar UPS return envelopes. Its Secaucus, New Jersey, warehouse employs more than 200 people who sort returns, remove all kinds of stains, sterilise jewellery and mend tears. This fall, the operation moves to a larger, 160,000-sq ft warehouse at which point Hyman will officially become America’s largest dry cleaner.
Hyman and Fleiss’ idea emerged at the right moment. Millennials are leading a migration away from ownership to subscribing and sharing: Spotify invades our speakers, Netflix our TVs, Uber our curbs, Airbnb our entire homes. Rent the Runway wants to stream your wardrobe.
Fashion is, after all, a rotten investment. Hot colours cool, styles change fast—so can your dress size. For $70 on Rent the Runway, you can wear a $2,295 white strapless Calvin Klein Collection gown; $30 rents you a $1,295 Vera Wang Jawdropper dress. The company just launched a new subscription service called Unlimited that lets customers borrow up to three accessories (sunglasses, bags, jackets) for as long as they want for $75 a month. “We’re giving our customer access to things she wouldn’t have otherwise purchased either because it wasn’t smart to buy it or she couldn’t afford it,” says Hyman, the CEO. Adds Fleiss, who oversees strategy: “Being naive helped. If we knew how hard this was going to be, I doubt we would have done it.”
On average, an American woman buys 64 new pieces of clothing a year—half of which she’ll wear once, according to Rent the Runway’s internal research. Facebook and Instagram are making matters worse. “It creates pressure for women,” says Hyman. “Now you can’t repeat outfits because your friends have seen that outfit on social media. As ridiculous as that sounds, that is what drives our business.”
Streaming Halstons turned out to be more painful than Hyman thought. A source says that Rent the Runway hit the $50 million revenue milestone only last year—later than the explosive growth of its first two years would have indicated. A year-long slump in between caused it to miss internal and VC growth projections. “It forced a very important come-to-Jesus moment,” says Hyman, who overcame the bump by ploughing resources into data science, pricing models and a mobile platform (which today accounts for 40 percent of traffic).
User numbers, repeat business, rental volume and revenue have doubled in each of the last two years, and Hyman says she has lent out more than $350 million worth of fashion so far in 2014, which would track toward another doubling, $100 million in revenue, this year. Hyman says Rent the Runway would have turned a profit last year if they hadn’t continued to expand infrastructure and systems.
Accordingly, linking fashion into the sharing economy has proved very enriching. A $24.4 million funding round in March 2012 placed a $250 million valuation on Rent the Runway. Hyman is looking to raise another big chunk this fall, likely at a valuation north of $750 million, sources say. (Hyman and Fleiss won’t talk ownership stakes, but ballpark estimates based on similar trajectories would be that they still collectively hold 30 percent.) Given the current frenzy for these types of companies, it could run up against the coveted $1 billion mark—an especially rare feat for a New York startup with two female founders in this era of Silicon Valley bros.
Hyman has the frothy pitch to match. Dresses, she argues, are a Trojan horse: “We started off with the goods that are the most difficult to rent because of the durability of the product and all the services you must build. Now we can rent any product in the world.” She envisions Rent the Runway as a marketplace for retailers and brands to rent unsold inventory instead of shipping it off to discount outlets. Or perhaps, a high-end consignment store for the wealthy? At the very least, guys will be able to stream their ties and cufflinks.
“The idea,” she says, “is to build the Amazon of rental.”
Rent the Runway has a long way to go before it can call itself the Amazon of anything, but its founders have mastered their industry in a manner that would make Jeff Bezos proud. Hyman grew up in New Rochelle, New York. Her father was in international trade. Her mother, who had earned an MBA from New York University, was the controller at a Pirelli Tire subsidiary, but quit when Hyman’s younger sister Sherri was diagnosed with autism. “She required 24-hour care and the whole family had to function as a team and collaborate to survive,” says Hyman. “That philosophy is so critical to who I am.”
A self-described high school nerd, Hyman sang, danced, played volleyball and volunteered with autistic children. She attended Harvard with plans to be a journalist, but after the 9/11 attacks, she became interested in the travel industry and eventually launched a wedding registry programme for Starwood Hotels that let newly-weds ask friends for experiences instead of picture frames and pots. In 2005, she moved to Los Angeles to run ad sales at WeddingChannel.com and applied to Harvard Business School (HBS). That year, another sister, Becky—who now oversees Rent the Runway’s four retail stores—had back-to-back surgeries to treat her thyroid cancer. Hyman returned to New York, took a business development job at IMG and deferred her admittance to Harvard, entering the programme in 2007.
On her first day at business school, Hyman met Fleiss, who had a mutual friend with her sister. “She came up to me with this Post-it that had my name on it,” says Fleiss, who grew up in Manhattan and went to Yale before working in business strategy at Lehman Bros. The two became fast friends and often pitched each other startup ideas over lunch at Harvard’s Spangler Center. Hyman was always going big-picture, while Fleiss was better at figuring out how to get things done.
The dress-rental light bulb went off when the Hyman sisters were home for Thanksgiving in 2008. Becky was showing off the $2,000 Marchesa dress she had bought for a wedding and the huge dent it had made in her credit card balance. “As an older sister, I looked at her packed closet and started freaking out on her,” says Hyman. “Becky told me how she wanted something new to feel great and that she had already been photographed in all her outfits on Facebook.”
Hyman put two and two together and told Fleiss about her dress rental idea. They decided to test it out at Harvard. If it flopped they could always take corporate jobs; Hyman had an offer from NBCUniversal, Fleiss at job site TheLadders. In a move that is now an HBS case study, the pair bought and borrowed dresses, running a series of tests at Harvard and Yale to see if women would rent, first, a fancy dress they could try on and, later, one they saw only in a photo. In both cases the answer was yes. Test results in hand, they cold-called investors.
Despite their lack of experience in fashion, technology or startups, Bain Capital Ventures came in with a $1.8 million seed investment and a few months later, led a $15 million round with Highland Capital Partners. “I meet new entrepreneurs each week and I’m rarely blown away by people out of the gate,” says Bain managing director Scott Friend. “The structured way they thought through the opportunity was unexpected and super-appealing.”
Hyman and Fleiss ran the company out of extra space in a Tribeca architecture firm, using a local dry cleaner to store and turn around dresses. As the business grew, they got another $15 million in a round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in April 2011 and moved operations to a floor in their current building, later leasing a second level to store the growing inventory. They lured in college-age women, a core customer base, by deploying hundreds of “runway reps” at campuses and sororities. Says Juliet de Baubigny, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, “We didn’t back them as a fashion startup. It’s the sharing economy meets the Facebook-Instagram generation.”
Hyman had always planned on outsourcing the cleaning and shipping of clothes, but as the business grew, she realised that doing the dirty work wasn’t only a necessity, but a competitive advantage. Hyman recruited Charles Ickes, who had run high-end dry cleaner Madame Paulette, to oversee logistics and Vijay Subramanian, a former data scientist at Oracle, to build the computer brain for the whole operation. (Hyman calls the firm “a fashion company with a technology soul.”)
Despite the comparison with Netflix, Rent the Runway is in a business where the stakes are higher, the problems more complex. Delivering a delicate designer dress is trickier and more expensive than slinging scuffed copies of Breaking Bad across the country. The dresses must arrive on time and in perfect condition. One mistake—a late arrival, an unsightly stain, a poor fit—creates a customer relations nightmare. “If we mess up, it’s not just the customer who hates us,” says head of marketing AJ Nicholas. “Her friends hate us, her sisters hate us, her mom hates us.”
So with every dress it lends, Rent the Runway’s algorithms get a bit smarter about ways to track the location of each item, forecast demand, select shipping methods, set prices and control inventory. Algorithms crawl customer reviews to tabulate which dresses women are renting for certain occasions and then forecast demand to determine if a prepaid shipping label that goes out with a dress should get that dress back overnight or if it can wait for a three-day return.
When sizing up a new dress, merchandisers go through a list of 40 data points such as fabric, zippers, stitching and shape to determine whether it will hold up to the rigours of rental. “Our buyers literally try to tear the clothes apart,” says Hyman. After all, the longer the life span, the higher the return on capital. “When I initially went to fundraise,” says Hyman, “I had a PowerPoint slide that said the average dress would turn 12 times. They said, ‘You’re crazy,’ and cut that assumption to eight times, saying if I can do that, this is an amazing business.” Today, Rent the Runway is averaging 30 turns per dress, which means some get worn many more times. That’s borderline icky, but the fact that an increasing number of women no longer get hung up on such boundaries is a testament to Hyman and Fleiss’s deep understanding of their customers. “The brilliance of what they’ve done is figure out how to convince women that it’s okay to rent and make it cool to rent and make sure a woman would be satisfied,” says Dan Rosensweig, who runs textbook renter Chegg and sits on Rent the Runway’s board.
In the male-dominated tech world, Rent the Runway looks refreshingly like something from an alternative universe. The noxious Silicon Valley HR math (70 percent men at Facebook and Twitter) is precisely flipped female at Rent the Runway. The second men’s room was recently converted into a third ladies’ room, and unlike so many female-focussed companies with men at the top, the executive suite also includes Beth Kaplan, as president and chief operating officer, and Camille Fournier, who runs engineering, in addition to Hyman and Fleiss.
For the overworked Hyman, it’s something she doesn’t obsess over. At 9 am on a scorching summer day in New York, she’s running up the dank stairwell to her conference room, just off the red-eye from London, where she attended a conference with British designers from Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen. Hyman has to prepare for the launch of the Unlimited subscription service. Then there’s the presentation for a board meeting and the investor road show for the fall. Hyman remains cheerful and peppy as she marches through meetings—technology infrastructure, dynamic pricing, e-mail marketing, home page redesign and mobile apps.
At 5 pm, Hyman leads a company-wide meeting. Beer from Brooklyn Brewery and Skinnygirl Margaritas sit on ice. Hyman takes the mike, reminds everyone that they’ll be locked out of the office for an upcoming mandatory Hamptons beach day and hands the mike to employees who use the airtime to give shoutouts to co-workers who they think deserve special recognition and applause. Hyman has been known to belt out Madonna tunes at these meetings. “I can dance to Beyoncé, sing karaoke, create strategy, go on dates,” says Hyman. “And build a multibillion company and show the world that women can build big businesses.”
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(This story appears in the 03 October, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)